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When the tables are turned

This campus is not a safe space for Arabs or Muslims, and it shouldn’t take an act of violence to realize that.

Last Thursday, Duke Students for Justice in Palestine hosted an event on the Bryan Center Plaza. We constructed a mock wall of the one that currently separates and annexes parts of the West Bank into Israel to raise awareness of the suffering and oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli state—supported by our very own government. Upon completion, the wall will run for almost 500 miles and will essentially annex part of the West Bank, leaving Palestinians living in Bantustans, ghettos and military zones. In its highest areas it is 25 feet tall, more than twice as tall as the Berlin wall. It restricts Palestinians’ access to work, school, healthcare, friends and family. Witnessing the wall firsthand is extremely psychologically intimidating, living by it day-by-day even more so. It has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice and denounced by international human rights groups. Our event was a criticism of the oppressive structures and settler-colonialism of the Israeli state and the nations that support those actions.

At one point a student destroyed part of our display and flipped over our table of food.

The goal of the event was to educate the Duke community about the oppression of Palestinians and the struggle toward freedom, but it also ended up exposing the not-unrelated oppression present on our very own campus.

It is no coincidence that this violent act of intimidation—that took place in broad daylight in one of the busiest public spaces of campus—was perpetrated against a group that is constantly villainized and dehumanized in the media, put under surveillance by our government and unequally treated in our society. To make sense of the events, we need to look further than the temperament or actions of an individual student. The same forces that invalidate the voices of Palestinian solidarity activists on this campus are those that keep the wall standing, prevent Palestinian refugees from resettling, deny them their right to self-determination, allow the continuation of illegal Israeli settlements and perpetuate a brutal military occupation. Palestinian lives, voices, health, dignity, hopes and dreams aren’t valued.

As Muslim chaplain and fellow Chronicle columnist Abdullah Antepli stated, “The consequences would have been drastically different if the tables were turned.” I don’t even want to imagine the consequences if a Palestinian-American were to respond in a similar manner. It would be taken as a sign of the aggression and danger of Muslims and Arabs in general. The individual would be criminally charged. An inquiry would be launched on how Palestinian activism or the Muslim community breed violent extremism. Politicians would capitalize on the event to their own ends by breeding hate in the electorate. This is the discrimination that Arabs and Muslims face daily in this country; it’s a similar line of thought that justifies the collective punishment of the Palestinians and the immense human toll we inflict with our military interventions and foreign policy.

This campus isn’t just an unsafe space for Palestinians, but many other marginalized groups, including women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and those of lower socioeconomic status. It’s apparent in the persons of color who feel they need to prove their worthiness to be members of this school. The victim of sexual assault who is told “she was asking for it.” The gay or lesbian couple who are afraid to hold hands walking across the quad. The parties that caricature an entire cultural group in their themes or costumes. And the list goes on. … The lived experiences of these individuals are constantly invalidated and minimized by power structures largely out of their control. When they try to speak out against the oppression they face, they are ignored, ridiculed, written off as “angry feminists,” told that they can’t take a joke, threatened or in some cases—like last week—face physical violence.

The administration has a responsibility to respond in a manner to make sure that this campus is a safe space for every member of our community. This doesn’t mean responding to this as an isolated incident but addressing the structural inequalities in our institutions. More importantly, every individual has a personal responsibility to hold themselves and their peers accountable for their actions.

In my shock after the incident, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of a student upset with our message tearing down part of our mock wall. It is my dream that those invested in the idea of Israel, and anyone who desires to live in a just and peaceful world, would realize how the wall threatens their own humanity. Every human is responsible in ensuring the end of oppression of any other human being. After educating people about the injustices of the wall, we invited attendees to symbolically take part in this process by breaking down our own mock wall we had built. This symbolic act can become a reality. It’s time to turn over the tables of oppression.

Ahmad Jitan is a Trinity senior and the president of Duke Students for Justice in Palestine. His column runs every other Thursday. You can follow Ahmad on Twitter @AhmadJitan.

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