US students resist repression of Palestine solidarity on campus

Students are engaged in a sit-in strike at the University of Michigan to demand the student government vote on a divestment resolution, which it tabled “indefinitely.” (Photo courtesy of @ThatAlgerian)

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Student sit-in at University of Michigan

Suha Najjar: So, we’re in the Central Student Government [CSG] chambers, they typically have their meetings here in this room, and we’ve been here since yesterday at 2am. We had to leave because they called campus security and at 2am the building closes. There was some complications in that there was a possibility that they were doing an entire sweep, where they would just arrest everyone that was here. So for the safety of the students involved, we decided to leave.

And it was after we got — Nour is going to talk about the demands — but the president of CSG came in to state an apology which we posted online for people to hear. He didn’t apologize at first until some of the students, Palestinians, called him out on that and then he apologized for not objecting. And he also — we asked that he listen to the students. So he came right before 2am, five minutes before the building closed, after we pushed and stressed and demanded that he come into the room and listen.

Nour Soubani: So, like Suha said, we’ve been here since yesterday at 7pm, and we have a list of demands to end the sit-in. I can just go through them.

The first one is that the Central Student Government repeal its decision to postpone its presentation of the divestment resolution indefinitely, and the reasoning behind this is that CSG must stop selectively silencing student voices. The second one is that the CSG make all of its meetings open, there should be no closed sessions when issues affect the student body, especially when there is broad-based public interest. And this came out of the fact that there was a motion to have a closed session at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting and at the end.

The third [demand] is that the CSG does not limit the students’ speaking time. And by doing so, the assembly is stifling a vibrant and much-needed discussion against the will of those who elected them, and the community affairs portion of the meeting must be extended to allow students maximum speaking time. On Tuesday at the meeting, there were over 200 supporters for the resolution and they only allowed five people from each side to speak from the community affairs portion.

The fourth demand is that all CSG representatives and executives participate in a divestment teach-in, in order to be better informed of the resolution that they refuse to educate themselves about.

And the fifth demand is that the CSG issue a public apology both in writing and in person for inviting Palestinian students to trigger themselves and expose their vulnerabilities, only to dismiss their narratives, negotiate their humanity and erase their existence on campus by repeatedly saying that this isn’t an issue that students care about, and things like that.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Wow. That’s the voice of Nour Soubani and also Suha Najjar from the University of Michigan. Can you talk about the feeling of the divestment meeting on Tuesday, and actually you let us know what happened, what the divestment resolution called for?

SN: The divestment resolution called for the student government to launch an investigation — it wasn’t even directly to divest from these companies — but to launch an investigation into our university’s investments with certain companies. And there were four companies, among them was Caterpillar and General Electric.

That was the divestment bill — it was the four companies and it was to launch an investigation into that. And to go into what happened and our emotions, I know for myself — I’m a Palestinian, I’m from the Gaza Strip — I was also an author of the resolution, so we were supposed to be given ten minutes to introduce the resolution, and before we could even speak, I went up to the room and was supposed to be the first person to speak and share my narrative about my aunt, who I lost a couple of years ago, and before I could even speak they just shut the door in our face.

I was standing in the front of the room, so I could see the emotions in the room — and I was specifically looking at the Palestinians who had spoken earlier during the community affairs portion, who had just shared their stories and some were on the verge of tears. And I could see how — I looked at them, and the fact that our student government silenced them … I was given one minute to speak because a representative can yield their time to someone else. I was allotted one minute and in that one minute my student government was basically asking me to beg them to listen to me. So there were a lot of emotions in the room and I think that’s what caused the breakout after for people to start chanting “divest!”

NS: I think from behind, there was a red line that was separating the assembly from the gallery, and from standing behind that red line, I think there was a lot of shock that the student government had the power to silence hundreds of people and didn’t even have the decency or the courage to open this to a discussion. And I think that’s what everybody wanted. I don’t think there was an expectation for a vote either way, but just a vote or a discussion about it.

And I think definitely throughout the meeting a lot was said about how this isn’t a student issue that’s relevant and it kind of seemed rehearsed — because if you looked at the room, it clearly was relevant, and everybody there cared about it. So I think it was a feeling that the student government was not responding to the student body at all; they were just insisting on maintaining the status quo that they thought that’s what they were there to uphold.

NBF: Nour and Suha, how long are you prepared to sit in, and how many of the sit-in strikers are with you?

SN: So yesterday we had about 100 — 100 students came from when we started at about 6pm, we were supposed to start at seven but the room was open so we came a little bit earlier. So we had about 100, and today it’s fluctuating, people are coming in and out. Right now, the room has about forty people in there, and we were expecting about 10-15 people every hour. So this is a great turnout.

We’re going to sit here until our demands are met. We’re asking for the repeal, and the repeal has to come with a vote by the CSG, and they typically have their meetings Tuesday nights. So we’re not involved in the logistics of whatever they do, whatever they decide to make sure that our demands are met, but they are considering on having an emergency meeting. And if not, if they don’t have our demands met, we’re going to be here until next Tuesday, when they vote on it again.

NBF: Is there anything else you want to tell The Electronic Intifada audience about your sit-in, your demands, and what your plans are next? How people can support and learn more about the sit-in strike?

SN: Yeah. The hashtag is #UMDivest and #UMDivestSitIn — [people are] showing their support by continuously tweeting, because our administration is following our tweets, and the CSG is following all of that on Facebook and Twitter and social media in general.

So that’s probably where we get the most support from people around the country. And then for people close by to just come and show up. We’re going to notify everyone about the meeting, whether it happens on Friday or it happens on Tuesday, to just come out and show support — this is what we want, this is what our campus wants.

NS: I think just one thing to mention that has really been remarkable about this whole process is the allyhood. We have so many allies, non-Palestinian students who showed up at the meeting on Tuesday and have been continuously at the sit-in, and they really showed us what allyhood means. So I think those people — we really appreciate that, too.

End transcript.

Northeastern SJP fights repression

Max Geller: We had about 200 people show up either by walking out of their classes at Northeastern or marching on the main campus from outside. We had an event where thirty different organizations including other schools’ SJP chapters, including Boston-area human rights organizations and a few labor unions all sponsor the march to restore SJP and to protect student speech rights.

I think there are a lot of people who are taking this crackdown and assault on our speech rights very seriously and they’re very troubled by it.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Since the suspension, you’ve filed an appeal, what’s happened with that so far?

MG: We filed it last Friday and we have since heard nothing officially, but from [statements] by the university; it would seem that they have not been swayed. Though our appeal is still in process, there’s no sign that the school is really taking it seriously.

They announced the other day that this suspension of SJP is a result of careful consideration. So that indicates to me that they’re not really considering our appeal even though it’s still pending.

NBF: Northeastern has dropped one of the three charges against the two women students of color, members of SJP — what do you attribute that to? And do they still face suspension or possible expulsion for this nonviolent direct action?

MG: The students are now only facing what’s known as deferred suspension, which would put them in a position where they — it’s the strongest formal warning — but deferred suspension does not mean you have to leave campus or can’t be on campus. It’s just if you do anything else, you’re liable to be suspended for the previous offense.

But that is a clear step down from what they were talking about beforehand, where actual expulsion or suspension was on the table. And the university has continuously backtracked. It first backtracked from the expulsion-level offenses and publicly stated no one was getting expelled or suspended, and now they’ve also, following more pressure, dropped one of the charges. And the charge that was dropped was the one that was directly pertaining to free speech. So they no longer think they can win on holding us responsible for doing what everyone else does. But they’re still charging the students with violating dorm policy, which was the violation took place when they left the side of other SJPers who were distributing flyers.

So though they are backtracking and though they seem to be aware of the free speech implications of punishing students for handing out flyers, they’re still interested in enforcing a seldom-enforced policy known as the dorm policy of not leaving your guests’ side. And this is to prevent people from getting alcohol poisoning without supervision, but it’s being enforced against [SJP] because, I think, of outside pressure and the unwillingness of groups like Hillel and some of the more extreme elements of the Boston Jewish community from letting us off the hook.

The Zionist community of Boston expects us to get punished. And they demand that we get punished.

NBF: Max, you and other SJP members have gotten a new round of death threats and violent intimidation following the right-wing Zionist media coverage of Northeastern’s suspension of SJP, can you talk about that?

MG: The same sort of cast of characters from the David Horowitz Freedom Project’s FrontpageMag and an employee of Americans for Peace and Tolerance have been putting out articles which are designed to discredit us and make it seem like we support “violent jihad” against America and Israel. I don’t know about how those comment threads are going on because I’m not reading those articles, but they’re out there, being promoted heavily on Facebook.

It seems as though Americans for Peace and Tolerance paid enough money to advertise this article to every student or every person who is affiliated with Northeastern University as an attempt to discredit SJP and to distract from the free speech issues surrounding our suspension. They have been promoting articles they’ve written which are full of factual errors to somehow smear and discredit us.

But again, I’m not paying any attention to those because haters are gonna hate and I don’t actually have time to get upset about this.

NBF: Max, can you talk about the kind of legal advocacy that SJP has garnered from either local or national civil rights organizations and legal organizations?

MG: We are receiving advice from three different groups and they’re all working in concert to help us and advise us. The Massachusetts Civil Liberties Association chapter and the Mass National Lawyers Guild chapter have teamed with the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support project to advise us about what possible legal options our suspension has.

But I want to state that no decision on that front has been made, and that there’s plenty of non-legal grassroots organizing work that we still need done. And I think that’s where the amazing turnout yesterday came in. It’s that kind of thing that’s going to put more pressure on the university at this point. But again, all legal options are being considered.

NBF: Finally, Max, what’s next for Northeastern SJP, and how can people get involved?

MG: I mean, what’s next for Northeastern SJP is a two-fold operation. We have both organizational work to do in order to broaden our struggle. I know that the Northeastern adjunct professors are having a really difficult time trying to unionize right now. And that is a freedom of speech, freedom of expression issue just as much as our suspension is. And so part of the work we have to do is broaden our struggles and broaden our awareness of what happens when unpopular speech is silenced on a campus.

The other aspect is to continue to lean on the other SJPs around the country. I know that our direct action yesterday and the direct action that the University of Michigan followed up with, following their inability … and the undemocratic ways of silencing their divestment vote, they’re now sitting in. And I think the movement towards direct action is an exciting prospect and one that we’re really paying close attention to around the country.

So every SJP in the country have encountered some forms of suppression on their campus. And one of our goals as a chapter right now is to link up with all the other SJPs who are dealing with their own suppression, and support and be supported by them in any ways we can.

End transcript.

Report from Israeli Apartheid Week in Gaza, Dr. Haidar Eid interviewed

Rami Almeghari: Representatives of 170 local society organizations in both the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip kicked off Israeli Apartheid Week. In Gaza City, about 200 participants, including BDS activists, NGO representatives, university students and others, attended a special launching ceremony at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Gaza City.

Maram Humaid is a local BDS activist and a recent university graduate in Gaza. This is the third year she’s attended Israeli Apartheid Week events.

Maram Humaid: Regarding to the experience of South Africa, it’s the same here and even more difficult. So I can foresee an end to Israeli apartheid soon.

RA: Although the academic and economic boycott of Israel has been gaining momentum internationally, over the past few years, particularly following Israel’s massive Operation Cast Lead attack against Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, the Israeli government and Israel’s supporters have labeled the BDS movement as being anti-Semitic.

Rosa Schiano is an international solidarity activist from Italy and has spent two years in Gaza. She is also a BDS activist.

Rosa Schiano: We are just denouncing violations by the Israeli government. By claiming that we are anti-Semitic, they are creating a confusion. This is the game that they are doing, not only for the BDS campaigners but also for other solidarity groups with the Palestinian people, in general.

RA: The week-long Israeli Apartheid Week of resistance in Gaza involves workshops and film screenings about apartheid and BDS in different regions of Gaza. The closing ceremony will be held at Gaza’s abandoned sea port, which has been under Israeli blockade for more than seven years now.

Haidar Eid transcript

Dr. Haidar Eid speaking at Israeli Apartheid Week in Gaza.

Shadi Alqarra The Electronic Intifada

Rami Almeghari: Welcome again to The Electronic Intifada, Dr. Haidar. First, talk to us please about the Israeli Apartheid Week in Gaza.

Haidar Eid: Initially, the Israeli Apartheid Week of events started in Gaza, back in 2009 and this is the fifth time we hold Israeli Apartheid Week activities in Gaza Strip. This year they are considered to be the most important events amongst events held all over Palestine, in Palestine 1948 [present-day Israel] and the West Bank.

On the opening day, the first day of Israeli Apartheid Week, we had two strong recorded messages from most renowned anti-apartheid heroes, a comrade of Nelson Mandela who spent 21 years in jail with Nelson Mandela, who was arrested in 1964, who attended the Rivonia trial with Nelson Mandela and spent more than 15 years on Robben Island as well — Ahmed Kathrada. The message we got from Ahmed Kathrada, a recorded message from him, of course, because he couldn’t visit Gaza — because Gaza has been under siege since 2007 — but the second recorded message was from one of the most renowned BDS activists in the world and in Palestine in particular, Omar Barghouti, who’s a secretary of the Boycott National Committee, the BNC, and one of the co-founders of PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Both Kathrada and Barghouti in fact concentrated on the fact that Gaza is isolated and under siege, because of the fact that we residents of Gaza are not born to Jewish mothers — i.e. it is under siege because because of the apartheid nature of the state of Israel.

Gaza has been suffering, as I said, since 2007, and based on international human rights reports and United Nations reports, what is happening to Gaza right now — and this is he importance of holding Israeli Apartheid Week activities in Gaza — is that Gaza has been transformed into the largest concentration camp on earth. Or, as even B’Tselem, which is a mainstream Israeli human rights organization, called it, the largest open-air prison on earth.

One of the messages that we have been trying to send out to the international community is that Gaza is going through what Professor Richard Falk calls “a prelude to genocide.” Or what Ilan Pappe, the progressive Israeli historian, calls “a slow-motion genocide.”

And for us, to be going through this slow-motion genocide, and at the same time to hold Israeli Apartheid Week activities, is a message in itself that in spite of all these crimes against humanity committed by apartheid Israel, we are still sending a message, still celebrating Israeli Apartheid Weeks, and we are saying no more — we want an end to this deadly, medieval hermetic siege imposed on Gaza, and there is a moral and ethical responsibility on the international community to lift this deadly siege by boycotting apartheid Israel and by divesting from apartheid Israel and by imposing sanctions against it exactly as it did against apartheid South Africa in the ’70s and ’80s.

We know that what we are going through is far, far worse than what black Africans of South Africa witnessed under apartheid in the ’80s. But that time, the international community actually heeded the call made by the anti-apartheid movement and boycotted apartheid South Africa. And what we are saying is that we want the international community to heed our call made by the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society organizations to the international community to boycott apartheid Israel until it complies with international law.

We are not calling for any political solutions, be it a two-state solution or one-state solution, but rather we want Israel to abide by international law and withdraw its occupation troops from the Arab land it occupied back in 1967, implement United Nations resolution 194 which calls for the return of all Palestinian refugees from the towns and villages from which they were ethnically cleansed back in 1948, and we also want an end to Israel’s discriminatory policies that it practices and exercises against the Palestinian citizens of Israel itself.

RA: In the Gaza Strip, how do you see the Apartheid Week — has there been momentum that has increased?

HE: The first time we held IAW activities was back in 2009, we were a handful of people. And we couldn’t advertise for it, because, as you know, all BDS activists in Gaza, and actually in Palestine, are volunteers. But after that, we managed to get more momentum when we started coordinating our activities with international BDS activists.

For example, as you know, you are reporting for The Electronic Intifada, and EI has been reporting on our activities as BDS activists in Gaza. Two years ago, we had the first joint musical project between the Gaza Strip and South Africa. And the outcome was the video clip and the song “The New Black.” And we had a video conference where we launched the video clip between Soweto in South Africa and the Gaza Strip.

But this year, as I told you, the first day of Israeli Apartheid Week was launched by having recorded video messages by the anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada and the BDS activist Omar Barghouti. But then we also showed a fascinating documentary which looks at the analogy between apartheid and Zionism, Palestine and South Africa under apartheid. A documentary made by an anti-apartheid activist, titled Roadmap to Apartheid. And we showed this documentary in one of the eight refugee camps of the Gaza Strip.

Today, we are supposed to have an activity in support of farmers and fishermen, and this is the first time that we as BDS activists and Israeli Apartheid Week activists have such an activity where we go beyond the student and the youth sector and show solidarity with other sectors that have been suffering from this siege. And the most important sector that has seriously, really been suffering from such war crimes committed by apartheid Israel is the farmers’ sector and the fishermen.

End transcript.


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).