There are stories that some Northwestern students carry with them, generations after the Nakba, that are as vivid as the day they were first told.
The Nakba, derived from the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” refers to the displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
On Friday evening, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) held a vigil in remembrance of the mass eviction. The vigil marked the end of SJP’s Israeli Apartheid Week, a series of events aimed at spreading awareness of the issue on Northwestern’s campus.
“This week is meant for everyone to take the time to sit down and think about what’s happening in Palestine, to ask themselves how they’re implicated in this,” said Weinberg junior Cinthya Rodriguez, a member of Northwestern’s chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), a Chicano student advocacy group.The group co-organized an event titled “The Palestine-Puerto Rico Connection” with SJP on Monday night.
“Even me, I see how I’m implicated in this. Living in the US, a country that provides so much military support [in the region],” Rodriguez said.
SJP’s use of the word “apartheid” has drawn criticism, including a letter written by Medill freshman Ross Krasner published in The Daily Northwestern, which called the use of the term “intellectually dishonest and morally slanderous.” In a statement released on J Street U Northwestern’s Facebook page, the group said they “[disagree] with the use of the term Apartheid to describe or educate about the situation.”
SJP has stood by their use of the term, and used it to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at events throughout the week as an intentional comparison to the South African apartheid.
“There are strengths and limitations to every word, every piece of vocabulary and analogy, every connection,” said outgoing senior Serene Darwish. “That doesn’t mean we can’t make those connections.”
Omar Shanti, a Weinberg sophomore and SJP’s media chair, refers to UN General Assembly Resolution 3068, which restricts the term to several qualifications. “When we use the term ‘apartheid’, we refer to the definition proposed and ratified by the UN,” he said. The UN resolution defines apartheid as “racial segregation and discrimination” in violation of international law.
Specific transgressions involve the destruction of living spaces, labor exploitation and legislative measures designed to divide populations along racial lines. Shanti and SJP believe that Israel violates the UN’s checklist explicitly.
Accusations of divisiveness echoed many of the complaints pointed toward NU Divest, a resolution which narrowly passed ASG Senate during Winter Quarter that asks Northwestern to divest its holdings from several companies they believe complicit in the occupation of Palestine.
“People say that NU Divest was divisive, but what we find is that people who were involved in organizing, people who supported NU Divest, people who came out to NU Divest – these people are very diverse, they come from different backgrounds, they are familiar with different causes and they all came together,” Darwish said. “It was a very uniting thing.”
Among the student groups standing in solidarity with SJP during the week, there is an understanding that struggles for justice are linked across political, racial and ethnic lines. “When we founded [MEChA at Northwestern] and we were writing our mission, we made it clear – identity politics are important, but we saw it as more than just that,” said Weinberg senior Lucero Segundo.
“We saw it as calling for justice in all forms anywhere. We’re not just about Latino issues. We’re not just about Chicano issues. We saw this as more systemic and something that concerns everyone.”
During the week, MEChA and SJP held demonstrations at the Rock, drawing correlations between Israeli checkpoints and the treatment of migrants at the US-Mexico border. “In a lot of these oppressive situations around the world, you see parallels between those who are being oppressed and the oppressors of them,” said Aneesa Johnson, a Weinberg freshman who is the Events Coordinator of SJP. “We’re trying to draw attention to the fact that these issues do not occur in isolation,” she said.
Participating in these demonstrations, students alternated between representing Palestinians encountering Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) at security checkpoints and migrants encountering US Border Patrol agents along the US-Mexico border. Students acting as migrants and Palestinian citizens were forced on their knees and patted down by the students acting as security forces.
“Reactions have definitely been mixed,” said Weinberg senior Imitisal Khokher, an organizer with SJP. “Actions like this that are supposed to challenge privilege and challenge institutional norms. It is going to make people uncomfortable.”
The demonstrations were held in conjunction with other events throughout the week, including moments celebrating Palestinian culture. A program on Tuesday included poetry recited in Arabic and translated in English, Dabke dance lessons, a fashion show and an invitation to try Palestinian cuisine.
“Palestinian culture has always been very connected to the political,” said Darwish, who emceed the event. “I’m really excited that people came and saw how thriving it is.”
Among the speakers Tuesday night was Professor Uri Horesh from the Middle East and North Africa Studies Program, who gave a brief talk about the languages and dialects in Palestine. He has been vocal in his support for the Palestinian cause on campus, but expressed frustration that some of his colleagues hesitate to similarly support Palestinian solidarity.
"I’ve heard several colleagues in private conversations say that they’d like to teach about controversial issues, even write about them in their scholarly work, but are reluctant to do so before being reviewed for tenure or promotion,” Horesh said.
During the push for divestment last quarter, Horesh responded publicly to an op-ed by a Northwestern law professor who criticized the then-newly formed campaign for its stance towards the Israeli government's policies in occupied Palestine.
While divestment was mentioned at many of the events, Israeli Apartheid Week focused heavily on the history, politics and solidarity surrounding the Palestinian cause. Still, divestment is an ongoing effort.
“Our university, our board of directors knows that our university wants to divest,” said Shanti. “Being on this campus, I’ve realized that it’s our voice, it’s our movement, together, in these large hoards, that does make change.”
Throughout the week, the theme of resistance pervaded-resistance to the erasure of narratives and history, and an ongoing political struggle on campus and on a global scale.
“You always wonder,” Segundo said, “one day, decades from now if people will look back embarrassed that they were in opposition to something that is a beautiful struggle.”