Sunday, 13 February 2011

Where to for Palestinian solidarity in the campuses?

By Christos Symeou

A few months ago I moved to London, and went to my first event on Palestinian solidarity as a new, permanent resident of the capital. The specific topic of the event is not that important. What is important, is the introduction given by the event organizer as it started, presenting the event as one aiming to give a new perspective and new ideas, invite debate, challenge existing views and create controversy.

And instead, as is usual, what I saw and heard was exactly the same as in every other event I have been to over the years – pointless analysis, self-righteous anger, some hating on the US, some socialist rhetoric, and then it was all over. We went home, happy for going ‘against the system’ and for our self-proclaimed titles as ‘activists’.

I feel there is something rotten in the international Palestinian solidarity movement. And I think new perspectives, new debates, and some controversy ‘are’ actually needed. I hope then to be controversial in some way, and I hope that some people will not like what they’ll read. But I also hope that what I’ll say - which is what I feel - will actually make some sense.

Let’s be controversial then and start by praising Zionism! Let’s go back 150 years ago – and imagine at that time the prospect of the creation of a Jewish state in some corner of the Middle East. Not only that, imagine the prospect at that time of a Jewish state with one of the most powerful militaries and one of the most advanced economies in the world, a regional superpower, and armed with weapons capable of destroying all European capitals at its whim! Surely the ideas of a madman!

Zionism is a flawed, racist, ideology and the Zionist movement an immoral, destructive movement and our enemy, let’s not have any doubts about that. But there is something extraordinary about the sheer scale of the victory the Zionists achieved. One could argue that they had the fortune of strong allies in the West, and of public sympathy following the Holocaust. But even as such, it was an ability to build such alliances, to know how to use and adapt to the events around it, and to know how to seek public sympathy, rather than pure luck, that brought the movement to triumph.

Theodor Herzl
Herzl has been called the father of the Zionist movement, but that was not because he offered anything to it ideologically. The basic ideas of Zionism, the rhetoric regarding the need for a Jewish state and all the arguments for it, had been formed before Herzl’s time, at the start of the 19th Century. Herzl’s contributions were not ideological, but practical in nature. His famous book ‘The Jewish State’, is short on ideology and focused instead on outlining a practical program and a set of steps for actually bringing a Jewish state about – looking at such things as the organizational bodies that would need to be formed and how their financing would be achieved. It was Herzl who started lobbying governments to get an endorsement for the project, who formed the Zionist Congress and funded ‘Die Welt’, the Zionist newspaper.

By 1948, the Zionist movement had branches in every major capital of the Western world, all under the single umbrella of the World Zionist Organization. During 1947 it was able to print and distribute tens of thousands of pro-Zionist leaflet and other material to the American public and convert it to its cause. It had its own financial arm in the Jewish National Fund. In Palestine the Jewish Agency had the singular authority over the movement. And although there were definitely splits within the movement, that between the Labor and revisionist Zionists the most significant, there was a firm, and consistent set of principles by which all Zionists, and all organizational bodies, abided to – a singular agreement on the need for a Jewish state and the reasons why that should be achieved. In other words, the Zionists had discipline and consistency in the messages they gave (and still give) out, on their narrative, and a well-defined and executed strategy on how to build power, influence, and popular sympathy.

In many ways such discipline was easier for the Zionists than for the Palestinians. The World Zionist Organization itself was a private institution of members devoted to a single ideology – the Palestinians are instead a geographical society, of people from different backgrounds and different views on the world. And after 1948 the Zionists had the advantage of a properly formed government. Does that mean though that a pro-Palestinian solidarity movement should be condemned to be less well-structured than the Zionists it opposes?

Otpor! (resistance)
I have recently seen in Al-Jazzera a short documentary shot as the Egyptian January 25th revolution was still taking place, focusing on the April 6th youth movement. The messages that came out were striking. The most important principles the movements organizers claimed were ‘discipline’ and ‘unity’, and a very organized strategic approach. They had their own, secret headquarters where they would meet and plan, they would know which neighborhoods in Cairo to go to ask for support in the Tahrir demonstrations, what slogans to use, when to issue press releases to the international media to inform them of what was planned. Themselves inspired by the Otpor! movement in Serbia, (another movement with a carefully constructed program and a long term strategic plan), they would host training programs and video-conferences with their Serbian counterparts to identify the best way to organize and campaign. The importance of a consistency of message was highlighted – for example the stress for non-violence as a strategic, not a principled stance, as, as it was pointed out, it takes a single person being violent for the cameras to focus on him, and for a movement of tens of thousands to be tarnished. As such the focus on maintaining the same cries for non-violence, and the same simple, consistent principles and demands – the regime must fall, Mubarak must go.

Activism and campaigning is in fact a war they said. And in our part, we must think and act like it is one. If we are campaigning in solidarity with Palestinians we must have a strategy, and we must accept that we have a mission. But can we even agree on what that mission is?

Both internationally, but also here in the UK specifically, the pro-Palestinian movement is stale and ineffective. I am not proposing that it is our lack of commitment to the same principles followed by Egyptian revolutionaries or by Zionist campaigners that is our problem. Our problem is out lack of commitment to ‘any’ principles at all, our lack of any common messages, any organization, any strategy. There are two main issues that I want to focus on though – our factionalism, and our lack of strategic discipline.

Let’s look at factionalism. In the UK we have hundreds of different groups, some more prominent than others, who claim to campaign for Palestinians. But we have no set of principles by which they all abide to. We have no common messages. Even worse, many of these groups have their own agendas and ulterior messages that they want to promote, breaking even further any unity that we may have.

When the April 6th youth went to the streets, they did not wear anything that defined them as members of the specific group, any specific colors or insignia – to show a unity as Egyptians and not as supporters of one particular group. After Mubarak fell, I was in the celebrations in Trafalgar, and I was struck by the fact that not one of the Egyptian speakers praised any particular party or group of revolutionaries. To the contrary, every single one of the British speakers started by talking about their ‘own’ organization, and how important their ‘own’ group was, what support ‘they’ could give. Our campaigning material, our flags and our signs, will always very prominently show which group ‘we’ are coming from – and all too often bring in symbols and rhetoric that have nothing to do with Palestine, but very much to do with promoting our own unrelated politics. Not only do we lack unity, everybody seems to want to do nothing but focus on themselves.

I do not want to be vague and make nameless accusations. Even if it may make me unpopular, the socialists and certain segments of the left in this country seem to be intent on hijacking the pro-Palestinian movement. With an unrelenting passion to try and convince us that only socialists and the left can care about the Palestinian cause, that the Kafyia is the new Che T-shirt, that socialist revolution is the answer to the conflict,  they seem desperate to push the cause as one belonging to a marginal extreme of society (let’s forget for a while that all the early and most passionate Zionists were all socialists, that Ben Gurion himself claimed that the Jews had a right to Palestine because they were winning it with ‘the dignity of labor’, that Moses Hess, probably the real earliest Zionist we can talk of, was a close friend of Marx and one of the founding figures of communism). How can our movement ever gain universal acceptance, how can I ever invite a friend to an event on Palestine and have them take me seriously, when they’ll be swamped by people trying to sell them the Socialist worker newspaper, praising Cuba and  Hugo Chavez, and carrying flags with the hammer and sickle wherever they go? And why, what is the meaning of all this theatrical pointing to ‘our symbols’, ‘our imagery’, ‘our rhetoric’ other than to somehow stand out more from the crowd than anybody else, separate the British society that we are trying to convert into ‘us’ vs ‘them’, while trying to convert as many people as possible to some other completely unrelated causes and ideologies?

Our other problem, is what I call a lack of strategic discipline. For as long as I had been a student, I have been hearing the same discussions on the same supposed campaigns and initiatives, the same issues to focus on. National boycott campaign. Twinning movements. Campaigns to get people to visit Palestine. Schemes to support new societies and providing training for effective campaigning. Every year it’s the same (good no doubt) intentions. Every year some meeting will be held in London, people from various societies will show up, talk for a few hours, everybody will make their own self-righteous little speech, declare commitment to some new form of organizational and communication structure, and then go away to do the same things they’ve been doing before, and with nothing having changed. Because true organization doesn’t come around from having a simple meeting once a year – it comes from real commitment, thoroughly discussed and defined strategy, and true discipline.

Ask yourselves this, and be honest in the answer: Does a real national Pro-Palestinian student movement exist? Or do we have nothing more than individuals who see campaigning as a hobby, and who sometimes talk to each other in forums and facebook groups? A facebook group is not a movement I’m sorry to say.

In the end we are ineffectual. We do nothing but bring the same speakers to our universities, say the same things, have the same meetings. We will go to that most pointless of self-serving events, the SOAS conference, listen to endless hours of analysis, and a horde of comments after the same old speeches, from old men who seem to like nothing more than to listening to themselves speak. And once again nothing changes. Next year we’ll still be talking about organizing a boycott campaign, and the year after that, and the year after that.

We talk of our ‘victories’. Some obscure retailer has stopped stocking a single Israeli product. A Scandinavian country has taken a harder stance to Israel. The route of the wall has been re-planned in a single spot to move some tens of meters further off Palestinian land. Some society somewhere has passed a referendum to twin with a Palestinian university. What are the victories of Israel at the same time? How many more billions have been invested in its economy? By how many missiles, tanks, and helicopters has its army expanded? How many more colonists have moved to the West Bank, how many more housing units build? How much older have existing settlements become, making them even more entrenched as facts on the ground that will never go away? Maybe the sheer scale of Israeli victories is such, that when put next to our own victories, they are just so large that they become invisible. And maybe we fail to realize that our own victories, small as they are, are less about how well we manage to campaign, and more about how intolerable Israel’s actions are becoming – such that despite our own BAD campaigning, regular people are nonetheless starting to take a stance against it.

We need to take lessons from those whose movements have succeeded. Unite behind a common set of principles, find a single set of messages we can all agree on, and design a consistent, long-term strategy for promoting that message. Come up with a real organizational structure, with a real communication structure, with a real training regime in best campaigning practices, in message consistency, and with an infrastructure for effective communication and resource sharing between us. There are many things that we can practically do, and I do not want to start giving suggestions here – whoever wants to talk to me on such issues can contact me. But above all we need discipline and commitment, and an understanding that campaigning is not about feeling good about one’s self, and simply preaching one’s OWN worldview, but about coming together to actually bring about a real change. As students (or recent ex-students in my case) at the least, we have the power and possibility of making the universities a place where the Palestinian cause will take root in the minds of the young people of this country, and where the Zionist position is derived of any legitimacy. We simply need to commit to working towards that goal. 


  1. Absolutely! We need strategy, organisational structures that are capable of creating and mobilising our base and we need to create a space that allows us to "universalise" our message.(which incidentaly does not equal sanitising it as is commonly argued). We also need to think practically and honestly and not get lost in the ideology of resistance movements. We need to keep it simple, straightforward with practical applications and not turn Palestinian activism into a gateway for other ideological concerns. Moroever, the fear that we should not assume positions because we lack legitimacy of representing palestinian perspectives is also not an argument for not creating achievable targets and perameters of shared belief and frankly, not taking a position collectively is a position taking of sorts, one that makes us confused, easy to misunderstand and easy to dismiss.

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