REVIEW: Documenting the campus struggle for Palestine

Bill Mullen wrote a lovely review of my book for Socialist Worker.

Documenting the campus struggle for Palestine

Bill Mullen reviews a book that chronicles the campus movement against apartheid.

Students for Justice in Palestine on the march in New York CityStudents for Justice in Palestine on the march in New York City

NORA BARROWS-Friedman’s In Our Power: U.S. Students Organize for Justice in Palestine is a masterpiece of social movement journalism.

In the tradition of Howard Zinn’s SNCC: The New Abolitionists and Staughton and Alice Lynd’s Rank and File, Barrows-Friedman presents a riveting “from below” oral history of a grassroots campaign for social justice.

In Barrows-Friedman’s case, the historical actors are students in the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) movement that, since the start of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel in 2005, has become the vanguard in a global fight against Israeli apartheid. Her dynamic book might as well be subtitled “10 years that shook the world.”

Barrows-Friedman is a staff editor and reporter for Electronic Intifada. Between 2004 and 2011, she traveled regularly to Palestine as a reporter for Pacifica Network radio. As she explains in her preface, it was the rising tide of student solidarity organizing against Israeli apartheid that compelled her to write a book in which “Palestinian-American students speak for themselves about their experiences as organizers and human rights defenders.”

From April 2013 to January 2014, Barrows-Friedman crisscrossed the U.S, conducting 63 interviews with student representatives from 30 different Universities and private colleges in 22 cities across 11 states. The resulting book juxtaposes transcripted interviews with SJP activists with political reportage of key episodes from what Barrows-Friedman calls the campus “battleground” over Israel.

Review: Books

Nora Barrows-Friedman, In Our Power: U.S. Students Organize for Justice in Palestine, Just World Books, 2014, 274 pages, $21.

These include successful divestment votes at University of California campuses; walkouts by students at the University of Kentucky in protest of a speech by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; students battles with pro-Zionist Anti-Defamation League forces at Harvard; and the formation in 2010 of the National Students for Justice network at a Columbia University conference.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE STUDENT interviews give a composite portrait of what has been called “Generation Palestine.” These are activists who have grown to political consciousness in a post-9/11, post-Intifada age of intertwined Islamophobia and U.S. imperialism, one of whose cornerstones is support for Israel’s occupation.

DePaul University SJP activist Shirien Darma says her activist turn began by seeing television images of the Second Intifada; UCLA SJP activist Rahim Kurwa recalls connecting his campus organizing work around fair trade to a course in Middle East history where a professor opened up discussion of Israel and Palestine; Stanford student Kristian Davis Bailey says he was radicalized into Palestinian activism while researching a story for the school newspaper about Stanford alumnus Fadi Quran, who was arrested and pepper-sprayed during a West Bank protest; UC Berkeley SJP activist Yaman Salahi recalls Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s murderous late 2008 invasion of Gaza resulting in more than 1,500 deaths, as a critical moment in jumpstarting campus activism.

The achievement and resilience of SJP students in the face of often brutal repression from both campus administrations and Zionist forces on and off campus provides a dramatic baseline to Barrow-Friedman’s story. Students from SJP chapters at Northeastern University, Florida Atlantic University, Harvard and San Diego State University recount personal, physical and administrative challenges to their activism, including threats of expulsion, arrest and physical attack.

Arguably, the University of California system, where seven of 10 campuses have now voted to divest, has seen the sharpest of these struggles.

In 2011, for example, Zionist students filed a lawsuit against the University of California-Berkeley saying the campus had failed to protect Jewish students from a “hostile atmosphere” created by Palestinian activists.

In the same year, 10 University of California Irvine students were convicted of the misdemeanor crime of “disrupting a public meeting” after a non-violent protest against the 2010 appearance on campus of Israel ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren. The students challenged Oren’s justification of the massacre of 1,500 Palestinians during Operation Cast Lead, calmly stating from their floor positions things like, “You, sir, are an accomplice to genocide.”

In an important chapter titled “Intersecting Struggles and Common Causes,” Barrows-Friedman shows how SJP organizers have teamed up with immigrant rights activists in Arizona, LGBT activists to protest Israeli “pinkwashing,” and anti-racist activists radicalized by protests against police shootings and the Trayvon Martin killing. Her book shows the seedlings of what became the Ferguson to Gaza protests after Mike Brown’s killing in the summer of 2014.

Barrows-Friedman also shows how activists like Shafedka Hashash at New York University have tied BDS activism both to workers’ rights and disability rights struggles on campus. This brand of activism culminated in the important December, 2014, divestment vote by United Auto Workers Local 2865, representing more than 10,000 University of California graduate student employees.

Barrows-Friedman’s book is both a living chronicle and a handbook of one of the most explosive civil rights movements of our times. Since its publication just a few short months ago, new divestment resolutions have passed at college campuses in London, Ontario, Canada and across the U.S. As I write this review, student activists at Loyola University in Chicago are celebrating passage of their own divestment resolution.

SJP and Palestinian solidarity activists everywhere should buy and read this book, then write the next chapter for themselves.

I’ll be in Tucson (Univ of Arizona) Feb 27!

Please join me on Friday, Feb 27 in Tucson, AZ as I talk about my book and the impressive student movement for justice in Palestine. Event page here.

Join Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace at the University of Arizona for what promises to be an inspirational lecture on student activism by visiting author and journalist Nora Barrows-Friedman. An award-winning journalist and associate editor at Electronic Intifada, Nora will be speaking about her new book on pro-Palestinian student activism in the United States.

“In Our Power: Students Organize for Justice in Palestine” captures the voices of those involved in Palestine solidarity work across college campuses in the US. Nora spent months interviewing students and young people and her commitment to focus on their own voices and calls for justice shines through in her book. “In Our Power” documents a fast-growing and historic movement dear and valuable to us all.

The event will be held in the Tubac room, located on the fourth floor of the Student Union at the University of Arizona.

Interview about my book in Truthout!

Charlotte Silver, a great Bay Area-based reporter and my colleague at The Electronic Intifada, interviewed me about In Our Power for Truthout. The book is out on November 4!

An excerpt of the interview:

The book is charged with the feeling of momentum the students have generated. And, as it chronicles a campaign that is still unfolding, In Our Power is really the opening chapter in an unfinished story. Filled with engaging anecdotes and tales of hard lessons learned in campus organizing, the book compels readers to think about an expanding space of activism on college campuses that is being opened up by committed students who see the fight for justice in Palestine as intrinsically linked to the greater fight for justice in the United States.

I met with Barrows-Friedman in her Oakland home just weeks before her book is scheduled to hit shelves across the country. We talked about what makes this movement sustainable, why it’s growing in the face of an amply funded opposition, and how the BDS strategy is a game changer.

Charlotte Silver: Your book is based on the premise and expectation that the Palestine solidarity movement on US campuses is growing. What do you think is the seed of that growth?

Nora Barrows-Friedman: It’s definitely a movement that’s growing, and it didn’t come out of a vacuum. There’s been over a century of Palestinian organizing in this country – which I was surprised to learn about, actually, though it also wasn’t shocking given the level of oppression and repression that Palestinians have faced since the Balfour Declaration (1917) and even before.

But since the second intifada, students in the US really ramped up their organizing because of the level of outright atrocity and barbarity Israel has meted out against Palestinians: Settlements have expanded; Gaza was cut off from the world and Israel has expanded its routine attacks on Palestinians.

And then after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the enormity of violence that was seen and felt and heard by students struggling for Palestinian rights really galvanized the movement even more.

I finished the book literally two weeks before the three Israeli youth were murdered in the West Bank, which set off a vicious series of events and ultimately resulted in Israel’s seven-week attack on Gaza. Now there has been a new galvanization of this movement. Students are coming back to school and asking what can we do to ramp up this movement.

A lot of people don’t know that Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a relatively new superstructure for all of these dispersed groups to organize themselves under and learn within. Tell me about how it formed and has grown over the past several years, and what they are doing differently from past Palestinian activism in the US, which, as you discuss in the book, has a long history.

SJP is relatively new. And the beginning was really at UC Berkeley, where the first student solidarity conference happened in 2002. The students at UC Berkeley were spearheading this – though I don’t think they knew it was going to be this massive superstructure, like you said.

SJP has since grown into this national organization; there are over 150 different chapters. Dozens were just added in the last couple of months since the school year started because people are outraged about what happened this summer.

The national organizing committee is not a hierarchical structure, and they’re learning every day how to grow the organization and how to be allies and mentors to new SJP members and chapters. It’s all grassroots: No one gets paid for what they do. These are all undergraduate and graduate students who are spending most of their time trying to get through school and in their spare time they’re working on this.

In Our Power: Out November 4th!

Great news!

My book, In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine, will be published on November 4. Get your pre-ordered copy here!

And the official book launch celebration will be on November 6, at La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley, CA. More info here.

Then, I will be embarking on a national tour — let me know if your SJP chapter, community activism group, faith organization or local library would like to host me! Get in touch with me on the “About” page here on this website. 🙂 See you all out on tour!

In Our Power

Documents reveal Zionist group spied on US student delegation to Palestine

A major investigative news piece by myself and my colleague, Asa Winstanley. Published January 29, 2014, on EI.

Documents reveal Zionist group spied on US student delegation to Palestine

Anti-Palestinian groups are escalating their repression tactics against student activists, including expanded surveillance. (Jennifer Moo / Flickr)

A right-wing Zionist group in California infiltrated a student trip to Palestine in 2012, a raft of secret documents obtained by The Electronic Intifada shows.

The documents confirm long-held activist suspicions that anti-Palestinian political groups are spying on student activists.

The files give a rare insight into the murky world of pro-Israel groups’ surveillance of students and other activists in campuses across the United States.

Pro-Israel student Prescott Watson spied on delegation members and organizers of the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), a “conflict analysis” project of the University of California, and reported back to the Santa Cruz-based Amcha Initiative.

Amcha is a stridently anti-Palestinian group behind a number of initiatives to silence and intimidate students and teachers perceived to be critical of Israel.

OTI includes Palestinian Americans as members and “promotes a relatively unified, positive message about Palestinians,” Amcha’s 29-page report “from a student participant” warned.

Speaking to The Electronic Intifada from Jerusalem, where he now lives, Watson admitted that “I know the report very well.”

At first, Watson denied writing it, claiming it was the work of Amcha leader Tammi Rossman-Benjamin (who is a teacher, not a student) — adding that it was “more than just her” work. In a second interview later that day, after he said he had been in contact with Rossman-Benjamin, Watson stated instead that “I don’t wish to make a comment on whether or not I wrote the report.”

The report, which The Electronic Intifada is publishing today, detailed the nature of the delegation along with information on student members who were identified as sympathetic to Palestinian rights.

A lecturer in Hebrew employed by the University of California at Santa Cruz, Rossman-Benjamin is a notorious anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim activist with a history of harassment, intimidation and litigious threats against students and faculty.

The report indicates that Watson was tasked with building a case against the Olive Tree Initiative and individual students as part of the growing fight by Zionist groups against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and Palestine solidarity activism on campuses.

Though students involved with the Olive Tree Initiative expressed suspicions to the group’s leadership about Watson, they say their concerns weren’t taken seriously.

Read the rest of the article here.

Children burned with cigarettes by Israeli soldiers in illegal settlement

Israeli soldiers “conduct traumatic arrests of Palestinian children, often involving violence and humiliation,” says a rights group.

(Sliman Khader / APA images)

Three Palestinian children were allegedly burned with lit cigarettes and denied access to food, water or toilet facilities after being arrested and detained by Israeli soldiers and police in September, a new report indicates.

In separate incidents, the three children were allegedly assaulted and abused during arrest and transfer to the Ariel police station, which is located inside the illegal Ariel settlement colony in the occupied West Bank.

Defence for Children International-Palestine section (DCI-Palestine) says that:

… Israeli soldiers severely and repeatedly beat Ali S, 14, from Azzun, Hendi S, 17, from Salfit, and Mohammad A, 15, from Tulkarem after arresting them. One soldier extinguished a cigarette butt on Ali’s lip while another burned Hendi’s arm with a cigarette, according to the sworn testimonies of the two teenagers. Hendi and Mohammad were denied access to food, water and toilet facilities for a long period. All three of them were accused of stone throwing.

DCI-Palestine adds that it submitted ten separate complaints in 2013 over alleged abuse and “torture of Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers and police,” but that in eight of the cases, “Israeli authorities failed to notify DCI-Palestine whether they had opened an investigation. The remaining two cases resulted in the military advocate-general’s decision to close the investigation due to insufficient evidence. Israeli authorities deem the refusal of victims to testify without the presence of a lawyer as insufficient evidence.”

The group cites statistics by Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, which reports that only five percent of complaints submitted to the Military Police Criminal Investigations Division have led to an indictment.

“Traumatic arrests”

In their press release, DCI-Palestine adds:

“Israeli soldiers conduct traumatic arrests of Palestinian children, often involving violence and humiliation, to prime them to quickly confess during interrogation,” said Iyad Misk, a lawyer at DCI-Palestine. “Burning children with cigarette butts raises particular alarm that demands a prompt, transparent and impartial investigation by the Military Police Criminal Investigations Division where the abusers are held accountable.”

Israeli authorities unconditionally released Hendi and sentenced Mohammad to time served during pretrial detention. Ali remains in Israeli custody.

This marks the second time Hendi endures ill treatment this year. In late February [2013], DCI-Palestine submitted a complaint to the Police Internal Investigations Department over the abuse Hendi suffered during interrogation at Ariel police station in February.

Just last month, it was revealed that Israeli soldiers put Palestinian prisoners — including children — in outdoor cages during a brutal winter storm.

And a week ago, Israeli soldiers were caught on video kidnapping and beating Palestinian youths near the Israeli wall in occupied East Jerusalem.

Human Rights Watch recently reported that at least twice in 2013, Israeli occupation forces ambushed, shot and killed Palestinian children near schools in the West Bank for no apparent reason.

Defence for Children International-Palestine section says that there was an average of 203 children in Israeli detention during 2013, an average of 33 of whom were between 12 and 15 years old. “The most common charge is for throwing stones,” DCI-Palestine adds. “Currently 51.4 percent of Palestinian child prisoners are detained inside Israel in violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”