In many ways, Oday Aboushi’s football career followed a typical trajectory: he started playing football at the age of five and all throughout high school, following which he was granted a scholarship to study and play at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. This year, the 6’5 and 305 pound Aboushi was drafted in the fifth round to play an offensive lineman for the Jets. But, Aboushi is also Palestinian-American, and that made things very different.
When I went to interview Aboushi at the Jet’s training facility in Florham Park, New Jersey last week, I thought I would be working on a feel-good story about a Palestinian-American who made it into an industry that was quite untraditional for an immigrant Arab family. But no such luck, the story of Aboushi’s success quickly turned political due to no other fact but his ethnicity.
Aboushi is not the first Arab-American to play professional sports in the U.S.; but being vocal about his origins, his ties to his homeland and the collective Palestinian experience made him a quick target for an extreme fringe of rightwing Zionists.
The attacks began with accusations ranging from Islamic extremism to anti-Semitism from Front Page magazine, a web blog that features typical rightwing rants. The blog went through Aboushi’s Twitter feed and determined that a picture he re-tweeted of a Palestinian woman kicked out of her house by settlers in Jerusalem was anti-Israeli.
The website also made it seem like using the word “Nakba” (catastrophe) to describe the mass displacement of Palestinians out of their homeland in 1948 was somehow controversial. They even attacked a speech Aboushi gave to a social gathering of Palestinians, who belong to Al Bireh Society. In that speech, Aboushi discussed his path to the National Football League (NFL) and his drive to succeed.
The blog post was generally ignored, but then an article posted by Yahoo Sports last week echoed the same unsubstantiated claims. Meanwhile, a media employee at the Major League Baseball tweeted a remark likening accused murderer and former Patriots player Aaron Hernandez with Aboushi.
The controversy sparked an outpouring of support for Aboushi and was a surprise to many members of the Arab community, who were used to being attacked for their origins. Both the Yahoo piece and the Twitter post were removed; and even the Jewish Anti-Defamation League defended Aboushi against accusations of anti-Semitism.
“Absolutely nothing in public records suggest that Aboushi is anything other than a young American athlete who takes pride in his Palestinian heritage. Being pro-Palestinian does not mean you’re an anti-Semite or an extremist. The record simply does not show that Aboushi has crossed that line,” read a statement issued by Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s director.
The Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee’s spokesperson, Raed Jarrar, told Al Arabiya that the goal of the attacks were to cancel out any positive impression Americans might get about Palestinians from Aboushi. “It’s an attempt to maintain the status quo and the stereotypical attitude people have about Palestinians.”
In my interview with Aboushi, he told me how inspired he was during a trip to Palestine in 2009. It was his first trip out of the United States, he told me, and one that affected him profoundly.
“To go over there and experience what I did, you know, the restrictions people had over there, the rules and regulations they had to live by. They are kind of oppressed. To go over there and see that made me realize how blessed I am,” Aboushi said.
He said he hopes playing for the NFL will change will change the perception some have of Palestinians and Arab-Americans.
“I think it will give people a different outlook on the Palestinian culture and the Arab-American community, it will put us out there” he said. “When things get hard here, I think back to my trip and realize that I am doing what I love for a living. I use that to drive me.”
As for now, Aboushi has to focus on something else, the Jets training camp. He is hoping to make the cut and start playing for the Jets this September.