By Ambriah Underwood
For many students, showing up to Thursday’s protest against Israel Fest at this university was one of the few ways they could convey pro-Palestine perspectives without repercussions.
Students for Justice in Palestine, an on-campus student organization advocating for Palestinian rights, hosted the event in response to Israel Fest, an annual event held by the Jewish Student Union that celebrated the 70th year since Israel’s founding.
This year, SJP used a man-made wall painted with the label “Israel Apartheid Wall” to act as a blockade to Israel Fest, which happened on the opposite end of McKeldin Mall. They also hosted a teach-in, where students gathered to listen to speakers talk about their issues with the festival.
Sarah Eshera, the president of this university’s Muslim Alliance for Social Change, said during her speech that Israel was “founded on the forced displacement of thousands of individuals.”
The senior math and philosophy major went on to say that those of Palestinian descent on campus are the targets of racial slurs, such as being referred to as a terrorist, and that Palestinians in general have been “systematically harassed” by the Israel Defense Forces overseas.
Around 50 students and community members gathered to listen to organizers like Eshera talk about why they are intent on bringing awareness to the Palestinian struggle through their protest of Israel Fest.
Eshera said she didn’t like that Israel Fest was being presented as an “innocent celebration of people trying to have fun” when an innumerable amount of Palestinian lives are “lost at the expense of funding Israel.”
A common theme throughout the speeches was the idea that Palestinian rights are human rights, drawing upon other historical acts of resistance like that of figures such as Nelson Mandela fighting apartheid in South Africa.
Furthermore, the speakers emphasized their support of modern movements such as Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights.
Whenever a few spectators would start to heckle the speakers, the audience would drown out their comments with chants like “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
With Palestinian-Israeli relations at the forefront of people’s minds after the recent clash between Israeli soldiers and demonstrators—over 770 of which were wounded and at least 15 killed after the soldiers opened fire on the crowd, according to The Guardian—students felt passionate about protesting.
Rami, a senior computer engineering student and member of SJP, said that part of the reason he joined the organization was because Palestinians “can’t even go back to their own roots to see their land.”
When talking about how social media has helped impact everyday access to news, Rami cited apps like Snapchat and their ability to record events live for helping raise awareness on the issue.
“People are actually waking up to what’s in Palestine,” he said.
However, for students like Eshera, knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict existed well before people started learning about the issue through the news. For them, it started at home.
Eshera said that she’s “known about the protest since I was little,” learning as young as six about the discrimination faced by the Palestinian people.
“Palestinians shouldn’t be hostages in their own country,” said Ivy, a junior government and politics major and member of SJP.
Due to concerns of anonymity and, for some, immigration, some students didn’t feel comfortable sharing their full names or speaking publicly about the issue at all.
Mandy Stussman, the treasurer of SJP and a senior sociology major, is a Jewish student on campus who empathizes with the vulnerability of other students. She said she understands that being a U.S. citizen and a Jewish person affords her a certain level of stability.
“I have a lot of privilege being Jewish,” said Stussman.
She said that students might be “worried about their [student] visa” and how speaking out about Palestinian issues might cause them to come under unwanted scrutiny.
It’s the kind of attention that Stussman has started to experience, having had information about her activism publicized on the site Canary Mission, an organization that “documents people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses,” according to their website.
Stussman’s profile on Canary Mission contains links to her personal Twitter and Facebook pages, and it also offers information on places that she has been employed.
Publishing identifying information about a person on the internet is a practice known as doxing.
For students who cannot rely on their citizenship status to ensure that their activism doesn’t negatively affect their legal status, the idea of being doxed can be especially concerning.
Stussman said she “really can’t do anything about it” since removing her information from the site may require an expensive legal process.
Still, despite having her information publicized, Stussman said she continues to protest and is “not going to let them beat us down.”
Stussman said that despite efforts to engage in a dialogue with JSU, they refuse to take their suggestions for rebranding Israel Fest as a cultural event rather than one that celebrates Israel.
“Every year we reach out to them,” she said.
Despite their protest, Eshera makes it clear that their issue is with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
“It’s the country and its policies that we oppose, not the Jewish people,” she said.