Taher Herzallah is one of the newly convicted students collectively known as the “Irvine 11”. Ten of the original eleven were prosecuted (one had his charges dropped) by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and, this past Friday, convicted of “disruption” and “conspiracy to disrupt” a public lecture by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine, in February 2010. Herzallah is a senior majoring Political Science and International Affairs at the University of California, Riverside. He is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the national campus coordinator of American Muslims for Palestine (AMP).
SCHIVONE: Students for Justice in Palestine today released a national statement of solidarity that leads with a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. following his March 1956 conviction for violating the state of Alabama’s antiboycott law: “Ordinarily, a person leaving a courtroom with a conviction behind him would wear a somber face. But I left with a smile. I knew I was a convicted criminal, but I was of my crime. It was the crime of joining my people in a nonviolent protest against injustice.” Walking out of the courtroom following your own conviction on Friday, how did you feel and how do you feel now?
HERZALLAH: That quote really characterized how the 10 of us felt that afternoon. I feel no shame in what I did. On the contrary, I feel I was performing my civic duty by speaking truth to power and would be willing to do it again in a heartbeat if given the opportunity.
GS: Many activists have expressed shock and anger at the measures the State of California took against all of you – because many activists routinely carry out similar actions as the Irvine 11 but face no consequences. One of the most widely covered examples was organized by a group of American Jewish and Israeli Youth called “Young, Jewish and Proud” who stridently interrupted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech at the Jewish Federation of North America’s general assembly in New Orleans this past November. The Associated Press reported that “[s]heriff’s deputies escorted [the protestors] out to a chorus of shouts and boos, and they were released without charges.” You, on the other hand, faced multiple charges, a long trial process and now a conviction and state punishment. What do you believe distinguishes the Irvine 11 case from this and other examples?
TH: First of all, I do want to thank those Jewish youth for standing up against Netanyahu. Their courage and bravery gave us strength and I commend them for their actions. Second, we do realize that our protest occurred in Orange County which is known to be a bastion for conservative, right wing residents as well as Zionists. I also do believe that the fact that we were all Muslim students who protested made the District Attorney feel that we were an easy target to prosecute since the public would take his side in Orange County. What the DA didn’t know was who he was really messing with. It wasn’t just us he was prosecuting, he was going against an entire movement, much larger than just 10 Muslim students and he lost the media battle and will eventually lose the legal one.
GS: You’ve said you know the pain of Israel’s occupation firsthand. Would you elaborate?
TH: I can never truly say I have felt the pain of Israel’s occupation because I’ve never lived there. But what I can say is that my family has suffered severely in the Gaza Strip and several of [my] relatives were killed in the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2009. To say that I understand the brutal reality of occupation would be more sufficient.
GS: Is this what wholly or in part moves you to do this sort of anti-occupation advocacy work in the US? Why do you believe such work is important?
TH: Definitely. My motivation comes from my own experiences and understanding of what the situation is like on the ground. I think that is important because the causes of motivation don’t allow me to sit back and relax while things are happening around me. I am determined to fight for this noble cause of ending Israeli occupation and for the disenfranchised Palestinian people.
GS: You and I did an interview this past May the day that students and youth interrupted a University of Arizona (UA) lecture by Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) Board President Mark Stegeman in order to expose and educate on the Board’s intent to vote on Stegeman’s proposal to comply with the AZ State Legislature’s ban on Ethnic Studies. TUSD is currently appealing the ban’s implementation at the state level, thanks to the actions of the students. This is what you had to say in solidarity that day (May 3):
“What the state and [TUSD] administration is imposing is an injustice to the intellectual hunger and cultural needs of students. And I urge all students who are passionate about and dedicated to their education…to continue to engage in civil disobedience until their demands are met. …Erasing history from books is more dangerous than not taking kids to school. And the students maintaining their Ethnic Studies programs at all costs can stop this disease before it spreads to other states. My best of luck and solidarity to you all, and I hope we hear some good news tonight.”
I never got the opportunity to ask you: Why do you feel these sorts of inter-movement solidarity are needed or necessary? Some activists within each movement say there are enough problems to deal with and that the individual movements should engage their own issues and problems first and foremost before “helping” any other movement. What do you think?
TH: I think inter-movement work is absolutely necessary to our work as Palestine activists. It’s important to realize that many other movements seek to challenge the status quo because of its oppressive nature. Human struggle to protect human dignity is not just confined to one movement or cause, it runs through a plethora of other issues that we should all be engaged in. Yes, it is difficult to mobilize on just one front but it’s important to be ready and willing to work with other like-minded individuals to maximize and manifest true change.
Gabriel Matthew Schivone is a Chicano-Jewish American, founder of Jewish Voice for Peace at the University of Arizona and co-founder of UA Students for Justice in Palestine. He is also a volunteer with migrant justice organization No More Deaths/No Más Muertes. He currently attends Arizona State University and can be followed on Twitter via @GSchivone. His column, Other Voices, appears here on alternating Mondays.