Palestinian ‘Right to Education’ Tour Travels US During Our Intifada
By Michelle Zei
Imagine being arrested for trying to obtain an education. For students in Palestine, educational suppression is commonplace and one of the Israeli occupation’s many tactics to keep Palestinians oppressed. Education equips people with knowledge about their circumstance and tools for liberation, making educational institutions a systematically targeted threat to the occupation.
The Right to Education (R2E) Campaign was formed on Birzeit University’s campus in 1988 when the university was closed by the Israeli military, to raise awareness about the difficulty students face under occupation and what they are doing to defend their rights. Even during the period of closure, students resisted by forming their own underground classes. R2E advocates locally and internationally for students’ rights expressed in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which states that all people are entitled to a “right to education.”
National Students for Justice in Palestine organizer Kristian Bailey came in contact with R2E when he visited Birzeit University during a delegation to Palestine in Summer 2013. He worked tirelessly for over seven months to bring ten students from R2E to tour the United States this past November, a special time in our country, as protests continued in Ferguson and began to spread to the rest of the U.S.
Connecting Campus Activism
Deema Al Saafin and Mahmoud Daghlas attended the West Coast leg of the tour, which included a stop at UCLA where they discussed challenges they encounter as Palestinian students.
Al Saafin talked about how disunity is a tactic of the occupation. The apartheid wall and regional identifications distinctions prevent travel and keep families and communities divided, making it difficult to devise unified strategies.
“We’re extremely localized, which is mainly due to the Israeli occupation’s restriction of movement. We can’t have students come from abroad or Gaza. Also, we can’t control our own curriculum, so we don’t have access to textbooks and online databases. The daily traumas we face outside of university affect our education, too. As of 2014, we have 38 students in Israeli jails. We have students being killed. These barriers make it hard to focus and stay motivated with what little education we have.”
Daghlas shared the struggle to obtain academic resources, “Still today we can’t get access to some books, so we have to illegally copy them. We can’t access physical references of information; we face that problem at Birzeit on a daily basis.”
Their lecture corresponded with UCLA’s hearing on whether to divest from corporations tied to the Israeli occupation. Al Saafin and Daghlas videotaped testimonies for the hearing and sat with current and former SJP members as they anxiously awaited the decision. After several hours of anticipation, students voted for divestment!
As an SJP alumna, I considered the night an enormous victory. In the US we are often unaware consumers, so I see a powerful shift taking place when students begin to evaluate and alter the impact of how they spend their dollars, and in the case of divestment, realize that their very own education can in turn stifle the opportunities of others. Furthermore, closer relationships with actual Palestinian students ensures SJP’s relevance and deepens its impact. Lastly, the multicultural makeup of the room represented the movement’s growth and inclusivity. Many communities have embraced Palestinian self-determination as a pressing social justice issue with ties to their own oppression and liberation.
Mahmoud expressed the values he sees in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.
“This is something that can be done beyond solidarity, because solidarity is important but this is something they can do on the ground: hold Israel accountable for its illegal actions against the Palestinian people. I think the BDS movement is the major tool for this in the world right now.”
Strengthening Ties with Black Americans
R2E traveled to St. Louis where they connected with local activists and discussed commonalities between the Black and Palestinian struggle. This relationship is nothing new; during the Black Power Movement Black Panthers and the Palestinian Liberation Organization had close ties as they fought against systems of oppression and violence. This past summer, Palestinians and Black youth renewed their connection in the midst of the brutal police killing of Mike Brown and the Israeli occupation’s relentless attacks on Gaza. Knowing their narratives would be lost in commercial media’s filter, both communities took to social media to tell their stories: there they met and offered one another support. As Ferguson protesters’ faced state-funded tear gas and rubber bullets, Palestinians recognized the all-too-familiar excessive militarized force and expressed their solidarity in a variety of ways, including tweeting instructions for making gas masks.
Al Saafin recounted her powerful experience in St. Louis, “We connected to everything in St. Louis. Across borders and nations we do remain one people and struggle in the same ways. We are confined to a bubble of victimization in Palestine, so it was really special to connect to people going through what we go through and to realize that we are not alone.”
As the R2E tour continued, the students met more activists and academics that underlined similarities between the Palestinian and Black struggle for self-determination and access to education. Daghlas was particularly moved by his interaction with historian and USC professor Robin D.G. Kelley.
“He opened my mind to new horizons about how surprisingly similar our struggles are in education. The two major points of education are physical access to education and information globally, as well as intellectual access to education. So physically, we have been suffering that for so long in Palestine with checkpoints, arrests, and killings. Here the African-American society faces the same trouble. Students get expelled for minimum charges; they get expelled for absences. There are policies preventing them from going to some schools. Intellectually, Palestinians do not have the right to their own narrative of history in textbooks because our textbooks have to be approved by funders. It’s the same here because the African-American society does not have a right to teach their own children what to study in their textbooks. It is a clear violation of Article 26 of the Human Rights Declaration, which says that elementary schools should be compulsory, children should have freedom of the mind, and parents have the right to chose what their children study at school.”
Dream Defenders hosted R2E at Florida International University where DD’s Palestinian-American legal director, Ahmad Abuznaid witnessed the emotional impact that Birzeit students left on his peers. The opportunity for Palestinians to share their stories directly with DD was a long time coming for Abuznaid, who has worked towards uniting Palestinians and disenfranchised youth in US in a variety ways. He, Bailey and other activists involved in the Palestinian struggle attended the #FergusonOctober national mobilization to stand with Ferguson activists.
“They [R2E students] were communicating day-to-day struggles like checkpoints, not having travel permits, not being able to study what they want, having your friends get locked up, having students you know get shot and killed. Those average experiences were really dope to hear about because I was just looking around the room and seeing how folks reacted and how some of the Dream Defenders reacted…It empowered me a little more because you can feel lonely sometimes with the Palestinian struggle, and so it’s one thing when you hear a “free Palestine” chant at a rally, but when you’re in deep conversation with a person and they begin to share your struggle, that’s what’s really important and I believe we began to see some of that.”
Abuznaid also emphasized why it is particularly important for Palestinian students to visit the United States during this time of political mobilization and social upheaval.
“At this moment we are in uprising in a very real way. As Palestinians, we identify with that in a very real way – that’s what the intifada is. The intifada is like a historical mark of resistance because for so long people had become apathetic and kind of given up hope, but then the intifada came and there was a renewed sense of resistance to end the occupation and to struggle for justice in Palestine. We’re witnessing some of the same dynamic here in the United States.”
Our “intifada” in the US has forced the reality of systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence out of the margins and into the public eye for the world to see and identify with.
“The Black community here feels like the system wasn’t created for them – and how can they seek justice in a system that was designed for them to be at the bottom and be punished? Palestinians know what that feels like. Not only are we seeing a rebirth of the connection for Black Americans to stand in solidarity with Palestine, but vice versa,” Abuznaid said.
The Dream Defenders has taken major steps to include Palestine in their agenda. Abuznaid is currently leading a delegation of US activists throughout the West Bank in Palestine, offering first-hand exposure to the Israeli occupation and Palestinian resistance. Members of the media, Black Lives Matter, NY Justice League, Hands Up United, and Dream Defenders continue the legacy of leaders like Angela Davis, who has continuously fought for Palestinians, along with her own community, and exposed the injustice of militarization and the prison industrial complex in Palestine and the US. Her dedicated work has functioned to create a common struggle and strategy beyond symbolic solidarity, which my generation has inherited and continues to build upon.