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Criminalizing the Palestinian Solidarity Movement

Rutgers University will be hosting the Third National Student Conference on the Palestinian Solidarity Movement October 10-12 in New Brunswick, NJ. While the University has recognized the conference as an example of student free speech and freedom of political association, the conference, and its local sponsor, New Jersey Solidarity — Activists for the Liberation of Palestine (NJS), are under attack from various media outlets and state politicians.

New Jersey Solidarity is a grassroots organization dedicated to resistance and action in support of the Palestinian struggle for justice, national liberation, human rights and self-determination. The attacks are not confined to merely trying to stop the conference but, instead, seek to criminalize New Jersey Solidarity and by extension, the Palestinian solidarity movement as a whole. The goal of the attackers is to equate the Palestinian liberation struggle with terrorism and label those who support the struggle as terrorist sympathizers with all the consequences it entails under the Patriot Act.

New Jersey’s Governor Jim McGreevey is in the forefront in this regard. The governor’s spokesman, Micah Rasmussen, said the governor finds the group “abhorrent” and has been gathering information to determine whether or not they have a history of violence. As if this was not enough, he went on to state that the group did not turn up on lists of suspected terrorist organizations. (Saturday July 12 Press of Atlantic City). The implications of the last statement are clear: any group that supports the Palestinian liberation struggle should be considered a “terrorist” organization.

The governor’s attacks go well beyond the mere calls to cancel the conference issued by the co-president of the New Jersey state senate, Sen. John Bennett (R-Monmouth). These attacks seek to intimidate and bully activists and sympathizers of the Palestinian cause. Such tactics are not new. During McCarthy era, peace organizations were attacked as “communists”. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement were branded terrorists and systematically brutalized by the F.B.I. In the 1980’s, similar tactics were used on anti-apartheid solidarity groups. What makes the present incarnation especially dangerous is the political climate in post-September 11th America.

Since September 11th, it has become legitimate to harass, register, detain, and expel immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants. American Muslims have become political fodder for both the Republican and Democratic party. During her senate campaign, Hillary Clinton first accepted and then returned a contribution of $50,000 from an American-Muslim organization after being accused of being friends with those who supported “Palestinian terrorism”. Gov. McGreevey refused to meet with the American Muslim Alliance, a large mainstream Muslim political organization, during his gubernatorial campaign. In this climate of fear, Muslim Americans rightfully fear for their safety and comfort. Though many sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians, American Muslims are frightened into silence.

By criminalizing the Palestinian solidarity movement, those in power hope to prevent mainstream Muslim and progressive anti-war voices from joining forces with those activists fighting for a free and independent Palestine. They hope to play on the fears of the populace in order to prevent the formation of the kind of cross-ethnic, cross-class solidarity movement that was so vital in ending apartheid in South Africa. If this cannot be accomplished, the ruling elite hope to blackmail the Palestinian Solidarity movement into renouncing some of its core principles, especially acknowledging the right of the Palestinians to choose their own form of resistance to the illegal Israeli occupation.

It is vital that the progressive voices everywhere resist this blackmail. Just as the American government has tried to split Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories, they hope to splinter the progressive voices in America. A split anti-war, anti-occupation movement is not nearly as powerful as a broad united one. The criminalization of the Palestinian solidarity movement, especially its more militant wings, is an attempt at forcing this split. To resist, progressives must engage in a twofold strategy. First, they must fight the draconian anti-immigrant agenda that has been unveiled at home. They must reach out to immigrant communities and integrate their demands and concerns into the struggle for social justice. Second, progressives must take a clear and vocal stand on the Palestinian struggle, including the right of the Palestinians to resist the occupation. There cannot be any compromise on this issue.

Over the last week, New Jersey Solidarity has been labeled anti-semitic and terroristic for merely affirming the right of the Palestinians to struggle for their own self-determination. Rutgers University has been threatened with funding cuts in order to prevent the conference from taking place. These actions should be viewed as part of a broader strategy at alienating and splitting the anti-war, anti-occupation movement by criminalizing the Palestinian cause. It is up to all progressives, especially the broad coalitions such as ANSWER and UFPJ, to take a firm stand in order to prevent this split.

PANKAJ MEHTA is a member of of the Progressive Graduate Student Alliance at Rutgers University.