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Q&A: Palestinian activist Sarah Smith ‘08

In August of 2010, Sarah Smith ’08 took a trip to Palestine as a delegate of Palestine Solidarity Group in Chicago. Four months later, she and two others from her trip were subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury. They were part of a group of 23 people who were subpoenaed in connection to antiwar and solidarity efforts regarding Palestine.

Smith will speak next Wednesday, April 20 in ARH 302 at 8 p.m. as part of Activist Week.

What was the initial purpose of this trip that you took?
I’m Jewish, and I’ve always wanted to go to Israel and Palestine to see what’s going on in Palestine and Israel for myself. I wanted to meet Israelis, I wanted to meet Palestinians … then I wanted to come back to the United States and speak publicly about what I saw, what I had encountered and who I had met with and what I had learned.

How did you go about meeting people when you got there?
It was a planned delegation, so I wasn’t the only person on the delegation—there were seven of us. The trip was organized by a Palestine Solidarity Group in Chicago, and they’re a political group that does educational trips to Palestine and Israel. We met with some nonprofits, we met with some civil rights activists, we met with some people who had been political prisoners in Palestine and Israel, we met with teachers, and then we met with families on the street, honestly just by walking around and talking to people.

You mentioned that a lot of the stuff you heard on the news wasn’t true. What examples of that did you find there?
I went with the assumption that the West Bank was going to be really, really scary, almost like I was walking into some sort of war territory, and that, if I told anyone I was Jewish, that something terrible would happen to me. I was told repeatedly that Palestinians hate Jewish people, and especially Americans, and so being Jewish and American I thought “Oh man, I’m getting myself into some trouble here.” The two girls who I traveled with were Palestinian-American. They introduced every single person we met with—every person we met with, every teacher, every family, every child we talked to on the street—they introduced me as their Jewish friend. And it didn’t hinder any Palestinian, whether we were in Israel or the West Bank, from talking to me. Actually, it was almost the opposite. People were thanking me repeatedly for coming into the West Bank to hear what was really going on and to see for myself what was really going on. It is one of the safest countries I’ve ever been to, by far … three women from the US can walk around at night without worrying about being hassled by somebody or being robbed or anything like that. Palestinians do not hate Jewish people and they do not hate Americans. It’s our foreign policy that they hate.

What do you think the US government could have found controversial about this trip?
I have not been given any of that information. The US government, along with the FBI, are trying to build a case of material support for foreign terrorism. According to these new material support laws that were passed last June … now speech can be used as a form of material support for foreign terrorism if done in a coordinated way. If I spoke to someone in Palestine or in Israel, and that person speaks to someone in a terrorist group, technically, that is material support for foreign terrorism. It has nothing to do with us giving money or giving actual weapons to a foreign terrorist group that’s on the US list. And we actually didn’t speak to anyone on that foreign terrorist list.

What happens when you refuse to testify? Are you subpoenaed again, or are there any sort of consequences?
I refused to testify by sending a letter in to the prosecutor saying that I was refusing to appear before the grand jury and I was invoking my Fifth Amendment right to basically say nothing. Right now, nothing else has happened. I think the Justice Department is waiting. There’s been a national and international pushback against this case. The day I was supposed to testify, 400 people came out and protested outside of the grand jury in support of the nine of us that refused to appear. There’s a huge number of people who are supporting us, and I think the Justice Department is kind of waiting until this pushback dies down. I’m not sure when they’re going to make their next move, but their next move can be one of two things. You can refuse to testify the first time you’re subpoenaed. What the prosecutor can then do is they can impose immunity on you. What that means is that you either testify and you go before the jury and testify and answer every question, without exception. If you refuse to do that, you face civil contempt, which means you go to jail for up to 18 months. You can also face criminal contempt … you could face up to 15 years in prison. That’s what we’re facing now. If we’re re-subpoenaed and the prosecutor decides to impose immunity, people are going to start going to jail for refusing to go before a grand jury. The other option is that the prosecutor can actually indict someone. After someone refuses to comply with a subpoena, the prosecutor has the option of indicting them, meaning that they would be formally charged with a crime. As of right now, no one has been charged with any crime whatsoever, which is another reason why no one is willing to go before the grand jury because we don’t know who the target of this investigation is. I don’t know if I’m the target, if these girls I traveled with are the targets. … You could cooperate and go before a grand jury not knowing that you’re testifying against yourself. … Lots of people don’t quite understand the severity of what a grand jury is. … Whoever is subpoenaed to appear as a witness, you’re given no information about what you’re really there for. … We’re supposed to go in and testify and name everyone we met in Palestine and Israel, every group we met with, who was affiliated with which group, so which political party. They want to know everyone we know in the United States, who’s involved in any Palestine solidarity or anyone we know in the United States who’s travelled to Palestine. They want to know every meeting we’ve ever gone to involves Palestine. If I was to appear before the Grand Jury now they’ll ask me every place that I’ve spoken at about the case, every person that I talked to, every question that was asked of me. Everything that was said by every person that was in every event that I went to. … They’re basically looking for names, they want associations, they want to know what groups we affiliate with, what are political views are, which is supposedly under the first amendment, you have the right to associate with any political group without the government interfering. You also can say whatever you want about the government without the government interfering. … When you’re going in front of a grand jury there’s no judge who is presiding over the process to make sure that everything is going across legally. Also as a witness you cannot bring your lawyer in. You can’t have any legal representation. … The jury consists of the people [the prosecutor] picks to be on the jury. There’s no bias screening. … It’s like jury duty. Most people who serve on a jury for the grand jury know how a grand jury works and so they don’t know what the rights of the witness are. … [The prosecutor] can submit or omit whatever he feels like sharing with the jury, whatever really is relevant to his case. … There’s no rebuttal process, there’s no statement process, you just sit there and answer the questions that are put before you and that’s all. … There’s also no one taking notes and so there’s no public knowledge of what’s actually said at the grand jury’s proceedings.

If there is nothing that could possibly be misconstrued or could come of it, is there anything that’s holding you back from going through with it other than that it being a huge hassle?
If I go in for a grand jury than I’m admitting that I don’t have a first amendment right and I don’t care about my first amendment right. … I take my first amendment right very seriously. … If we give up our first amendment rights than they’re going to take away someone else’s first amendment rights after us. … The other main reason that I’m refusing to testify, and so are the other twenty-two, is they’re asking us to name everyone we know who’s involved in any type of anti-war or solidarity both here and abroad. For people who have travelled to Columbia, if they list people that they know in Columbia, people in Columbia will be killed because there are death squads in Columbia. In Palestine I met with people who have already been political prisoners for standing up for their own land. Those people will probably go back to prison just for meeting with me. How would I be able to look at myself in the mirror after writing a list of names not knowing what’s going to happen to those people abroad. I couldn’t do that. The other thing is dragging in a whole group of other Americans into this case. … I know I’m not a target of the investigation, but to drag in other people into it is not something [I’m willing to do]—and it’s like McCarthyism. That was the whole point, that they wanted you to name everyone who you knew who was Communist. That’s not something I’m willing to do. … It’s not the government’s business … who’s involved in Palestine boundary work or who shows up to anti-war demonstrations. It’s apparently something that’s always been legal in the United States and now suddenly they’re trying to criminalize it. … I don’t think it should matter where you travel to. I think as an American you should be able to travel wherever you want to in the world legally … to see what it’s like for yourself without the government saying we know you went there. It’s a different thing if you’re going to travel to another country and give money and give actual material support such as like machine guns to terrorist organization and if they want to indict people on that kind of thing that makes sense. … What is this case really about? I’m not quite sure. I think they’re trying to scare people from being involved in any international solidarity work that isn’t in the U.S.’s best interest.

Could you give us a quick preview of what you’re going to talk about at Grinnell?
What I’m going to really talk about at Grinnell is who are the 23 people that U.S. government is targeting? Why are they targeting us? Since the 23 of us have been subpoenaed to a grand jury, what is a federal grand jury, because most people don’t know what a grand jury is? What’s the process? What happens if you refuse to testify? Why have we refused to testify? What’s going to happen to us now that we have refused to testify? What are these material support laws and how do they affect pretty much every American in the country? Because according to these laws if you go to an anti-war demonstration, you are technically giving material support to foreign terrorism. If you speak to someone who possibly knows someone in a terrorist group, you are giving material support to foreign terrorism. … Anyone’s at risk, whether you went to Palestine on a delegation, whether you’ve gone to an anti-war march. Whether you’ve openly spoken out against some sort of policy that the U.S. government is involved in, whether it’s abroad or here in the U.S., that technically could be material support of foreign terrorism. … Being dragged into a case like this makes you really question what’s going on and what’s behind it.

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  • S

    smitaApr 15, 2011 at 6:02 am

    Wow. Glad Sarah’s returning to campus to talk about this.

    Also, haha, “Columbia”.