Opinion | April 19th, 2024

Why We Helped Organize a Walkout for Palestine

By: Amelia Monagle-Olson and Amaya Dorman Mackenzie 

We are Berkeley High seniors and on March 13th, we helped organize a walkout at our school to stand up against the ongoing dismissal of Palestinian human rights by the Israeli government and its supporters, including the US government. 

 

At the walkout, our messaging aligned with Amnesty International’s call for actions: an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the release of all civilian hostages, the lifting of all restrictions on the distribution of life saving humanitarian aid (including fuel, food and medical supplies), an end to the 16 year blockade in Gaza and the dismantling of the apartheid imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli state (as described by B’tselem, Israel’s largest human rights organization, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International). Additionally, we called on our Berkeley City Council to pass a permanent ceasefire resolution and our School Board (Berkeley Unified School District) to support our teachers who are teaching Palestinian history and ethnic studies. 

 

Our walkout consisted of student-led chants, student-written speeches, and the painting of a student-designed mural on the corner of Allston and MLK. The mural depicts a young child reading a book with the Palestinian flag on it and a keffiyeh around their neck. Around them are the fishnet designs of a keffiyeh, a Palestinian poppy and an olive branch, while over the child’s shoulder, a peace dove reads the book with them. The mural, designed by Amaya, represents the concept of learning from and embracing history and peace.  

 

There has been national attention on Berkeley (and the Berkley Unified School District) recently because of claims of alleged antisemitism filed by the ADL (a group whose own staffers have dissented against it for its anti-Palestinian stance, one saying, “The ADL has a pro-Israel bias and an agenda to suppress pro-Palestinian activism”). There has also been a troubling amount of heckling and disruptions of Berkeley school board meetings and city council meetings by both pro-Palestine and pro-Isreal community members. 

 

The federal complaint filed by the ADL is only one example of the intense polarization happening in our Berkeley community. As students and young people, it is painful to see adults in our community tearing each other apart at these meetings. It seems like people lose their ability to see the humanity of those on the “other side” of the argument. Our actions and message at the walkout didn’t (and still don’t) align with this hurtful way of arguing and with the disrespect of the systems of governance that has been happening in these meetings. 

 

Our goal for the walkout was to create a respectful and safe space, to advocate for human rights, without sacrificing the strength of our message. We condemn all acts of antisemitism and are against hate of any kind. Criticism of any government, including the Israeli government, should not be conflated with antisemitism. When criticism of a government is considered the same as an attack on a group, the assumption is that that government speaks for all of the people living under it. The Israeli government does not speak for all of its constituents, nor are all its constituents Jewish (26.8% of Israelis are not Jewish). Neither do its actions represent the will of all Israelis. In other words, the actions of the state are separate from the people and their religion, whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or practice any other religion. Conflating the Jewish religion with the Israeli state is incredibly limiting for many who identify as Jewish, like Amaya. The actions of the Israeli state, including potential genocide and apartheid, are not the same as the actions of Jewish people.

 

Both of us have personal experience with videos and images shown in our classes that have triggered grief, sadness and despair. We know how awful it is to be the only ones in the room brought to tears in the middle of a lesson. But we believe that it is essential to address such an important topic, because the human rights of both Palestinians and Israelis are at stake. The school has a responsibility to support all our students’ mental health. Many of our students and teachers are experiencing the negative mental health impacts of witnessing what is happening in Gaza. We should give students the opportunity to learn about current events, and the historical context of the conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in order to understand how it is affecting our lives and to learn how we can stand up for human rights, including those of Israelis and Palestinians.

 

 At this time, many of our teachers are too scared to bring up this essential topic in their classes because they are afraid, and so are we. Meanwhile, the teachers and students who do bring it up are facing backlash. The harassment and doxing they experience from community members breaks our hearts because we feel it is so important to stand up for human rights, no matter whose they are and no matter what their religion. 

 

In conclusion, we need to learn about Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in our ethnic studies, history and literature classes so we learn to balance our own knowledge, beliefs and opinions with the structured and open ended conversations that need to happen in classrooms. We need to support the wellbeing of all students in the Berkeley Unified School District, and we are asking that our School Board do a better job of supporting our teachers in their teaching. For example, professional development training on addressing this topic could give our teachers the tools they need to navigate these discussions with students without judgment, self-righteousness, or hostility. We want teachers to tell us the facts and facilitate discussions that stem from a place of mutual respect and curiosity. 

 

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