A love letter to the students speaking up for Palestine – Mondoweiss

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It might seem like the greatest test of your life right now. After all, one of you – a friend, a confidante – has lost his job, housing, and access to food through Harvard University. After all, a whole group of you have been suspended by MIT in an effort to halt your political activism. My alma mater has silenced Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace. In the past few weeks across the country, hundreds of people have been fired, students have come under threat, and universities seem to be weaponizing antisemitism against student groups that are protesting for Palestinian freedom.

But I want you to know, my friends, my peers, that I have never been more inspired and humbled than by what I have seen from each of you. Your courage, kindness, and insistence on hope have moved and held me in these vulgar times when bodies lie amassed, untended to, in the wilderness of war in a place called Palestine – a place you vow to never forget. 

November 9, 2023 sit-in demonstration at MIT (Photo: Layal Barakat)
November 9, 2023 sit-in demonstration at MIT (Photo: Layal Barakat)

On November 9, I walked onto MIT’s campus, where, in recent weeks, students have been organizing vigils and rallies to bring attention to Palestine. When I arrived at MIT’s Lobby 7 on the morning of November 9, I felt on edge as I walked up the steps towards its entrance due to counter-protestors flaunting their flags. As a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School and a Chaplain-Intern at MIT, one of my core duties is to support the well-being of students. I was worried because, the day before, the MIT administration had sent an email to change approved protest locations, which directly impacted your peaceful demonstration. But when I saw each of you, I felt calmness and preparedness emanate from those of you protesting for Palestine. 

I watched as the lead organizers of MIT’s Coalition Against Apartheid stood up at a moment that began to feel particularly tense. I stood with them, knowing that they did so in order to protect our community, sitting in solidarity for Palestine, holding signs such as, “No Science for Genocide!” to protest MIT’s involvement with Lockheed Martin. I watched as the atmosphere suddenly shifted because, instead of just hovering around us with a presence of blue and white flags worn as capes and showcased as threats, the counter-protesters began to suddenly scream in close proximity into your faces. 

Homemade poster stuck to the wall during sit-in demonstration at MIT, November 9, 2023
Homemade poster stuck to the wall during sit-in demonstration at MIT, November 9, 2023

I watched and began recording as you fearlessly chanted, “Free, Free Palestine” while counter-protestors screamed, “Fuck Hamas” directly in your faces, and then proceeded to physically elbow and push through organizers who had created a wall of safety. I watched and recorded as counter-protestors attempted to destroy your peace – a peace you unwaveringly wish for Palestine – by accusing you of supporting terrorists and rapists, by stepping over student protesters sitting on the ground, by aggressively snatching protest signs out of your hands. 

I know all this because they did this to me, too. I, too, felt the push when they physically assaulted you all, but you helped me regain my posture and hold my ground enough to recover and continue recording. They followed me because the shape of my necklace is the shape of Palestine – a gift from a friend in Jenin that I wear each day – and it must’ve been agitating to see it so clearly displayed. My earrings – a purchase from a Palestinian art store in Haifa – spell out the words “Freedom” and “Palestine” in Arabic, and they must’ve not been easy on the eyes.

Yet, our day was just beginning because you had planned a protest that would last from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and that is the precise duration of time that many of you fasted in solidarity with those dying of starvation in Gaza. 

Letter from the MIT administration that distributed during sit-in demonstration on November 9, 2023 warning of suspension.
Letter from the MIT administration that was distributed during the sit-in demonstration on November 9, 2023 warning of suspension.

I spent about 13 hours in Lobby 7 with each of you that day. Around noon, an administrator came to distribute pieces of paper in Lobby 7 that spoke of suspension for any student who did not leave the lobby by 12:15 p.m. I watched as you collectively stood your ground, undeterred by an administrative threat that was minutia in the face of thousands walking on foot to find safety in a place where “nowhere and no one is safe.” 

But this threat was enough to make counter-protesters leave, and in the absence of their attacks on you, you immediately went back to engaging in a peaceful sit-in for Palestine that had a clear passageway for passersby. Then, your kindness was really on full display in every corner of this grand lobby, including the balconies of its second and third floors where students from across the city began to gather in a show of solidarity. This is probably why the MIT police decided to lock all of us inside, refusing us access to restrooms, food delivery, or extra water until the last hour. Despite this, I watched as you built pulleys to send water to the second and third-floor balconies and cheered on protesters standing outside who were not granted entry. I watched your team walk around to make sure those who were thirsty had water and those who were hungry had snacks. I even watched you pray Maghrib and dance dabke to Dammi Falastini

My peers, your decision to center the Palestinian struggle versus self-interest reminded me of freedom fighters from the Subcontinent where I was born. It reminded me of revolutionaries of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It reminded me of Greensboro students who created change through simply sitting in place, unrelenting. You reminded me that this is how the heavy doors of freedom are thrust open, slowly, inch by inch, across every corner of the globe before this freedom can become a reality for all. On November 9, I watched as we became a community engaged in this collective movement. I felt solidarity. I felt joy despite the hatred we faced and the collective grief of what is going on every day in Palestine, Sudan, the Congo, Armenia, and beyond. Thank you for being a moral compass for us all. It was a day when I didn’t feel alone in my hope for Palestinian freedom. 


Zehra Imam
Zehra Imam is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School and a Muslim Chaplain-Intern at MIT. She is the founder of Illuminated Cities, an education organization that works with communities impacted by violence and adversity, and was an international teacher. She is writing about her experiences in Palestine as a Religion, Conflict, and Peace Institute intern at Harvard on Instagram @loveletterstopalestine.


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