By Kifah Shah
One day in high school my World History teacher announced in class that the lives of an entire city in Iraq did not amount to the value of one American soldier’s life. I’m not Iraqi, but the statement hurt me deeply and I walked out of class with tears. I went home that day, looked up articles about the newly-launched U.S. invasion of Iraq on Noam Chomsky’s website, wrote facts on blue post-it notes, and went to class the next day. Quivering, I raised my hand and tried raising my voice. I told Mr. Frost and my ninth-grade peers the reality of the situation: that Iraq did not house weapons of mass destruction, that the Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, and that indeed, an Iraqi’s life counts.
On February 8, 2010, eleven students were arrested because they decided to raise their voices and assert that, indeed, a Palestinian’s life counts. The University of California, Irvine sponsored an event in which Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren spoke about and endorsed the ties between America and Israel. The eight UC Irvine and three UC Riverside students who were arrested – now called the “Irvine 11” – rightfully considered it their duty to present an alternative narrative; one that is frequently suppressed in this country.
I am not going to tell you about how responsible and upright these students are. I am not going to tell you about how they consulted with lawyers and carefully planned the protest beforehand to stay within legal limitations. I am not going to tell to you that what occurred is normative in the context of a political meeting. But I will tell you that some of those students had family and friends who were massacred in Operation Cast Lead, which was in part orchestrated by Michael Oren. I will tell you that more than 1400 people died that winter in Gaza and the infrastructural damages to schools, homes, mosques and businesses have not been addressed till this day. I will tell you that during the bombardment a friend of mine called his family back home in Gaza asking them how they were doing, to which they simply replied by sticking their phone outside the window so that he could hear the sounds of constant bombs and missiles in the background. I will remind you that Palestinians do not have the privilege of silencing this reality, let alone speaking about it.
Realizing this, the Irvine 11 decided to act as a mouthpiece so that those who suffer could be heard. They did not simply participate in a protest or enact a demonstration of dissent. Theirs was an act that demanded Palestinians and their narratives be recognized and heard; that their lives be considered and counted. I have had the privilege of working closely with the Irvine 11. They will remind you that what they did was not heroic or unique. They will humbly dismiss themselves and act neither as victims nor heroes. However, they and their families went through hardship over the past year and that cannot be overlooked. The Irvine 11 will also remind you that the oppression they endured was only a very small, microscopic example of what Palestinians endure on a daily basis. This does not mean that what happened with the Irvine 11 is not an injustice.
I have heard many people discuss the Irvine 11’s fight as a mild, inconsequential issue, and maybe I am a little sensitive about it, but maybe you should be, too. Maybe we should feel compelled to recognize what we have inherited. Maybe we need to remind ourselves that people did not struggle through the Civil Rights Movement, the United Farm Workers’ Movement, the Ethnic Studies Strikes and the anti-apartheid movements so that we could recline and claim that something is not too bad. Maybe we should remember our families who are not here but living under occupation, or in hunger, or in war-torn, impoverished areas. We have a responsibility to remember where we came from and to remember that our voices are our strongest weapons. We have a duty to speak on behalf of the oppressed and examine our own privileges before we kick back and proclaim something is unworthy of our attention or our voice. We have a responsibility to recognize that voice is a privilege and a gift. Silence, then, is not an option.