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Students for Justice in Palestine confront Michael Oren

By Fern

Interview with Farah Khan

Farah Khan and members of Students for Justice in Palestine

Fight Back! caught up with University of Florida Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organizer Farah Khan after a militant demo against Michael Oren former U.S. Ambassador to Israel.

Fight Back!: Can you briefly describe the event in Gainesville, Florida on Sept. 16?

Farah Khan: The school event itself was titled “A Conversation with Ambassador Michael Oren and Italian-Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal.” Michael Oren and Rula Jebreal shared the stage, with Jebreal asking Oren questions. Audience members could also submit questions if they were submitted a few days in advance. It was hosted by ACCENT Speakers Bureau and the UF’s[University of Florida] Jewish Student Union. Students for Justice in Palestine was originally asked to co-sponsor the event, but we declined for political reasons. Instead, we held a demo against Oren.

Fight Back!: Why were you protesting Michael Oren, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel?

Khan: SJP found it necessary to protest Oren and his presence on our campus because he has been intimately and proudly tied to war crimes carried out against Palestinians and Arabs. We refuse to allow a war criminal to walk freely and unopposed on our campus when an entire population remains under occupation. Although Oren’s days in the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] are over, he now basically serves as a mouthpiece for the Israeli apartheid state, going on speaking tours and talking at events like this one to promote the occupation. We need to protest events like this so that our school knows that we are not a platform for war criminals. SJP members stood outside all the entrances to the event, with our supporters holding signs and chanting pro-Palestine and anti-apartheid slogans. Even though it was very cold and raining, our supporters remained strong and we held one of the most militant, successful demos SJP at UF has ever put on. There were over 30 cops trying to shut us down, but we stood strong in the face of the enemy, just like inspiring women like Rasmea Odeh stand strong against political repression. We were also happy to see our friends from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) participate.

ACCENT tried to frame it as a balanced event, since Rula Jebreal, a Palestinian, was the one asking him questions. However, there is nothing balanced about this. The asymmetrical power dynamics are not addressed, and by having these two people share a stage the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land is normalized. The oppression that Palestinians face should not be viewed as normal. Rula Jebreal accepting to speak with Oren totally undermines all of the on-ground work that SJP and other activists are doing. These types of 'dialogue' centered events do not actually provide a voice for oppressed people, they are merely a more sophisticated means of further silencing the marginalized. SJP at the University of Florida is working towards a one state solution and campaigning hard for Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS): we are tabling every day, hosting teach-ins, workshops, speak-outs and protests. We are already delivering information to our student body. If students want access to an alternative viewpoint, it is right in front of their faces. We don’t need these types of events shutting us down.

Fight Back!: What can other student activists learn from this action? In other words, how did you organize such a powerful event?

Khan: We made sure to make a Facebook event for the counter-action well in advance. We also kept the event private to keep it from being discovered and foiled by any right-wing or Zionist organizations. Leadership talking to people individually helps a lot in getting everyone pumped up for a great action. We had a work meeting the night before to get all the materials ready for our demo. We came prepared for whatever weather Florida would throw at us, and held our ground. We also issued a press release the night before and had an op-ed prepared, ready to be submitted immediately after the action.

Fight Back!: You've been working to defend Rasmea Odeh, the Palestinian woman facing government repression in Detroit. Tell us about the recent repression SJP faced.

Khan: SJP has faced repression at almost every level from the University of Florida. Last December, Student Government tried to pass an anti-boycott resolution that was a direct attack on SJP. This was an ugly preemptive strike against us, but we organized against it and made sure it wasn’t passed. This semester, we are working on getting our university to divest. We tried to get a referendum on the ballot for student government signatures, and even though we came prepared with more signatures than was necessary, we were shot down on technicalities. There are literally dozens of cases where Student Government has been lenient with other organizations, but because of the nature of SJP we were turned away before even making it to the ballot. Our political message is opposed to the Zionist views of Student Government, which is a training ground for the future politicians of the 1%.

Fight Back!: What's next on the agenda for SJP and SDS?

Khan: Just because we won’t be on the ballot this fall, doesn’t mean that our campaign ends. That’s only the beginning. If anything, that experience completely reaffirmed what we already knew: our school administration isn’t on our side. Rula Jebreal urged us after the event to work within the system, to try to have a conversation and go vote at the ballot box. What she didn’t mention was that the 'democratic' process here is actually far from democratic. How can we vote when issues we care about aren’t even allowed on the ballot? We have no intention of begging the Jewish Student Union or Hillel, actively Zionist organizations that fund the occupation, to talk to us. We know that to get what we want, we have to demand it and struggle for it. We have a series of workshops coming up to help build for our BDS campaign, coupled with actions that will be demanding Bernie Machen renounce his anti-boycott statements from spring and support a resolution for divestment. We know BDS at UF is going to be an uphill battle, but we’re prepared.

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