Rising against prejudice

I spent Saturday afternoon finalizing plans for Rise Against Oppression, a demonstration that, in recognizing the injustices faced by Mexicans and Palestinians, stood against human rights abuses and government corruption worldwide. The planning of the event was advertised heavily through the Williams Activist Coalition, which includes most of those at the College interested in activism, so I was surprised to receive a number of unsettling e-mails from students that had circulated on student organization listservs at the College.

One message read, “I don’t think we should come to the table, hold a discussion or whatever. Our country [Israel] was not founded and does not exist because of discussion. Our country … exists because of war. War after war after war. Wars that we won. We have one of the strongest armies in the world because that is how we continue to exist. I, for one, am proud of this fact. I am not ashamed that Israel has killed people to defend itself.” Another message read, “I think that it may come off as us ‘agreeing’ that Israel is an oppressive nation that is serving out injustice if we extend out an arm.” And a third read, “…we won’t be able to change the minds of those actually participating [in the demonstration], but we can make it have no impact on those observing.”

A couple of days later, I received an e-mail containing an online post that suggested that those with whom the demonstration stood in solidarity, as a collective, are homophobic. The majority of those who helped organize the demonstration interpreted the note as implicitly suggesting that the supposedly homophobic collective does not deserve the prospect of liberation.

As the event neared, I read another WSO post that questioned the intention of the demonstration, asking whether it was a “cynically calculated publicity stunt … designed to yield a ‘bigger, better’ rally” or an “intentional conflation of undeniably separate sociopolitical conflicts meant to confuse and indoctrinate ignorant passersby.” The author continued, “I worry that as the event’s organizers point out certain coincidental similarities to a largely uninformed and intellectually lethargic choir of students, a self-indulgent, imagined feeling of ‘activism’ will dreamily ensue … This does not strike me as a useful way to spend one’s time and energy.”

At the demonstration, students spoke about oppression in Palestine and Israel, standing against both Israeli and Palestinian militarization for the sake of the people living in both territories. There was an open microphone for anyone wishing to bring up a new issue or put emphasis on an issue that was already mentioned.

Afterwards, a student who was not in attendance at the demonstration claimed that the informational pamphlets the organizers distributed were “lying” about the demonstration’s purpose. I received notes calling the two figures quoted in the demonstration speech “self-hating Jews.”

The Arab, queer, black, Jewish and other activists involved in the organization of the demonstration were deeply hurt. So were some of the professors who later accessed the public comments on WSO.

One of the activists shrugged his shoulders, explaining that at least we were only facing verbal abuse. He was Palestinian.

Critical discourse is important, if not essential, in working through such issues. We must make sure, however, that critical approaches are meant to be constructive and not manipulative. Before commenting, we should reflect on the nature of our words to ensure that they aren’t flippant or hurtful.

To bracket the affective nature of the responses (which would be more appropriately diagnosed from individual perspectives) there’s another point to be made: As much as we quibble within the confines of our community, others around the world are being murdered en masse and their livelihoods continue to be destroyed generation after generation. Those for whom solidarity with and awareness of the Palestinian cause doesn’t matter have the privilege of deciding what is worth their time. In fact, the lack of such solidarity and awareness for some is a primary investment. Even then, I would respect one who chooses not to participate in a demonstration of the kind that took place last Wednesday. However, it is troubling when one actively attempts to prevent such a demonstration from taking place, or attempts to undermine its importance, or convinces its organizers that it is in their own interest not to participate. This is what the normalization of oppression looks like: We invest time and intellectual energy not in what we can do to fight oppression, but rather in how to undermine efforts to fight it.

The verbal, physical and institutional oppression that exists in Israel and Palestine, which further silences the disempowered Palestinians and attempts to disempower Israelis who stand against the occupation, is reflected in the mechanism of oppression employed in the hurtful responses that took place last week. Let’s rise against both.

Abdullah Awad ’13 is from Amman, Jordan. He lives in West.