On-Campus Activism for Palestinian Liberation and Building on Transnational Ties
By Salma Khamis
Having endured a longer legacy on college campuses than the Black Lives Matter movement, students organizing for Palestinian liberation have had quite a turbulent history of activism in the American context. Most commonly housed under different chapters of the national Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization, students organizing for Palestinian liberation tend to be primarily concerned with the recognition of Israel as a colonial force that perpetually violates Palestinian human rights and breaks international law in its occupation of the Palestinian territories and denial of Palestinians’ right of return. Furthermore, activists point to Zionism’s racist implications on the Palestinian population and how it contributes towards the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories; the disproportionate access to resources and social services afforded to Jewish Israelis over Palestinians; as well as the institutionalized use of excessive force against Palestinians by Israeli police and military apparatus.
Given the funding, institutional support, and strength of pro-Israel groups and organizations all over the country, however, activism for the Palestinian cause is often met with virulent opposition, the likes of which is rarely if ever launched against any other student political campaign of a comparable nature. Nevertheless, students have been able to achieve limited gains with respect to raising social awareness of the Israeli occupation on college campuses. Moreover, despite the extent of the opposition met by pro-Palestine student organizers, the most important of their functions has been their sustained facilitation of spaces for dialogue and activism on Palestinian human rights, politics, and culture on university campuses. Speaker events and annual campaigns such as Israeli Apartheid Week, for example, challenge the predominant narrative in American political discourse regarding the Palestinian population and their right to self-determination. However, as with the Black Lives Matter movement, students’ activism often has little bearing on the impactful reform of institutional and national policies vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation and the merciless violation of Palestinian human rights.
In response to this ‘impact gap,’ recent activism for Palestinian liberation tends to coalesce around the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement. As a means of non-violent protest to the ongoing occupation, BDS seeks to impart pressure on the Israeli state by boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning corporations and institutions that facilitate, legitimize, or profit from the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories and violation of Palestinian human rights. In turn, this has prompted students to petition their respective university administrations to divest from these corporations that, either through their direct activity or that of their subsidiaries, contribute to or profit from the Israeli occupation.
Increasingly, a similar tactic is gaining ground among activists working for racial justice on university campuses. These activists are attempting to bridge their aforementioned ‘impact gap’ by calling for their institutions to divest from corporations that benefit off of the widely-documented Prison Industrial Complex. Drawing on evidence that categorically proves the racial prejudices underpinning the United States’ ever-increasing prison industry, activists decry the unjust policing of racial minorities, and the vast amounts of profit associated with, and thus incentivizing the continuation of, this system of mass incarceration. By organizing to pressure university administrations into reorienting their investment policies away from private companies that accrue substantial profit from either managing, supplying, or securing prisons; activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups concerned with racial justice have begun pursuing similar tactics of non-violent protest to those once led by SJP groups.
Herein lies the central issue: how can on-campus activists make the most out of this convergence of protest tactics among students working for Palestinian liberation and American racial justice? What thematic parallels can be highlighted in the narrative surrounding both movements that would contribute towards the widening of each of their respective bases? Can we work backwards from these two movements’ shared employment of institutional divestment as a protest tactic to trace further commonalities between their initial causes for protest?