‘Standing Together’ Activist Counters Extremes at UCLA

This article by Forward columnist Rob Eshman was originally published in the Forward as “Violence at UCLA will only produce more violence. A remarkable Palestinian peace activist showed me an alternate way.” Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox. (A Palestinian-Canadian member of LA Standing Together, Zahra Sakkejha, is pictured above and profiled in this article.)

Just after the Passover holiday came to a close Tuesday night, a pro-Israel mob descended upon the pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA. They threw explosives and traffic cones over the barriers of the pro-Palestinian encampment and used pepper spray on its inhabitants. At least some of them tried to break in. What better way to end a holiday celebrating freedom than by trying to force others to shut up and go away? 

“It was like a scene out of a horror movie,” one encampment protester told Forward reporter Louis Keene, who was at the site until the early morning. 

I don’t know what the group that assaulted student protesters was hoping to accomplish, but I know what it did manage to achieve: These counter-protesters opened the door to more violence and more anger. They lessened the chances that these nationwide protests will come to peaceful, even productive conclusions.

Louis described the attackers as mostly young, so at the risk of old-splaining, let me lay out an important lesson: Violence begets violence.  

This is a principle far too many supporters on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian issue have yet to learn — which is ironic, because it is arguably the one irrefutable fact of the conflict. 

And it’s why, when I look at the protests and counter-protests taking place at UCLA and around the country, I can’t see myself standing with either group.

Too many in the pro-Palestinian camp dismiss Oct. 7 and dehumanize Israelis, using language that can only be understood as expressing a desire for their obliteration.  And too many in the pro-Israel camp ignore the futile savagery of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s policies, even though there is a strong, pro-Israel case to be made for a ceasefire.

But I can see myself standing with a Palestinian-Canadian woman named Zahra Sakkejha. 

Sakkejha is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants to Canada and works in Los Angeles in biotech. She and about 25 members of the LA support group for Standing Together, an Israeli social movement of Jews and Arabs demanding political and social equality and reconciliation, constituted a small, third group at UCLA protests over the weekend. 

She and her peers wore purple T-shirts and held signs that read, “Free the Hostages, “Ceasefire Now,” “Diplomacy Now,” and “Not One More Drop of Blood!” They chanted, “In Gaza, in Tel Aviv, all the children want to live!” 

In their mix of Hebrew and Arabic accents, the slogan rhymes.

The sheer audacity of caring about both sides created a constant cognitive dissonance among the protesters they encountered.

“The protesters kept trying to place us,” Sakkejha told me when I met her for coffee near the UCLA campus Tuesday morning. 

“Some people just immediately thought, ‘Okay, I see the word ‘hostages,’ you’re with them. Or some people would say, ‘Well, what about the hostages?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, we also think they should be released home, and vice versa.”

As opposed to the vast majority of the undergraduates at the barricades, Sakkejha, 35, has actual roots in the land she is trying to heal.

Her father’s parents owned orange groves in Jaffa. They fled in 1948, when her grandmother, then 19, was pregnant with her father. He was born in Egypt as a refugee and raised in Jordan. 

Her mother was raised in East Jerusalem, leaving after the first intifada to immigrate to Toronto, where Sakkejha was raised. 

She has often traveled to Israel to see her mother’s family, who still live in East Jerusalem. It’s a visit that entails a three hour interrogation at Ben Gurion International Airport, despite her Canadian passport.

On her last visit, in 2020, a young security official asked her where her father’s family was from.

“I said, ‘Here. Jaffa. Like physically right here.’ And it was just surreal to see the confusion on this guy’s face,” Sakkejha said.

Her grandparents’ villa in Jaffa is now an old age home, she said. For years she never doubted the righteousness of the way Palestinians and supporters were pursuing their cause. Two things changed that.

The first was the Hamas invasion and attack on civilians on Oct. 7. 

“Targeting civilians is never okay,” she said. “And at that scale, and branded with the Palestinian cause. Violent resistance is not the way.”

The other step in her evolution came from her personal relationship with Jews. She had become involved with a group called Tomorrow’s Women, founded in 2003 to help train and support female leaders among Israelis and Palestinians. Sakkejha now serves on the organization’s board. 

“There’s a certain level of accountability when you’re face to face with someone from, quote unquote, ‘the other side.’ You can’t look at it abstractly. You have a human being in front of you, and they’re telling you their personal experience. And that’s very difficult to ignore,” she said.

Sakkejha joins the LA Standing Together group at protests and at an informational table the group sets up once a week at UCLA. Their goal, she said, is not to change minds but to share experiences. 

“It sounds touchy feely,” she said of the difficult conversations she has participated in — and  witnessed — between Israelis and Palestinians. “It’s not. It’s a challenge to understand: Okay, we are literally tied at the hip, now what are we going to do? 

“You don’t have to have all the answers. We can work to find answers together.”

After Tuesday night’s violence, I texted Sakkejha for her reaction.

“People are angry and scared and have wildly opposing political views,” she texted back, “but none of that excuses violence. Our freedom in this country should be used to elevate the discourse to influence positive change, not to mirror the violence we are seeing in Israel/Palestine.” 

It turns out, there’s a third way. That’s where I stand.