Tearing down Israel’s apartheid

October 16, 2012

Katrina Bacome describes a Palestine solidarity action at the University of Toledo.

ON A chilly fall day, organizers from the University of Toledo branch of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) blockaded a large section of one of the campus's busiest walkways as a protest against the apartheid policies of Israel.

The mock Israeli checkpoint is just one of many techniques that student Palestine solidarity activists have been employing to build a dialogue about the separate and unequal treatment as well as brutal repression Palestinian people are subject to under Israeli occupation.

A spray-painted wall leaves a small walkway in the middle, where a man in fatigues asks you for your identification, what religion you are, where your family was from, or what you're on your way to.

This minor disruption in the day of a college student is a step to opening a dialogue about the life-and-death consequences in Gaza and the West Bank. These tactics have been so successful, in fact, that Israel's lobbyists have taken careful aim at the organizations which use them.

On August 28, the California Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution, HR 35, which rather plainly states that criticism of Israel is "anti-Semitic." Among many other restrictions on free speech, the language for HR 35 targets students who do work with organizations like SJP:

Whereas the United States Commission on Civil Rights reported in 2006 that anti-Semitism exists on some college campuses and is often cloaked as criticism of Israel, and recommended that colleges and universities ensure that students are protected from actions that could create a hostile anti-Semitic environment

The resolution claims further discrimination against Jewish students in the form of:

speakers, films, and exhibits sponsored by student, faculty and community groups that engage in anti-Semitic discourse or use anti-Semitic imagery and language to falsely describe Israel, Zionists and Jews, including that Israel is a racist, apartheid or Nazi state, that Israel is guilty of heinous crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing and genocide

In the state where SJP originated, it remains to be seen what long-term effect this non-binding resolution will have, but one thing is for certain--solidarity activists are determined to bring the facts to light. Encouraging college campuses to limit the free speech rights of students does not eliminate the truth. Resolutions cannot force us to abandon our principles.

Movements like Jewish Voice for Peace have made it clear that Jewish people refuse to allow Israel to deprive Palestinians of land, food, water, education and medical services in their names. Fierce activism from student organizations such as SJP and the Muslim Students Association are continually finding innovative ways to bring this struggle to their campuses and communities. The recent New York session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine sought to prevent the "crime of silence" by exposing the apartheid policies of Israel.

The opposition is on the offensive because more people are beginning to understand the truth. In the information age, it is impossible to cover up all the abuses of the Israeli government. It is up to us to bring this debate to the table and stand strong against those who would rather we remain silent.

In campuses across the country, activists are doing just that.

THE UNIVERSITY of Toledo branch of SJP--with the support of student groups such as the Latino Student Union, the African People's Association and the Student African American Brotherhood--constructed an apartheid wall to demonstrate to classmates that this inconvenience is just a tiny fraction of what Palestinians deal with on a daily basis.

Originally painted a slate gray, Students for Justice in Palestine members encouraged onlookers and participants to use cans of spray paint to cover the structure in graffiti. In the meantime, volunteers used the opportunity to convey some quick facts and entice passersby into detailed conversations about the meaning of apartheid, the definition of ethnic cleansing and the eternal land grab perpetrated by illegal Israeli settlements.

For some volunteers at the apartheid wall, Palestine is an issue that is close to home, because it used to be home. When Butheina Hamdah and her sister Shahrazad, both active members of SJP and organizers for the apartheid wall project, spoke to people about the difficulty of living under Israeli occupation, they spoke from personal experience. Butheina described the situation:

I'm Palestinian-American, my family lived in a suburb of East Jerusalem and anywhere we wanted to travel basically we had to travel through a checkpoint. We'd pass the wall depending on what direction we went. It's literally a modern-day form of discrimination and separation of two peoples.

When we think about segregation we often think about what happened between Blacks and whites in the United States, or those who have a broader worldview would think about South Africa, and what black South Africans endured, but they don't understand that something possibly even more severe at this point is happening to the Palestinian people...It's dividing Palestinians and Israelis, it's an illegal form of collective punishment, has no proportionate justification, and it's immoral. I couldn't put it any other way--it's truly racist. You're discriminated against for nothing other than your nationality, your ethnicity.

The discussion soon turned toward the problems at UC Berkeley, HR 35 and the labeling of solidarity activism as anti-Semitic. When asked for her response to such accusations, Butheina gestured to the mock checkpoint and smiled:

Well, take a look at it. There is nothing with regards to the Jewish population. Arabs are Semitic people as well--we know that. There is nothing anti-Jewish here, we're protesting human rights violations and atrocities and basically illegal activity conducted by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and the government.

[Israeli land grabs] are absolutely illegal. They're not condoned by anyone, not even the annex of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is condoned by any member of the international community. Anything remotely critical of Israel is always dismissed as anti-Semitic because it's an easy generalization to make, but I disagree completely. I think we are simply a pro-active group.

From 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., volunteers handed out pamphlets, maps and fliers, taking plenty of time to answer questions and stir debate. Students calmly and efficiently dealt with criticism, steering the discussion away from flashy rhetoric and back to the facts. Regardless of political position, when confronted with hard statistics about the unavailability of food, water, education and basic medical care the appeal to our basic humanity is triggered. That humanity is universal, it reaches across artificial divides and into the very heart of us.

Lakshmi Radhakrishnan, an international student studying at the University of Toledo, felt such an appeal to her humanity. When Butheina introduced Lakshmi to Students for Justice in Palestine, she could identify the connection between the struggle of the Palestinian people and the situation in her home in Kashmir:

The injustice the Palestinians are suffering is very close to home, because I feel like the same situation exists in Kashmir and no one pays any attention to it. It's really sad because people are dying everyday--millions of people are dying, kids are dying--and no one cares. People just--it's almost nonchalance.

I can't do anything for Kashmir because there's not much attention, you know, that's given to Kashmir. So Palestine is like my baby now. There's a lot of military in Kashmir--people are trying to live their lives, and should be able to live their lives--but there's a lot of military. Everyday people are cooped up in their houses, police are always on the streets, there's bombs going off all over the place. Innocent children are killed, children are picked off the street, and the next time you find them they've got their nails clawed out.

So that's the amount of suppression and oppression that the people of Kashmir are going through, and I thought, "It's the same situation in Palestine." The government is doing everything they can to oppress the people and keep them tied down-- it's almost like they're not letting them breathe.

And it's really sad because these people have every right to go to work, and get married, to have lives--to have fulfilling lives--and they're not allowed those basic rights of life because they're geographically located in a war zone.

I think everyone's your people. Just because you were not born in a certain place or you were not born of a certain color, that does not make them separate from you. You could have been born Black, you could have been born Palestinian, you could have been born Jewish and had the Holocaust and been killed.

Just because you're not in that place, you're in a better place, you should take the power that you have and help these people.

AS THE day wound down, there was a certain sense of victory in the air. The campus had been busy, and many people has taken fliers or taken the time to debate and discuss. Though cold, tired, and worn-out from the day's demonstration, SJP members were optimistic about the future. Momentum is ratcheting up for the student group; keeping active and informed is key.

As a closing ceremony, the group decided to demolish this apartheid wall where it stood. Young Muslim women in hijabs and keffiyas--who had posed in front of the mock checkpoint hours earlier handcuffed, gagged, and blindfolded--now took part in destroying this symbol of oppression with a hammer pulled out of a book bag.

As SJP members dismantled the structure of drywall and wood, we mused about the day when we'd get to see this happen for real. When the apartheid wall will fall and the Palestinian people will be liberated.

It won't be the result of one campus demonstration, but rather it will be the collective effort of the entire Palestine solidarity movement that gets us there.

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