One day at a time


Expectations vs. Reality

If you asked me a year ago what I expected my second year of graduate school to be like, I might have answered: I would be done with my qualifying exams. I would have taken a bunch of interesting seminars. I would have picked my advisor. I would have organized awesome events. I would have had an awesome summer internship.

Yesterday, I found out that I did pass my final qualifying exam, a bit later than expected, but perfectly in line with what my department expects of its doctoral students. I only took one seminar but it led me to working on a fascinating project with the Yelp Dataset (blog post to follow). Unfortunately, I am not much closer to having an advisor. However, I helped organize some well attended events. I didn’t have an internship, but I still had an awesome summer and learned a lot of mathematics.


Lessons Learned

So what happened? I do not want to go into too much detail, but if you’re interested you can can get slight peek of the events by reading UCLA’s Discrimination Prevention Office Report here. In short, I spent much of the last year defending my rights and the rights of thousands of UCLA students to speak their beliefs. For this, I and a few other students faced large-scale, well-funded, highly-organized harassment and bullying. I was repeatedly ignored by Chancellor Gene Block, I was told to reconsider being involved with Palestinian activism by a high-ranking UCLA administrator, and–surprisingly–I was called a frog face. Ribbit!

In retrospect, I would not do everything the same way if given a second chance, but I do not regret the sacrifices I made. I learned a lot about myself, about my friends, about other graduate students at UCLA, about UCLA’s bureaucracy, and about the law. I made tons of new friends and grew as an advocate for Palestine and Free Speech. As the struggle for liberation and a just peace continues, I hope I continue to become more effective.


Moving Forward and Backward

Today, I and several others found ourselves the victims of another poster campaign on campus (see here and here). As you can see, it’s not new. In fact, you can read more about it here on UCLA Vice Chancellor Kang’s blog. As he mentions, these inflammatory posters violate Regulations Governing Conduct of Non-Affiliates in the Buildings and on the Grounds of the University of California. I’m not sure though if that means UCLA is planning on doing anything about it though. Is this selective enforcement? I can’t say for sure, but it feels like it. As for this round of posters, there was another game-changer that might test this theory:

Cropped shot of one of the posters. 
There were many posters, but as one of the posters depicts the Vice Chancellor himself, I expect the response from UCLA to escalate from the usual campus-wide email. The whole McCarthyist “Red Menace” depiction is just the racist cherry on top of their Hate Group sundae.


Damages and Remedies

Before concerning yourself though with how Jerry Kang is feeling. Let’s take a bird’s eye-view assessing the damage and harm done here. Jerry Kang is a double graduate of Harvard University who has had a long and successful career as a Professor of Law. He has tenure, a Vice Chancellorship, and a consistent salary of around $300,000. When you google his name, it is his research, his blogs, and his websites that show up first. Compare that to the other folks the posters targeted. They are students–mostly students of color–students seeking their first employment, students with less than a hundred dollars to their name. They have no safety net and when you google them, it’s not their own profiles that show up. I can’t even get started on discussing the mental health effects without wanting to write another blog post just about that. Look, I feel bad for him, but this isn’t even apples and oranges.

As for remedies, the administration needs to work on-and this is the operative word here-concrete steps to help its students. I cannot stress this enough. When faced with a multi-million dollar hate machine that funnels money into campaigns to smear students via websites, posters, PR firms, and search engine optimization teams, an administration that is sincerely dedicated to education would not merely send an email. As much as we all want to be civil about this and challenge bad speech with good speech, that strategy has proved to be ineffective here. The point of the posters is to deter future student activists  via guilt-by-association and reputation damage. UCLA has some obvious ways to deal with this. Positively promote these students, give them the stellar attention they deserve. Give them the resources that a multi-billion dollar institution has in order to amplify their voices.  Offer strong letters of recommendation to these students for their fortitude. And frankly, if the administration is not prepared to genuinely defend its students in these kinds of way, they should not waste students’ precious time with meetings.


Looking Ahead

Now, if you ask me now what I expect my third year of graduate school to be like, I would not even try to answer. Being at UCLA is exciting, and so are Palestine solidarity and mathematical research. Ultimately I’ll never be able to expect the unexpected, but I will be able to adapt. And that’s much more useful. 

I woke up today with a long to-do list that I’ve been saving up until I heard back about my results yesterday. These posters may have made the list longer, but like I said, I learned a lot from last year and I am pushing through. My education won’t be stopped. My activism won’t be stopped. I won’t be stopped.


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.

SJP invites UCLA community to learn about Nakba, its consequences

The article originally appeared in the The Daily Bruin. It was co-authored by Safwan Ibrahim.


It happens like clockwork. Though they may live anywhere from the United States to Chile, Lebanon to France, or Canada to Syria, when Palestinians in exile first meet, it is common for one to ask where the other is from in Palestine. It is an act of reclaiming family history, an assertion of “I am from there.” Though there is no single “Palestinian” identity, there is a fundamental Palestinian experience rooted in the shared trauma of the Nakba or “catastrophe” in English when 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland during the creation of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948.

Although it occurred decades ago, understanding this event and critically engaging with its consequences is crucial to understanding the Palestinian issue today, as the Nakba continues to shape the Palestinian experience.

To this day, Palestinian refugees are barred from returning to their homelands, only because they have the wrong ethnic and religious identity. However, to think that these experiences of expulsion and oppression begin and end with the Nakba would be to ignore the systematic denial of rights Palestinians continue to endure under occupation. In the occupied West Bank, Palestinians are denied basic rights such as equal access to water, electricity and freedom of movement. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians suffer the most extreme forms of imprisonment the coastal enclave is now blocked on all sides and is slowly being strangled of electricity, raw materials and the basic necessities we in the West often take for granted. Many who fled Palestine, either during the Nakba or during occupation, instead live in similarly dire conditions in refugee camps in Lebanon or war-torn Syria. With no alternatives, the ostensibly temporary status of refugee becomes a permanent reality for Palestinians in exile.

Palestinians who fled to the West may have escaped occupation and life in refugee camps, but have lost their ability to return to their homeland. While a Western life and education offers some Palestinians many privileges denied to most other Palestinians, those here often must attempt to put together the pieces of their family histories and grapple with the complicated, politically fraught identity of being Palestinian.

Like all Palestinians, Palestinian students at UCLA have had their lives and identities shaped by the events of the Nakba. Many of them are here only because their families were driven out from their homes and villages by proto-Israeli militiamen, and forced into lifelong refugeehood. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine has left lasting scars on generations of Palestinians. The constant denial that this event ever happened and the total relegating of any aspect of Palestinian history to the off-limits, the taboo, the unsayable means Palestinians are denied their selfhood and humanity.

In order to fully understand the Nakba and its consequences, we must recognize it not simply as a moment in history, but rather as a continued lived experience of the Palestinian community, perpetuated by occupation and denial of narratives. To help provide the UCLA community with background and personal narratives, Palestinian students have come together to create a space to explore the Nakba and its ongoing effects, and to share this with other UCLA students.

We invite the campus community to attend two events next week, hosted by Students for Justice in Palestine, for the first annual Nakba Week at UCLA. The first event, titled “Refugees and the Right of Return: A Teach-In”, will be held Tuesday, May 19 at 6:30 p.m., in Franz Hall 2258A, and will focus on the ongoing and dire refugee crisis faced by Palestinians. The second event, titled “Hear Us Speak: Stories on the Nakba and Exile”, will be held Thursday, May 21 at 6:30 p.m. in Boelter 2444, and will feature Palestinian students discussing their personal experiences related to the Nakba. In presenting these narratives of Palestinian exile, and the effects the Nakba continues to have on Palestinian identities, it is our hope that fellow students will begin to understand Palestine and Palestinians in a new light, and with this critical lens, challenge themselves to understand the lasting impact of forced expulsion and exile.

Ibrahim is a fourth-year comparative literature student and the incoming president of Students for Justice in Palestine. Kureh is a graduate student in applied mathematics and the incoming outreach co-director of Students for Justice in Palestine.

In Sight, In Mind

The article originally appeared in the Harvard Political Review. It was co-authored by .


Baghdad, July 2007. The sound of gunfire coming from U.S. Apache attack helicopters echoes in the streets. They have sighted what appear to be insurgents. The helicopters target them from the air. A few seconds later, as the dust and smoke clear from the scene, the aircrews comment on their work.

Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards.


Eight people lie on the ground, some dead, some dying. The helicopters keep circling the area, and soon spot a van approaching. Men exit the van and start loading bodies into it. The pilots interpret this effort to take the wounded to a hospital as an attempt to hide insurgents and their weapons. So the Apaches shoot again, firing more 30mm cannon rounds into the van and surrounding area.

No one is left standing.

I think we whacked ‘em all.

Ground troops arrive and assess the damage. Then they peer into the van.

Roger, I’ve got uh eleven Iraqi KIAs [Killed In Action]. One small child wounded. Over.

Roger. Ah damn. Oh well.

The exchange between the soldiers and pilots continues.

Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.

That’s right.

Footage of aircraft targeting buildings, vehicles, and people has existed in films, documentaries, and the Internet for decades. But WikiLeaks’s release of “Collateral Murder,” a previously censored video of this particular incident in Iraq, changed things. “Collateral Murder” afforded the public a new intimacy into America’s “war on terror.” Viewers could see what the pilots saw in their crosshairs and hear what the pilots said over the radio. The world witnessed the events as pilots mistook cameras for weapons and attacked the men on the ground. The cameras belonged to two Reuters reporters, killed as part of the first group of ten and soon followed by the two men in the van. Two children were wounded. It was shooting until no one popped up again.

Death from a Distance

In the four years since their release the scenes of death, punctuated by the gruesome commentary of the aircrews and ground personnel, have marked a new era in the popularization of real combat footage and the accompanying thoughts of the people peering through the scopes.

But what was changing for the public was also changing for the military. With the advent of armed drones and their growing usage in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and beyond, U.S. pilots were no longer hovering over battlefields and flying combat missions in person. From specialized sites in the continental United States and in bases across the world, pilots were now flying their aircraft through remote control. They were thousands of miles away from combat, but only a click away from unleashing weapons on their targets.

War had changed, but its tragic consequences remained. People in a growing number of countries—including civilians—continued to suffer the consequences of a war that had run astray. At the same time, drone pilots had to confront their actions in vivid detail, as their eye-in-the-sky systems gave them the ability to observe limbs torn off a person in the aftermath of a missile explosion and the grief of the relatives who arrived at the scene.

Initially, observers of the drone program feared that war had become a videogame, reproduced on a screen observed from an office chair. John Yoo, the attorney who provided the questionable logic behind President George W. Bush’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” asserted that drone killings were “kind of antiseptic. So it is like a video game; it’s like Call of Duty.” Pilots might launch missiles, but the consequences were not there for them to see, hear, or smell from close range; it was as ethereal as obliterating competing players on an Xbox server.

To some, that was indeed the case. A former drone pilot likened the experience of playing a videogame to that of flying a combat mission for a drone: the sight of blood pumped his adrenaline and surged his excitement. Even before drone strikes, in preparation for the 2003 invasion of Iraq the U.S. Air Force devised a computer simulation system to model the effects of bomb explosions. Through it, battlefield commanders could estimate and prevent collateral damage. The Department of Defense named the program “Bugsplat” because of the evocative shape the target area took on the screen.

Military slang successively adopted the name of the simulator to indicate a person killed by drone strike.

Drones to Civilians, and Civilians to Drones

In that moniker, the dehumanization of victims and the trivialization of death are apparent. Artists have teamed up with advocacy groups to challenge this, targeting both Western civilians and drone operators as their audiences.

Starting in 2012, British artist James Bridle began to trace the outlines of drones on city streets to nudge passers-by into thinking about the hidden pervasiveness of those weapons. Bridle’s series, “Under the Shadow of the Drone,” has populated sidewalks in Istanbul, Washington, D.C., London, and Brighton, England with the silhouette of the killer aircraft to make it as permanent a fixture there as it is in Middle Eastern skies. Bridle even released a“Drone Shadow Handbook” to share the ability to create drone “shadows” to anyone who might be interested. These outlines foreshadow the use of aerial surveillance returning from the battlefield and being adopted by law enforcement agencies domestically. Bridle’s art complements the necessary reflections on drones entering the daily lives of civilians in the West.

In Pakistan, where drones already saturate the atmosphere, local and international human rights activists and artists work in the opposite direction. While Bridle’s project makes visible on the ground something invisible in the air, the project in Pakistan serves to re-humanize people on the ground for those watching from the sky. The project, titled “Not a Bug Splat,” placed on a field a 100-by-70 feet picture of a young girl who survived a drone strike in which her parents and a sibling had been killed. Clearly visible from aircraft and even satellites, this installation returns a human face to the victims of drone attacks. As drone operators peer at the ground from their screens they will now see those below looking back at them.

A Parasitic Insect

These initiatives aim to rebalance the uneven relationship between victims, perpetrators, and those in whose name the killing is done. These artistic installations challenge the dehumanization of drone targets and of drone pilots—the former to be struck and struck again until the last terrorist or insurgent has been eliminated, the latter turned into machines trained to guide their aircraft unquestioningly on their missions of death.

Above all, however, projects like “Under the Shadow of the Drone” and “Not a Bug Splat” underscore the reality of the situation, one whose consequences are much more dire and widespread than those of even the most gruesome videogames. Many drone pilots may never have second thoughts about their actions, while others develop severe psychological conditions or commit suicide. Around them, citizens of the U.S. and its allies see their governments violate international law and their taxpayer money put to use in military missions of questionable security returns that sap democracy and human rights. Across the world, thousands have lost a loved one to a drone strike. Tens of thousands more live with the permanent soundtrack of the buzzing aircraft, a feature that has been shown in Pakistanand Yemen to cause rampant depression and anxiety in what are already severely disadvantaged communities.

Drones have parasitized U.S. foreign policy. They are a relatively cheap and effective means to eliminate undesirable individuals at no direct risk to American lives. They have become an ingrained component of the U.S. military, with conspicuous investments in the coming years and an ossifying logic that will leave future policymakers unable not to adopt them as their foreign policy tool as well. Under their veneer of aseptic efficiency and detachment from consequences, it is easy to appreciate all the advantages of drones and forget their costs.

Despite the unfortunate names the U.S. Air Force uses for its simulation software or the comments made by some military personnel, war is not and cannot become a videogame. No amount of distance or technology can sever us completely from our actions: remarking on the experiences of a drone operator, Mark Bowden of The Atlantic noted, “flying a drone, he sees the carnage close-up, in real time—the blood and severed body parts, the arrival of emergency responders, the anguish of friends and family. … War by remote control turns out to be intimate and disturbing.”

Whether we whack with a hammer or with a Hellfire, the results of our actions on the people we treat as moles—and on ourselves—are evident. Civil society ought to begin restoring the humanity stripped from drone victims and operators alike by over a decade of blundering war. Violence on a screen translates to real-life loss, and new artistic projects are raising the curtain to reveal the truths behind the drone wars: apathy and dehumanization.

Photo credits: Wesley Saver / PJRC via Tom Hayden