Today’s guest is Zayd Sifri who wrote a text about the current state of activism in the Palestinian struggle abroad, and more specifically in the United States. This essay is interesting in the context of the other writings that has been published on the funambulist on this topic as, rather than participating to the denunciation, it analyzes the latter within the frame of a global strategy and its historical equivalents (in South Africa for example).
The Funambulist Papers 34 /// Movement and solidarity
by Zayd Sifri
Momentous changes in the organization of society only occur so often. From memorable instances of thorough upheaval, social movements reap the fruit of the past and cultivate their own traditions. In the recent past the comparison between Israel-Palestine and Apartheid South Africa has become a convenient gambit for many solidarity activists in the United States and elsewhere. There are countless reasons for the popularity of this specific example and of course it is not the only material activists rely upon. The South African struggle however has been underscored as a successful model for international solidarity with the ongoing anti-colonial battle in the Eastern Mediterranean. For evidence of this, we can look at how the term Apartheid has almost seamlessly permeated the progressive vocabulary for describing Israeli regime’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Looking at Israel-Palestine solidarity through a South African prism, offers insight into the actors, values, and politics involved of movement building on an international playing ground. Fundamental to an effective conceptualization of a global solidarity model is formulating the inevitably complex relationship between local—Palestinian and Arab actors—and activists based primarily in the United States.
In broad historical terms, both countries not only share a history of being European settler-colonies, but also did not experience decolonization at the same time of most of the Global South in the 1950s and 1960s. Others who missed the wave to the independence during that era are the Portuguese colonies in Africa—Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome and Principe—which achieved independence from an impoverished yet violent regime in 1975, and the current pariah of southeastern Africa Zimbabwe in 1980.
With the regimes of Antonio Salazar and Ian Smith relegated to the proverbial trash-bin of history, we are left with the South African mode of decolonization to be considered alongside Israel-Palestine. South Africans gained their independence in the form of the termination of the Apartheid regime, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, and the triumphant return of the African National Congress to the country.
One element of significance for Palestinians and their friends in this equation is the timing of the tremendous events in southern Africa. Specifically with regard to the current solidarity movement, the end of Apartheid is a relatively recent event that many can remember. Few of course, remember the Algerian War of Independence but some at least have a conception of that enormous piece of history. The Apartheid example on the other hand, has the capacity to inspire an approximation of the lived emotions that are tied with such massive transformations in the fabric of a society, even if those transformations are experienced through televisions and newspapers on the opposite side of the ocean.
In that sense, the biggest continuity for solidarity activists in looking to South Africa as a model is the presence of a global solidarity movement in Europe and the United States as an actor. In both cases, social forces in the United States have tried to pressure their own elites for a change in foreign policy. Furthermore, these solidarity movements are part of a cherished tradition of grassroots anti-imperialist and anti-war organizing that aims to make the imperial elites accountable to their citizenry. These movements have been driven by the principle that they do not support their country’s actions internationally and support the self-determination of peoples—among other principles. This is not to be overly general but rather to underscore that this sort of internationally minded solidarity movement has its own moral compass, style of tactics, and set of political conditions it deals with at home.
Subsequently, the parallels drawn between the two cases rarely have something substantial to say about, for example, the Palestinian factions’ relationships with the African National Council. Or the geographic similarity those entities share in having waged guerilla style revolutionary struggle from neighboring countries—Mozambique and Jordan respectively. It seems to be completely reasonable to not regularly engage with these details of regional history, say if you are trying to build a global solidarity network from the United States.
Both South Africans and Palestinians are, by chance, blessed between their fellow nations in the Global South, with the existence of left-leaning actors in the United States and Europe directly interested in helping them achieve the goals of their struggles. Activists in the United States are becoming more knowledgeable of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and their access to information on the subject is slowly improving. Although their numbers are marginal, there are institutions—for instance, the progressive Church—that can arrange for someone in northern Georgia to meet a Palestinian.
This being said, the Palestine movement currently lacks certain elements that were commonplace for the anti-Apartheid movement in the United States. Congress passed a comprehensive anti-Apartheid act in 1986. Other pieces of legislation were passed even earlier, in the 1970s. Meaning that as early as the 1970s there were politicians in the United States who took positions against Apartheid. To whatever extent, it was socially and professionally acceptable on an institutional level, to take stances against Apartheid. Unfortunately, no such environment exists yet vis a vis Palestine today.
Somewhat responsible for the absence of a public, center-left predilection in the United States towards Palestine is the dreary political atmosphere in Palestinian communities in historic Palestine and in the camps in neighboring countries. Until the end of the Apartheid era, South Africans engaged in massive strikes—in fact we see that tradition continuing in the mines of South Africa today. This was an immense push on behalf of labor. Without which, independence would have certainly not been achieved. In historic Palestine—not to disregard the decades of anti-imperial and national organizing that preceded this in the Arab world—the parallel mass mobilization against Zionism happened in 1987 with the First Intifada. In fact, the tactic of consumer boycotts became widespread among Palestinians in the occupied territories during that era. But the Palestinian national leadership—specifically Yasser Arafat—made arguably the worst decision any statesperson could have made in that scenario. Instead of pushing for a victory when he had leverage to negotiate he capitulated to Israel and the US behind the backs of not only his people but also many of his political advisors and comrades.
The Oslo Accords were the straw that broke the camels back with regard to the functioning credibility of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Palestinians have historically agreed on the legitimacy of the PLO as their sole national representative. Today however, the PLO is utterly dysfunctional and not representative. There are some valiant ideas to implement a Palestinian election but the calls for this are coming from corners that lack sufficient reputation, credibility, and capacity to mobilize Palestinians. At the very least, they acknowledge the PLO resembles something of a stubborn old uncle who cannot be ignored.
On the other hand, there are parts of a movement that have not sufficiently hashed out their position with regard the PLO. Perhaps they have not made that information public or do not have a position at all. Yet they have a strong relationship with much of the solidarity movement in the United States and play a dangerous game of claiming that they represent a consensus among Palestinians. How they got any such credibility without talking to the PLO—not that the PLO needs to be consulted for everything—is a mystery. If they could clarify that, it would probably be a challenging but positive step forward—on the level of an internal discussion—for themselves and the solidarity movement.
Being forthright and transparent about politics is a goal in its self, if the intention is to create a liberation movement built on universal ethics. Leon Trotsky knew this when he opened the Tsar’s archives to the public. In this act, Trotsky revealed to people in the Levant the Sykes-Picot deal, which partitioned much of the Arab world into something resembling the states existing there now. Of course, no one expects a solidarity movement’s Palestinian liaison to ever be in that position. Yet, insisting on accountability as a universal principle, which is not only applied to activists in the United States, is necessary politically and ethically.
To conclude with some comments on the original idea that was introduced. Before Apartheid was toppled there had been decades of educational work done in the United Sates. South Africans had been visibly protesting Apartheid for decades as well. Recreating those historical conditions in Israel-Palestine right now is unlikely. At the same time, historic Palestine’s neighboring Arabs have been engaged in a battle, which is transforming the region. From the United States, expanding our scope of vision and supporting those movements when possible can have a substantive impact both domestically and internationally. After all, the Palestinian national movement was created in the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.