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Harvard students collect testimonies of apartheid from Palestine to US


On Monday, the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) launched a testimony campaign, similar to last year’s mock eviction notices, to kick off international Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW).

The notices, posted on Harvard undergraduate student dorm-room doors, ask the questions, “How have you experienced apartheid?” or “What does apartheid mean to you?”

1911806_10202408242321495_1142270503_nA variety of Harvard community members, from graduate and undergraduate students to service workers, have answered these questions from their own experiences, positionalities/identities and claims on subjective apartheid.

Harvard community members who identify as African-American/Black, [email protected], LGBTQ, Muslim, Jewish, working class, gender minority, disabled and of course Palestinian students, have been asked to grapple with a problem that exists not only in the supposed Holy Land or Africa, but also right here at home.

Apartheids produce actual lived experiences; yet, when intellectuals debate, academics analyze and critique, and governmental officials compartmentalize the term “apartheid,” it becomes an object to be studied, and not a force that lives, or rather, imposes itself on lives.

As Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico would say, “We seek a world where there is room for many worlds.” We are interested in flipping the question, or rather, flipping the question inside out to hear how apartheid relates to the lived experiences of Harvard community members.

Our campaign is about genuinely asking and compassionately listening to personal narratives related to apartheid, and whatever that concept of apartheid may mean to people; be it discrimination, alienation, dehumanization, racism, marginalization or segregation, amongst others.

An apartheid state

A simple Google search confirms that situations as diverse as the United States to Rhodesia, the north of Ireland to Brazil, Latin America to Saudi Arabia all have the word apartheid attached to them in ways old and new.

It was called apartheid in South Africa, segregation in the United States, and has become hafrada in Israel, a Hebrew word defining the official Israeli state policy of “separateness” imposed on Palestinians.

From segregated roads, buses, and territories, to checkpoints, a massive separation barrier and the largest open-air prison in the world in Gaza, it has become quite difficult not to declare Israel an apartheid state.

In following the example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to hear the real lived stories of those who suffered under South African apartheid, PSC has compiled a list of testimonies to a blog where they can be accessed by all to bear witness, jointly heal, and take part in the process of standing against apartheids that perpetuate in our societies.

We are additionally planning an open-mic night in which these testimonies will be made public so that they are not only written and read, but heard.

As Audre Lorde famously stated, “There is no thing as a single issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives.” The focus on building solidarity through recognizing our intersectionalities on experiences of apartheid is important.

As one testimony notes, “I grew up hearing often about the horror that the Holocaust inflicted on people like me. Under the Third Reich, Jews were disenfranchised, subjected to discriminatory laws and ultimately forced to leave their homes, often for concentration camps … I hope never to forget the cruelty of state-sanctioned discrimination — and the stories of the brave and resilient people who organize against unjust systems of segregation and apartheid.”

Remixing stories

Another strength of these testimonies is that they shed light on the often-overlooked cracks in Harvard’s history. “Annenberg [dining hall] was open for the summer, and a white woman comes in, hangs her purse, and thought it [the purse] was opened. The manager calls out and lined up the seven black men from the kitchen, and used the n-word. He said whichever black person … did it would have to apologize that they did it, and be disciplined.”

Recognizing historical shame is necessary for groups to work through, heal and overcome histories of apartheids, while laying the groundwork for more inclusive social realities.

The remix of stories from Palestinian students who have lived under Israeli apartheid to students of color who talk about the pre-sanctioned closets of queerness allows us to recognize both the inward and outward effects of apartheid.

A Palestinian student from Gaza writes, “I go to the bathroom to get ready for school, but there is no water to wash my face with. A few airstrikes in the morning are common;” while a queer student of color speaks about struggling to find a safe space for himself in the world: “My only option became suffering in isolating silence and living in pretense, sacrificing my life for mere survival in my private and public apartheid.”

For those who believe that our campaign makes “complex” issues too “simple,” let us visit a quote from one of the testimonies: “From Harvard to Palestine, my apartheid exists because people don’t want me to exist.”

The issue becomes quite clear when you actually listen to people. The need to build parallels with humans who experience apartheid in various places across the globe is real.

Existence becomes resistance for black and brown bodies pipelined into the prison systems under American apartheid, just as it does when Palestinian children are taken hostage and imprisoned in the middle of the night in apartheid Israel.

And for those who argue, doubt or spend too much energy on the supposed “facts,” let us not forget that it is our sacred stories that rehumanize and cause people to feel again that raw emotion. Then, they are ready to mobilize towards positive social change.


As humans dedicated to social justice, the testimonies are furthermore crucial to the process of decolonzing our minds. Whether calling for divestment at campuses across the country or building new narratives to reshape the hearts and minds of marginalized communities, this campaign teaches us that activists and organizers can’t just treat Palestine or our allies like objects.

There is an inner-outer exchange to the processes we undertake, a liminal space where we encounter each other in oneness through joint struggle — which has important implications.

A Harvard student who is the child of undocumented immigrants notes, “All I ask is for a chance to live without the need to prove to people that they owe me my humanity.”

As many learned at this year’s National Students for Justice in Palestine conference at Stanford, the struggle is not sexy, and it takes a lot of hard work and time. We must be rigorous in building better relationships with our allies, each other and — equally important — with our own selves, stories being the basis for our personal and social inner/outer praxis in the long-term struggle towards love, justice and peace.

As our stories connect the dots scattered by apartheids, like Palestinians from their lands, our active participation in joint struggle, working with, for, and in solidarity with our allies at Harvard, is a conscious decision to build community at Harvard and elsewhere on more equal and just terms.

It is our conviction that by participating in the process of our testimony campaign, we can reach for those stories that will challenge and redefine not only what apartheid means, but the collection of narratives that currently segregates Harvard.

Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee

The Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee, founded in 2002, is dedicated to supporting the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and equality. The PSC is non-sectarian and believes that true peace will be reached only when self-determination and equality are guaranteed to Palestinians.

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15 Responses

  1. pabelmont on February 26, 2014, 2:10 pm

    This intervention at Harvard is magnificent!

    One thing: It is important that Jews who have themselves experienced discrimination (been objects rather than subjects of apartheid and its kin) also take part in this discussion. For they are members of a club, the club of those who have experienced discrimination. And the fellow-feeling from all the story telling should bring all these people together.

    But sometimes discrimination falls outside familiar models.

    I once attended a get-together of Jews who wanted to talk about psychological injuries we’d all suffered due to discrimination against us “as Jews” and I mentioned that I found it hard to talk “Palestine” precisely in Jewish circles. Whatever discrimination I perceived myself to have been injured by emanated from (Zionist) Jews. I was treated kindly — but definitely felt an outsider — at this meeting, and found myself wishing to cry out “What about ME?” Might have been useful, in that context, to have asked, “But what about me? Am I chopped liver?”

    • W.Jones on February 26, 2014, 4:24 pm

      Pabel- next time, why not do it? Say it in a loud way, so that it will be clear that they address how you feel? You are dealing with people who are liberal and sympathetic, and Islamophobia is the main issue of discrimination today in America, within Palestinians often getting caught in its sweep. Ask how you are supposed to feel when you are rejected severely because of your concern for people’s rights?

  2. W.Jones on February 26, 2014, 3:55 pm

    I wonder if Apartheid Week had a reaction to how their speaker in 2013, Chomsky (may he live long life and enjoy it), spent 80% of his moderator’s Q&A explaining why calling it Apartheid is “inaccurate” and “inappropriate.”

  3. Krauss on February 26, 2014, 5:59 pm

    Some of this text is hilarious.

    Do Jews experience Apartheid in any significant way in America today? We’re perhaps the most privileged group in America. We have access to whiteness as well as the fact that we can use our minority status to shield ourselves in a way that WASPs can not.

    These groups are still clinging to an outdated model where all non-Jewish whites are somehow super privileged and everyone else is not. That model worked during the 20th century, or at least up until 1970s or so for Jews, after which it was no longer true for us.

    The sophistication of these arguments are really low and it’s disappointing that they do not improve.

    And these sections:

    “Annenberg [dining hall] was open for the summer, and a white woman comes in, hangs her purse, and thought it [the purse] was opened. The manager calls out and lined up the seven black men from the kitchen, and used the n-word. He said whichever black person … did it would have to apologize that they did it, and be disciplined.”

    The fact that whichever student had to go back to history, and probably to a story that was made whenever s/he wasn’t even born, says a lot about how the situation has changed for the better at Harvard. The fact that they can’t get an example of anti-black racism in present days at Harvard speaks volumes.

  4. Henry Norr on February 26, 2014, 7:17 pm

    Much as I admire the motivations of these Harvard kids, I have to say I think the approach they’ve taken here – defining apartheid to include any form of discrimination, marginalization, even just a feeling of alienation – is intellectually vacuous and politically counterproductive.

    Of course it’s important to say that a situation doesn’t have to be just like South Africa under the Nationalists to qualify as apartheid, but they’ve extended the concept so far as to make it trivial. Much better, IMO, to stick to the legal definition as laid out in the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid or in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

    Article 7, Paragraph 1 of the latter, for example, defines various actions “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population” – including murder, deportation or forcible transfer of population, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law, torture, and “persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law” – as crimes against humanity.

    Article 7, Paragraph 2, Section (h) of the Rome Statute goes on to say that “‘The crime of apartheid’ means inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

    If the situation in Palestine doesn’t fall under those definitions, it’s hard to imagine what would, beyond South Africa. (Apparently some Zionists offer the opportunistic defense that Jews and/or Palestinians are not a “racial group,” so these statutes don’t apply, but I don’t think that will get them far.)

    Anyway, I think the students’ case would be much more effective if they’d stick to some relatively precise, international recognized definition of the term.

    • W.Jones on February 27, 2014, 12:34 am


      This reminds me of Chomsky’s claim. It is all the same, the Jim Crow South, South Africa, it’s all over the world and is meaningless to call it Apartheid, so it is “inappropriate”, Chomsy concludes.

      Please listen to a few minutes of his Q&A last year at Harvard’s Apartheid Week about this:[email protected]/727-3-QandA.1.mp3

      • pabelmont on February 27, 2014, 9:46 am

        Nouns are useful descriptive tools and we should use them — as shorthands.

        Often, legal definitions fail to be useful because no court has interpreted the statutory language. Especially here, in international law, where villains can escape the jurisdiction of courts easily. But why base oneself on legal definitions, except as a point of reference?

        Pace Chomsky, I find words like “apartheid” and “Nazi” useful and tend to use them when the implied parallels are close enough (for me). Saying that “thus-and-such reminds me of Nazi legislation against Jews before 1938” seems to me OK, since it avoids pretending that “thus-and-such” is equivalent to the entire (and final-solution) Nazi program.

        A definition of “apartheid” as different and unequal laws for different classes of people, used to subjugate or oppress one group by the other, seems OK. People will understand.

        And what is the alternative to using words? Shall I describe something as a “chair” or must I say “a thing made in this case of wood and often used for sitting on”? Shall I be permitted to say, “Spying by NSA” or must I say “unpleasant electronic snooping on ever so many people by employees and contractors working for an agency of the US government, an agency sometimes humorously called No Such Agency”?

        Nouns are useful descriptive tools and we should use them — as shorthands.

      • W.Jones on February 27, 2014, 5:39 pm

        I agree. Chomsky is a linguist. What’s up?

        It is humorous that he makes this his talk to Harvard IAW.

  5. mcohen on February 26, 2014, 10:10 pm

    henry norr says

    “If the situation in Palestine doesn’t fall under those definitions, it’s hard to imagine what would, beyond South Africa. (Apparently some Zionists offer the opportunistic defense that Jews and/or Palestinians are not a “racial group,” so these statutes don’t apply, but I don’t think that will get them far.)”

    henry that paragraph right there is the problem.racial defined as

    1. (Anthropology & Ethnology) denoting or relating to the division of the human species into races on grounds of physical characteristics

    relegion on the other hand that calls for a seperation of believers and non believers is a different matter as G-d has instructed his prophets to maintain seperation through his laws.conversions are the order of the day-people have to choose sides so it is the relegion itself that creates the apartheid

    much like in ireland where protestants and catholics are seperated through relegious apartheid
    islamic countries,israel,african countries all enforce in one way or another relegious apartheid

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