On Jan 28, Palestinian-American slam poet and human rights activist Remi Kanazi performed at Vassar College and spoke about the occupation of Palestine. The event, entitled “Poetic Injustice: Palestinian Slam Poet Remi Kanazi,” was organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine group (SJP) on campus, and was supported by the Africana Studies Department, the Social Justice and Inclusion Fund, Helicon, Poder Latin@, GAAP, Vassar Islamic Society, Wordsmiths, Vassar Prison Initiative, the Women’s Center, and the African America/Black, Latino, Asian/Asian American and Native American Center.
Kanazi covered topics through a number of spoken word poems, including his identity as the child and grandchild of Palestinian refugees growing up in Massachusetts and New York City and the racism he experienced, his witnessing of human rights abuses in Palestine, and the U.S. military. Although he focused primarily on the Israel/Palestine conflict and asserting a firm pro-Palestine position, he iterated, “We live in white supremacist racist country that is a settler colonialist state…we can’t talk about oppressive systems [in Palestine] when we’re denying what’s going on at home…it’s all very interlinked.”
An underlying idea through his poems and speaking was the argument that people need to care. In his poem “Before the Machetes are Raised,” he spoke on the frustration of encountering young adults in the U.S. that claim to be uninterested in politics, because it gives them the choice to be apathetic.
“While we reach out for freedom and justice we’re defined as political, to undermine our suffering…we’re political, so you can ignore us, delegitimatize and forget us,” he said.
Similarly, Kanazi rejected the notion that anger in response to the situation is unreasonable in his poem “Tone it Down,” where he described once being told that he was “brown and angry.” Performance is not to appeal to the opinions of others, but to express one’s own feelings: “Next time you see someone spilling their heart on stage, give them a moment before you try to stomp on it. Recognize that there may be meaning behind words and not every beat is for a finger snap or your personal approval.”
The format of the performance intercut spoken word poems with commentary and brief explanations of concepts, like the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which calls for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS Movement) against Israeli institutions. Outside of his poems he explained his support for BDS’s demands for an end to occupation, right of return for refugees, and equality for Palestinians living in Israel, and advocated for one secular, democratic state.
At the end of the event, Kanazi also commented on current issues on Vassar campus raised by students during the Q&A session. When one student asked for his thoughts on the International Studies program’s spring break trip to study the Jordan River watershed in Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, he criticized it. “The indigenous people in Palestine have told you not to come…if you’re going on these kinds of trips, you’re aiding the Israeli state.” He reiterated that such a trip cannot be neutral, and his support for a boycott of institutions that enable the state of Israel. He also objected to organizations like J Street on the grounds that they cannot simultaneously talk about peace and support the Israeli state.
Although Kanazi did not encounter much vocal opposition to his positions, there were students present involved in starting a campus chapter of J Street U who have a different view of the organization. Sara Abramson ’16 wrote in an emailed statement, “As a supporter of J Street U, my ultimate goal is peace in the Middle East. To many, including Kanazi, that may sound naive, but I truly believe that peace is possible if both sides are willing to understanding the others’ narrative, which can only happen through open dialogue and communication.” Lital Avni-Signer ’16 objected to his treatment of the issue as attacking people who are similarly seeking a peaceful solution: “Kanazi reduced an extremely complex issue with vast gray areas to black and white, and attacked peace-seekers and dialogue groups calling them ‘breeding grounds for injustice.’ To me, shutting down conversation is an unproductive means to an unclear end.”