Skip to main content

Kennedy School Review

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

The Power and Complexity of the Hyphen: A Palestinian-American Journey for Identity and Equality


“Drop me off here!” I nervously looked over my shoulder, ran from the glaring yellow taxi, and stealthily jumped the fence.

This was my daily routine before walking through the main doors of my middle school in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. The driver was my late father, and the taxi was how he—a twice-displaced Palestinian refugee who migrated to the United States in 1971—provided for our family. Inside that taxi I was Palestinian, reliving my father’s childhood in occupied Palestine as he recalled story after story. As soon as I stepped out, I was in a completely different world—one in which my middle school classmates thought Palestine was Pakistan and poked fun at my lunch of stuffed grape leaves, making me long instead for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

In college I thought I had reconciled my “in-betweenness”—the feeling of not fitting in either as a Palestinian in South Carolina or, I would later discover, as an American in Palestine. As it turns out, this “in-betweenness” followed me to Harvard. Inside Cambridge, Massachusetts, I am a Harvard graduate student, often shaking hands with the privileged and elite. When I return to South Carolina to visit my family, however, I find myself struggling to describe to my mother what I am studying at the Kennedy School.

It was not until more recently while living under Israeli occupation in Palestine that I realized the many facets of my in-betweenness, how it may be perceived by others, and the ways in which I can use it to promote justice and equality. Two stories from my time in Palestine describe what I mean.

In 2012, while traveling from Ramallah (in the West Bank) to Nazareth (a Palestinian town occupied by Israel in 1948) to visit my family—a trip that involves multiple checkpoints—I found myself delayed for hours. When I walked through the first metal detector at one checkpoint, nothing rang. On the other side, the Israeli Defense Force soldier was about to hand me my passport. But as I stretched out my hand to receive it, she looked at my arm, her eyes wide. I looked at my arm. I knew what was about to happen.

“What’s that?” she asked as she pulled my passport close to her chest.

“Oh this?” I pointed to my bracelet. “This is a bracelet in the shape and colors of a Palestinian flag,” I answered matter-of-factly.

“To the side, over there,” she motioned.

I waited an hour for three Israeli border patrol guards to come and interrogate me. I went through a round of questioning, feeling like I had committed a crime by simply expressing my Palestinian heritage on my arm.

“Where are you from?” one soldier asked.

“I was born in the United States, and I’m Palestinian.”

“I don’t understand,” he said. “Are you American or Palestinian?”

I told him I was both. The subsequent conversation continued for about an hour, with more questions about my identity. The soldiers did not like my answers, which expressed my two identities and frustrated their ability to box me into either category: Palestinian or American.

In yet another poignant instance, while leading a group of Kennedy School students on a trek to Palestine in 2012, I brought my classmates to visit the Ibrahim Mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron—a place of religious significance to both Jews and Muslims. There is a checkpoint right below the entrance to the holy site where Israeli Defense Forces forbid Palestinians from driving or walking on the main road of the Old City (Palestinians can only walk on a narrow sidewalk, while Israeli settlers and soldiers can walk and drive anywhere along the road). On the first day, I visited the holy site with the Kennedy School group and faced no trouble walking on the road that is forbidden to Palestinian vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The next day, I went to the mosque to pray alone. When I attempted to walk on the same road that I had the previous day, however, an Israeli soldier stopped me and prohibited me from doing so. I explained to him that I walked on that same road yesterday.

“Are you Palestinian?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well, you can’t walk or drive here,” he said.

“But I walked on this same road yesterday,” I said, trying to reason with him.

“Well, today you are Palestinian.”

But yesterday I had also been Palestinian.

In the bracelet incident, the Israeli soldier did not like my “in-betweenness”; in the latter encounter, the soldier ascribed certain “privileges” to my American self, but not to my Palestinian self, making clear to me how I can use the privilege that my American identity carries to empower my Palestinian-ness and Palestinians everywhere. In both instances, my Palestinian identity was a threat to the State of Israel because, as a descendant of refugees, I have a right by international law to return to my ancestral land in Palestine. It is for this reason that refugees like my family are among the most contentious issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

My drive for justice and equality continues, and it is the recognition of both the challenge and the privilege of my “in-betweenness” that fuels this drive. First, my ability to assert that I am Palestinian in both of the aforementioned instances, knowing the weight of that assertion, is a step toward affirming my inalienable human rights. Second, by attaining an advanced education while still embracing my humble upbringing, I plan to help others in my situation, and Palestinian refugees everywhere, realize their rights.

If I had only a Palestinian ID card last summer, Israeli Defense Forces would not have allowed me to enter Palestinian lands occupied by Israel in 1948 (even more extreme: if I had a Gaza ID card I could visit neither Israel or the West Bank). My American passport (the only one I have ever held), however, is what provided me access to all of Palestine/Israel this past summer. My Harvard Kennedy School Master in Public Policy degree is what I hope will allow me to return and plant myself back in Palestine—a pilgrimage in and of itself, since the Israeli occupation uprooted my parents and plummeted their children into perpetual exile. More importantly, my graduate studies here will position me to work toward the Palestinian right of return.

While this is my own story, it is one from which many of us who pursue careers in public policy can recognize parts of their histories. In order to work in this field, we must be able to use the “disparate halves” of each of our individual identities and to reconcile our histories with our “ivory tower” education. Perhaps we are not made to ever fully fit in, and that is okay—in fact, that is what makes us better leaders, diplomats, and global citizens. It is not until we can embrace our identities, no matter how conflicted they may make us feel, that we can use them to advance human rights and make a better world for everyone. Little did I know that in my father’s taxi I had embarked on my first steps toward embracing my multiple identities; little did I know that such cab rides would define my future.


Asma Jaber is a 2014 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, focusing on international and global affairs. She previously worked on civil rights issues at the U.S. Department of Justice and on humanitarian affairs at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories.