24 May, 2022

The Humanitarian Collective

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OPINION: Let’s Talk About Palestinian Human Rights

Originally published in The Horace Mann Record

Jacob: Supporting human rights — and condemning their violations — should not be controversial, much less at schools that encourage tolerance. We are lucky to be a part of a community in which almost every mention of injustice comes with a discussion of or demand for change, a community where teachers take the time to discuss — and often deplore — the inequities of our world.

But when I mention the illegal settlements in the West Bank, share a story about an Israeli police officer beating a Palestinian child, or even say the three words — “Palestinian human rights” — to the wrong person, I sense the tension that builds up inside their gut and experiences the silence that ensues. And, more often than not, the silence is followed by some justification (often accompanied with an unnerving smirk): “because they were probably terrorists,” “because they lost some war fifty years ago,” or “because they have denied every peace offer the Yitzhak Rabin or the United Nations promised them.” Other times, my classmates act like there is some impenetrable veil of geopolitical complexity that tables all discussion for a day that will never come.

I keep kosher and observe Shabbat, and I speak out about the worldwide rise in antisemitic hate crimes. But when I mention Palestine, I am treated as not only a traitor of my people but an active antisemite.

This article is not about geopolitics; if you want an academic take on history or politics, ask Yasmeen or me for our reading lists. As with almost any current geopolitical issue, there are perspectives and interpretations which we have neither the historical expertise nor word limit to do justice. The actions of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, past and present, have been responsible for inexcusable death and devastation. We believe in the rights of any person or people to security and stability, to call a land their home, and to protest what they — and they alone — deem unfair. This op-ed is about our own experiences — mine as a Jewish American and Yasmeen’s as a Palestinian American — as members of our school (and wider New York City) community, which all too often seems to willfully disregard the human rights violations that have ravaged the Palestinian people for over 74 years. 

Yasmeen: When we speak about Palestinian human rights, we hear a plethora of responses, most of them negative. In discussions in school, there seem to be two acceptable courses of action: support Israel or stay silent. Specifically, I have noticed, people find it easier to dismiss arguments in favor of Palestinian human rights than confront them. Palestinian human rights seem to be overshadowed by highbrow geopolitical arguments. Students often chalk up innocent deaths as inevitable incidents of a complicated conflict or, worse, mere collateral damage from the actions of extremists. 

A person’s identity is an essential part of their life. It is something many of us take pride in and enjoy sharing with others. As a Palestinian American, my identity has often been dismissed at school. Being Palestinian at this school means walking around with a political burden on my shoulders — from smaller inappropriate comments to full-on hate speech, my identity alone seems to anger people.

I was walking into class one day when I noticed a peer squinting at my shirt. He asked what the shirt said, and I told him that it said “Palestinian” in Arabic. His face turned cold. “Oh, well, that’s bold of you,” he said, giving me the side-eye as if I owed him an apology. Microaggressions of that sort are my life as a Palestinian American — the dirty looks when I wear a Kafiya or a Palestinian flag keychain on my backpack are things I experience daily, especially at school, all on account of my ethnic background. 

Others have labeled me as childishly radical, unrealistic, unjustifiably nationalist, and even a terrorist for expressing my Palestinian identity with pride. There is an idea that since the remaining parts of Palestine are under Israeli occupation, Palestinian culture no longer “validly exists.” In the progressive language of our community, this is called erasure. But when the subject is Palestine, this is called an opinion. When I speak about the brutality my extended family, living under Israeli occupation, is forced to endure, people get especially angry. The root of this anger dumbfounds me — but the pain and humiliation my family faces living as second-class citizens in the land that was once their own is a denial of their equal right to human decency. 

Coming from a place that carries such a horrific past and present affects every aspect of my life. Palestine has been torn by bloodshed, land disputes, and oppression. I, as a privileged individual, will always feel the need to speak out for Palestinians. It is my right to do this, and — I believe — my responsibility, but being silenced by a community that claims to encourage discussions of this sort has restricted me immensely. As both my Palestinian identity and pro-Palestinian views are disregarded by members of the community, I feel a constant need to walk on eggshells during the rare moments in which we discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at school. I am hesitant to even tell people of my identity out of fear that they will form an automatic prejudice about me.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is exactly that — a conflict. But it is by no means equal. According to the Israel-based non-profit organization B’Tselem, eleven of every thirteen deaths caused by the conflict are Palestinian; nearly one in three Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces are minors. Rights to water, healthcare, and housing are constantly encroached upon. It would be inaccurate to deny that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has two sides, each of which has committed atrocities, but it would be comparably inaccurate to assert a level of proportionality regarding the damage endured by either side. The notion that this inequality is justifiable minimizes the value of Palestinian life.

 I have lived in the United States my entire life, so I can never truly understand the pain and torture Palestinians face. My family is from the West Bank, a portion of the land still called Palestine (on some maps), one that has experienced immeasurable bloodshed and hardship.

Unlike the majority of Palestinians, we have a home. We have not been made refugees at the hands of Israel. This, however, does not mean my extended family is living well — or freely. My cousin recently texted me: “COVID cases and deaths have been increasing. We have nothing to reduce the transmission, especially since occupation isn’t allowing us vaccines.” Another told me, “It’s almost impossible to leave Ramallah. The men at the checkpoints all carry assault rifles and treat us like animals.”

My family is made up of peaceful individuals, but their pride in their Palestinian identity has made them default criminals in the eyes of Israel. 

Jacob: I, of course, do not speak for all Jews, as they do not speak for me. But, I argue that support for the modern state of Israel and Judaism are two separate things. While supporters of Israeli policies may draw from biblical verses to bolster their political arguments, their conclusions often arrive at points quite removed from what I understand to be the spirit of the faith. The Judaism I read in the Tanakh and Mishnah — the Judaism I love — is a religion of peace. Deuteronomy 23:7, for instance, teaches us that we must love people around us — even the Egyptians who enslaved us, even the people whom we were taught to think of as enemies — because we have suffered oppression ourselves. In the twenty-first century, we are still the children of survivors, and we must still have empathy. 

To the Jews at Horace Mann: let us break from seventy years of history and open our eyes to the world of today. Let us be the first to reach out a hand to our Palestinian brothers and sisters who, like us, were made b’tzelem Hashem — in the image of G-d. Simply by listening to your heart or reading the Torah it becomes abundantly clear: no state which scourges, segregates, and slaughters may truly call itself a Jewish state.

Yasmeen and Jacob: Let’s return to the idea of “acceptable opinions.” Both on-campus and in society at large, we, as a community, are encouraged to speak up against injustice, but, due to the actions of our peers and our reluctance to speak out against a vehement pro-Israel majority, there is overwhelming pressure to stay silent. As Palestinian-American and Jewish-American, our identities are directly implicated in this situation. They also give us an automatic stake in and passion for these issues. But, if there is one thing we want you to understand, it is that you do not need to be Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, or Jewish to have a vocal opinion on the conflict. 

Silence during these conversations, while meant to prevent frustration and animosity, only prolongs human suffering. In the long run, your silence does nothing but leave the Palestinian plight unheard. We must expand the discussion of human rights and systemic racism to include Palestinians. We must hold up the critical lens we use in challenging the actions of our own government to those of Israel. We can not stand in support of the human rights of only select groups; we cannot pick and choose who we think deserves justice, liberty, and freedom, and who does not. All activists of the world have always been, and will always be, fighting for equity. Let us fight for a world where people who need help can get help, and all people — no matter what flag they fly — are free to live and prosper in a home where they are accepted. We call upon our community to oppose injustice and remember the people of Palestine.

We ask that you read, learn, discuss, ask questions, and stand up to injustice — whatever that means to you — and we ask that you stand for what you believe is right.

Above is an opinion piece that does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Humanitarian Collective, its Editorial Board, opinion editors, constituents, or sponsors.

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Jacob Shaw is a student at Horace Mann school in New York. He is also a composer, musician, and playwright.

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Yasmeen Masoud is a 15-year-old student at Horace Mann School. She grew up in a Palestinian and Puerto Rican household in the Bronx. She constantly finds herself immersed in discussions on social issues, human rights, racism, gender, sexuality, and identity. She enjoys theatre, history, and literary analysis.