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American Jews Are Teaching Americans To Oppose The Occupation

When I left Youngstown, Ohio for Palestine over two decades ago, serious conversations about Palestinians were fringe, if not taboo. Those who knew anything about the topic didn’t want to discuss it, while others were simply uninformed (I’ll never forget meeting Americans who thought I was from Pakistan).

Fast forward to today, Palestine and Israel are openly discussed, from college campuses across the country to the airwaves of the Public Broadcasting Service, which recently aired a new documentary, Naila and the Uprising, a story of a courageous, non-violent women’s movement that formed the heart of the Palestinian struggle for freedom during the 1987 uprising, known as the First Intifada.

The absolute sea-change is undeniable. But its source might surprise you. For much of today’s barrier-breaking is being done by American Jews.

During the first Intifada, back in the late 80s, we in the Palestinian student movement in the US encouraged US citizens to go and witness what was happening in Palestine firsthand, with their own eyes, and to experience the occupation for themselves. They did, by the thousands, and have clearly internalized how the US is not a far-away observer to this conflict but a primary stakeholder.

Over time, as the US-monopolized peace process crumbled and Israel crossed so many moral red lines, primarily with its military aggressions and prolonged siege of the Gaza Strip, but also throughout other parts of the occupied territory, more and more Jewish Americans travelled on eyewitness visits in an attempt to make sense of where this conflict was heading.

Organizations like Encounter and Extend perfected the experience of facilitating such trips. Thousands visited and crossed the Green Line and the Separation Wall, challenging the physical and mental barrier in order to engage Palestinians directly.

I know this because over the past decade, I have spoken to hundreds of such groups. I have witnessed people’s minds opening up in front of me.

This is not to say that these groups are politically in agreement with me. But after learning more about what the occupation is and how it is affecting an entire population, most find themselves morally in agreement that it cannot continue, especially as it is being done in their names, as Jews.

Coinciding with this critical mass of visitors, a plethora of Jewish American organizations sprouted up to appeal to all appetites of activism emerging in the Jewish American community, from J Street all the way to Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now.

And of course, added to all this is social media. The internet and the increased proficiency by Palestinians to make use of it has allowed Israel’s occupation to be transmitted to your screen, wherever you are. Now what the Palestinians have been facing and screaming about for decades can be witnessed in real time.

Even Israel’s separation barrier can’t compete with that.

More and more, one hears Jews standing up for Palestinian rights, like an Israeli student at Harvard, who wrote a recent oped in The Harvard Crimson titled, “As an Israeli, I Oppose the Occupation.”

“We should all remain silent no more in the face of those who wish to prevent freedom of speech on our campus as well,” the student wrote. “Falsely accusing students who take political stands of anti-Semitism hurts our fundamental right to speak.”

Riomon Or wrote the piece following Harvard’s Israeli Apartheid Week, another signifier of change. The Week consists of several panels, a cultural event, a film screening, a talk, and the unveiling of a “Wall of Resistance” which depicts murals of several struggles happening today, from health care to Palestine’s freedom and independence. The panel titled Black-Palestinian Solidarity featured Dr. Cornel West (American philosopher, political activist), Dr. Marc Lamont Hill (former CNN contributor who lost his job after speaking out on Palestine), and Dima Khalidi (founder and director of Palestine Legal).

This kind of event would have been unthinkable when I lived in the U.S. And yet, there are Israeli Apartheid Weeks being held at campuses across the United States and globally.

This is not to say that everyone in the US is wakening up to the reality that Israeli occupation must end and Palestinians’ freedom and independence is a prerequisite to peace in the region.

A number of states have joined the anti-boycott chorus, passing laws that require state contractors like teachers, lawyers, and even students to certify that they are not participating in boycotts against Israel. And at the federal level, a bipartisan group of 73 senators recently passed a bill — the Combating BDS Act — that would encourage states to adopt such laws.

And yet, that the pro-Israel lobby in the US feels the need to promote such moves, especially given that this is a blatant encroachment on the constitutional rights of every American, is further proof of just how far the conversation has moved, such that it needs such draconian measures to fight against it.

Now that the conversation to hold Israel accountable has reached Kansas, Arizona, Arkansas, and Texas, one can safely assume that the pendulum is actually moving toward speaking truth to power.

Israel and people who blindly support whatever it does must really feel the magnitude of the seismic shift happening in America as more and more call out Israel for its continued oppression of Palestinians.

Sam Bahour is managing partner of Applied Information Management (AIM), a policy analyst with Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, a secretariat member of the Palestine Strategy Group, and chair of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy. He blogs at Twitter: @SamBahour

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