Honoring the Lived Experiences of Palestinians Today and Every Day

Today is international Nakba Day, the day when Palestinians and dear friends from around the world mourn the ongoing catastrophe that was the forced removal of 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 and the continued dispossession of over seven million in diaspora. With the vicious murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akhel by the Israeli military, Palestinians today have yet another reason to grieve.

The Harvard Crimson — the United States’ oldest daily campus newspaper — recently expressed support for the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement for the first time in the paper’s history. Many wonder how this may impact campus climate and conversations on social justice moving forward given the culture of censorship on this issue. And unsurprisingly, immediate backlash from high profile figures, including a former Harvard University president who claims that boycotting “the world’s only Jewish state” is somehow antisemitic, highlights the very imbalance that necessitates such a release.

A few courageous Harvard students and alumni have spoken up in support of BDS amid the onslaught of these tone deaf, age old reactions that distract from and excuse the systemic death of innocent Palestinian civilians. While these misguided, knee-jerk attacks, cloaked in false victimhood, saturate the public’s imagination on this issue, very few Palestinian voices ever get the mic to shed light on their experiences. Akhel was one of the few Palesinian women who had a platform to speak to the brutal realities of life under occupation, which makes her execution by the Israeli military especially painful.

Although the Crimson editorial, and the student and alumni op-eds supporting BDS, is one heartening step in the right direction, the history of punishing voices that dare speak truth to power on the question of Palestine, and Harvard’s complicity in that ugly history, is egregious.

As a Black-Palestinian American whose been at Harvard for four years, the erasure of my lived experience has often felt like common practice in these spaces. I can distinctly remember the humiliation of being stopped, frisked, and strip-searched by officers at Ben Gurion Airport in front of my fellow colleagues upon my first trip to Palestine in 2019 as a Masters of Theological Studies student at Harvard Divinity School. Being detained for an hour was terrifying. Being interrogated simply because of my grandfather’s last name was devastating. But from where I sit today as I look back, it was the inaction of those with social privilege around me that was most disheartening. Even more than the words of those who would accuse my stance as antisemetic.

In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

That I was racially profiled was one thing. That nobody spoke up after witnessing such mistreatment in broad daylight was another. The silence still haunts me.

At first I was shocked at such abysmal reactions. But then, I heard stories of it happening countless times to other friends of African and Arab descent, and the cruel reality sinked in. The New Israel Fund names how such racist laws are designed to intimidate and discourage those in diaspora, even Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, from entering into the country.

After years of organizing across the university by student groups like the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee, alongside the local and global grassroots community, this support for Palestinian human rights is a glimmer of hope. But the delay in any glimpse of institutional support raises common questions. Why has it taken so long?

The U.S. was quick to boycott, divest and sanction Russia for their human rights violations against Ukranians, yet supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel for their human rights violations of Palestinians has taken over seventy years. Why is that?

Unilateral assumptions that anyone who opposes the systemic death of Palestinian civilians and the unlawful demolition of their homes is antisemetic (whether directly or indirectly) is nothing new. But it is outright wrong. Not only does this suspend accountability for the systematic killing of innocent Palestinians without consequence, this vitriol overlooks the thousands of peace-activist voices of Jewish people who grew up in Israeli settlements and who are outraged by the injustice they’ve witnessed. Not to mention, it undermines Palestinians’ ability and validity to name their pain. The fact that the Crimson has received so much backlash by former editors for support of BDS further highlights this inequality.

Let me be clear, Jewish well-being, and Palestinian dignity are not mutually exclusive. They never were. Just ask any of the many Jewish pro-Palestine peace activists, including Rabbi Lynn Gotleib, Rebecca Pierce, Marc H. Ellis, Peter Beinhart, Rabbi Brant Rosen, Norman Finklestein, Noam Chomsky, and the list goes on. As many Jewish pro-Palestine actvists on college campuses see it, supporting Palestinian freedom is not a betrayal, but rather an affirmation of their Jewish values.

So, in a world that is already so divisive, what can college campuses do to push conversations around justice in Palestine forward instead of silencing them altogether?

First, we can recognize our universities’ responsibility to safeguard the right to uphold critical conversations about Israel and Palestine without harassment or blacklisting, especially of Palestinian voices that are already marginalized. As a university officer, I should have never been required to participate in a task force that gauged antisemitism on campus without having to do the same for anti-Palestinian sentiment on campus. Yet I was, several times.

Second, we can commit to unlearning harmful ways of interacting with one another by centering those who are doing this critical work. Read, watch and learn about the former IDF soldiers who have said enough is enough, refusing to support this system of injustice any longer. Many Palestinians and former Israeli Defense Soldiers are working alongside each other to end the occupation and create transformative change. A change that pushes against the violent settler colonization and racist logics that sanctioned the extermination of 12 million Native Americans, justified the enslavement of African descendents for over 300 years, annihilated over six million European Jews in Germany, and expelled over 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland. It’s what eighty Harvard faculty recently declared as an apartheid system, along with Harvard Law School, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

When historians look back on the shift in consciousness happening right now, where will you stand? Will you turn a blind eye and avoid the topic altogether? Will you assume that you know what other people believe before ever speaking to them in person? Or will you choose courage over comfort. I ask you to confront these difficult conversations. Indeed, tension is the primary place from which real change has ever emerged.

And after you’ve deeply reflected, take action. You can start by signing this petition to tell your congressperson that you don’t want $3.8 billion of your U.S. tax dollars to go toward funding the human rights abuses of Palestinian civilians.

© Azmera Hammouri-Davis

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