US college campuses have embraced the Palestinian cause like never before. The story began six decades ago

Jenny Jarvie | (TNS) Los Angeles Times

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was best known for its sit-ins against segregation in the Deep South. But in the summer of 1967, the civil rights group used its newsletter to weigh in on a different topic.

In an article headlined “The Palestine Problem,” the group wrote: “Do you know that Zionism, which is a world-wide nationalistic Jewish movement, organized, planned and created the ‘State of Israel’ by sending Jewish immigrants from Europe into Palestine (the heart of the Arab world) to take over land and homes belonging to the Arabs?”

It was illustrated with a dollar sign inside a Star of David. The story roiled many civil rights activists, who denounced it as antisemitic and expressed their support for Israel as a homeland for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust.

The SNCC, which had expelled white members as it shifted to a more militant Black nationalism, responded with an official statement that recognized the murder of 6 million Jews as “one of the worst crimes against humanity.” But then it argued: “We do not see how the Jewish refugees and survivors could ever use this tragedy as an excuse to imitate their Nazi oppressors.”

More than half a century later, the Palestinian cause — and hostility not only to Israeli policy but to the country’s very existence as a homeland for Jews — has shifted from the sidelines of student activism to become one of the most robust political movements on American college campuses.

Even before the current war between Israel and Hamas — which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada and the European Union — spurred an unprecedented wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations, “Free Palestine” had become a rallying cry of student activists, many of whom roundly condemned Israel as a “settler colonialist” state.

The intellectual foundation for the movement emerged in the early 1960s as African nations were gaining independence from their European colonizers. Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist and philosopher who worked in Algeria, famously wrote that resistance must be violent because it is the only “language” the colonizer speaks. His work inspired a new field of scholarship that would come to be known as postcolonial studies.

But the story of how the Palestinian cause took off on campuses involves much more than academic theories.

It’s a tale of careful planning by activists, dramatic political change in Israel and the rise of a U.S. social justice movement that homed in on race and other markers of identity and framed many of the world’s conflicts as a simple battle between two sides: the oppressors and the oppressed.

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For decades, the Palestinian struggle was a fringe cause in the United States — and most of the student activists were Palestinian.

That became a big problem in the early 1990s. During the Persian Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were evicted from Kuwait and left jobless. Fewer families could afford to send their children to U.S. colleges, seriously diminishing the ranks of students fighting for the cause.

Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian graduate student at UC Berkeley, was part of a small group that decided a new tack was needed. In the fall of 1993, just as the historic Oslo peace negotiations for a Palestinian state were about to start, he helped found the first chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine with the aim of forging alliances with non-Muslims.

Membership was open to anyone who supported ending Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, eliminating U.S. aid to Israel and allowing Palestinians to return to the homes they had lost when Israel became a state in 1948.

Many of those who joined had protested the Gulf War, the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and the mistreatment of farmworkers.

“A coalition developed in the United States and in college campuses that made these links together,” recalled Bazian, now a 59-year-old lecturer in Middle Eastern languages and cultures and Asian American studies at Berkeley.

Momentum slowly built as peace negotiations dragged on and Israeli politics shifted to the right. In 1996, the same year Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister, three Berkeley undergraduates formed Jewish Voice for Peace, which opposes Zionism, the movement to establish and protect a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.

At the same time, postcolonial studies were gaining traction on campuses — along with the view that Israel was a “settler colonial” state seeking to boot out the Palestinian population. It seemed every college student was reading the Palestinian American scholar Edward Said, who argued that Western writers, artists and scholars had created a widespread fallacy that the East was primitive and inferior.

The occupation of Gaza and the West Bank increasingly earned comparisons to the subjugation of the Black majority during apartheid-era South Africa.

By 2003, when Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian American historian of the Middle East, arrived at Columbia University, the Oslo negotiations were long dead. Campus activism centered on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a war that students condemned as racist, colonialist and imperialist.

“There was no such consensus on Palestine,” Khalidi said.

But the issue was becoming charged. In 2004, the university launched an investigation after Jewish students accused several pro-Palestinian professors — Khalidi not among them — of teaching a one-sided view of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and intimidating Jewish students. It cleared the professors of antisemitism but found one had “exceeded commonly accepted bounds” of behavior by shouting down a pro-Israeli student.

The fledgling movement to punish Israel economically with boycotts and divestment also became a rallying point for students. Few universities adopted such policies, but it wasn’t long before pro-Palestinian activists at Columbia and a growing number of other campuses were hosting “Israeli Apartheid Week.”

The Anti-Defamation League grew concerned, warning in 2011 that more university departments were sponsoring “explicit anti-Israel events” and that Students for Justice in Palestine — which by then had at least 75 chapters — was becoming more organized and disrupting public meetings to silence pro-Israel views.

The Columbia chapter adopted an “anti-normalization” policy of refusing to take part in any events — including debates — that could “give a false picture of equality between the two parties by ignoring and legitimizing Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.”

By 2013, the editors of the socialist magazine Jacobin wrote: “Palestine is no longer a dirty word on college campuses.”

“Almost without anyone noticing,” they noted, “the movement in solidarity with Palestinian rights — with all its solipsisms and ultra-leftist foibles, its quarrels and magnetic attraction for eccentrics, opportunists, and, yes, the occasional antisemite — has grown to become one of the most important, inspiring, and fast-growing social movements in the country.”

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Among the students swept up in it was Kristian Davis Bailey. When he arrived at Stanford University in 2010, he knew nothing about Israel or Gaza.

His sophomore-year roommates, both pro-Palestinian activists, provided an introduction. They told him about a Palestinian alumnus who had been pepper-sprayed, arrested and detained at a protest in the West Bank.

Bailey wrote an article about it for the college newspaper. A few days later in Florida, a neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black high school student walking home from a store.

Bailey, who is Black, suddenly found himself comparing the struggles of Black Americans and Palestinians. His major in ethnic studies offered a term that captured that connection: intersectionality. The concept was born in 1989 as a legal theory to describe how people experience discrimination in unique ways depending on race, gender, class and other identities, but has since been adopted by activists to lump together the oppression of various groups.

After connecting on social media with Palestinian activists, Bailey visited Gaza and the West Bank to see for himself how Palestinians lived.

The checkpoints, the border walls, the Israeli settlements on land internationally recognized as belonging to Palestinians — Bailey struggled to understand Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or its reasoning that such measures were carried out in the interest of national security.

“I felt like I was watching some dystopian mash-up of the pass laws Blacks faced in apartheid South Africa and the cruel humiliation of the Jim Crow South,” he wrote in an article for Ebony magazine.

In fact, the two causes — the Palestinian struggle and the fight against racism in America — were becoming intertwined.

In the summer of 2014, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown, triggering nationwide protests and dramatically elevating the profile of Black Lives Matter. That coincided with a groundswell of international opposition to a 50-day war in Gaza. After Palestinian militants abducted and killed three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank, Israel killed more than 2,200 Palestinians.

“The same tear gas was being used in Ferguson as Palestine,” said Bailey, now 31. “We saw military tanks occupy St. Louis as they were being deployed in Gaza.”

Activists in Gaza and Egypt took to Twitter to offer U.S. demonstrators practical advice on how to deal with tear gas. One Palestinian American activist, Bassem Masri, livestreamed daily protests from Ferguson.

“From Gaza to Ferguson” became a rallying cry that linked a generation of Black and Palestinian activists.