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Lara Jirmanus: What Would You Risk for Someone You Don’t Know?

By Frank S. Zhou
By Lara Z. Jirmanus
Lara Z. Jirmanus is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and a faculty affiliate at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

“I want our President to know that we are not safe… As a doctor, I cannot abandon the remaining members of my team, and as a former soldier, I cannot abandon my fellow Americans.”

Those are the words of American surgeon Dr. Adam Hamawy, who was evacuated from Gaza only days ago. Hamawy is a former U.S. Army combat surgeon whom U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) credits with saving her life in Iraq in 2004. He had initially refused evacuation from southern Gaza, citing his “oath to never leave anyone behind.”

The conditions in the European hospital in Gaza are beyond dire, with limited medical supplies, flies infesting the operating room and intensive care unit, and maggots infesting wounds.

Hamawy was also worried that the hospital “will suffer a similar fate of al-Shifa and Nasser hospitals.” In March, the Israeli military raided al-Shifa hospital, massacring medical staff and patients. A few weeks later the bodies of over 300 Palestinians were reportedly found in mass graves near the Nasser hospital in southern Gaza, with some victims stripped naked with their hands tied, according to the Palestinian Civil Defense in Gaza. Among the bodies were elderly people, children, and patients still wearing surgical gowns.

Hamawy’s story harkens back to another American who once put her life between Israeli violence and Palestinians’ homes. Rachel Corrie was a college student from Olympia, Wash., who traveled to volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, an organization which uses non-violent civil disobedience to challenge Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land.

Over 170,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories since 1947, often backed by unjust Israeli laws. My grandfather’s home in West Jerusalem was “legally” confiscated, when he evacuated his family, including my father, during the Nakba, in which over 750,000 Palestinians were violently displaced from their homes and villages in 1948.

Through policies like the Israeli Knesset’s Absentee Property Law, 700,000 settlers (over seven percent of the entire Israeli population) have come to live in illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

In 2003, Corrie stood between a U.S.-made Caterpillar bulldozer operated by the Israeli military, and the home of a Palestinian pharmacist, which was targeted for demolition. Typically the bulldozers would stop for international activists. But that afternoon, the bulldozer rolled straight ahead, killing Corrie, as she wore a fluorescent orange visibility vest.

Unlike Hamawy or Corrie, I never intentionally put myself in the pathway of Israeli bombs or bulldozers. However, I found myself in that situation when I went to volunteer in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, as a medical student in 2006.

War erupted after Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers during fighting close to the Lebanese-Israel border. As Israel bombed Lebanon, threatening to “turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years,” I fled the country in a taxi. The entire time the driver was on the phone, making calls to determine which road was safe. I later learned the border crossing was bombed both thirty minutes before and one hour after we crossed.

Now a practicing physician and educator on the Harvard Medical School faculty, I often reflect with my colleagues that our efforts are best spent here in the U.S., which has provided over $300 billion dollars of military aid to Israel since its founding and diplomatic cover for its atrocities for decades.

The world’s eyes now turn to Harvard, where students join thousands across the country, in the spirit of Hamawy and Corrie, risking their careers, their education, their safety, their immigration status, and futures to demand an end to our collective complicity in the Palestinian genocide.

Though our campuses are much quieter than the campuses in Gaza and the threats manyfold less, students at Harvard and around the country attempt to block violent policies and investments with their bodies, and some have faced tangible police violence as a result. They demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid that has been increasingly incorporated into the public consciousness.

In response, Harvard has chosen instead to break with over 50 years of precedent of protecting student assembly and speech, levying arbitrary and disproportionate sanctions against student protestors defending Palestinian lives.

However, in large part due to the efforts of these students, there is a growing consensus in favor of divesting from Israel at Harvard. A plurality of faculty support divestment from Israeli companies that operate in the West Bank, and the Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine's statement supporting divestment from Israel has gathered over 250 signatures. The Harvard Graduate Students Union and the student governments of Harvard Law School, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the Harvard Divinity School have all passed resolutions in favor of divestment.

Divestment is aligned with both Harvard’s values and its investment history. Student protest has a proud history of holding the University accountable to its values, and was instrumental in moving the University to divest from apartheid South Africa, tobacco, and fossil fuels, and to pay campus workers more dignified wages.

Additionally, Harvard Management Company was the first U.S. endowment fund to sign the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment in 2014. HMC also released an anti-genocide policy in 2019.

As an alum or a community member you can join this growing movement for divestment. You can sign the Harvard alumni divestment pledge or realign your portfolio with your values, using the American Friends Service Committee divestment list.

As U.S. officials continue to support ongoing weapons transfers to Israel, despite the objections of a majority of Americans, we must hold our institutions directly accountable to our values.

As our tax and endowment dollars fund mass atrocities, we must use every means at our disposal to say never again.

Lara Z. Jirmanus is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and a faculty affiliate at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

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