Activism and protest have long been a part of a student’s passage through university. From fighting for women’s right to vote, to equal rights for African Americans; from standing up to dictatorship in China to the global movement against South African apartheid – all of these historic popular movements succeeded in part due to the large number of students and others involved in higher education making their voices heard.
Such activism is particularly pertinent in today’s pro-Palestinian movement and its counterpart pro-Zionist movement spreading like wildfire across campuses all over the world, especially in countries traditionally sympathetic to the Zionist state, such as Britain and the United States. Pro-Palestinian student activism on campuses is closely linked with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which aims to take civil action against Israel similar to that taken against apartheid South Africa three decades ago.
Historically, universities have always been bastions of freedom of speech, civil liberties and human rights, and this usually permeates across all levels of the academic hierarchy. This was noticeable clearly in recent action taken by university students in America, Britain and Israel itself. For example, at the beginning of November, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Arizona State University (ASUSJP) held a silent protest against an Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldier speaking on the “Spirit and Ethics of the IDF“. This protest followed similar action at the University of Michigan, where two IDF soldiers came to speak as part of a national public relations campaign by “Stand with Us”, which according to protest organisers is a campaign “aimed at justifying Israel’s recent atrocities in the Middle East”.
In an exclusive interview with MEMO, the organisers of both protests were asked about their motivations and how they have since been perceived by their peers: “The purpose of our protest was to express our discontent with allowing representatives of a military that has been consistently condemned for its human rights abuses, to use our educational institutions as a platform to progress its public relations campaign,” said Ahmad Hasan, a student organiser from the University of Michigan. “[They] attempt to justify actions that have been clearly deemed as illegal and unjust.” Moreover, said Danielle Bäck, the media representative from ASUSJP, “[The protest gave] a voice to Palestinian citizens who have been silenced by IDF policy.” In a video of the event, students were seen putting tape over their mouths and wearing t-shirts with pictures of those killed in atrocities perpetrated by the IDF.
One of the IDF soldiers claimed in the video that “[the enemy]…does not follow the rules of the Geneva conventions and does not follow any moral codes”. Bäck exclaims, “It is a contradiction for a representative from the IDF to speak about ethics when the IDF has been continually accused of human rights violations and war crimes by the United Nations.” What is obvious to these students is obviously not so clear to supposedly more mature IDF members: occupying another people’s land, the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem, the use of white phosphorous against civilians, the continued siege against 1.5 million people and many more atrocities for which Israel is responsible are all against international and humanitarian law.
The pro-Palestinian movement has been gaining steady momentum in student bodies and educational institutes in the West, especially after the most recent atrocities. According to Hasan, student activism in America on this issue has been increasing mainly due to “awareness… increasing over time [which has] recently reached a threshold where a lot of Americans either know the basics of what is going on or are interested in learning more”. Ironically, the most effective awareness raising has been carried out directly by Israel’s actions, such as Operation Cast Lead and the attack on the Freedom Flotilla; these, say Hasan, have “stirred up controversy within the States”. In addition, claims Bäck, “more and more Americans disagree with the United States’ unconditional and one-sided support for Israel, yet are seeing the United States continue to fund Israel human rights abuses: the Gaza massacre, the attacks on the Freedom Flotilla, and the occupation in Israel and Palestine”. The work of student-based organisations such as SJP and community-based organisation Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which has been running successful outreach programmes and protesting against the status quo, all challenge the Israel lobby.
And how did their peers react? “They have been overwhelmingly supportive of the impetus, methodology and execution of the protest,” says Danielle Bäck, adding that the pro-Zionist organisers of the IDF event critiqued ASUSJP for being “disruptive”, “[but] if you look at the video footage, you’ll see that this was the most civil protest we could possibly do – we don’t even say a single word against the soldier!” Ahmad Hasan claimed the same sort of feedback from fellow students, university faculty members and local community members: “They were all positive… people were particularly inspired with our ability to send a powerful, proactive message using non-violent, ‘orderly conduct’ methods.” He suggests that the lack of any reaction from the pro-Zionist movement on campus was most likely because of the “irrefutable” manner of the protest: “There really wasn’t a way to delegitimize our action; we did not disrupt the event or the speaker.”
In Britain over the past few years, student activism has taken the form of campus ‘occupations‘ at universities in London, Manchester and elsewhere; walk-outs, direct protests and demonstrations have also been held against Israeli actions and policies.
However, the pro-Zionist movement has also been trying to gain momentum, at home and abroad, putting pressure on student bodies and universities to equate any form of protest against Israel with anti-Semitism. At a recent controversial University of Cambridge debate club session, a second year law student, Gabriel Latner, was invited to speak for the motion that ‘Israel is a rogue state‘. Having been interviewed by the debate club and then accepted as a speaker, Latner – who had worked for a pro-Israeli think-tank – broke the house rules by arguing against the motion. His intention was, apparently, to mislead the club about his beliefs in order to defeat the motion. Hence, not only did the opposition win the debate (described by the pro-Israel media as “an important PR achievement”), but Latner also verbally abused his co-speaker for the motion and refused to apologise. The president of the Palestinian society commented, “The Union president has said… that they cannot vet the speakers’ speeches. While this is true, I am sure that the Union president is more than capable of typing Gabriel Latner into Google.” A “PR achievement” indeed, but how this translates into more support for the Zionist cause is still to be seen.
In recent months, many Israeli establishments, such as Be’er Shiva’s Ben-Gurion University have come under tremendous scrutiny by right-wingers who claim that they are a “breeding ground for anti-Zionist protagonists and leftists”, calling Israeli-Jewish protesters “self-hating” and “bastions of anti-Zionism“. Ben-Gurion University has been threatened with the withdrawal of funds if it does not have more right-wing pro-Zionist lecturers and departments, with the Israeli Education Minister hoping to influence the academic freedom that universities currently enjoy.
Zionist supporters have long had a firm hold on political activism in the West, including Britain and the US, but it seems that the times they are a changing; in America, as Danielle Bäck suggests, there is a visible “shift in… [the] perception of the Israel-Palestine conflict, especially among the younger generations”. This view is shared by activists worldwide. As more facts about Israel emerge, with images of the destruction inflicted upon Palestinians by Israel easily accessible in the media, it is becoming harder to turn a blind eye to the daily oppression maintained by the Israeli occupation. As with previous solidarity movements, it is the younger generation, “stand[ing] up for human dignity and for equal rights” that is bringing this “rogue state” to account. As Ahmad Hasan puts it emphatically: “Together we can achieve much more… and what better way to start an international movement than with us, the youth?”
The activists’ full interview with MEMO
Samira Quraishy: Student activism for Palestine is gaining momentum in the West – why do you think this is?
Danielle Bäck: I think it’s because there is a growing frustration with the current state of affairs. It’s been 62 years since Israel was declared a state and the Palestinians are still without a nation of their own. Additionally, more and more Americans disagree with the United States’ unconditional and one-sided support for Israel, yet are seeing the United States continue to fund Israeli human rights abuses: the Gaza Massacre, the attack on the Freedom Flotilla, and the occupation in Israel and Palestine. It’s also important to note that activism for human rights is also growing within the American Jewish community; the protesters who defied Netanyahu in Georgia and the members of Jewish Voice for Peace who joined us in protest are evidence of this growing dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Ahmad Hasan: I believe that student activism, specifically towards the Israeli-Palestine conflict, has been gaining a lot of momentum in the United States for a number of reasons:
- Awareness has been increasing gradually among Americans, and I think it has reached the stage where a lot of Americans either know the basics of what is going on or are interested in learning more.
- Recent atrocities (Operation Cast Lead and the attack on the Freedom Flotilla) have stirred up controversy within the States.
- Student-based organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and community-based organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have been able to reach out effectively to Americans and raise awareness about the conflict.
SQ: What was the purpose of your protest?
AH: We wanted to express our discontent with allowing representatives of a military that has been condemned consistently for its human rights abuses to use our educational institutions as a platform to push its public relations campaign and attempt to justify actions that have been clearly deemed as illegal and unjust.
DB: It was to give a voice to Palestinian civilians who have been silenced by IDF policy. We also felt obligated to protest against the IDF soldier who was visiting ASU to speak about “The Ethics of the IDF”. It is a contradiction for a representative from the IDF to speak about ethics when the IDF has been accused continually of human rights violations and war crimes by the United Nations. In fact, the United Nations investigation by Richard Goldstone, a former South African judge and first-chief prosecutor for war crimes in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, found that “the assault was designed to humiliate and terrorize a civilian population”. Amnesty International labelled the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead as “22 days of death and destruction”. The IDF’s use of disproportionate force is also stunning; according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 1,417 Palestinians were killed by the IDF; 926 of these casualties were civilians.
SQ: What has been the response from your peers?
DB: They have been overwhelmingly supportive of the impetus, methodology and execution of the protest. I think this is telling us of a shift in the American perception of the Israel-Palestine conflict, especially among the younger generations.
AH: We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from our fellow students, faculty and local community members. Most people were particularly inspired with our ability to send a powerful, proactive message using non-violent, “orderly conduct” methods. Consequently, we have seen a rise in international solidarity and hope to see the momentum translate into a movement on college campuses worldwide.
SQ: Have there been any challenges from the pro-Zionist movement?
DB: The pro-Zionist movement on campus is small and close-knit. They tend to be more reactive to our protests and events and favour issuing statements to the media over direct action. Of course, they have critiqued us for being “disruptive” of their event, but if you look at the video footage, you’ll see that this was the most civil protest we could possibly do — we don’t even say a single word against the soldier!
AH: For the most part, there hasn’t been any opposition from the pro-Zionist movement. I think this is because there really wasn’t a way to delegitimize our action; we did not disrupt the event or the speaker. This was important because many times, demonstrations for social justice are targeted by their methodology and not their message, which results in a delegitimized protest for an otherwise just cause.
SQ: Why choose silent protest over other forms; how effective do you think it is?
DB: Silent protest was extremely effective for this event. Although a more disruptive approach may be necessary in some scenarios (for example, the Jewish Voice for Peace protest against Netanyahu), the symbolism behind our silence was powerful. We were standing up for the civilians silenced by IDF policy, we had duct-tape over our mouths to represent them being silenced, and we remained silent during the entire event. Thus, we acted in solidarity to project a unified message of resistance to other people at the event and people worldwide who have watched our video.
AH: This form of protest was not only irrefutable but was also modelled on similar successful protests used in movements such as that of the civil rights, centred around the principle of non-violence.
SQ: What is your message to those trying to counter the pro-Palestinian movement?
DB: We are trying to send this message: you cannot silence human rights abuses. As students, we will continue to stand up for human dignity and for equal rights in Israel and Palestine. We are also growing as a force on campuses nationwide. The first silent protest was at University of Michigan, and then we followed with our protest at Arizona State University. We are also working directly with other universities to help them plan similar protests on campuses nationwide.
AH: Our message is clear: whenever representatives of the Israel Defence Forces use our educational institutions to try and whitewash their war crimes, they will be challenged by truth, justice and non-violence.
SQ: Some claim that your movement (not yours particularly – but the whole anti-Zionist/Anti-Israel movement) is fuelling anti-Semitism; what’s your response to that accusation?
DB: There is a major difference between being against the policies of the Israeli government that lead to human rights abuses, and being an anti-Semite. We protested against the actions of the Israeli government that led to human rights violations in Gaza and the West Bank, but none of us is an anti-Semite. Yet, too often, we see accusations of “anti-Semitism” hurled at human rights activists who are standing up for equal human rights and standards of international law.
AH: I’d like to state that our movement is not one of anti-anything. We are not a reactionary movement; rather, we are a “pro” movement for human rights, social justice and equality for the Palestinian people.
SQ: What would you advise other students who wish to carry out any form of protest or activism?
DB: It is important to be unified in the symbolism and methodology of the protest make sure that all of the protesters agree on what specifically you’re protesting against, how you intend to protest against it, and the message you hope to send through your protest. Moreover, be inspired by the knowledge that your protest will be part of a growing student-led campaign for justice and human rights. If you have any questions about protest organization, feel free to contact us through MEMO.
AH: Let us use this form of protest as a means to unite and stand in solidarity with one another. Together we can achieve much more than any one of us can individually, and what better way to start an international movement than with us, the youth?