Ivy Helman’s recent commentary (((Israel))) criticizes what she sees as “a new form of anti-Semitism” from organizations such as Jewish Voices for Peace in their advocacy of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement. So I begin this account of a recent visit by two Palestinian students to Hawaii with a reminder that the BDS movement is simply using the tools of nonviolent resistance to pressure Israel into giving Arab-Palestinians what Israel insists on for itself: equality, freedom, peace, justice and access to their homes and properties as stipulated by UN Resolution 194. Israel’s continuing land grabs speak to Israel’s sense of impunity. The two Birzeit University students provided a first hand account of what life under Israeli control means to them and their families. It was the kind of opportunity “to share and learn” that Helman says is necessary. And it only reinforced the importance of the BDS effort.
Mai Hasan and Noor Daghlas, students participating in Birzeit University’s Right to Education (R2E) Tour of American universities have stories to tell that are chilling. Stories that make you wonder why you are still in your seat, instead of running out screaming for someone to do something. To stop the madness that is the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Yet both students speak of their experiences with the matter-of-fact intensity of activists who have come to terms with the fact that their journey is long, and that they have survived, while many have not.
“I am here, not to speak about myself, but to speak for those who are no longer with us,” said Mai Hasan when asked whether she herself might face “administrative detention” after the tour. Since the year 2000, the Israeli government has imprisoned over 7,000 Palestinian youth, many for asserting their right to education. Mai, who graduated shortly after her return home, said without hesitation: “If I am arrested because of the truths I tell about the occupation, I will accept it proudly.”
Both students bear witness to the truth that Freedom is a Constant Struggle, the title of Angela Davis’ latest book. They were at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa recently, with the renowned scholar at the same table, speaking to a packed room. The panel discussion took place just a few hours before Davis delivered her keynote address as the spring 2016 Dan and Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair in Democratic Ideals to an overflow crowd at the Kennedy Theater. The two young Palestinian undergraduates talking about their life under siege in their own homeland, in conversation with the lifelong activist in front of an audience in Hawaiʻi, one of the places made American by occupation, was a statement of what Davis calls the “intersectionality of struggles.” As Cynthia Franklin, professor in the English department at UH Mānoa and organizer of the visit, said in introducing the panel, the event could be viewed through the lens of Davis’ own words that “It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.”
Hope and resolve equip Noor Daghlas to deal with living under constant surveillance. He is as unflinching as Mai Hasan in embracing education and resistance as instruments of survival. He is able to speak, with a smile, about a near fatal encounter he and a friend had with Israeli forces. If anything, it stiffened his resolve to pursue his education, because education is resistance.
“No matter what obstacles the Israeli state puts in our way, we will do all we can to get educated, to understand the world we live in. When you live under occupation, to be human, you have to resist,” said Noor who is entering his second year of college.
The students spoke of the idea of education as resistance being deeply ingrained in Palestinian culture. That is one reason why literacy is very high in Palestine, despite the bombings of schools, the closing of universities during the intifadas and the personal suffering inflicted by the occupation. Both Noor and Mai spoke of the determination on the part of the Palestinian people to persevere.
“I know teachers who have repeated the same lesson seven to eight times to small groups of six students in their homes during Israeli-imposed curfews and closures of schools and universities. They do this just to get around the restrictions on how many students can gather in one place,” said Noor. He is not surprised that former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon considered Palestinian education more dangerous than Palestinian weapons.
“We’re taught from the time we are children, that we have a right to the land, to exist in freedom. We identify with people everywhere, who suffer as we do from being targeted for collective punishment. We understand how the Black Lives Matter movement started. Like us, people can no longer bear seeing so many friends and family being arrested and killed for no reason. We ourselves know too many friends, including women and minors, who have been detained and held without trial on the basis of secret evidence. They have rules that say families can visit twice a week–if they get a permit. Permits are often denied, so families are torn apart, often for long periods of time, and the suffering is multiplied. Some women have even had to have their babies in prison,” said Mai.
Noor spoke also of the barriers that keep families apart even outside of prison. “When our neighborhoods are separated by illegal settlements, when we have to constantly negotiate up to 600 roadblocks to connect to friends and family living elsewhere, with no certainty that we will get through: that too is a kind of daily physical containment.”
He went on to explain that the physical containment was accompanied by intellectual containment through Israeli censorship of the curriculum in Palestinian schools. The effect, both students said, was to “keep us from teaching and learning our history as we know it and see it. They want to localize our education. Keep us from understanding the wider world.”
Both students welcomed international support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, and advocated for academic boycott as a way faculty and students in the US and elsewhere can support Palestinians’ right to education.
Mai Hasan and Noor Daghlas see their participation in the Right to Education tour and their visits to American universities as vital, necessary acts of resistance. And solidarity. Palestinian students were among the first to express solidarity with the protestors in Ferguson because they understand what lies behind the struggle. “And when someone comes up to us and asks ‘How can I help?’ we too feel less alone,” said Noor.
“When we hear about American schools being closed because there is not enough funding, we see that as a suppression of education that is not unlike what we are experiencing,” he added.
Solidarity in suffering. Crime and punishment. The rise of the prison-industrial complex. The re-imagining of a world without prisons and without racism. Running through the lives the R2E visiting Palestinian students described are the themes that reverberate in the life and work of Angela Davis. Her audiences in Hawaiʻi were privileged to hear her draw from the well of her experience and her scholarship to address these themes in her keynote address, in community meetings and in the graduate class she is co-teaching at UH with Robert Perkinson on the history of American criminal punishment.
One special day on the campus at UH Mānoa: two events that captured not just the intersectionality of lives in different geographies, but hope for the struggle to continue with a new generation.
Dawn Morais Webster was born in Kerala. She is the mother of two young adults, and wife of a man with Quaker and Episcopalian roots. She was raised Catholic in largely Muslim, cosmopolitan Malaysia and had her schooling with Franciscan nuns who remain an inspiration. Her blog at http://freecatholic808 is a small voice–but she believes she is part of a much larger community of faith-filled dissenters. Hawaii has been her home for more than a decade. The islands’ mindfulness of its past and the wisdom of those who have gone before, as well as its attention to place and people, help the soul to sing.