From Tucson to Palestine

By Gabriel Matthew Schivone

Illustrator: Chaz Maviyane-Davies

A generation ago, students led the movement in the United States to divest from apartheid South Africa. Today, student leaders are shaking Arizona as they defend Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) program. And, like those students who pushed for solidarity with South Africa, their activism is taking an international perspective. Some of them are applying what they have learned about colonial settlement and the importance of culture and history in Arizona to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Asiya Mir, who graduated from Tucson High Magnet School, was one of the teenagers in the youth activist coalition UNIDOS, which made national headlines in April 2011 when they chained themselves to Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) board members’ chairs to prevent the board from voting to dismantle the MAS program.

Mir was also the founder of Tucson High’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a solidarity group usually found on college campuses. “As a student living in a racist state attempting to rob my ethnic studies education from me,” Mir says, “I feel a close personal affinity with my fellow students in Palestine, who live under and struggle against Israeli aggression, terror, and cultural theft. . . . I embrace these students as my own; they are me, their struggle is mine.” This is exactly the kind of “ethnic solidarity” that the Arizona State Legislature is threatened by. Mir’s words are a variation on one of the indigenous concepts that forms the core of the MAS program: In Lak ‘ech or tú eres mi otro yo (you are my other self).

The year after Arizona legalized the ban on ethnic studies, the Israeli Knesset passed the Nakba law, which bans state-funded entities, including schools, from teaching about the mass expulsion of Palestinians before, during, and after the formation of the Israeli state. (Nakba is the Arabic word for catastrophe.) Like Arizona’s HB 2281, the Israeli law directs the government to withhold public funding from institutions that fail to comply.

Mir is not the only student activist in Tucson who is making the connections between Arizona and Palestine. Denise Rebeil, who participated in the chain-in at the TUSD school board meeting while attending Rincon High School, recently completed her freshman year at Tucson’s University of Arizona (UA). Last spring, Rebeil, with fellow UNIDOS, SJP, and other youth activists, collected signatures on a letter to the university president urging the administration to “negotiate a timetable for full and complete severance (or divestment) from UA’s licensing contracts” with the Caterpillar and Motorola corporations for the companies’ roles in human rights abuses along the US/Mexico border and in Israeli-occupied Palestine.

Fellow UA student Maysam Jerdi attended Tucson’s Sonoran Science Academy. In 2009, she was a local host organizer of Jewish Voice for Peace’s national tour of two teenage Israeli shministim (Hebrew for high schoolers) who had been jailed for refusing to serve in the Israeli military and participate in the occupation. According to Jerdi, a first-generation Lebanese American: “The direction the future takes us in is up to us. We will build the future and shape the world. It is important that the youth get involved and voice their views, because we will be the ones deciding what is and what is not acceptable or permissible in the years to come.”

Yusi El Boujami, currently attending Tucson’s City High School, is also a member of UNIDOS. Last year, he wrote, directed, and produced a film about the MAS protests, Our Right to an Equal Education, which debuted at downtown Tucson’s Screening Room. El Boujami’s Moroccan-born father is half indigenous Imazighen (often known as Berber). His Jewish mother’s ancestry stems back to the Cree people of Canada, a mixed nation of indigenous and colonial French ancestry. El Boujami believes his own family is an illustration of the possibility of a peaceful future for a multi-ethnic, multiracial society in Palestine. First, he says, Israel must “tear down the apartheid wall” [the Israeli-built wall that runs through the West Bank] in order for both peoples to live in peace “without militarization, without settlements.”

These students understand the relationship between local struggles and those across the globe. They envision a future that they are building themselves. As Nadine Darwish, a Palestinian high school activist from Chicago, reflects, “There’s no greater feeling than standing on the right side of history.”