Maria Ulayyet: We must come back to our true roots on activism

Tuesday, March 12, 2019 - 4:36pm

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A fellow writer recently wrote a column with an interesting perspective on student activism and divestment that inspired me to give our campus community a quick history lesson. This column commandeered the impact of the late Martin Luther King Jr. in an attempt to highlight the need to practice activism to fight for the “outsider.” It is insulting to use King’s legacy to memorialize oppression as is done in the column. King himself was placed on an “enemies of the United States” list that included terrorists, spies or anyone the FBI perceived as a threat. Historic movements are seldom popular in the present and we only celebrate King now after years of a low approval rating.

The passion behind this piece truly struck me and also inspired me to dispel the misconceptions on campus and beyond surrounding divestment and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Just as many rightfully possess a deep love and loyalty to their Jewish roots, I urge people to consider the sense of devotion that Palestinian-Americans owe to their roots as well.

The on-campus push for divestment campaigns stems from a passion for human rights — not anti-Semitism.

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is referenced as “hate-filled,” in the column. As a form of nonviolent pressure on Israel, the BDS movement calls for boycotts against Israeli and international companies involved in the violation of Palestinian rights. Divestment campaigns urge the withdrawal of investments from companies involved in the Israeli violation of Palestinian human rights, encouraging sanctions to pressure governments to fulfill their obligations to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international agreements. Today, movements are decentralized with millions of participants, and thus it is impossible to credit such movements to a few individuals. Categorically calling out a few people on behalf of an entire group, as is done in the article, is racism in and of itself. According to the movement’s official website, the BDS movement “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

The author goes on to refer to the Middle East as a sea of “illiberal theocracies and failed states.” However, the author does not put this in its proper context, thereby failing to give justice to the complex history of the region. Unlike Israel, the Arab countries share the characteristic of being post-colonial and are still suffering from the remnants of imperialism. The CIA has also openly interfered in Middle Eastern elections repeatedly, which has severely impeded their ability to form effective democracies. The support of the United States and other Western powers via aid to the Middle East has curtailed anything related to democratic reform, as the U.S. would rather work with puppet dictatorships instead of independent democratic governments.

A democracy is defined as “a country in which power is held by elected representatives.” Just because Israel is a country that elects its own officials and is a “democracy” by definition does not mean that it is a nation of equal rights for all, nor that is not in violation of international law.

The BDS movement is presented as looking away from the “real evil,” but what about the tangible policies that Israel implements and that place a barrier on other human beings? Currently, Israel is in breach of more than 30 UN Security Council resolutions for actions including the installment of concrete walls, military watchtowers, barbed wire fences on Palestinian land, as well as ethnic cleansing, which primarily consisted of the forced removal of 700,000 Palestinians and the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights. Which is really the “real evil”?

Furthermore, the Israel Defense Forces has functioned under the Dahiya Doctrine, in which it views civilian villages as military bases and justifies the use of disproportionate forces in such civilian areas. Israeli authorities have also been found to allow pharmaceutical companies to test weapons and drugs on Palestinian and Arab prisoners and children. The idea of harnessing such disproportionate force dangerously mirrors the principle of Manifest Destiny implemented by the United States that saw the genocide of Native Americans. Israel continues their version of Manifest Destiny today by building more than 1,000 homes for Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.

These injustices are the exact types of issues that should be combated through student activism. As mentioned in my fellow columnist’s piece, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words “remind us all that it is our duty to stand against injustice, wherever it may exist” and that “none of us can sit idly by while our fellow members of humankind are denied their God-given rights.” I agree with the reverend and believe that my fellow columnist and I both have a shared mission towards peace and equality. The Palestinian people’s drive for equality mirrors the “outsider” feeling embodied by the African-American community during the civil rights movement. The mission of movements such as BDS centered around human rights serves as a student’s outlet to stand against the injustices imposed by the Israeli government onto the Palestinian people.

Peaceful coexistence is unfortunately not the reality in Israel. In the case of the Arab-Israelis that are referenced as “equals,” a recent Pew Research Center study found that 79 percent of Jewish Israelis believe that they should have preferential treatment over Arabs and that nearly half agreed “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Currently, thousands of Palestinians must go through Israeli military checkpoints, where they wait from 3 in the morning or earlier to secure a place in “cage-like lines” to Israeli and Palestinian cities beyond the Green Line, simply to go to work every day.

Palestinian and Arab-American students alike here at the University of Michigan possess a care for the rights of their people and showcased this through the #UMDivest campaign. The campaign was simply intended to investigate alleged human rights violations committed by companies operating in Israel and urge the withdrawal of investments in companies involved in such violations. The movement by no means sought to propagate hate-filled rhetoric toward Jewish people or Israel as a country, but rather serves to provide a voice to the marginalized Palestinian community.

Ignoring the state of the Palestinians and Arab-Israelis who are treated like second-class citizens is inhumane. Securing the freedom of some at the cost of others’ rights is hypocritical. Claiming anti-Semitism as a factor for all movements detracts from the discussion of human rights issues that are occurring. There is a historically emotional undertone to the anger within these movements, and this stems from the pain of decades of such abuses. This is the pain that Palestinian and Palestinian-American students face and deal with.

I urge students to continue using their passionate voices to fight against the inequality and injustice they see and I hope we can all eventually see eye to eye in the search for peace through student activism.

Maria Ulayyet can be reached at mulayyet@umich.edu.