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Book Review: In Our Power – U.S. Students Organize for Justice in Palestine

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In Our Power: U.S. Students Organize for Justice in Palestine~ Cover Art

In Our Power: U.S. Students Organize for Justice in Palestine~
Cover Art

Nora Barrows-Friedman’s In Our Power: U.S. Students Organize for Justice in Palestine , published by Just World Books, is a timely and powerful read, detailing the scope and substance of the Palestine solidarity movement in the United States. Barrows-Friedman situates the movement across both time and space, providing historical and contemporary context to the individual activists whose voices make up the book’s primary content. As a result, In Our Power is at once practical and inspiring for anyone involved in Palestine solidarity or interested in becoming involved.

By privileging student activists and their stories, In Our Power remains true to the very principles of solidarity espoused by the featured activists themselves. As one student activist put it, “solidarity as a concept and a practice really does have to be cause-centric, it really has to center in the needs of Palestinians themselves rather than what those on the outside think needs to happen.”  In this vein, In Our Power is not an account of what Barrows-Friedman wishes the movement was, nor is it an exercise in self-indulgent or romanticized nostalgia. Rather, it is an honest portrayal of where the movement has been and where it has the capacity to go. To this effect, the book includes stories of both successes and failures, and carefully details the various challenges – and in some cases the serious repercussions – faced by student and faculty activists.

In identifying the challenges faced by students and faculty who are organizing for Palestine on U.S. campuses, Barrows-Friedman winds up painting what some may consider a fairly bleak picture. But it is how activists have turned their failures or challenges into inspiration and motivation that makes up one of the major themes of In Our Power. Time and again, the interviewees pointed to the increasing pushback against Palestine activism as a sign of the movement’s potential and as a source of renewed energy. Nonetheless, In Our Power offers a sobering look at the enormous amounts of power and money being put to work against Palestine activists. That the movement has continued, and even grown, despite such resistance is perhaps the most inspiring point.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Another theme represented throughout In Our Power is that of solidarity across religious, ethnic and racial boundaries. This solidarity is made clear with the expanding call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), likely the most high profile of the tools wielded by Palestine activists, across U.S. campuses. Pro-BDS campaigns have found crucial support from groups such as Latino/a, Black, Native, Asian, Indigenous, and LGBTQ student associations, and even from progressive Jewish organizations. This solidarity is possible because BDS addresses questions relevant beyond the Palestinian context, such as racism, human rights, settler-colonialism, international law, and border policy. In one interview, a national organizing member of Students for Justice in Palestine, remembered the diversity among activists at the 2010 Students for Justice in Palestine conference. “I was so amazed at seeing every background of people there,” she said. “They have no personal connection, but they still feel a connection because maybe they themselves have experienced another struggle and they see the connections between struggles.”

Barrows-Friedman devotes a portion of the book to these connections in a chapter she calls Intersecting Struggles and Common Causes. This chapter touches on the various ways activism has centered around issues such as marginalized communities, institutionalized racism, workers’ rights, and “pink washing”.  These vital areas of common struggle are referenced throughout the book, and it is essential these topics are introduced as they represent the diverse spaces within the movement which will surely continue to grow over time. Yet the fascinating history and theory of each, in this chapter, could be expanded upon into an entire book in itself. It left me wanting more detail.

The book concludes with advice from current activists and a look at the various ways these activists define solidarity. The result is an overwhelmingly positive and optimistic tone, leaving the reader both empowered and informed. Even seasoned activists would do well to read this book, as it is not only a source of inspiration, but it takes on the crucial task of placing the individual within a larger context. In Our Power should therefore be required reading for anyone in the world of Palestine activism.

Here’s an excerpt:

Omar Shakir, who graduated from Stanford Law and has begun a Cairo-based fellowship at an international human rights organization, told me that it has become more and more critical to connect Palestine activism to a changing world and to the many other liberation struggles taking place. “When we talk about Palestine, there is still a myth that it’s a thousand-year-old conflict between two peoples who hate each other, and that it’s driven by nationalism ad creed and ancient rivalries,” Shakir said. “But the reality is that it’s a human rights issue. It’s a conflict about land, resources, and human rights, and a system of inequality that deprives people of those rights on the basis of their background. And there are many aspects of the campaign that are similar to other struggles.

For a long time, he added, anti-Palestinian groups have tried to depict the situation as one that is “different” or “too complicated” for most people to understand. He said that these groups would prefer that the situation be pigeon-holed as a toxic issue that no one should touch (unless you subscribe to the Zionist, pro-Israel system of beliefs)…

Just outside of Detoroit, I met Andrew Dalack, a law student at the University of Michigan and a member of the National SJP Organizing Committee. Dalack reflected on the importance of having a national organizing structure behind disparate SJP chapters.

Having this structure, he said, is reassuring to students who are targeted by administrations and outside political organizations. However, Dalack stressed that one of the main challenges that the organization faces is being “meaningfully accountable to Palestinians in the U.S., in Palestine, and abroad.” As the movement is one of solidarity, not one that attempts to dictate political “solutions” or dismiss Palestinian agency, activists like Dalack work hard at understanding and discussing the appropriate role of solidarity activists.

Samantha Brotman
About Samantha Brotman

Samantha Brotman is a Visiting Lecturer & Arabic Specialist at the UIUC's Intensive English Institute. She also works as a project coordinator with The Arab Studies Institute. She is an alumna of University of Oregon and of Georgetown University's MA in Arab Studies, where she researched Christian and Jewish Zionism. She drafted the Jewish Community Letter in Support of Professor Salaita in September 2014. Samantha has also helped to establish a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace in Champaign, IL.

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20 Responses

  1. just
    just on January 7, 2015, 1:39 pm

    Excellent review of what promises to be one great and necessary book~ you leave me wanting much more!

    Kudos to Nora Barrows-Friedman, Just World Books (Helena Cobban & her team), and thank you Samantha!

  2. pabelmont
    pabelmont on January 7, 2015, 1:42 pm

    Thanks for the review. Sounds a very valuable book. I wonder how the Open Hillel folks will see similarities and differences with their work.

  3. bilal a
    bilal a on January 7, 2015, 11:40 pm

    Its perhaps too late. Anchluss is coming:

    Naomi Wolff reports:

    A “revolution” that costs 18 Billion in windfalls for someone’s friends — and the re-orientation of Israel’s entire military might to closer to the edge of Gaza. “At the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu termed the decision “historic,” saying, “We are bringing the IDF training, intelligence, and communications bases to the south. It will cause an enormous revolution in the Negev: international companies are coming to the Negev, an economically strong population is moving to the Negev, and large-scale development is coming to the Negev.” The best kind of source as it is an insider business journal. “‘…/article-cabinet-sets-up-company-t…

    Wow, via Richard Chisnall. I think it is clear by now what we are seeing folks. Egypt is not Egypt — it is a money-transferring storefront for international investors. Israel is not Israel – -it is a staging ground from which to manage and oversee energy resources. Gaza is not Gaza — it is a parking lot slated to become a global playground for the wealthy and a pipeline thoroughfare. I fear this is the nature of geopolitics going forward, for all of us — nationstates and narratives are just windowdressing.

    • jd65
      jd65 on January 8, 2015, 2:54 pm

      Interesting post and links bilal a. Thanks. The emphasis on economics in the quotes/links you provide mirror my thoughts on the last few decades. They’re still “making the desert bloom.” Is Israel the current spearhead of Disaster Capitalism? I think so. You write “nationstates… are just window-dressing.” Indeed. It reminds me of a movie:

  4. light2014
    light2014 on January 8, 2015, 7:39 pm

    From North Africa through The Middle East and Central Asia into India is 5,000 miles across.
    From southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula to the northern point of the Middle East and Central Asia is greater than 1,600 miles.

  5. Walid
    Walid on January 8, 2015, 8:44 pm

    Why the dark brown faces on the book cover? None of the Palestinians I know look like that.

    • annie
      annie on January 9, 2015, 4:02 am

      Walid, the cover art is by bay area Xicana artist Melanie Cervantes. you can see more of her art here:

      the last poster in this series (pg 12) is one of my favorites, “solidaridad con el pueblo palestinto” as is right of return (pg 11). but they’re all good imho. it’s part of her style with vibrant colors, but not all her indigenous people are dark and not all of the palestinians in her palestinian related posters are either. either way, dark is beautiful so what difference does it make? Cervantes is dark herself so she probably just relates as an indigenous person. it’s a movement here.

  6. Blaine Coleman
    Blaine Coleman on January 9, 2015, 3:58 am

    The subtitle of that book is “U.S. Students Organize for Justice in Palestine”.

    It’s now 2015. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Not even one of them has a single visible or audible campaign that demands boycott or divestment from Israel.

    Check Google, under the news tab. Enter the words divestment israel.

    There is not even one (1) student publicly demanding boycott or divestment on any campus.

    Apparently we are supposed to wait until April, when the university newspapers cease publishing for the year, for any such demands to be voiced in any public forum. Furthermore, we are expected to call that a movement.

    Watch the movie “Selma” tonight. Then tell me what the United States would look like if the Selma movement had confined itself to a brief squeak of activity for one month (April) of each school year.

    • NorthCascadian
      NorthCascadian on January 9, 2015, 11:46 pm

      “There is not even one student publicly demanding boycott or divestment on any campus” Sadly that is definitely true here in Oregon.

      There is only one “active” student group here in Portland, they do their damndest to do very little. During the ritual sacrifice of the people of Gaza anger at the Big I was running high. SUPER called a meeting, 70 people showed up wanting action. SUPER said we have to consult other student groups blah blah blah, no more public meetings, no tabling the student body, no calls for Boycotts, no calls for the resignation of the PSU president who openly called for increased cooperation between PSU and Israel.

      Very few organizing events. At the rare events their is often a heavy representation of Israeli Jews whom appear to almost be running SUPER. At one event their were five (5) Sarah’s from SUPER to answer our questions.

      Meanwhile, off the PSU campus waiting in the wings to be asked to speak, lead, participate are a squadron of Palestinians; two in wheelchairs due to Israeli barbarity, one an extremely articulate lawyer, one a high up executive in a utility, one a college student from Gaza (who said at the meeting of 70, “let’s not loose momentum here”), plus a host of Americans who have visited Palestine and know the Palestinian people. There are Palestinian shops, restraunts and many people anxious to do something. At one event I ran into Bosnian Muslims who had come out to protest and be in solidarity.

      The “left” is putting a hold on Palestinian Solidarity and anti-war activism because it is going to put liberal leftest zionists in a bind. The ISO appears to be a leading player in this control at the PSU campus and in Portland. The people of Oregon have more in common with the people of Palestine than they do with their own government, more and more Americans are feeling occupied and put upon by a growing police state which appears to be inspired by our great disaster, Israel.

      We are becoming more Palestinian by the second. Welcome to Rafah, Oregon.

  7. Walid
    Walid on January 9, 2015, 5:27 am

    Thanks for the answer, Annie, of course there is nothing wrong with “dark” and I agree that it is beautiful but what intrigued me is that it played into Israel’s hand of always showing Palestinians as non-white and completely different people, which is not the case with Palestinians.

    I see by your link that it’s Melanie’s nice style and now know where it’s coming from.

  8. Helena Cobban
    Helena Cobban on January 10, 2015, 8:41 am

    Walid, a couple more points, in addition to Annie’s:

    (1) It is absolutely *not* only Palestinians who are part of the movement. Working with Melanie on the cover design, it was my impression that the guy front right is intended to “look like” a younger punkish guy of unspecified ethnicity and the unveiled woman could be Hispanic or Italian-American or Palestinian or anything. When, as I hope, you buy and read the book you’ll find that many of the students featured in it are Palestinian-Americans and many others are not.

    (2) I’m amazed that you don’t know any Palestinians who “look like that”. There are plenty of dark- or darkish-complected Palestinians inside and outside of Palestine! Actually, I’m kind of sorry for you if you’ve never met any of them…

    Blaine Coleman, your amazing set of claims re there *not existing* in the U.S. a student movement for justice in Palestine– what crass and silly hasbara. Your “research” method of looking in Google news for those terms– in early January, during winter break at every single U.S. college, was completely laughable… Do you even expect anyone who reads such silly comments to take you or your “conclusions” seriously?

    • Walid
      Walid on January 10, 2015, 9:16 am

      Thanks, Helena, Annie had set me straight about Melanie’s style. Of course there are dark Palestinians as you said, but seeing all three on the cover made me wonder why in kight of how Israelis attempt to give a false picture of Palestinians. Will look forward to reading the book.

    • Blaine Coleman
      Blaine Coleman on January 10, 2015, 4:48 pm

      You have written and spoken well for the boycott campaigns. Except that after Spring 2014, the expected tsunami of boycott demands, against Israel, never even started. Incredibly the explosion of enthusiasm for BDS at Michigan and DePaul in Spring 2014 never spread.

      From June 2014 until January 2015, with a few wonderful exceptions (see UCLA’s victory — ) the campuses have been stone-cold-silent.
      Again watch “Selma” at a movie theater near you. That is what a movement looks like. Marchers with a clear demand that will change everything, and who insist on constant dominance of news media coverage. That’s a movement.

    • annie
      annie on January 10, 2015, 5:12 pm

      helena, blaine has a history of primarily complaining about how ineffective palestinian solidarity activist are on american campuses, it’s his particular niche here (if you click on his name you can read many of these kinds of comments, very depressing/non-uplifting imho). after numerous attempts dialoguing and arguing with him i now ignore him. just saying.

      and thanks for all you do helena.

      • Blaine Coleman
        Blaine Coleman on January 10, 2015, 6:09 pm


        Annie is quite right! Although there was a fantastic, inspired divestment campaign which made huge public noise at the University of Michigan in March 2014, which Mondoweiss covered very well, and “Electronic Intifada” covered with love and inspiration. In fact, the EI reporter traveled twice to Michigan to witness it all unfold, the hundreds of students chanting “Divest”, etc.

        These were highly inspired and capable students, overwhelmingly Arab students – no one else has the heart, the first-hand experience, and the numbers to push the boycott campaign through to victory, although of course everyone is welcome to try.

        You could compare the campus BDS situation to the first critically important Selma march in 1965, when Black marchers and Black intellectuals made it all happen. Except that no one is marching on the campuses. Sorry, Annie, but that’s the truth.

        Miraculously, in the summer of 2014, hundreds marched to boycott Israel in Ann Arbor, and even marched into the City Council to say so loudly.

        So of course in September 2014, I expected a nationwide outpouring of inspired, loud campus campaigns for boycott or divestment against Israel. Instead, the campuses (with a microscopic number of exceptions) were silent, from September until today in 2015.

        Why? Can’t they smell how close liberation is? No, they can’t. You tell them to go march for boycott. Nothing less will have any impact. Nobody will stop these students, once they emerge from their coma. There are no Southern sheriffs shooting fire hoses at them.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on January 11, 2015, 4:52 pm

        . “There are no Southern sheriffs shooting fire hoses at them.”

        Oh boy, you really loves that analogy. Wonder why? Well, if you think of that as an inspiring and challenging message, run with it.

  9. Mooser
    Mooser on January 10, 2015, 7:57 pm

    “Again watch “Selma” at a movie theater near you. That is what a movement looks like. Marchers with a clear demand that will change everything, and who insist on constant dominance of news media coverage. That’s a movement.”

    Something about that little syllogism doesn’t smell right, stinks, in fact.

  10. Blaine Coleman
    Blaine Coleman on January 10, 2015, 8:17 pm


    I hope you don’t really find a marching, self-assertive Boycott-Israel movement so “stinky”.

    The only way any human rights movement succeeds is through mass mobilizations — loud public demands for what is obviously right – like boycotting the apartheid state of Israel until every Palestinian is free.

    As of now, the main body of the Palestine solidarity movement, the students on campuses, are like that very sporadically – almost never. Yet only that kind of mass march, repeated a hundred times, on a hundred campuses, is what will save Palestine. That will politically end Zionism; nothing else will. Certainly today’s back-door BDS mentality, perpetually postponing any public demands, waiting at the back door for permission to enter, will do nothing but invite more Gaza massacres.

    Watch “Selma”.

    • Citizen
      Citizen on January 11, 2015, 2:07 pm

      I think a significant missing ingredient is the Main Media in USA covered Jim Crow protests, but they don’t cover BDS protests.

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