As the central action during Tufts SJP’s Israeli Apartheid Week 2014, the campus awoke to a mock “Uphill” settlement constructed on the patio of the campus center situated “Downhill” between dorms and classrooms. Uphill versus Downhill: this meaningless geographic distinction and rivalry on Tufts University’s campus was transformed into a metaphor for the violent asymmetry of occupation and colonization in Israel/Palestine.
Traditionally ‘uphill’ has been the seat of the administration’s power, as well as home to the majority of the academic buildings on campus. However most students actually live downhill, as the vast majority of dormitories and the campus center are located in the downhill portion of campus. We erected a border wall, covered with graffiti slogans—“This Wall Will Fall!”—and evicted downhill residents from the lower patio, blind-folding and detaining them on the steps. The previous night, mock demolition notices were slipped under each downhill dorm door informing students that their dorm was scheduled for demolition. Unlike downhill residents, uphill residents awoke to flyers advertising a free trip to Uphill for those eligible (“Uphill with Uphill residents”) that promised rides on Jumbo the elephant (the popular Tufts mascot) and a connection to this “Uphill homeland”.
Though an imperfect metaphor, this mock settlement let us introduce the concept of occupation into the often-insulated Tufts bubble. We wanted to make clear the difference between a symmetrical conflict and an occupation in order to bring home the unequal power dynamics and to expose our community’s role in reproducing and normalizing Israel’s apartheid system. Israeli Apartheid Week, is in part, about reclaiming words, such as “apartheid” and “settler colonialism”, that alone can do justice in approximating the violence perpetrated against the Palestinian people. By reframing these dynamics in the familiar university environment, we disrupt the comfort of the Tufts community and the notion of “business as usual”. Our demonstration also unveils the privileges of safety and security that students of an elite university take for granted as well as the privilege many exercise unknowingly when they choose not to take a side. As South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu warned, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Taking a side and making educated decisions is a process. The mock Birthright flyers were not intended to shame those eligible for the trip, but to remind students that this “free trip” is most definitely not free. Interrogating the sources and intentions of the Birthright program is vital for anyone going, and central to our direct action was the demand that Tufts students who choose to accept the trip must go actively questioning and analyzing everything. To this end, we distributed in the course of the action Tufts SJP’s Birthright Primer. This primer, written in 2012, deconstructs “what you will hear on Birthright” and gives testimonies from Tufts students who returned from Birthright as well as providing educational resources for trip extensions to the West Bank and other opportunities.
Israeli Apartheid Week is also about reminding our entire school community of our complicity in Israel’s apartheid regime. Like many universities, Tufts invests thousands of dollars of its endowment in corporations profiting from the Israeli occupation.
For instance, while Tufts refuses to make public its investment portfolio, we know that as of 2010, our university had direct holdings in Hewlett-Packard, an IT giant that “provides ongoing support and maintenance to a biometric ID system installed in Israeli checkpoints in the occupied West Bank, which deprive Palestinians of freedom of movement in their own land and allow the Israeli military occupation to grant or deny special privileges to the civilians under its control”. Like our predecessors in the South African anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, Tufts SJP is calling for the administration to end its normalizing support for apartheid globally and divest from HP and other companies sustaining Israel’s system of racialized oppression.
Tufts is hardly alone. All across the U.S., Students for Justice in Palestine groups and other solidarity organizations are pressuring their institutions to honor the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). This past weekend was the first East Coast Regional Students for Justice in Palestine Conference. In follow-up to the national conference in October 2013, SJP East organized a conference to promote regional cooperation, creativity, and solidarity. Students for Justice in Palestine is committed to building broad-based movements on college campuses seeking to decolonize our educational institutions by working to dismantle apartheid and settler-colonialism both in Israel/Palestine and at home.