All the clowns squeeze inside a wooden picture frame. They are performing outside, in Palestine.

Palestine and The Power of Names

Naomi Shafer and Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone wrote this blog post. Learn more about our programs in Palestine, here and here

We frequently answer the question: “Why does Clowns Without Borders write ‘Palestine’?”

Our standard response is: CWB – USA follows United Nations naming conventions for all countries, nations, and territories, along with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This is true. But it is not the full story.

Legal Definitions

Names have both legal and cultural implications. Different legal designations (citizen, refugee, Internally Displaced Person, etc.) impact eligibility for passports, visas, education, work, and housing in a person’s country of residence:

  • Internally Displaced People lack special protection under international law and often disperse into urban centers in their home country. It’s important to acknowledge IDPs as a separate legal category so they can receive necessary services, protection, and justice.
  • The United States, until recently, referred to refugees, former citizens, undocumented people, and more as “aliens.” These groups were subject to very different laws and regulations despite sharing such an imprecise term. Referring to all non-citizens as “aliens” reinforced a culture of dehumanization and otherness.
  • The United States government has called Indigenous people by various names including “Indians,” “American Indians,” “Native Americans,” and more, all while withholding federal recognition from some tribes and granting it to others. These terms ignore the fact that Indigenous people and their tribal names far predate the idea of “America.”

Designations and names specify or homogenize, depending on who does the naming. That’s why CWB considers international human rights standards alongside community self-determination.

Clowns Without Borders follows our partners’ lead, upholding our mission to be in solidarity with the communities we serve. This means using the language they use to describe their own experiences. It means believing that people are experts on their own experiences. In the case of Palestine, it also means following language accepted by the global community.

Staying Specific

CWB’s Black Lives Matter statement included a commitment to specificity. We committed to naming racist and colonial aspects of human rights abuses. CWB shared words of support for our friends and colleagues at Diyar Theatre in Palestine, but we have not upheld our own commitment to specificity.

True, our thoughts are with our partners in Palestine. They are indeed in extreme danger, as we wrote on our social media channels. But occasional statements of support belie Israel’s ongoing, systematic, colonial project. Our Palestinian friends and colleagues describe their experience as apartheid, and so must we. (Incidentally, Human Rights Watch agrees.)  

CWB often says, “We go where we’re invited.” We use this to explain how we plan tours, meaning CWB doesn’t choose where a tour should take place. It also means we listen to communities and respond to their needs. Our project partners in Palestine are inviting the world to step into this conversation. We will do our best to honor their invitation, to amplify their voices, and to be part of their journey towards overcoming injustice.

Fear of Repercussions

Why did it take us so long to get here? We feared accusations of partisan politics and anti-Semitism. We were silenced by our fears, but they’re unfounded.

Non-profits risk losing their 501(c)3 tax exempt status if they engage in partisan politics, such as campaigning for a specific politician:

“The National Council of Nonprofits has long held that the public’s overall trust in the sector would diminish and thus limit the effectiveness of the nonprofit community if individual 501(c)(3) organizations came to be regarded as Democratic charities or Republican charities instead of the nonpartisan problem solvers that they are.” (National Council of Nonprofits)

CWB – USA maintains that human rights are a nonpartisan issue. Allowing people to self-describe is not “political advocacy.” It is basic humanity.  Palestinians did not choose their experience of oppression, but they can and do choose to maintain their identity with a specific name. Palestinian personhood, and a region called Palestine, challenge the premise of Israel’s statehood, settlement, and occupation which, like all settler-colonial projects, requires Indigenous people to not exist. The Palestinian demand for statehood demonstrates clear, organized, and consistent expectations for a self-determined future.

Palestine Is a Place

If Palestine is a place, then Palestinians must be a people and their human rights must be respected. If Palestine is not, and never was, a place….well, then no one need be accountable to an empty land and a non-existent people. This is why CWB – USA writes “Palestine.”

This should sound familiar to descendants of settler-colonizers in what’s now known as the United States. The U.S. is deeply complicit in the erasure of Palestine and Palestinian people. It has a vested political interest in stoking accusations of anti-Semitism rather than confronting the human rights abuses committed by an allied nation. CWB will address these connections in future blog posts.

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