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Alumni for Justice in Palestine

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Realizing that many fellow alumni were as passionate as he was about supporting Palestinian rights, Darío Pomar ’19 reached out to them to reflect on their university activism and its roots at King’s Academy.
Alumni for Justice in Palestine

When I asked Sama Zoubi ’19 how she persists with her Palestinian activism, she told me that she felt an innate need to persist and that there was no option not to persist. She went on to say that this conviction encourages her to persevere and fuels her desire to collaborate and connect with other activists and organizations in her community and beyond: “We all share the same struggle for liberation which drives us to one another,” she said.

I believe it is this same sentiment that led me to reach out to Sama and other King’s alumni in the first place. It was revelatory to realize how many of my close friends were either presidents of their universities’ Justice for Palestine societies (like me) or were somehow highly involved in Palestinian activism. This excitement was bolstered by the further realization that we did not just have Palestinian activism in common, but also King’s Academy.

Intrigued by this interconnected network of dedicated activists that I found myself proud to be a part of, I decided to interview six friends and formalize some of the conversations that have often come up casually when we call or see each other. I had many questions: is it just coincidental that so many King’s Academy students are vocal advocates for an apartheid-free and liberated Palestine? Can King’s be partly thanked for our dedication to leading the global youth movement for Palestine? How does our collective love of Palestine and our desire to liberate its people express itself differently in each one of us?

A call with Anais Amer ’18 seemed like the perfect place to start. A senior at Wellesley College, Anais came to King’s in her sophomore year as an Arabic Year student, in search of a “safe space” to contrast the alienating anti-Palestinian atmosphere that permeated her previous school. As Anais reminisced about her years at King’s, it became clear that she had indeed found this safe space. She explained how King’s had given her the gift of actually being able to communicate in her mother tongue. With this link re-established, Anais fell back in love with everything that emboldened her identity, and started to see an overlap between her love of Arabic and her love for Palestine. At Wellesley, Anais is president of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) society that she established in her freshman year. She is also a community organizer on her campus and around Boston, and has established a large following on social media as @BintFalisteen. Anais explained to me how her now strong command of Arabic allows her to engage with those on the ground in Palestine and how it finally means she can listen to and understand her grandmother’s stories, imbuing her with a spiritual connection to her Palestinian identity. All this feeds into her day-to-day activism. “For example, when a family from Gaza is permitted entry into Boston, and they don’t speak much English, that’s where I come in,” she said. “I really like being a source of comfort for them.”

I asked Anais about her digital footprint, and whether she regrets her social media presence as an activist in light of the Zionist doxxing and harassment campaign that was launched against her in September 2020 after her involvement in Black Lives Matter protests. This doxxing is particularly evidenced by her inclusion on the Canary Mission blacklist alongside dozens of other Palestinian activists, students and academics alike. In response, Anais said, “It’s tough because it does affect you, it makes you question your actions and the validity of statements you make, but that’s all part of [Zionist] mental manipulation – they want us to second-guess ourselves. So, no, I don’t regret it. If anything, it pushed me to be even more unapologetically Palestinian and anti-Zionist.”

I looked to Maya Abu Ali ’18 for her insight on countering Zionist attacks, since I had recently read her article for the McGill Tribune on how doxxing on her campus was facilitated by her university. Maya explained to me her attitude towards writing about these issues.

“It is always difficult to encapsulate such a multifaceted struggle on two pages,” she said. “You want to speak about the intergenerational aspect and delineate a century of oppression, but you also want to include your family’s experience throughout the generations and do your parents and grandparents justice while conveying these issues as a member of the new generation.”

Even so, by just reporting on this topic, Maya received spiteful online vitriol from Zionists. We commented on the irony of writing about harassment only to become the victim of the same. As managing editor of the McGill Tribune and a frequent contributor to the Middle East Monitor, Maya knew of this risk. “It puts you in a compromising position where you are aware that falsehoods are going to be written about you, but you have to put that aside and think about the people you are trying to represent because what they’re going through is a hundred times worse than whatever I’ll face as a result of telling their stories.”

When I asked Maya why she had adopted writing as a primary form of activism, she spoke of an instinctual need shared by Arab women to tell their side of an often-obfuscated narrative that persistently excludes their voices. Maya views her proclivity towards journalistic expression as an extension of the natural duty she has to tell the Palestinian story. She believes that the written word emboldens other activists, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” she said. “These are the things that inspire revolutions. In an age of such polarization, this is really important.” Maya also told me that she finds it meaningful to write in support of other communities and consequently emphasize the intersectionality of decolonial and anti-racist struggles occurring concurrently across the world.

On reflection, I wholeheartedly echo this sentiment; genuine intersectional solidarity and cooperation is vital when seeking a truly global movement in support of Palestine. Of course, the complexities arise when non-Palestinians run the risk of taking too much space in what should be a Palestinian-centered endeavor. How can non-Palestinians achieve a balance? I spoke to Hannah Szeto ’20 knowing she would have valuable insights on these questions.

Alumni for Justice in Palestine

When Hannah joined King’s as an Arabic Year student in 2017, she had had little prior exposure to the Palestinian plight. During an earlier visit to Jerusalem with her family, she remembered noticing how, at the border, she and her family were given preferential treatment as non-Arabs. She also distinctly remembered seeing the apartheid wall for the first time. These moments were only really contextualized at King’s, where, on her first day, she had a conversation with a Palestinian classmate who had never been to Palestine and who, in response to Hannah’s innocent queries, explained that she simply would never be able to. This sobering interaction proved to be a formative moment in Hannah’s journey into activism, as she realized she had a responsibility to educate herself on Palestine.

Hannah’s resolve to learn about Palestine was supported by friends around her (myself included) and facilitated by some of her teachers. In particular, Hannah referenced Dr. Ethan Jerome’s AP Human Geography class as her “political awakening” and as instrumental to her understanding of institutional practices of oppression. “I am trying less to find one solid answer to Palestine and I’m not looking for that one universal truth anymore,” she said. “Instead, I’m learning to ground things in materiality and not just think about Palestine as this theoretical issue of national sovereignty, but rather as something you can tangibly point to — it’s about people’s lived experiences, their lives, their deaths.”

Having started and now leading the Justice for Palestine Society at her university, the London School of Economics, Hannah knows more than ever the importance of translating theory into action. “Concepts of justice and liberation are not just concepts,” she said. “There are very material ways in which justice is applied and denied, and there are material ways in which liberation can happen.” Hannah believes that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is fundamental to achieving liberation for the Palestinian people and her society is directly targeting her university’s ties to companies complicit in Israeli apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

When I asked her about being president of her society, Hannah proved to be very cognizant of the role she plays as a non-Palestinian activist involved in Palestinian activism. “My experiences are going to be infinitely different from someone whose family was exiled from their home and [who experiences] the generational trauma of being Palestinian,” she said.

However, Hannah stressed the importance of non-Palestinians being present in the decolonial movement and of solidarity between oppressed groups because successful revolutions must have an international dimension. So, with this sense of urgency, Hannah took it upon herself to start the society that she wanted to be a part of. She described to me how taking part in activism energizes her and how she takes a lot of pride in the successful protest she organized against an on-campus event that the Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom had taken part in.

Like Hannah, Sama Zoubi ’19 and Salma Jouaneh ’19 are also presidents of their own Justice for Palestine societies at the University of Bristol and the University of York respectively. As two Jordanian women with Palestinian roots, Sama and Salma’s roles are complicated by a heightened sense of responsibility and the intensified dangers that Palestinian activists face.

Alumni for Justice in Palestine

On Sama’s campus, brutal opposition to anti-Zionist Palestinian activism was exacerbated by Zionist smear campaigns. Rather than getting caught up in the noise that Zionists create and that Palestinians often feel the need to respond to, Sama has made calculated and strategic decisions that prioritize the safety of members and the society’s long-term goals of achieving BDS – not every fight is worth fighting, especially when said fights are meant to distract activists from their activism.

Sama contrasted this alienating environment to that of King’s. She spoke of the sense of authority and safety she felt at King’s being part of the majority and being surrounded by people who generally share the same values. At university, she was no longer protected by this majority, but instead made to feel like a forgotten – or even worse, a targeted – minority.  She told me that while she had changed a lot since being at King’s, a lot of the enthusiasm and the resilience she learnt at King’s has remained integral to her activism. We agreed that even within the increasingly chaotic complexity of our lives as we grow older and move further away from King’s, there are still actionable moments of clarity in which we can identify and celebrate our passion for the causes we care most about.

Israel’s May 2021 attack on Gaza and its escalated efforts to ethnically cleanse the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan proved to be a moment of clarity that many of us shared. As thousands of protestors took to the streets across the world, my sense of helplessness was tempered only by the inexplicable and immaterial connection I felt to all my fellow Palestinians across the world. Knowing that Salma had single-handedly organized a protest in York, I wanted to know how those few weeks had changed her outlook on activism. Salma told me how angry she had felt seeing so few people show their solidarity meaningfully, but after having countless conversations with friends across the world, she came to the conclusion that while it was difficult to catalyze monumental change overnight, there was value in the little changes we can make in our communities, as long as they are occurring everywhere and all the time.

Encouraged by her friends and fueled by her frustration, Salma decided on the spur of the moment to plan her protest. “It was one of the most monumental moments of my life,” she said. “About 350 people showed up, and I had been the one to make it happen.” At the protest, she gave a speech she had written. Salma knows that this form of expression — the speeches, the rallies, the conversations and the check-ins with friends — is how she can best express the overwhelming emotions that arise naturally for Palestinian activists. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so open to a bunch of strangers in my life… [but] the protest wasn’t just for me to express my anger — we were on the news, the university engaged with us, and we raised a £1000 in medical aid for Gaza.”

Around this time, Sayf Abdeen ’19, who is in his final year at University College London, also watched as global solidarity with Palestinians began growing exponentially. His Instagram account, @letstalkPalestine, soon reached almost a quarter million followers. I remember seeing these informative and well-researched infographics online without knowing that Sayf was behind them.

Sayf explained this further. “It’s about being part of the shift of normalizing pro-Palestinianism, helping it go mainstream, making [previously inaccessible] information, discussions, terms and discourse go mainstream, as well as shifting the discourse: let’s stop talking about whether anti-Zionism is anti-semitism, let’s talk about how Zionism is racism, and how we can end Zionism and unlearn it.”

Despite the success of the account, Sayf stressed the importance of not depending on social media as the only or primary tool for activism. “Social media is a very important tool,” he said. “Other sources of information on Palestine are often inaccurate or share false information. We need to create an alternate media and have it be Palestinian-led. Simultaneously social media has limitations — it alone will not free Palestine. People underestimate the importance of gathering in person to make physical impacts in the world.” Sayf himself is highly involved with on-campus activism. He helped launch a campaign against the anti-Palestinian IHRA definition of anti-semitism and organized Palestine 101 sessions to educate students with little previous knowledge of the issue.

Alumni for Justice in Palestine

I identified a trend in Sayf’s approach towards activism: an activist must, at the very least, be acquainted with — if not well-educated on — Palestinian history. Most notably, Sayf wants his account to be a resource for young Palestinians who do not otherwise have access to a curriculum on Palestine, to empower them when they find themselves in hostile environments. My mind went immediately to Dr. Ethan Jerome’s new course on Palestine, which my class, the class of 2019, had the misfortune of missing out on.

I asked Sayf what courses at King’s had helped him become the activist he is today, and he mentioned Mr. Ghassan Gammoh ’10’s Modern Jordanian History course, but we lamented the fact that it no longer exists since Mr. Ghassan left King’s. (I have — since writing this article —been told that Modern Jordanian History will happily be offered again in 2022-2023.) On this note, we both agreed that King’s needs to institutionalize certain curriculums — the existence of Dr. Ethan’s course on Palestine, for example, cannot only be dependent on his continued presence at the school. As Sayf put it, “King’s does not exist within a bubble or a vacuum — it exists as an educational institution within the context of the Middle East, where Palestine is one of the most pressing causes. It has a role, insofar as its identity allows, to play a role in that, whether it’s through a mandated course on Palestine or not.”

King’s has often said it wants us to be the leaders of tomorrow, and here we are, leading the Palestinian youth movement, today, tomorrow and forever. Equally, while we all agreed King’s could have done more, it is still clear that out of King’s emerged an assortment of soon-to-be activists, all of whom share the same goal: the estranged Arab reunited with her homeland; the journalist willing to face any backlash just to give her people a voice; the ally who wants to walk alongside her Palestinian friends in a liberated land; the defiant and resilient leader; the impassioned woman demanding change loudly and clearly; the activist challenging misleading misinformation. As for me, I would say I am the Palestinian who is proud to know, be friends with and fight for liberation alongside all these passionate individuals.