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Speakers Connect Palestine to American Police State at Rutgers PCRF Gala

Dr. Cornel West and Other Advocates Draw Parallels Between Militarization and Civilian Resilience in Palestine and Ferguson, Missouri
Cornel West & Naima Shalhoub
Singer and musician Naima Shalhoub with Cornel West at the Rutgers Student Center. Naima Shalhoub

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Just weeks before the state of Palestine was recognized as an official member of the International Criminal Court, several speakers at a sold-out event in New Brunswick compared the struggle of its people to the tension between police and civilians in the United States.

On March 12, members of the Rutgers chapter of the Palestinia Children Relief Fund (PCRF) successfully raised over $5,500 at their annual Spring Gala.

For 23 years, the grassroots organization has been providing relief to children and families who have faced harships due to military attacks.  The Rutgers student chapter was found in 2009, and is one of 33 chapters worldwide.

The multipurpose room in the Rutgers Student Center featured many speakers including Princeton University professor and activist Dr. Cornel West.

West has been working with NJ-STEP, short for Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons, for years.  He explained to New Brunswick Today that his work with such programs helps him realize the struggle Palestinians are facing today.

"It helps me in terms of keeping track of Palestinians murdered, [and] murdered in the mainstream media. There is no focus. Palestinians are incarecerated too. Gaza is an open-air prison."

West said that he feels, "A Palestinian baby is as precious as an Israeli baby, as precious as a Latino baby, as precious as a Black baby."

"The condition of truth is spoken through the struggle," said West during his remarks to the group, saying that what is happening in occupied Palestine is "unjust" and "immoral."

"Violence is the very thing Americans don't like to talk about until it gets to their home."

West spoke about "a lack of integrity and a lack of honesty" in the U.S. Government on the topic of violence, and the "fear of saying something honest at risk of losing your career."

"Justice is what love looks like in public...You have to tell the truth about empire, about capitalism, about white supremacy... The question becomes, how do we put a larger spotlight on it?"

He asked the audience, "Where do you end up with a mean-spirited Republican Party and a milquetoast, spineless, neoliberal Democratic Party?"

West says officials in both two parties are guilty of "say[ing] anything to get over," and are not concerned with real progressive change, especially when dealing with the Israeli Occupation in the State of Palestine and when "Black and brown people are getting shot every 28 hours" at home in America.

Other speakers included musician Naima Shalhoub, human rights attorney Noura Erakat, Israeli Defense Force attack survivor Brian Avery, and the head of the PCRF Medical Advisory Committe, Chicago surgeon Dr. Khaled AbuGhazaleh.

Shalhoub, a songwriter and musician from Oakland, California performed a few songs including her original "Ferguson Gaza Blues."

Shalhoub, who does a lot of work in the San Francisco County Jail and has her first album coming out this summer, says she wrote the song because she sees a lot of similarities between U.S. and Israel and their "prison culture."

Ferguson is lookin' like 1963,
With the 16th Street Church and Medgar Evers' memory.
And Gaza turns grey
from the ashes of Apartheid.
They don't care they're killin' children,
'cause they on the Devil's side. 

Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and George Mason University professor of international human rights and refugee law also spoke about the connection between the state of Palestine and the state of Ferguson, Missouri.

According to Erakat, "became organically resonant this summer as the police and the National Guard turned Ferguson into a military zone."

Erakat also drew on differences and similarities between the two areas with opposing forces of civilians and a militarized police.

"We are not in political solidarity with one another," said Erakat. "African Americans and Palestinians are not in solidarity with one another because we are the same. We are in solidarity with one another because of a commitment to learn and to labor.

"We see very similar trends like the criminalization of an entire population, like their mass incarceration [and] like structural racism that's coded in liberal democracy."

Erakat spoke about how slavery was a very old struggle, dating back to the 16th century, and that it "was the commodification of people...[G]endered violence against women, the rape of one's own female slave, increased a slave owner's profit. Because the more slaves he was able to produce, the more labor he could extract for free."

"The history of the struggle in Palestine is much more recent. It's a 21st century struggle. It's one that's born in the moment in anti-colonization. When the rest of the world was being decolonized, Palestine was being colonized, along with South Africa in 1948."

She noted that there has been progress thanks to "human action," which she says began "with the eradication of slavery [and] continues to the eradication of de jure segregation... coded in the language of liberal democracy and the law that hides and obscures it, but which activists are making very apparent."

Brian Avery, who is also a musician in a band called Space Daze, spoke about the violence he witnessed in Gaza and the West Bank in Palestine.

"I've witnessed it first hand, and it's a very visceral thing."

Avery spoke to the crowd about his humanitarian work and the summer of 2003, when he was shot in the head by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in the Summer of 2003. 

"The medical treatment I got would probably not be available to the average resident," said Avery who was treated right away in an Israeli hospital.  He went on to file a lawsuit, which was later settled. 

Avery was in the West Bank with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). After he was attacked by the IDF, and a fellow activist Lasse Jeppesen Schmidt, gave testimony to the Israel military who investigated the matter and published the story online in the Palestine Chronicle.

AbuGhazeleh described the PCRF's work overseas, and explained to the sold out audience that over 20,000 children received direct aid in the Middle East.

"We will treat any Arab child regardless of race or religion," Dr. AbuGhazeleh told the crowd. "We don't care." Direct aid is given to children injured or affected from explosives, birth abnormalities such as cleft lips, which includes medical treatment, surgery, social work and delivering basic supplies like hygeine products and mattresses to those in need.

PCRF details the success stories of many of these children online on their website and on social media sites like Facebook.

Dr. Khaled AbuGhazaleh explains PCRF does humanitarian aid work for "forgotten Palestinians," the name he gives to Palestinian refugees currently living in other countries in the Middle East including Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

"I'm originally Palestinian," said the internationally-known physician. "I've lived between the US and the Midle East over the years. Like any Palestinian, I've never had a home where I could live in Palestine." 

"It's not a connection we [PCRF] have made, because that's not our role, but many activists from both Ferguson and Gaza have brought up similarities," a student from PCRF said.

"It's an issue of a militarized [police] force in a civilian population who are trying to use peaceful protest, but the militarized force has been cracking down."

"I think the issue is that Palestinian bodies, and Middle Eastern bodies as a whole are politicized through mass media and conflict. They are often not represented as being people... PCRF shows each child's story individually and we separate them from the bigger situation they are in."

All told, the sold-out event was a success, building the organization's reputation for bringing respected activists and opinion leaders together at Rutgers. In 2013, the PCRF Spring Gala featured talks from Noam Chomsky (via web video) and Normal Finklestein.

The most recent PCRF event was made possible by a slew of co-sponsors including: Association of Mediterranean Organization at Rutgers (AMOR), Arabic Language Club, Iota Phi Theta, Thaakat Foundation, Phi Delta Epsilon, Black Student Union, Beta Chi Theta, ARSA, Ahlul-Bayt Student ASsociation at Rutgers, Q+A: Queer + Asian, Rutgers Muslim Student Association, National Association of Black Journalists, ICAN, Alpha Phi Alpha, Black Lives Matter, Arab Cultural Club, Students for Justice in Palestine, Journalists for Human Rights, Rutgers UNICEF, People to People International, United Muslim Relief, Sigma Phi Delta, Rutgers University South Asian Studies Program, and the Rutgers University Center for Middle Eastern Studies.