Ferguson and Palestine aren't so different

  • Article by: NAOMI SHIHAB NYE
  • Updated: August 29, 2014 - 6:25 PM

Delusions of equality for residents are simply wrong in both places, half a world apart.


Protesters in Ferguson, Mo., left, and Jerusalem. People in Gaza have signed Internet petitions expressing solidarity with the Missouri town where a white officer shot a black teen.

Photo: Whitney Curtis • New York Times / Mahmoud Illean • AP,

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I grew up in Ferguson, Mo. No one ever heard of it, unless you lived elsewhere in St. Louis County. Then my family moved to Palestine — my father’s first home.

A friend says, “Your parents really picked the garden spots.”

In Ferguson, an invisible line separated white and black communities. In Jerusalem, a no-man’s land separated people, designated by barbed wire.

My father and his family became refugees in 1948, when the state of Israel was created. They lost everything but their lives and memories. Disenfranchised Palestinians ended up in refugee camps or scattered around the world. My dad found himself in Kansas, then moved to Missouri with his American bride. He seemed a little shellshocked when I was a child.

Ferguson was a leafy green historic suburb with a gracious red brick elementary school called Central. I loved that school, attending kindergarten through sixth grade there. All my classmates were white, of various derivations — Italians, French-Canadians, etc. My father was the only Arab in Ferguson. But he ran for the school board and won.

At 12, I took a berry-picking job on “Missouri’s oldest organic farm” in Ferguson. I wanted the job because I had noticed that the other berry-pickers were all black boys. I’d always been curious about the kids living right down the road whom we hardly ever got to see. We had contests to see who could pick the most in the searing humidity. I had obliterated Ferguson’s “line.” I felt a secret pride.

My mom often warned, “Be your best self.” This seemed odd.

It would be 1968 before the Supreme Court ordered U.S. states to dismantle segregated school systems (Green vs. County School Board of New Kent County) and Ferguson began mixing it up. We were gone by then.

In 1966, my father took our family to the West Bank. I was the only non-Armenian attending the ancient Armenian school in Jerusalem’s Old City. It was fine to be “the other” for a change, but I wished we could have Jewish friends, too. And I wished the Jewish Israelis we weren’t seeing across that line could know the families of Palestine as we did, sharing their humble parties under blossoming almond trees.

Our father said that, when he was a boy, Jews and Arabs had been mixed together, neighbors. Now power and domination were at stake.

Dominate — to exercise control over. Black kids in streets. Thousands of Palestinian families.

In 1967, with the Six-Day War brewing, my family left Jerusalem. We settled in San Antonio, a majority Latino city, which felt like a relief. White and black people were minorities. There weren’t any lines. Maybe in the air, and in history. But people kept crossing them.

My father, a newspaper journalist, eventually left San Antonio for another paper. I ended up attending college there and have remained until now. We have our first African-American female mayor in history.

Back in Israel/Palestine, nothing improved for the Palestinians, and they were always blamed for it. A gigantic ominous “Separation Wall” was built. Americans elected a half-and-half president twice, which gave many of us great hope.

Summer 2014, the news exploded.

Massacres in Gaza — not the first time — people who looked exactly like our Arab families. Regular people. Kids. Sleeping kids. No tanks, no army, no due process of any kind, but they were blasted out of their lives.

Was anyone civilized? A Jewish friend sent me a one-word message that he seemed to be sending out to everyone he knew: STOP!

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