What it means to be a student for justice in Palestine

Guest contribution by Dana Saifan


Thousands of students organizing for justice in Palestine fill schools and universities across the globe, dedicating countless hours to discussing the Palestine question. Students attend conferences and lectures, organize rallies and events, and flood Facebook and Twitter feeds with Palestine-related news in hopes of educating themselves and others. They fall in love with leading life as an activist, but too often, they don’t reflect on the meaning of activism and put their work into perspective.

For the past two months, I, a Palestinian-American who has been actively involved in a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter for the past three years, have been traveling across Palestine, examining the occupation from the ground and being at the receiving end of dozens of individuals’ life stories. I have also spoken with internationals, heard Palestinian perspectives on internationals, and, although I’m Palestinian, walked the streets of Palestine viewed as an international.

Several times throughout my trip, I’ve heard elderly Palestinians repeat concerns that the younger generation of Palestinians is not doing much to fight the occupation, that they are caught up in materialism and other superficial things. I myself have had moments of hopelessness, questioning the energy I put into the movement for Palestinian rights all the way in the States when the ones suffering in Palestine were themselves seemingly caught up in worldly things, appearing to not acknowledge the occupation and suffering around them. There have been points when I’ve questioned why we dedicate so much time to advocating for the boycott of and divestment from corporations such as Hewlett-Packard, Coca-Cola, Caterpillar, Nestle and more when these things are commonly found in Palestinian homes and stores. Seeing these corporations across Palestine, coupled with my conversations with my elders, forced me to put my work into perspective.

Through every conversation, a critical question rang in my head: what does is mean to be a student for justice in Palestine?

Replacing hopelessness with perspective
Despite the countless moments of hopelessness that we are sure to face in our activism, we must come back to one fact: if the Palestinian people ask something of us, we must act. So long as the Palestinian people are fighting for their rights, we must support them. If Palestinian youth are on the streets seeming to be caught up in materialism, we need to find those youth sacrificing everything for a better tomorrow, and we must celebrate them. Their fight is a real one, and we cannot let their stories be undermined by the concerns of their elders. It is human nature to let ourselves focus on the negative and to focus on how we can improve, but we cannot ignore all that is being done by so many Palestinian individuals, some of the strongest and most resilient people in the world. We must celebrate them–not just the hunger strikers and the stone-throwers, but the mothers, the fathers, and the children who get by each day with a smile, their resistance.

Understanding solidarity
We must recognize that to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people does not mean to fight for the Palestinian people. First and foremost, it is the role of the Palestinian people to take charge of their own freedom, and it is the role of those who stand in solidarity with them to follow their charge. We have no place in stating what we believe the Palestinian people should do, or to suggest what the Palestinian people should want to see as a “solution.”

Too often in our activism, we are confronted with questions of what solution we support, be it a one-state or two-state solution. And too often, we fall into attempts to answer this question, finding ourselves in long and heated discussions, when truly the only response we should have is that we support Palestinian self-determination. Unless we are Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip, Palestinians living within 1948 Palestine, or Palestinian refugees, we are not necessarily in the position to determine what is best for the Palestinian people. To do so would be to imply that the Palestinians are incapable of deciding the structure of their state for themselves or to assume that what the Palestinian people decide is the wrong choice. As soon as we cross this point, we silence Palestinian narratives, thus sacrificing the central tenet of our solidarity: sharing the voices of the Palestinian people.

Rather than us contemplating answers or proposing future directions for the Palestinian movement for justice, when the Palestinians call for action (such as their call for an international boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement in 2005), we shall take it upon ourselves to spread their call and to do what is asked of us. This is the Palestinian people’s movement, not ours, and we must not lose sight of that.

Recognizing privilege
Further, to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people, we must identify privilege, from racial privilege to class privilege to gender privilege. We must also recognize that, although we can identify privilege, we cannot quite deconstruct it. However, we can use the recognition of privilege to better understand our place in the movement.

Take the case of a White, middle-class, male college student. His race, socioeconomic status, and gender are not things he chose, but it is essential for him to understand these three aspects of his privilege in order to be part of the movement for Palestinian rights. With his race and socioeconomic status, he can never truly understand the Palestinian cause: he won’t really feel the struggles of impoverished Palestinians, and he won’t know what it’s like to be a Palestinian whose access to education has been stolen from him, but if he does not recognize his privilege, he cannot begin to understand the Israeli occupation’s structural violence or its effects on the Palestinian people.

Likewise, if he does not recognize his male privilege and constantly work towards addressing it, he will continue to contribute to the under-representation and disempowerment of both Palestinian women and women working in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

We must also be sure to apply this recognition of privilege to empower others and shape our work at our places of activism. For example, when we put on events, we should put an extra effort into having Palestinian women as our speakers whenever we get the opportunity.

Understanding that we will not free the Palestinian people
It is unfortunately too common to find individuals with the mindset that the Palestinians (and those struggling in general) need to be “saved,” coupled with a belief that others need to do the saving.

If you are part of a Palestine solidarity group thinking that you will free Palestine, think again. Any notion that we, the students standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people, will “free” the Palestinian people must be eradicated. The only people who will free Palestine are the Palestinian people. Regardless of the number of successful BDS campaigns on our campuses or the numbers of minds we change, the true progress will come from within Palestine and from Palestinian refugees.

This doesn’t mean that you should be disheartened or think “well, what’s the point?” The work we do is all for Palestine, and as long as we do it right and make sure our actions match what the Palestinian people have asked of us, our work will continue to raise awareness about the occupation and contribute to the movement. While this awareness is a tool to educate others about the facts on the ground, we must keep in mind that when we see a free Palestine, we will by no means be the reason Palestine is free, and we definitely will not be heroes.

By eliminating feelings of hopelessness, understanding what solidarity means, and recognizing our privilege and role in the movement for Palestinian rights, we can consciously shape our activism to align with Palestinian goals. We can contribute to the empowerment of the Palestinian people. We can begin to understand what it really means to be a student for justice in Palestine.

Dana Saifan

Dana Saifan is a Palestinian-American from Southern California. She is currently a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studies Psychology and Public Health. Dana is also an active member of Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA.

There are 2 comments

  1. Munir

    Its really great to read such thoughtful writing about this topic. I’m in the SJP at Tufts and I’m also a Palestinian from the diaspora. We all go through these stages of feeling hopeless, energized, furious, optimistic, etc.– its good to know I’m not the only one, and good to remember our place in it all.

  2. fasttimesinpalestine

    Thanks for this terrific piece. It really lays it out there to help people be more clear about what they are doing and why. This is fundamentally not about “us” (the non-Palestinian activists) or about anyone being a hero. And it’s not about judging whether certain elements of Palestinian society are “doing enough.” That’s not for us to decide. What is for us to decide is whether and how we stand in solidarity with the people who are doing more than we can ever imagine.

    I’m an American woman who was lucky enough to live in Palestine for two and a half years during and after the second Intifada. I can never put into words the respect I have for the people who are struggling so hard for their rights and their very existence, and maintaining their humanity despite inhuman acts committed against them. It’s an honor to be in solidarity with them.


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