Hypocritical Allyship: On the Princeton Keller Center’s complicity in the Israeli occupation of Palestine

Palestinian family’s home, caged to protect from Israeli settlers’ violence. Al Khalil (Hebron). Photo credit: Sarah Sakha.

cw, tw: police violence

We preface this open letter by saying that the Black Lives Matter movement and Black voices in particular have been rightfully centered across global struggles for justice these past few weeks. In issuing this statement, we hope to hold ourselves accountable to Black communities, organizers, and individuals, being mindful of potentially detracting from advocacy against anti-Blackness, co-opting the work of this or any other movement, or otherwise taking any space that should be given up instead.

At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that the racist violence inflicted against Black Americans over the past few weeks and years is inextricably linked to this country’s larger history and continued perpetuation of settler colonialism and imperialism, as we see particularly in relation to Israel and occupied Palestine, and that police brutality does not exist in a vacuum. As alumni of Princeton University, we have been especially horrified and disappointed to see how Princeton’s Keller Center has continued to engage with and lend a platform to the Israeli government and its affiliates — in the same context in which the Keller Center claims to promote racial equity. On June 4th, 2020, the Keller Center sent out its weekly bulletin, starting the email with the following enlarged text:

Right below, in the very same email, the Keller Center promoted two of its most recent virtual events: a webinar with HealthIL, an Israeli government-backed digital health NGO, and its upcoming webinar with Dr. Mitchell Schwaber ’86, Director of the National Center for Infection Control of the Israel Ministry of Health and officer in the Medical Corps reserve of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). There are several issues with this:

  • Knee-on-neck is a common violent move by the Israeli military, well-documented by Palestinians. This co-opting of George Floyd’s words, begging for his life, is horribly exploitative in this context.
  • Since many U.S. police departments train with IDF, denouncing police brutality in America while also promoting events relating to and engaging with the Israeli government — who financially, technologically, and politically supports similar acts of violence in Israel and Palestine — manifests the utmost hypocrisy.
  • Centering the Israeli’s government’s response to COVID-19 is especially horrifying given the vulnerability and fragility of Palestine’s health systems as controlled by Israel, and heightened COVID-19 restrictions on movement of Palestinians that only amplify the effects of a continued 72-year-long military occupation of the West Bank and 13-year-long blockade of Gaza.
  • In addition, Netanyahu has vowed to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank as soon as July 1. This annexation is illegal according to international law and norms, and will further perpetuate and exacerbate aforementioned human rights issues, among many others.

To discuss the health infrastructure of Israel and their ability to respond to a pandemic without mentioning Palestine and Israel’s role in repressing Palestine’s ability to respond as well to the pandemic erases a very critical part of healthcare discussions. Although the pandemic has been largely contained in Palestine, this is due to the fact that there is very restricted movement within Gaza and the West Bank. The kinds of isolation and routine disruptions that have become the norm in Israel and countries across the globe battling COVID-19 have been a reality for Palestinians for far longer.

In terms of the healthcare infrastructure of the region, though, Israel continues to actively make Gaza the world’s largest open-air prison. Blockades make impossible not only access to critical medications, but a wide range of items including healthcare equipment. Hospitals in Gaza are not equipped to handle many basic healthcare procedures, let alone COVID-19 patients. Further, patients requiring life-saving care that could be performed outside of Gaza are too often denied medical permits to seek healthcare and medical appointments — actively killing patients or inflicting upon them debilitating conditions that could have been prevented.

Outside of the scope of this particular programming, the Keller Center has previously lent a platform to Israel. We’ve seen Princeton promote on social media its newest TigerTrek to Israel on the topic of entrepreneurship, which the Keller Center supported. (This is the second trip the school organizes to Israel, on top of the Woodrow Wilson School’s yearly trip to Israel, led by former Ambassador Kurtzer, to “learn about both sides.”)

Imagine if Princeton supported taking a trip to apartheid South Africa in the 1960s for the sake of learning about small businesses. Imagine the active promotion of that trip — The Israel Tiger Trek is the same thing.

This is on top of the Keller Center’s Princeton Startup Immersion program, through which Princeton students land summer internships with start-ups in Tel Aviv.

So, let’s talk about technology and innovation: It was only in 2018 that the West Bank received access to 3G; in Gaza, Palestinians still only have access to 2G. Palestinians in the West Bank only have access to water for 7 hours a day at most, and electricity for 10–15 hours a day at most. Meanwhile, the Israeli settlers who live alongside, among, and on the lands of Palestinians, have 24/7 access to water and electricity. How can you tell a Palestinian home from that of an Israeli in the West Bank? By whether there is a black water tank atop the building. To build homes, businesses, shelters, Palestinians must acquire building/land permits from Israeli authorities, and from 2016–2018, the rejection rate was more than 98 percent.

Israel’s technology is highly advanced; their facial recognition technology and biometric screening tools at 187 checkpoints along the West Bank are unbelievably developed. Some of them are no longer even manned by human soldiers. Those technologies are also often produced and supported by American companies, like Microsoft. Let’s not forget the technology used to raze Palestinians’ homes — using equipment produced by the American company Caterpillar — and plow Palestinian land in the Jordan Valley, where Palestinian farmers have been forced off their own land and now must work on the farms of Israeli settlers, at low wages and in horrible conditions, in a system akin to sharecropping.

The UN, UNHCR, and many other organizations have repeatedly recognized Israel’s egregious abuses of the human rights of Palestinians, which include breaches to international human rights and humanitarian laws and covenants, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Geneva Conventions. At least five categories of major violations of international human rights and humanitarian law characterize the Israeli occupation: unlawful killings, abusive detention practices, forced displacement, unjustified restrictions on movement, and the development of settlements with discriminatory policies that further disadvantage Palestinians. There are 70-plus laws in Israel that deliberately target and discriminate against Palestinians.

Many of us have had no prior exposure to issues around Israel and Palestine; many of us engaged with these issues for the first time upon coming to Princeton. We understand the desire to visit Israel, to travel on someone else’s dime, most of all Princeton’s. But none of this is an excuse for ignorance. No travel, no transaction, no platform is without consequence, and we encourage all of us to carefully examine the ethics of anything we do, purchase, consume, hear, see. As an institution with immense wealth and privilege, Princeton is responsible for critically examining its relationship to Israel’s oppression of Palestinian communities — and so are we.

The struggle for racial liberation and justice is global. Any person, group, or institution that claims racial justice as a priority must reckon with how the racist violence embedded into the history of the U.S. police is paralleled, informed, and made possible by systems of violence enacted against Palestinian people.

And what does our promotion of Israel — in the manner that we do — say to prospective, current, and past students? Students from the occupied Palestinian territory and the Palestinian diaspora, whose grandparents were kicked off their land, who may not be able to see their family members? Or even to students and faculty of other communities with similar histories and lived traumas?

After all, Princeton’s motto was newly changed to our being “in the service of humanity.” And that means all our humanity, and certainly not at the cost of an entire people’s humanity. As we reckon with the long-overdue need for anti-racist institutional changes in our campus community and our financial involvements, we must examine what it means to continue engaging with the Israeli government and its affiliates. We must critically examine the silencing of Palestinian issues and narratives, which are inextricably linked to the fight for racial justice here in the U.S.

We denounce the Keller Center’s practice of providing platforms and resources to businesses, institutions, and individuals who actively uphold such a violent and racist system. We also recognize that the Keller Center is just one case study within the larger problem of institutions like Princeton upholding these ideals. The continued legitimization of such violent systems by “respectable” institutions like universities creates the conditions for Palestinians and other oppressed groups to suffer while the world looks on. We stand in solidarity with the individuals and groups who continue to do this work, and call upon everyone in our communities to equip themselves with a deep understanding of anti-Blackness, anti-violence, and Black-Palestinian solidarity.

Below, we are linking resources for action and education. An immediate action item is to register for the Keller Center webinar mentioned at the beginning of this letter, The Israeli Healthcare System’s Response to COVID-19, happening tomorrow June 25th at 12 pm EST. This event is open to the Princeton campus community and the public, but registration is required. In protest of this event, we encourage you all to take the following steps:

  1. Prepare a question highlighting the deadly repression of healthcare in Palestine under Israel’s military occupation and blockade on Gaza. The event organizers are taking questions via the Zoom chat function.
  2. Make a sign (ideas include “Gaza is the world’s largest open-air prison” “I stand with Palestine” “End the blockade, end the occupation”) and consider using it as your Zoom icon during the event. This will be the default image that appears when you turn off your camera.

RESOURCES FOR FURTHER ACTION

Please consider contributing to humanitarian, medical, and legal support for Palestinians if you are financially able to do so. In addition to donating, please promote and share the work that is being done to help address these issues. There are many organizations doing this work, but here are a few to use as a starting point:

  1. Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP): medical aid for Palestinian children.
  2. Al-Haq: Palestinian NGO engaged in advocacy on human rights and the law (Twitter: @alhaq_org)
  3. Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel: legal center for fighting for Palestinian rights in Israel
  4. Adalah Justice Project: Paletinian advocacy organization highlighting the experiences of Palestinians and offering human rights-based solutions (Instagram: @adalahjusticeproject)
  5. Ma’an development Center: humanitarian and development work in Area C (the West Bank is divided into 3 areas!)and Gaza
  6. Addameer: Palestinian NGO fighting for the rights of Palestinian political prisoners (Twitter: @Addameer)
  7. UNRWA: UN agency providing humanitarian assistance and advocacy for Palestine refugees (Instagram: @unrwa and @unrwausa)
  8. Palestine Legal: supporting the civil rights of people who speak out on Palestine in the U.S.

RESOURCES FOR FURTHER EDUCATION

Activists and Organizations to Follow

  • Noura Erakat (Twitter: @4noura, Instagram: @nouraerakat
  • Dr. Yara Hawari (Twitter: @yarahawari)
  • Diana Buttu (Twitter: @dianabuttu)
  • Mairav Zonszein (Twitter: @MairavZ)
  • Tamara Nassar (Twitter: @TamaraINassar)
  • Rebecca Vilkomerson (Twitter: @RVilkomerson)
  • Avner Gvaryahu (Twitter: @AGvaryahu)
  • Miko Peled (Twitter: @mikopeled)
  • Omar Shakir (Twitter: @OmarSShakir)
  • Youssef Munayyer (Twitter: @YousefMunayyer)
  • Wissam Nassar (Photography on Instagram: @wissamgaza)
  • Visualizing Palestine (Twitter: @visualizingpal, Instagram: @visualizaing_palestine)
  • PIPD (Instagram: @thepipd)
  • Eye on Palestine (Instagram: @eye.on.palestine)
  • Within our Lifetime or WOL (Instagram: @wolpalestine)
  • Al-Shabaka (Twitter: @AlShabaka)
  • Janna Jihad (Facebook)
  • Jewish Voice for Peace (Instagram: @jewishvoiceforpeace, Twitter: @jvplive)
  • If Not Now (Instagram: @ifnotnoworg
  • B’Tselem (Instagram: @btselem)

Books

  • Angela Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement
  • Suheir Hammad, Born Palestinian, Born Black & The Gaza Suite
  • Michael Fischbach, Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color
  • Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation
  • Jess Bier, Mapping Israel, Mapping Palestine: How Occupied Landscapes Shape Scientific Knowledge
  • Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code

Shorter Reads

Films

  • 5 Broken Cameras, on daily life under occupation
  • The Wanted 18, on how cows became a national security threat and means of resistance
  • Ghost Hunting, on torture tactics used on Palestinians in Israeli prisons

In solidarity, with gratitude, and toward hope,

Nourhan Ibrahim ’20, Sarah Sakha ’18, and Somi Jun ‘20

I'm a sakha for puns.