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We won a historic BDS vote at UC Davis, and were demonised and called terrorists

Zionist groups waged a smear campaign in retaliation for our hard-won BDS victory. But their attacks only prove that we are making a difference in achieving a liberated Palestine
Students participate in an event to honour and recite the names of Palestinian children killed during Israel's continued assault on Gaza organised by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter at the University of California, Davis, on 13 November 2023 (Batool Alawadi/Supplied by author)
Students participate in an event to honour and recite the names of Palestinian children killed during Israel's continued assault on Gaza organised by the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at University of California, Davis, on 13 November 2023 (Batool Alawadi/Supplied by author)

On 15 February, the world watched our student community at University of California, Davis celebrate the passage of a historic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) measure in support of Palestinian human rights. 

It was the first divestment from Israel bill passed by a student government in an American university. It institutionalised a boycott of over 30 companies that are directly complicit in Israel's occupation and genocide of Palestinians. It prevents the student fees comprising the $20m budget of the Associated Students, University of California, Davis (ASUCD) from being spent on companies the BDS national committee has listed as having ties to Israel.

The vote came after months of protests, events, and confrontations between students standing in solidarity with Palestinians and the university administration that failed to listen to our demands.

We finally felt that we were being heard and were making an impact in challenging the Israeli regime responsible for killing more than 31,000 Palestinians since 7 October.

Our boycott victory, however, prompted a noticeable shift in our campus environment, where we quickly became targets for retaliation.

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Israel's apologists in our community were visibly taken aback as they expected the system to save Israel from its actions. As a result, they waged a campaign of intimidation and smears to demonise and scare Palestinians and pro-Palestine activists as punishment for endorsing BDS.

Zionist escalation

Once our student government leader announced that the BDS bill had passed with a vote of 12 to one after five hours of public statements and deliberation, all eyes in the room began to fill with tears. But for the first time since the start of the genocide, they were tears of joy.

As those who attempted to justify Israel's massacre sneered and left the room begrudgingly, the rest of us embraced one another, our souls filled with hope and love. We wanted to send a message to our brothers and sisters in Gaza that we have not forgotten them and will continue to advocate for their lives, rights, and freedom.

Unsurprisingly, the attacks by Zionist groups against our members soon followed. Less than 72 hours after the BDS vote, many students, particularly those serving on the board of the UC Davis chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and even guest lecturers, reported several incidents of verbal assault and intimidation tactics.

While Zionists have consistently harassed pro-Palestine students since 7 October, there has been a significant and dangerous rise in incidents since the BDS vote last month. 

One Palestinian SJP board member, while alone in a coffee shop in downtown Davis holding a keychain featuring a Palestinian map and flag, was abruptly stopped and accosted by another student who had attended the BDS vote days earlier. The student reportedly told the SJP member to "go fuck [herself]" in extremely close physical proximity. 

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While on campus one evening, a pro-Palestine ally was similarly accosted by an unknown passerby who shouted "baby rapist" in front of hundreds of other students. 

The next day, Kim Saira, a mental health specialist and guest speaker, was heckled with "harmful, racist, anti-Palestinian rhetoric" and forced to cut her lecture short.

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Even Zionists who are not part of the Davis community posted on social media referring to the pro-Palestine community in Davis as an "angry mob", among other hateful incidents.

The situation only worsened in the following weeks. Another prominent Palestinian SJP board member, who was sitting alone in UC Davis's Memorial Union complex one afternoon, was verbally assaulted and called a "terrorist" in the presence of hundreds of students.

On 5 March, in what can only be described as a callous display in the face of a dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Zionist students mocked and extended their middle fingers at an outdoor fundraising event on campus for relief to Gaza.

On the evening of 6 March, a local business owner, along with two male UC Davis senior faculty members who are well-known Zionists, attempted to disrupt a student event on Palestinian resistance. The same individuals have previously taunted Palestinian students with Israeli flags and reportedly harassed pro-Palestine activists on campus, calling them "terrorist sympathisers".

Several incidents that occurred were reported to appropriate administrative channels immediately. However, to date, there has been no definitive action taken against any student or faculty member who assaulted or harassed student activists on our campus.

Making an impact

Despite the historic nature of the BDS bill, a number of local and national news sites refused to cover this important story and excluded pro-Palestine voices from their platforms.

On the contrary, members of the Davis student body who claim to support "peace-building" took to Israeli news outlets to demonise Palestinians and characterise them as bloodthirsty, violent, terrorist-sympathising agitators.

The increased aggression of Zionists only underscores the impact we are having

They go as far as to refer to a UC Davis event in which students read out the names of all Palestinian children below the age of five who were killed during Israel's latest assault on Gaza as glorifying "martyrs” - in scare quotes - and "offering no distinction between innocent civilians and Hamas terrorists".

While Palestinian and pro-Palestine perspectives have been ignored and suppressed by mainstream media outlets, Zionist community members who repeatedly demonised Palestinian students as "calling for Jewish blood" are given platforms to further smear our activism as "antisemitic".

Yet there is not a single member of our community who wouldn't work to pass BDS again and again.

With multiple US vetoes of ceasefire resolutions at the UN, and no western country willing to enforce the ICJ ruling, there are very few tools at our disposal to force Israel to comply with international law.

Many Palestinians continue to call for the boycott of Israel to end its genocide of Palestinians. The effect of BDS and its ability to force change is why Zionists have resorted to smears, lies, and intimidation tactics. Their increased aggression only underscores the impact we are having.

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It must be recognised that we have not seen the worst of anti-Palestinian rhetoric and violence in the US or even on American college campuses. Several brave, young Palestinians have had attempts on their life for merely wearing keffiyehs or speaking Arabic in public. Students at Columbia University were even subject to a chemical attack on their campus while protesting for Palestine.

It is heartening to see other universities follow suit in efforts to divest from Israel. As more seek to institutionally boycott companies complicit in Zionist violence, the desperate attempts to isolate and malign our communities will continue to fail.

As we continue our struggle here in our community in Davis, we urge our fellow students everywhere to build on this work and push for a boycott of Israel to demand change. In the face of Zionist harassment and smears, know that you are not alone.

Many witnessing the horrors in Gaza regularly express the helplessness they feel in ending the genocide.

Despite the adversity, our actions, whether in educating the public, protesting, supporting humanitarian relief, or passing a BDS bill, prove that we are not weak, helpless, or hopeless. When we mobilise, we can truly take concrete steps towards a liberated Palestine.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Nour Taha is an Egyptian-American journalist, translator, researcher, and undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis. His research interests include social anthropology and democratisation in the Arab world. He is the Senior International Editor of The Davis Political Review and has had articles published in Arabic Post, Jadaliyya, and Egyptian Streets, among other publications. He is expected to receive his BA in Political Science in June 2024.
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