Ibrahim: The fight for Palestinian liberation unifies marginalized populations

Sara Ibrahim, Columnist

Marching through the city of Chicago on May 16, a sea of about 25,000 people engulfed Michigan Avenue, completely shutting down the streets for the Nakba 73 protest, advocating for Palestinian liberation. 

Palestinians have endured crimes against humanity: genocide, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, forced displacement and persecution at the hands of the Israeli government. The protest was a commemoration of the Nakba — “catastrophe” in Arabic — which marks the forceful displacement of Palestinians from their homeland 73 years ago.

Teenagers, college students and families — including toddlers and senior citizens — brought with them the spirit of resistance and the passionate fight for liberation. Many raised their signs proudly, waving the Palestinian flag and draping Kufiyas, traditional headscarves that symbolize resistance and protest in many Middle Eastern and North African countries, around their shoulders. 

The crowd marched through the Loop chanting “Free, free Palestine.” Their chants were electric, encapsulating the Palestinian struggle in just a few words: “End the occupation now,” “Ethnic cleansing is a crime” and “Resistance is justified where people are occupied.” 

Other chants, such as “Save Sheikh Jarrah” and “Hands off Al Aqsa Mosque,” commemorated current events and called out policymakers. The protest’s leaders also addressed the former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Joe Biden directly, calling out the genocide the former has perpetrated and the funding the United States has given Israel.

Chicago’s protest joined the ranks of similar events across the nation and the world. The sheer magnitude and reach of these solidarity marches have put the Palestinian cause back at the forefront of human rights in a way that makes it difficult for the media and world to turn a blind eye to. 

Among many of the Arabic chants, one that I found particularly powerful was, “Bel roh, bel dem, nafdeek ya falasteen” which translates to, “With our spirit, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Palestine.” It means we are paying the ransom; we are giving ourselves, our spirit, our blood for Palestine. This is a traditional chant that has been used all over the Arab world since 1948 showing national pride and passion for Arab motherlands. 

This is the first time I have seen this many Middle Eastern, North Africans and Arabs standing together in a single space for one cause in the United States. The fight for Palestinian liberation has unified many who traditionally do not get along. 

Around 50 Northwestern students attended the protests, each carrying with them unique parts of their identities they found resonated with the fight for Palestinian liberation. 

A majority of the protesters were from the MENA region and/or were Muslim, but many other minority groups — racial, ethnic and religious — were also present. 

Attendees proudly held posters demonstrating a wide range of identity groups standing in solidarity with Palestine. A Latino organizer spoke at the beginning of the protest and led a chant in Spanish, “Viva Viva Palestina,” meaning “Long live Palestine.” While we were marching, we even chanted, “From Palestine to Mexico, the border walls have got to go.” 

The organizer’s chant was just one of many examples of the solidarity I witnessed at this event. Statements and signs with sayings such as “From Kashmir to Palestine — occupation is a crime!,” “The Philippines will not get free until Palestine is free — long live international solidarity” and “Egypt’s hearts are with Palestine.” 

Between chants, one of the protest leaders also pointed out the presence of an Algerian flag in the crowd that drew the successful Algerian struggle for independence from France’s colonial rule as a parallel to Palestine’s current fight for liberation.

The protest also saw intersections with the Black Lives Matter movement — another recent movement whose members have stood in solidarity with Palestinians. Attendees chanted a pro-BLM slogan during the event, among some of the other calls. The creator of GoodKidsMadCity, a nonprofit that aims to create change for youth in Englewood, also delivered a statement, further emphasizing solidarity between the Black community and Palestinians. 

Recent SESP graduate Mari Gashaw, the outgoing coordinator of For Members Only, said she attended another Palestinian liberation protest. Gashaw also visited Palestine with Hillel in the summer of 2018, witnessing the experiences of many Palestinian residents. This, Gashaw said, drove home the necessity of solidarity between the Black and Palestinian communities.

“When organizers in Ferguson were being beaten and attacked by police, it was Palestinians who showed us how to protect and fight,” Gashaw said. “There has always been solidarity because we, I, cannot stand to see another group oppressed.”

Gashaw also described the striking similarities between Palestinian and Black American oppression; when she visited Palestine, she noticed that Palestinians could not drive on certain roads and did not have access to clean water, which parallels the Black experience with Jim Crow and in Flint, Michigan. She also highlighted that the U.S. military exchanges tools and resources with the Israel Defense Forces, “making it easier for them to kill us both.” 

At the protest, there was also a sizeable group of Jewish youth raising signs saying “Just another Jew against apartheid,” “End Zionism” and “Palestine belongs to Palestinians.”

Weinberg sophomore Evan Carman, chapter president of Northwestern’s Jewish Voice for Peace, also attended the Nakba 73 protest. Carman said that he felt a responsibility to show his solidarity and demonstrate that not all Jews support the actions of Israel and many want to see a free Palestine. At the event, Carman said he didn’t experience any antisemitism, despite the perceived opposition between Jewish people and Palestinians in this discourse.

“I feel bad that the same people who heed the burden of expulsion, occupation and genocide have the added weight of always defending themselves as not antisemitic,” he said. “Claims of antisemitism cloud this issue and subtract from the root problem, which is the occupation of Palestinian land and attacks carried out by the Israeli government.”

My experience at the protest and these students’ experiences demonstrate how the struggles of all marginalized groups are deeply intertwined. Anticolonial resistance and fighting back in the face of oppression are felt by many minority groups. We feel compelled to speak about our liberation struggles, stand by one another and unite together, as it is all the same system of power that enables different forms of oppression. 

Weinberg junior Ramzy Issa, a Palestinian-American student, said while he is happy to see the recent increase in the Palestinian fight for liberation, it is only a start.

“For the first time ever, the truth about the injustices happening in Palestine are being brought to light and there is an actual movement that is making positive change for Palestine,” Issa said. “It will never be enough until Palestine is free and until Israel is held accountable for their war crimes and their violations of international law. 

A rabbi, Middle Eastern Christian Orthodox priest and imam spoke at the protest, representing all three major faiths in the Middle East. I was happy to see a priest of Palestinian heritage at the protest because Palestinian Christians are often overlooked and forgotten amidst the discourse on this topic. “Palestinian” is often synonymous with “Arab” and “Muslim” in Western media, even though “Palestinian” is a nationality, “Arab” is an ethnicity and “Muslim” is a religious identity. 

These different identities can overlap, but they are not always exclusive to each other. Many seem to forget that Palestine is the land where Christianity was born, a fact that was highlighted when one protestor even held up a sign that read “Jesus was Palestinian.” 

The foundation for much of the intersectional solidarity seen in the United States today was laid by the Black Lives Matter movement. I am not discrediting the amazing work so many Palestinian activists have been doing for years, but rather, BLM has reframed how Americans view the injustices occurring in Palestine by proliferating knowledge about the jarring effects of colonial oppression and systemic racism. 

With that knowledge and awareness that BLM spread, settler colonialism is no longer a foreign concept. The struggles of colonial rule in Palestine are no longer foreign — they have been seen and felt here in the United States, compelling Americans of all different origins to come together and stand with Palestinians. 

Social media has also allowed the movement to gain international attention, with many hashtags, including #SaveSheikhJarrah, #FreePalestine, #HandsOffAlAqsa and #SaveSilwan, calling attention to the Israeli government’s forceful removal and displacement of Palestinians. 

Jarring pictures and videos of human rights abuses — such as Israeli settlers forcing Palestinians to break and leave their homes and chanting “Death to Arabs,” “The 2nd Nakba is coming soon” and “A good Arab is a dead one” — have been able to circulate through social media channels. Conversation about the Palestinian plight has been easier to tap into. 

Social media has also normalized the use of certain terms such as “ethnic cleansing,” “settler colonialism,” “forced displacement,” “genocide” and “apartheid,” which are terms that were previously not widely used in discourse about Palestine. Describing the genocide as a “conflict” is becoming more rejected as the word implies that both sides are on equal footing, when there is a clear colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed. 

This shift in rhetoric better reflects the reality of the situation. The use of these terms is now more commonplace and is used by many academics to describe the situation in Palestine. 

The protest in Chicago was a beautiful and chilling display of solidarity, uniting many different marginalized groups under justice for Palestine.

This is no longer a moment of solidarity but a movement; the people united will never be defeated. 

Sara Ibrahim is a Weinberg and SESP sophomore. Sara can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.