Last month, I had the pleasure of presenting a workshop on the right to education at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Conference in Chicago. The workshop focused on three regions: Iran, the occupied Gaza Strip, and Chicago’s inner city. At the end of the session, a student approached me and asked if I knew of any resources she could consult if — she shyly hesitated here for a moment — she wanted to learn more about life under occupation.
In our brief chat, she gave me a peek into her family dynamics. With one sibling employed by AIPAC and two parents staunchly supporting Israeli settlement building and border expansionism, she was brave to have even registered for the conference.
As I left the conference hall, I realized I had forgotten to take down her contact information. I scribbled done some of my thoughts in case of any future communication. I’ve composed it in letter format for now, addressed to her.
To the young lady with the brother who works for AIPAC,
Thank you for attending and thank you for choosing this session out of the other five running in parallel.
To be clear, neither myself nor the conference organizers nor the group of friends you came with could ever speak to the ideas and politics that enveloped you and cradled your mind over the last decade and a half.
But just as clearly, much of what was shared with you in that long lecture-style room challenged what you had come to learn about Palestinians, specifically those of them living in the besieged Gaza Strip. You alluded to this yourself. And I think that’s the best part of it all. It takes a special kind of power to challenge any set of beliefs that we hold to be true. Despite how it feels, to challenge something is not necessarily to reject it but to open our minds to the very possibility that there might be another truth somewhere out in the wild. The fear comes not from the discovery itself but from the exhausting act of forging a path that leads to a discovery that may or may not exist.
Within the confines of our case, though, you can be sure that the discovery is there to be made.
Just like you told me, you’re in a very interesting position. On the one hand, you have institutionalized forces bearing down on you and working diligently to expand the distance between you and your discovery. You also face immeasurable pressure from family and friends who, intentionally or otherwise, contribute to that growing distance.
On the other, you have an opportunity to be part of the inevitable end of an illegal and unjust occupation. You face the prospect of a new human rights era in which human rights are more than just an abstract concept.
Having never been in your position, I can’t offer much in the name of advice. But I will tell you this. Your power lies wholly in the course you take, and your humanness is what will compel you to command an Israeli soldier to put down his gun and what will give you the strength to tear down a cement checkpoint wall and what will inspire you to rewrite history, this time with context, accountability, and justice in mind.
I suspect that you are at least braced for the discoveries you are set to make and the repercussions you are likely to experience in the face of a certain disappointed AIPAC intern, for example. But always remember your humanness, for that is where you draw your power and what brought you to the workshop in the first place.
This is a beautiful movement and it is a welcoming one. But you must always know your place in it. Being in solidarity with Palestinians is different from being Palestinian. Joining hands does not suggest you do the pulling. You are just as valuable to the cause as ever before — and you must remember that you are special because you left your comfort zone and challenged the status quo, not because of your background. These dynamics must be taken into account in order to tip the power scales in favor of justice, which is what you said you strive to do.
Equally important is that there is much to learn. The sheer amount of knowledge out there to absorb and to better inform our decisions and ideologies is daunting, even to those of us born and raised into the cause. But again, if you ever feel overwhelmed, let go of the reigns and let your humanness and your thirst for justice be what drives you.
I appreciate your active participation in the workshop and, more importantly, your courage to ask questions and to take the time to understand why the dots don’t connect in the narratives you’ve been exposed to. Hopefully you’ll serve as an inspiration to many others in similar situations.
I look forward to seeing you make your discovery.