The Birth of Palestine Solidarity Activism at George Mason University
by Tareq Radi
McMahon: I’m Janet McMahon, the managing editor of the
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. For those of you who
are still print-oriented, our next issue will have the complete
transcripts of today’s conference. Videos of the panels and keynote
speakers are available on YouTube and at the conference website,
Our first panel this afternoon will address efforts to counter Israel’s influence in various venues, beginning with college and university campuses. So I’d like to open by introducing Tareq Radi, a Palestinian-American organizer based here in Washington, DC. Tareq graduated with a BS in finance from George Mason University in Northern Virginia, where he was a founding member of GMU’s Students Against Israeli Apartheid, or SAIA. He’s currently the public affairs coordinator at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Under the umbrella of the Arab Studies Institute, he’s leading an initiative to mine historical and contemporary documents related to the Palestinian solidarity movement in the United States. The work will culminate in a series of databases aimed at studying the U.S.-based movement, and offering researchers and advocates alike a critical resource. He intends to pursue graduate school, with hopes of developing and conducting research on resistance economies. Please join me in welcoming Tareq Radi.
Tareq Radi: So before I begin my talk, I’d just like to thank the Washington Report and the Institute for Research for hosting today’s event. Thank you to Delinda and Grant for the invitation and all that you all have been doing, and to the staff that made today possible. I would especially like to thank the workers of the National Press Club who have been working so tirelessly to make this venue such a nice venue that we’re sitting in today.
As we walk through the main atrium of George Mason University Student Center, you’ll notice two parallel rows of banners splitting the cafeteria in two. But the banners that you’ll see are things you’ll kind of expect to see at any university—slogans of Patriot pride, advocating for the different university services, things like that. But there’s one banner in particular that always seems to catch the attention of passersby. Because of our banner’s presence, one might assume that, historically, George Mason University has embraced a politically radical climate. But you only need to go back three years to see it’s quite the contrary, actually.
What I’d like to
talk about today is going back in these three years and observing
the shift in discourse on Palestine and also the emergence of
student groups that are committed to radical politics.
GMU’s Students Against Israeli Apartheid first formed as an ad hoc committee during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud. While an SJP chapter already existed on our campus, they were ardently anti-BDS, and thought protests to be too radical.
Now, this is a symptom of being within the Beltway, you know, something I call Beltway syndrome. It also could be attributed to a number of other factors, obviously. George Mason University is one of the fifth most militarized campuses in the U.S. So there’s a lot of things that will contribute to this. To discuss the effects of Beltway syndrome would take an entirely different talk.
So we set out to establish an organization that would address the issue of Palestine without making appeals to authority. Come January of 2013, we had completed the requirements to become a registered student organization, and all that was left to us was to wait for our application to be approved.
From its inception, SAIA faced tremendous discrimination from the GMU’s administration. Every action we took on campus was met with immediate response from the administration. Now, before we were ever granted our club status, we were actually threated with termination.
Now, the administration’s tactics to silence critiques of Zionism can be divided into two phases—the first phase being an outward denial of rights without plausible justification, and the second phase employed a series of policy reforms that aimed to circumscribe the agency and reach of our group on campus. Now, these repressive tactics exercised during the second phase would reveal a set of double standards applied to Palestine solidarity groups that we see constantly on different campuses. For this reason, I believe it’s important to examine these policies and challenge these reforms, because they aim to centralize power within the administration—and by doing that, administrators are able to prohibit movement building of any kind, whether it’s Palestine-related or for other groups.
So, basically, this would end up backfiring on the university. As they started to restrict all of these policies that were aimed to restrict SAIA, what ended happening is it created a political consciousness amongst the student body.
And before I end my talk, I’m going to come back to this a little bit and discuss some of the larger challenges of social movements on campuses today. You know, while I believe that the double standard for Palestine exists and I think it’s very real—that threat—I don’t want to exceptionalize our cause. I think the issue of Palestine is representative of a change that threatens the status quo and encompasses values that could destroy the foundations upon which repressive institutions are built. So with that, let me start.
One of the first steps we took to change the political climate at GMU was initiating an educational program. We believe that education was a necessary component to engaging and politicizing the student body, and that without it they would not participate on our political actions. Now, despite not being a student organization with access to space, we hosted weekly meetings in a small study room in the library. As students began to feel empowered through the readings, word spread and eventually we could no longer cram into these small study rooms.
Now, because the university had frozen our application, we were forced to meet outside. While this was an inconvenience, it actually turned out to be a subversive act that would fuel the university’s overall discomfort by our existence. Our outdoor meetings were a public display of a growing movement to reclaim space, even if we didn’t realize it at the time. And again, this is not exclusive to Palestine. We felt this subversive act in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in response to the National Guard’s curfew. We watched this unfold in the protracted process of the Arab uprisings, and we were inspired by the students at Mizzou, who made their voices heard in front of the administration. And there are countless examples of this changing tide that is occurring, not just on campuses but globally.
Now, through this educational program the students became empowered to challenge their professors and peers who either supported Zionism or claimed neutrality. Because we refused to normalize with Zionist groups on campus in any way, we were accused of being dogmatic and divisive.
Now, institutions, whether they be academic or nonprofit, they often try to hide behind this idea of objectivity, which actually entrenches a culture of mediocrity and actually supports oppression and seeks to protect the status quo.
As Fanon asserts, “for the colonized subject, subjectivity is always used against him.” But we need not to be colonized to have objectivity serve as a tool of repression toward us. And I say this so that we always question ourselves when we attempt to be objective in these circumstances. Keeping this in mind allows us to be aware of where we stand in terms of power. Through this analysis we were able to cultivate a culture on campus that not only rejected Zionist normalization but challenged the residual effects of objectivity, one of them being victim blaming. There are a lot of other intersections that we can address.
In the case of GMU, our commitment to anti-normalization served to isolate Zionist groups on campus. During my time there, the only time Zionist groups would emerge was in response to Palestinian organizing. And because we refused to engage with them in official fora, much of the campus community rejected the false parity of Israelis and Palestinians being on equal sides, and kind of the myths of Zionism and the origin of the project.
Now, I attribute much of SAIA’s success in the first year at least toward our dismantling of this false parity. But education for the sake of education alone is not enough. If you’re not putting people and galvanizing people into political action, you’re really just pontificating and sitting in these rooms. And it’s fun to talk theory, but we wanted to see material change. We wanted to see ways that we can actually support our allies, where people can feel empowered and have agency. So the first thing that we started was our Sabra Campaign, which was to de-shelve Sabra [hummus] on the campus’ cafeteria.
As we collected hundreds of signatures, the university continued to crack down on us, but we were unwavering on our efforts. One of the repressive tactics the administration deployed was to restrict the areas on campus that were considered free-speech zones. Eventually, the only area on campus that was considered a free-speech zone was in the middle of campus—which, if you could imagine trying to flyer or organize in the winter, how difficult that would be in DC. And again, this is talking about this idea of reclaiming space. I want us to think about that throughout this talk— you know, who is here, who do you listen to, think of this idea of reclaiming space.
Then, you know, eventually, despite the administration’s disapproval, we weren’t able to de-shelve Sabra completely, but we were able to offer an alternative that actually severely affected the sales of Sabra on campus. It’s something worth mentioning, especially it was a way for students to kind of support us, like Buy Hummus Tuesdays, and stuff like that.
Now, certain students took notice of the administration’s repressive policy reforms aimed at circumscribing our reach and agency on campus. As a result, students who may not have been initially interested in the question of Palestine joined SAIA, as they saw Palestine as a vessel to address larger issues in America today; at this point, realize that SAIA needed to have more intersectional understanding and analysis of the effects of Zionism and its role in global capitalism and oppression. As we know, again, there are way too many intersections for me to talk about in this one talk. So I’d like to focus on how we began to better understand Zionism’s proximity to power in capital as we began to call into question the neo-liberalization of the university.
So our next major action would be a walkout on graduation—and this would actually be my graduation. Now, the university announced that Israeli businesswoman Shari Arison would receive an honorary doctor of humane letters at winter graduation and be delivering our commencement speech.
Well, GMU’s President Ángel Cabrera attributed Arison’s honoring to the example she set as a morally responsible investor. It’s far more likely that it was due to her $3 million endowment of a professorship named after her business model. Now, while Arison claims to be a socially responsible investor committed to values-based business and morally responsible ventures, an investigation of the operations of her company reveals she invests in firms directly involved in the illegal occupation and colonization of Palestine. Arison’s family’s wealth was built through the direct dispossession and oppression of Palestinians.
Now, as we outlined in an open letter to the GMU community, the honoring and speech given by Arison at graduation made it clear that the university was not concerned with the experience of Palestinian students and families who had been affected by this woman’s or family’s presence. But more important than worrying about this question of how did Palestinians feel—because, really, does anybody care about that? More important than this is, we brought up the idea of donor aid and the influence on curriculum. And this is what started to galvanize people on campus who didn’t really even care about Palestine. The administration stated that the professor of the endowed chair will be dedicated to research and education as exemplified by Arison’s vision. It’s deeply troubling to think that an apartheid profiteer can gain a direct line of communication to do these values to the student body.
And without going into that story, we were able to do the walkout on graduation. The university actually facilitated it. And so I walked out of the commencement speech with 30 friends and 100 or more so in the crowd, and then we walked back in and received our diplomas. So it wasn’t that we were punished, which was really nice. Again, that wasn’t the university being nice. That was them being more afraid of like what we would do if that didn’t happen. So I think there’s something to be said about having rad politics on campus and not making appeals to authority and constantly trying to appease the administration in negotiations.
Now, the question of donor aid would ignite a discussion surrounding faculty governance, centralization of power, and the role of the administration on campus. The question of Palestine was no longer solely a critique of Zionism; rather, it was a lens in which the campus community could begin to understand power dynamics on campus. And for this reason, I now understand, after witnessing student movements on campuses throughout the U.S., that the administration’s backlash against Palestine advocacy is not unique. Rather, it was the typical response of power to those who seek to disrupt the status quo.
From here I would like to shift our conversation and take the opportunity of such a large and engaged audience to offer suggestions but, more importantly, raise a few questions that hopefully we can all work through as we leave this conference. I’ll continue to use GMU as a case study, just because that’s where my experience was grounded.
So in terms of organizing on campus, one of the ways we responded to oppression we faced was through mirroring the tactics of trade unions. We made sure to make every single instance of repression or any violation against our rights—the smallest slight—the biggest deal. This might seem like we’re picking benign little issues, but the sum of all these issues is much greater than if you were to add them individually. And I think there’s something to be said about that.
Now, in thinking through how students organized and our interactions with the faculty after the walkout, I began to understand the relationship that should exist, and had flourished in the past, between students and the faculty. For instance, at GMU, much like other universities, the faculty in regards to self-governance have as much power, basically, as students. They really have no power to enact change within the university’s policies.
So I’d like to quickly rewind to one of our past victories, when the American Studies Association passed the resolution to endorse the academic boycott of Israel. So this was right before the university facilitated our walkout, where they implicitly acknowledged that Arison’s presence may be offensive to members of the GMU community. The administration’s response to the ASA’s boycott resolution embodies the discomfort that institutions in power feel as they watch marginalized communities reclaim space and advocate for self-determination.
After the resolution passed, GMU’s President Cabrera made the following offensive statement: “Universities exist to build bridges of understanding, not blow them up.” His line, you know, saying this, insinuates that being in solidarity with Palestinians is now on par with terrorism. Cabrera’s use of this damaging language was a blatant response to the support SAIA received from faculty who endorsed our walkout over the graduation.
Now, I’d like to read a small excerpt from a statement we released in response to Cabrera’s opposition to the boycott. “Cabrera’s most recent action is a deliberate attempt to stifle any form of faculty organizing on the GMU campus. Today, we are fighting for the faceless Palestinian academic, but tomorrow we may be demanding better working conditions and pay for you and your colleagues. For this reason, President Cabrera opposed the ASA’s resolution, because the former will lead to the latter, and the latter is an administrator’s worst fear.”
It will only take one year for us to witness this prediction come true. Two prominent figures on our campus who actually had very close ties with SAIA—and again we have no way of proving these types of, forms of discrimination, because the university is not transparent in any way, so we’re not able to prove it—but it’s clear.
When you see somebody speaking at our first Israel Apartheid Week, when we see the ODIME director supporting us and seeing that, because we are a movement that is inclusive of everyone, that they should support us and not isolate us like the university had tried to do in the beginning, we can start to see the change that it has on campus.
Now, we can observe that all it took was one small group of students. We started as eight people just causing constant noise all the time no matter what, wherever we could, just reclaiming as much space. Even the voice and the noise, that is a part of reclaiming space. That is putting out your affect, right, talking anthropology.
Today at Mason, it’s a very different campus. SAIA no longer hosts our meetings in these four-person study rooms. The African and African-American Studies program generously allows students to use the Paul Robeson room for their weekly meetings, which is really a beautiful room. It’s a really beautiful sight to see students talking about these things in a room named after Paul Robeson.
For instance, the student senate, before the emergence of SAIA, they passed a resolution condemning Sodexo workers and university staff for going on strike because it was an inconvenience to students. That’s to show you how conservative this university was that even the senate is passing these types of resolutions. Just last semester, they passed a resolution to abolish Columbus Day and to replace it with Indigenous People’s Day. [Applause] And I think that’s a really big deal. And these are just a few of the very small instances of how we were able to change campus climate through Palestine work, and it wasn’t always about Palestine, and I think it’s important to note that.
Now, thinking about this, I’d like us to envision all of us as part of a larger effort to reclaim space for marginalized communities and for those who had been pushed to the fringe. If we come at these challenges that we’re facing with this attitude, it would help us fully understand the attempts to thwart growing grassroots activism, whether that be in the form of anti-BDS bill, you know, repressing students on campus, or the disgusting attack on Rasmea Odeh. All of these things are one and the same. They challenge power.
It’s important that we fight tooth and nail against the backlash facing Palestinian activism. I’m not saying this because I’m Palestinian, but because what happens next will reflect how those in power will address social movements at large. By challenging these notions of power, we illuminate larger questions of knowledge containment, governance—and we begin to ask who defines boundaries. I’m not going to go into this, but issues of civility that we saw with Steven Salaita’s case. Maria can speak more than I can on that.
As a social movement, we should constantly be asking ourselves about issues of access and inclusivity. To be honest, part of me wonders why I’m here today. I feel really upset that I’m actually breaking up a panel of all-female panelists. It’s the only one that’s here today. At the same time, I’m Palestinian, I’m a Palestinian man. There is a dehumanization of Palestinian men. There is an infantilization of Palestinian women, categorizing them and collapsing them with children, right? These are things that we are saying. We need to ask what types of voices are allowed to speak and start addressing these types of questions. The organizers are doing great. I’m just saying that we need to think about these things. We should always be constantly pushing the envelope. [Applause]
Thanks. And I’m almost done, I know I have 15 seconds. So if our work isn’t grounded in anti-imperialist, anti-racist, feminist, queer liberation ethics, we must ask ourselves, what is the point of what we were doing? We’re working so hard to, hopefully, create a new world. Let’s break free from the paradigms that we’ve been put in, right? We can do it outside of what we’ve been told, the ways that we were supposed to do. We need to ask, who are the people that we are making appeals to? Is it important to have everyone in the room? You know, these are just questions that I’m trying to build for the movement.
In closing, I’ll just implore us to always challenge who is in the room, who are we giving voices to, how do those voices address power? I think if we do this, we will undoubtedly dismantle the institutions that are built upon our repression and that seek to protect the status quo. So, thank you.
Janet McMahon: Thank you very much, Tareq. And please feel don’t feel guilty—there were no women on this morning’s panel breaking up the all-male panels, so you’re welcome here!