Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Sa’ed Atshan. Photo courtesy of Swarthmore College

Sa’ed Atshan Speaks at Haverford for Israeli Apartheid Week

Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College Sa’ed Atshan came to Haverford on March 21 to give a talk for Israeli Apartheid Week entitled “Human Rights in Occupied Palestine: Reflections from a Queer Palestinian Quaker.”

Israeli Apartheid Week began in 2005 with a group of student activists at the University of Toronto. According to the Facebook page Bi-Co Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Israeli Apartheid Week’s aim is “to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.” The week is also used the push the understanding of Israel as an apartheid state based on discriminations against Palestinians in areas such as healthcare, education, and employment.

Atshan welcomed the opportunity to speak at Haverford as an invitation to speak at Friends’ Central School, an elite Quaker college-preparatory school in Greater Philadelphia, was recently rescinded. Swarthmore’s school newspaper, The Pheonix, reported on the incident and condemned the Friends’ Central School’s decision, saying that “Atshan’s scholarship and activism emphasize the need for equality, coexistence, and peace for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine.”

Atshan delivered on The Pheonix’s statement. Openly identifying as a queer Palestinian Christian Quaker, Atshan began his talk by saying that as a Palestinian who grew up in the occupied territories in the West Bank, “there’s this discourse of both sides…there’s this assumption that there’s two sides to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” There is also an assumption that these two sides are “equal,” when in reality there are an “infinite number of sides.”

The theme of his talk was a conflict Atshan has dealt with time and again in advocating for Palestinian rights: “I want to see the light of God in everyone,” he said, but that’s often at odds with legitimate anger leveled at systems of oppression. The question then becomes “even to those who are complicit in these systems of oppression, how do we extend love?”

Atshan continued, “My argument is that no violence is acceptable. But Israeli violence is considered moral [whereas for] stateless Palestinians…when they deploy violence, that’s terrorism.” To this double standard Atshan asked, “Do Palestinians have a right to self-defense, to security?”

On the topic of what it means to be queer in Palestinian society today, Atshan admitted that homosexuality has been viewed as an abomination, sin, mental disorder or product of the West. Additionally, there was an association between being a member of the LGBTQ+ community and spying. Echoing the Cold War and McCarthy era in the United States, Atshan said that in the 1980s Israelis captured and used LGBTQ+ Palestinians as spies under threat of being outed.

Palestine’s past condemnation of homosexuality is often used to support the image of Israel as an enlightened, Western, liberal country as opposed to Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, an act called “pinkwashing.”

The rise of the BDS movement, however, “fundamentally changed the perception of homosexuality” according to Atshan. When the BDS movement brought the civil society of Palestine together, LGBTQ+ Palestinians demanded a seat at the table. The increased visibility of LGBTQ+ Palestinians and their involvement with the struggle for Palestinian rights forced a greater tolerance and acceptance of queerness that Atshan contends still exists today.

Atshan also addressed the use of the word apartheid to describe the state of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, a wording which many have condemned as inaccurate or anti-Semitic. In his view, individuals in the United States are “allergic” to the word apartheid and are “more offended by that word than they are by the reality in which Palestinians are living.”

He pointed to an article called “Stop McCarthyite Campaign Against Use of Apartheid Word in US” published by the site Jewish Voice for Peace. The article documented Israeli officials calling Israel an apartheid state, including former Israeli attorney general Michael Ben-Yair. Also quoted in the article is former Israeli Minister of Education Shulamit Aloni, who said in 2007 “the state of Israel practices its own, quite violent, form of Apartheid with the native Palestianian population.”

Atshan addressed the human rights violations committed by Israel against Palestinians, stating that Palestinians have no guarantee of housing, clean water, worship or education. “All of this is done in the name of security,” Atshan said. “When really it’s a land grab, a way to annex the occupied territories.”

As all talks concerning politics and policies these days must do, Atshan addressed the new Trump administration and how he thinks it will impact Israel and Palestine. According to ForeignAssistance.gov, the United States planned in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 to give $3.10 billion dollars in foreign aid to Israel, the most of any country. To him, this focus “translates to centers of power like Capitol Hill and mainstream media” and means that “American taxpayers are directly complicit in [the Israel/Palestine] conflict.”

Trump’s election and the subsequent rise of the Neo-Nazi movement, also known as the alt-right, is seen by Atshan as an “Israelification of the US.” He pointed to a lecture given by Richard Spenser at Texas A&M when he praised the Zionist movement and said their tactics should be employed by the alt-right.

He also compared the Trump administration’s anti-immigration stance to Israel’s “peril of immigration by the wrong ethnic minorities,” or the idea that Christians and Muslims are “demographic threats” to Israel because “changing Israel’s ethnicity would change the idea of Israel.”

When Atshan returns home he is often asked how he can live in the United States as it is viewed as one of the most anti-Palestinian countries in the world. To this he replied “the United States is not monolithic.” In a final impassioned plea, he said “Palestinian civil society is not asking for charity [just] please stop being complicit and please stop profiting from our oppression.”