Shifting views on Palestinian issue on US college campuses

Friday 08/05/2015
Nora Barrows-Friedman

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.