Roads to Justice Meet: The Freedom Rides Come to Palestine

Originally published in The Tennessean, and re-published in full form on Electronic Intifada

I grew up with two stories, two histories, and in many ways, two countries. From the age of 5 until 21, I roamed, lived in, and loved Tennessee’s hills. But, in those same formative years, I lived from news piece to news piece, following with bated breath the events of my homeland, Occupied Palestine.

I was blessed with role models and historians who raised me with stories of justice. Our neighbor, Mr. Miller, would tell me stories of a Tennessee and South I never saw: the Jim Crow South. He told me stories of African-Americans attacked by mobs as they drove down country roads at night, of segregated schools and towns, of redlining and ghettos, and most importantly, of the brave men and women who stood in defiance of the gross discrimination of Jim Crow.

I would go home from these stories, and listen to my father’s lessons on the Israeli Occupation of Palestine. Lessons filled with settler attacks on Palestinian villagers, with checkpoints forbidding movement, with roads and land for Jews only, and again, most importantly, lessons about the brave men and women who continue to stand in defiance of the gross injustice of an illegal and unjust system of discrimination.

It wasn’t long before it became difficult to tell them apart, before the narratives echoed the same challenges and goals. This week, my histories and my homes merged in a new way.

Tuesday, Nov. 15th, Palestinian Freedom Riders reenacted the US Civil Rights Movement’s Freedom Rides in the American South by boarding segregated Israeli public transportation in the West Bank to travel to Occupied East Jerusalem. By nonviolently challenging the system of segregation and apartheid that governs their lives, Palestinians, already rooted in a long resistance history of their own (particularly the memory of the grassroots and largely non-violent First Intifada), took a page from the history of another rights movement that stood for justice and freedom.

Some in the Israeli Peace Camp or in Washington, advocates of the so-called peace process, will say this is not the way. They will be echoing those who stood on the wrong side of history. The American Freedom Riders not only defied the Jim Crow segregation laws; they also defied many “white liberals” and the White Citizens’ Councils, who said their actions were too provocative and too much, too soon.

President Obama honored and thanked those Freedom Riders this past week for their courage and dedication 50 years ago. In his Cairo speech in 2009, he appeared to encourage similar initiatives of Palestinian nonviolence. Obama has an opportunity now to send a powerful message to the world by voicing strong support for the efforts of Palestinian Freedom Riders challenging segregation and daily discrimination rather than maintaining the silence he has kept since 2009.

Twenty years into the Oslo peace process it is clear that negotiating with Israel has achieved virtually nothing. Illegal Israeli settlements have more than doubled, the Wall has been built (effectively physically entrenching the Apartheid already present), and travel continues to be heavily restricted. What’s needed isn’t further talk with the intransigent; what’s needed is civil resistance.

The American Freedom Riders began their campaign knowing they would be arrested, or worse, beaten to within an inch of their lives. They made a decision – “Jail No Bail.” People thought they were crazy, but they continued on their ride to freedom and despite the arrests and vicious beatings they prevailed.

Likewise, the Palestinian Freedom Riders recognized that their continued defiance of the system of apartheid practiced in the Occupied Territories is dangerous, and in fact, an act that risks their lives. They are under threat from the violence of Israeli settlers during the rides themselves, as well as arrest and abuse from Israeli Occupation Forces, and yet they held true to their non-violent act of civil disobedience.

The bus was surrounded and boarded by soldiers who demanded the Freedom Riders get off the bus. After refusing, the 6 riders were dragged off the bus, one by one – as they chanted slogans, including “Boycott Israel,” “Free Gaza,” and “I’m a Palestinian Freedom Rider and I want to go to Jerusalem.” A journalist and local Palestinian activist were also arrested at the checkpoint.

In the 1960s in America, the saying was “We Shall Overcome.” In Palestine, we say “Samidoon,” or “We are steadfast.” There is courage, perseverance, strength, and a deep sense of justice that binds rights struggles around the world; the mantra of sumoud, or steadfastness, that Palestinians hold dear, is difficult to adequately convey in translation, but it is not unique to them. It is a common root from which the oppressed draw inspiration and build solidarity.

To those who stood against injustice in the 1960s, and who are proud of that moment in human history, the time has come to raise your voices again now – this time to demand justice for Palestinians and an end to rampant Israeli discrimination.  The ride to freedom is long and ever-evolving. But it is also a ride that knows no geographical boundaries – whether in the Jim Crow South or Occupied, Apartheid-administeredPalestine.

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