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Voices of Youth: Generation Z Is Galvanizing Around Palestine

Hear from six college-aged pro-Palestine protesters about why they are politically involved.

Amba Guerguerian Apr 2

On Thursday, thousands rallied across the street from Radio City Music Hall, where former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton spoke at a fundraiser for Biden on his reelection campaign. 

Despite an NYPD crackdown on pro-Palestine protests that began roughly two months ago, crowds of New Yorkers haven’t stopped pouring into Manhattan at least once a week to demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and Palestine free from occupation. “From the belly of the beast, hands off the Middle East!” chanted the demonstrators outside Radio City, while other pro-Palestine protesters repeatedly interrupted the event occuring inside.

Last week Biden sent to Israel, among other weapons, 1,800 2,000-pound bombs that can level city blocks. The Biden administration has been sending aid “on a weekly basis since the conflict began, just an open tab of arms,” former State Department official Josh Paul told Democracy Now!.

Back at the Radio City protest, a student contingent met in front of Gov. Hochul’s office on Third Avenue, where it staged a small rally that accused Hochul of supporting genocide and underfunding CUNY. The contingent, made up of undergraduate college students mostly attending City universities, then marched to Radio City in the rain to join the larger rally.

We spoke with some of the youth in the student contingent. Here’s what they had to say.

Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.

Jo, 22; Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA)
Hunter College (Human Rights and Women & Gender Studies)

I think that we will win, you know, because of people power — I don’t think power comes from elected officials, even though people want you to think that. Power comes from the people, and at the end of the day, all of us mobilizing together has any more power than any elected official ever can. We just have to harness that and keep organizing together as a collective. 

I’m with the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA). We have a chapter at Hunter College, and we focus a lot on Palestinian Liberation. We do a lot of collaborative events with the Palestinian group and our campus PSA, the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance. There’s about, seven of us from YDSA here at the protest and around seven from PSA right now. 

The Indypendent: Is this your first time protesting with those people?

No — immediately when the stuff happened on Oct. 7, we mobilized a few people from PSA and YDSA to go to the first rally in Times Square, and ever since then we’ve just been going to events together on our campus and off campus. There’s also some membership overlap; there’s a couple of members who are involved in both groups. And we just want to work together along with [the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance] and any other groups on campus to fight for Palestinian Liberation. 

Tyler Etienne, 19; YDSA
Hunter College (Political Science)

Well, I feel like a lot of people after seeing the ceasefire resolution pass, thought that the fight is essentially over when it’s not — we still have hope Kathy Hochul, who is not just detrimental to CUNY education, but detrimental to safety on campus for a lot of college students. And, in the weeks after Oct. 7 she essentially called college-student protesters Hamas sympathizers. And so this is a direct call out to Hochel saying that, “No, we actually are gonna hold you accountable.”

Also, Hochul owes us money at CUNY. So she needs to pay it up. We’re literally — I have family members going homeless from housing. I’m suffering from high tuition and high cost of living in New York City. And it’s ridiculous as a college student you expect me to build this democratic Utopia yet there’s no utopia to be found.

Why are you driven to fight for Palestine?

Liberation of anybody begins with the liberation of everybody. And so, my background is Haitian and Puerto Rican. Occupation is my entire life. There’s not one part of my ethnicity that hasn’t been affected terribly by U.S. occupation. Right now, Haiti is completely destroyed specifically due to U.S. intervention. So me coming out in support of Palestinian rights is also supporting every colonized person’s rights. 

Protesting in general is building consciousness. A lot of people, this is their first time getting used to a blatant version of decolonization and people fighting for their liberation from a colonizing power. This is like our version — like a different version of the Haitain revolution we’re seeing. 

And this is when people started learning, so coming out and supporting Palestine also helps people get educated on Congo, get educated on Haiti, get educated on Puerto Rico. 

Free Palestine. 

Valeria, 23; Students for Justice in Palestine
Brooklyn College (Urban Sustainability)

I first became aware of the situation in Palestine back in high school, like 2014, 2015. But actively involved? I started going to protests when I was 20, 21.

How has peer involvement in the organization changed over the time you’ve been there?

Since 2021 up until before October, I would say the change wasn’t very drastic — it was pretty steady.  Obviously, after October, with people joining the protests, both on campus and off — there was a huge increase. 

Young people aren’t the only ones protesting for Gaza. Photos by Neil Constantine.

Our membership numbers haven’t increased too much. Because of the repression going on on campuses, people have been more afraid of joining. But when we do the protests on campus, people show up, just not necessarily like as a part of SJP. But they do support the cause.

Why might a student be wary to join Students for Justice in Palestine?

Brooklyn College, I would call it Zionist central out of the CUNYs. The Hillel at BC has been around since the 1930s. So it’s been a huge part of the culture around BC, basically contributing to the whole propaganda of Judaism equating to Zionism. 

Ever since October, there’s also been an increase in anti-Zionist Jewish people on campus trying to create spaces for anti-Zionist Jews to be able to combat that propaganda and that longstanding history at Brooklyn College. 

The SJP at our at our school has never actually had its own space to meet. The thing at BC is, most clubs have their own spaces to meet, like their own actual rooms. SJP was never given that — no room at all. Hillel has their whole building. 

Ever since October, the SJP has had a hard time having events on campus. The excuses are security reasons and tensions on campus. But you know, you don’t see that happening with Hillel events. Hillel had a whole event of a Krav Maga class, which is that martial art that is used by the IOF, and they’re showing students that. So there’s a huge double standard: SJP can’t even have educational events. But Hillel can have events that basically promote violent tactics for students to learn. And our university president has said the SJP is “supporting terrorists.”

We’re still continuing to show up. There’s a huge importance of students showing up for the movement, because students have been an important group in radical movements throughout history. So it’s important for students to encourage students to keep showing up both on campus and off our campuses, like today — that’s why there’s like a student contingent today specifically, to show that we’re a real force.

Two childhood friends from Poughkeepsie, 18, both college freshman: Zeinab,* Palestinian, studies at a university in California and Leila,* half Iraqi, studies at SUNY Purchase.
*
These are pseudonyms.

Leila: SUNY Purchase, like a lot of SUNYs, supports genocide, and there’s been some protests and stuff, graffiti for Palestine. But every single time that’s happened there’s emails sent out saying [from administration] that it’s anti-Semitic hate, but that’s not what it is. 

One time there was a peaceful gathering of Palestinians and Jews sharing their stories, and later there was an email from the school saying there was an “anti-Semitic gathering.” So there hasn’t been too much protest, because they’ve faced a lot of pushback from the administration. It’s upsetting when students who are trying to like voice peace, they’re just seen as, anti-Semitic.

She’s Palestinian (pointing to her friend); I’m Iraqi. My dad’s from Baghdad, so I’ve always been very educated Palestine. We’ve known about it our whole lives. 

We grew up in a a hometown that was predominantly white.

Zeinab: I just feel like with Western media so skewed to the Western perspective, and growing up — I’m so grateful that I grew up in a Palestinian family where I have family in Gaza; I have family in Palestine, and so I’ve been educated properly, but it — like after Oct. 7, I realized how many people are actually so uneducated and unaware that Zionism and anti-Semitism are two very different things. And it’s like they don’t have a sense of reality, because the propaganda that we have in Western media is so prominent, and we shit on other countries for propaganda, but then in the United States, it’s so skewed and just like false media…

 — Under the guise of free speech. 

Yeah exactly. Which is contradicting itself and hypocritical. So it was hard growing up there — especially a lot of friends from that hometown I’m not friends with anymore just because of everything [since Oct. 7]. I never really realized until they started posting, oh, “Israel under attack! Israel under attack!” It’s like yeah, but Palestine has been under attack for years, and no one said anything.  And whenever I would say anything, they would unfollow me or be like, “No, you’re wrong.” 

And I have family there — I’ve been there. I would know more than them. It’s very skewed and it  showed after Oct. 7.

Leila: It was so shocking how uneducated people were about it. I always had an understanding of it because my mother actually worked for a college and called Al-Quds Bard, so I always I had so many Palestinians come to my home and share stories and stuff. And so I was always just very knowledgeable about it, but, I don’t know, especially after Oct. 7, so many people just had no no idea what was going on! This has been happening for, like, you know, 80 years? And I don’t know — it’s interesting how it’s popular on social media now, but this has been happening; it’s not new. 

Zeinab: It showed a lot about people’s morals and how they think. Because when it was smaller numbers [of people killed by Israel] in 2011 and 2016 and even like the early 2000s — it was happening — and no one said anything because the numbers were smaller. And now that the numbers are higher, people are talking. 

It does give me hope, but … I still feel like so many people just need to take more action than they actually are. It’s important that people keep posting, keep going protests, showing up. Like I saw an [older] couple people while we were standing back like Grand Central, they were reading our signs. And that tells so much — like some people aren’t on social media and like majority are but it’s so important to be in the public eye. 

Leila: I feel like a lot of the older generation almost just are kind of oblivious to a lot of what’s happening just because so much of it’s on social media, because so much media that’s coming from Palestine is like, through these [social media] reporters, like, Bisan [Owda] and Motaz [Azaiza].  That’s so much of what we’re seeing, and a lot older people aren’t. 

So for people in our generation, I think it’s so unacceptable for them to deny things because it’s right in front of your phones, and we know you see like what’s happening. But it gives me hope that so many more people are aware of what’s going on now. 

What was it like growing up in your households, Palestinian and Iraqi, which have both faced decimation at the hands of the United States?

Leila: For me unfortunately, like a lot of people when they immigrate to America, they kind of, — my father, I feel struggled with his identity when he came here, and kind of abandoned his culture, and abandoned, like — I don’t know, his identity — like I never was taught Arabic by him, which makes me very sad. 

So I’ve brought it upon myself to educate myself some of my culture and like, my white mom is the one who’s exposed me more to my culture in a way because, unfortunately, my dad kind of left his identity behind to conform to American norms, because I think he faced a lot of racism. 

Zeinab: I grew up going to Jordan and Palestine a lot. My family’s there; I would always be there.  I think my parents are more so scared, for my safety, which makes sense; they are the older generation. So they’re like, “No, just stay home. Like, it’s okay. We’re donating; we’re seeing your family this summer, hopefully.” 

But they don’t realize that that’s not really enough. It’s not enough. We need to come out; we need to protest; we need to be here. 

Leila: We got your mom to come out to one protest. We went to a protest with both of our moms and out little sisters. 

Zeinab: She came and she was scared shitless. She was so scared the whole time and I was like, “Mom, it’s okay.”

Growing up I faced a lot of stuff where I have really curly hair, and I would straighten it and stuff like that. And my mom would be like, “No, don’t straighten your hair.” Just small stuff like that, where especially growing in a predominantly white town, it was really hard for me. 

I’m just so grateful that I am Palestinian, that I have that identity in me, and this is so beautiful to see everyone come out; it touches me. 

The protests in the Bay area are really good, actually. Theres’s a lot more Zionism in New York, like a lot more, which I didn’t realize until I went to San Fransisco. And when I’m here, I’m only here for a few days, and I tell [Purchase], “We have to go to a protest.” 

Maddan, 20; NYC Jewish Bund 
Hunter College (Law)

We’re reviving the Jewish Labor Bund, which was founded in 1897. And it was a secular Jewish space that was created before Israel existed, fighting against the creation of Israel. An explicitly socialist org, we are continuing that fight in the modern age, trying to bring it to wherever we can. Montana’s [branch] been doing some incredible stuff! We are an international organization. So we have people in Germany, everywhere. We have little chapters all around, but the main revival is the international version. 

How did you get connected with the Jewish Labor Bund?

I’m a Hunter student. I’ve been around — I’ve met a lot of people who fight for the same fight. And I know my history. So being Jewish and looking into my own history as a Jewish person and into movements that have happened within Judaism that don’t align with Zionism — there are very few ‚ but those have been very strong historically. If you look at the USSR, the Jewish Labor Bund was very, very, very open about how Israel cannot exist, and it doesn’t follow Jewish practices to exist. And it would require, you know, displacement, colonization, genocide, mass murder — all of that. And, again, they were clearly, right. So a big part of us reviving and trying to work toward a future is accepting that we had been right all along, that Judaism cannot coexist with Zionism, because those are two completely separate beliefs. One of them stems from colonization, genocide, settler colonialism — while the other one is an actual religious movement. And trying to co-op Judaism into Zionist terms will always, always, always fail, as long as we’re around.

Did you grow up in a Zionist household?

Yes, to the point where my grandfather was actually very involved in a lot of the creation of Israel, as well as a reporter in Israel that worked for the Israeli government. So growing up around that I had seen a lot of the insider knowledge he had, and how ardently he supported Israel to the point where he would lie on articles, and I was not comfortable with that.

Do you remember when you had that moral awakening?

I was around 10. So ten years ago-ish. Back then — I used to write little articles about statistics that proved that Zionism was a settler-colonial project, genocidal or whatever. And over a long time, I collected a bunch, sent them to my grandfather, and he stopped talking to me for a while. He’s still a Zionist. 

Why didn’t you just join Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now or another similar group?

JVP, INN, and similar groups such as NION have done incredible, necessary work that I deeply admire. We love all our khaveyrim (comrades) fighting against Zionism and Israel’s actions — we Jews have a unique importance in making a genuine difference in this moment that we cannot waste, and we stand alongside all of the organizations dedicated to that fight.

What’s unique about the Bundist approach to the issue of Israel and Zionism is its centering of what we call the three pillars: Jewishness, doikayt, and socialism. Jewishness is largely self-explanatory — we’re a Jewish group who accepts any and all forms of Judaism within its ranks, uniting all of us with a common identity and culture. Doikayt, a Yiddish word that is translated literally to “hereness,” is, in my opinion, best explained by the old Bundist saying “wherever we live, that is our home.” The world’s Jews must fight to make the place they live better, not rely on a distant “homeland” that represents them only in name. Socialism, the third pillar, represents the Bund’s historic reliance on Marxism. By supporting workers movements and leftist institutions around the world in their fight against the exploitation Capitalism necessitates, we look to create a truly democratic, fair, and free future for all.

The combination of these three pillars is what distinguishes the Bund from these other organizations — we are looking not only to dismantle Zionism and free Palestine, but to create a new world free of the horrors we witness under global capitalism.

We have roughly 100 people in the New York City Branch. We’ve got well over 500 internationally. We have people in, I believe 13 countries. We relaunched in December 2023. I highly recommend joining!

Jonathan Rampagoa contributed to this report.

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