What matters is the predictable consequences of our actions that are undertaken, not the intent, not even the abstract validity of slogans. That’s not what matters to the victims.” –Noam Chomsky
This evening I attended a protest in Boston against the current Israeli onslaught in Gaza. The protest in many ways was very heartening, but also presented some significant problems if we are going to hold our government accountable for Israeli violence and occupation. I wish to make clear that my criticisms are not meant to be merely academic or tactical footnotes, especially in this time of great crisis when moral outrage is more than justified. Instead, I believe that the pro-Palestinian movement in the US needs to make some major adjustments if it is to have maximal effect in saving the people of Gaza now and ending the occupation of Palestine in the long-term.
First, I should note that this protest clearly had a very positive effect overall. Local news covered it quite fairly and the “die-in” that happened at the end was portrayed very sympathetically, at least in the news I saw. To read the names of Palestinian victims in Gaza was a powerful statement that, from local news coverage, seems to have reached its goal of humanizing what is a far-too-often vilified population.
The anger and moral outrage demonstrated tonight was clearly appropriate given that one can only conclude that Israel is purposely punishing the civilian population of Gaza in what can only be seen as a sadistic act. I felt this outrage as I have listened to the courageous reporting of Sharif Abdel Kouddous on Democracy Now: one day Israel is shelling a hospital, then killing children on a beach, and then attacking another hospital, and all throughout bombing homes, all part of “terrorist infrastructure.” I frankly dislike protests, because they tend to oversimplify and sloganize complex issues. But in this case I felt the only decent thing to do was to bear witness to the suffering that our government labels as tragic, but proceeds to excuse and enable. And so I joined the march.
While I definitely have no regrets about doing so, I was very concerned about some of the chants that were used, because they reflect a way of thinking about the Israel-Palestine conflict that has the potential to alienate the public. Whether we in the social justice movement recognize it or not, the way we are perceived has a direct impact on how effective we will be in protecting the victims of Gaza, and Palestine more broadly.
One particular chant that was worrisome was “Palestine will be free, from the Jordan to the Sea.” The first thing a supporter of Israel’s actions in Gaza will say is “These people want to wipe Israel off the map!” At the end of the march, one of the rabbis from an odd, rather orthodox sect had a bullhorn and talked about how the State of Israel needed to be peacefully abolished, for which he gained cheers. Only the pro-Palestinian protesters heard what was being said, but this movement will erase any public sympathy it has if this is the message it puts forth.
The second problematic chant was the repeated call for “Intifada!” While this is a general term for an uprising, put on the hat of a supporter of Israel’s actions. They will think “What Intifada are they talking about? The second one that included suicide bombings of Israeli civilians?” Anti-Arab racism is so permeated in our culture that Arab and suicide bomber are considered close to synonymous. However justified our moral indignation is, we need to be wise and not feed into a stereotype.
I think we could gain some lessons from our own civil rights movement. The heroes of sit-ins at white lunch counters and the Freedom Riders sought to achieve victory by bringing the injustice of their oppressors out into the open. Not only was it a courageous act of moral strength, but a brilliant tactic as it made it very clear to the public who was the victim and who the oppressor. If the movement for Palestinian rights is to make maximal progress, it must provide the public with the same clarity.
For example, tonight there was a small, but vocal contingent of counter-demonstrators with signs like “Boston Strong Against Hamas Terror” and “Hamas Tunnel Rats.” On Boston Common police formed a line between them and the pro-Palestinian protesters. When most of the pro-Palestinian contingent was still listening to people speak, I decided to sit down facing the pro-Israel group with my sign, which read: “Bombing homes and hospitals and killing children does not give anyone security. Tell our government to truly support a two-state settlement.” One of them kept saying to me, quite sincerely, that I should join them because I was just misguided. I assume he was referring to the part of my poster that referred to supporting a two-state solution. Not that I expect right-wing supporters of Israeli militarism to be overly rational, but I could not help but think that if this person could think I was reasonable (even if “misguided”), an average person on the street would probably agree with me. What if the Pro-Palestinians all had signs supporting the two-state solution? (Unfortunately, mine was the only one I saw.) “Hamas Tunnel Rats” and “Free Gaza from Hamas” would look even more ridiculous. As it was, I imagine the average person saw both sides as extremes in a shouting match.
Far more important than my personal experience, tomorrow, Wednesday at 5:30 at Park Street in Boston there is a vigil adopting the following statement of principles:
- End the violence on both sides. Negotiated ceasefire now!
- All lives are equally precious and worthy of respect, Palestinian and Israeli.
- It’s not possible to understand the current violence in a vacuum and without considering the complex narratives of both Palestinians and Israelis.
- There is no military solution.
- More than ever we need a comprehensive diplomatic solution; ending the Occupation is part of that solution.
- Palestinians and Israelis both have a right to security and to a viable homeland.
If the same right wing Israelis show up with their signs, it should be very clear to the public who is being reasonable and who is not.
When international law and opinion are so clearly on the side of both Palestinians and Israelis having their own states, the movement for justice in Palestine is not doing any service to the occupied if it cannot join this consensus. If it chooses to focus only on ending the occupation without accepting the reality of Israel, its ability to sway public opinion will be limited and easily play into the hands of right-wing militarists.
This is all very easy for me to say from far away while Gaza’s civilian population is a shooting gallery. However, as we continue to protest, we must remember that it is not only incumbent upon us to express moral outrage, but to also communicate to the American public that we have a clear way out. This fight for Gaza in the court of public opinion is one we can win. When this latest round of carnage ends, our work will continue and more than ever we will need to show that we are on the side of justice for all.