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Palestinian Graduate: Protesters Show Courage for Gaza as Leaders Show Cowardice

Amid a growing movement, there’s hope that a liberated Palestine will exist within our lifetime, says Alexandra Aladham.

UCLA protestors lock arms as police move in as students try to build a new Palestinian solidarity encampment on campus on May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles, California.

Part of the Series

Israel’s likely war crimes and genocide in Gaza since October — as well as its brutality in the decades preceding its recent attacks — are unconscionable. Yet pro-Israeli powers refuse to recognize any of the atrocities in Gaza and the West Bank, and continue to police our collective grief over the outrageous carnage with accusations of antisemitism.

There is something absurd about attributing omnibenevolence (explicitly or implicitly) to a state that practices apartheid and oppresses, dehumanizes and murders other human beings with impunity. On this score, to advance any critique against Israel is to be subjected to charges of apostasy — a trap both unethical and cruel. This line of thinking attempts to justify the murder of Palestinian children (no matter how many) as pre-sanctioned by Israel’s inviolable position in the world order.

The incredibly courageous acts of protest by students in the U.S. and around the world have broken the hold of this way of thinking by forcing attention on the horrors committed by Israel against Palestinians. They have helped to counter the false narrative that Israel is “innocent,” awakening so many from their apologetic slumber.

Yet so many Americans still refuse to be awakened. I have witnessed this firsthand from those who dismiss student protesters as politically naïve, having no clue about what they are protesting. This is testimonial injustice — “to refuse to believe someone without defensible reasons is to refuse to recognise them as a person,” as philosopher Eleanor Gordon Smith writes — which mirrors the refusal of corporate media, academic institutions and politicians to recognize Palestinians as persons.

It is important to hear from students, especially from Palestinian Americans, who know what it is like to be Palestinian in the U.S. and to be part of a group of people who face existential erasure. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Alexandra Aladham discusses her experiences as a Palestinian American student in a world where Palestinians are being demonized and murdered while Israel is deemed somehow “innocent.” Aladham recently graduated from Emory University with a major in environmental sciences and a minor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

George Yancy: What has it been like for you to be a Palestinian American in the U.S., especially within the context of Israel’s violence against Palestinians? Especially as university presidents, donors, and others have to engage in critical dialogue, which is intrinsically important to education, and to listen to a plurality of voices and perspectives, especially from those who are catching so much hell.

Alexandra Aladham: Growing up in a post-9/11 U.S. as a young Palestinian girl had its challenges. I think I can speak for many Muslim and Arab Americans when I say that racist jokes and ridicule within schools were extremely normalized, if not accepted. The amount of ignorance I witnessed (and still witness) was astounding. Not only did my friends, peers and teachers not know what was happening in Palestine, they didn’t seem to even know where Palestine was on a map. And, when someone did know, I was met with staunch Zionism and claims that Palestine “did not exist.” This confused me as a child. It caused me to rarely introduce myself as Palestinian, in fear I would be ignored or targeted. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I truly became unapologetically Palestinian. At this point, I fully understood that Israel was an apartheid regime, killing and displacing my people with no mercy. I made it my mission to always display my Palestinian heritage and speak openly about it, even when Zionists were on the attack.

When I finally visited Palestine myself, I witnessed firsthand how Israel treats Palestinians, even Palestinian Americans. In the few days I was able to visit, I experienced a fraction of what my family and other people have been experiencing for decades. From being forced to enter through the land crossing as we were not permitted to fly in, to my father being interrogated for hours, to having our things seized, searched and thrown onto the floor, to having guns and tanks pointed at us at every checkpoint, I was constantly in a state of anxiety and fear.

These same feelings suffocate me today. Despite being thousands of miles from the genocide, I’m terrified to open my phone and see the atrocities unfold on my screen. It’s heartbreaking to see the martyrs list grow, yet a relief to hear from my family. I feel drained in my everyday life, like I’m not allowed to enjoy the little things anymore. Am I? Are any of us allowed to enjoy life while innocent people are killed? They’re impossible questions, yet the answers seem so simple. No one should carry on as usual when children are murdered. We must do something, anything, to stop it. And we are. The movement is growing, people are finally waking up, and it fills me with hope. Hope that a free, liberated Palestine will exist within our lifetime.

The volatile response to the Student Intifada only shows that we are making progress, we are making an impact. If we had no power, there would be no need to attack, arrest and suspend us.

Why do you think so many universities called on the police to suppress student protests and protests more generally against the slaughter of Palestinians? As you know, this raises the issue of who controls the narrative. It has recently been reported that pro-Israel billionaires urged New York officials to crack down on protests against the slaughter in Gaza. There is something very obscene about this exercise of power. This means that there is significant financial power backing a pro-Israel narrative, one that shapes whose voices are heard and whose bodies are zip-tied or slammed to the ground and arrested.

All universities, including Emory University, purport to stand for education and the protection of their students, when they really stand for the status quo and aim to protect their investments. Universities are quite literally corporations, costing students thousands of dollars every year, while they grow their billion-dollar endowments that will never be used to the benefit of their students and staff. Like all other businesses, they will do anything to protect their capital, even if it means violently suppressing and harming their own students, faculty, staff and alumni. The police response to the Student Intifada is neither new nor novel. We saw the same response when students rose up against Jim Crow, South African apartheid and the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, we see this trend continued with the genocide in Gaza, as university investments are still tied up in the military-industrial complex.

Recently, I’ve seen many academics displaying their cowardice and conformism. Academia does not seem to be a place where we can even agree on whose lives matter. I don’t know why I allow myself to be seduced by the fiction that academics are endowed by some special sense of insight, concern and care. It’s just not true. It is quite disgusting. I’m talking about identity formations and belief formations that perpetuate dogmatism and callousness. I’m talking about those academics who don’t seem to give a damn for the oppressed, those who are invested in preserving their “innocence.” James Baldwin warns us that “anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” It is the sheer indifference to the suffering of others shown by some academics that I find so alarming.

If you had the ear of university and college presidents and those who serve on the boards of such “higher learning” institutions, what would you say? What truths would you articulate, truths that they seem hell bent on avoiding, denying?

First, I would contend that we are currently witnessing the highest level of cowardice and conformism across all fields, not just within academia. No matter the profession, individuals have become extremely comfortable with outing themselves as supporters of genocide, settler colonialism and occupation, or simply as individuals who do not care for the well-being of others. As a recent graduate now joining the workforce, I, too, find this quite alarming. But to your point about university and college presidents and boards of trustees, I think it is critical to note that these individuals are rarely academics. More often than not, they are wealthy business executives. They head corporations that actively fund multiple genocides and wars around the world. And they do not hold our education, studies and academia overall to the same height that they hold their profits. It is gravely disappointing. Therefore, my message to them is this: I urge you to look to history. Look to the actions of those who came before you and how they’re viewed now. Your duty is to your students, faculty and alumni, not outside corporations and organizations. Do not repeat the mistakes of past university leaders who facilitated segregation, supported war, and actively attacked and killed their students who fought for equal rights.

There is so much to grieve. History provides no shortage. For example, think about the Maafa (the death and enslavement of millions of Africans by white people), or the Trail of Tears (the massive displacement and death of Indigenous people in the U.S.) or the Nakba (the massive displacement and death of Palestinians), or the Holocaust (the murder of Jews, Roma, those with disabilities, and many others), and the list goes on. One wonders what all of those voices would say to us about injustice, about the murder of children, about suffering, about loss. I am profoundly unhappy with this world. Times like these, times of bearing witness to so much death in Gaza and beyond, one feels trapped in a vortex of hopelessness. As a Palestinian American, as someone who is bombarded daily with so much carnage inflicted upon your people by Israel, how do you stay the course, maintain your capacity to resist, to protest, to fight against injustice?

Honestly, it is difficult not to fall into a depressive state. Viewing a livestream of a gruesome genocide against any people is an experience no one of conscience wishes to have. When it’s one’s own people and family, it is unimaginable, especially when you’re so far away, feeling like you cannot help. However, there are two main reasons I am able to stay the course. As a citizen of the “free world,” it is my duty to fight against the injustices my government funds and enacts upon others. It is my duty to protest these atrocious acts. And it is my duty to resist. The cowardice of the universities and institutions that violently suppress us only pushes us to resist further. The volatile response to the Student Intifada only shows that we are making progress, we are making an impact. If we had no power, there would be no need to attack, arrest and suspend us. The sheer might and success of the movement keeps me going. With that, my community, who regularly puts their lives on hold to fight for the Palestinian people, motivates me like no other. I am so thankful to my friends and peers who stand beside me and take the time to educate themselves and learn of the Palestinian struggle for freedom. I no longer feel alone in this fight. To them, I am forever indebted. When I was younger, no one dared to talk about Palestine. No one cared about my people or my family. Now, everything has changed. Every time a friend asks to borrow my Keffiyehs or inquires how to fight for a free Palestine, my capacity to resist only grows. We are stronger together and we will not rest until Palestine is free; until all occupied people are free.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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