How US students are bringing the Israeli occupation home

The following is an edited excerpt from The Electronic Intifada associate editor Nora Barrows-Friedman’s new book In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine, which will be published on 4 November. Reprinted by special permission of Just World Books. All requests to reprint elsewhere should be sent to rights-at-justworldbooks.com.

An important movement led by young college students is taking shape across the United States.

In the great tradition of other civil rights and human rights movements, activists are standing up to university administrations and the Israel-aligned political organizations that routinely repress student speech on Palestine. In the face of significant intimidation, students have become powerful organizers in the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. They challenge themselves and each other on the definition of solidarity, and they educate their campuses about one of the most important human rights issues of our time.

This grassroots movement is building from campus to campus, and each year there are more chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, one of the major Palestine solidarity coalitions. The growth of this student movement underscores that a strong paradigm shift is taking place: Palestine solidarity activism is no longer limited to an isolated pocket of far-left political organizing.

Perhaps it’s because Israel’s political intransigence and its reputation as a rogue occupier state have turned it into a pariah on the world stage. Perhaps it’s because people are seeking out unfettered international news via the Internet and social media as opposed to corporate-controlled media.

Or perhaps it is because civil society has come to recognize that decades of oppression, forced displacement and apartheid is a universal issue of justice and human rights.

Whatever the constellation of reasons, the conversation about Palestine is changing.

Rapid expansion

Between 2004 and 2011, I regularly traveled to Palestine as a reporter, first as a radio broadcaster for the historic Pacifica Network and later as a contributor to independent and international print publications. But my work at home as a staff editor and reporter for The Electronic Intifada compelled me to focus on the rapid expansion of student solidarity organizing in California and across the United States.

When Helena Cobban of Just World Books approached me to write this book, she and I were both adamant that it not be yet another analytical, scholarly book written about a movement by an outside narrator, but rather a lively, introspective document that heavily incorporates the voices of the students who are involved in the movement at this moment.

As a journalist covering Palestine for nearly twelve years, amplifying the voices of the silenced and underrepresented is paramount to me. There are, plainly, far too many activists, reporters, writers, non-governmental organizations and scholars who speak for the Palestinian people instead of supporting Palestinians so they can speak for themselves.

This was the same idea I had for this book; I believe it is important, and more appropriate, that students, especially Palestinian-American students, speak for themselves about their experiences as organizers and human rights defenders.

With that in mind, from April 2013 to January 2014, I traveled as much as I could. In the end, I gathered 63 interviews with students representing thirty different universities, private colleges and community colleges in 22 cities across eleven states. I started by emailing about a dozen individual students and organizers in different corners of the country, and told them I was eager to visit and conduct interviews.

Responses immediately poured in from activists who were excited to tell their story. Some students I reached out to were hesitant to speak with me, for fear of threatened reprisals by Zionist family members or Islamophobic hate groups, or because of the very real fear of compromising their ability to cross borders into their homeland, as Israel keeps tabs on human rights activists and Palestinian organizers.

But for the most part, students conveyed to me that they wanted their voices amplified, they wanted to be included in a document that holds this riveting movement and their accomplishments in a moment in time.

Building coalitions

One of the most significant themes within Palestine solidarity organizing is that of cross-movement building — creating coalitions within the historical and current intersections of different struggles. Discussions about anti-racism, anti-sexism, immigrant justice and oppressed peoples’ liberation struggles are all amplified within the Palestine solidarity movement. As Hoda Mitwally of CUNY Law in New York City so poignantly said, “Our work has no value or purpose if we’re not connecting it to other struggles.”

Students involved with Palestine solidarity organizing are fully aware, and outraged, at the heavily-financed military partnership between Israel and the United States, as the Obama administration’s deportations of undocumented persons reach record levels, as the border becomes a cash cow for weapons dealers and military contractors and as social services, health care and education are left to waste, impacting the most vulnerable communities.

“I think it’s really important as solidarity activists to look in our own communities and see that what we’re fighting against far away in Palestine is also targeting our communities here, and our neighbors and family members,” said Gabriel Schivone, a longtime SJP activist at the University of Arizona and a member of the national organizing committee.

Schivone has taken part in countless protests over the years, including an important direct action in October 2013 against the Obama administration’s rampant detention and deportation of undocumented persons. Immigrant rights activists and members of Students for Justice in Palestine barricaded themselves at the entrance to a federal courthouse in Tucson, Arizona, where buses carrying migrant detainees pull up. Others, including Schivone and other SJP and immigrant justice activists, locked their bodies to the buses themselves.

Students for Justice in Palestine stated that the coordinated action was called to stop Operation Streamline — “the mass prosecution program that criminalizes, en masse, on average eighty (mostly Mexican and Central American) migrant detainees each day in Tucson.”

President Barack Obama has refused to halt the mass arrests and deportations of undocumented persons. In fact, under his term, the United States “has been deporting more than 1,000 people a day, and nearly 410,000 [in 2012], a record number,” according to The Washington Post.

Danya Mustafa with the SJP chapter at the University of New Mexico told me by phone on the day of the lockdown that “this is an important action to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are struggling here, whose families are being torn apart, whose livelihoods are being taken away from them.”

What is happening to immigrants and undocumented persons in the United States under the Obama administration and the Arizona state government “is an injustice,” Mustafa added. “At SJP we know that injustice all too well, especially as Palestinians. We need to keep our families together. Community support is important. This is a direct action based on the needs of the community, and mothers, brothers, sisters and fathers are coming out to support this action. We support it one hundred percent. We want to show solidarity with those who have shown solidarity with us.”

Schivone’s work in documenting the impact of US-Mexico border policy has led him to uncover not just the political connections between the struggles of indigenous and migrant peoples in the United States and Palestine, but the classist, militarist and capitalist connections as well. He started off by explaining that he sees the intersection in himself, personally.

“I’m an embodiment of it,” he added. “My father came from a white settler background, a European immigrant from Italy. And my mother was born in Sonora, in Mexico. And when they married, my mom moved in with my dad and they got a house out of the El Hoya, which is a Chicana, Mexican-American neighborhood, or barrio, in Tucson. It was during ‘white flight,’ and they went to a sprawling urban new white development neighborhood. I lost half of myself through that process. I would grow up in public school not wanting to learn the language [Spanish] and rejecting half of myself.”

It took some time, but with guidance from an older, politically radical sister, Schivone embraced his identity. “For a while, when I started working with the migrant rights group No Mas Muertes [No More Deaths], that perspective on my family background became a [pillar of] my political life. But then I started, unconsciously, perhaps, dividing my time between both concerns — Palestine, SJP, student organizing on the one hand, and humanitarian aid and human rights work at the border on the other hand.”

But he realized that there is no reason why they should be divided when there are fundamental ways that they’re connected. “So I started connecting them,” he said, “looking at ways that they’re connected analytically and more deeply in structural forms.”

One of the clearest ways the United States and Israel exemplify their shared values begins with the walls both countries have constructed to keep others out. At the US-Mexico border, which stretches from California to Texas, the US government’s expanding practices of border militarization have reached unprecedented levels, and Israel has stepped in to not just share the technology it has field-tested on Palestinians, but to profit from this project as well.

In March 2013, one of the two leading contractors for Israel’s wall in the West Bank, an Israeli company named Elbit Systems, won its second contract — worth $145 million — to provide surveillance systems for the US Department of Homeland Security. Elbit’s first contract with the US government provided 450 unmanned drones to the Arizona Border Patrol in 2004.

“Seeing it first hand”

In 2011, Schivone started organizing tours to the border wall with other students from Palestinian, Jewish, white European and Chicano backgrounds, “just observing, seeing it first hand,” he said. “And then talking about it, taking it in, discussing it, putting on conferences with students and speakers from all over the country from Palestine-oriented activism and from Chicano and human rights and border work. We put it all together and learned about each others’ struggles.”

Denise Rebeil works with UNIDOS (United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies) on issues related to a ban on ethnic studies in Arizona. She attended the 2013 National SJP conference at Stanford University, and was eager to plug deeper into the Palestine solidarity community around the United States. She said she quickly realized the stark similarities between the two struggles.

“Both people had their lands ripped from them,” Rebeil remarked. “Both have to deal with white supremacy. And they always have to be on the defense. I realized those connections, which are really important.”

On 26 April 2011, during a Tucson school board meeting at which members would vote to dismantle ethnic studies classes, Rebeil and other students chained themselves to the board members’ chairs in a powerful, inspiring direct action that forced the vote to be postponed. The ban on ethnic studies ended up passing during the next school board meeting, but the motivation to keep pursuing educational justice for communities of color couldn’t be quelled.

Less than a year later, the largest Chicano/a student organization in the United States, Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan (MEChA), adopted the Palestinian call for BDS during its ninetheenth annual conference. The conference coincided with international observances of both Cesar Chavez Day, honoring the migrant workers’ rights leader, and Land Day, when Palestinians commemorate the six Palestinian citizens of Israel who were killed by Israeli forces during protests of ongoing land theft and settler-colonization in historic Palestine.

MEChA’s alliance with SJP chapters all over the country has been vital to both communities. Students have long supported each other’s events, marched alongside each other in protest of racist and unjust policies, and, like Schivone, have worked for justice seamlessly within both organizing spheres.

Students involved with SJP linked up with MEChA to protest SB1070, Arizona’s racial profiling law that was signed in 2010, and have collaborated in leading sustained protests in California against the 2013 appointment of Janet Napolitano as the president of the University of California. In her former role as the US secretary of homeland security, Napolitano implemented the Obama administration’s expanded deportation policies of undocumented persons.

Rich history of resistance

In New Mexico, Ruben Pacheco, an economics and political science graduate at the University of New Mexico and an active member of both SJP and other social justice organizations, explained his involvement in the Palestine solidarity movement in the context of the rich history of resistance to colonialism in the state. In order to understand the struggle for Palestinians today, Pacheco said it was important to understand the resistance of indigenous peoples on the land he stands now, dating back to 1680 when the Pueblo Indians first revolted against the Spaniard colonists “and effectively kicked them out of New Mexico for twelve years.”

In 1967, Pacheco added, the same week that Israel waged war on indigenous Palestinians and Syrians, and began its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Syrian Golan Heights, “a group of land grant activists attempted to reclaim ancestral land grants that were converted to national forest land in New Mexico. As Israeli tanks were advancing during the Six-Day War, national guard tanks were rolling through the mountains of northern New Mexico to prevent the Chicano activists from reclaiming their ancestral homelands.”

Pacheco’s voice softened. “We always talk about the different names that were given to Palestinian villages that were destroyed by Israel. Names of places have a historical connection to a people and their language. Changing a name is traumatizing to people. It erases memory. In New Mexico, the injustice runs thick, and both the Chicano and the American Indian populations have endured this type of historical trauma.”

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These young voices are powerful ones and they speak with a moral authority missing from the news reporting of Israel's brutal occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. Hooray for these young people and their sense of human decency and fair play. I applaud them.

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I personally have been targetted by the FBI for interrogations in regards to the Boston Marathon bombings and I could probably tell you that it may have to do with how active I am both online and on-ground for the Palestinian cause! (Even though I am a US citizen) Nevertheless, as long as we are breathing, we wil endure.

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The similarities between the U.S. and Israel are breathtakingly awful; both nations were built on subjugation, genocide and land stolen from the indigenous occupants.
Palestinians and Latinos: One People, One Struggle.