“The blue and white flag is your flag — you are in the Jewish state — even if that makes your stomach turn. ‘Hatikva’ is your national anthem even if it makes your heart explode. And if you don’t like that, go drink the sea in Gaza.”
Those words were uttered by a right-wing member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in 2010, following Palestinian lawmaker Haneen Zoabi’s participation in the flotilla to Gaza aboard the Mavi Marmara.
Ever since I heard these words, I knew them to be the most accurate way to describe what it is like for Palestinians who live in Israel and endure all its institutions, including its universities.
On my way to class at Haifa University yesterday, I noticed a large gathering of students and a significant number of security guards on campus.
Following the dean’s rejection of the attempts by Palestinian student parties on campus to hold a rally in memory for the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the students decided to simply gather, without holding flags or banners. Technically they were not violating the dean’s ban.
But I couldn’t figure out what was going on. It was a very surreal situation. There was very loud trance music being played by a DJ for a crowd of security personnel and Palestinian students.
So I asked one of the students what was happening: “The university approved a DJ party in place of our rejected Nakba memorial,” he said, red faced.
At the same moment, a student union representative spoke from the stage, next to the DJ: “We invite you all to the university’s student day — Muslims, Christians, Druze and Jews. We are a pluralist country, it doesn’t matter who you are, you are all invited to join us.” The representative spoke with a big smile, then started to dance.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon. The area was almost empty of students because of the relatively late hour, except for a few Jewish students dancing with a huge Israeli flag.
Notably, the student union holds events with music on Wednesdays, and only at noon. It was a Monday, and there was no special occasion.
Almost the only students there were the Palestinian students commemorating the Nakba.
After the dance party announcement, an elder Palestinian man urged the students to stay calm: “Don’t listen to him. Please sit and don’t stand. We don’t want to give anyone reason to attack us. Sit in a circle. Everyone please.”
Another young student stood in the middle of the circle and said: “Don’t let his words preaching about pluralism get to you. Let them play their music. We will mourn our Nakba.”
Not only do we have no right to mark the most painful day in our history in the way of our choosing, but we have to endure loud dance lyrics — “And your heartbeat, it lets me know you feel the same … I’ll be thinking about you you you … .”
All the while, a police officer was videotaping the Palestinian students, with a smile on his face. He appeared amused by the music and the angry, yet silent, Palestinian students.
Taping student activists in this way is a well-known intimidation tactic, a way of saying “we know who you are” and deterring many from participating in campus activism.
After the music played for a whole hour and the Israeli students got their kick or maybe got tired of dancing, the Palestinian students who endured and stayed there, were then pushed and forced by police to disperse.
So yes, my stomach did turn. I almost threw up, to be frank. But my heart didn’t explode, though it may have beat faster. But it was a good beat, a beat that teaches. It taught me that Israel’s most intellectual places, the universities, are the most repressive, because they are supposed to know better.
A university is supposed to protect rights and freedom of expression. I believe a less “intellectual” venue might not have acted the way Haifa University did. I don’t believe random people in the street would even act this way. They probably would just pass by and let us grieve our catastrophe.
Such a policy of vulgar repression is not only morally but strategically flawed. The university’s actions will only make the Palestinian students better and more committed intellectuals, and the Jewish ones better dancers.
While Palestinian students respectfully observed the two minutes of silence during the siren marking Holocaust Remembrance Day two weeks ago, for one hour Israeli students danced during the commemoration of our catastrophe.
Sawsan Khalife’ is a political activist and journalist from Shefa Amr in the Galilee region of Palestine.