Friday, April 1, 2011

At B.U., a student activist teaches me about Bil’in

by PHILIP WEISS on APRIL 1, 2011 (Mondoweiss)

Along with a co-editor of the Goldstone Report, I spoke at two law schools Wednesday, Northeastern and Boston University. Northeastern is a progressive law school and there was an enveloping sense of solidarity, especially when a softspoken young man with an Arab name and a bag with Frieda Kahlo's image on the side came up to me after and said that he was organizing the undergraduate boycott movement. I was in the right place at the right time.

At Boston University there was more opposition, and it was actually energizing, so I'd like to describe that. There is a strong chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at BU, and I met several of those students before the event in a beautiful hall at the law school. One of them in a sweatshirt was leaning back in his chair next to his girlfriend and the others were giving him grief about how long he'd been active and he grinned and said, “Hey I’ve been working on Palestine since I was 15,” and I had the impression I had many times that night, that the young people have a clear understanding of the issue, way ahead of me. The apprehension of the left surrounding Palestine is ending, the issue is the issue if you’re a young leftist. I'm talking about the political territory they’ve taken. Just as South Africa was, or the Freedom Marches in the 60s, or Central America in the 80s-- Israel/Palestine is the focus for idealistic activists, and they don't have any of my generation's hangups as we used to say (more about the hangups below).

Two of the B.U. organizers told me more about the campus scene. If you’re with Students for Israel, the pro-Israel group, you’re pretty much on the right in campus life. When Israeli Apartheid Week happened in February, the pro-Israel groups mobilized against it and tried to get it off campus as anti-semitic, but Students for Justice in Palestine pointed out to the university president that four of their members were Jewish, so where’s the anti-Semitism? The university let the apartheid week demo stay. Then when David Horowitz tried to throw in gangbusters with the pro-Israel folks, to make an issue about Israeli apartheid week at the school,the Students for Israel said, You know what David, thanks but no thanks, don't "push it." Apparently they were afraid that his blatant Islamophobia would drive Arab students into the ranks of the Justice for Palestine crowd.

Three or four pro-Israel students came to our Goldstone talk and they all asked questions. They were in the second row. Their questions were polite, almost friendly. They didn’t really have numbers, if I were in their crowd I would have been intimidated. The room was against them, young and old. Apparently two of the pro-Israel students were Hasbara fellows. They didn’t denounce us, they just questioned us about Hamas’s tactics and the festering refugee issue and similar matters. I saw them clapping at the end, politely.

Afterward a young Jew came up to me and talked about her Jewish agony about the issue and not wanting to be anti-Israel but also not wanting to endorse what’s going on there. Her father had read the Goldstone Report and confessed to her that it was accurate-- which left her in a quandary about what to do about it. I urged this person to explore Jewish Voice for Peace-- and J Street too if that's where she felt more comfortable-- and start walking the road. It’s a hard road for young Jews. That wasn't the only encounter of this nature that we had. It seems that young idealistic Jews who have been raised loving Israel are in a state of agony right now. The facts are so overwhelmingly negative, from the Netanyahu government to the unending peace process to the killings of Palestinian children; and a good part of the Jewish community is opening its eyes to the truth, at last. Ancient orders inside the community, to maintain unity to the outside world, or to see the Diaspora as beneath Eretz Israel, a lot of those religious orders are dissolving. (Noam Sheizaf discusses the growing war inside the official liberal American Jewish community over Israel, here).

A bunch of us went out to dinner after and I learned two things. One is that the antiwar movement on campus is weak, and in its place the pro-Palestinian movement is growing. You might remember that when the antiwar movement was strong in 2002-2005 or so, there were battles among organizers about giving any place to the Palestinian issue. Well that struggle is over. I was told that students who would be antiwar are working on Palestine, and there are lots of creative actions around it.

The other thing I learned was about life in Bil’in.

A student was with us who had worked with the popular committees. (I'm not going to name him till I can get in touch with him.) He is Jewish but unlike my generation of Jews is not burdened by the racism, xenophobia, and fear of the other that I grew up with. In a word, he is from a more comfortably empowered, multicultural milieu. So he could get past these cultural issues in an instant-- where it has been a tormented struggle for me.

He was not as pitying as I am of the pro-Israel students. He said they are supporting ethnic cleansing; and he told us stories of two families being ethnically cleansed in East Jerusalem before his eyes. Then he told me about the nighttime raids on Bil’in to take away boys for throwing stones. The Israelis would try to identify boys who threw stones at the demonstrations and it was a six month sentence for throwing stones and if you damaged an Israeli jeep it was two years. As soon as the boys were imprisoned they were put under pressure to sign documents in Hebrew, a language they could not read, implicating the leaders of the popular committee in ordering the boys to throw stones. Israel is trying to smash the popular committees of resistance, and the student had slept in Bil'in for a few weeks, to try and help the little village resist the raids.

The student said he got used to a lot of things in the resistance movement-- he got used to tear gas, he got used to the percussion grenades (which scare the shit out of me). But he never got used to the nighttime raids.

They came at 4 in the morning. The soldiers used the stirring of the morning prayer to hide their own movements through the village. Then they knocked down the front door, and dragged the 14 year old or 15 year old away, they bound the boys' hands and moved off through the village with a phalanx of soldiers. The student was there to try and prevent arrests, and felt a sense of failure every time a boy was dragged off. Because the looks on the boys' faces, he said, was pure childlike terror. I thought about the honor we granted the stone throwers in Egypt, I thought about Jewish history in Europe, when they broke our doors down.

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