‘Wanting to be free does not insinuate violence’

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

LEXINGTON — History has a way of vindicating student protests — civil rights, Vietnam, apartheid — but it can take a while.

I was thinking about this while trudging up Woodland Avenue on a sunny afternoon last week to a pro-Palestinian rally at the University of Kentucky. 

Along the way I passed a group of college women setting up lounge chairs in a front yard and hoisting a sign that said “You Honk We Drink.” (Youth is a many-splendored thing, especially when you’ve just finished your last exam of the semester.)

Mags Samaan and her father, Mousa, on their way to the rally. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Jamie Lucke)

In the shade of the parking lot, I asked if I could take a photo of Mousa and Mags Samaan of Lexington as the father helped his teen daughter don her keffiyeh. The Samaans explained that the black and white scarf is a symbol of Palestinian solidarity. 

Lexington has large, vibrant Arab and Jewish communities that enrich the city in many ways and who share similar histories of both discrimination and success in Kentucky. How painful it must be to see ancient homelands torn by ethnic violence and to again feel the threat of uninformed bias and ugly stereotypes.

At the rally, sponsored by a group called Lex4Palestine, I was surprised by how many students declined to be interviewed or even give their names. Many wore masks of the type made common by the pandemic. One young woman explained she was trying to protect her identity while also respecting others’ health.

(“Aha,” I thought the next morning when the New York Times published “In an Online World, a New Generation of Protesters Chooses Anonymity.” Fear of online harassment — doxing — and, specifically, fear of being branded antisemitic, is prompting many protesters on campuses to hide their identities, the Times reported.)

Protesters hold signs in solidarity with Gaza during a rally May 1, 2024, outside of the William T. Young Library at the University of Kentucky. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Matthew Mueller)

I was directed to the organizing coalition’s media liaison, Ben Bandy, who wore a yarmulke and a Star of David on a thin chain. Bandy, a 2022 UK grad from Atlanta now working in Lexington, told me it’s “very, very frustrating” when people equate opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza with antisemitism. “When I think about my Jewish values, I think of treating each other with kindness, not of a genocide that’s killed tens of thousands.”

Later, Bandy got the biggest cheer of any speaker and told the crowd, “I’m a Jew and I’m against the ongoing genocide in Gaza.”

I spoke to Joanne and Charlie Martha of Lexington who are in their 60s and Palestinians. Joanne, who came to this country when she was six, still has family in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Charlie’s father’s family lost its home as did most of the Palestinians who lived in what’s now Israel after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war in a forced displacement known as the Nakba or “catastrophe.” 

After doing little or nothing to prevent the Holocaust, Britain and the United States supported a Jewish homeland, heedless of the people who already lived there.

“The world thinks it started on Oct. 7, which was terrible,” said Charlie. “It started in 1948.” He adds, “The elephant in the room is the occupation.”

Since Hamas’ surprise attack of Oct. 7, in which 1,200 people in Israel were killed, some in sickeningly sadistic ways, and 252 were taken hostage, it has seemed to me that particularly malevolent forces —  brutality, cynicism, political self-interest, the arms industry — are swirling around this small beautiful slice of the globe. 

Now Joanne worries that most Americans think all Palestinians are terrorists instead of “family-oriented people who want to live in peace.” When she visits family in Israel and the Palestinian territories, she is struck by the lack of freedom and opportunity and by the apartheid-like system under which they must live. She’s sad that her adopted country is funding an unparalleled military assault on her childhood home.

“Palestinians have lost their past, their future, their present in this war,” she told me. “What’s going on is a one-sided genocide.”

Jenna Shalash leads the crowd in a chant during a solidarity rally for Gaza on May 1, 2024, at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Matthew Mueller)

More than 34,600 Palestinians have been killed and 77,000 wounded, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Joanne Martha does not blame the Israeli people but the country’s government for what even ally Joe Biden has called Israel’s “over the top” war in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who needs to stay in power to avoid prison on corruption charges, may see political advantage for himself in prolonging the war and the sense of existential crisis in Israel. Netanyahu backed a plan to prop up Hamas, which in 2006 won a parliamentary election with 44% support in what was widely viewed as a protest vote against corruption, then the next year took Gaza by force. By supporting Hamas in Gaza, Netanyahu and his team had hoped to divide Palestians thus thwarting any move toward a Palestinian state. Netanyahu also miscalculated Hamas’ strength and intent. As recently as last September, a month before the Hamas attack, Netanyahu signaled that the government of Qatar, which with Israel’s tacit approval has put billions of dollars into the terrorist organization, should continue the payments to Hamas.

I asked the Marthas about one of the slogans the students were chanting. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” has become a lightning rod, admittedly used by Hamas, and interpreted by many as a call to destroy Israel. 

Almost 20% of Israel’s population — or 2 million people — are Palestinians, who live as second-class citizens. Jews and Palestinians lived in peace in the past, the Marthas said. The slogan, they said, is a call for freedom not annihilation.

Kareem Hassan, a recent UK graduate agreed. “Wanting to be free does not insinuate violence.”

Taylor Alone of Georgetown. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Jamie Lucke)

Taylor Slone of Georgetown was carrying a sign that said “Anti-Zionism Is Not Anti-Semitism.” He turned out for the rally because “I felt like I needed to do more” and also because he thought “more bodies” offered more protection.

No one needed protection from anything harsher than sunburn, however. UK Police stood at a polite distance and appeared more concerned about protecting the William T. Young Library than any possibility of violence. The rally was held on the library’s lawn.

The protesters called for a ceasefire, which would be a blessing, though I have a hard time seeing any good way out of this misery, bloodshed and hatred.

Even if Israel succeeds in forcing every last Hamas fighter from underground, Israel is creating more than enough new enemies for itself — young people who have nothing to lose or hope for — to replace the terrorist organization many times over.

I’m confounded that the Holocaust, the 20th century’s most horrific mass atrocity, is somehow begetting a mass atrocity in this century.

The United Nations, the U.S. and the rest of the West have been ineffective, apathetic even, toward the Palestinians’ plight and other human rights abuses in the Mideast, ready to turn a blind eye as long as the oil was flowing. But wounds left to fester will inevitably burst, spewing poison everywhere. 

History probably will vindicate opposition to what’s happening in Gaza and also the West Bank. It will vindicate the many Jews who are courageously advocating for a peaceful solution and pushing for release of the hostages. I pray a peaceful solution comes soon; the alternative is unbearable to imagine.

A mother holds her daughter during a solidarity rally for Gaza on May 1 at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Matthew Mueller)


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