On college campuses all across the United States, more students than ever before are mobilizing for Palestine. In Nora Barrows-Friedman’s new book, In Our Power, she tells us how and why. Through conversations with the students leading the fight, Barrows-Friedman documents how a robust national movement is forming from what began as decentralized campaigns scattered across the country.
The author, a Bay Area native, has been reporting in and out of occupied Palestine since 2004. More recently, she has turned her focus to the student movement in the United States, traveling to nearly a dozen states, 22 cities and 60 universities. In her book, she locates the work of the students she interviews within the larger, decades-old struggle for justice in Palestine. While emphasizing the voices of today’s students, she succinctly provides a history of Palestinian activism in the United States as well as Israel’s occupation and colonization of Palestine. Barrows-Friedman also shows how Zionist and anti-Palestinian groups with deep pockets have tried to silence and eradicate this organic movement.
“The [divestment resolution] process enforces a debate on campus. It forces people to have to look at what’s going on and what they’re directly investing in. Every time you have that debate, you come out ahead. Multiple Students for Justice in Palestine [groups] doubled, or tripled, or quadrupled in size after they went through the divestment process, even by losing a bill,” Rahim Kurwa, a national coordinator with Students for Justice for Palestine, told Barrows-Friedman. (p. 178)
While student groups have invented a range of creative ways to inform, mobilize and engage their campuses, proposing divestment resolutions in accordance with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, has imbued the groups with focus and objective. BDS is committed to pressuring the Israeli government to comply with international laws by holding it and the corporations complicit in its illegal occupation of Palestinian land and denial of Palestinian rights accountable. The movement for BDS was launched in 2005, when Palestinian civil society issued a call to the international community to organize around its principles.
“For an organization like the ADL to be talking about what is and isn’t hate speech as they go around and try to categorize political speech and activism as hate speech is disturbing.”
The book is charged with the feeling of momentum the students have generated. And, as it chronicles a campaign that is still unfolding, In Our Power is really the opening chapter in an unfinished story. Filled with engaging anecdotes and tales of hard lessons learned in campus organizing, the book compels readers to think about an expanding space of activism on college campuses that is being opened up by committed students who see the fight for justice in Palestine as intrinsically linked to the greater fight for justice in the United States.
I met with Barrows-Friedman in her Oakland home just weeks before her book is scheduled to hit shelves across the country. We talked about what makes this movement sustainable, why it’s growing in the face of an amply funded opposition, and how the BDS strategy is a game changer.
Charlotte Silver: Your book is based on the premise and expectation that the Palestine solidarity movement on US campuses is growing. What do you think is the seed of that growth?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: It’s definitely a movement that’s growing, and it didn’t come out of a vacuum. There’s been over a century of Palestinian organizing in this country – which I was surprised to learn about, actually, though it also wasn’t shocking given the level of oppression and repression that Palestinians have faced since the Balfour Declaration (1917) and even before.
But since the second intifada, students in the US really ramped up their organizing because of the level of outright atrocity and barbarity Israel has meted out against Palestinians: Settlements have expanded; Gaza was cut off from the world and Israel has expanded its routine attacks on Palestinians.
And then after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the enormity of violence that was seen and felt and heard by students struggling for Palestinian rights really galvanized the movement even more.
I finished the book literally two weeks before the three Israeli youth were murdered in the West Bank, which set off a vicious series of events and ultimately resulted in Israel’s seven-week attack on Gaza. Now there has been a new galvanization of this movement. Students are coming back to school and asking what can we do to ramp up this movement.
A lot of people don’t know that Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a relatively new superstructure for all of these dispersed groups to organize themselves under and learn within. Tell me about how it formed and has grown over the past several years, and what they are doing differently from past Palestinian activism in the US, which, as you discuss in the book, has a long history.
SJP is relatively new. And the beginning was really at UC Berkeley, where the first student solidarity conference happened in 2002. The students at UC Berkeley were spearheading this – though I don’t think they knew it was going to be this massive superstructure, like you said.
SJP has since grown into this national organization; there are over 150 different chapters. Dozens were just added in the last couple of months since the school year started because people are outraged about what happened this summer.
The national organizing committee is not a hierarchical structure, and they’re learning every day how to grow the organization and how to be allies and mentors to new SJP members and chapters. It’s all grassroots: No one gets paid for what they do. These are all undergraduate and graduate students who are spending most of their time trying to get through school and in their spare time they’re working on this.
There is an interesting tension that emerges in your book, which is that these groups seem to be gaining power in the face of a more organized opposition to them. In your book, you talk about how counter-campaigns have poured $8.5 million into squelching these groups. Talk about who this opposition is and why they haven’t been successful.
These opposition groups – many of them have ties to the Israeli government either directly or indirectly. Huge organizations like AIPAC, and other national organizations that have small chapters that are dedicated solely to promoting Israel’s image on campus. So you have little organizations, like the Israel Action Network, the David Project, the AMCHA initiative and Project Interchange, which are heavily funded organizations that are actively trying to drive a wedge between students and the administration, denigrate Palestinian activism and synonymize it with anti-Semitism.
In some instances, the ADL [Anti-Defamation League], for example, actually coaches administrations on how to deal with Palestinian activism; they say BDS is an anti-Semitic movement.
In Florida, students had to go to a so-called “anti-bias training” that was mandated and designed by the ADL, after they organized a nonviolent, silent walkout of an Israeli soldier who was invited to speak at Florida Atlantic University.
What did that training consist of?
That’s a good question – I was talking to one of the students about it. It was about how to identify racism and discrimination. Milquetoast and generic. They talked about defining hate speech and what is hate speech. For an organization like the ADL to be talking about what is and isn’t hate speech as they go around and try to categorize political speech and activism as hate speech is disturbing.
At AIPAC’s national conference a couple of years ago, Jonathan Kessler actually said, “How are we going to beat back the anti-Israel divestment resolution at Berkeley? We’re going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote. This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”
AIPAC wants to do on college campuses what it’s been doing in Congress for so long: influence students so much that they will be too intimidated to even consider a vote for Palestinians.
What has the opposition been successful at?
They’ve been really successful at wasting people’s time. People at AMCHA, for example, have opened federal complaints arguing that students organizing for Palestine and the mere existence of SJP and Muslim student organizations is an act of anti-Semitism and is therefore a violation of Title IV in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects minority groups from discrimination on federally funded college campuses.
Those threats, federal complaints, investigations, really do waste people’s time. It also throws up this level of intimidation toward students who are just getting involved in the issue: I can see how that could divert students from joining the movement, sadly.
“I think it’s important to show how diverse this movement is. It’s not just Palestinians or anti-Zionist Jews, as it has traditionally been viewed.”
But there is Palestine Solidarity Legal Support [a partner of the Center for Constitutional Rights], which is a godsend for students facing intimidation. I interviewed Liz Jackson in my book who is one of the co-founders of it; they have an incredibly full plate. They are always being brought in to mediate to remind administrations that free speech is still a thing and that it exists on college campuses.
The national structure of SJP is also important. It provides mentorship to the new members and provides advice and strategies to other members. So I think it’s becoming easier in some ways and sustainable.
Meanwhile, these massively funded Israeli organizations are doing as much as they can, but their arguments keep falling flat.
In your book you write about how college campuses have become an important front in the minds of Israeli politicians all the way up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What kind of impact do you see this robust student movement having beyond the borders of campuses?
I think that the fact that it’s not just contained in the Palestine solidarity framework, but that Palestine solidarity activists are going to the Ferguson protests; they’re marching for LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, and so on. They’re organizing with national and international organizations to lend their solidarity and grow these really resonant campaigns together.
BDS is not something that has overnight success; it’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but the fact that Veolia has lost billions of dollars in contracts and that SodaStream has plunged [in] their stock market value is something that students can take some responsibility for.
Under the umbrella of Palestinian solidarity there have always been a myriad of divergent viewpoints and I think Hoda Mitwally of CUNY School of Law alludes to how BDS has helped the movement become less fractured. From your perspective – from over a decade of observing this movement – talk about why you think it is less fractured right now.
Yeah it’s true. Before the BDS call, people were just organizing around the two-state versus one-state solution, or Palestinians inside ’48 and the rights they don’t have. It was very analytical.
I remember talking to groups of people about Israel and Palestine and people would say, “This is so horrible, so what do we do?”
“In Palestine, every day is difficult. Emotionally and spiritually, dealing with horrific human rights abuses takes a toll on you professionally.”
And the answers were: Write your Congressperson; send a letter to the editor; sign a petition. It all felt like these enormously missed opportunities to do something concrete. And then the BDS call came, and students were like, here’s what you can do.
The BDS call is something concrete: Here is a list of companies that profit off of Israeli apartheid and the occupation, and they’re companies based in Oakland, California, or New York City or Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They have offices and the people who run them have names and addresses: You can picket, do de-shelving campaigns; you file lawsuits – all these things that have a direct impact while also publicizing the issues simultaneously.
BDS also gives a space for Palestinians in the diaspora to engage effectively, whereas before it was dominated by post-Oslo, Ramallah politics. What do you think is the impact of BDS enabling Palestinians in the diaspora to engage politically and forcefully on the broader conversation?
Right, I think it has been huge because the guaranteed right of return is one of the main tenets of the BDS call.
I can’t speak for Palestinians, but in my conversations with young Palestinians on college campuses, I felt like there was a lot of pride in being part of the conversation and having that agency to speak from their own experiences about what was happening in their homeland to their cousins, to their land. I think BDS is a big part of that conversation and it has given Palestinians here a sense of agency and a means to amplify their voices.
In each of your interviews, you devote time for the people to discuss their personal identities and how it relates to their work for Palestine – for Palestinians, but also non-Palestinians. Why do you think that is an important element of activism in the US and in the field of Palestine?
I think it’s important to show how diverse this movement is. It’s not just Palestinians or anti-Zionist Jews, as it has traditionally been viewed. It’s an incredibly, richly diverse movement. Without getting too wrapped up in identity politics, I think it’s important to allow the students to speak to their experiences – their privileges or non-privileges.
Even within the Palestinian community there is so much diversity in experience, background and relationship to Palestine. I think it’s so important not to generalize their experience as well.
It’s interesting to see how the intersection of these diverse groups plays out; it’s not a homogenous group fighting for one cause. Students see that immediately and so it’s no wonder that when student groups put up a divestment resolution, dozens of student groups from all areas immediately sign on.
I managed to include everyone I interviewed in the book – even if it was just one sentence – which was an important feat. Because they lent me their time, I wanted to honor them in whatever way I could fit on the page.
I’d like to hear your thoughts about the difference in reporting on something happening in your own country after so many years of reporting abroad. What struck you about the different experiences?
This was a project I never envisioned myself doing. But it was incredible to be in Chicago, Portland, Boca Raton, Florida, speaking to these kids who are all so different and come from such different experiences, but have a common core.
In Palestine, every day is difficult. Emotionally and spiritually, dealing with horrific human rights abuses takes a toll on you professionally. I did that for eight years straight, and I’m not done with Palestine, but working here in this country is equally important as a reporter, to see the other side of the coin when it comes to supporting human rights. The US is the benefactor of Israel and the occupation wouldn’t exist without our support. So it’s important to illuminate the important solidarity work being done here.
Who did you have in mind as your audience when you wrote this?
Students, mostly. I wanted it to be a document to reflect their history in the making.
I tried to write the book in a way that was accessible for people who don’t know anything about Palestine. I laid out a lot of background but didn’t want to overload people with history.
I also think this is a book for people who are interested in social movements. The characters in this movement are incredible, vibrant, young people. I hope people find something in there that resonates with them.
Are you going to keep covering this?
For sure. Now that I’m in it, I can’t leave it. I’m really touched when I get emails from students who I haven’t met who say, “I hear you’re the person I go to; here’s what’s happening on my campus; it’s insane – and it would be great to get coverage.”
So I will keep writing about it, but I hope the next book about student activism is written by a student.