Palestinian Solidarity, Then and Now

The power of encampment as a form of protest

Feisal G. Mohamed
A 1969 special issue of the Moroccan literary journal Souffles was devoted to Palestine. The contents of the issue reflect “a familiar conundrum of the left,” writes Feisal G. Mohamed, “perennially seeking to reconcile the particularity of peoples and struggles with a universalist vision of emancipation.”

a people marches on

through 8,000 kilometers raises tents

command bases

how many are we

yes how many gentlemen statisticians of pain

advance a number

and the prophetic masses retort

with infallible equations








we will create

                        TWO . . .      THREE . . .     FIFTEEN PALESTINES

—Abdellatif Laâbi, “nous sommes tous des réfugiés palestiniens,” translated by Olivia C. Harrison

Abdellatif Laâbi’s poem, which first appeared in a 1969 special issue on Palestine of the remarkable Moroccan literary journal Souffles, feels relevant today. Its lines unfurl a nomadic path out of Palestine, pitching tents along the way. The image of the tent echoes in our own moment as a fragile and fleeting fulfillment of a basic need, as a representation of the human impulse to turn space into place and to create home in even the most hostile terrain. It unites displaced Palestinians with encampments dotting the world’s universities in recent weeks, including here at Yale. For the refugee, for the migrant, for the unhoused, for the protester, the vulnerability of the tent is a vulnerability to state violence. It is also a symbol of solidarity, transforming makeshift shelter into a sign of defiance.

Resonant as such parallels might be, they are also tenuous. In the same special issue, we find the writers of Souffles reluctant to claim the Palestinian cause as entirely their own. The collectively authored “Appeal to Maghrebi Writers,” which is also a sort of manifesto, tempers the kind of enthusiastic identification Laâbi expresses in verse. It describes the struggle of Maghrebi peoples and that of the Palestinians as inseparable (“indissociable”) but also notes that it is Palestinian writers who are best placed to voice their own unique plight and the aspirations of their people. Maghrebi writers can most effectively stand in solidarity with Palestine not through romanticizing laments on Palestinian loss—which by 1969 was already a tired trope—but by raising mass consciousness so that they might combat imperialism at home, advancing a pan-Arab revolution that would realize the full implications of the Palestinian spirit of resistance (“notre littérature nouvelle aura à intégrer la révolution palestinienne dans toute son ampleur, comme exemple, sismographe, voie de la révolution arabe à laquelle l’écrivain maghrébin devra oeuvrer”). The “Appeal” acknowledges the danger of reducing Palestinians to a mere symbol, of instrumentalizing them and ventriloquizing their cause—violations that the Souffles writers attributed to postcolonial elites throughout the Arab world and that, mutatis mutandis, might be applied to Arab states, as well as to Iran and its offshoots, in our time.

Allyship risks appropriating the cause of an oppressed people and drowning out the very voices it seeks to defend.

Tensions in this special issue of Souffles reflect a familiar conundrum of the left, perennially seeking to reconcile the particularity of peoples and struggles with a universalist vision of emancipation. Allyship risks appropriating the cause of an oppressed people and drowning out the very voices it seeks to defend. Amid the recent wave of protests taking place on U.S. campuses, many student activists worried—not without reason—that the actual suffering of actual Palestinians would be pushed beneath the fold of our daily news. While the encampments sought to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians and this country’s enablement of Israel’s actions, media coverage has had the effect of Americanizing the conflict. Much reporting and commentary have fallen into routinized political narratives—around higher education, generational conflict, red-blue polarization, and so on—that can shift attention away from facts on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank.

But such concerns ought to be only part of our analysis of the encampment phenomenon. Those with ears to hear will know that the protesters themselves have focused on the extraordinary violence Israel continues to visit upon Gaza. And like the Maghrebi writers, they have refused to be limited to timeworn conventions of sentimentality emphasizing Palestinian victimhood and have pursued something like a broad anti-imperial awakening. They have expressed objection not only to events in Gaza but also to militarism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy more broadly, taking into their ken the plight of many vulnerable populations.

A more narrow and cynical politics of victimhood is, by contrast, evident amongst certain pro-Israel counterprotesters, in ways recalling Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò’s recent book Elite Capture. Táíwò unpacks how the activism of marginalized groups becomes safely contained as a declaration of trauma to be addressed through deference and resources—we might think of the opening of a new cultural center or “safe space,” which occurs rather more frequently than systemic change. This dynamic, Táíwò argues, atomizes political constituencies along lines of identity, preventing coalitional politics from emerging and allowing corporate leaders and other elites to solidify their power by casting themselves as necessary protectors of the victimized. During the current wave of protests, it has become routine for the language of minority vulnerability and fear to be appropriated by the most vocal pro-Israel demonstrators, whose claims of being unsafe on U.S. campuses are then taken up, legitimated, and amplified by mainstream news outlets. Counterprotesters have frequently doxed and harassed students engaging in peaceful protest—or, in the case of UCLA, engaged in a sustained assault on an encampment—and yet university administrators and police do not cite them as the primary threat to campus safety. And peaceful protesters calling attention to the truly vulnerable—Palestinians who are being displaced, maimed, starved, and killed—have been treated as a terroristic threat demanding forcible removal.

The current response of administrators and legislators, however, isn’t quite a case of elite capture. For much of the current conflict, pro-Israel students have engaged in a pose of being terrified that intentionally exploits the trauma-deference dynamic, a performance of vulnerability demanding intervention by university presidents and trustees, legislators and donors, many already inclined to silence criticism of Israel. Though not known for their commitment to minority causes, MAGA members of Congress are now galloping to the defense of the Jewish people—and soliciting the attentions of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Christians United for Israel (CUFI), and other pro-Israel groups. The GOP attack on universities was already well advanced before this spring’s campus demonstrations, launched by Donald Trump with his 2020 executive order on “divisive concepts,” sustained by various state houses assailing the teaching of Critical Race Theory and queer and gender studies, and now taken up by Congress in its McCarthyist hearings on campus antisemitism. Not to be outdone, a majority of House Democrats have approved a bill incorporating into Title VI the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) troubling definition of antisemitism, which delimits criticism of the state of Israel and so creates a legislative loaded gun to be waved at universities for years to come. As in the Occupy movement, and at Standing Rock, and during Black Lives Matter, the real target of repression is the mobilization of the demos in collective political action. Solidarity movements must be forcefully reatomized into private individuals, an imperative of the state and the powerful interests it serves epitomized in the order issued over loudspeaker as police fired tear gas into the protest at the University of South Florida: “You have been given a lawful order to disperse.”

They offer moments of harmonious fellowship fearlessly committed to defending our common humanity.

Pro-Israel students are not, of course, entirely disingenuous in their claims. Having spent much too much time online watching videos of campus protest, I have occasionally heard chants questioning the legitimacy of the state of Israel and suggestions that the world would be a better place without it. Such speech is painful to hear for Jewish students whose sense of identity and security is bound to the world’s only Jewish state. I get that. But would any rational person declare a few wrongheaded protest chants to constitute a public safety crisis justifying the deployment of police snipers to campuses in Indiana and Ohio or the unleashing of police in riot gear, who perpetrated violent methods of crowd control at Columbia, UT-Austin, Emerson College, the University of South Florida, and the University of Utah?

The protests that I have seen most closely and heard about in the firsthand accounts of colleagues and students—those here at Yale—were remarkably well organized, peaceful both in conduct and in aims. They echoed the broader anti-imperialist rhetoric heard at encampments across the country while also being squarely focused on ending Yale’s complicity in war crimes: We will not stop, we will not rest, disclose divest! The administration justified the first wave of student arrests by invoking the need to keep Beinecke Plaza clear for the entire university community—but walking by the plaza on the following afternoon, I could see that it had not been cleared at all: it was surrounded with yellow tape and filled with armed police and their vehicles. Is that presence more consistent with the mission of the university? Give me the tents any day.

Here as elsewhere, many of the Jewish students participating in the protests led a Passover Seder to which all were welcome. Even in the much-maligned encampment at Columbia, I have seen video in which students of all backgrounds joyfully gathered in a circle to dance a dabke. Such actions instantiate the kind of coalitional politics that Táíwò prescribes as an antidote to narrow identity politics. But they also do more. They offer moments of harmonious fellowship fearlessly committed to defending our common humanity. They live up to an important aim expressed throughout the history of leftist social movements: to embody the utopian forms of sociality that we hope to bring about.

These past months have taught us that in very real ways, none of us are Palestinian refugees. Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza—which has reached fever pitch since October 7, decimating people and neighborhoods, as well as all means of enjoying a dignified life—is not an experience that any reader of these sentences can claim. But these months have also taught us, with Laâbi, that in other ways we are all Palestinian refugees. All subject to the whims of state power and to elites fearing mass mobilization against their capricious and self-interested rule. Keeping both of these facts in view is the double vision on which transformational politics are built, as the campus protests have reminded us.

Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor of English at Yale. Also trained in law, he is the author, most recently, of Sovereignty.
Originally published:
May 29, 2024


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