The Palestine exception to campus free speech

“Solidarity is the kind of presence that costs you something.”

Image Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo

On Nov. 9, 2023, I and nine of my peers organized and participated in a sit-in at our high school’s annual Veterans Day ceremony to protest Israel’s attack on Gaza, challenge United States military and political funding of the genocide of Palestinians, and show our solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We filled rows of our gym wearing white shirts that read “Stop Israel, Stop Genocide” and held signs reading “We Are the Resistance” and “Free Palestine” during the event. 

The aftermath of our disruption was swift and serious. We were humiliated by our administration, removed from leadership positions for not “reflecting school values,” and given referrals from our district for “printing political propaganda.” I write this story using a pseudonym to protect me and my peers from further aggression from our school’s administration. 

As I processed my “punishment,” I learned that our situation wasn’t unique. In response to the constant Israeli bombings of the Gaza Strip, which, as of this writing, have killed more than 20,000 people—many of whom are children—students in high schools across the country have held pro-Palestine demonstrations, sit-ins, and walkouts, and called for an end to Israel’s violence. Some of these students agreed to speak with me. 

A few days before our disruption, on November 6, more than 200 students walked out of their last-period class at Potomac Falls High School in Sterling, Virginia, to show solidarity for Gaza and the Palestinian cause. They held signs painted red and green, wore traditional keffiyehs, and waved flags as a student chanted, “Not a nickel, not a dime!” into a loudspeaker. Hundreds of her peers echoed, “No more money for Israel’s crimes!” 

After becoming the first country to recognize Israel as a state, the U.S. has provided Israel with almost $3.8 billion in annual grants since 1985, which President Biden refers to as his nation’s “best investment.” Apart from its monetary role, the U.S. also politically supports Israel. More than half of the U.S.’s vetoes at the United Nations have been in support of Israel. 

“As a Pakistani, whose grandparents suffered under British occupation, I feel I must support any and every Indigenous LandBack movement and oppose any form of modern-day colonization,” says Mohsin Ali, referring to the phrase that Indigenous North Americans have adopted as a demand for restitution. Ali is a senior at Potomac Falls High School who attended and helped organize the November 6 walkout. 

“I hope to reiterate what many others are saying. This is not a religious conflict. This is not a war. This is a genocide, ethnic cleansing,” says Ohona Ahmed, a high school senior and coordinator of a November 6 pro-Palestine walkout held at Parkview High School, which is just 10 minutes from Potomac Falls. Students at the two schools joined other Loudoun County Public School (LCPS) students in Virginia in a district-wide walkout. 

“We are trying to invoke a county-wide acknowledgment,” Ahmed explains. “If we get the superintendent and principals of numerous schools to send mass emails about the pro-Palestinian walkouts happening throughout Loudoun County, we as students could reflect our stance and support to students, parents, teachers, and staff.”

“The United States uses our taxpayer money to fund the genocide of Palestinians in a militaristic way. Israel is a U.S.–backed occupation state, and we refuse to support and celebrate the means for it,” says Andi Stone, a senior and participant in the sit-in at my school, who has also chosen to use a pseudonym. 

The U.S. maintains strong diplomatic relations with Israel. As the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, an agency of the State Department, states, “Israel is a great partner to the United States, and Israel has no greater friend than the United States. The unbreakable bond between our two countries has never been stronger.” In a press conference on November 9, when asked about a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, President Biden replied, “None. No possibility.” 

“We didn’t feel that the U.S. military’s crimes against the Palestinians and numerous others in the Global South deserved to be honored [on Veterans Day],” says Lauren Jenkins, another student at my high school who participated in the actions and who has chosen to use a pseudonym. “And we certainly didn’t feel very patriotic knowing we were honoring the ‘fallen soldiers’ but not saying a word about the thousands of fallen children who were killed in the name of this very empire,” she adds, connecting U.S. militarism to Israeli militarism.

While the recent escalations are sparking a new wave of support for Palestine, especially from younger Americans, that support has also drawn intense backlash. “It only took five minutes before we were told to leave the Veterans Day ceremony and that we were being ‘disrespectful.’ Along with the sit-in we put up infographics around the school, which [were] also taken down by the administration,” Jenkins says. 

Our administration has refused to tell us what exactly we are being cited for, other than violating school values and promoting propaganda. When we asked which parts of our fact-checked statements were “propaganda” and how an issue based on simple human rights could be “political,” administrators told us they didn’t want to “get into the semantics.” 

We are sure that the retaliations are an intimidation tactic to prevent further action on our campus. After we collectively refused to sign the citation sheet, our school principal told us, “This is already in your permanent record”—and that there was nothing we could do to get it expunged. As seniors applying to colleges, it appeared that the marks on our records were meant to jeopardize our futures, since the only violation school officials could cite us for in the student handbook was our use of a printer, which says a lot about the lengths they were willing to go just to tarnish our records. A printer.

In Virginia, students who participated in the LCPS walkout at several schools had to cancel their actions after posters were torn down and pro-Israel demonstrations were organized on the same day. “There was a pro-Israel walkout page that stole my co-organizer’s artwork and planned to counter our walkout at the same time,” says Ali. His principal reportedly pulled him out of class several times to make sure the walkout wasn’t “hateful.” “Our chant ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ was blacklisted, and our walkout was threatened to be shut down if the chant was used,” he reports.

Schools are also cracking down on what students can discuss inside the classroom. Ali says, “I try to discuss it as much as possible in class, but recently Loudoun County Public Schools have banned a lot of pro-Palestine slogans and symbols, so there are definitely some restrictions from the admin.”

Despite attempts to censor and intimidate young organizers at U.S. high schools, students, including myself, are determined to organize against the occupation from the “Belly of the Beast,” to quote Che Guevara. 

The biggest tool for young Americans is social media, which has been vital not only in educating, but in circulating news from inside Gaza into the heart of the U.S. empire. “Due to our access to social media, if one person shares an informational post, hundreds of their friends and mutuals can see it,” Ahmed says. 

“I believe that access to social media and unbiased raw facts and accounts have helped in realizing how messed up the political and economic systems in the U.S. are,” Ali adds. 

Others are taking educational approaches on their campuses. Serene Issa, a Palestinian American high school senior from Heb, Texas, says, “I’m the co-president of the Arabic club, and we made a presentation [about] Palestine to inform those who are not informed.”

From exhibiting solidarity through pins, shirts, and flags—which school administrators have less control over—to finding alternate spaces where they can express support for the Palestinian cause, students are invested in finding ways to counter school restrictions. “I think ‘sticking it to the man’ is often a good approach,” Ali says. “In my school district some have attended school board meetings and superintendent meetings to voice our concerns and highlight the hypocrisy of the restrictions placed on students.”

Others are hoping to join groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace when they go to college, or to find local advocacy groups that have become more active. “In our community, there’s an active group … that’s run by some of the Muslim population of our city who have been very helpful to the community in providing a space to voice support and for action,” Stone says. 

Ali hopes to continue his work for Palestine solidarity in higher education, saying, “I would likely join some movement in college that focuses on dismantling empire and supports decolonization.” 

While it is impossible to ignore the censorship of the Palestinian cause that exists across the Western hemisphere, this isn’t something that is going to effectively silence organizers. “There is some fear that we’ll be negatively impacted on our path to college but … what’s lost credibility in academia when lives are at stake?” Stone asks. 


If you liked this article, please donate $5 to keep NationofChange online through November.