(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
As university professors, parents and public scholars, what small actions can we take to support Palestine at a time when most of us feel paralyzed?
A few years ago, I wrote about “Explaining Palestine to a 9-Year Old”. It was a post about how I talked about Palestine with my own 9-year-old child, but also a post I could then use to subtly spread awareness about Palestine to many of my Western social media followers and friends. This time around, the situation in Palestine is so much worse and it has been heartbreaking. I’ve been resharing the work of others more knowledgeable than me, closer to the ground, and more eloquent than myself, and speaking my own words much less. But I’m writing this post because I know many of us outside Palestine are feeling angry and helpless and wondering what we can do.
A friend asked me recently, “What are you doing about Palestine?” And I took a deep breath and felt a heaviness in my heart. And I wanted to share what I’ve been trying to do. It’s beyond inadequate in the large scheme of things, but I believe that as a university educator, parent, and public scholar, even if I cannot do anything significant to help save lives or influence the conflict, I can at least help educate others and help cultivate mind-sets that support the Palestinian cause in as constructive a way as possible. This is a time to cultivate compassion while also nurturing criticality and encouraging activism.
Some of what I do may not work for you, and that’s fine. We live in different countries with different restrictions, and we work in different institutions in different contexts and teach different things. Our children have varying levels of maturity and capacity to handle discussing this trauma. So take from this what works for you, and tell us in the comments what else you do.
- Wearing the kefeyyah
I’ve had a Kefeyyah wrapped around the back of my office chair at work for over 20 years now. It’s an act of solidarity year-round so I don’t forget. I am Egyptian, but I grew up in Kuwait with many Palestinian friends and remember the intifada well. Palestine is in my heart, and I want to remind myself to keep it in my heart, always. In the midst of the current genocide, I got several new ones, for myself, my child, my colleagues. I wear them to class, and I know students then know I’m in solidarity with them. I wear it during workshops locally and I wear it during online workshops as a way to signal my solidarity with Palestine subtly. As someone told me, “انت بتتظاهري من غير ما تتظاهري”, which can be interpreted to mean many things, but mainly, “you are protesting without protesting”. A silent, ongoing protest. I realize that there may be some countries where it is unsafe to show solidarity visibly, but if you’re in a country where this is not the case, then this is a very simple act that can make a difference.
- Talk with students/children about it
This is of course easier to do with particular courses that focus on things like political science, history of the region, or literature, if you have the flexibility to bring it up in examples or include new readings or materials on the matter. But other classes can bring it up, too. My course has an element of discussing bias and othering, as well as fake news and AI. We have been talking about how the language in the media promotes othering and dehumanization of Palestinians and the language used in Western media sources downplays the degree to which Israel is committing war crimes. We have also been using Palestinian examples on AI to showcase the ways in which AI (visual and language-based) reproduces a biased narrative that is pro-Israel and less supportive of Palestine even while attempting to appear neutral. My child is now twelve and better able to understand that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is settler colonialism. I no longer need to explain it with metaphors of people kicking people from their own houses.
- Donate time and money
It is not enough, it will never be enough, but anything small that might make a difference is better than sitting and doing nothing. And involving young people is more important than ever. Encouraging children and students to donate money if they have surplus, to donate clothes, and to participate in packing clothes/food (Egyptian Clothing Bank and Egyptian Food Bank are very well-organized and ready to receive intergenerational groups from schools or organizations) that will be sent to Gaza can make a difference in their sense of social responsibility and global citizenship. My child’s school held a bake sale for Gaza and spent time talking to the students about it. There are donation booths on my campus collecting money for medical aid for Gaza through the Red Cross. And donating online to trusted organizations is really straightforward.
- Advocate every way you can
On social media to international audiences, find ways to spread awareness, and focus on statements that emphasize humanity and spread awareness, rather than those that spread hatred and violence. Emphasize statements that criticize Zionism rather than Jews, and discuss specific actions that showcase settler colonialism, apartheid and genocide historically and in this moment, rather than statements that generalize. I reshape posts from Arab and Western authors and speakers because I know it is often easier for Westerners to listen to someone who looks like them, who explains it to them from their own point of view.
Express solidarity on your own campus if it is safe to do so (I realize those outside the Arab world may feel less safe to do so). People find different ways, including certain boycotts, refusing to collaborate with certain institutions, setting up or contributing to scholarships for Palestinian students to study at your institution, and institution-wide statements of solidarity.
If you can participate in strikes or protests on your campus or outside of it, that is of course a way to show solidarity and surround yourself with allies.
- Educate yourself
Some of you may understand this issue inside out, so this statement isn’t for you. But for me, I learn something new every day about this topic. I have always known the history, roughly, but I have been learning more details, and I found myself trying to understand more about Judaism and Zionism as well, in order to try to understand why there are some Jews who strongly oppose Israel’s actions and even its existence, and yet there are so many Zionists and supporters of Israel who so easily dismiss the humanity of the Palestinian people.
- Support others’ well-being
If you are in the Arab/Muslim world, or elsewhere and have Arab or Muslim students, it is highly likely you are surrounded by people whose well-being is strongly affected by what is happening in Palestine. Other than being a compassionate listener, you may find some of the tips from Maristan Institute helpful, which include recognising the impact of loss and historical trauma, and understanding post-traumatic stress when we are in the moment and not “post”, as well as recognising the depth of vicarious trauma felt by those outside Palestine who are in our midst. Other tips include cultivating resilience, supporting learners to take positive action safely, and encouraging mindfulness and spirituality.
Teachers may also choose to be more lenient than usual with exams and deadlines during this period that is tough for some of our students. Even secondhand trauma can impact students’ capacities for learning.
I also find it helpful to share the work of non-Arab allies because it gives hope, and the work of eloquent Arabs who give us hope that the cause will be heard empathetically.
I’ve also organized well-being sessions on my campus and in my local residential community. We call them Serenity Sundays. We meet and play some positive psychology games that just help us deal with the moment.
If you are a spiritual person, then acts of worship and spirituality can also enhance your own well-being, and when done in community these acts can support collective well-being.
Needless to say, if you know people who are themselves Palestinian or have immediate family in Palestine, prioritize their well-being as much as you can.
Everything I have mentioned here is tiny in the large scheme of things, but if we don’t keep taking small actions for Palestine, then we may seek to become numb instead of burning ourselves out. And we need something to sustain us so we can be there for our brothers and sisters. Find the way that works for you.
Maha Bali is a Professor of Practice, Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo.
- Explaining Palestine to a 9-Year-Old
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