On Tuesday, April 24, the Coalition for Immigrant Advancement (CISA), the International Club (IC), Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Vista collaborated to put up a wall on Paresky lawn. The wall, which contained images of Palestinian and Latinx struggle, was designed to invoke both Israeli-built walls and the walled areas along the U.S.-Mexico border. Yesterday, it was formally taken down to celebrate the demolition of barriers.
The groups also released a joint statement through an all-campus email that detailed the intended purpose of the structure. “By putting up a mock wall on the center of campus, interrupting the space between Paresky and Sawyer, we hope to force our fellow students to reflect on the impact of walls like these – and all militarized borders – on the daily existence of millions of people,” they wrote. The statement also explicitly linked the Israeli and U.S. walls. “As students committed to justice, we know that Israel’s apartheid wall and Trump’s border wall in the United States are two sides of the same coin of white supremacy and settler colonial violence,” the statement said.
The wall’s Palestine-inspired murals contained writings such as “Gaza will be free,” “visit Palestine” and “Israel is an apartheid state.” One mural, titled “Theft of Land,” depicted the diminishing of Palestinian land in the Middle East alongside the destruction of Native American land in the United States. Several murals also protested American border fencing with statements like “demilitarize the border” and a statement calling for the United States to reduce deportation, detention and incarceration. Certain murals directly linked the Palestinian and Latinx struggles. One read, “From Chiapas [a southern Mexican state] to Palestine, resistir es existir [to resist is to exist].” Another depicted a Palestinian woman and a Mexican man, with a caption below them reading, “We didn’t cross the border/ The border crossed us.”
Amina Awad ’18, co-chair of Minority Coalition (MinCo) and head of SJP, explained the message behind the wall and her connection to the issue. “The wall is a testimony to indigenous resistance and solidarity across multiple borders,” she said. “This wall serves to both physically and metaphorically represent and start a discussion on the ways in which students on campus are affected by the violence of borders. The driving force behind constructing the wall for me was the violence enacted upon my family with the formation of borders, from my Palestinian grandfather not being able to return to Jerusalem – the city of his birth – after being forcefully displaced along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by the inception of the Israeli state 70 years ago, to my father not being able to enter the U.S. to attend my graduation because of U.S. immigration politics.”
Many of the wall’s creators emphasized the importance of the relationship between Mexico and Palestine as displayed on the wall. “One of the main reasons I wanted to be part of this project was because I believe it is necessary to have these conversations about the international solidarity between Mexico and Palestine,” Vista member Katrina Martinez ’18 said. SJP member Hattie Schapiro ’18.5 emphasized the importance of “[reminding] our fellow students that both the U.S.-Mexico border wall and the Israeli apartheid wall have wrought unimaginable violence on people, primarily people of color and indigenous people.”
Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí ’20, a member of Vista and CISA, warned against seeing the wall as collapsing the two struggles into one. “The wall does not seek to conflate the struggles of the Palestinian people and Latin American migrants moving through the border,” he said. “If that was our intention, we would have crammed both visual conversations on one side of the wall. But we did not. We used the two different sides of one wall to make it clear that injustice, prejudice and abuse of power [are] both present in the borderlands of the United States and of Israel.”
Accompanying the construction of the physical wall was an event on April 25 in Hopkins 002 followed by a candlelit vigil beside the wall. Entitled “Transnational Solidarity: From Mexico to Palestine,” the event featured two speakers, Gazan activist Rawan Yaghi and Professor of Comparative Literature Amal Eqeiq, and was well-attended by students and faculty. “As we begin our conversation about settler colonialism and construction of borders, I think it’s really important to remind ourselves that we are right now in a settler colonial state, that we are standing on Mahican land that was stolen,” Awad said at the commencement of the talk.
Awad then introduced Yaghi, who currently lives in Gaza and spoke through Skype. “Gaza is surrounded by borders, whether material borders or imaginary borders,” Yaghi began. “Borders in Palestine hold many purposes. The most obvious one is controlling peoples’ movements, which has clear practical and psychological effects… It creates a psychology of people who cannot say when they can leave a place and when they can enter a place. Every moment in their lives is controlled by another entity.”
Yaghi highlighted what she viewed as the two main effects of building a wall around Gaza. The first, she said, was dehumanization. She claimed that, when Israelis no longer come into regular contact with Palestinians, it becomes easier to view Palestinian people as non-human, making it “easier to create false narratives and to create fear among populations.” The second rationale that she saw was economic. “Gaza has become a confined market, or a captive market, for Israel’s goods,” she said. “They feed their goods into this place and make sure that their goods are being consumed. This creates a stable economy for them.”
Yaghi also drew attention to the difficulty that Gazan people face in crossing these borders. “[Gazans] can’t leave the country without Israeli permission, which will not be granted to them,” she said. “Even those who want to get medical treatment have tremendous difficulty finding their treatment in Gaza… Sometimes they don’t get that approval unless they’re blackmailed or asked to cooperate.” Yaghi then called attention to the protests currently taking place across Palestine.
“It’s a peaceful protest for people to say that they have not forgotten their right of return, and that their causes will not be turned into one where all they are looking for is two more hours of electricity or more aid,” she said. “It was also to highlight that we are sick of borders and that people are tired of having their lives on hold, which is what living in Gaza feels like sometimes.”
Eqeiq then spoke to the audience on the intersections between Mexican and Palestinian struggles. “Palestine is used to having support from Latin America,” she said, citing a history of connectedness between Palestine and the Latinx community.
Such support became visible after Israel’s West Bank barrier was built in the early 2000s. Prominent Latinx activists painted murals on this wall that linked Palestinian struggles with their own. These murals were a strong influence on students’ creation of the mock wall at the College. For example, artist Gustavo Chávez Pavón painted two identical murals, one in Mexico and one in Palestine, with a Palestinian woman looking outward and the words “to exist is to resist” written below her. The Palestinian mural has since been painted over, but the Mexican one remains.
Eqeiq emphasized the importance of such artwork for the Palestinian community. “When you see the mural every day, you start to embody it.” Yet she warned of the limitations of activism through art. “In some ways, art on murals is a great thing, but there’s also something about not romanticizing part of the wall… Murals disappear. Walls don’t, yet,” she said.
Eqeiq also described other forms of Palestian and Mexican intersectional activism through artwork. Khaled Jarrar, a Palestinian artist, took a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and had it forged into a ladder. Another artist, Raeda Saadeh, took pictures of Palestinian students going to school with ladders strapped onto their backs.
Some students have reacted critically to the presentation and to the mock wall protest. One student at the presentation asked what the alternative to a border wall was, given that the wall has helped reduce bombings and other attacks in Israel. “By building the wall, if anything, Israel prevented dialogue,” Eqeiq responded. “If you want to look at numbers and statistics, you can look at the number of Palestinians who have been killed.”
Another student, Solly Kasab ’21, decided to write a statement taking issue with the anti-Israel aspect of the demonstration. Describing his rationale for writing the petition, he said, “I could not believe that they would put up such a one-sided and practically hateful demonstration. As to the undocumented immigrants, I completely support that cause. But to label Israel an apartheid state? That is an attack on me and Jews at large.” Kasab also saw a link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. “Anti-Zionism is a myth, a fabrication,” he said. “Why would you not want the Jews to have a national homeland, especially after the tragedy of the Holocaust? Should they wander forever in the Diaspora, being shunted from place to place as country after country rejects them?”
Some Jewish students, however, stand in solidarity with the demonstration. Eliza Klein ’19, a member of SJP, sees her Jewishness and her pro-Palestinian activism as interlinked. “My Jewish values compel me to stand against injustice wherever I see it, from the U.S. to Israel/Palestine and beyond,” she said. “As a Jew, I stand firmly against all Zionist violence committed in my name… My Jewish friends and I were part of this mock wall project not in spite of our Jewishness, but because of it. We believe that occupation and apartheid are not Jewish values. Liberation and solidarity are.”
Another SJP member, Lili Bierer ’19, expressed similar sentiments. “Conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, or smearing our wall project as anti-Semitism, is a horrifying disservice to the very real experiences of anti-Semitism my ancestors faced,” she said.
The construction of the mock wall has also expedited the creation of a group called Students for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue (SIPD). “We had been planning to start the groups for several weeks,” Hannah Goldstein ’20, one of SIPD’s founding members, said. “We were planning on launching the group in Fall 2018 but realized many members in the community were looking for a place to learn more about the conflict and talk about their perspectives right now.” Goldstein characterized the group as non-ideological and focused on fostering dialogue. “SIPD is neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist, neither Anti-Palestine nor Anti-Israel,” she said. “Instead, our goal is to foster a welcoming community space where different opinions can be shared. We realize there are many nuances to the conflict/occupation and that it is impossible to have a conversation without bias. With that in mind, our goal is to be as open and understanding as possible about biases and how they impact understanding, bringing in as much perspective and empathy as possible.”
So far, the group has held one meeting and has put up a poster in Baxter. It reads “Pro-Israel. Pro-Palestine. Pro-Peace. Let’s foster dialogue” and is displayed next to a SJP banner expressing solidarity with Gaza. Goldstein emphasized that the intent of this display and the group as a whole is not to protest any other student group. “The reason we are creating this space is not to work against other organizations on campus, but rather to give open opportunities to engage in further dialogue welcoming all community members,” she said.
Overall, many of the students who constructed the wall are satisfied with the response that it received. “The wall has received overwhelmingly positive feedback, particularly from dining hall employees and faculty members,” Isabel Andrade ’18, co-president of IC, said. “I am proud of the ways in which the wall has encouraged our community to reflect on the brutality of these borders.”
Marcone Correia ’19, co-chair of CISA, saw the unease that students felt at the sight of the mock wall as potentially productive. “In light of the discomfort some students have felt over the wall, it is important to realize why the project came to exist,” he said. “The wall itself is a manifestation of the discomfort students experience because of the reality of border violence in México and Palestine, whether through direct experiences or indirect attacks on their identities.”
In recent days, several pro-Palestinian banners and infographics on campus have been defaced. “I came to Paresky this past Saturday in the morning to find the Gaza banner hanging from only one end,” Vista member Jovana Calvillo ’18 said. “SJP hung the Gaza banner in solidarity with non-violent Palestinian protesters who continue to be shot by Israeli forces. 50 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since [March 30]. Five of those killed were children, and two were journalists. This act is an attack at Williams on my people, those oppressed by borders.” Several infographics on Palestine were also torn down from Paresky auditorium on April 25.
The mock wall was formally torn down at 12 p.m. yesterday while Latinoamerican and Arab songs of protest and celebration played in the background. The destruction of the wall was intended to symbolize the elimination of walls everywhere, whether on the U.S.-Mexico border or Gaza and the West Bank.