Listen: US student politics “rapidly shifting” despite Israel lobby efforts

Across the country, students are gearing up for another academic year and another season of campaigning for Palestinian rights.

They are organizing amidst expanded attacks on free speech waged by well-funded Israel lobby groups on and off campus.

State and federal lawmakers are also passing legislation aimed at suppressing or criminalizing activism related to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Israel is actively encouraging such measures as it announced its own plan to root out and expel BDS activists.

Earlier this month, Israel denied entry to Charlotte Kates of the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoners Solidarity Network.

Kates was travelling to accompany a delegation of European parliamentarians and lawyers in support of Bilal Kayed, who ended a 71-day hunger strike this week. She was interrogated about her activism with the BDS movement.

However, despite these efforts, “there’s clearly a growing consensus that the time has come to pull investments from companies that are profiting off of both the occupation and the oppression of the Palestinian people,” said Omar Zahzah, a graduate student at UCLA and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

Since the beginning of 2016 alone, more than a dozen campuses around the country have passed some form of divestment resolution or boycott measure, explained Rahim Kurwa, also a graduate student at UCLA and a member of SJP.

Inside the University of California system – where eight out of 9 undergraduate campuses have passed divestment resolutions – students say that there has been a steady increase in public opinion and the popularity of campaigns for Palestinian rights.

Zahzah and Kurwa recently co-authored an essay about the lessons learned during the UCLA divestment campaign, which took years of organizing before divestment was passed in 2014.

“Looking back, I think we all thought that divestment was impossible in the beginning,” Kurwa explained.

“We were very certain that we did not have the political power and the student government votes at that time. But one of the real lessons I learned was that you make the road by walking it,” he added.

Kurwa explained that the successful divestment campaign was a “product of the organizing” that happened by students who faced repression by Israel advocacy groups and the university itself.

“Taking heart” in campus politics shift

Earlier this month, a New York Times article on student activism related to Palestine quoted Mark Yudof, the former president of the University of California system.

“I don’t want to see BDS become stronger because, 20 years from now, these students will be judges, heads of Congress … We have to respond now to maintain the historical relationship with Israel,” Yudof said.

Yudof is now the head of the Academic Engagement Network, a staunchly pro-Israel association of academics across more than 100 universities who are working to fight the boycott movement.

Zahzah explained that as someone who has been doing solidarity work for so many years and has seen various attempts to discredit the work of SJPs, “it’s not a surprise to hear that statement.”

“Every time that there’s some attempt to counter what is an undeniably a really growing and sweeping consensus … there’s always a reaction and backlash, and it’s always framed in these panicked ways: ‘we need to stop this, we need to stamp this out,’” Zahzah added.

However, “there’s something very true to what Yudof is saying,” Kurwa said.

“Students on UC campuses are eventually going to be members of the public in various capacities after they graduate. And the rapidly shifting politics around Israel-Palestine on campuses is something that we should really take heart in,” he added.

“People now realize that it doesn’t make any sense to claim that you’re a progressive or that you care about basic principles of equality and human rights if you can’t apply those principles to the question of Palestine … and a freedom struggle that has gone on for decades now.”

To hear the full interview with Kurwa and Zahzah, as well as Charlotte Silver’s interview with Charlotte Kates, listen to the podcast via the media player above.

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These guys are gonna be our only hope when they become senior politicians/people of influence. Yudof is right to be worried.

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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).