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.
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.