Activists in Milwaukee have been making strides in expanding awareness for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in solidarity with Palestine over the last month. Such advocacy became urgent as Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza since May has left more than 250 Palestinians dead and more than 2,000 more wounded, Palestinian families of the Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah have been forcefully evicted from their homes to make room for Israeli settlers, and the storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque by the Israeli Defense Forces has left hundreds of Muslim worshippers injured.
PSL Milwaukee hosted a BDS teach-in at Mitchell Park on August 12 with support from Jewish Voice for Peace. Panel members talked about the misconceptions surrounding BDS, the history of BDS as it pertains to apartheid South Africa, BDS as a political strategy and what it will mean when BDS wins.
“It is heart-wrenching for me as a Palestinian in the diaspora to be here safe and secure while my siblings in Palestine are struggling,” said BDS activist and panel member Ruba Khader. “As you can imagine, these most recent events were difficult to watch and follow. With that said I did get a glimmer of hope when I saw the size of the global solidarity that erupted; so many took to the streets to show their support for Palestinians.”
In tandem with the teach-in, BDS activists have launched a Milwaukee-wide Palestine solidarity letter encouraging artists and creatives of all kinds to endorse the cultural boycott of Israel. The letter — inspired by the Musicians for Palestine statement earlier this year — has obtained about 100 signatures thus far.
Two creatives, musician Joe Tomcheck of indie pop band Paper Holland and painter Lisza Battikha of live entertainment collective Non-Pop, spoke about their endorsement of the letter.
“As Palestinians are fighting against the occupation they desperately need a clear message that people around the world are increasingly unwilling to accept Israel’s oppression and colonization,” Battikha said.
“What’s been happening in Palestine in recent months and really since the creation of Israel in Palestinian territory is nothing short of a human rights violation,” Tomcheck said. “As a Jewish person myself I do not believe the home of one can be rightfully established at the expense of another. I believe all liberation is connected just as all injustice is connected. Israel cannot right the wrongs enacted upon the Jews throughout history by acting as an imperialist monster.”
Both of them agree that artists everywhere are obliged to use their voices and raise awareness when injustice is happening around the world.
“I think it’s important for artists to take initiative through BDS because at its highest essence art serves as a conduit to express our inner spirit visually, critically, deliberately and even spiritually,” Battikha said. “By getting involved with BDS, creators can learn more about the blatant injustice in Palestine and how it parallels our past, present and future as a collective human race.”
“Artists in particular have a significant platform to utilize in terms of being vocal and lending support to causes, perhaps even a responsibility to express and help contextualize the important things happening in the world,” said Tomcheck.
At the teach-in, Khader drove home the notion that a successful BDS campaign resulting in large-scale divestments of Milwaukee companies from Israel is both a long-term and an incremental process. It also requires strategic, careful execution.
“When a community is created, its collective struggle is better understood and the parallels between the struggles of its constituents will also be better understood. Specific companies may be identified that violate human rights here in Milwaukee and in occupied Palestine that will make sense to campaign against. When these commonalities are understood, and people understand each others’ struggles, we will all have a much better chance for collective liberation. Safety nets — such as childcare, legal aid, food and shelter — should be top priority. Not a lot of people can commit a few hours a week to come out and distribute pamphlets outside stores or go to a sit-in without having childcare. As organizers, we have an obligation to ensure that anyone who wants to stand in solidarity with Palestine is supported and protected by the community. So many people have been defamed, got fired or had their lives turned upside-down because they supported Palestine. Safety nets to protect organizers should be established proactively and not after the fact,” said Khader.
Battikha, who is Palestinian, shared what she hopes to see from fellow creatives right now. “I need people to pay attention. The mainstream media here uncritically echoes Israeli propaganda. Know that our Palestinian experiences with apartheid, ethnic cleansing and systemic oppression correlate to the endured experiences of our Native American and Black American brothers and sisters. The United States and Israel share practices of surveillance and racial profiling, and as Black Americans and Palestinians rise up against racist state violence they’re repressed by militarized police and law enforcement. We must show those in power that we stand in solidarity, as one human race. We can choose to ask questions, think critically, and promote deeper conversations on an individual basis. Palestinians have been fighting for 70-plus years, besieged with no human rights on their own land. Living in the largest open-air prison, they are warriors … but how much longer can someone fight like this for? They need your help. They need our help. We need you.”
“My sincere hope is that the conversation continues and doesn’t dwindle until the next offensive,” Khader said. “We have so much work to do.”
The Milwaukee BDS letter continues to gather signatures from Milwaukee artists. It will be sent to Musicians for Palestine as well as the official BDS website in the next few weeks.
Feature photo: Milwaukee activists gather in support of BDS. Liberation photo