Finding Kindred Spirits in Palestinian, Indigenous Struggles

By Yusi El Boujami, Gabriel Matthew Schivone, and Ryan Velasquez

Today, in the Western World, as Arizona and the nation await the fateful decision by AZ Schools Chief John Huppenthal – expected later this week – on whether Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) is non-compliant with the Ethnic Studies ban, 10,000 miles away fellow youth leaders carry the Arab Spring into Summer.

As youth activists organizing to defend and preserve Ethnic Studies in Arizona, we’d like to highlight some related, global issues in our struggle.

Arizona residents alert to the history of these lands know very well the issues of human displacement, expulsion, transfer, ethnic cleansing and finally extermination. More importantly, they know of the historical consequences of equality denied and justice delayed.

Speaking as Arizona youth intermingled with indigenous, white, Arab, Jewish, and Chicana/Mexicana roots, Arizona’s history relates to us as descendants of both settler and indigenous peoples. This history can provide insight into the Israel/Palestine conflict and prospects for peace in those torn borderlands of 1948, 1967, and today.

A review of the history of modern Palestine reflects a startling image of the conquest and colonization of traditional indigenous lands settled by the United States.

One of the founding fathers of Israel, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, in his essay “The Iron Wall,” outlines a basic observation of human history that “there has never been an indigenous inhabitant anywhere or at any time who has ever accepted the settlement of others in his country.” An honest cynic, Jabotinsky recognized that the Palestinian indigenous population “look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. To think that the Arabs will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism [a form of Jewish nationalism aiming to create a Jewish state] in return for the cultural and economic benefits we can bestow on them is infantile.”

Jabotinsky knew, as Israeli leaders know today, that the indigenous peoples must be driven out by force if policies of foreign settlement are to be maintained: “Zionist colonization must…proceed regardless of the native population (emphasis in original) and it should continue “behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.” After all, “there are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing,” remarks leading Israeli historian, Benny Morris, to Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in January 2004. “Even the great American democracy,” Morris says, “could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians.”

Indeed, settler movements act alike to justify the indefensible. But the dispossessed tell a different story of lost family and land connections, impaired way of life, and damaged cultural ties from generation to generation. 

Another crucial aspect of settler colonialism is to deny native peoples access to their cultural institutions which preserve and enrich their heritage, memory, and future generations.

This is where the struggles of Chicana/Mexican-American, Palestinian and Native indigenous peoples intertwine. In Ethnic Studies, we retain the power in our social-based education to keep our culture from being erased. Indeed, the retention of culture and educational integrity are the most threatening obstacles to dominant groups attempting to overpower minority ethnic groups as in Arizona and Palestine.

This is not only true in a state such as Arizona where HB2281, signed into law in May 2010,  outlawed Ethnic Studies programs on false grounds of promoting racism and the “overthrow of the US government”—enabling economic sanctions on any school district rendered non-compliant with the ban. One of Israel’s most prominent military and political leaders, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was quoted by Ha’aretz in November 2004 admonishing that “Palestinian education and propaganda are more dangerous to Israel than Palestinian weapons.”

Current Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne (previously AZ Schools Chief) and Gov. Jan Brewer couldn’t have been more eloquent in their own recognition that Ethnic Studies is “dangerous” because it enables our people to retain our education on our terms rather than simply accept imposed history. Israel’s own Ethnic Studies ban might make them blush with pride. On March 22, the Israeli Knesset passed the “Nakba Law,” which banned schools from teaching the Nakba (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’) – the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 that coincided with the creation of Israel. Also like HB2281, the “Nakba Law” enables the state to withhold public funding to institutions which fail to comply with the law.

In a letter sent to Israeli legislators prior to the vote, Adalah, the Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel, warned that “the law stood to cause major harm to the principle of equality and to the rights of Arab citizens to preserve their history and culture” and urged the bill to be rejected, according to the organization’s March 27 press release.

A less discussed aspect of HB2281 bans Arizona Ethnic Studies programs from “advocating ethnic solidarity”. We proudly violate this aspect of the law in our solidarity with Palestinians and Native indigenous peoples.

When dominant powers realize that ethnic minority groups merely want equal rights within a society, we can all live among each other in respect and mutual dignity.

It is through seeing these connections, and joining in each other’s struggles, that we can come one step closer to building a better world for ourselves and future generations.

– Yusi El Boujami, is an Arab-Jewish American, Sophomore, City High School.

– Gabriel Matthew Schivone, is a Chicano-Jewish American, University of Arizona, coordinator of AZ Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine, and passenger on Gaza Freedom Flotilla 2 sailing in late June 2011.

– Ryan Velasquez, is a Chicano American, City High School 2011 graduate, gained national attention in late April 2011 when he and 8 other Tucson high school youth chained themselves to the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) School Board’s chairs and dais in order to prevent a resolution vote that would comply with HB2281’s ban on Ethnic Studies.

(This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com.)

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