Growth of the Palestine solidarity movement in Europe
Demonstrations of tens of thousands of people have been held all over Europe in support of the Palestinian people in recent weeks. Here in London, national demonstrations have been held every weekend for the past few weeks. As I write this on Friday, another is due to start in a few hours. And there have also been other actions, such as sit-ins in government departments protesting arms to Israel, a banner drop, and mid-week protests outside the BBC to protest its pro-Israel coverage.
There is currently a huge influx of new recruits to the movement. This provides a huge opportunity and a big challenge.The sheer barbarity of Israel’s assault on the civilian population of Gaza has been the main motivating factor rallying people to this cause. Some English-speaking supporters of the Syrian uprising on Twitter have grumbled: “how come you are not paying attention to the crimes of the Assad regime and are now focused only on Israeli killing?”
The moral ineptitude of such complaints aside, such activists miss a very salient point about the Palestine solidarity movement in the West: it has taken decades of slow and steady movement-building for things to reach this impressive stage. This is a point that Palestinian writer and activist Budour Hassan made on Twitter recently, criticising such supporters of the Syrian uprising (and Budour is an enemy of the Syrian government, who, incidentally, has intensely criticised me for my own sceptical position on the supposed revolution in Syria).
Aside from missing the very obvious moral point (the British government supports Israel with two-way arms trade, but puts actual sanctions on the Syrian government), these comments display a certain ignorance of the history of the solidarity movement.
For decades in Europe it was almost impossible to make any sort of criticism of Israel without being instantly shunned as an anti-Semite. This Zionist propaganda obfuscation is still quite a powerful one. But things have changed. The accusation has lost the hold it once had, as more and more people are seeing through the propaganda.
In part, this is due to advanced involvement in the solidarity movement of large numbers of European Jews. I can safely say that, since my own involvement in the Palestine solidarity movement started in 2001, I have met far more Jewish people than I ever did in my life before. I know of no existing polling data analysing the demographic composition of the solidarity movement, but nonetheless, I can safely predict that any such poll would show a disproportionately high number of self-identifying Jews in the movement in Britain.
This is a good thing for many reasons. Many are organized in groups explicitly named as such, like Jews For Justice For Palestinians, Jews For Boycotting Israeli Goods, and the more radical International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. I know of some Jewish comrades who are critical of the idea of such groups, saying Jews need not have any “special” role in the movement. On a humanistic level, I have sympathy for such a position, and I would never seek to impose on anyone such a role. Nonetheless, my personal take is that such explicitly identified groups are overall a good thing for two reasons.
Firstly, because they help to combat a central plank of the occupying entity that dominates Palestine: namely, the myth that Judaism, and/or Jewish secular identity, are the same thing as Zionism. And secondly, the very existence of these groups helps to combat the marginal white European anti-Semites that from time to time attempt to infiltrate and undermine the solidarity movement for their own malignant and suspicious purposes.
Take the lead from Palestinians
There is one crucial factor that the Palestine solidarity movement must take heed of. Its very success or failure depends on it. In everything we do, we must take our leads, cues and directions from Palestinians themselves.This does not mean finding some token Palestinian to advance agendas we have already decided on. No: Mahmoud Abbas, Israel’s West Bank puppet, is a Palestinian, but does not speak for the people.
The principle of a Palestinian-led movement is crucial. We must listen to what Palestinians want. We must be constantly self-critical, and we need to continuously and consistently challenge white supremacy and privilege.
I think the movement has improved in recent years in terms of making sure Palestinian voices are heard more. But we need to do much better. Our speaking panels need more Palestinians and Arabs: there is certainly no shortage of young, articulate and extremely bright Palestinian activists, writers and thinkers who are in the West, often as students, journalists and academics. The leftist publisher Verso this year published a “Nakba Day reading list” – which initially did not include a single Palestinian author (they later revised it after receiving criticism on Twitter).
I would say that the main factor that has changed the movement for the better in the last decade has been the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
In 2005, BDS graduated from a good idea and solidified into a concrete call for action – a platform of defined action, signed onto by a vast array of groups within Palestine itself and within the Palestinian diaspora. Most importantly, this document was initiated and is still maintained by Palestinians themselves.
As such, the political demands behind the BDS call were clear, and rooted the long-standing priorities of the Palestinian liberation movement itself: an end to Israeli occupation, full equality for all, and the return of all Palestinian refugee expelled from Palestine.
The articulation of these strong, easily understandable, and just goals has been critical, and it has been the main reason for the slow and steady growth of the BDS movement ever since. It is this growth, achieved by Palestinians themselves, that is the crucial background in understanding the huge current protests in favour of the Palestinian people, and against Israeli war crimes.
Israeli ground forces are currently facing a humiliating defeat in Gaza – the resistance is putting up a stunning show of force, killing far more Israeli soldiers than many thought possible. Israel will sooner or later pull out of the Strip. Once it does, and the full magnitude of Israeli war crimes in this round in Gaza becomes clear, global disgust with Israel will lead to a surge in BDS and other such tactics (there are some signs of this happening already). We should grab hold of this opportunity with both hands.
Asa Winstanley is a London-based investigative journalist and associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.