Arizona’s border walls “resemble Palestine,” says student activist

Activists for Latin@ and Palestinian rights march side by side on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 2013.


An important decision was made at this weekend’s 20th annual conference of Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan (MEChA), the largest association of Latin@ youth in North America. The conference voted by a large majority to work with Students for Justice in Palestine and similar grops “until the Palestinian people are liberated.”

Danya Mustafa, a national organizer with Students for Justice in Palestine visited the University of California - San Diego for the conference as part of SJP’s growing partnership with MEChA.

Here is part two of a conversation I conducted with Mustafa (see part one).

Gabriel Schivone: Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies, which targeted and eliminated the only K-12 [kindergarten to twelfth grade] Mexican-American studies program in the US, outlaws public school programs that “advocate ethnic solidarity” — except for “instruction of the Holocaust, any other instance of genocide, or the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race or class.” Any district failing to comply with the ban faces economic sanctions on their state funding.

Danya Mustafa:: The ban on ethnic studies is one of the most ridiculous things that I have heard about in a long time. The fact that they are banning ethnic studies, more specifically Mexican-American studies programs, is very detrimental to the learning of the students. I bring this up because Arizona is in the Southwest region of the United States, and Mexican-American history is so rich and historic in that [area] that there is no way of avoiding it.

In my belief, learning about the Mexican-American history of Arizona is more beneficial than learning about the skewed history [found in] these so called “balanced” text books that were written mainly by a white perspective. Not only is Mexican-American history so prominent to Arizona, but to the whole Southwest region. In an interview with Tom Horne, the superintendent of “public instruction,” he says that by having these different ethnic studies classes “divides the students.”

In what way do these classes that learn about other people’s history divide people? They actually bring students of all different backgrounds together to gain more of an open mind, and what’s ironic is that the current curriculums of what a lot of students are learning now in their history classes are dividing and excluding more students than ethnic studies classes would ever do. Also, I believe it’s important for every single student in grade school to learn about the Holocaust and to gain the principles of human rights from that. But also it’s equally important to learn not only about the Holocaust but comparative situations of oppression and genocide from other places and people around the world. For instance, we should put a lot of time into teaching our students about what happened when colonizers came to America and committed genocide against the Native Americans and the oppressive laws that came into place, and how it affects the Native American population today.

GS: Actually, some high school students and supporters who independently expressed solidarity with Palestinian ethnic studies and Israeli attacks on education came under fire from “save ethnic studies“ supporters in the Jewish community in Arizona who warned about being alienated if such solidarity persists.

DM: You see this problem occurs frequently amongst some of the anti-war and anti-racism activists here in the United States. You go to an anti-war rally, and if you bring up Palestine, many people get up in arms and tell you that doesn’t count as a human rights issue because it’s a “complicated issue and the Jewish people need a homeland and need security.” Now, this situation doesn’t seem that different from that example, but it’s interesting to see this happening. Judaism is a religion based on social justice, and the Jewish people in America do a really good job of standing in solidarity with those who are being affected by racism and prejudice, but it seems to Zionists in various communities that it doesn’t apply to those who are Palestinian or those who stand in solidarity with Palestinians.

The word they do like to use a lot when people bring up Palestine [in these issues] is the word “alienate.” When I was at Occupy Wall Street in October 2011, I held up a sign that said “Un-Occupy Palestine, Occupy Wall Street,” and so many American Zionists came up to me and told me, “Don’t hold that sign because you’re going to alienate the Jews.” My first question to them is, “How is criticizing the occupation of Palestine alienating the Jews?  How is pointing out human rights violations alienating the Jews?” It’s absolutely ridiculous that the Zionists go so far to accuse those who speak out against Israel’s human rights violations of being “anti-Semitic.” I believe people are starting to see how ridiculous this is becoming and more social justice groups are standing more in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Here at the University of New Mexico, we have a huge range of active social justice groups like La Raza and Native American groups standing in solidarity and working with Students for Justice in Palestine.

GS: This is a passage from a 2011 article entitled “Scenes from an Occupation” by leading US-Mexico border scholar and East Timor historian Joseph Nevins:

I feel like we live in an occupied zone now,” the 17-year military veteran told The Texas Observer. Onetime mayor of Douglas, Arizona, Ray Borane echoes this characterization in a quote from [author Margaret] Regan. He describes Douglas as “an occupied town” — with 453 Border Patrol agents stationed there in 2000, an almost eightfold increase over 1994 — while likening it to “a militarized zone.” Regan later cites Mike Wilson of the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose traditional lands are bisected by the international boundary, and who likens the Border Patrol on “the Rez” to “an occupying army.”

Speaking of the US-Mexico borderlands more broadly, Crossing With the Virgin  contributor Kathryn Ferguson describes the area as a “low-level war zone where there are men with guns — Border Patrol, National Guard, thieves, Minutemen, ranchers, hunters, helicopters, ATVs, horse patrols, and Humvees.” She later reports on a particular encounter: One night, while she and a friend drove northward from the international divide, stadium lights suddenly blinded them. They had encountered “a Border Patrol checkpoint, rigid-faced men with guns telling us to stop.” Despite being in southern Arizona, “I had to remind myself that this was my country,” she writes. “I was not in foreign occupied territory.”

DM: I was in Southern Arizona [in March 2011] and all I saw were walls and US Border Patrol. It did sort of resemble occupied Palestine. It was just weird being there and knowing that I was in America. I am used to seeing all this militarism in occupied Palestine and “Israel proper,” but to know that I was only eight hours away from my home was a bit sickening. Though I feel like the occupation in Palestine is more like occupation on steroids, it seems like there is a growing occupation here on our southern borders in America. This passage explains what is happening on our borders perfectly. Our tax dollars are paying for this, and also paying for the occupation in Palestine. We should be more outraged and we should be on the streets that our government is supporting and supplying these illegal actions.


Gabriel Schivone

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Gabriel M Schivone is a writer from Tucson, Arizona, currently based in New York City. Follow him on twitter: @GSchivone