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Notes from the SJP Conference

Two weeks ago I spent the weekend with well over 300 student activists from over 100 campuses across the United States. There were a lot of people there who I don’t ordi­nar­ily get the chance to meet, and who usually exist as icons or avatars of some sort on the internet. I went for two reasons: (1) to gauge the political tem­per­a­ture of the most dynamic aspect of the Palestine sol­i­dar­ity movement, those who will be its future – or are its present – leaders: the youth and the students and (2) to share my own per­spec­tive. Happily, I was able to do a lot more of (1) than of (2) because the latter was mostly gratuitous.

In terms of the general thrust and political ori­en­ta­tion of the attendees, there was a lot to be encour­aged about. The relevance of Occupy Wall Street and the broader political insur­rec­tions bubbling across the Arab World was clear. People rushed from the Mahmood Mamdani keynote to Zuccotti Park, or the next day to the march on Times Square. There was a rare effer­ves­cence. The sense that we are living in a moment when political horizons which were obscured by apathy, qui­es­cence, and hope­less­ness are suddenly coming into sharp focus was pervasive.

The need for cross-group coalition building was clear, broadly under­stood, and undis­puted: one of the most inspiring examples is the con­struc­tion of walls by Palestine and Latino sol­i­dar­ity orga­ni­za­tions, as at Arizona State Uni­ver­sity and elsewhere, high­light­ing the dif­fer­en­ti­ated but shared expe­ri­ence of state-capitalist oppres­sion, literally con­cretized in walls that control and subject pop­u­la­tions. With a shared expe­ri­ence of oppres­sion comes a pos­si­bil­ity for joint struggle and a shared vision of liberation.

Dis­cus­sion circled around the dif­fi­cul­ties of building these coali­tions and strate­gies for doing so. The larger vision of the world behind building them was more tacit than explicit, but, I think, strongly felt – on one panel someone recalled Hatem Bazian’s work in the 1980s at San Francisco State Uni­ver­sity as well as Palestine’s symbolism for broader struggles for social justice.

I also think the movement is incu­bat­ing a really heroic spirit of struggle. At a workshop on political repres­sion of students, high­light­ing the example of the Irvine 11, a student stood up and said, “We might need to carry out civil dis­obe­di­ence. Sometimes the law is not just.” Sometimes it’s not: at that same panel one of the daughters of the Holy Land Five, Noor Elashi, gave a sketch of visiting her father, Ghassan Elashi, in prison where he is serving a life sentence as a political prisoner. No one discussed being cowed. The sense was, rather, of how to protect ourselves from threats from above.

The question of right-populism did not arise. Such a movement would target those visible by their skin color or their garb first, and over­whelm­ingly, the attendees were Arab-Americans, a heart­en­ing dis­tinc­tion from my own campus, where the Zionist push-back against Arab and Muslim orga­niz­ing has been intense – rising, I have heard, to death threats.

Fur­ther­more, despite ongoing attempts to make Palestine periph­eral to broader movements for social change, I don’t see Palestine being excluded from future coali­tions. The students there were standing in for thousands of people directly and actively involved in pro-Palestine activism, and tens of thousands who come out regularly for these events. The charge of anti­semitism will not stand, nor will the exclusion of the Palestine case for reasons of “sen­si­tiv­i­ties.” Those days are – I think – mostly dead.

What emerged from the con­fer­ence were several points of unity as well as a process to decide on a national coor­di­nat­ing vehicle of some kind. I can’t comment on the latter. On the former, we voted on three points, basically, the three points of the Boycott, Divest­ment, and Sanctions call: “1. Ending Israel’s occu­pa­tion and col­o­niza­tion of all Arab lands and dis­man­tling the Wall; 2. Rec­og­niz­ing the fun­da­men­tal rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3. Respect­ing, pro­tect­ing and promoting the rights of Pales­tin­ian refugees to return to their homes and prop­er­ties as stip­u­lated in UN res­o­lu­tion 194.”

This does, however, raise several issues. One is the question of the role of the sol­i­dar­ity movement. The most electric panel I was on was book-ended by Darryl Li and Bashir Abu-Manneh, who high­lighted – correctly, I think – the primacy of breaking off military aid from the United States as well as ending the occu­pa­tion, not as tasks cloven from the remainder of the anti-colonial lib­er­a­tion struggle and the sol­i­dar­ity network’s duty to support that struggle but merely as the ones that should take prece­dence. To that end, the question of one-state and two-states is not our business – “our,” meaning non-Palestinians. It is a political decision and people who will live with the political con­se­quences of given decisions are the ones who should make them.

As Abu-Manneh put it,

Self-determination requires Pales­tin­ian democracy and can only mean par­tic­i­pa­tory democracy in action. Sol­i­dar­ity work is deciding what the best way is to support this principle. It’s not a mantra. Nor does it mean that sol­i­dar­ity tactics are the same in every context. What is possible in Europe, for example, is not yet possible in the US, where a lot of education and infor­ma­tion about the occu­pa­tion needs to be diffused.

This dash of sobriety, not the first time Abu-Manneh has offered well-placed doses of rea­son­able­ness against “naïve mor­al­iz­ing,” was well-placed, despite scattered gripes and grum­blings.

The upshot is a small disquiet I had, which is the sense that my gen­er­a­tion is too –fre­quently working off suspect analyses. Political economy needs to be central. One Palestinian-American student went up to Li after his talk, told him how much she liked it, and then discussed her worries about eliding the question of cap­i­tal­ism from the lib­er­a­tion struggle. I spoke further with her about the issue and she alluded to the film, Zeitgeist. This is unac­cept­able. People should not have to draw on con­spir­acy flicks to grasp the political economy of colo­nial­ism and cap­i­tal­ism, nor have to trawl through back issues of Khamsin. We need to address this problem.

Another worry was the question of orga­ni­za­tion. Perhaps, it is still early for a struc­tured national coor­di­nat­ing body. No one wants to erect another busywork bureau­cracy or a rigid useless network that which saps energy from con­tribut­ing to the local con­fronta­tions that are at the core of our work. But we will – hopefully – soon reach a point where coor­di­nated national action will be both necessary and feasible. Someone raised the heady example of rep­re­sent­ing a serious partner to the Longshoremen’s Union, as when they refused to off-load Israeli cargo in Oakland.

It may yet be hard to see that day, but if we are lucky, it will come sooner than we think. So we should be prepared for the day, not least since it is our prepa­ra­tion that can usher it into being.

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