Statement in solidarity with SAFE at University of Michigan

NYU Students for Justice in Palestine’s statement of solidarity with the University of Michigan’s Students Allied for Freedom and Equality and #UMDivest:

NYU Students for Justice in Palestine

Students for Justice in Palestine at NYU proudly commends Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) at University of Michigan for their courage and resilience in the face of repression. Last week, SAFE proposed a resolution to divest university assets from companies profiting from Israel’s systemic oppression of Palestinians. The resolution was co-signed by a broad base of 36 student organizations, including the Michigan Student Union, the Black Student Union, Amnesty International, and United Students Against Sweatshops. Still, the Central Student Government moved to indefinitely postpone discussion of divestment. Despite mass student support, advocates of postponement claimed that the resolution was too “divisive” to merit a vote.

In response, students launched a sit-in to demand accountability from the Central Student Government. We fully support SAFE and their allies at University of Michigan in demanding that their student representatives respond to the ongoing violence committed by the state of Israel and its corporate collaborators abroad…

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Israel doesn’t have an image problem – it has a reality problem

In his address to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took special care to condemn the growing international movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

As frequent readers of this blog will recall, BDS has three core demands: an end to Israel’s illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; an end to ethnic discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel; and recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.

In short, the goal of BDS is the nonviolent dismantling of Israeli apartheid, a system of segregation and discriminatory laws that (not just in the Occupied Territories, but also in Israel proper) guarantees special rights for Jews, at the expense of an indigenous population. As I’ve written previously, BDS provides a crucial alternative to the rigged “peace process”, in which the rights of the majority of Palestinians are not even on the table, and which serves only as a cover for Israel’s continued construction of Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land.

Mentioning BDS no less than 18 times, Netanyahu argued that the acronym really stands for “Bigotry, Dishonesty, and Shame”, and that “those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned. The boycotters should be boycotted.”

It’s not a coincidence that attacks on the movement have intensified as its successes begin to mount: Israeli politicians and businesspeople are increasingly warning of the threat BDS poses to the Israeli economy should the “peace process” continue indefinitely. And not without reason: In 2013, the economic boycott of settlement products by businesses, unions, churches, and other groups – primarily in Europe – cost Israel around $29 million in agricultural exports from the West Bank’s Jordan Valley. The government of Turkey has already cut all military ties with Israel, and South Africa has instructed its ministers not to travel there.

In a few short months, BDS has become a mainstream political issue in the US: One notable symptom of this trend is the unprecedented scrutiny and criticism actress Scarlett Johansson faced for her decision to resign as Global Ambassador for Oxfam in order to continue as Global Ambassador for illegal settlement profiteer Sodastream. But as I’ve pointed out on this blog, the most active battleground for Palestine solidarity in the US is the college campus.

It was in academia that, in December, the recent media coverage and debate surrounding BDS was kicked off by the national organization for academics in the field of American Studies. In a historic decision that prompted hysterical backlash from Israel’s apologists in the US, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted by a 2:1 margin to endorse the academic boycott of Israel, which targets Israeli institutions (not, as some critics claim, individuals) that have not spoken out against their government’s policies.

In response to the ASA vote, legislation has been introduced in New York, Maryland, Illinois, and at the federal level that would cut off government funding to academic groups that endorse BDS. These bills would effectively punish academics for publicly supporting BDS – they’re an assault on free speech and anathema to academic freedom in the US.

But this wave of political repression also impacts the efforts of students who are involved in Palestine solidarity work on our campuses. As I wrote in February, the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups spend millions every year on lobbying and propaganda to suppress Palestine solidarity in the West. More and more, that money is poured into efforts to suppress the activities of student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP, an organization of which I am a member).

Across the country, students have led campaigns to pressure their schools to divest from companies complicit in the occupation. In the past several weeks, the student governments at UC Irvine and Loyola Chicago have both passed divestment resolutions, adding to a list that already includes UC Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Under every version of the anti-BDS legislation proposed thus far, if the administration of a public university acts on a non-binding divestment resolution passed by the student government, the university could lose its funding for an entire year.

While this legislative threat looms ahead, solidarity activists are already facing political repression of a sort rarely (if ever) experienced by other student groups, no matter how left-wing. Last month, the SJP chapter at Northeastern University was suspended for distributing mock eviction notices (a direct action meant to call attention to Israel’s routine demolitions of Palestinian homes).

Justifying its decision, the university administration claimed that SJP had put up the notices without approval – a feeble excuse, since students distribute unapproved flyers at Northeastern (and at every other campus) every day. On March 18, more than 200 activists and their allies (including from other SJPs and over 30 Northeastern student groups) marched in protest of NU SJP’s ongoing suspension.

That same week, at the SJP chapter at the University of Michigan (called Students Allied for Freedom and Equality or SAFE) succeeded in bringing their divestment resolution to the floor of the Central Student Government. The resolution had the support of a coalition of 36 UM student organizations, including the Michigan Student Union, the Black Student Union, Amnesty International, and United Students Against Sweatshops.

Still, in an unprecedented decision, the CSG moved to table discussion of the bill indefinitely, frustrating the activists and their supporters who had turned up in record numbers to support divestment. Refusing to be silenced, SAFE and its allies occupied the chambers of the CSG (rechristened the Edward Said Lounge), demanding increased transparency and a vote on the resolution.

I was lucky enough to be in Ann Arbor (for an unrelated reason) the next week, on March 26th, the very night that the CSG – responding to the sit-in – reconsidered the bill. The turnout was a record for CSG meetings, a testament to SAFE’s efforts to publicize their campaign and build coalitions with potential allies. As only the first 500 people made it into the CSG’s makeshift chambers in the Michigan Union ballroom, I (having broken away from a dinner with grad students) watched the livestream of the meeting with SAFE members and allies in the occupied Lounge.

Community speakers in opposition to the resolution stuck to the official Zionist talking points: smear the (predominantly Middle Eastern) BDS activists as violent; claim that “singling out” Israel for criticism is motivated by anti-Semitism; refer repeatedly to the equal responsibility of “both sides”; paint BDS as a threat to “peace” and “dialogue”. But as one of the bill’s authors pointed out, far from shutting down “dialogue”, SAFE’s divestment campaign has led to more dialogue about Israel-Palestine and BDS than there ever was before. After a grueling five hours of discussion, around 1:45 am, the student government showed its cowardice by voting down divestment by secret ballot, 25-9 (with 5 abstentions).

Student representatives argued the divestment resolution was too “divisive”, but what I witnessed before, during, and after the meeting suggests that BDS’s radical demand for justice unites more than it divides: SAFE’s initiative drew mass support by reaching out not only to other social justice and political groups but also to cultural organizations like the Black Student Union and the Muslim Student Association. It’s only through forging bonds of trust and responsibility that parallel struggles become shared struggles.

That’s what the Israeli government and its defenders fear most: that the struggle of Palestinians against apartheid should become inseparably linked to struggles for freedom and justice around the world. They chalk up the increasing momentum of Palestine solidarity to Israel’s “image problem”, which they attempt to correct by pouring 100 million shekels into lobbying and propaganda overseas. Despite those efforts, the issue of BDS has, since December, moved forward more quickly than anyone expected. In some instances, activists themselves are only now starting to catch up. How can that be?

The answer is that Israel doesn’t actually have an image problem. Israel has a reality problem: the reality that the work of activists, journalists, and academics is undermining blind support for Israel, even in the belly of the beast; the reality that there are 5 million Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – and they want their rights.

The Anti-Defamation League’s profile of yours truly

Everyone needs a little encouragement now and then: A friend of mine has discovered that the Anti-Defamation League is keeping tabs on little old me. The ADL’s stated purpose is to combat anti-Semitism in the US, but the group often departs from that mission in order to undermine criticism of Israel by smearing pro-Palestinian activists and intellectuals as bigots.

Tellingly, the ADL found nothing anti-Semitic or factually incorrect in any of my commentaries for Iran’s Press TV. The profile actually gives a fairly accurate account of my arguments – but not before implying my guilt-by-association with the English-language news network and its inexcusable (if unwitting) history of confusing genuine anti-Semites in the West – like former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke – with principled critics of Zionism and Israeli policy.

A couple of media interviews with me

I was on Iran’s Press TV this past week discussing US public opinion about the War on Terror – you can watch that clip here.

I also returned to the Progressive Radio Network with a couple of my SJP comrades to talk BDS and Israeli apartheid for a full hour – stream or download here (interview starts at around minute 7:45).

Reflections on building coalitions and grand narratives

It’s been a month since I announced my hiatus from updating this blog, so I’d like to resume by saying a few words about what I’ve been up to.

Since the beginning of April, liaisons from social justice-oriented groups at NYU, as well as liaisons from Cooper Union and the New School, began planning a student convergence on May Day in New York City. The idea was to stage our own student actions before joining the citywide rally and march as part of the student contingent. As the May Day liaison for NYU Students for Justice in Palestine, I helped form a coalition of groups ranging from Students for Economic Justice to Student Labor Action Movement to Dream Team. The role of each liaison was twofold: to help shape the plan of action, and to reach out to fellow group members (and any other contacts) to make sure people showed up on May Day.

In the end, we settled on a three-part plan. First, there was an NYU-specific convergence and speakout in Washington Square Park (at the heart of NYU’s campus) in which representatives from the various groups and initiatives took turns speaking about their cause and current projects. We then marched to Cooper Square for a citywide student convergence in solidarity with the students and faculty of Cooper Union, who are fighting back in spectacular fashion against the ending of free tuition by the school’s board of trustees. From there, we marched to form the student contingent of the citywide convergence, which took the streets in a march for labor and immigration rights from Union Square to City Hall.

Our speakout was invigorating. We drew a respectable number of people in the middle of Washington Square Park on a crowded, warm, sunny day. A couple of professors even brought their classes to attend. Our orators were spirited, and our crowd was not so much an audience as they were active participants: Although I was familiar with the practice of the “people’s mic”, I got to experience firsthand how truly empowering it is for everyone involved.

The atmosphere at the student convergence, which also included students from Columbia and CUNY, was electric. The rally at Cooper Square wasn’t just a chance for social justice groups to show solidarity with the students of Cooper Union: It was also a chance for students to rally around their opposition to a corporate system that prices much of society out of education while burying others in debt. Indeed, it was an all-too-rare opportunity for students from different schools to talk and make connections. The student contingent at the citywide meetup was considerably more difficult to manage, due in no small part to police attempts to split up the march – not to mention the sheer size of the convergence at Union Square, which also included labor unions, immigrant rights groups, and Occupy Wall Street.

Although several groups stopped sending liaisons to the coalition meetings after May Day, others stayed on to plan an NYU day of action slated for mid-May. At the same time, SJP began to discuss a Nakba Day direct action on May 15, the day on which Palestinians and the solidarity movement commemorate the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes by Zionist settler militias. The importance of the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) is that it’s not just a historical event: Israel’s founding violence is ongoing, and the displacement of Palestinians from their land continues in the form of Israeli state policies. I came to the coalition meeting intending to ask the other liaisons for support on the day of our action. When it became clear that the NYU day of action would fall on or around Nakba Day, I went a step further and proposed that the Nakba action actually figure as part of the coalition’s larger plan.

To my delight (and admittedly, surprise), our coalition partners were fully on board, and helped immeasurably in brainstorming and piecing together the most creative and effective direct action I’ve ever been a part of. I mention my surprise because the Palestinian struggle appears far removed, both geographically and in terms of scale, from the efforts of students and communities in the US to organize against tuition, debt, gentrification, and so on. The problem facing us was the problem facing the left today: In the absence of a grand narrative of liberation, a universal struggle that ties our fates to those of others, the strategy of power to “divide and conquer” has become a fact of life. The job of the left in the postmodern era is to find ways of forging alliances between different struggles in ways that do justice to the urgency and uniqueness of each.

There was no way around the issue. Our partners and I agreed that if our goal was to continue the coalition past May Day, with a mind towards reigniting the student movement, the NYU day of action couldn’t just be about Palestine. May 15 (the last day of Cooper Union’s semester) was also the date of a solidarity rally with Cooper students. The most obvious red thread running through the actions planned for May 15 was the image of the “global 1%”, which denies the human rights of education and housing to the mass of people. The caveat, of course, is that the way Palestinians are denied basic rights, the sheer violence of their oppression exceeds what most Americans can even imagine. Our messaging, while seeking to universalize the Palestinian cause in a way that US students could identify with, would have to maintain a healthy sense of proportion.

Since May 15 is the height of finals week, our action couldn’t be a march or demonstration that would depend on a huge student turnout. Instead, we were going to have to be gutsy and theatrical. Tactically, we had to create a momentary disturbance that would be visually striking – and not likely to be forgotten. Our motif, after some debate, was to be keys: Many of those who fled or were driven from their homes during the Nakba (and who remain in exile, barred from returning by racist policies) still have their keys.

The action went down like this: We dropped giant cardboard keys from different floors of NYU’s Bobst Library and did a mic check in the lobby. My friend Shafeka, in her brief address, decried the support of the US government, media, and population for Israeli state repression. She also called attention to NYU’s investment in corporations that profit from the brutal occupation of the Palestinian territories, investments SJP is organizing to end. On the floor, we spread a banner explaining our purpose and the meaning of the keys. The building is constructed such that virtually everyone in the lobby could see and hear us. For a few minutes, we brought the bustling hive of Bobst to a virtual standstill. Having caused quite a stir, we then dispersed and reassembled outside for a speakout.

Both actions were wildly successful in disturbing a public sphere usually devoid of political expression. Both actions would have been impossible without the handful of coalition partners who lent us their bodies, voices, and visual presence. On May 15, I got a glimpse of what can tie all emancipatory struggles together in an age of fragmentation and cynicism. What unites us is not just what divides us. If that were so, then all struggles really would be the same. They’re not. But they are connected. Do the words “the left” mean anything anymore? It’s up to us to decide.

A new century and a new globalized capitalism must change our methods, but never our sense of purpose. The words of one famous radical, long since Santa Clausified by the establishment, still ring true: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” The oppression of Palestinians may not impact the daily activities of students at NYU or Cooper Union. But whether we know it or not, it weighs heavily on who we are and how we resist.