“Historic milestone”: Palestinian student wins Rhodes Scholarship

A senior student at Earlham College in Indiana has been selected as one of just three Rhodes Scholars for its inaugural Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine program.

Hashem Abu Sham’a grew up in the Palestinian refugee camp of Arroub, just north of Hebron in the occupied West Bank.

He is headed to Oxford University along with Diala Al Masri, an economic researcher at Williams College and Nur Arafeh, a researcher and a policy fellow at the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka.

Abu Sham’a served as the president of Earlham’s student government, which last year passed a resolution urging the university to divest from corporations that profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.

As one of two of the first Palestinian students to win a Rhodes Scholarship, Abu Sham’a said that it represents not just a historic milestone for Earlham and the student body, but also for his community in Arroub camp.

“I insisted that the press release should be sent first to the primary schools in my refugee camp, because I do think this is representative of a breaking through of a new ceiling,” Abu Sham’a told The Electronic Intifada.

“It sends a strong political statement from the community and myself to the world that in the alleys of Palestinian refugee camps are big dreams that can reach the United Nations and Oxford University,” he added.

Abu Sham’a explained that after his studies, he plans to return to Palestine to establish a community center in Arroub, amongst other projects.


Since the 2015 divestment campaign at Earlham, Abu Sham’a said that the popularity of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has grown on campus.

He said that the student body is strongly organized in support of pushing the administration and the board of trustees to comply with the resolution’s demand to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. All three companies provide equipment and services to Israeli military checkpoints as well as settlements and Israel’s wall in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, across the US, state and federal lawmakers are passing waves of anti-BDS legislation aimed at silencing and punishing advocates of Palestinian rights.

“I’ve always been a big believer in the BDS movement, but these responses from politicians in the US reaffirm to me that BDS is actually making progress,” Abu Sham’a remarked.

“We’re getting to a place where we’re actually pushing people” who make policy decisions about Palestine, he said.

Building coalitions with other marginalized groups, he said, is an “instrumental” tool to fight for justice.

“Losing on the merits”

Last April, Omar Shakir of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Rahul Saksena of Palestine Legal spoke together about the BDS movement and fighting legislative efforts to suppress boycott activism.

The talk was held at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC, and we have included it as part of our latest podcast.

“The reason why increasingly we’re seeing Israeli advocacy organizations move to anti-BDS legislation is because they’re losing on the merits,” Shakir explains.

“They’re losing the debate on college campuses. They’re even losing on their other suppression tactics.”

Shakir said that in a report the groups published “we talk about things like legal threats and lawsuits and academic freedom actions, but they’re losing on all fronts,” he adds.

Saksena says that one of the biggest threats from anti-BDS legislation that “we’re seeing across the country is the chilling effect on our right to speak out.”

He adds that when activists, students or scholars are afraid to speak out, “when our speech is chilled, that hurts the movement, that hurts our dialogue as a democracy.”

Saksena emphasizes that people should not be intimidated and should “not be misled by the media’s messaging on these anti-boycott laws.”

Listen to the interview with Hashem Abu Sham’a, plus an excerpt of the presentation by Omar Shakir and Rahul Saksena, via the media player above.

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As a member of JVP I am proud to support BDS and applaud this young scholars winning a Rhodes scholarship. Every time I read about a young person who rises above hard conditions to achieve great things I wonder how much the world is losing because so many people live in camps, are discriminated against, or damaged in wars, and so on.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).