By Zavi Engles
I have to admit—for most of my life, I had next to no knowledge, let alone an opinion on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Though my parents would occasionally tell me bits of news regarding a bombing here or an attack there, I filed away most of that information in a small corner of my brain reserved for depressing news that was ultimately of little consequence to my own life. Thankfully, my political consciousness started to awaken in high school, first from a burgeoning interest in animal rights and reproductive justice rights then progressing onto learning a more complex analysis of how various forms of oppression are inextricably connected to each other.
Once I began attending Pitzer, I became friends with a couple Palestinians and it was only after I met them that I began to realize how contentious the issue really is. We would meet other students on campus and the question “Where are you from?” would invariably follow. When my friends responded by saying that they were Palestinian, they would occasionally get responses such as “You mean the Occupied Territories?” or even “Do you mean Israel?” Witnessing such experiences, coupled with a few other instances of even more virulent harassment, awakened me to the emotional charge of the issue and inspired me to begin organizing.
Last week, the Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine, of which I am an active member, participated in Israeli Apartheid Week, an international campaign designed to educate the public about the ongoing discriminatory and internationally criminal actions of the Israeli government. We hosted a number of events including two documentary screenings, two lectures, and a street theatre performance designed to raise awareness about the IDF checkpoints that litter the Palestinian landscape.
Out of all of our events, the street theatre performance received the most attention. To kick off Israeli Apartheid Week, we assembled IDF checkpoint simulations at Pomona, Pitzer, and CMC on Monday, March 4th. That day, various SJP members and supporters acted as either IDF soldiers or Palestinians. The IDF soldiers would inform passing students that they were going through an IDF checkpoint simulation and request their IDs. The actors posing as Palestinians would occasionally be arrested or detained by the IDF soldiers. No one was stopped from passing through unless they had specifically consented to be a part of the performance.
Out of the three locations, Walker Wall at Pomona, the Pitzer Mounds, and CMC’s Collins Dining Hall, the latter elicited the strongest reactions. There has been much talk and publicity around the racist* verbal abuse towards an SJP member from a CMC professor that occurred at the last location, an incident that should be paid much attention and scrutiny. However, I’d like to address some of the negative responses that we received during and after the performance from students who felt that we were attacking Israeli people rather than raising awareness about the apartheid form of government that the Israeli and Palestinian people currently live under.
I’d like to begin by making some clarifications about the Students for Justice in Palestine and Israeli Apartheid Week. First, we make a clear distinction between the Israeli government that enacts and perpetuates the illegal occupation of Palestine and the general populace of Israel. And in case our checkpoint simulation didn’t convey this, we also denounce the systemic violence and harassment of the Israeli Defense Forces, which helps to enforce the apartheid system. Some may take issue with the word “apartheid” (a term that has been used to describe the Israeli state by the likes of Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela) and I encourage those who do to research the various discriminatory policies and illegal actions with just a few examples being: Jewish-only settlements, segregated roads and bus systems, a discriminatory marriage law that prevents Palestinians from obtaining Israeli citizenship through marriage, inequalities in infrastructure, Israeli military control over virtually all of the water and other natural resources in the West Bank and Gaza, and the constant restriction of Palestinian movement of which the most obvious example is the presence of IDF checkpoints. Describing Israel as an apartheid state does not equate it with the historical apartheid state of South Africa as some misunderstand but rather the classification is based on the UN definition of apartheid which is as follows: “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group…over another racial group…and systematically oppressing them.”
Some people took issue not with the title of our campaign but with how the checkpoint made them feel. And to those people I can only say that the checkpoint simulation was not designed to be a comfortable or fun event. It was a performance piece meant to provoke empathy and understanding for what ordinary Palestinians are forced to go through (often under much worse circumstances) on a daily basis. We also followed up our performance piece with other informative events and encouraged people to attend the documentary screening and discussion that we were hosting the same day in order to share their opinions on the issue and their experiences at the checkpoint simulations. Israeli Apartheid Week is not meant to be just an incendiary protest as some have implied—it is a campaign to show international solidarity in support of the Palestinian people, raise awareness about the occupation, and promote on-campus discussion regarding the issue. This was the first year that the Claremont SJP participated in Israeli Apartheid Week and to be honest, I’m incredibly pleased with how the campaign went, yes even the performance piece, because it made people think about an uncomfortable and complicated issue that is often warily regarded as too contentious to openly discuss.
Finally, I’d like to say that while we as the Students for Justice in Palestine focus on the plight of the Palestinian people, this does not mean that we want any one people’s justice at the expense of another’s. We firmly believe that none of us are truly free until everyone is. In other words, pro-Palestinian does not equal anti-Israeli and any attempts to conflate the two only serve to further polarize the issue and divide us. Oppression is complicated and it’s often uncomfortable to talk about. The more I learn about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the more I understand how inextricably linked oppression is across the globe—Ethiopian refugee women are injected with contraceptives without their knowledge or consent when they enter Israel, the two walls separating borders between Israel and Palestine and the United States and Mexico are being constructed by the same company, and both US and Indian police forces are trained by the IDF to crack down on protest here and in occupied Kashmir. I joined the Students for Justice in Palestine not to organize around a single issue, but for an entry point from which I could continue the fight against oppression of all kinds, in every part of the world.
*I describe this incident as racist because the professor called a Palestinian student a “cockroach” in addition to telling him to “fuck off” and there is much well-documented evidence regarding the use of the term “cockroach” to dehumanize and demean a perceived enemy. The historical context of the word cannot be overlooked—“cockroach” as an insult has been used specifically against the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, against the Jewish people under Nazi Germany, and against the Palestinian Arabs (with one particularly salient reference from the former Israeli Chief Army of Staff, Raphael Eitan, who compared Palestinians to “drugged cockroaches in a bottle”).