by Samar Alqatari, ’14
It happens every year in the middle of May: an extravagant celebration of Israel’s “birthday” in the middle of White Plaza, with a big tent, inflated balloons, a camel (real or inflated), falafel and other indications of Middle Eastern culture. And every year in the middle of May, right across from that celebration, a group of activists shrouded in black, stands off to the side with signs protesting this joyful occasion.
Last year I was one of those activists shrouded in black, but this year, I paused and asked myself: do I really want to put myself in that position again? My peers casted their glances upon me as they walked by — some bewildered, some surreptitious, some with indiscreet looks of hostility towards me. And, in case I tried to cast aside the feelings of discomfort, occasionally someone would take a picture of me and share it, rendering my shame and persona non grata status permanent. But the most difficult part was seeing the faces of those passing by who knew meand did not approve of what I was doing. I could not endure the expressions of my Jewish friends as we experienced awkward moments of silent confrontation; do I wave? Pretend I don’t see them? Shamefully look away?
For Israelis, 1948 is the year in which the Zionist movement, a global Jewish nationalist movement, finally fulfilled the ancient dream of returning to a homeland after two thousand years of exile. The “miracle of 1948” is embedded in the collective consciousness of Zionist Jews. It constitutes a chapter in history that not only proclaims triumph but also carries with it associations of moral purity and absolute justice. The courage exemplified by those Israeli soldiers who fought for their country that fateful year became the standard of leadership, bravery, and heroism by which all future generations of Israelis are measured. They were the leaders who devoted themselves and sacrificed their lives for Zionist ideals, what was in their eyes the greater cause. Nineteen forty-eight is a sacred year, a symbol of all that is good in Jewish history and the Jewish society of Israel. And, Israel’s legacy continues – one of vibrant democracy, technological innovation, and economic prosperity.
That version of history renders it so easy to support Israel. However, what people fail to realize about the events of 1948 is that the year also marked one of the worst chapters in Jewish history. That year, Zionist forces committed in Palestine what they had never committed in the past two thousand years. Regardless of the historical debate over what occurred in 1948, the fact of the matter is that the Zionist forces in Palestine expelled, massacred, destroyed, and raped, just like other typical colonizing forces around the world since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The year that marks Israeli Independence for the Jews also marks, according to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, the expulsion of over 700,000 indigenous Palestinians, massacre of several thousand others, and destruction of over 500 villages in a campaign of ethnic cleansing — an event Palestinians refer to as the Catastrophe or Nakba.
As documented in the Central Zionist Archives, when Golda Meir, one of the senior Zionist leaders and Israel’s first female Prime Minister, visited Haifa a few days after the Jewish troops broke into and looted Palestinian houses, she was terrified. At first, she found it hard to suppress a feeling of horror when she entered homes where cooked food still stood on the tables, children had left toys and books on the floor, and life appeared to have frozen in an instant. Meir had come to Palestine from the US, where her family had fled in the wake of pogroms in Russia, and the sights she witnessed that day reminded her of the worst stories her family had told her about the Russian brutality against the Jews decades earlier.
But that is only one of many stories of what happened in 1948. From the inception of Israel, Zionist leaders knew that a Jewish state in Palestine could not be achieved as long as the indigenous Palestinians remained on the land. Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, wrote in his diary, “We shall endeavor to expel the poor population across the border unnoticed, procuring employment for it in the transit countries, but denying it any employment in our own country.” To this day, Palestinians from 1948 carry the keys to the doors of their homes close to their hearts that are still filled with the hope that they will one day return.
To this day, over sixty years later, the hopes still burn strong but the oppression continues. Palestinians currently constitute a third of the world’s refugees. The ones still in Palestine are suffering under Israeli military occupation, and the ones who left languish in refugee camps. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are humiliated on a daily basis, a treatment that Bishop Desmond Tutu describes as apartheid akin to what took place in South Africa. When Jimmy Carter was asked about his use of the term “apartheid” to describe the situation in Israel/Palestine, he said: “I didn’t agonize [about using the term] because I knew that’s an accurate description of what’s going on in Palestine now — the confiscation of their land, that they’re being suppressed completely against voicing their disapproval of what’s happening, the building of the wall that intrudes deep within their territory, the complete separation of Israelis from Palestinians — all of those things in many ways are worse than some of the aspects of apartheid in South Africa…”
And so, while 1948 for Israelis symbolizes the long-awaited return to their homeland, to me it symbolizes colonization, ethnic cleansing, and the beginning of a brutal conflict that has denied Palestinians their universal right of self-determination. 1948 marks the creation of an occupying power and an apartheid state. And, the situation in White Plaza is a perfect reflection of that on the ground; while Israelis enjoy enormous foreign aid, parties on Mediterranean beaches and eat hummus and falafel, the Palestinians suffer while the international community focuses on a few isolated innocents of terrorism instead of their decades-long, nonviolent struggle for freedom and justice. At Stanford, while those celebrating Israeli “Independence” enjoy the Californian sun, play volleyball and celebrate a colonial culture, those representing the other narrative stand, shy away but ultimately have to face judgmental looks,and their solidarity portrayed as crazy radicalism.
As long as Palestinians remain oppressed and the apartheid system stands and until the status quo changes for the better, I will protest.
Samar Alqatari is the vice president of Students for Palestinian Equal Rights and an ASSU Senator. She is a humanist and a social justice activist. Her hope is to see universal human rights for all. Please reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.