Let’s unite our struggles to challenge legacies of US and Israeli ethnic cleansing

Student activists are encouraging others to learn the truth of colonialism and genocide from the Americas to Palestine.

Yesmeen Samad

A Mexican-led student action at the largest US public university this week, partly invoking Palestinian solidarity, demonstrated the need to extend history beyond borders to create a better future.

Equipped with face paint and using their bodies as props, members of the local chapter of M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlán) creatively subverted Monday’s Columbus Day anniversary to mark it from the standpoint of Christopher Columbus’s victims. 

In the torrid 90-degree midday heat, a group of about ten M.E.Ch.A. students lay down in the middle of the 70,000-student Arizona State University. Wearing red shirts and skulls painted on their faces, students used the tradition of macabre and theater of the oppressed to dramatize the memory of millions of Native Americans murdered by European settlers and slave-traders who invaded the “New World,” beginning with Columbus in 1492.

At the same time the MEChistas acted out the moribund scene, an equal number of Students for Justice in Palestine members passed out fact-sheets about Columbus’ murderous exploits and collected dozens of student signatures for a petition to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day on the university’s calendars.

The action aimed to demonstrate that Columbus Day is, in effect, a celebration of brutal invasion, occupation, and enslavement of native peoples.

Columbus inspires Israel

Repudiating our nation’s history of colonialism will take more than just replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, however. Domestically, the United States government and dominant society carries on the practice of casting aside native peoples, rendering their lives invisible.

As a matter of foreign policy, the US provides crucial diplomatic and ideological support, as well as enormous amounts of military assistance — $8.2 million a day or $3 billion yearly — enabling the continuation of Israel’s impunity and human rights abuses against indigenous Palestinians. Since its creation in 1948, Israel has steadily stolen more and more Palestinian land, in a pattern resembling the European settlers’ expansion across North America.

Invoking the Columbus model of exterminating indigenous populations has been a leading element of the Zionist movement, from the pre-state period through the present day.

One of Israel’s leading historians, Benny Morris, has defended ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by using the standard of genocide set by American history as a settler state.

“There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing,” Morris said. “Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history” (“Survival of the fittest,” Ha’aretz, 8 January 2004).

In his 1923 essay entitled “The Iron Wall,” one of the “founding fathers” of Israel, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, outlined a basic observation of human history: “There has never been an indigenous inhabitant anywhere or at any time who has ever accepted the settlement of others in his country.”

An honest cynic, Jabotinsky recognized that the Palestinian indigenous population at the time “look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. To think that the Arabs will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism in return for the cultural and economic benefits we can bestow on them is infantile.”

After all, Jabotinsky knew, as Israeli leaders know today, that the indigenous peoples must be driven out by force if policies of foreign settlement are to be maintained: “Zionist colonization must … proceed regardless of the native population” and it should continue “behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach,” he wrote.

Invoking the Columbus model of exterminating indigenous populations has been a leading element of the Zionist movement.

Yesmeen Samad

Today, the Israeli state is building a literally concrete form of Jabotinsky’s visionary architecture of settler-colonization. Israel swallows more and more Palestinian land by driving programs of settlement expansion behind the ongoing construction of its massive apartheid wall. The wall annexes Palestinian land for Israeli settlements and snakes through indigenous communities dividing them from each other and turning the West Bank into a labyrinth of checkpoints and open-air prisons. Gaza, meanwhile, remains trapped as the largest open air prison in the world, blockaded and bombarded by the Israeli military.

We are all witnesses to — and as US taxpayers, we are participants in — this current case of occupation and colonization. But on Monday students in M.E.Ch.A. and SJP showed they will not stand idly by and let Israel and its US supporters recycle the ugliest manifestations of American history upon the Palestinian people.

The M.E.Ch.A.-SJP action attempted to change Columbus Day into a period of reflection, for people to learn the truth of colonialism and the genocide that resulted from Columbus’ invasion.

New civil rights movement

Meanwhile, in Southern Arizona, the genocidal tradition of Columbus and his successors plays out in what Chicano historian Rudy Acuña metaphorically calls “Occupied America.” Upon orders of the State of Arizona, Tucson’s largest school district participated in the ongoing cultural destruction of the first Mexican-American studies (MAS) program in the US taught at both primary and secondary school level.

In an effort to comply with the State of Arizona’s House Bill 2281 ban on ethnic studies (officially signed in May 2010), Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) terminated the MAS program and banned its books in January 2012. But students are leading what journalist and cultural historian Jeff Biggers calls a “new civil rights movement” to reclaim their barred education (“Arizona’s choice today: students lead new civil rights movement,” The Huffington Post, 3 May 2011).

The main legal statutes of the ban on Mexican-American studies include outlawing course instructions which either “promote the overthrow of the United States government” or “resentment toward a race or class of people”, as well as programs which are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or which “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as equals.” Any school district failing to comply with the law is subject to financial sanctions by the state.

But the Arizona brand of squelching ethnic narratives also reaches overseas.

In March 2011, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) passed the “Nakba Law.” Essentially a copycat version of Arizona’s ethnic studies ban, the law enables the punishment of cultural organizations or local authorities in present-day Israel who commemorate the Nakba (catastrophe), the 1948 wave of ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s foundation (“Final vote today on Nakba Law and Acceptance to Communities Bill,” Association for Civil Rights in Israel, 22 March 2011).

As one of Arizona’s lauded cooperative “partners,” Israel wittingly or unwittingly mimicked Arizona’s ban on Mexican-American studies by labeling critical ethnic perspectives as violent and subversive, threatening financial sanctions on any state-funded entities that violate the decree (“Arizona-Israel bill raises some unsettling questions,” The Arizona Republic, 25 March 2012).

With Arizona at a leading pace, Israel has since stayed one step behind enforcement of the outlawed Palestinian ethnic narrative.

In an eerie resemblance to Arizona’s House Bill 2281, the Israeli ethnic studies ban relates to a number of criminal offenses that would serve cause for financial sanction. One provision of the ban on state-funded bodies (including schools) outlaws “incitement to racism, violence or terrorism” or “supporting armed struggle or terrorist acts against the State of Israel.” Another criminal offense under the ban covers “acts of vandalism or physical debasement insulting the honor of the Israeli flag or other symbol of the state.”

Other causes for sanction include the commemoration of Israel’s 1948 establishment as a “day of mourning” or denying the “existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Like Arizona’s House Bill 2281, the Nakba Law directs the Israeli government to withhold public funding from institutions that fail to comply with the law.

In January 2012, the Israeli high court dismissed a legal challenge of the ban by Adalah, a group campaigning for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The Israeli judge said the courts would have to wait until financial sanctions are imposed on a state-funded institution before a legal case challenging the Nakba Law could proceed (“High court rejects NGOs’ petition against Nakba law,” +972 Magazine, 5 January 2012).

Arizona’s equivalent of the “Nakba Law” would potentially bar such actions as this week’s M.E.Ch.A.-SJP dramatic die-in, on grounds of Columbus’ “discovery” of America being perceived as a “day of mourning.”

Bound together in struggle

Next month, the second major national SJP conference will be held at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. History offers numerous role model examples for what is possible when student movements for social change in the US have organized themselves and consolidated national political power, from anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s to anti-sweatshop activism from the 1990s until the present day. People throughout the country have an opportunity to support the youth leading these efforts.

The SJP conference’s title and theme, “From local roots to nationwide branches: bridging student movements,” is intended as an affirmation rather than a wish list. Work on bridging student movements is already well under way, especially between SJP and MEChA.

At the 2012 national conference of M.E.Ch.A., held at Arizona State University last March, M.E.Ch.A. delegates, comprising the largest association of Latino youth groups in the US, made a landmark decision. The delegates voted to endorse the Palestinian-led global movement of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) on Israel until that state complies with codes of international law and justice for Palestinians (“National MEChA endorses Palestinian boycott call against Israel,” M.E.Ch.A., 30 March 2012).

At the national level, SJP and M.E.Ch.A. have bound themselves to each other’s struggle. With local actions like Monday’s Arizona die-in, the strong ties of both groups only tighten their embrace.

Columbus Day should not be celebrated because it led to European colonization, exploitation of the native population, genocide, and the Atlantic slave trade. Instead, let us celebrate the indigenous cultures with whom we share these lands. Let us insist on honest interpretations of history and bestow future generations of children with a more humane education.

Aman Aberra and Shifa Alkhatib are students of engineering and law respectively at Arizona State University. Gabriel Matthew Schivone is a steering committee member of the 2012 national Students for Justice in Palestine conference. The conference will be held in the University of Michigan on 2-4 November. For further information, see www.sjpnational.org.