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“Whatever they label us, we know what we’re fighting for”: Interview with a Palestinian organizer in New Jersey

In this interview a Palestinian student and community organizer discusses the repression and solidarity they’ve experienced building the movement for Palestine in North Jersey.

Samuel Karlin

January 22, 2024
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Left Voice member and New Jersey correspondent Samuel Karlin spoke with Yusuf A, a Palestinian American from West Orange and student who has been organizing in his town and in his university. Like many young people, Yusuf has been politicized by the movement for Palestine. Below he describes his experience in the movement, some of the repression he and others have faced, and the importance of solidarity within the movement.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


How has this movement for Palestine politicized you?

In the past, I’ve gone to actions, but I’ve never really been an activist. I wouldn’t actively seek protests out, but if I knew they were going on, like, the Black Lives Matter protests, or the Palestinian protests that have been going on in Paterson for the past few years, I’d go to them.

More recently, there was an incident at the Board of Education in our school district, where a board member said a lot of awful things. He was saying that Palestinians are baby killers and rapists. He said we’re evil. Some of it was implied, but most of it he just straight up said.

In response to this, someone I know organized a walkout at the high school. There had been walkouts and protests there before for other movements and that’s never been much of an issue. I mean, my senior year, 2022 we had a direct protest, which was a little bit difficult because they really didn’t want us doing it. This time around there was a lot of backlash, including doxxing and threats of harm to the students. It felt more personal, too, because I’m Palestinian American.

I knew I had to help any way I could. So I connected them with people I know, friends who had been politically active. So when they managed to do the walkout against what the administration and Zionists in our town wanted, I marched with them. And I also gave a speech for the first time. So that’s what really got me started.

Through that, I started meeting a lot of people including groups organizing in South Orange and Maplewood (neighboring towns). In my town, members of the community created the group West Orange for Humanity and I got involved with that.

What do you think is the significance of these different activists and groups in the suburbs organizing together?

I think we can just look at a popular chant right now, which is “the people united will never be defeated.” I think it’s very important to show unity, especially in these times, because one person standing alone is an easy target. If you have a group of people, you might be a bigger target. But you’re less likely to get hit.

I like to call it the zebra effect. Zebras have all these stripes, and they move in herds to confuse their predators. So it’s the same kind of thing where I think it’s important to have people who have your back, because they form your protection, and you help form their protection.

Along with the repression from the school district, activists have also faced repression from your town government. Can you talk about that?

Yeah. West Orange for Humanity, which my whole family is a part of, organized a Palestinian flag raising. In the past the town has held flag raisings for other communities, including Israel. But when we tried to do it for Palestine, we ended up facing a lot of backlash.

At first, the town actually gave us a permit, permissions, and had even scheduled and announced a day for the event. But Zionists complained, and the town canceled the event. They claimed it was because of “safety concerns.” There was actually disagreement between the mayor who canceled it and some town council members who thought the action should be allowed.

We ended up holding the event anyway because we didn’t want to let the Zionists dictate what we can and can’t do. And they claimed that our event was against the town’s Jewish community, but over half of West Orange for Humanity is Jewish people.

We called the event “Palestinian Joy Is Resistance,” and made clear that it wasn’t a protest, but a celebration of Palestinian culture and West Orange’s Palestinian community. The Zionists claimed we were calling for the killing of Jews. I remember being super frustrated, because it’s the same thing any Palestinian, any Muslim, any Arab has heard for years and years, their entire lives it’s the same thing. “You’re a violent people. Everything you do is consumed with violence. You’re a terrorist. All you want to do is sow fear in the community.” And when this event was supposed to purely about joy and celebrating our culture, they tried to twist it on its head.

In the end it was a great time. You and I were running around looking for pizza and we danced to Dabke. It was really nice because you don’t realize how many people are like you in the community until you’re all together in one place.

Interviewer Note: West Orange town council just passed a resolution that says criticism of Israel is “antisemitism,” despite opposition from community members including Jewish residents.

Now you’re also organizing at your university and connecting with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters across New Jersey. What has it been like organizing at college?

My university has yet to have a Palestinian event, actually. It’s not for lack of trying. Any time we try to have one, the school shuts it down. We tried to have an event to talk about the history of Palestine and what led to October 7. The administration shut it down because “students were scared.” We later found out it was a single student who wrote one email to one person saying that they felt like this was a dangerous thing to be putting forward.

This was technically the third event that was shut down by the school, but the first one on my campus, because this university has multiple campuses. The administration has been coming down on us, but I’ve had no issue with any students. In fact, the majority of students wanted these events to happen.

None of them were protests either. They were things like a candlelight vigil organized with multiple student organizations on campus, not even activist organizations. The school tried to take over that and make it a religious thing and bring in religious leaders, rather than let it just be people coming together. It was turned into a Muslim versus Jewish issue, which it’s not.

So, it’s been a lot of fighting with the administration either trying to take over an event, change it into something that it’s not supposed to be, or just shut it down.

Finally what we came up with was we had students come to school wearing Palestinian symbols and clothing like keffiyehs as a way of silent protest, because they can’t do anything about that. But a lot of people still want to go out and protest. So, I’ve started trying to organize an SJP chapter on my campus. Right now we don’t officially have a chapter, but we have the bones of one, and I’ve been in contact with a lot of schools in the area.

What’s been the hardest thing about organizing in North Jersey?

There’s all types of people here. A lot of my neighbors are afraid of being labeled as something they’re not. This is supposedly a very “left” state. Being branded as an antisemite or a racist is damning.

So when you have these lobbies, and you have these groups of Zionists going out and calling people antisemites and spreading people’s pictures online calling them antisemites or whatever, people are very afraid to come out.

Again, we have a lot of different communities here. There’s a lot of Jewish people, there’s a lot of Muslim people, Arabs, there’s a lot of Palestinians, there’s a lot of Israelis, a lot of everybody. So a lot of people are afraid of losing friends and even family. I know a lot of my Jewish friends don’t talk to like half their family now.

But whatever they label us, we know what we’re fighting for. And I think that’s another thing going back to previous questions of why we need to unite. We need to build each other up.

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Samuel Karlin

Samuel Karlin is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about U.S. imperialism and international class struggle.

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