Third Letter to UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block regarding Students for Justice in Palestine

This is my third letter addressed to UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block. It is in response to the most recent wave of discriminatory and hateful posters plastered on and around UCLA’s campus. It has been nearly six months since I had sent my earlier two messages to the Chancellor, to which he has still not responded. Past messages are reproduced below in full.

UCLA Chancellor’s Office

Box 951405, 2147 Murphy Hall

Los Angeles, CA 90095-1405

16 November 2015

Dear Chancellor Block,

It is my genuine hope that this correspondence finds you well. It is most unfortunate that these correspondences have been a lonely endeavor for me as I have yet to hear anything back from you in nearly six months time. Regardless, your silence has garnered neither scorn nor reproach and I am hopeful that the proverb “third time’s a charm” holds true in this case.

I am writing to you today to bring to your attention the posters which have been plastered around UCLA’s campus this past week (November 11, 2015) in what appears to be a continuous cycle of discriminatory attacks on Students for Justice in Palestine. You may recall when these posters were first seen on campus several months, you wrote about it in your statement, “Holding Ourselves to a Higher Standard.” I was quite grateful for your response, but as you wrote “these incidents may occur again” and they indeed have–again, and again.

Ever since these posters made their way onto our campus and the campuses of many other institutions across the United States, student activists for Palestinian human rights have felt intimidated and silenced. Even you described the posters as “inflammatory” and said that “UCLA will not be defined by intolerance.” So, allow me to ask you: As of now, what direct actions are you taking regarding these posters? What is the appropriate response from the university?

I further would like to draw your attention to the penultimate paragraph of your most recent statement, “Moving Forward As A Community,”

We might never eradicate every vestige of bigotry, we cannot prevent every act of thoughtlessness and we cannot guarantee that no one will be ever be [sic] unfairly treated because of race, religion, gender identity, sexuality or other categories of difference. Indeed, even as Bruins came together in solidarity yesterday, Islamophobic posters appeared on campus, in complete disregard of our Principles of Community and the dignity of our Muslim students.

IMG_5232As despairing as you are, you are probably right about being unable to prevent every such act. However, I wanted to know why you did not mention the posters directed at Students for Justice in Palestine. From what I had seen, some posters made explicit mention of SJP, a secular organization. These posters relied not only on Islamophobic stereotypes but on traditional anti-Arab tropes to decorate an all-around false impression of what Palestinian activism is. I find it saddening that the only conclusions to draw from your message is that you do not understand the distinction or you intentionally omitted any mention of SJP.

Lastly, although my involvement in SJP at UCLA has increased, I continue to write these messages to you as an individual. As such, I am not asking for any specific actions to be taken as I believe this is something for the entire Students for Justice in Palestine community to discuss and decide. What I am seeking from you is transparency, answers, and serious effort in addressing this situation.

Respectfully,

Yacoub Kureh


This letter was mailed to Professor Gene Block, Chancellor of UCLA on 19 May 2015. My email to him on 18 April is reproduced in full below and is in reference to his email which is available here. I will post any updates on the matter in a separate entry.

UCLA Chancellor’s Office

Box 951405, 2147 Murphy Hall

Los Angeles, CA 90095-1405

19 May 2015

Dear Chancellor Block,

I trust that this missive finds you well.

It has been nearly a month since I sent you the following email to which you and your office have not replied:

“Dear Chancellor Block,

My name is Yacoub Kureh and I am a PhD student in the Mathematics department. I wanted to express my gratitude for your email regarding the posters attacking Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) members. I have been a Palestinian rights activist since my undergraduate career at Harvard and during my Masters at Cambridge, and never have I seen such inflammatory accusations made about a student group. It was important for the University administration to react swiftly and they did.

However, although I appreciate and respect your response, I find that it was insufficient as evidenced by the second wave of posters attacking SJP placed around campus and the defacement of the SJP board that is left on Bruin Walk along with many other boards that were not affected. This clear targeting of a campus organization is dangerous and needs to be addressed more seriously than can be done with a simple email.

I hope more work is being done behind the scenes and that campus security will redouble their efforts to prevent such incidents. Nonetheless, I think it is important for you to address this matter again publicly listing more concrete steps that the University will take to ensure that all of its students feel safe.

Sincerely,

Yacoub Kureh”

(18 April 2015)

I know your office is very busy and it is difficult to reply to all messages, but for so much time to have passed without any action is very distressing. Let me direct your attention to a quote from your website regarding the priorities you set for yourself early on in your tenure as Chancellor of this University:

“We are committed to fostering a welcoming campus, as well as understanding and tolerance within the UCLA community.” (http://chancellor.ucla.edu/priorities)

To this end, I would imagine an attack as flagrant, incendiary, and directed as the one mentioned above which targeted a group of students at UCLA, merits a significant response as would an attack on any other campus community. Thus, I am asking that you reaffirm your commitment by taking action. This can be in the form of launching an investigation, creating a task force for handling such incidents, or meeting with several student organizations, including the Students for Justice in Palestine, in order to establish a concrete and substantive strategy to deal with this disturbing episode and prevent similar ones from recurring. In this situation, merely sending an email will not suffice for effecting the tangible change that is needed to rectify such an egregious problem, but I do implore you to inform the UCLA community of what has happened and what your planned response is.

We all know that “fostering a welcoming campus” is no simple task. A place of higher learning will undoubtedly be home to many controversial debates which certainly rouse audiences. This is especially true for those whose passion for the topics at hand are rooted in something as serious as their identities, their physical well-being, their families, and their rights. We should never shy away from having these important conversations if we are to grow as educated citizens in a dynamic world. However, in order to do this, certain community guidelines ought to be in order so that we may learn from each other in an environment that is inviting and safe. We must strive for it by working together with those with whom we disagree. We must fight for it by protecting not just ourselves but our entire Bruin family, even those–or rather, especially those–who have different backgrounds and opinions from us. If this kind of diversity really is your vision, then it is an admirable one.

Over the course of my first year at UCLA, I have had the pleasure of working with many students who are involved in several organizations. I am truly impressed by how they always do their best to make every space on campus inclusive on a personal level. I sincerely hope that in the coming years everyone at UCLA can reap the benefits of their efforts on the ground and the efforts of your administration.

Lastly, I want to clarify that I am writing to you as a concerned individual student: not as a representative of Students for Justice Palestine, not on any other person’s behalf, nor in another capacity.

Yours respectfully,

Yacoub Kureh

PhD Student in Mathematics, UCLA

The Fugitive

I dreamt I was a fugitive
Hiding in a forest.
The wolves in a distant country
Hounded me through black deserts and over rough hills.
My dear, our separation was torture.
I dreamt I was without a home,
Dying in an unknown city,
Dying alone, my love, without a home.

-Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati (Modern Poetry of the Arab World, translated by Abdullah al-Udhari)

Public Green Spaces Around UCLA

This is a map of the area around UCLA:Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 10.53.36 PM [maps.google.com]

 

If you have trouble distinguishing between light and dark green, then I hate to be the one to break this to you, but over 95% of the green space in the UCLA map is … dark green.

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 9.57.20 PM

I calculated this percentage using ImageJ, a free image analysis tool. I divided the area of the dark green locations (highlighted in red above) by the area of all the green locations excluding the Veterans cemetery and national park and school playgrounds.

“What’s the big deal?” you ask. Great question! Well, you can think of the dark green spots as abscesses–in the sense that they are private country club/golf courses. On the other hand, the light greek spots are public parks, also known as Mother Earth’s erogenous zones.

Let me be clear, this post isn’t me protesting about the city not spending money growing grass in drought-ridden Southern California. It definitely should not do that. Nor is this post a vilification of country clubs for wasting heaps of water growing acres of grass in the very same drought-ridden California so that people can play golf or lawn bowling (I think this point has been made sufficiently well by others). Rather, this post is a result of my frustration. California is such a big and potentially beautiful place with amazing weather year-round. We’ve got great beaches, fresh farmers markets, and loads to do. What we don’t have very much of is convenient public parks.

I knew before moving to LA that I was going to be surrounded by car-filled streets (don’t get me started on bike lanes), but I never expected to be excluded from almost all of the green areas around me because I don’t have $12,000 in disposable annual income or a quarter of a million dollars just to cover initiation fees hidden under my bed. It may very well be the case though that if these private clubs weren’t there, the land wouldn’t be lush to begin with. But that’s not my point. In my opinion, if someone wants to play a ridiculously water-intensive sport, then he should have to pay for it himself. However, for the city to let us get to this point, where in an approximately 18 sq. mile area, over 1.25 sq. miles are private golf courses and less than 0.05 sq. miles are public parks is a tragedy given there’s an abundance of research showing how important parks are for the community, especially in terms of public health. This issue only gets worse as one digs into the demographics of golf courses, which aren’t too different from what you’d expect given the high costs and an ongoing history of discrimination.

Ultimately, too many people, especially those with limited transportation options, don’t have easy access to local parks. Unfortunately, I don’t have much by way of solutions to fix what I hope you’ll agree is a serious problem. I can’t really imagine the city buying back some of the golf course land, but that’d certainly help distribute some parks throughout the region.  A more reasonable thing to try might be reducing rather than increasing the size of roads and thus freeing up some room. In the same vein, many parking lots can be transformed into multi-story parking garages thus freeing up some space to become lively social spots. Things certainly aren’t hopeless, Los Angeles is constantly transforming–I just hope it’s going in the right direction.

Adopting Department of State’s definition of anti-Semitism would be irresponsible

ColorEdited_WillowYang_Intolerance-900x580

The article originally appeared in the The Daily Californian. It was co-authored by Jonathan Koch. Photo by Willow Yang/Staff.

The U.S. Department of State seems an unlikely source for university policy regarding intolerance. The State Department after all, is not tasked with promoting equity in higher education — the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education does that. And yet, a working group of the UC regents tasked with countering campus intolerance is being asked to adopt State Department language regarding anti-Semitism into its policy. We support the goal of the working group and the inclusion of anti-Semitism under the rubric of intolerance. But the State Department language on anti-Semitism is inappropriate for university policy. If adopted into university policy, it would harm our freedom of speech and our freedom of academic inquiry.

The stated purpose of the working group is honorable and necessary. Already this year, the UC schools have seen several racist incidents on their campuses. A statement against intolerance could be a helpful tool for future efforts to make the UC system more equitable. Anti-Semitism, as a form of bigotry to be combatted, naturally ought to be included in such a statement.

Neither the working group’s mission nor the inclusion of anti-Semitism in its statement is the subject of controversy. The present controversy stems from an ongoing effort to redefine anti-Semitism to encompass criticism of Israel.

The definition promoted by leaders of campus groups Hillel and AMCHA would reproduce a factsheet published by the U.S. State Department entitled “Defining Antisemitism.” The first half of the factsheet advances several contemporary examples of anti-Semitism — this section of the statement we consider unobjectionable. The second half of the factsheet, headlined “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?” is the sole source of our objection. It holds that anti-Semitism is manifested through “demoniz(ing),” “delegitimiz(ing)” or “applying double standards” for the state of Israel. These “three Ds,” as they’ve come to be known, pose a challenge to free speech and thus to the academic and political activity of the students: They are broad enough to invite censorship of any view criticizing Israel.

To demonstrate the censoriousness of the three Ds is simple. Take the veridical statement, “Israel conducts the longest-standing military occupation in the world.” Though a bare statement of verifiable fact, it potentially fulfills all three criteria. One might claim it “demonizes” or “sets a double standard” by focusing on Israel to the exclusion of other countries. Some who advocate the annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories might even claim that it “delegitimizes” Israel. While we think these would be obvious mischaracterizations, there is nothing preventing the three Ds’ ambiguous language from being used to validate such preposterous charges by labeling the statement anti-Semitic..

In fact, the first UC document to recommend the three Ds language, the 2012 Jewish Student Campus Climate Report, contained just such a mischaracterization. To support the claim that pro-Palestinian organizing contributed to a negative atmosphere for Jewish students, the report cited “the dissemination of literature and information which accuse Israel of ‘genocide,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and the imposition of an ‘apartheid state.’ ” Here, speech meant to criticize a government was construed as being harmful to Jewish students as a whole. But for us, a Palestinian and a Jew, pro-Palestinian advocacy is never an excuse to spread bigotry; rather, it is a duty for us to stand up for the people and ideas that we care about. The three Ds language would shut us, and our colleagues, out of the debate. This would be a serious harm to Palestinian students.

The damage would extend beyond the Palestinian community, however. Any policy that attempts to censor political criticism, or to misrepresent it as racist, harms the student body. It would prevent students from carrying out critical research and it would impede the freedom of political speech. Without the ability to function as a place of independent, critical thought, the university’s mission would be severely compromised.

There are no shortcuts to educating about, challenging and reducing any form of bigotry. It takes community engagement and educational work. Simply labeling speech in a vague manner or prohibiting it won’t do anything to change bigotry or misperceptions. We will continue to advocate a strong policy on intolerance that specifically calls out anti-Semitism. To ensure a robust and actionable policy, our union colleagues have asked for a more transparent process that formally includes students, beyond the student regent, in its crafting. Without that inclusion, we are unsure how the regents aim to craft an effective policy.

Free discourse continues to be our greatest tool in combating racism and bigotry. Whatever policy the working group recommends must uphold it.

Jonathan Koch is a teaching assistant in the UCLA department of music and the recording secretary of UAW 2865. Yacoub Kureh is a teaching assistant in the UCLA department of math and the head steward of UAW 2865.

Psalm 2

Now I find myself dried
Like trees growing out of books.
The wind is just a passing thing.
Shall I fight or shall I not fight?
That is not the question.
The important thing is to have a strong throat.
Shall I work or shall I not work?
That is not the question.
The important thing is to rest eight days a week
Palestine time.
Country, turning up in song and massacres,
Show me the source of death;
Is it the dagger or the lie?

Country, turning up in songs and massacres,
Why do I smuggle you from airport to airport
Like opium,
Invisible ink,
A radio transmitter?

I want to draw your shape,
You, scattered in files and surprises.
I want to draw your shape,
You, flying on shrapnel and birds’ wings.
I want to draw your shape
But heaven snatches my hand.
I want to draw your shape
You, trapped between the dagger and the wind.
I want to draw your shape
To find my shape in yours
And get blamed for being abstract,
For forging documents and photos,
You, trapped between the dagger and the wind.

Country, turning up in songs and massacres,
How could you be a dream, rob me of the thrill
And leave me like a stone?
Perhaps you are more sweet than a dream,
Perhaps you’re sweeter!

There isn;t a name in Arab history
I haven’t borrowed
To help me slip through your secret windows.
All the code names are kept
In air conditioned recruiting offices.
Will you accept my name —
My only code name —
Mahmoud Darwish?
The police and Carmel’s pines
Have whipped my real name
Off my skin.

Country, turning up in songs and massacres,
Show me the source of death;
Is it the dagger
Or the lie?

-Mahmoud Darwish (Modern Poetry of the Arab World, translated by Abdullah al-Udhari)

Israeli solider-led seminars mask history of violence against Palestinians

The article originally appeared in the The Daily Bruin. It was co-authored by Jonathan Koch.

Imagine, for a moment, a seminar convened by some innocuously named student group: Bruins for Saving the Planet, or some-such. Imagine that at the front of the hall, speaking as guests and experts, are the CEOs of Exxon, BP and Chevron. Imagine that they give exactly the lecture one would expect: blithely dismissing the academic consensus that their industry’s activities are leading to massive climate change; asserting their industry is harmless; dismissing whatever “small problems” there may be, but insisting they’ve got them under control.

Such an event would rightly be dismissed as propaganda. The judgment would be near-unanimous.

Shift the mind back to reality; one need not imagine. When the topic at hand is the oppression of Palestinians, such events are not only commonplace at UCLA and other universities, but they can even go unchallenged.

Twice in the past two weeks, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law has invited Israeli soldiers to speak as experts and honored guests. The Israeli army administers the world’s longest-standing military occupation; it perpetrates a brutal and illegal siege of Gaza; and it is repeatedly condemned by the international community for egregious human rights abuses. No matter – the Brandeis Center and its campus partners see fit to host soldiers of that army as lecturers and forum-leaders. Such events distort the political discourse around Palestine by promoting a propagandized version of past and present – one that holds Palestinian rights and persons in contempt. But these events do individual harm as well: They are a form of intimidation against those students who have personally suffered, or whose families have suffered, at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces.

The human facts of the Israeli occupation are not in dispute. Since 2008, the IDF has subjected Gaza to periodic bombings; the most recent, in 2014, left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead (among them 538 children) and about 11,000 injured. Thirteen public and 17 private hospitals were destroyed or damaged; Amnesty International found that Israel deliberately targeted medical facilities. The IDF shelled U.N.-operated schools and shelters. All major human rights organizations – Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – have alleged that the IDF committed war crimes. It will take decades for Gaza to rebuild – Israel controls the borders, strictly regulating the importation of food and raw materials. Meanwhile, in the occupied West Bank, Israel pursues a path of colonial settlement, displacing Palestinian farmers from their land and carrying out regular reprisals against the population. Tear gas, rubber-coated metal bullets and random arrest are the daily reality in the West Bank; since the beginning of October, soldiers and police have killed 64 Palestinians, injuring many more.

This history is not easy to defend. Instead, soldier-guests seek to deny and distract. The Brandeis Center’s most recent soldier-led seminar presented an IDF that exists only in the imagination. While the guests spoke anecdotally about their professional lives in the IDF, none attempted to ground their claims in fact. Those claims – that the IDF is “the most moral army in the world” and “puts life first” – would seem laughably unhinged were they not so pernicious. But their goal is serious: to deny the present and history of the occupation, exchanging facts for a narrative favorable to the IDF. That narrative, however, is inevitably racist at its foundation. The logic goes like this: If the IDF is the “most moral army in the world,” then the bulk of its actions must be ethical. Violence against the Palestinians, then, must be justified by denigrating their rights and character; the ethical army does not treat them as human, and therefore they must be lesser. This racism was quick to expose itself at the Brandeis Center, with one soldier-medic readily admitting his belief that the protection of Israel required the violation of Palestinian rights.

Soldier-led seminars defraud the truth and spread racism among their audiences. They create a dangerous atmosphere for Palestinian students, discouraging them from participating in campus discourse at all. For the purpose of honest, egalitarian discourse, they are an intellectual disaster. So we are only left to wonder: Why is the Brandeis Center so desperate to justify Israel’s apartheid regime and war crimes that they invite apologists of the worst kind to our campus?

Koch is a music graduate student. Kureh is a mathematics graduate student. Both are members of UAW 2865, the University of California’s student-worker union.

Some Mahmoud Darwish

The Passport

They didn’t recognize me.
The passport’s darkness
Erased the tones of my photograph.
They put my wound on show
For tourists who love collecting pictures.
They didn’t recognize me.
Don’t let my hand lose sunlight
For in its rays trees recognize me.
All the rain songs recognize me.
Don’t leave me pale as the moon.
All the birds followed
My hand to the barriers of a distant airport.
All the wheat fields
All the prisons
All the white graves
All the borders
All the waving handkerchiefs
All the dark eyes
All the eyes
Were with me
But they crossed them out of the passport.
Deprived of a name, of an identity,
In a land I tended with both hands?
Today Job’s voice rang throughout heaven:
Don’t test me again!
Venerable prophets,
Don’t ask the trees their names,
Don’t ask the valleys about their mother.
My face brandishes a sword of light
And my hand is the river’s spring.
The hearts of people are my nationality.
Take away my passport.

(Modern Poetry of the Arab World, translated by Abdullah al-Udhari)