High school junior embodies legacy of justice

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Jesse Lieberfeld, a junior at Winchester Thurston School, wrote an essay titled “Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering up for a Hidden Wrong.” The essay tied for first place in the prose category of Carnegie Mellon’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards. In the essay, Lieberfeld describes how he grappled with his support of Israel as he watched its treatment of Palestinians grow increasingly brutal and inhumane.

The controversial essay provoked backlash from students at Carnegie Mellon and members of local pro-Israel and Zionist organizations. However, by illuminating many unfortunate truths about the lives of Palestinians in Israel and occupied territories, Lieberfeld demonstrated a commitment to human and civil rights as King had.

Lieberfeld’s critics are either unaware of or do not understand the discrimination against the Palestinian minority in Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the Israeli population. While Palestinian citizens in Israel have full voting rights and serve in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, there are still inequities in areas of employment, education, and health care.

A study by Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, stated that “more than 30 main laws discriminate, directly or indirectly, against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the current government coalition has proposed a flood of new racist and discriminatory bills which are at various stages in the legislative process.” In his essay, Lieberfeld rightly compares the treatment of African-Americans in the U.S. to the current treatment of Palestinians.

Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are also subjected to segregation and human rights violations. Their freedom of movement is severely restricted because they are forbidden to travel on certain roads that are exclusively reserved for Israeli citizens.

A 2011 report from the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs detailed how this extensive system of roadblocks and checkpoints continues the system of constrained movement. Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem likened road segregation to the Apartheid in South Africa. Lieberfeld rightly condemned this discrimination, echoing King’s moral outrage expressed in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Home demolitions and land expropriation occur regularly in the West Bank, leaving some Palestinians homeless and forcibly displaced. The separation barrier surrounding the West Bank, constructed in 2004 and declared illegal by the International Court of Justice, uproots farmland essential to the livelihoods of Palestinians and separates members of Palestinian families.

As a result, Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have practiced nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, holding weekly demonstrations to protest these conditions. Thus, Lieberfeld is justified in drawing historical parallels with civil rights activists in the 1950s who implemented similar methods.

While the Israeli government argues that checkpoints, roadblocks, home demolitions, and other policies have been instituted for security reasons, Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians has grown increasingly discriminatory.

Lieberfeld’s analysis of the conflict is anchored in international law and universal principles of human rights. By bravely speaking out against the oppression of Palestinians, Lieberfeld embodies a legacy of social justice bequeathed by King.