‘Our vision for human rights is louder than the hate they’re going to put out’: an interview with Michigan congressional candidate Huwaida Arraf

Huwaida Arraf (Mondoweiss)

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  January 26, 2022

Huwaida Arraf on growing up Palestinian-American, her human rights work, and why she has decided to get involved in electoral politics.

Huwaida Arraf is a civil rights attorney and activist running for congress in Michigan’s newly drawn tenth district. Mondoweiss spoke with the Democratic candidate about growing up Palestinian-American, her human rights work, and why she has decided to get involved in electoral politics. This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

What was your early life in Michigan like, as the child of Palestinian immigrants? What are your early memories of Palestine and when did your activism around the country start?

Thank you for having me. So my parents came to this country when my mom was pregnant with me. My father is from a Palestinian village that falls inside of ’48, and my mom is from the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, which is still under full military occupation and even as full citizens of Israel we are a barely tolerated minority, so nowhere near full equal rights. I believe my parents wanted something better for us and decided to come to the United States. I’m the oldest of five children. When we were younger, my parents tried to take us to Palestine regularly to keep a connection with family. I think it was really traumatic for my parents to leave, but they believed that they were doing it for us to be able to have opportunity and freedom and not live under the conditions that millions of Palestinians live under.

So we would go in the summer and we have that connection with family. I remember I loved going, but I remember the first time I really realized what was happening. I was about five years old and I was super proud of being an American. I thought that was a cool thing, I was going to be the first woman President of the United States. I just thought it was a cool thing to be American and I would try to show that off in Palestine. I remember one time we were in Beit Sahour, we were getting ready to go to Jerusalem to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I wanted our favorite aunt to come with us and she couldn’t. I was really upset and didn’t understand why she couldn’t come with us. Of course I didn’t realize how restrictive the travel was and I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t be allowed to enter Jerusalem. She told me, “It’s your government and your president that’s supporting this.”

That was a shock to me, a five-year-old who loved America. Hearing that it was my country that was preventing my aunt from coming with me to church, I think that’s when I started realizing something wasn’t right.

One time we went back and it was a very traumatic experience. I was about ten and realized how much Israeli security was searching us, separating my mom and siblings from my dad. We were strip-searched, as kids. We were put in a separate room and we were held so long that the plane took off. This kind of treatment, which was just pure humiliation.

As I got older I began recognizing that, not just in Palestine, but in other places, U.S. policy was not as we say it is. I was young and idealistic and wanted it to be all about freedom, human rights, and democracy at home and around the world. That really started a kind of the trajectory in my life, I started becoming more active on issues of social justice at home in Michigan. I grew up in a very homogeneous environment. There wasn’t a lot of diversity. We were one of a handful of homes in my city and in my school that were not white. But I tried to blend in as much as possible, I was proud of my culture, but at school and with friends just wanted to be your average American girl.

My father here in Michigan was an auto worker, was with the union. He worked really hard to give us the life we were able to have. We didn’t have a whole lot. But his job with the union supported our family of seven, as I said I was oldest of five children, and I’m grateful to him and to my mom for all they’ve done and all they’ve sacrificed. He never really talked very much about Palestine after leaving and even when I got into my activism, I think he secretly or not even secretly, sometimes very vocally said, just focus on your studies and your life as opposed to advocating for Palestinian freedom and human rights.

You co-founded the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in 2001, which helped bring renewed global attention to the Palestinian struggle. How do you view the legacy of the ISM? What lessons did you learn about fighting for Palestine within the United States?

I co-founded the International Solidarity Movement after graduating college. I had decided to move to Jerusalem and accept a job working as part of a conflict resolution program that brought “both sides together.” That’s always hailed as such a great thing and dialogue is never a bad thing. These kinds of programs that people participate in and then feel good that they’re doing something, they get a view that this is all about just learning to get along as opposed to tackling the root cause of what causes the extreme suffering of Palestinians. In this case, obviously, you have one of the strongest militaries in the world that is not only occupying Palestinian territory, land and lives, but that is intent on getting as much Palestinian land as possible with as little Palestinians on it as possible. So it’s very much a colonization project. And as part of that, you have an occupation which is killing and destroying Palestinian lives from inside and out. So when I went to work for this conflict resolution program I realized very quickly that not only is it very limited and not working, but that it could have actually a very negative effect on the struggle for Palestinian freedom because like I said, it gives people this idea that they’re doing good, but they’re not actually focusing on dismantling any structures of oppression.

The second Palestinian Intifada broke out while I was living in Palestine. At first, I joined a lot of these Palestinian protests, men, women, and children taking to the streets protesting Israel’s oppressive policies. And we were responded to with lethal Israeli violence. Here is a powerful military up against unarmed civilians that are just rising up and demonstrating. Sometimes throwing rocks or sometimes throwing shoes, but not armed and yet you have soldiers shooting. You have armor, personnel carriers, you have tanks, you have bulldozers. The Intifada became more armed on the Palestinian side after a few weeks of these unarmed uprisings where Israel killed 127 protesters. They were shot dead, mainly from the bullet wounds to the head and chest area. So it was very much a “shoot to kill” policy on Israel’s part. A lot of these demonstrations, the people that I demonstrated with and I said they died down. [There were people in] Palestinian society were trying to [fight against Israel], but it’s dilapidated rifles up against one of the most powerful militaries in the world.

There was a feeling that, “We have to do something”, but this only gave Israel an excuse to bring in their attack helicopters and fighter jets and roll their tanks into cities and towns, an excuse to kill more. And on a global scale, not only was nobody doing anything about the massive loss of Palestinian life, but Palestinians were being blamed for their own death because “why did Palestinians walk away from a peace process?” When people say “the peace process”, of course, as they’re talking about Oslo 1993 to 2000, which only served to entrench Israel’s hold on our land. They expanded their settlements. They accelerated the rates of home demolition and the stealing of land and called it a peace process. And whenever Palestinians complained about it, we were just told to be patient because we were in a peace process. So when the Intifada broke out, it was a sense of Palestinians saying, we’re not going to be part of this facade of a peace process anymore. We want our freedom. And as I said, Israel came out with “shoot to kill” policies, and nobody was doing anything about it. So the idea of the International Solidarity Movement was to get people around the world to come see what’s happening in Palestine.

As it concerns Americans, it’s happening with American tax dollars. The idea was that if we get people from around the world to come out for Palestine, maybe if internationals marched with Palestinians, then Israel would use less lethal forms of violence against people. Maybe the internationals could help change the way the mainstream media was reporting on things. Always it’s the Israeli narrative. Always Israel is the victim. And even if the mainstream media wasn’t going to change the way they were reporting people around the world…people come come to Palestine, but then they go back home, right? They have their own way of spreading the word about what’s really happening. And also they would give Palestinians a sense of hope that they weren’t abandoned. These were all ideas, things we thought the International Solidarity Movement could do. And with that, we started inviting people to come. Now it’s about 20 years later, and it’s been phenomenal. We’ve had our ups and downs. But in terms of the thousands and thousands of people that have come, it’s been really kind of heartwarming. I think it’s had a tremendous effect on where solidarity with Palestinians is right now.

Globally, of course, we also lost a number of colleagues. As I mentioned earlier, we thought Israel would use less lethal forms of violence when internationals were involved. But we did have internationals that were seriously injured. We had internationals that were killed. Of course, this is alongside the thousands and thousands of Palestinians that have been killed. And for none of them has Israel been held accountable, and that still remains the case. So we’ve come a long way in terms of Palestinian advocating for Palestinian freedom, but it’s still the case that Israel seems to operate with a level of impunity that still has to be broken.

You were part of an international effort to sail a flotilla of ships through the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010. They were carrying people and humanitarian supplies. Those ships were, of course, attacked at sea by Israeli forces, including the one you were on. People were killed. You were physically assaulted by Israeli soldiers. What did you learn from that experience and now that we’re over a decade removed, what should people understand about what happened?

The flotilla in 2010 was a culmination of efforts. Before that, we had sailed boats to Gaza, and the idea was not necessary to just carry humanitarian aid to Gaza. In fact, our very first ships that sailed in the summer of 2008, they were old, converted fishing boats, that carried a maximum of 44 people. We didn’t have much room to carry cargo. But the idea was that we were going to stand up to a deadly and illegal Israeli policy that was choking off the people of Gaza. And through that, with that action, we wanted to show that Israel’s policy had nothing to do with security because they impose this hermetic closure on Gaza. People can’t get in and out. Goods can’t get in and out unless it’s through Israel. There’s so many things that they restrict, basically making people’s lives miserable. The level of poverty, the level of unemployment, the level of destruction that Israel has brought on Gaza is almost unimaginable. And they tell the world that it’s all related to security. We wanted to expose that this has nothing to do with security. Here are 44 peace activists from Europe and the United States sailing to Gaza on fishing boats.

We didn’t pose a security threat, and we hoped through that action we would expose. Israel’s policy is not being about security. We also wanted to shake people into action, because Israel’s policy is specifically designed to persecute people, to bring them to their knees, to exact political concessions. This is not only immoral, but it is illegal under international law. And nobody, again, is making Israel change its policy. So we managed to sail a few boats that did get into Gaza because Israel decided not to confront us at sea. But at one point, then they started stopping us. They hit our boats. They almost capsized one of our boats. And that was the moment we decided that either we should stop sailing or escalate our efforts. We did not want to give into this notion that their aggression and military might was stronger than the rights that we were fighting for. And so we decided to escalate and started putting together a flotilla, which came together in May of 2010, we had seven ships, 700 people from over 35 countries.

And so we could load those with humanitarian supplies that Israel was not allowing into Gaza, including things like wheelchairs. Israel would let in some wheelchairs, but then would not allow the batteries to the wheelchairs to enter. Just ridiculous restrictions that were punitive and designed to make people suffer. And Israel did attack. They killed ten of our colleagues, one of them being an American citizen. 19 years old. He wanted to go to medical school, Furkan Dogan. The United Nations investigation found that for Furkan and five others that were killed, they were most likely executed. Furkan was shot with five bullets at close range. The last one, or at least one of the five to his face, most likely an execution. The most shameful thing about that was the U.S. had a citizen murdered on that flotilla and they were the only country to vote against adoption of the UN report.

So what did we learn from that action? As tragic as the outcome was, people didn’t want to cower in response to Israel’s violence so the following year more people joined another attempt at a flotilla. The power of people acting together, not only is it a very powerful thing, but it’s a very necessary thing. I remember that little girl, Me, who thought that America was the greatest, doing things to fight for good around the world. Well, it’s not always the case. We want it to be, but we have to be a lot more involved if we’re going to make it that. So as tragic as the outcome and the loss of our colleagues was, I still think it was a very powerful action. I think actions like that continue to be necessary, and we need to continue raising our voices. Unfortunately, Gaza is still closed off. People are still suffering. Maybe it’s not a boat next time, but we have to continue taking drastic action like this.

After working inside social justice movements for many years, you completed your law degree. Is that something you always planned to do, or did it grow out of your activism?

I knew I liked the law. I didn’t think I would go into human rights law, but [that changed] after seeing a lot of things working in Palestine. We were protesting against the injustices, trying to organize, but I wanted to learn what the law can do for victims of human rights abuses. What mechanisms were available to hold human rights abusers accountable and what remedies could be found for victims of such grave injustices and human rights abuses? So I ended up studying international human rights and humanitarian law. I taught one year at a Palestinian law school. It was at the Al Quds University Human Rights Law Clinic. We were teaching international human rights, humanitarian law and one of my students says to me, “This is all nice, but it doesn’t apply to us.” What she meant is all the laws on the books look great, but who is enforcing them, who is implementing them when it comes to Palestinian rights? And of course, what victims see is that the law only works for the powerful.

That’s also what we see here in the United States, too. Surely in the international arena, we always say you can have good laws, but then it comes down to political will if you want enforcement. It’s always the little guy that has the law enforced against them. But in big, powerful countries, they can almost get away with doing anything. And that is where it comes back to us in creating this political will. I know the law is not enough, that’s one of the reasons that I was motivated to run for Congress.

What led you to jump into the electoral arena at this point in your life?

I am living in Detroit, raising my kids, and I was working as a civil rights attorney even though I studied international human rights. This is a different body of law, civil rights, but the principle and the passion for fighting for people’s rights is the same. I had to resign my job [when the pandemic began] because of having to home school my kids, and I just couldn’t give time to my clients to do a decent job for them. So I resigned. When it came time to go back to work, I thought there must be something more I can do. Looking at the laws in the United States, they’re being made to take us backwards instead of forward when it comes to protecting people’s civil rights. And I thought I could go back to the law firm, I could go back to the courtroom, but if the laws are bad, then I’m not going to be able to do much for my clients to protect their civil rights.

I’m politically active and when I looked at who was representing me in the area I thought I was running in, the representative that we have there [Rep. Lisa McClain] has voted against every single piece of legislation that could help working families in Michigan. She’s constantly voting for the interests of big money. No matter how many letters I sent or phone calls or meetings you request with the office, the big politics and money. She’s also a Republican. I thought we have to step it up and have better people representing us in Congress, representatives that actually care about the people where I live.

The Thumb area of Michigan has been consistently voting, overwhelmingly Republican. I thought that it’s not because we don’t agree or we can’t see eye to eye on policies that will benefit all people of Michigan, it is because politicians have not been talking to people.

People are angry on both sides, but I certainly understood the anger that Donald Trump capitalized on. I grew up in a working class family. I’m a mom now. I understand these struggles. I’m a Democrat and I know that the Democratic Party has also angered a lot of people, abandoned a lot of people. We seem to always talk to just our supporters and talk down at them and not really address some of the issues that have troubled people’s lives and that have made them angry. So, Donald Trump comes in and is able to capitalize on that anger. Even before Donald Trump, people were turning away from the Democratic Party because of what the Democratic Party has become. It’s not really what it has been historically, a party of the working class. I believe I can run the kind of campaign that will change that because when you talk to people one-on-one with their struggles, [these labels] don’t matter. You don’t have to come in and say, I’m a Republican or a Democrat. You talk about what we need and what we want as a community. We want to be able to have dignified jobs that pay a living wage.

We want to be able to know that we’re sending our kids to safe schools, that they’re drinking safe water, that our communities are safe, that we’re able to afford health care. But when you go in and talk just party politics and put on these labels, people get in their corners. I wanted to help break through that. So I decided I’m going to challenge Lisa McClain, who was my congresswoman. But what happened is that Michigan for the first time ever we had an independent citizen redistricting Commission, and right before the new year, they voted on new maps and they drew me out of the Thumb area where I thought I would be running. Now I am running in a toss-up seat. It’s a newly created seat with no sitting incumbent. So it’s a lot better for me in terms of the likelihood of winning because it’s no longer overwhelmingly Republican. It is a true toss-up seat. I’m a little bit disappointed that I won’t be running in the area that I really wanted to address, but I’m committed to running the same kind of campaign where it’s still going out and talking to every single person and trying to break through on these issues.

Why did I get into what I got into in Palestine, the kind of work I did? Because I saw egregious human rights abuses all around me and I needed to do something about it. And here, too, in Macomb, Michigan, I see egregious abuses all around me also. It’s not the same as what’s happening in Palestine, for sure, but people are being denied the right to adequate health care, the right to work with dignity, really to be free, to lead a life where you can give your kids opportunity. These are the very reasons that my parents came to this country and I wanted to be able to do something to change that. I need to be able to do something to change that. We need to elect representatives into office that care about the people and they care about rights.

So that’s why I took this leap. I thought it was going to be a really tough campaign, but one that I was going to fight hard for and win. I’m not saying it’s not going to be tough now, but the odds of winning and the positioning of our campaign now is a lot better. It’s very exciting. And I hope that people that learn about the campaign get in touch and jump on, because this is going to be a very exciting campaign where someone not only like me, that is progressive on domestic issues, but someone that has my history in being unapologetically vocal on Palestinian human rights can not only run for a high office like this, but can also win. I hope and I think this will change people’s minds about what it takes to run for office and who can run for office.

You mentioned that you’re running in a completely open seat with no incumbent. Do you anticipate any Democratic challengers?

We do. I can’t imagine that nobody else is going to jump in, but I launched my campaign in mid-November thinking I was for sure going to run in the Thumb are, so I was preparing for that and started reaching out and assembling a really good team. I have a great campaign team and fundraising team, so I am really ahead of anyone that is going to jump in now. But I anticipate maybe two or three more people jumping in. My goal is to just keep making the connections, talking to people and raising money so that the campaign remains in a really good position, stays ahead.

I am going to be attacked. From the moment I announced my campaign, I was attacked by people who specifically don’t like the work that I’ve done on Palestinian human rights. Actually just a few days ago, there was another attack article in Breitbart News. So those attacks are going to come. What’s important to me and my campaign is that we ensure we have the resources and support. So that our message, our vision, what we’re fighting for, the kind of policies and principles that we want to bring to Washington that centers people, civil and human rights domestically and also internationally.

Our vision for human rights is louder than the hate they’re going to put out. We’ve been able to do that, but I know we have a lot more work to do. We know more attacks are coming and we’re fired up.

The last two months have been pretty grim here in the United States. A lot of people think Democrats [will do poorly] in the midterms. We’re still in a pandemic. When you go around your community and talk to voters, what are the things that they are identifying as important when they head to the ballot box?

What I am seeing and hearing so far is a lot of the things that Democrats have been talking about. The economy is first and foremost. But to be able to ensure that our economy continues to thrive, we have to make sure that people are safe, healthy and thriving. So, yes, we have to get the pandemic under control. And it is really unfortunate that that has become such a political issue when we’re talking about people’s health and safety.

But it is the economy. It is community safety. In Michigan, specifically, we recently had a horrific school shooting, even just gun safety, people that try to polarize this issue and politicize issues that should not be politicized is devastating. In terms of what we might see at the polls, we hear that if Biden isn’t able to get certain things passed, like the Voting Rights Act and the Build Back Better plan then Democrats might not do so well at the polls. I think it is really important for us to talk about being able to pass these important pieces of legislation that can affect people’s lives, but being able to pass them by having people in Congress that care about improving people’s lives.

If people suddenly don’t go out to vote because they are disappointed, then what’s going to happen is that we are going to get more obstructionists in Congress, more people that tailor to big corporate interests and big money and not centralizing and prioritizing people. So I realize that we might have a tough challenge in terms of where we are politically right now. We have to keep fighting and I think more than ever, people have to know, even if we’re disappointed, if we let that disappointment turn into a lack of action, then things are going to get a lot worse. I say that here and it relates also to Palestine, right? I mean, the situation there is so bad, but if we give up, then it’s certainly not going to get any better. Of course there are ups and downs. Of course we’re human and we get disappointed. But let’s also find a way to support each other and pick each other up and know that we have to keep going to make things better for ourselves, for people around us and hopefully for future generations that we are going to leave this world to.

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss