I am in a worldwide movement advocating for the indigenous Palestinian population and opposing the apartheid policies of Israel. The United Nations has condemned Israeli actions with more resolutions than any other nation.
Today, our American civil rights movement is praised worldwide for its humanism, righteousness, and courage. But, it was not always this way.
The same leaders we now hold in high esteem were once labeled as rabble-rousers for their principled and unpopular stands. It is no surprise then that those who stand today against one of the greatest injustices of our time are similarly labeled. I am in a worldwide movement advocating for the indigenous Palestinian population and opposing the apartheid policies of Israel. The United Nations has condemned Israeli actions with more resolutions than any other nation.
I know the pain of Israel’s brutal military tactics firsthand. Three members of my immediate family were killed in Gaza last year during “Operation Cast Lead”, in which more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed and more than 5,300 wounded.
Since then, Israel has launched a massive propaganda campaign to transform its image from a war machine to a victimized democracy. Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, represents the face of this campaign. During his appearance at UC Irvine, I took a stand against Oren and the brutal state he represents. I spoke out well within the bounds of my right to free speech and in the peaceful, nonviolent manner adopted by the likes of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since that day, I, along with the other protestors, have been dubbed by the media as the “Irvine 11”.
Today, there are those who see my actions as beyond the exercise of free speech. They reason that regardless of the content of Oren’s speech, it was unacceptable to interrupt him. Since he was an invited guest, he should have been granted respectful silence. I know and agree that not all speech is protected and acknowledge that the First Amendment can be restricted according to time, place, and manner. But UCI’s, and now UC Riverside’s, threats to suspend or even expel us for our actions are unfounded and inconsistent not only with the incident in question, but also with the long American history of protesting public and controversial figures.
During a commencement speech given by President Obama last year at the University of Notre Dame, a group of 10 protestors stood up and chanted, “Abortion is abomination!” After the talk, Obama said, “That’s part of the American tradition we are proud of. And that’s hard too, standing in the midst of people who disagree with you and letting your voice be heard.” The president, a former professor of constitutional law, conceded their speech was protected.
Time and again, hecklers and protestors have been afforded their full First Amendment right of freedom of speech, including at UCI. I cherish this American tradition and am consequently troubled that I am not afforded the same protections as students elsewhere voicing their dissent. Today, I face criminal and university disciplinary action. I suspect that I am being punished because of strict limits on pro-Palestinian speech.
Yet despite the disproportionate ramifications, I stand by my protest. The Palestinian narrative has never been afforded the same exposure or legitimacy as Israel’s, either at UCI or across the nation. I sought to amplify the voices of dissent. Realistically, my action generated far more attention than any question could have to Israel’s 43 years of occupation, ever-expanding illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Israel’s cruel killing and destruction in Gaza just last year.
I note that the free speech rights that Oren’s proponents point to are not available to Palestinians living under Israeli rule. Palestinians cannot hold a simple press conference in occupied East Jerusalem to address Israel’s subjugation without the very real risk of arrest. Israel’s military has bombed and closed Palestinian schools for many years, killing, maiming, and imprisoning thousands of Palestinian students along the way. It is little wonder, then, that I seized the rare opportunity presented by Oren’s visit to make known my vigorous protest against Israeli suppression of Palestinian rights, freedom, and educational aspirations.
We would not be where we are today as a country if people who were politically marginalized had not stood up for their rights. As a student and human rights activist, I expect that our universities will allow space for all points of view, including my nonviolent and heartfelt protestations against Oren’s whitewashing of Israel’s serious human rights abuses against Palestinians.
Taher Herzallah is a third-year political science major at UC Riverside and originally from Gaza. This article was originally published as a letter to the OC Register.