Interview: Remi Kanazi on BDS and ‘hurt feelings’

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Originally published by Ma’an News Agency on March 6, 2014.

Remi Kanazi is a Palestinian-American poet and activist and a member of the organizing committee of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. In February, he released a video entitled “This Divestment Bill Hurts my Feelings,” focusing on BDS campaigns at universities targeting companies that engage in business with the Israeli occupation.

Ma’an recently interviewed Kanazi to discuss the video and the state of pro-Palestinian student activism in the United States more broadly.

Could you tell us a little bit about the video and where the idea emerged from? What inspired the title of the work, and what is the video reacting to?

“This Divestment Bill Hurts My Feelings” is a video collaboration with Palestinian director, animator, and co-founder of Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, Suhel Nafar. The video, based on a poem I wrote, attempts to deconstruct and debunk the spurious arguments against divestment on college campuses. Integrating animation, typography, and motion graphics, we attempted to present a visually stimulating experience, while concretely laying out the case for divestment. Zionist students on campus inspired the title. In an effort to derail divestment resolutions, students would often profess that divestment “hurt their feelings.” My hope is that the video educates, pushes people to act, sways people on the fence, and ultimately serves as a resource for those promoting divestment on campus.

How do you see this video fitting into the currently ongoing Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW)? Is there a widespread push for divestment initiatives on US campuses this year?

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) endorsed the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS). This video tackles the D in BDS. So I think the video fits within the overall themes and goals presented by SJP and allied groups. A number of divestment resolutions have already come up on campuses in 2014, specifically UCLA and UCR, while a number of other divestment initiatives are in different stages on campuses throughout the US.

Is this video reacting to a specific divestment bill, or does it intend to serve as a resource more broadly for various existing campaigns?

The video is not in reaction to a specific bill. The talking points tackled in the piece are a collection of phrases I’ve heard on campuses to obstruct divestment resolutions. My intention was for the educational reach to extend beyond one divestment hearing or even one semester. Nonetheless, a student at UCLA against divestment managed to integrate “campus climate,” “divisive,” “biased,” and “security” in the 120 seconds allotted to each speaker. That’s impressive, propagandistically speaking.

Where did you come up with the myths that this video deconstructs?

Most of them are Israeli state and institutional talking points. For example, “Israel is democratic.” My response: “Israel is democratic like coal is clean/Miller Lite is the same great taste, less filling/and McDonald’s salads are healthy.” It is a bogus assertion; by definition Israel is not democratic, it is a racist state that privileges one citizen over another by law. A Palestinian living in Nablus can’t unite with his spouse in Haifa simply because he’s not Jewish, as highlighted by the Love in the Time of Apartheid campaign. There are more than 50 laws discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel, that is without deconstructing military occupation, siege, blockade, land and resource appropriation, separate roads, torture, mass arrests, the segregation wall, perpetual ethnic cleansing, the use of white phosphorus on a civilian population, and denying dispossessed refugees their right to return.

How has the reaction been so far to the video?

The reaction has been extremely positive thus far. I can’t take too much credit; Suhel Nafar really went above and beyond on the creativity front with this video. Most encouragingly, I’ve received a number of emails from SJP chapters, relaying that it has been shown at group meetings, while others have said that they will be using it as a resource going forward. But I’m most heartened by an email I received from an 8th grade teacher whose student was inspired by the piece and in reaction did a paper on Israel’s policies of apartheid, occupation, and discrimination. There has been the expected negative reaction among Zionists. They insidiously conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and view BDS as a threat, as does the Israeli government, think tanks, and the media. Discomforting this crowd, just as discomforting and displeasing segregationists in the Jim Crow South, is positive.

I’m not trying to win over right-wing racists or “liberal” Zionists who promote ethnocracy in coded language, while fervently advocating against the right of return. It is more effective to build and work with those challenging Stop and Frisk, prisons, racist drug laws, police brutality, drones, US militarism, the expulsion of undocumented people, and the persistent attacks on indigenous communities, whose land and resources continue to stripped away on this continent. I believe in building with those who are firmly anti-oppression and swaying those who may not yet know enough about the situation.

Does the video contribute to a more positive campus climate?

“Positive campus climate” itself is a problematic phrase. Who is campus climate positive for right now? Not for those who can’t afford quickly rising tuition and student fees. Not for undocumented students whose rights aren’t recognized. Not for black students at UCLA who see complete under-representation and marginalization. Not for Palestinians studying in the US whose universities profit off of their families’ suffering. Furthermore, if you support policies of segregation and discrimination, and challenging those systems of oppression makes you “uncomfortable,” that’s on you. Your “comfort” shouldn’t trump human life. Every student has the right to feel safe on campus, but they don’t have the right to profit off of oppression, whether it’s the prison industrial complex or Israeli occupation.

How has Israeli Apartheid Week been so far this year?

I’m currently touring, making stops at Boston University, the University of North Carolina, and American University. It has been energizing and inspiring. I’m constantly impressed by the work being done on campuses, from divestment bills to mock walls and checkpoints to collaborative events to statements in support for other causes. Fundamentally, SJP is a justice organization; its emphasis is on challenging structures of oppression and cutting direct lines of complicity. I commend their efforts and look forward to seeing the expansion of divestment initiatives at universities across the US.