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Solidarity against Anti-Palestinian hate crimes

Interview with Vermont organizers Wafic Faour and Ashley Smith

After three college students, Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ahmed, all of Palestinian descent, were shot on a sidewalk in Burlington, VT, Paul Fleckenstein interviewed two organizers with the Vermont Coalition for Palestinian Liberation.

Paul Fleckenstein: Wafic and Ashley, what is your reaction to the shooting last month and what is the context for it that you think we need to understand?

Wafic Faour: My first reaction was shock and anger. But I was not surprised. I was not surprised because the atmosphere in this country from Trump’s Muslim ban in 2017 to the University of Vermont’s decision to ban Muhammed el Kurd from speaking in October has laid the groundwork for hate crimes against Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and anyone else that supports the Palestinian struggle.

Campus and community solidarity groups have been harassed. Every time we stand up for Palestine, we get attacked as anti-Semitic. For example, when we brought a BDS resolution to the Burlington City Council in 2021, we got attacked mercilessly.

So, I wasn’t surprised, but I took it personally. I have children who are the same age as these students who were shot. They wear keffiyehs when they are on the streets in Burlington. They are proud Arabs, they’re proud Palestinians. So, I felt it directly as an attack on my community and as a threat against my own family.

Ashley Smith: This brutal, racist hate crime reminds me of what Martin Luther King Jr. said during the Vietnam War. He said the bombs dropped abroad explode at home. Any war abroad generates a war at home.

The U. S. has supported Israel for decades. It has funneled over $260 billion to it since World War II, the most of any country in the world. The U.S. has backed its apartheid regime and its relentless occupation, conquest, and colonization of Palestine for decades.

To justify that, the U.S. along with Israel has turned to racist, anti-Arab, and specifically anti-Palestinian ideas and spread them throughout our society. As a result, people look upon Palestinians as terrorists, as a security threat, and in the language of Israeli state officials, as less than human. Inevitably, such racism has caused waves of anti-Arab and Islamophobic hate crimes here at home.

That racism is the cause of this hate crime against the three students in Burlington. The individuals who commit those hate crimes are just the retail bigots. The wholesale bigots are in the U. S. government and the Israeli government.

Their collusion in the endless occupation, siege, and apartheid system imposed on Palestinians generates racist violence against Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians in the U.S. Those crimes are the bitter fruit of U. S. imperialism and its support of Israel and its settler colonial project.

Photo of a banner used at a protest of U.S. Representative Becca Balint’s fundraiser on November 9, 2023. The banner reads, “Never Again for Anyone”, in red, and “Ceasefire Now”, in black, on a white banner. Photo taken by comrades.
Banner used at protest of U.S. Representative Becca Balint’s fundraiser on November 9, 2023. Photo by comrades.

WF: The problem with the U.S. is more than support for Israel. The U.S. is fully part of all of Israel’s wars. It not only gives Israel money and guns, but it also deploys its military forces and advisors to guide Israel in carrying out its atrocities. Right now, it has its generals in the Israeli war room.

The U.S. tries to get people in this country to side with Israel against Palestinians and Arabs. That leads people to see anyone who opposes Israel as opposing the U.S., as an enemy of the U.S.

The war there produces a war on us, the Palestinians, here. So, when Washington and Israel imposed a siege on Gaza for the last 17 years, it imposed a political and ideological siege on the Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian communities in the U.S.

Let me be specific. States [U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar resolution this week after this interview was conducted] across the country have passed laws based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism which declares that any criticism of Israeli Apartheid is antisemitic.

Of course, the liberal Zionists call for dialogue and understanding. But behind the scenes, they collaborate with far-right Zionists to weaponize anti-Semitism to demonize us, block progressive resolutions in solidarity with Palestine, and cancel our speakers.

This is what creates the atmosphere in which a racist shot three young college students walking on North Prospect Street. The war came home to Burlington and the state of Vermont.

PF: Can you talk more about Vermont and what role politicians and pro-Israel forces have played here?

AS: I would emphasize the specific conditions in our state and city that led to this racist shooting. Right after October 7th, the entire political, corporate, and institutional establishment of our state united lockstep behind Israel’s genocidal war without exception.

The governor of Vermont, Phil Scott (R), the mayor of Burlington, Miro Weinberger (D), and representatives from the entire congressional delegation joined a rally in support of Israel. They all supported Israel’s so-called right to defend itself, that is its right to enforce its colonial rule over the Palestinian people and their land.

They thus endorsed Israel’s genocidal war. Our state and local political establishment took the side of the oppressor against the oppressed. So did the University of Vermont (UVM). It in particular helped foster the climate that led to this hate crime.

UVM justified its cancellation of Muhammed el Kurd on the grounds that it could not guarantee security for the event, implying that he was somehow a threat. That sent a chilling, silencing, intimidating message to all Palestinians and solidarity activists.

It also sent a signal to all the racists that Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims are dangerous, that they are a security threat. Unsurprisingly, a racist drew the logical and barbaric conclusion, grabbed his gun, and from his porch shot three students for being a threat, for being who they are, for speaking Arabic, and for wearing a keffiyeh.

WF: What’s worse, the local authorities have still not called the shooting a hate crime. And the media have already found a way to excuse the crime, pointing to the shooter’s mental health problems.

This is unacceptable and must be protested. It is a double standard. When a white person carries out a hate crime, the authorities and media point to mental illness. But if they are a person of color, and particularly a Palestinian, the authorities and media unite in calling it a hate crime and denouncing them as a terrorist.

So, this shows how Washington’s war from Iraq to Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria have directly led to us being portrayed as enemies in the eyes of racists in this country. The U.S. government has declared open season on us as an enemy.

During the Cold War, the U.S. used anti-communism and the Red Scare to demonize the Left. During the so-called War on Terror, they used anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia naming Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians as the enemy. It is as you called it, Ashely, a racist version of McCarthyism.

PF: How has the movement in support of Palestinian rights responded to the hate crime?

AS: The response was immediate and powerful, beginning with the three students themselves. As Hisham Awartani wrote in his statement, they see the attack on them here in the U.S. as part of the U.S. and Israel’s attack on Palestinians in Palestine.

And he also said, don’t see me as a victim, see me as part of a proud people resisting our oppression. These three students are part of the liberation struggle.

The families have also seen the attack on their children in the same light. Their joint statement on the question of mental illness is brilliant. It names how the establishment uses it to implicitly exonerate somebody who’s committed a racist hate crime.

They wrote in their statement that,

millions of people in America and across the globe struggle with mental health challenges. That does not make them pick up a gun and attack people based on their identity. We do not accept what this wrongfully implies about people who struggle with mental health, nor do we accept it as justification or context for this heinous hate driven crime.

Further, we see the clear double standard. When white men commit crimes, they are described as victims struggling with their mental health, and testimonies from family members are shared to describe them as good people. People of color are not given the same treatment. Jason Eaton committed an act of horrific violence against our children.

One of our kids may never walk again, and they will all live with this trauma for the rest of our lives. And they go on and they say our families are devastated.

Our lives are forever changed by this hateful attack. And we have no doubt that parents across America, particularly of Palestinian children, are shaken by this attack. We urge those in the media covering the attack on our children to do so responsibly and respectfully by not attempting to turn their attacker into a victim.

I think that is such a profound statement that cuts through all the lies and propaganda churned out against the Palestinian people and exonerates perpetrators of crimes against them as if they’re somehow the victims.

WF: At the same time, this attack has terrified our community. UVM students are frightened to speak out because of fear of retaliation from the administration. They are terrified that their professors will use anything they say or do against them in grading. They are terrified just to show their faces.

None of us are immune. I mean, I can feel it. I can also feel their pain. I lived it with my daughter when she and others in SJP at Middlebury College were under attack. She got sick for weeks.

She’s had the same experience at Tufts Medical School where she goes now. On October 7, the dean sent the whole first-year class a text. He said, if you have any anxiety because of what’s happening overseas, we have made the rabbi available for you to speak with.

She was furious and started crying right away. She went to the dean’s office and told them; how can you tell us all to go to the rabbi. What about my people? Where am I going to go? This is just one experience of the erasure and oppression Palestinians feel all across the country in every institution, workplace, and community.

AS: Vermont is no exception to what Wafic is describing. Vermont likes to paint itself as some liberal, progressive, or even socialist haven. In reality, it’s, as people say, Mississippi with mountains.

There is institutional racism against Arabs, Muslims, and specifically Palestinians here. It’s been a battle for Students for Justice in Palestine chapters (SJPs) and for community organizations to organize solidarity with Palestine. Every time they do, people in power denounce their criticism of Israel’s settler colonial oppression and apartheid against Palestinians as anti-Semitic.

It’s one of the weirdest tricks in world history. Perpetrators and defenders of oppression attack their victims as racists. This weaponization of charges of anti-Semitism to silence criticism of the state of Israel and its genocidal war is the key tool of the racist New McCarthyism.

It is being used to kick people out of schools, ban SJP chapters, withdraw job offers, and fire people from their jobs. This is part of a massive campaign of repression in defense of Israel to carry out ethnic cleansing in Gaza.

But the hopeful thing is that people in mass numbers are refusing to be intimidated and they are standing up against each and every attack in every school, every workplace, and every community. They are resisting.

That’s what’s important about this moment. And you can feel it in Vermont and all across the country. In these rallies, marches, and sit-ins, a whole generation of young Arab, Palestinian, Muslim, Jewish, Black, Latino, and white people are refusing to be silenced and are protesting the genocide in Gaza and the racist New McCarthyism.

That’s the hope in this horrific situation. We have two forces colliding. On one side, the establishment is trying to whip up a kind of 9/11 hysteria to unite the whole political and economic establishment behind this genocidal war.

But on the other side, our forces built through the anti-Iraq war movement, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, BDS, the waves of labor militancy, and the new socialist movement have hit the streets in solidarity with Palestine. Palestine solidarity is a deep part of a whole new generation’s politics.

That means there’s a deep wellspring of resistance. That explains why we were able to mobilize three hundred people on two hours’ notice for an emergency rally in response to the hate crime. They were not intimidated even though the shooter at that point was still on the loose.

This is happening everywhere. In response to Israel’s genocidal war, the world is marching for Palestine from Burlington to Barcelona, London, Jakarta, Johannesburg, and Santiago.

The only thing analogous in recent U.S. history is the Vietnam War. It radicalized an entire generation and changed U. S. society in a profound way. It grew out of the civil rights movement and in turn contributed to further struggles from the women’s movement to the labor movement of the 1970s.

It was the epicenter of radicalization for a whole generation inside the United States and throughout the world. Palestine is our epoch’s Vietnam.

PF: What are some immediate next steps and some longer-term priorities you see for the movement locally and in Vermont?

WF: We have a lot of work on our hands. We have education to do. For the first time, there is a conference that teachers have organized to discuss teaching about Palestine. They are organizing it despite attempts at intimidation. Similar educational events are very important to broaden and deepen our forces.

We have to build the coalition we have started. It is strong so far because we allow freedom of action from multiple organizations to take the initiative and to support their actions. We have been able to build protests of all sorts, including in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Our ability to mobilize people from below will be key to pressuring the politicians. I have started to hear from many of them because they know they didn’t take the right stance. They are reaching out to hear from me and others about what they should advocate.

Even the lieutenant governor, David Zuckerman (D), has called me. But they are also talking to the local liberal Rabbis, the very people who attacked us as anti-Semitic for bringing the resolution to the city council a few years ago. They are also against a ceasefire!

So, we have many liberals who are trying to straddle incompatible positions, instead of taking the right stand. And we have the mayor who opposes bringing a resolution to the City Council for a ceasefire.

They are still living in a pre-October 7 moment. They still believe they have the upper hand and can carry out ethnic cleansing and get away with it.

AS: What Wafic describes is the united front of the political, corporate, and institutional establishment of the state. But our struggle is beginning to split them. We’re actually beginning to flip some politicians and force them to adopt positions that only a few weeks ago they would never have dreamed of advocating like a ceasefire.

Take, for example, Representative Becca Balint. From the start of Israel’s war, she took the side of Israel, whatever qualms she had about Netanyahu or Israel’s slaughtering children. Whatever her reservations, she still supported Israel lock, stock, and barrel.

But the brutality of Israel’s genocidal war and our protests put enormous pressure on her and the rest of the political establishment. We have had several large rallies including one of over a thousand people in Burlington, a town of only forty thousand.

We then organized a march of three hundred people on Balint’s fundraising party in Burlington. We chanted, “Becca, Becca, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” through the windows as she met with her donors—the wealthy political class of the city. Others inside pressured her and then met with her in the next couple of days.

Then, low and behold, she changed her position, coming out for a ceasefire. Of course, she doesn’t have our position. She supports Israel, its so-called right to defend itself, and its war to crush Hamas and the Palestinian resistance. She just doesn’t like the indiscriminate way Israel is carrying it out—its collective punishment and massacre of innocent men, women, and children.

Of course, she’s naïve or trying to have it both ways, support Israel but have it conduct its war in a kinder, gentler, way. In reality, however, the Israeli state is committed to doing exactly what it’s doing.

This war is not really about Hamas. That’s an alibi for its war of ethnic cleansing, a second Nakba, to complete the task it started in 1948. So, we flipped Balint. But we are still demanding more—that she oppose all funding of Israel and many other more radical demands. So, we’re keeping the pressure on her.

We also scored another victory, flipping our senator, Peter Welch (D), who had also opposed a ceasefire, to now support it. Clearly, he wanted to avoid the heat Balint took, so he changed his position before we could start protesting him.

But he, like Balint, still supports Israel and its so-called right to defend itself and has not come out against aid to Israel. And neither of them has signed on to the ceasefire resolution. So, we’re going to be protesting them in the coming weeks, especially when the funding bill comes before the Senate and the House.

The only remaining politician to still oppose a ceasefire is Bernie Sanders (I). We have to push him to stand up for his avowed socialist principles, of always standing with the exploited and oppressed.

Frankly, he is violating them. He is in reality a progressive except on Palestine. Of course, he is for a pause, he opposes indiscriminate bombing, and wants to make aid conditional. But these positions make no sense.

You don’t call for a pause in a genocide, you stop it. You don’t support “discriminate bombing,” whatever that is. That is a pro-war position.

And you don’t put conditions on aid to an apartheid regime. That was what Reagan and Thatcher called constructive engagement with apartheid South Africa. Instead, you oppose any and all aid, period.

And you support boycott, divestment, and sanctions. But, truth be told, Sanders is a liberal Zionist; he does not oppose Israel’s settler colonial project. So, we have to pressure him to change. There can be no Palestine exception among socialists.

PF: You are both part of the new Vermont Coalition for Palestinian Liberation that is coordinating this work. What is it demanding and doing?

AS: We are building a coalition and a movement with immediate and long-term demands. We want a permanent ceasefire now, but we want to cut off all aid to Israel. We want an end to the siege of Gaza, the occupation of the West Bank, and the apartheid system in Israel. We support the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel to force it to change.

We want unrestricted humanitarian aid to all Palestinians. We want all the Palestinian hostages freed. We want to defend and expand Palestinians’ civil rights and civil liberties here and everywhere. In a phrase, we support Palestinians’ right to self-determination, their right to return, and their full and equal rights in their historic homeland.

Here in Burlington, we are campaigning to get voters to pass a resolution to make our town an apartheid-free city. We want other towns in the state to take this up and organize their own resolution campaign.

So, we are building a whole movement in solidarity with Palestine, and we are calling for all progressive organizations, student groups, community organizations, and unions in the state to join us.

WF: Ashley summarized the demands of our coalition. These are strong and they provide a basis for long-term organizing. We are beginning to build real trust between people, organizations, and generations.

We have built a sense of trust, especially between older activists and younger ones. They bring energy and new ideas, and we bring the lessons of experience of many years of struggle among the older generation.

The younger ones, they believe in us, and we believe in them. What they need is care and love. And we are providing that, and we are respecting what they do. We are building a movement in the most difficult of times against the combined forces of the political establishment. But I have hope in it.

People are joining from all walks of life, and hopefully we can help all other movements. Now more than ever, we need solidarity. We need to build on the idea of collective liberation, the idea that I will never be free if you are not free. Our destinies are bound up with each other.

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Paul Fleckenstein, Wafic Faour, and Ashley Smith View All

Paul Fleckenstein is a member of the Vermont Coalition for Palestinian Liberation and a member of the Tempest Collective.

Wafic Faour is Palestinian-American and long-term member of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine.

Ashley Smith helped launch the Coalition and is a member of the Tempest Collective.