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Harb ’04: Twenty years ago, Brown University didn’t want to fly my flag at commencement because I’m Palestinian

My time at Brown was bittersweet. At my 20th reunion this year, it is a sense of bitterness that prevails. Right after arriving at Brown in September 2000 from Ramallah, Palestine (where I had to wash my last load of laundry with our well water because the Israeli occupation had shut off the water supply to Ramallah — a regular practice Palestinians have been coping with for decades), the peace negotiations fell apart and the broke out. I was lucky to find wonderful classmates at Brown who were willing to listen and help me navigate being Palestinian in America. However, my interactions with the University continued to mark my time in college. The same kind of erasure I experienced is playing out today, and Brown alumni must take forceful steps to counter it — and to hold the administration accountable.

 

When I was a sophomore at Brown in April 2002, and other Palestinian cities resulted in major Palestinian casualties, deaths, and entrapment.  My father, a surgeon, was trapped at his hospital while my mother was trapped by herself at home for five days. They were unable to reach each other because of the bombing and curfew imposed by the Israeli military.  (Years later I found out that Israeli soldiers had used my dad as a human shield patrolling the hospital with a gun to his back. My parents left Palestine a year later). Fellow students stood with me as we protested the inhumane conditions my parents and so many others were suffering, much like we see solidarity movements to support Palestinian students on Brown’s campus today. When I went to the Office of Student Life at the time to ask them to inform my professors of the distress I was going through, all I remember them saying was "but Hamas..." Already then, the collective punishment of Palestinians, of my parents, and of my friends back home was being justified and defended by the University administration. 

 

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At commencement, the Brown administration on the Main Green to represent me. Remarkably, their initial reasoning was that the Israeli flag would fly for me. In other words, I would be “represented” by the very country that denies me citizenship, the very country that has put every possible obstacle in the way of my education. Israel closed schools for a year in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the first intifada. While my cohort missed second grade, my older siblings, who were in middle school and high school, missed even more formative years of education. Israel also placed a checkpoint between my house and my school in Jerusalem right after they signed the in 1991, with all its promise of peace. Eventually, they stopped letting students and teachers from Ramallah go through the checkpoint. I had to change schools. Even my acceptance letter from Brown was held up in Tel-Aviv until June, well past the deadline of accepting the offer.  I was stunned by the sheer insensitivity and callousness of the Brown administration suggesting that the Israeli flag could represent me, a person whose entire life has been shaped by Israeli oppression.

After a humiliating process of having to prove my existence, of letters and phone calls that poured into then-President Ruth Simmons’ office, the Brown administration deemed my existence worthy of acknowledgement just a few days before commencement. They flew the Palestinian flag without the name “Palestine” written on its pole–denying us a recognition of nationhood that others enjoyed. After commencement, someone from the administration asked me  whether I wanted the flag. I said, “Why? What should I do with a big Palestinian flag?” The administrator said "because I don't think we'll ever be using it again."

 

This past Thanksgiving, Hisham Awartani, a Palestinian junior at Brown who graduated from the same  Quaker high school I attended in Ramallah, was shot in the neck in Vermont for being Palestinian. He is now paralyzed. This horrific act is the result of the systematic dehumanization of Palestinians, as Hisham has also concluded in in which he tries to make sense of what happened to him. That dehumanization makes it acceptable to make unlivable for its 2.23 million inhabitants. Imagine of Philadelphia’s buildings being destroyed. Imagine of Philadelphia’s residents being forced into one corner of the city. Now imagine water, food supplies, and medicine being cut off from these displaced Philadelphians. Imagine all the hospitals have also been destroyed, so if you’re sick or get injured, you’re out of luck. Regardless of what your political position is, what Israel is doing in the Gaza Strip is not acceptable — unless, of course, you have accepted decades-long systematic dehumanization of Palestinians. 


The thought that Brown’s endowment is profiting from the oppression of Palestinians sickens me. The thought that students in Providence can enjoy safe spaces of learning made possible by profits from companies that aid the destruction of universities elsewhere should be unacceptable to every member of the Brown community. Despite facing threats of arrest and expulsion, Brown students today have demanded that the university and stop its “complicity with the genocide in Gaza.” I call on Brown alumni to join these courageous students. 

As you enjoy seeing old friends and walking down memory lane over reunion weekend, please join the to withhold donations to Brown until it divests from the mechanisms of Israeli oppression.

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