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'Palestine is closer to liberation now than ever before'

Momodou Taal, a Cornell University student, was suspended for his pro-Palestine activism tells MEMO how different it is to be pro-Palestinian supporter and a pro-Israel supporter: ‘No one is losing their job for being pro-Israel. But you are losing your job for being pro-Palestine.’

May 12, 2024 at 8:10 am

At the prestigious Cornell University, a strikingly picturesque Ivy League campus surrounded by expansive greenery, the resounding chants for the freedom of Palestine can be heard loud and clear.

Meet Momodou Taal, a second-year PhD student at Cornell from the United Kingdom, who has been temporarily suspended after leading a protest against Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza and demanding for the school to sever financial ties with the Occupying State.

“What has become abundantly clear is that pro-Palestinian speech isn’t glamorous. No one is losing their job for being pro-Israel, but you are losing your job for being pro-Palestine,” says Taal.

He expresses his disappointment at the University’s actions, noting that it has arbitrarily suspended four students in an attempt to bring down the encampment and undermine the protest movement.

“It’s highly disrespectful to dangle my future or visa status whilst being aware of my precarity and to think they can silence me or silence pro-Palestinian voices. It’s a shame,” Taal adds.

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Despite the risks involved, Taal remains steadfast in his commitment, reflecting: “There’s

no world in which, if I make it to 80 years old, where I’ll regret advocating too strongly for Palestine. The real regret would be not giving my all.”

On 18 April, students and academics who rejected the war on Gaza began a sit-in on the campus of Columbia University in New York, demanding the University administration stop its academic cooperation with Israeli universities and withdraw its investments in companies that support the Occupation of Palestinian Territories.

These efforts gained widespread recognition when over 100 protesters were arrested at Columbia University, inspiring students at other campuses to initiate similar encampments. The  movement spread globally with solidarity encampments being set up on the campuses of universities in France, Britain, Germany, Canada and India, all demanding a ceasefire and a boycott of companies that supply weapons to Israel.

The Gaza encampment, a novel form of protest, has reverberated far beyond campus grounds. It has captured global attention and drawn condemnation from the highest echelons of Israeli authority. Including Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who condemned the protests as “horrific” and “anti-Semitic”.

Taal views this as a testament to the weakening ideological grip of Zionism. “Zionism is the weakest it’s ever been ideologically because we understand, unfortunately, what Israel has done in the world. They have hollowed out the meaning of anti-Semitism to the detriment of several of my colleagues, who are anti-Zionist Jews and do not see their identity as intrinsically linked to Israel as a settler colony.”

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Highlighting the shifting narratives around anti-Zionism, he explains: “It is from a position of weakness that they can call everything anti-Semitic, because they know that it no longer has the hold it once did; they know that people are beginning to understand the differences between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.”

“We are glad that we have made this much noise, that the genocidal prime minister of Israel has caught attention. But we hope that whilst this caught his attention, we hope he will be saying these things in the future behind some bars after The Hague.”

The death toll from Israel’s war on Gaza climbed to more than 35,000, with the majority of victims being women and children.

Nearly 77,000 people have also been wounded, according to health authorities in Gaza. The figures exclude tens of thousands of dead who are believed to be buried in the bombed-out ruins of homes, shops, shelters and other buildings.

Taal described the situation following 7 October as the start of a sustained campaign on campus as this iteration of the Gaza solidarity encampment, he says, represents one instance of ongoing escalations in our efforts.

“We’ve come to recognise that Cornell University is complicit in this genocide due to their divestment practices and partnerships. Some of the unmanned drones used in house demolitions and settlement creation are linked to Cornell’s partnerships with Technion and other weapon manufacturers.”

“We’ve tried to raise the concern. We’ve made a lot of noise on campus by way of rallies, sit-ins and occupations. People have been arrested on campus, but we still had a historic referendum in which over 5,000 students voted for divestment and permanent ceasefire. The result of that referendum has gone to the President of the University, and she has 30 days to respond but, as we have said, we can wait 30 days but the Palestinians cannot wait 30 days.”

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Growing up as a British Muslim with Gambian roots, the centrality of Palestine within Taal’s religious worldview catalysed a profound connection. This connection, he explains, deepened with time, evolving alongside his intellectual growth and exposure to decolonial literature.

However, the turning point came following the brutal killing of George Floyd by a US police officer in 2020. The murder and the protest movements that followed made Taal observe the similarities between Israeli tactics and systematic oppression imposed by the US to defame, discredit and abuse protesters.

“I remember the Black Spring of 2020, with the murder of George Floyd, of activists drawing the connections between the manner in which George Floyd was killed as a typical Israeli Occupation Forces tactic. Palestinians online were advising black protesters how to alleviate the conditions of the tear gas because they had recognised the company in which the police were using the tear gas”

He adds, “So, constantly reading about decolonisation and experiencing all these things kept on reaffirming to me the importance of Palestinian cause.”

In response, displaced Palestinians in Gaza have been expressing their thanks to student protesters on US college campuses for their activism by writing messages of gratitude on their tents in Rafah.

This acknowledgment moved Taal to tears, reinforcing his commitment and the impact of their actions, as he emphasises that their actions are not independent but rather aligned with the struggles and aspirations of those in Gaza.

He says, “We don’t never want to be speaking for people in Gaza, but we want to be speaking with them, and that acknowledgement was just a form of motivation to carry on, but also to remember that you are having an impact.”

Ultimately, Taal sees this moment as a testament to the enduring relevance of the Palestinian cause, which he believes is now closer to liberation than ever before. He asserts that it is not a question of if, but when Palestine will achieve freedom.

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