In the years following Israel’s 20089 “Operation Cast Lead” attack on the Palestinians of Gaza, a new kind of student movement emerged on U.S. campuses, in support of the idea that Palestinians should gain the full exercise of their human and political rights within their historic homeland. In 2013 and early 2014, journalist Nora Barrows-Friedman crisscrossed the United States interviewing the young activists who form the core of this new student movement, and their voices ring out strongly from every page of this book. In Our Power reveals the rich political legacy these students are building on campuses all around the country.
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About the Author
Nora Barrows-Friedman is a journalist, editor, radio broadcaster, musician, and mother. Since 2012 she has served as associate editor and audio production director for The Electronic Intifada, an independent publication focused on Palestinian issues. Previously, she was the senior producer and co-host of the "Flashpoints" show on Pacifica Radio. A resident of Oakland, CA, Nora is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Media Freedom Award from the Media Freedom Foundation.
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In Our Power
U.S. Students Organize for Justice in Palestine
By Nora Barrows-Friedman
Just World Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Nora Barrows-Friedman
All rights reserved.
Inspired to Act
Why does one person sitting at a table have the ability to travel when he wants and not have to plan around permits and roadblocks, and why does another have to wonder what it feels like to be free?
— Kristian Davis Bailey, Stanford University student
I met Amanda Ghannam, a political science and sociology student at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, at a popular Palestinian sweets café near campus on a bright October morning in 2013. I asked her to tell her story, and she began by explaining that neither she nor her Palestinian parents had ever been to Palestine although all of her grandparents were born there.
"Growing up, you hear about [Palestine]," she said. "There's that knowledge in the back of your mind, but until you choose to dig deeper into it, you don't know all the details of course — you just know that the place you come from is not free."
Ghannam admitted that she didn't know that much about Palestine organizing before she got to college. "I had this impression that there wasn't a whole lot I could do at my age, and maybe not even much I could do in my life, until I attended the national Students for Justice in Palestine conference in 2012 — which I happened to hear about by chance, over Twitter or something. And because it happened to be in Ann Arbor, it was right here, I figured that I'd go. It was a huge eye-opener, and I can honestly say it changed my life in a very real way."
Here she broke into a wide smile. "I didn't know before I attended the conference that so many people were working so hard," she said. "It was like a breath of fresh air, meeting all those people who were so committed towards the same goal, and finding out there are concrete actions we can take as American citizens."
I had e-mailed Ghannam before I visited the Detroit area; regional organizers recommended her to me because of her superb activist credentials. At the café, she shared her conflicted feelings about participating in this book. "I have dreams about Jerusalem," she said, softly. "I hear all these stories about activists being denied entry, or being harassed at the checkpoints, and I know it would be easier for me because of my American passport, but when I got your e-mail I was very hesitant to put my name on this project." She told me that her biggest fear is that she'll never get to visit Palestine.
However, Ghannam went on to say, these kinds of public projects help legitimize the work that student activists have been doing. I asked her if she wanted to change her name in this book, in order to protect her identity when she attempts to enter her homeland. "If I change my name in this book to get into Palestine, they win," she answered. "Zionists have been co-opting and chipping away at Palestinian identity for years. And intimidating people into staying silent about solidarity, activism, and heritage is one way that they continue to chip away at that identity. To speak up without fear is my form of resistance. I can't give up on that." I was — and remain — moved by Ghannam's courage, and I'm immensely grateful for her decision to be included in this book.
* * *
The global struggle for Palestinian rights is growing as tolerance wanes for Israel's policies of occupation, segregation, and discrimination. And, like many historical battles for human rights, students are at the forefront of this rapidly expanding movement.
Despite branding itself as the region's lone democratic state, or hyping up its glamorous tech industry, or beckoning members of the LGBTQ community to experience the "gay haven" it would like to represent, Israel exposes its deceit when the surface is lightly scratched.
Palestinians were first subjected to Israel's systematic injustices when they were expelled from their homes and land in the late 1940s, as Zionist militias swept through historic Palestine, destroying more than 500 villages and towns and forcing more than 750,000 indigenous Palestinians into dozens of refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Today, Palestinian refugees are the largest population of forcibly displaced persons in the world, totaling more than 7 million. They are not allowed to return to their homes of origin simply because they are not Jewish.
Palestinians inside the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are forced to live under absolute control by the Israeli government and its occupying military. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, water, education, agriculture, residency, and property ownership rights are systematically refused to Palestinians while illegal Israeli settlement colonies continue to spread across the hillsides and valleys. Israeli settlers — backed by throngs of Israeli police — routinely storm Palestinian homes and evict entire families, throwing their belongings onto the street, and moving into these homes hours later. At least 27,000 Palestinian homes and structures have been demolished in the West Bank including East Jerusalem since 1967, as Israel's plan to Judaize the land continues unabated and unrestrained by various international laws and conventions.
Indigenous Palestinians in Jerusalem are not granted citizenship, but, rather, an Orwellian status as "foreign permanent residents" whose residency rights can be revoked at any time. Israel's illegal wall in the West Bank — condemned by the International Court of Justice in 2004, which recommended it be torn down immediately — cuts deep inside Palestinian land, annexing the settlements on top of the richest water sources and fertile land areas and leaving Palestinian villages, towns and cities separated from one another, from clinics, employment opportunities, schools, and religious centers. The wall and the settlements have chopped the West Bank into dozens of isolated bantustans, only accessible to one another through hundreds of Israeli military checkpoints.
In Gaza, 1.7 million Palestinians — 80 percent of them refugees and 60 percent under 18 years old — are subjected to widespread isolation and economic subjugation as Israel controls the land, air and sea boundaries, infrastructure, electricity, and the ability of people to leave and return at the Gaza-Egypt border. Since 2006, Israel has imposed a blockade and siege on Gaza: all imports, including basic medical supplies and construction materials to fix ailing and destroyed infrastructure, are controlled by Israel, and all exports have virtually stopped, completely debilitating Gaza's economy. Gazan fishermen are routinely shot at by Israeli naval forces if they fish more than three nautical miles from the shoreline, and Gazan farmers are fired upon if they venture "too close" to the "no-go zone" along the boundary with Israel, a vague and ever-changing strip encroaching into Palestinian agricultural lands.
Meanwhile, across occupied Palestine, Palestinian children, women, and men are routinely arrested, detained, mass incarcerated, put in administrative detention — indefinite detention without charge or trial — prevented from seeing lawyers or family members while in jail, and tortured and abused by Israeli soldiers and security guards who use American-made equipment and surveillance technology. Indeed, Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world, and its occupation is financed, supported, and fortified by American citizens, politicians, and corporations.
And inside Israel itself, Palestinian citizens of the state are living under dozens of discriminatory laws intended to separate the privileges of the population and favor Israeli Jews over non-Jews in housing, education, land ownership, and social services.
Shocked and outraged at the injustices against Palestinians half a world away, students in the United States have historically been drawn to solidarity movements for Palestinian rights. Today, that movement is wildly diverse, strategic, and more popular than ever. By relentlessly challenging the dominant narrative and making sustained protest of Israeli policies more mainstream, students are changing the way this country thinks about Israel.
For Palestinian students, some who are third- or fourth- generation refugees, joining Palestine and Arab-centered activism and cultural organizations can be an empowering way to connect with their heritage and the ongoing struggle for their rights. Most families are encouraging of this kind of student activism, but some parents, as students mention in this chapter, are wary that if their children join Palestine solidarity groups, the U.S. government and powerful Zionist organizations could target them for surveillance and harassment.
These are legitimate fears. The U.S. government keeps tabs on citizens who descend from the Middle East, while FBI informants infiltrate mosques and political activism groups around the country. Israel-aligned organizations and Islamophobic groups smear Arab and Muslim activists and label any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.
Many students of Palestinian descent are afraid that if they sign their names to statements, or speak out during public events, or participate in projects such as this book, their name could be added to a list that would prevent them from visiting family in Palestine in the future.
Meanwhile, Jewish-American students are becoming more involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights, and can clearly articulate the difference between Zionism and Judaism. Support for Israel among American-Jewish youth is steadily declining, sending Zionist organizations clamoring for new recruits and new opportunities for propaganda.
It is not always easy to become an activist, many students told me. But they say that organizing for Palestinian rights between classes and grueling exams is worth it — that standing up for human rights is an important part of one's ongoing education as a global citizen.
Personal histories of struggle
In Albuquerque, Jadd Mustafa, a student at Central New Mexico Community College, told me that his involvement in Palestine solidarity activism was catalyzed after he went to visit Palestine in 2005 with his family.
Because his relatives in Palestine have West Bank identification cards, they cannot travel outside of the occupied West Bank unless they have permits from the Israeli authorities to do so. "During the visit, it was made clear how things weren't the same as far as where we could go as a family — the coastline wasn't an option, because [my family who live there] had West Bank IDs," Mustafa said. On a later trip, Mustafa's father was prevented from traveling to Jerusalem and present-day Israel, "places you should be able to visit because of the religious and cultural significance," he added, with frustration in his voice.
Amal Ali is a history major at the University of California, Riverside. She is an energetic leader in the campus's Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group, and has been deeply involved in the two-year-long push to have the university pull its investments from U.S. companies that profit from Israel's human rights violations.
Ali's father's family was expelled from Palestine during the Nakba in 1948, and her mother's family was pushed out two decades later during another wave of expulsion following the 1967 War. Her grandparents on both sides fled to Jordan, where both of her parents grew up before coming to the United States for college educations in the 1970s.
Ali said that when her father became involved in the Arab-American community as a university student, they organized demonstrations for Palestinian rights with a passion similar to that of Ali's generation. "They had rallies; they raised their voices and shook the boat a little bit at their respective campuses. They also were very big on doing things [such as] going through the processes of writing to their congressman and making sure that they contacted their representatives in a way that they couldn't do in Jordan as displaced citizens," she said. Ali added that she grew up thinking she was Jordanian because all of her grandparents lived in Jordan, but said that she knew there was "something different about my identity because my dad took us to these strange rallies where they would chant 'Free, free Palestine.'
"At one point I asked, 'So, Dad we're Jordanian, right?' Because somebody at school asked and he said, 'No. We're Palestinian.' And he sat me down in his lap and told me the whole story of our identity and our existence. And at that point I was like, ok, I've got to find something out about this. So using whatever limited Internet [access] I had at the time, I tried to do my homework, tried to figure out what I could read at the grand old age of eight years old. So those are the very early beginnings [of my interest in activism]."
Ghassan Hussein is a respiratory therapy graduate from San Joaquin Valley College in southern California. He was born in the West Bank, came to the United States as a child, and then returned to his village, Turmosayya, for middle school and high school. He said that during his high school years in the West Bank, when he was exposed to the violence of Israel's occupation, he realized that he could bring his personal experiences back to the United States to encourage campus activism:
From stun grenades to tear gas, to rubber bullets [being shot] and almost hitting me, to Israeli harassment in and out of my village, to checkpoints, being banned from traveling, basically being stripped of basic human needs and human rights — I experienced all of that there. When I left Palestine after high school and came to the U.S. to pursue college, I realized I had to dig deeper and find out more about what was going on. I needed to educate myself more and also start spreading awareness about the situation.
I discovered that hardly anyone was paying attention. Even Arabs from my community — even Palestinians — do not know simple things that are happening in Palestine. And that, to me, was really, really devastating.
It was really an inspiration for me to gather together groups of people, talk to them about what was going on, join organizations which were doing the same work, and contribute. Sometimes, I was the only Palestinian who had lived in Palestine and could speak about that experience.
Some students have had a difficult time navigating their pull toward activism given their families' experiences of governmental repression and racism, and their histories as victims of political violence. Theater arts and Arabic studies major Leila Abdul Razzaq at DePaul University in Chicago told me that her Palestinian father's side of the family — who grew up as refugees in Lebanon — are still wary of her political activism. "My dad's family tried to be really apolitical," she explained. "When my dad was growing up in Lebanon, there were boy scout-type resistance movements, and they were never allowed to be a part of it. My grandmother did not want her family to be involved in anything political — my family doesn't talk about politics on the phone."
"So I don't think that my family in Lebanon knows the extent of the work I'm doing around Palestine," she continued. "I do know that my dad is often really nervous about it. I was just talking to him on the phone and he was like, 'don't do it.' He was telling me that he didn't want me to be a part of this activism movement and said that if I wanted to be political, I should do it through art and not through organizing. Because it makes him nervous."
Yazeed Ibrahim completed his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Irvine, and his graduate degree in global medicine at the University of Southern California. He connected his own activism on Palestine issues to other human rights struggles:
I'm Palestinian. But my activism is not limited to Palestinian activism. I believe in equality and justice, I believe in respecting human rights and international law. So I'm very active in other causes. I'm active in the Syrian cause; before that, Libya and Egypt. Any struggle for human rights and equality.
But specifically, I think we all have an obligation to the Palestinian cause, because of what's happening there. The crimes that are committed are being committed at our expense. We're funding the occupation at $3 billion a year from our tax dollars going there. We have a moral responsibility as Americans to stand up against that, because we are contributing to what's happening there.
As university students, we also have a moral obligation to stand up against the investments that our universities are putting into companies that profit from the occupation, from the violations of international law and human rights in Palestine.
Palestinian-American Nadya Tannous is from the San Francisco Bay Area and a graduate of the University of California–Santa Cruz. She was part of the Committee for Justice in Palestine at UC–Santa Cruz, until she graduated in 2013. We met in Berkeley, where she described the anti-Arab racism she faced after 9/11, when she was in fourth grade. Even in the Bay Area, a bastion of progressive values, Tannous experienced people "acting very differently" when compelled by fear. Fellow students would ask her if she knew Osama Bin Laden or if she was related to Saddam Hussein. "I very quickly had to learn why I was being conflated with these identities," Tannous remarked. By the time she got to UC–Santa Cruz, she felt emboldened to pursue political activism. She jumped into Palestine organizing with the on-campus Committee for Justice in Palestine, and connected with other student groups of marginalized communities who have also faced repression and racism.
"It was really wonderful to be able to connect with other groups — the Japanese-American student group, MEChA [Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, the largest Chicano/a student group in the U.S.], Hermanos, the Filipino Student Association, the African/Black Student Alliance, the African Student Union, the Queer Student Union, Sin Barras — there are so many," she said.
Excerpted from In Our Power by Nora Barrows-Friedman. Copyright © 2014 Nora Barrows-Friedman. Excerpted by permission of Just World Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Noura Erakat,
1. Inspired to Act,
2. Building from History,
3. Creative Tactics,
4. The Campus as a Battleground,
5. Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: A Growing Movement of Justice,
6. Empowering Scholarship,
7. Intersecting Struggles and Common Causes,
8. Advice to Student Activists,
9. Defining Solidarity,
About the Author,