A generation ago, students led the movement in the United States to divest from apartheid South Africa. Today, student leaders are shaking Arizona as they defend Tucson's Mexican American Studies (MAS) program. And, like those students who pushed for solidarity with South Africa, their activism is taking an international perspective. Some of them are applying what they have learned about colonial settlement and the importance of culture and history in Arizona to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Asiya Mir, who graduated from Tucson High Magnet School, was one of the teenagers in the youth activist coalition UNIDOS, which made national headlines in April 2011 when they chained themselves to Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) board members' chairs to prevent the board from voting to dismantle the MAS program.
Mir was also the founder of Tucson High's chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a solidarity group usually found on college campuses. "As a student living in a racist state attempting to rob my ethnic studies education from me," Mir says, "I feel a close personal affinity with my fellow students in Palestine, who live under and struggle against Israeli aggression, terror, and cultural theft. . . . I embrace these students as my own; they are me, their struggle is mine." This is exactly the kind of "ethnic solidarity" that the Arizona State Legislature is threatened by. Mir's words are a variation on one of the indigenous concepts that forms the core of the MAS program: In Lak 'ech or tú eres mi otro yo (you are my other self).
The year after Arizona legalized the ban on ethnic studies, the Israeli Knesset passed the Nakba law, which bans state-funded entities, including schools, from teaching about the mass expulsion of Palestinians before, during, and after the formation of the Israeli state. (Nakba is the Arabic word for catastrophe.) Like Arizona's HB 2281, the Israeli law directs the government to withhold public funding from institutions that fail to comply.
Mir is not the only student activist in Tucson who is making the connections between Arizona and Palestine. Denise Rebeil, who participated in the chain-in at the TUSD school board meeting while attending Rincon High School, recently completed her freshman year at Tucson's University of Arizona (UA). Last spring, Rebeil, with fellow UNIDOS, SJP, and other youth activists, collected signatures on a letter to the university president urging the administration to "negotiate a timetable for full and complete severance (or divestment) from UA's licensing contracts" with the Caterpillar and Motorola corporations for the companies' roles in human rights abuses along the US/Mexico border and in Israeli-occupied Palestine.