By Chris Barton, Staff Writer
On November 29th, 1947, the UN general assembly adopted the Partition Plan for Palestine, officially calling for the end of British rule in the area roughly between the Mediterranean, the Sea of Galilee, and the Gulf of Aqaba. The UN called for the creation of two states: the Arab State of Palestine, and the Jewish state of Israel.
Before either state officially came into existence, fighting broke out between the Arabs and the Jews. The violence in the area has ebbed and flowed, but the fighting, in various forms, continues to this day. The battle has moved beyond the Holy Land, to the UN, the global media, the United States congress, college campuses and curricula, soccer pitches, city busses, and just about everywhere else. The issue has become so pervasive that there is no neutral anymore; every action – including acceptance of the status quo – participates in a conflict that has become one of the most entrenched and pervasive political and humanitarian issues of our time. And it has come to our front door, asking: how will we respond?
Ibrahim (Abe) Sharif (MAGAM ’18) enrolled in Thunderbird this year, excited about the opportunity to jump into the cultural melting pot, to share his heritage and learn from others. For Abe, sharing his heritage holds a special significance; he and his family hail from Palestine, which is not recognized by the US or its major allies. In a political environment unsupportive of his country, keeping his national identity alive requires a personal commitment to sharing his story and that of his nation. Abe is a passionate and practiced storyteller – he knows the nuances and the politics of his story well and it flows from him at the all the right moments. Getting to know Abe has meant getting to know his country and his culture – he embodies his heritage fully. He is, undoubtedly, a Palestinian, and proud of it.
Thunderbird would seem like the perfect place for someone as steadfastly global as Abe, and for a while everything went smoothly. The first few days of Foundations blew past in a swirl of blue shirts, hospitality, and fun, with the flags hanging in the TEC fluttering overhead. At the urging of his cohort leader, Abe had signed up to represent Palestine during the flag ceremony. “It was a great chance to create awareness that Palestine exists,” he said, “maybe not on the map, but through one of its citizens.” Although the politics of it were inescapable, it didn’t seem like it would be an issue. Thunderbird is a global school in the land of free speech, and besides, it was just carrying a flag across a stage alongside a dozen other people.
A few days before the ceremony, Abe received a call and was told that, in his words, “the administration would not let [him] carry the Palestinian flag because ‘Thunderbird is a political school and it could potentially send the wrong message.’” The decision had come down from above, and though the Foundations team supported him, “their hands were tied in the matter.” He was told that he could either opt out, or carry the Thunderbird flag instead.
Abe was shocked and upset by the last minute change in policy. “I couldn’t comprehend what I was told. It felt as if my nationhood was being swept under the rug – which in turn would prevent others from knowing about Palestine, its culture, people and identity.” His nationality identity – and his story – was being silenced, shortly before its symbolic acceptance at a school that had just told him ‘Welcome Home’.
“It hurt. It hurt to be denied my heritage. It hurt to finally be in a place that supposedly celebrates diversity, and then be told that even though everyone else could be proud of their heritage, I couldn’t display mine. I was being erased by an institution that had made a point of affirming everyone else.”
Abe chose to carry the Thunderbird flag. When it was his turn at the mic he proclaimed, calmly, “My name is Ibrahim Sharif, and I am from Palestine. One interesting fact about Palestine is that the United States doesn’t recognize my flag.” He flatly waved the flag he was carrying, set it into its stand, and returned to his seat amidst earnest applause.
The applause, it turned out, was only the beginning. Over the next few days Abe was approached by dozens of people curious about why he hadn’t carried his flag and impressed by his statement at the ceremony. When they heard his story, people became upset. “More than just feeling bad for me, people felt angry that I could not represent my country. It was the most comforting feeling, to know that my fellow Tbirds stood beside me in solidarity.” The Thunderbird student body, it seems, was not aligned with its administration’s politics.
A week later, little Palestine flag pins started appearing on people’s bags.
And so, the struggle has surfaced at Thunderbird. There was no reason to believe that our institution would be exempt from the ubiquitous violence that radiates from the conflict. But there is reason to believe that we will be able to rise above it. Abe’s story shows how deeply entrenched and virulent antagonism is: the command to disallow Abe from sharing his flag came from above, and forced everyone at Thunderbird to choose a side. But the regret with which he was informed, and the compassion he received afterward, show that we Tbirds can – and do – resist the call to join the conflict.
Abe is a Palestinian – but he is also a Thunderbird. It is a shame that, briefly, those two identities came into conflict, but it is not a necessity. We get to define what it means to be a Thunderbird. Does it mean inclusion, or exclusion? A recognition of policy, or an acceptance of diverse identities? Empathy, or antipathy?
And most importantly, how do we react when conflict arrives at our door?
Unfortunately, the first blow has already been struck. But where there is a space for retaliation, we should instead look to reconciliation. We, as individuals, can mend the harm that has been done.
What can we do? We can learn about the violence and the toll it takes. We can have empathy for its victims, of all nationalities. We can advocate for peace, for reconciliation, and for equity. We can resist the call to violence and repression, and push back when we hear it. We can recognize each other for what we are and what we wish to be. We can know when neutrality means apathy toward suffering. We can join the conversation, rather than the conflict.
Abe would like it to be known that he understands why the school did what it did, and holds no ill will toward any particular person nor towards the school in general. He still believes in Thunderbird and is happy to be here.
Jay Thorne, Thunderbird’s Executive Director of Marketing and Communications, shared, on behalf of the school, that:
“First and most importantly, we are extremely grateful for our student’s decision to attend Thunderbird and want nothing more than to give him a warm welcome to our community.
At Thunderbird, we embrace the values of tolerance and mutual respect in our complicated global society. Now a part of a public, state university, Thunderbird complies with the institution-wide policy of Arizona State University to accept only requests from flag bearers of independent states recognized by the United States. This policy extends to requests that come from individuals who wish to carry flags that represent specific interest groups, as well as nation states. Nevertheless, it is our duty to continue to evolve and we welcome the opportunity for further dialogue.”