Monday, February 14, 2011

Jewish and Muslim Human Rights Activists at Vassar


Jewish and Muslim Human Rights Activists speak on the professional and personal dynamics of pro-Palestine advocacy.

By Gail Goldsmith on February 2, 2011

“The occupation of Palestine follows me wherever I go,” said Noor Elashi, a writer and activist speaking at Vassar College.

Speaking on Jewish and Muslim activism for human rights in Palestine, Elashi and Rebecca Vilkomerson offered professional and personal perspectives on opposition to the Israeli occupation in a panel discussion, Jewish and Muslim Experiences in America: Working Together to Promote Human Rights, on January 26th at Vassar College.


Rebecca Vilkomerson and Noor Elashi (l-r) speak on their personal and professional activism for peace in Palestine to an audience at Vassar College
Vilkomerson, the National Director of Jewish Voices for Peace, described how Jewish Voices for Peace supports Boycott, Divestment, and Settlement campaigns including recent partnerships with University of California at Berkeley and a grassroots call for financial services company TIAA-CREF to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of the East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

The 27 nationwide chapters of Jewish Voices for Peace refute the idea that all Jewish persons support the state of Israel.

“The American Jewish Committee supports Israel right or wrong and AIPAC doesn’t have a monopoly on Jewish opinion,” Vilkomerson said. “We’re continuing to carve out a place for activism in public Jewish life by being active on these issues while staying within the Jewish community.”

The event was sponsored by Vassar Islamic  Society, DutchessPeace.org, and MidEastCrisis.org and  was co-sponsored by many local activist groups, including the Marist Praxis Project.

“The Public Praxis Project was more an endorsement than a partner.  I consulted a bit with the planners in an exchange of e-mails, but otherwise was not able to attend as I had a class at the time of the panel,” Dr. Mar Peter-Raoul, director of the Praxis Project, said. Although there were 9 co-sponsoring groups, attendance was approximately 45 persons-but the audience was engaged during the speech and inquisitive during the following question and answer session, particularly on the topic of civil liberties.

Both Vilkomerson and Elashi addressed the political challenges of religion.

“Hillel and its many campus groups excludes Jewish Voices for Peace  through its anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions stance. Jewish life shouldn’t be subjected to a political litmus test,’ Vilkomerson.

For Elashi, the intersection of politics with Islam has been an emotionally fraught one.

Elashi’s father, Ghassan Elashi, co-founded the Holy Land Foundation, a large Muslim charity that supported Palestinian charities, called zakat committees, through humanitarian aid.

Ghassan Elashi was arrested under the Material Support Law, a law expanded under the Patriot Act. The Material Support Law makes it illegal to donate to charities on the U.S. Treasury list of designated terrorist organizations. Neither he nor the holy Land Foundation was ever found guilty of donating to any group on the last, but rather for donating to zakat committees that were, according to an anonymous witness for the prosecution, fronts for Hamas.

In 2007, the trial deadlocked in defense of the Holy Land Foundation, citing evidence that many international NGOs including Red Cross, USAID, CARE , and the UN sent money to the same zakat committees. In a 2008 retrial, he was convicted, after similar arguments, and is now imprisoned in a Communications Management Unit in Marion, Illinois.  Referred to as “Little Guantanamo”, 60% of inmates in the Communications Management Unit are of Middle Eastern descent.

“The trial, the conviction, the proceedings were McCarthy-esque,” Elashi said, of her father’s trial.

All contact with the outside world is live-monitored and regulated. He  is allowed one  phone call a week. On visitation day, his family arrives for non-contact visits.

“It deprives me of that paternal scent-chamomile and cedar,” Elashi said.

An appeal is in process.

“I recognize that that global change and support for this will not start with the United States, it will end with the United States,” Elashi said, citing Islamophobia and lack of empathy as political barriers to U.S. support of Arab-Israeli peace. She is re-tooling Freedomtogive.com to serve as a resource for her father’s supporters and the interested public.

“I think this was a great event, because not enough people voice their opinions on this issue and how media influences public opinion about Israel and Palestine,” R., a Vassar student and member of the Vassar Islamic Society,said. “We think of this harsh, totalitarian treatment as the sort of thing that happens in the past. We don’t think of the American public as being this harsh and unfair to a citizen.”

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