Posted by Arab American Institute on June 29, 2018 in Blog

By Lea Kayali

I live three blocks away from the White House. I pass the Organization of American States and the World Bank on my way to work every day. I have protested in front of the Supreme Court and toured the monuments on a Saturday afternoon. In many ways, living in DC has been more fantastic than I ever could have hoped – I thrive off of the atmosphere of policy wonks and political activism.

Simultaneously, I no longer see the city through a rose-colored filter. These are trying times.

For instance, it is clear that the ripple effects of the Trump v. Hawaii decision, handed down just 3 days before I write this, are still felt in our nation’s capital. I too, am angry and disappointed – as are many other Arab Americans, American Muslims, and allies. Yet on this Friday, I walk towards the Arab American Institute with my heart full, knowing I am part of their remarkable network.

Today, I was particularly excited to step in to the cool air conditioning of the AAI office, taking refuge from the stagnant heat outside. DC summers are buzzing with energy in a literal and metaphorical sense, and this summer is no exception. As an intern with AAI working externally at the Brookings Institution, I learn just how wide the world of policy is. I am fascinated by the nuances of domestic issues, but also the vast importance of our foreign policy. International matters, in broad terms, are the subject of this week’s intern brown bag lunch.

I am always motivated by the passionate speakers that AAI brings to the table and this week’s guest, Kristin McCarthy from the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), is no short of inspiring. Ms. McCarthy came to DC bent on being a part of the city’s organized chaos. Starting her career in advocacy, she landed at the Arab American Institute, where she helped direct AAI’s policy objectives for three years before leaving to serve in her current position as Director of Policy & Operations at FMEP. Kristin specializes in US-Palestine relations, and in perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in American political circles.

Unsurprisingly, the interns had a flurry of questions for Ms. McCarthy: where is the future of Palestinian politics headed? How does the Palestinian Authority fit into peace plans? How can we get Americans to talk about understand the occupation of Palestine and discuss it in realistic terms? Ms. McCarthy took the questions in gracefully and answered them over the course of a lively conversation. She pointed out that U.S. discourse on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict exists in a vacuum. Elaborating, she said that policy level conversations in the U.S. are “so far behind what’s happening on the ground.”

Having just been to Palestine, those words deeply resonated with me. Ms. McCarthy’s frustrations with the US framework mirrored my own, and she explained why that level of disconnect is dangerous – if American policymakers don’t talk about the situation in Palestine as it really exists, they will continue to fund a deadly occupation. What’s more is that our legislators even try (and sometimes succeed) to censor Palestinian activism, a dangerous trend that has been accelerated during the Trump administration. When it comes to free speech, activists on Palestine and Arab Americans are the proverbial canary in the coal mine once again, an issue that AAI fiercely points out in their Advocacy Road Map.

At its core, FMEP seeks to spark dialogue that advances a just resolution to the conflict. They engage speakers on panels, promote educational material, and fund a whole host of organizations advocating for justice. Breaking the Silence, a collective of Israeli military ex-combatants who tell their stories to oppose the occupation, and Palestine Legal, a legal group that protects the rights of pro-Palestine activists, are two of dozens of grantees that deeply inspire me to continue this work. I left the talk with many questions still whirling through my mind, but encouraged that organizations like FMEP are considering them.

The swarm of DC is exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting. And being a Palestinian in a place where it feels like everyone has an opinion on my existence is, well, exasperating. Still, I hope for conversations on Palestine that are grounded in reality. I hope for an acknowledgement of the occupation for what it is. I hope for a future of reconciliation, justice, and peace. Advocates like Kristin McCarthy, and organizations like AAI and FMEP give me this hope and make me feel that there may be a place for me in DC. 


Lea Kayali is a 2018 external summer intern at the Brookings Institution.