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Interview: Bates Leftist Coalition on fighting Israeli apartheid

by | Jun 22, 2021 | Anti-racism, News

Sheikh Jarrah is a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, Israel. The population largely consists of Palestinians who were forcibly expelled from Jerusalem’s Talbiya neighborhood during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Since 1967, Israeli nationalists have been systematically chipping away at that population. Recently, Palestinians fought back against these evictions and their resistance was met with brutal force from Israeli police. A wave of international support, including rallies here in Maine, for Palestinians, as well as ongoing conversations surrounding the BDS movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) is challenging US government support for Israel and putting pressure on companies that willingly work with and fund Israeli terror. 

On May 9 of this year, in the wake of recent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police in Sheikh Jarrah, several slogans were chalked on the outside walls of Lewiston’s Bates College; the phrases included “Free Palestine,” “Stop Ethnic Cleansing,” “Israel is killing innocent people,” and “Fuck Zionist Israel.” Someone called the police and Bates College administrators decried the graffiti as antisemitic; subsequently filing a report with Attorney General’s office asking it to investigate the incident as a hate crime. The Attorney General’s office later declined to proceed with a probe because the graffiti “express[ed] opinions which were not actionable under the Maine Civil Rights Act.”

Pine and Roses’s Coral Howe reached out to members of the Bates Leftist Coalition, a leftist and anti-capitalist group within the college, to get their thoughts on Israeli apartheid, the graffiti at Bates, and suggestions on how we as Maine residents can actively participate in movements to raise awareness and stop our government’s funding of the Israeli state’s brutality against Palestinians.

“Stop murdering Palestine Children-Censored” Phto credit Vanessa Paolella/The Bates Student

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Coral Howe: I recently saw that someone reported the graffiti to the Attorney General to be investigated as a hate crime, however, the investigation was later dropped. Could you share your thoughts regarding the conflation of anti-zionism with antisemitism?

Bates Leftist Coalition: It’s very straightforward and has been repeated over and over again: The conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is a way to silence pro-Palestinian human rights activists. And not only that, it threatens the ability of every community–just like it has at Bates–to fight actual antisemitism. Zionism, regardless of its historical meaning (which has continually been contested since the creation of Israel), has become a project of US imperialism and Israeli settler-colonialism in the Middle East. To deny that is to deny the reality of its real-world usage as an ideology.

CH: To what extent (if at all), do you personally believe, US citizens are complicit in the Israeli apartheid? 

BLC: US citizens are generally complicit in their ignorance. However, it must be noted that in many cases this ignorance is perpetuated by a lack of civic education. Most of us are unaware of how to reach out to our representatives and politicians to make change because we have never been taught how to do so. We would like to believe that the majority of individuals want to do the right thing, but how can they if they have never learned how to be civically engaged? Not only this, but as both consumers and workers, we are forced to participate in systems that effectuate these forms of violence. Some of us simply cannot afford to boycott or engage in strikes against certain companies because these institutions and others like them hold a monopoly over resources necessary for survival and functionality in daily modern life. Numerous institutions and companies in the United States continue to exploit Palestinian labor and profit off of Israel’s apartheid state, facing relatively little public opposition. So at the end of the day, the hard truth is that sacrifices must be made in the pursuit of justice and that message needs to be spread far and wide. And as Edmund Burke famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

CH: What recommendations do you have for Mainers who wish to combat US involvement in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? 

BLC: Perhaps the most straightforward answer to that has been provided by AdBusters Magazine. In response to the question of “What’s next?” after the establishment of the shaky ceasefire [that has since ended with the restart of bombing of Gaza–C.H.]: “Celebrate the movement; Boycott, Divest, and Sanction companies still operating in illegal settlements; push to end US military support; and protest and strike in solidarity with the Palestinian General Strike.” Mainers need to boycott and strike against companies profiting off of Israeli apartheid (see the list released by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last year). Mainers involved in electoral politics also need to push our officials to stand against the billions of dollars the US sends to Israel every year. And furthermore, residents of Maine need to both fight against the false conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism (which frequently endangers Muslims, Palestinians, and/or Arabs as it did at our college) and fight real acts of antisemitism and anti-Jewish violence committed by those who conflate all of Judaism with Zionist settler-colonialism.

Photo credit George Natsis/The Bates Student

CH: Have you observed your how efforts to shine a light on the Palestinian genocide have positively influence discourse in local communities?

BLC: We think that this is the most the Palestinian struggle and resistance has been talked about during our time at Bates. As an Arab student and member of BLC recounts: “I remember freshman year when many students felt uncomfortable when I brought this topic up. They’d either change the topic or say it is ‘very complicated’ or ask me what I think of Hamas. The backlash was hurtful, but I believe it raised awareness and made more people educate themselves about this topic and finally pick a side and speak up.” Though we harshly condemn Bates’s handling of the situation, at the very least it has made the Palestinian struggle central to our community’s conversation.

CH: Gwen Lexow, Bates’ director of Title IX and civil rights compliance, wrote in an email to students that said she heard members of the Bates community “expressing deep concern about the impact of the language contained in the flyers and graffiti, particularly on Jewish members of our campus community.” In your experience, how have some Jewish members of the campus community reacted to the graffiti, flyers, and decrying of Zionism? 

BLC: In speaking on this, we do not wish to reduce the narrative or voice of any single Jewish student’s experience on campus. However, we are aware that: 

  • In the beginning stages of BLC’s attempt to form a coalition of Bates Student Organizations in protest of the College’s highly innaproriate response to anti-Zionist graffiti, the Jewish Student Union declined to sign as a club. 
  • In response, a couple of Jewish BLC members organized an unofficial coalition of “Bates Jewish Students for Peace in Palestine,” which garnered forty-three signatures. 

Furthermore, as a Jewish BLC member explains: “As a Jewish student myself who has experienced the all-encompassing effects of a Zionist upbringing, I understand that the unlearning is hard–that it requires some of my peers to meditate on other forms of seeing and perceiving. But it is vital, and it is our only way forward.”

CH: Are there any other groups that have reached out to you in solidarity?

BLC: One of our main missions is moving toward a greater left unity in Maine, so we work with numerous organizations such as DSA Maine and CPUSA ME who have independently worked and written in solidarity with the Palestinian people, but in this particular case, it was largely the Bates community that stood in solidarity

We were able to pull together a statement condemning Bates’s false neutrality on the issue and their failure to both protect Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern, and/or Palestinian students and to fight actual, widly explicit cases of antisemitism (for instance, a video on social media of a student giving the Sieg Heil salute, swastikas drawn in the library) that have occured on campus within recent memory. And this [the statement] was all done with the help and support of over a dozen organizations at Bates such as Black Student Student, Bates Restorative & Transformative Justice Coalition, and Asian American Students in Action to name just a few. We had a group of alumni reach out and begin their own statement to demand the college take a stance against genocide and publicly apologize for their actions; several faculty members have been highly supportive and are apparently in the process of issuing a statement in tandem with ours. 

In addition, an incredible group of Jewish students at Bowdoin (a fellow NESCAC school) issued a statement in solidarity with Bates students’ right to free expression and condemning the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

CH: Any final thoughts for our readers?

Sign at May Portland rally in solidarity with Palestine. Photo credit Pine and Roses

BLC: Bates College is complicit in Israeli apartheid as it was complicit in South African apartheid decades ago. Bates did not divest its money away from South Africa until 1985, when it became clear that the Apartheid government was in its final stages. That economic boycott and divestment campaign began in the 1960s—around two decades earlier.

We as an organization fear that Bates will continue to stand by Israel’s system of violent settler-colonialism as it did with a similar system in South Africa. Despite its purported commitments to equity, inclusion, and human rights, the college has made clear that it does not stand by these values by supporting colonial systems completely at odds with the college’s early abolitionist history. As demonstrated by President Spencer and Bates College’s unequivocal rejection of the American Studies Association’s 2014 decision to boycott Israeli institutions, the college has made it clear that it intends to hold to their stance that “[a]cademic boycotts strike at the heart of academic freedom and threaten the principles of dialogue, scholarly interchange, and open debate that are the lifeblood of the academy and civil society.”

We have to wonder if President Spencer would have made the same statement about boycotts of South African institutions. By treating the chalk drawings as a possible hate crime when it so obviously wasn’t and disregarding the voices of its Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students, Bates has effectively drawn attention away from the Palestinian liberation struggle and toward the dangerous conflations of anti-Zionism with antisemitism and of Judaism with Israeli settler-colonialism.

Coral Howe is a member of the Pine and Roses Editorial collective.

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