Guest contribution by Dana Saifan
As a Palestinian living in the diaspora, I have at many times reached points of hopelessness in my organizing work. My paternal grandparents are 1948 refugees from Jaffa, and my maternal grandparents were 1967 refugees from Anabta. Growing up, my parents spoke little about Palestine, a land they themselves hardly knew. Speaking of Palestine was marked by a painful past, a sense of shame and loss, and a notion of despair. Questions about my grandparents’ lives in Palestine were pushed aside, and my parents answered with phrases such as “I don’t know,” which was, of course, the easier answer. The distance that stood between my family and our homeland always made us seemingly immobile actors in the struggle for liberation. There didn’t seem to be anything we could do except to take to the streets or passively watch footage of the Second Intifada on the television. Though these kinds of things didn’t have any direct impact on the ground, they triggered my consciousness from a young age. They triggered me to understand what it meant to be Palestinian in America, especially post-9/11. While children spent their weekends watching cartoons and playing outside, I joined the Palestinian community in downtown demonstrations. When children openly spoke about their ancestry in class, I felt the burden that comes with a forced silence. Responses to my identity were marred with ignorance, from the vague “What’s Palestine?” to the clueless “Palestine is not on a map” to the offensive “Your country is filled with terrorists.” To speak of Palestine in class was a political act in itself, apparently worthy of condemnation by my teachers. And if it wasn’t condemnation, it was correction. “You know Israel? It’s that.”
I didn’t understand the microaggressions that I faced throughout my life, and especially through my education, until I began college at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2010. I was quickly exposed to Palestinians who demonstrated pride in their identity and who did not seem to be intimidated into silence. I became close friends with Palestinian student organizers who inspired me to get involved in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and I followed the trials of the Irvine 11. I was introduced to the Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for the first time, and I learned more about my own identity through collaborative work with organizations such as Afrikan Student Union and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA).
Finding a space like SJP taught me that I didn’t have to remain an immobile actor in the occupation of Palestine anymore. I could do more than attend protests or watch the news. I began organizing my first BDS campaign my junior year, when we worked to deshelve Hewlett-Packard products at UCLA’s student store. The first divestment campaign I was involved in happened my senior year, when I really began noticing a significant shift in the conversations around Palestine on campus.
We presented our first divestment resolution to UCLA’s undergraduate student government on the evening of February 25, 2014. After running a quarter-long transparent, highly praised (even by conservative council members and students across campus) campaign, we entered the hearing feeling ready for anything. What we weren’t ready for, however, were the nine hours of public comment filled with racist, sexist and Islamophobic hate speech. We weren’t ready for Israeli soldiers to be flown in from Israel to spew hateful words just a few feet away from us. We weren’t ready for the complete dehumanization of Palestinians. Speakers stepped up to the microphone to tell us that “Arabs need to stop teaching their children to kill” and that the Apartheid wall and checkpoints were justified because “Palestinians are terrorists.” Council members went so far as to justify the systematic oppression of Palestinians with comments such as “terrorism is a thing.”
Twelve hours after the start of the hearing, the undergraduate student government, with a vote of 5-7, voted to continue funding the occupation of my family’s land.
Seven privileged students voted to force me to continue funding the oppression of my loved ones. The following day, I openly apologized to Palestinians that my university harms. I wrote:
“Today, and every day until divestment is passed, I am heartbreakingly complicit in the violence against my family and the occupation of my homeland. I continue to fund the bulldozers that demolish Palestinian homes; I am sorry for the homes and lives that I have been involved in taking. I continue to fund the checkpoints that dehumanize my people; I am sorry for helping to place the checkpoint outside my uncle’s home, and to all the women and children whose lives have been stripped by these inhumane apparatuses of control. I continue to fund the wall that cuts through Palestinian land; to every Palestinian cut from his/her land by this cage, and to each individual being animalized by these unnatural borders, I am deeply sorry. I continue to fund the settlements that lay on the rubble of Palestinian homes and bodies; to the refugees that I have helped to create, I cannot stop shedding tears for the pain that I have caused you. I continue to fund engines of fighter jets that steal too many lives; to all of you in our homeland, I wish I could take your spot when the jets I am forced to fund fly over your homes, destroy your families, and steal your loved ones.”
Every day after that demoralizing night has been dedicated to continuing the struggle for justice in Palestine. Though the initial failure of divestment ignited a temporary feeling of hopelessness, the solidarity of over 500 students from over twenty diverse communities seen that night gave me more hope for justice than I had ever felt before.
Nearly nine months later, our fight to end our complicity in this violence reached its apex. On November 18, SJP brought forward “A Resolution to Divest from Companies Engaged in Violence Against Palestinians,” endorsed by thirty0two student organizations on campus. With minimal public opposition and no amendments, the resolution passed with an overwhelming vote of 8-2-2, a vote that transcended party lines. No council members had any concrete changes to make to the resolution, and no one could give a reason as to why the resolution was problematic. Council member after council member spoke vocally about their support for human rights. They spoke about knowing the right thing to do, despite any backlash they may receive. They repeated over and over again that we should not harm any community, and that the plight of Palestinians has commonalities with that of other marginalized communities across the world. Even a council member from the more conservative slate eventually spoke in support of divestment, stating that after hearing everything he heard that night, the clear right choice to make was to end violence against the Palestinian people.
My freshman year, I would have never imagined UCLA’s campus to reach the point it has reached. When SJP formed a BDS committee my junior year, we thought it would be at least five years before divestment could even be brought up at UCLA, let alone pass. I never thought the conversation would go as smoothly and clearly as it did the night of the hearing. I never imagined that over thirty communities on campus would unite behind the fight for my people.
Seeing this significant shift on a campus that is heavily in favor of Israeli policy gives me more confidence than ever that we are on the path towards liberation. As Palestinians grow more resilient in fighting their oppression, that resilience strengthens the Palestine solidarity movement. For Palestinians living in the diaspora, victories such as the one I experienced on November 18 can re-instill us with a hope that can soon close the gap between our homeland and us. Soon, we can declare that the land of our parents and grandparents is free. Soon, we can be reunited with other Palestinians everywhere, right where we are supposed to be: from villages like Anabta to coastal cities like Jaffa, and every inch in between.
Dana Saifan is a Palestinian-American organizer from Southern California. She graduated from UCLA in 2014 with a B.A. in Psychology and continues to be involved in organizing with SJP at UCLA.