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.

Palestine Is a Place

The United States and Israel are both settler-colonial projects (the treatment of Indigenous people by Brazilian ranchers can also be considered settler-colonialism, among other global examples). Settler-colonialism describes one group’s attempt to erase and replace an Indigenous population. This erasure happens through a variety of tactics, including physical and cultural genocide, obtaining and controlling land, and promoting assimilation.

In United States history, settler-colonialism encompasses the concept of manifest destiny, the federal government’s pattern of broken treaties, the cultural mythology of “the vanishing Indian,” and more. A “vanished” Indigenous population makes settler presence convenient, if not ordained.

Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, tells NPR:

The Palestinians don’t exist in people’s imagination. They’re an abstract thing. And for many people, they don’t exist at all. They don’t have a right to exist. They certainly don’t have a right to tell their stories. And anything that we say is immediately – anything that’s said in terms of the Palestinian narrative is immediately thrown into doubt. –Throughline, NPR

Palestinians did not choose their experience, which includes internal displacement, international refugee status, unequal treatment in their homeland and abroad, and constant threat of violence. They did not choose to vanish from an historical understanding of the Middle East. But they can and do choose to name themselves.

An infographic describing the unequal treatment of Palestinians and Israelis born in East Jeruselum
Source: Visualizing Palestine


Demanding self-determination interrupts a settler-colonial narrative which insists that colonial projects are in the past, rather than ongoing structures of oppression, subjugation, and dispossession.

Native Hawaiian scholar J. Kēhaulani Kauanui writes:

What does it mean to engage the assertion that settler colonialism is a ‘structure not an event’? One obvious case is the Nakba as an ongoing process—rather than an isolated historical moment of catastrophe marking the 1948 Palestinian exodus, when Jewish Zionists expelled more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes and homeland during the war that forged the state of Israel.13 In North America, there are numerous attempts to remove indigenous peoples from their lands for corporate resource extraction ranging from oil to minerals and water, causing environmental devastation with genocidal implications. –Lateral, Spring 2016

How can Clowns Without Borders USA support its Palestinian colleagues in their resistance to ongoing settler-colonialism? One small way is to believe that Palestine is a place, not an empty or unnamed land. If Palestine is a place, then Palestinians must be a people and their human rights must be respected. This is why CWB – USA writes “Palestine.”

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