Action Report: Salem Community Encampment for Palestine

From June 29-30, Activists from across Massachusetts convened in historic Salem for the first Community Encampment for Palestine. The event followed and channeled the energy of the student-led campus encampments that swept the country last spring. Activists set up a dozen tents and canopies and several tables in Salem common on the morning of the 29th. Starting at 10 in the morning, the encampment hosted speeches from local activists representing Massachusetts Peace Action, Students for Justice in Palestine, Northshore for Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Veterans for Peace and the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine. The speeches covered the history of Zionism, the role of the United States, and the personal experiences of Palestinian activists and their families.

Fawaz of Northshore for Palestine spoke of his and his family’s experience as Palestinians. Fawaz told the crowd that his cousins, who live in Palestine, never lose hope that the occupation will end. He applied this to the experience of pro-Palestinian activists in the US, many of whom are experiencing burnout, saying if those under occupation never lose hope, then we must never lose hope. The resolve and spirit of Palestinians was on full display with dabke dancing, music, kite-making, and art created throughout the event. Many families attended the encampment, with children playing in the grass and participating in crafts. Food and traditional Palestinian pastries were enjoyed by attendants.

MAPA’s Jeff Klein gave a two part talk about how colonialism has shaped the Middle East and the colonial similarities between the US and Israel. European settlers similarly came to North America with a religious vision for colonization. He noted the biblical names of settler towns dotted across New England: Jericho, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Salem among others. As in Palestine, the colonial state in North America relegated the indigenous population to ever shrinking reservations while massacring the inhabitants. Klein repeatedly stressed that Zionism was not representative of general Jewish sentiment, but a minority movement backed by European imperialists.

MAPA’s Susan Nicholson spoke about the International Court of Justice ruling – which Israel has ignored –  that it must stop military action that harms civilians, and the International Criminal Court proceedings which may result in an arrest warrant for Benjamin Netanyahu.

The main organizers, and MC’s, of the event were Julie Jolin of MAPA and Jill El-Ashkar of Northshore for Palestine and MAPA.

From the beginning, a small contingent of counter-protestors tried and failed to disrupt the event. Throughout the speeches given by activists, counter-protestors chanted “Liar! Liar! Liar!” as speakers addressed encampment attendees. The counter-protestors continued this chant even as speakers detailed the oppression Jewish Europeans withstood under the Russian Empire and Nazi occupation and as Palestinian speakers described harassment by occupation forces. 

The most widely distributed sign among counter-protestors read “REMEMBER 9/11” and featured an image of the attack. Drawing on post-9/11 Islamophobia, the signs connected anti-genocide activists to the 9/11 attackers. However, not one 9/11 attacker was Palestinian and the PLO immediately condemned the attack. The only fictitious connection between these two parties is their–as perceived by the agitators–race; a connection which was certainly not lost on the aggressors. 

Another agitator—adding sexism to his already overwhelming Islamophobia—yelled “I’d take the goat over you!” at a Muslim woman with his microphone. He also added “Gaza is a part of Israel” in between bouts of blaring electronic dance music which could be heard from a half mile away. The counter-protest was ideologically incoherent and contradictory throughout. An Israeli rainbow pride flag was flown beside American and Iranian monarchist flags. Protesters brandished “Let’s Go Brandon” and Trump hats, while decrying protesters as rapists and “fake feminists.” Homophobic comments were slung at those within the encampments, while screaming that LGBTQIA+ attendants would be killed in Gaza. The multigenerational nature of the encampment often resulted in verbal assaults on children waving Palestinian flags, going so far as to say “you would be killed by Hamas.” The proclaimed defenders of civility rarely lived up to their purported morals, even turning the police from antagonistic to sympathetic towards Pro-Palestinian attendants. Organizers later remarked that the presence of rabid counter-protesters was the best thing to happen for the event, due to the sharp contrast it provided.

The logic of colonialism and imperialism filters down from its civilian leaders, to its generals, to its infantry, and to its civilian devotees abroad. The stated goal of several Israeli cabinet members is to expel the Palestinian civilians from Gaza and the West Bank by making their lives essentially unlivable. This manifests in official acts such as indiscriminate airstrikes and bloody ground invasions ordered by military commanders; as well as unofficial acts by infantry, such as widespread social media posts by IDF soldiers showcasing looted Palestinian Women’s underwear. It further filters down to West Bank settlers who arbitrarily destroy Palestinian civilians’ cars, homes, and farmland while occupation soldiers look on. In the devotees we encountered, it manifested as racist harassment, sexist abuse, and obnoxious music late into the night–all of which were designed to compel protestors to disperse. In the case of occupied Palestine, the existence of all Palestinian life is a threat to colonization; thus the colonial regime exterminates the Palestinians. In the US, the presence, visibility, and organization of people who oppose the ongoing colonization of Palestine are a threat to colonization; thus, the devotees attempt to disperse and disband such people with their unceasing bigoted behavior.

One encampment speaker reminded the audience: “the Palestinian people will not disappear despite the wishes of the people around us.”