Monday, July 18, 2005
A word about speaking “for” Palestinians
A recent piece published in Counterpunch by Amina Mire argues against “speaking in the name of others”. I would agree. It is wrong to speak in the name of others, and that is precisely the core of the problem of the so-called Palestinian Solidarity Movement, and why I protested against the silencing of a Hebrew speaking Palestinian who promotes the Right of Return and equality for all in historical Palestine. A multiplicity of voices is an asset to activism, yet the central protagonist remains the Palestinian people, and nothing in my paper inferred the contrary. If there are those promoting an agenda that is not that of the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people, they should be exposed and the needle should point back in the right direction.
Yet, in Ms Mire’s piece, there is a great misconception which I feel it is important to dispel. The Counterpunch article she criticises never once promotes the substitution of “European based activists” for the voices of the Palestinians. Rather, it emphasises that the demands of the Palestinian people, at least, those which can be considered to be the most widely held, must remain in the forefront and at the centre of the issue, removing from the focus of discourse side issues which tend to isolate segments of non-Palestinian activists into “philo-Semite” and “anti-Semite”, where the reference is entirely as Jews as the only Semitic people: issues which are not central to the Palestinian struggle or demands, but fulfil a different agenda.
In Ms Mire’s paper against “European based activists” expressing the voice of the Palestinian people, there are several enormous misleading notions which are apparent in a reading of her piece. The author sent the article to me several weeks ago, and I responded, articulating the particular situation of the Palestinian struggle. I can assume that she may or may not know specifics of the ethnic diaspora she is part of, and perhaps of other African liberation movements, but the information I provided her about the background of this particular liberation struggle, and why it is so difficult to create a unified movement were not considered by her, as her published paper shows no adaptation with knowledge of a historical situation she is not immersed in. The colossal comparative errors made are not compensated by indignant expressions as to the appropriateness of those not “ethnically” the same being able to articulate the demands of a certain group. I find it significant that in my 26 years of public pro-Palestinian activism, on college campuses, in political movements, in cultural centres, in associations and now as a blogger about Palestine, not a single Palestinian has ever told me that my voice was inappropriate, or that I was undermining their discourse or stuffing it with any ostensible personal agenda. I also do not understand what the connection any of Ms Mire’s discourse of linguistic normative in American academia is to this issue, nor of the importance of the “proper accident”. I too am a non native speaker in the country I live in, and this is all part of any linguistic adaptation, as Terracini or any scholar of language substitution can inform us. It does not necessarily imply any accompanying political baggage.
I then may surmise that if this issue is misunderstood by a writer who comments upon the appropriateness of Whites (or assumed thus, as Ms Mire never inquired as to my ethnic composition, but merely assumed) actively engaging in liberation struggle discourse together with oppressed populations, generally comprised of non-Whites (or minority groups, if this simplifies discourse, considering White as the normative), imagine what confusion there is for those in the general public. I will try to clarify this problematic situation by illustrating some specific elements of the Palestine liberation struggle. True advocacy is not over-riding the voice of the people that one is focussing upon, and in the case of the Palestinians, certainly there was never in my writing, implicitly or explicitly, an inference that the Palestinians were somewhat lacking in inherent capacity. It is evident that my esteem for the Palestinians rather blinds me at times to some valid points their opponents might make. If anything, I fault by the opposite. Nor is it the insistence that Europeans have some vision that the Palestinians should adopt. This again cannot be found in my writing, unless it is advocating the need to find a system of information like the pro-Israel camp dreams up, such as The Israel Project. There is no inference, and the author fails to even find any, that I promote some imperial moral authority. It is a "vibe" she picked up…. Where this vibe is picked up from is anyone’s guess, and certainly unless she finds it and can articulate and demonstrate it clearly, it doesn’t exist except in her own sensibility.
Nor is it compensation for a White Man’s Burden, but rather the recognition of Palestinian particularity and engaging in discourse with an undeniably fragmented Palestinian population, and the lack of resonance of the Palestinian voice in the public sphere. One may ask why it is fragmented, and dispelling the myth of a “Palestinian nation”, or a mass block is essential. The technique that Jews have used to unite interests has not been adopted by the Palestinians, and the situation is not analogous. The mass media often depicts this group of people by using stereotypes, including many negative ones. At times, they are subjects to be pitied, and they are depicted in ways that do not articulate the true nature of their societies, and the living conditions of Palestinian people.
The reality is that the Palestinians are an extremely varied and inhomogeneous group. They are not united by a single faith, as there are Muslims, ranging from secular to moderate to fundamentalist. There are Christians, including Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant. They also have different points of political reference and indeed, different bodies of control and authority. They live under different regimes. Even if the PLO has claimed that it is the sole representative of the Palestinian people, the reality seems to be somewhat different, as they certainly have not bothered to involve the diaspora population in the electoral process.
Another major obstacle to classifying in a simple nutshell the Palestinian people is the fact that they are divided in the same historical Palestine. Some live under Israeli occupation and complete control, others are semi-independent with the Palestinian Authority governing them, others still are Israeli citizens. They are further divided into those living in historical Palestine, and those in the diaspora. Can we consider equivalent the situations of a refugee, an exile, a student, a professional, a labourer, someone who descends from Palestine but has no personal experience of it? Where to find a common thread in all of this has never been easy.
Yet, Ms Mire claims that political identity is secondary to human identity and the rights which follow. No one can deny that a political identity, as a citizen of a State is one of the great achievements of liberation struggles, and it signifies self determination, as well as the more fundamental principle of protection. Without this identification, those living in limbo will continue to lack the protection that they need, and therefore, any rights they may demand will not be recognised.
Anyone who works on campaigns for Palestinian questions eventually finds himself faced with the reality of the situation. Far from being an easily classified people, since there is not even territorial integrity, nor is there a temporal unification in the moment of the displacement, one finds that Palestinians themselves generally organise themselves into an identity of their town of origin, and not in any more inclusive way. This has been problematic especially in Europe, where the territorial diffusion is far more vast and individuals lose touch with their native land and brethren. In Italy, a case I am involved in, not even the Palestinian representative is aware of how many Palestinians there are with residency in Italy, much less those not legally registered. In this way, they remain outside of political issues such as voting registration, an example of which we saw for the diaspora Iraqi vote.
An issue many activists continually face, especially those who promote a full Right of Return and a One State solution, rather than an independent Palestinian State alongside the Jewish State of Israel, is the matter of Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. They are considered to be a dangerous “fifth column” which threatens the Jewish Character of the Zionist State. They are in addition, politically and socially disjointed from their fellow Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or further still, in foreign refugee camps. This greatly complicates the issue of defining the precise needs and demands of the entire Palestinian people, and what their aspirations are. These people, far from being a marginal issue, are extremely important. If a Palestinian State should develop, what will be the fate of these men, women and children? Will their second class citizenship in Israel beside a Palestinian State cause them to seek to remove the status of ethnic minority and hasten the abandonment of their homes and satisfy the will of those Israelis who see them as an internal enemy to be transferred or in some way convinced to leave? Are they still a concern? I think they are every bit as vital to discourse as “displaced” Palestinians without real political referents of any sort.
Is it sufficient to insist that Israel reforms itself to grant full equality to the minority groups who are citizens? Or is this outside activism work? This variable of these people is not seen as most as “counting” in the struggle for Palestinian liberation. But considering these individuals as subjects of discourse is essential.
An enormous stumbling block to progress is the disjointedness of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, by whatever name it calls itself. Some in it think it is sufficient to stop IDF violence as well as the Palestinian Intifada. There are those calling for non-violence and shoving Ghandi down the throats of Palestinians, as if the concept of peaceful coexistence was alien especially to them and that if they just been more compassionate and used non-violent instruments, rather than the means of resistance they have used, which are fraught with violence, things would have been resolved years ago. There are others who think ending the occupation and implementing the Roadmap of the Quartet is the ticket. Others think that unilateral disengagement from Gaza is a progressive move and they demonstrate in support of Sharon as leftists. This is the organised Israeli Jewish left. You may note, Palestinians are not really involved in any of these movements or trends.
Then, there is the more militant aspect of Palestine liberation solidarity, which is what I endorse, as well as some of the groups I am part of, Al-Awda primarily. We support resistance. We endorse the common call to full Right of Return. The Right of Return, as difficult as it might be for Israelis to swallow, is the single idea that the entire population of Palestinians, within Israel, in the diaspora, in refugee camps… all agree upon. It is their right, recognised by international law. That is the one idea that anyone who supports the struggle of the Palestinian people is obligated to endorse, if they want the Palestinian voice to be the guiding one. We must accept it, promote it, work towards its implementation. Rather than make Palestinian demands “subaltern”, they are central.
Some Palestinian groups, lead basically by Palestinians themselves, do not want to isolate anyone who sympathises with the plight of their people, and therefore accept anyone who offers some support. They encourage a “large Church”, a “wide umbrella”. They accept that those in solidarity with their cause spend energy to promote the Geneva Initiative, which makes the Right of Return moot. I don’t understand this concept, because it reduces the one absolutely essential element of the liberation struggle into an optional. The strength of the Palestinian struggle is that it upholds the principles of international law and demands rights which are inalienable and universal. There is political expediency behind this, apparently. But groups which have the ROR on the platform are indeed recognising the necessity to get this issue back on the table. This may spell more fragmentation in the “movement”, but it may bring about the militant determination to not undermine the essential rights of the Palestinians, and be more effective in awakening the distracted and uninformed global public to what the demands of the Palestinians actually are. To get the issue of the Right of Return in public discourse as a demand that is the core of the issue is vital, and this is what Palestinians ask of those who are working shoulder to shoulder with them.
There is a cost to this, though. This means openly discussing the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, settling old issues and presenting them to a public that prefers not to know. It is here that activists of a less militant stripe have much difficulty. This is the major reason many “moderate” groups and individuals do not want to push the issue, even if many of them already reject the Jewish majority status of Israel in favour of a secular democracy. It may have to do with guilt associated with the inculcation of pro-Israel ideas, especially from childhood religious or educational indoctrination. Many people believe the way forward is never looking back. If those who support Israel look back two millennia, making all of us look back just sixty years isn’t such a bad idea after all. Many of us see it as an absolute necessity.
There is a follow up to the original issue of the Gag Artists who would have Gilad Atzmon banned from the SWP event. He appeared to a full house, and presented together with Palestinian artists a dramatic presentation and a speech which is available for reading here.