As a student of Middle East politics, I’ve come to appreciate the broad spectrum of ‘activists’ engaged in the struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine. They come to the ’cause’ with varying degrees of education (formal and informal) about the subject, with varying degrees of passion (armchair social media activists and those on-the-ground nitty-gritty activists), and holding different notions of what it means to stand in solidarity with Palestine. That third point is the topic of this blog post.
What does it mean to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians? I shared my answer when I was in Gaza in April 2013, here.
Criticism of solidarity activists from the Palestinians themselves is very important and should be considered with great care. However, what’s become clearer to me in the past three years is that some ‘activists’ feel a sense of ownership of the cause (there must be a better word) and a sense of entitlement to corral all solidarity activists within their vision of “standing in solidarity.” This is unfortunate, but probably should not have surprised me.
My advocacy and writing on the issue of Palestine has been criticized by people I respect on all sides of the issue — by people who are pro-Israel (self-identified Zionists and others), by professional colleagues who worry about my reputation and my focus on the Middle East, and by different types of solidarity activists for Palestine. I appreciate criticism and try to learn from it. I also think criticism can serve as a good teaching tool.
A recent example!
Last week a Palestinian shot and killed three Israeli civilians and wounded many others when he opened fire on a street in Tel Aviv. After an extensive search, Israel found and killed Nashaat Melhem. Hamas issued a press release mourning the death of Melhem and described him as a hero.
I responded on social media:
This is an example of how stupid Hamas can be. Shooting and killing civilians is unconscionable and unforgivable whether the killer is Daesh, Israeli military or a deranged Palestinian in Tel Aviv. This action is inconsistent with the Islamic principles I’ve read. And the fact that Hamas calls this killer a hero and cheers his actions is outrageous!
The responses in return were enlightening for the fact that they tried to (1) explain and justify the shooting, and (2) criticize my act of criticism. I’ve copied below a thoughtful response from an international activist currently living in Gaza.
Do I blame a Palestinian for flippin’ out? No. am I gonna condemn him? No. He is my brother and I stand in solidarity with him against the occupation and all those who fight against oppression. While I am sorry for an innocent being killed, Palestinans are dying everyday…what about that…. I am just saying you need to look at the Palestinian situation for what it is; oppression, years and years of it…criticize all you want Lora, you are free, but to me, you just come across as a sympathizer of the occupation with such a post and ignore the background to why some Palestinians may be the way they are. The cause does not need more colonized minds…that is what caused the problem in the first place. Listen to the Palestinian people and their needs and not what you think is right. And extrapolate all you want…it does not change things – as outsiders, we should support the solidarity movement, and not act like we know better coming from our privelidged backgrounds of freedom.
This activist has eloquently captured the spirit and sentiments of many in the “pro-Palestinian club” — and I choose that word “club” deliberately because it feels to me as though there’s a club of international activists who believe there’s a “right” way and a “wrong” way to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, and standing in the “wrong” way leads to ouster from the club.
So let me explain why I believe the “pro-Palestinian club” is wrong and, potentially, counter-productive to the goal they claim to espouse, namely the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
First, it’s both condescending and patronizing to say “I must not criticize Hamas or Palestinians.” Why? Because they can’t handle criticism or engage constructively in the exchange of ideas? Because I’m an outsider, and only Hamas and Palestinians know what’s right and wrong? Because it’s presumptuous for someone who has never lived under occupation to have a clue about the years of oppression and sacrifices that Palestinians have experienced?
Step back and listen to how absurd that sounds, but that is exactly what some activists have been sharing with me.
I know, in fact, that there are many intelligent Hamas members who welcome an exchange of ideas, and could quite eloquently defend their positions. I’ve had the honor of meeting and talking with them. Unfortunately, they’ve been isolated by the West and unable to enter into that exchange. Just as my opinions and views have been enriched by listening to them, their opinions (Hamas and Palestinians) can only benefit from hearing and engaging with opinions from the outside.
My criticism (whether accepted or not) is based on my life experience, my status as an outsider, and my “white privilege.” I don’t try to hide who I am or pretend to be someone I’m not. This self-censorship that some (many?) club members engage in smacks of disingenuous civility to me.
If the club’s view that international activists must refrain from criticising Hamas and Palestinians because we don’t share the same history of occupation and oppression, then logically, we should refrain from criticizing Israel and the Zionists because I sure don’t share their history. Of course, the club doesn’t have a problem criticizing Israel, just as I don’t, when I think it’s a legitimate criticism and when I think it’s constructive criticism.
Second, the club seems to perceive any criticism of Hamas and the Palestinians as a sign of support for Israel and the occupation. I’ve heard this over and over and over again. I thought the notion was so silly, I never responded to it, but since so many members of the club share this opinion, it deserves a response.
A simple truism. The world is not black and white, good and bad, evil and righteous. It is, in fact, very complex. When the club makes the argument above, they are implying that everything (anything) that Hamas and the Palestinians do is white, good and righteous. While everything (anything) Israel does is black, bad and evil.
That is a colonized mind.
And that explains (I think) why many Westerners reject the messages they hear from the club. Westerners may not know much about the Middle East, and the club is pretty dismissive of trying to talk with Westerners, but intuitively, Westerners know it’s not that simple, it’s not black and white.
I believe that Westerners, generally, consider the club as an embedded extension of Hamas, Fatah, the Palestinians, or whichever group is off-limits for critique and honest evaluation and discussion. That’s OK if that’s what the club believes is meant by “standing in solidarity.”
I, on the otherhand, don’t believe in the efficacy of embedded journalists in Iraq or embedded activists in Palestine. If the goal is to end the occupation of Palestine (and I haven’t heard any disagreements among club members about that goal) then (1) many Americans must be educated, and (2) the U.S. government must be persuaded to end its “special relationship” with Israel. I don’t think the occupation will end until those two things happen.
That’s why I fear the club’s position is counter-productive. Americans aren’t going to pay attention to embedded activists when they smell there’s something not-quite-right with the club’s messaging about Palestine-Israel.