Shifting views on Palestinian issue on US college campuses
WASHINGTON - In the Arab world, parents used to discourage their children from political activism. Political dissenters could end up in jail, disappear or facing constant harassment. So when Arabs migrated to the United States, many continued to discourage their children — even if they are US born and American citizens — from participating in politics.
This was the case with Leila Abdul Razzaq, an Arabic studies major at DePaul University in Chicago who comes from a family of Palestinian refugees. Her father grew up in Lebanon and much of her father’s family still lives there. Like many second- or third-generation Arab-Americans, Abdul Razzaq is defying her parents’ wishes and taking part in activism for the Palestinian cause.
“Students I’ve spoken with said their parents are really hesitant to let them get involved,” said Nora Barrows- Friedman, author of In Our Power: U.S. Students Organize for Justice in Palestine and associate editor of the Electronic Intifada, an online publication focusing on Palestinian issues.
Despite family pressure to avoid political activity, Barrows-Friedman said, “You see students of Palestinian heritage very candidly, personally and intimately telling stories about their family’s fight for their homeland, so that’s become this really inherently important topic of discussion among second or third generation refugee families in the US.”
Barrows-Friedman interviewed Abdul Razzaq and 62 other students of various backgrounds from 30 universities about their activism and involvement in groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Open Hillel and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP).
Among them were not only the children of Arab immigrants but increasing numbers of young Jewish Americans. The Open Hillel Movement, for example, seeks to establish “alternative” Jewish centres on college campuses to compete with the traditional Hillel centres, which strictly toe the line on support for Israel. JVP has more than 200,000 “likes” on Facebook, twice as many as the pro-Israel powerhouse lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Many other young people of neither Jewish nor Arab heritage, have adopted the Palestinian cause because of their involvement in other rights-based activism.
In fact, academics and former members of such groups have noted a surge in participation in these groups.
Laila Mokhiber, an alumna of the SJP chapter at George Mason University in northern Virginia, has experienced this first hand. “I was on the SJP board in college and have seen a huge change in campus activism since then,” she said.
“I think that shift broadens every year with Palestine activism, discussion of human rights, and violations by Israel against Palestinians,” said Barrows-Friedman. “Those discussions are becoming more mainstream especially on college campuses but in general as well.”
There are two main reasons for this shift:
The first is the redrawing of the Palestinian cause as a human rights and justice-based issue, as opposed to a conflict. In the past, Americans would often side with Israel by default, seeing it as a beacon of democracy in an Arab world plagued by poverty, corruption and authoritarianism.
Secondly, students actively supporting other rights’ based causes have latched onto Palestinian activism in addition to their initial causes.
“I think that more students are connecting struggles that they’re involved in with the struggle of Palestinians. We see these waves of divestment resolutions that are now being sponsored by dozens and dozens of campus student groups from a diverse array of backgrounds,” said Barrows-Friedman.
The shift has expanded beyond students and campuses. In the Washington area, advertisements calling for the United States to cease funding the Israeli military have been posted on the walls of the Metro and on public buses. Such ads would have been unthinkable a few years ago but the fact that they can hang today without being defaced or becoming the focus of a media storm is an indication of the shift in Americans’ perception towards the Palestinian cause. Another reason for the change in dynamic stems from recent violence.
“Last summer with the Gaza invasion, Palestinian voices were more louder than I’ve heard before,” said Zeina Azzam, the Washington-based executive director of The Jerusalem Fund for Education & Community Development. “There were more points of views and people were objecting to what was going on.” Azzam said many new voices came through social media platforms that did not previously exist. “Reports from Gaza itself made it into social media and even some mainstream media,” he said.
Of course, Azzam pointed out, it did not change much on the ground. “The invasion continued and hundreds of children were killed and Gaza was devastated,” she said.
Still, many hold out hope for the future and that hope will likely begin on college campuses across the United States.
“I think a lot of change will come because of young courageous students,” Azzam said.