Book Review | In Our Power: U.S. Students Organize for Justice in Palestine, by Barrows-Friedman

In Our Power is a book that aims to situate the current Palestine movement on U.S. campuses within a broader history of Palestine solidarity activism in the United States. Author Nora Barrows-Friedman, a journalist who has spent over a decade writing for the Electronic Intifada and other publications, is keen to frame the contemporary moment as one rooted in the strong political spirit and charisma of student activists who are willing to “speak truth to power,” despite the potential for severe backlash. It is clear from the very first pages that Barrows-Friedman greatly admires these organizers, and believes that their optimism injects hope into an otherwise bleak and broken Palestinian national predicament.

The book is divided into three main sections: the first section explores the personal motivations of students for joining Palestine organizing on their campuses; the second examines the challenges students face in confronting administrative alliances with pro-Israel groups; and in the final section, students offer their thoughts on defining solidarity and intersectionality of and within the movement. Throughout the book, Barrows-Friedman includes transcripts of brief interviews with ten activists heavily involved in organizing and building momentum on their respective campuses. The transcripts contextualize seminal moments in U.S. organizing and capture the perspectives of students as they navigate such work amid personal, academic, and political pressures, primarily from Zionist organizations.

Most fascinating is an interview with Taher Herzallah, a member of the Irvine 11, a group of students arrested, criminalized, and penalized for staging a nonviolent protest of an Israeli official’s visit to the University of California, Irvine, in 2010. As he recounts the harrowing days and years following the protest, he notes the disproportionality of the punishment meted out to the student protesters. Herzallah recalls that “this was a shock and awe type of tactic . . . it’s a tactic that is often used in counter-terrorism cases, not in student protest cases” (p. 119). Despite the spiraling successes of now countless divestment resolutions passed through student governments and the kinds of politics those campaigns have engendered, the precarity of Palestine organizing noted by Herzallah remains. What the case of the Irvine 11 highlights is the risks students take when they enter this work, and the various forces at play in undermining their freedom of speech and assembly. It is these very cases that have led to the growth of legal and political support groups such as Palestine Legal and the campus BDS Support Network, both formations that aim to buttress support for beleaguered student organizers.

Much of the latter half of the book describes the victories (and defeats) of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) call, which has more recently become a central pillar of campus organizing strategies. It records the milestones reached by Palestine solidarity groups in the past ten years, highlighting the intensification of sustained effort on the part of hundreds of organizers across the United States, and the consolidation of achievements through shared strategies and resources.

Barrows-Friedman is to be commended for establishing a historical frame from which to understand and analyze the current conditions of solidarity organizing for Palestine in the United States. That she would choose to focus her study on students is no accident. As evinced by movements elsewhere, particularly in the last century, students and their campuses have been a central node of protest, rebellion, and organization. Indeed, it is no mean feat to travel across the country as the author has done, talking to young people about their work, and in doing so implicitly challenging the hyperindividuation of aspects of movement politics under neoliberal conditions.

Nevertheless, it is hoped that Barrows-Friedman’s overview of the current state of Palestine organizing will lead to further reflection and analysis that asks some of the questions not addressed in her book. Despite the many victories celebrated in the text, the material conditions of Palestinians after Oslo have continued to deteriorate, as settlement (and settler) violence continues unabated, the barbaric siege of Gaza persists, and Palestinian refugees continue the unending march to exile. Often, declarations of solidarity victories seem tone-deaf to this incessant settler-colonial assault on Palestinian lives and land. Why is this so, and what does it imply about the relationship between solidarity and the Palestinian body politic? How does one understand the triumphs of solidarity in the midst of national nadir? Moreover, by focusing solely on student campus organizing in the United States, the movement’s global nature and the community forces that often support, shape, and ensure its longevity are largely ignored. It also seems crucial to have taken the opportunity to delve into the internal challenges and toxicities of neoliberal pressures on movements, the role of nongovernmental organizations in shaping and crafting the logics and politics of student organizing, and the contradictory postures of liberalist discourses on rights and intersectional discourses of liberation and decolonization.

Given her stellar credentials as a journalist and given the meticulous care and sensitivity she took to document the history of Palestine organizing in the United States, Barrows-Friedman’s book is therefore somewhat of a missed opportunity. Though the historical and empirical work here is quite strong, there is very little by way of any self-critique of student solidarity efforts. In some ways, the book enters into the movement as a continuation of its dominant triumphalist tone, rather than taking the opportunity of a longer book treatment to assess the nuanced political conversations, discontents, and anxieties bubbling below the surface as solidarity organizing matures and gains confidence. These concerns aside, the work is to be welcomed, both for its own sake, and for the hope it embodies.

About Danya Qato 1 Article
Danya Qato holds a PhD from Brown University and is currently a Fulbright scholar based at Birzeit University in Palestine. She is founder of the Chicago Palestine Film Festival and has been an organizer with Palestine solidarity formations on multiple U.S. campuses for two decades.

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