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Native History Under Attack: Students Fight Back Against Bans That Crush Ethnic Studies From Israel to Arizona

Israel mimicked Arizona’s ban on Mexican-American Studies by labeling critical ethnic perspectives as subversive.

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Israel’s ethnic studies ban (labeled officially as Amendment 40 to the Budget Principles Law) is known as the “ Nakba law” because it prohibits state-funded bodies from teaching historical narratives of Palestinian suffering that coincided with the formation of Israel as a settler state displacing the indigenous population. The Nakba , or catastrophe in Arabic, occurred before, during and after Israel’s state declaration in 1948, when armed political militia forces merged to form the Israeli military and conquered three quarters of historic Palestine.

The military forces of the new state, rooted in a decades-old, quasi-religious political movement of Jewish nationalism called Zionism, uprooted 800,000 (or 85%) of indigenous Palestinians across 1,300 localities (of which 531 towns and villages were completely destroyed), scattering the newly-made refugees throughout the region and beyond. Today, the refugees and their descendents, who number several million, are languishing in UN-operated camps, with four million under a 45-year Israeli military occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and 1.5 million Palestinians living with third-class citizenship within Israel.

In a letter sent to Israeli legislators prior to the Nakba ban’s passing vote,  Adalah, the Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel, warned that “the law stood to cause major harm to the principle of equality and to the rights of Arab citizens to preserve their history and culture” and urged the bill to be rejected, according to the organization’s 27 March 2011 press release. In January 2012, the Israeli High Court dismissed a legal challenge to the ban by Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The Israeli judge said the courts would have to wait until financial sanctions are imposed on a state-funded institution before a legal case challenging the Nakba law could proceed.

In an eerie resemblance to (though in some ways more extreme than) Arizona’s HB 2281, the Israeli ethnic studies ban relates to a number of criminal offenses that would serve cause for financial sanction. One provision of the ban on state-funded bodies (including schools) outlaws “incitement to racism, violence or terrorism” or “supporting armed struggle or terrorist acts against the State of Israel.” Another criminal offense under the ban covers “acts of vandalism or physical debasement insulting the honor of the Israeli flag or other symbol of the state.”

Other causes for sanction include any commemoration of Israel’s 1948 establishment as a “day of mourning” (i.e. the Nakba) or denying the “existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Like Arizona’s HB2281, the Nakba law directs the Israeli government to withhold public funding from institutions that fail to comply with the law. Given the vital US military and other assistance to Israel each year, we recognize our part in enabling Israeli policies and actions as American taxpayers.

Bridging Cultures Through Ethnic Studies Solidarity

While each of us is half-European white-settler and half-Chicano/a (with some Irish roots in Denise’s case), together we represent an embodiment of integration that follows conquest and colonization on the one hand, and Mexican-indigenous resistance on the other. It is crucial that young people from the communities which still comprise an indigenous majority (more than 60 percent of TUSD children come from Mexican-American families) are challenged by intimate investigations of these sorts of histories and world viewpoints.

Denise enrolled in Mexican-American studies classes at Rincon High School her junior and senior years after noticing an excited change in the outlook of her older brother who had previously taken the courses and passionately recommended them to her. Before she took the classes, everything in her life reflected the dullness of black and white, inducing no purpose or motivation from her schooling. But Denise soon began seeing the world with new lenses of color provided by the emphasis on critical-thinking of MAS courses.

Discovering inequality in the structure of the surrounding society enlightened her. She was challenged to understand new concepts of privilege, unequal social status, and to find out why class and color represent important socio-economic ways through which society functions. MAS taught her to use knowledge to empower herself and others through an ardent desire to create social change. Denise recognizes today that MAS gave her a purpose to attend college and do magnificent things in life while equipped with a radical education. She knows now that even though she’s one person, she can claim a leading role in changing society.

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