Jonathan Okamura: The Palestinian Struggle Is Being Advanced In Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

A group of committed activists centered at UH Manoa promotes the cause from half a world away.

The recent huge demonstrations in Israel protesting proposed judicial changes led me to think about the situation of the Palestinian people, almost 2 million of whom are Israeli citizens. I decided to speak with a couple of old friends of mine in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa — Ibrahim “Brahim” Aoude and Noel Kent — who have been longtime supporters of the Palestinian cause. 

Despite, or perhaps because of, being about halfway around the world from the refugee camps in which millions of Palestinians have had to live since the creation of Israel in 1948, Aoude and Kent have actively worked with others to inform the local community about ongoing events and crises affecting them.

Born in what was then Jaffa, Palestine, Aoude has devoted decades of deeply committed activism and advocacy on behalf of his people. He arrived in Hawaii in 1969 from Lebanon, where his family had to migrate and he was raised, to join his brother.

He enrolled at Honolulu Community College and later earned a doctorate in political science from UH Manoa, married a local Filipina and began teaching in the UH system in the early 1980s when we met. 

Aoude can be regarded as one of the leading representatives of the small but active Palestinian movement in Hawaii, which is centered at UH Manoa rather than in the community where he estimates they number roughly 300 to 400. His efforts and those of others have kept Hawaii’s people apprised and, at times, moved to act by the tragic plight of the Palestinian people, still with no nation of their own, which receives scant coverage in the local news media.

I have long considered Aoude the most knowledgeable person in Hawaii on contemporary politics in the Middle East and not just the Palestinian situation. Given his access to Arabic-language news sources, I used to encourage him to submit op-ed essays to the Honolulu newspapers to inform the public about that part of the world. But he seemed to prefer doing that via his monthly discussion program “Island Connections,” which was produced by the ethnic studies department. 

Between 2001 and 2022, as a public scholar, Aoude was the executive producer and host of this program on which he reviewed and deliberated problems facing the Palestinians and other issues in the Middle East and Hawaii with informed guests from the islands, the continental U.S. and the Middle East.

Aoude has also advanced the Palestinian cause as an academic. He is the editor of the Arab Studies Quarterly, one of the foremost journals in that field, which was co-founded in 1979 by fellow Palestinian Edward Said. This distinction clearly demonstrates international recognition of his scholarship in Arab studies. He thus was invited to contribute a chapter to an edited book, “Our Vision for Liberation, Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak Out,” which was published last year.

Ibrahim Brahim Aoude University of Hawaii ethnic studies Palestinian Palestinians Jonathan Okamura column
Professor Ibrahim Aoude uses his talk show “Island Connections” to inform his fellow islanders about the plight of the Palestinian people and to discuss other Middle Eastern issues. (Screenshot/2022)

Also last year, Aoude co-organized an international conference co-sponsored by the ASQ journal at UH Manoa — “Politics, Media, Art, and Culture in the Contemporary Arab World.” It provided a rare opportunity for people here to hear presentations and interact with some of the leading scholars in Arab studies.

Aoude explained why he considers Israel a racist state.

“If you are an Arab Jew, then you are a second-class citizen, while European Jews are first class, and African Jews are third,” he said. “Palestinians who are Israeli citizens don’t have the same rights as others,” including to land, water, education and other public resources.

“Israel refers to Palestinians as Arabs because it doesn’t want to recognize their indigeneity,” he added. “As a settler colonial state, it was established by ethnic cleansing of the Indigenous population” and seizure of their land, which continues to the present by Israeli settlers.

Advocating From Afar

The plight of the Palestinians — who fled or were forcibly displaced from what is now Israel following the United Nation’s partition of British-ruled Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states in 1948 — has been a source of conflict for decades.

Aoude is joined locally in his advocacy efforts by others, including Jewish Americans. That includes another very good friend of ours, Noel Kent, who also is a professor emeritus of ethnic studies at UH. He has been concerned about the predicament of the Palestinian people since 1969 when he was working on a kibbutz and was appalled by the racism against them by Israelis. 

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Kent came to Hawaii in 1965 through the East-West Center and later received a doctorate in political science from UH Manoa. He is especially well known for his book “Hawaii, Islands Under the Influence” on the historical transformation of its economy following Western contact to the dominance of tourism by the 1960s.

Kent began the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in Hawaii. BDS, which was started in 2005 by Palestinian civil society organizations, is an international effort modeled after a similar movement against the apartheid regime of South Africa in the 1990s.

Noel Kent professor emeritus University of Hawaii UH ethnic studies Jonathan Okamura column
Noel Kent is a professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii. (Courtesy: UH)

It calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli corporations and institutions until three principal conditions have been met — full equality for Palestinians in Israel, an end to occupation of their lands and implementation of their United Nations-approved right to return

In 2009, Kent initiated a UH faculty petition demanding that the University of Hawaii Foundation divest its financial investments in Israeli corporations. 

In 2014, Kent, along with 30 other UH Manoa faculty (including myself), signed a statement that asserted “strong opposition” to the university’s “condemnation” of a resolution adopted by the American Studies Association the previous year, which called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

When I asked Kent about being Jewish and supporting the Palestinian cause, he replied, “My family came from Russia where they were treated as third-class citizens. They came to America in the 1920s to escape anti-Semitism. That Jews would now be perpetrators of ethnic violence against others is abhorrent to me, infuriates me.” 

A Modern Pogrom?

Kent contends that Israelis have “forgotten Jewish history,” particularly the pogroms in Europe in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred or forced to flee for their lives. He considers Jewish settlers attacking and killing Palestinian villagers with the complicity of Israeli security forces as a contemporary example of a pogrom.

The protests that have erupted in recent weeks in Israel are focused on trying to stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government from weakening the judiciary with reforms critics see as undemocratic. Kent would like to see the Palestinian cause included in the unrest.

“The current crisis in Israel shows the need for reevaluation of uncritical U.S. support (billions of dollars a year in military arms, etc.) and for championing the human and democratic rights of Palestinians,” he says. 

Thousands of miles away in the middle of the Pacific, the Palestinian movement for equality, liberation and their homeland is supported by a small group of committed advocates. Most are not Palestinian but share the group’s strong desire for justice and an end to its racist oppression.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Sad that folks with an extensive knowledge & familiarity with this topic would rather use their expertise to engage in partisan scorekeeping of grievances, rather than rise above the fray & utilize their energies towards calling for everyone to lay down their arms, achieving peace & living in harmony."An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

KalihiValleyHermit · 1 month ago

In the discussion about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is no mention of the creation of Israel, at the expense of Palestine, by the United Nations. Phrases such as "indigenous Palestinian people," suggests there were a homogenous group of people identified as Palestinians! Which Palestinians? Semitic, Phoenician, Egyptian, Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, Ethiopian, Indian, Indonesian? And the same ambiguity applies to the notion of Jewish people expanded east to China. Israel the nation-state was created by the United Nations and the founding countries of both the United Nations and supporters of the creation of the nation-state of Israel are responsible for creating peace in the Middle East. We should not be reading about the conflict in the Middle East as an Israeli-Palestinian problem. The travesty occurring daily in Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights is a United Nations travesty and the United Nations doesn’t seem to be very united beyond the industry of war. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a problem for the United Nations.

SwingMan · 1 month ago

Why couldn't Okumura present the Israeli side of the issue for some balance. Isn't there an academic at UH that could be called upon?

zz · 1 month ago

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