I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
I wrote the piece below as a way of working through a number of issues I had with a fairly hideous meeting I spoke at in Melbourne in March. I didn’t post it for various reasons, but have been persuaded that I should now. So here goes:
I was invited to speak last Wednesday at a joint Melbourne Students for Palestine/FAMSY (Federation of Australian Muslim Students & Youth) event for Israeli Apartheid Week. It’s worth noting for what follows that SFP is apparently dominated by one of the Australian left factions, Socialist Alternative.
My brief was to cover the legal and ways in which Palestinian citizens of Israel face discrimination in all walks of life. I was given to understand that my fellow speaker would define apartheid and provide a conceptual basis for why ‘apartheid’ is a justifiable word to use in the Israeli context.
I think, and as far as I can tell from the feedback, I gave an adequate enough introductory talk, covering issues such as biases in municipal funding allocations, exclusion of people who haven’t served in the Israeli army from jobs and university places, conditions in ‘unrecognised’ villages etc. I was told immediately before the talk that my fellow speaker wouldn’t be covering the topic I’d prepared to fit in with, so I tacked on a bit about definitions of apartheid and waited to find out what he was planning to say instead.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what he was saying. Theoretical terms and jargon don’t seem to hold the meaning for me that they do for some people – some people seem to be able to hear a conceptual term in their head and it gives them an image of what it means. I just get a word, and then I get a bit panicky because I feel like I’m meant to understand it, and I rarely feel like I do. So it’s hard for me to object to exactly what he said, because it was so abstract and jargon-y that I can’t confidently say what he was on about. But I recall him talking about the Palestinian and Arab peoples finding their own authenticity and rediscovering the richness of their culture (all fair enough) and a lot about the problem with most political frameworks being that they imposed Leftist ideas onto Third World peoples (his phrase, although actually I’m glad to see it rehabilitated, I’ve always thought that it has a political weight behind it which ‘majority world’, though descriptively useful, doesn’t, and ‘developing world’ is just patronising bullshit). Which seem like something difficult to disagree with.
My objections with the way the meeting went, however, have three bases – some of the undertones of the talk, the manner in which it was delivered, and some of the comments made by the rest of the meeting. In no particular order:
— despite my fellow speaker’s talk including a lot about the Palestinian people (or rather: Arab peoples and other Third World peoples – he rapidly made it clear that Palestine was a bit of a single-issue distraction) and their right to self-determination and ‘authenticity’, one of the few things that seemed to be clear from his talk was that he was only going to accept this as ‘authentic’ and genuine if it coincided with his idea of what the Palestinian people ought to want. For many old leftists, they’re meant to want a socialist revolution. For this man, they ought to want an Islamic revolution, and if they don’t, presumably it’s because they’ve been duped with some kind of Western, imperialistic social democratic or leftist model. If they do choose the latter it’s because colonial agendas have lured them away from their own authenticity. He reminded me of nothing so much as some Western identity-politics activists who, having found a consciousness-raising group or a shrink to help them identify their own oppression (misogyny, homophobia, evil divorced women who stop nice men from having all the access time they want, evil animal rights activists infringing privileged white men’s god-given right to hunt) and located what they see as the solution for it, decide that what works for them has to be the answer for absolutely everyone, and anyone who doesn’t agree can just be beaten about the brain with that wonderful 1970s catch-all, ‘false consciousness’. If self-determination for the Palestinian people really means an Islamic state, then so be it – it’s up to them. As long as the Christian and Druze and Jewish and Samaritan minorities within it are treated with justice and respect (which historically has happened in many, but not all, Islamic polities), and as long as those who have chosen to be secular are also respected, even if their parentage is Muslim. But just because our speaker seems to have found personal liberation within Islam, does not mean that a Palestinian who does not find personal or social liberation in Islam (and there are plenty of those) is somehow ‘inauthentic’ or ‘internally colonised’. The other problem with reliance on ‘authenticity’ as a political marker is that it leaves those who aren’t ‘authentic’ wondering what it is that they are supposed to do. If I’m not Palestinian, should I have no involvement in the Palestinian struggle? Or should I do only what a Palestinian tells me – in which case, which one? Or should I just butt out and find my only personal liberation struggle, in which case, surely I am just a self-indulgent middle-class white woman?
— Only the very best speakers can get away with talking completely ad lib, with no notes. Unless you really are an exceptionally good speaker, anything else is just arrogant, and contemptuous of your audience and the time they’re giving you.
— the speaker’s manner towards the rest of the audience was just plain intimidating. Maybe I’m just a woolly liberal, but it seems to me that basic meeting tactics include creating a space where new people who haven’t come to a meeting before feel confident in speaking out. Instead, this speaker’s way of relating to the audience was to simply shout incomprehensible questions at them, and then keep shouting because they weren’t coming up with the answer he wanted from them. Possibly because the questions were so abstract that answering them was impossible. The only people who seemed to be able to at least have a shot at answers were the ones he obviously already knew, had had innumerable rows with, and practically ended up having one-to-one conversations with. Which is a second way of alienating new people in a meeting – acting like there is an ‘in’ crowd of people who already know each other and feel no need to explain the terms of reference to the uninitiated. It was a bit like being in a room with some British public school boys of the 1930s talking in Latin slang to one another and giggling at the servants for their ignorance.
— I know it’s tokenistic, but I’d been given the impression that it was now customary before meetings in Australia to acknowledge the original owners of the land, ie the indigenous peoples of the area. Given the subject of the meeting, it seems a bit ironic that this got skipped.
— I think knowledge is important. I think some of the most empowering and exciting things about pre-WW2 left-wing movements were projects like the book clubs and education organisations and free schools which gave working-class people the opportunity to learn – to make themselves literate, to learn about their history, to discover books and reading, to learn about health and the environment and the law and to learn how to fight bosses and states on every front. So I find it disturbing when someone who claims to hold revolutionary positions says to an audience member who is urging people to educate themselves about the facts of oppression so they can win arguments against Zionists (or capitalists or racists or misogynists or homophobes) that it doesn’t matter what people know or whether they can confront reactionary propaganda. Surely someone who is in a movement and doesn’t know why is cannon-fodder? Surely to say that people don’t need to know what they’re campaigning for is as profoundly disrespectful as it is possible to be, because it says that you’re just there to make up numbers, and the learned few will tell you why you’re there and what to think. How is that different from being used the way that capitalism and imperialism use people?
— The most disturbing aspect of all this were the nasty displays of anti-Semitism. I know what a serious charge anti-Semitism is – I’ve been on the receiving end of it myself, simply for supporting Palestinian rights – and I’ve thought long and hard about saying this. I’m sure there are those who’ll want to pillory me as a traitor for saying it, or at least think I shouldn’t be washing dirty linen in public, or who will accuse me of being a Zionist appeaser. Well, tough. The first incident, early in the Q&A, was equivocal. I was already a bit shell-shocked by this point, so I should have challenged it but I wasn’t confident enough, which I profoundly regret. Someone, I don’t remember who, used the phrase ‘destruction of the State of Israel’. An audience member tried to challenge this, asking people to put up their hands if they supported ‘the destruction of the State of Israel’. Perhaps 6-8 people out of a room of several dozen did so. Now, I think this is a difficult phrase. As in, I support an end to the State of Israel in its current form, as an attempt at an ethnically pure state that oppresses those people who don’t belong to the correct ‘race’. I support the Palestinian right to self-determination, whether that’s along one-state or two-state (or even! Anarchist Utopia! No-state!) lines. But I wouldn’t describe myself as supporting ‘destruction’ because that’s a word which implies a lot of things like mass killing and mass displacement of peoples – and it sounds exactly like the Zionist propaganda which accuses the Palestinians and their supporters of wanting to ‘push the Jews into the sea’. One of the saddest things about the whole Palestine-Israel situation is that it has turned the oppressed into the oppressor, like the bullied kid who joins the police so he can beat up on someone weaker than him. The Jewish people are undeniably one of the most shat-upon peoples in history, although the Tasmanian Aborigines, the Roma, the Maya and various other indigenous peoples could give them a run for their money. Am I supposed to support the Palestinians turning into the next round of psychopathic bullies so they can get their revenge? Where does that end?
— To add to this, one of the audience (never trust a Trot in a suit) made some comments right at the end about ‘the Jews can just… who cares where they go?’ Now, the PFLP ditched that kind of position decades ago (direct quote from my interviews with Leila Khaled: “At the beginning we said that we will never co-exist with the Israelis. But I tell you, if there are 4, 5 million and we want to get them out – it’s not logical. Those children who were born there, it’s not their fault that their parents came and settled down.” Maybe she’s an imperialist dupe too?). Even Hamas have renounced that position. Are these 22-year-old middle-class white kids trying to out-radical the PFLP and Hamas? And why do they even think that words like ‘destruction’ and anti-Semitic bullshit are radical at all? Surely the most radical thing in the world, the thing that most defies imperialism and capitalism and all ideologies of hate and exploitation, is to demand life, and life on completely just terms, not replacing one oppression with another? I fully support the right to armed struggle against occupation, as enshrined in international law, but it’s a right so that people can fight oppression, not an aim in itself or something to celebrate. Violence is a tool, to be put down when its use is done, not something sexy that boys in privileged educational environments can jerk off to. Anti-Semitism is both morally repugnant and tactically half-witted. The Palestine solidarity movement is constantly accused of anti-Semitism because it’s a convenient slur for Zionists to use; confirming their slur by being anti-Semitic is just depressing in its stupidity.
I’m not sure why I’m so surprised (shocked) at all this. Maybe it’s because I rarely work with students, or with exclusively student groups, any more. Not that many activist groups don’t have their fair shares of odd characters, but perhaps by their mid-20s most of the ones doing the most extreme posturing have ended up going to work for marketing corporations or are rapidly climbing the greasy pole in the Labour/Labor Party. Nothing like a little frisson of student ‘radicalism’ to spice up your political/’creative’ career. But I was disturbed and depressed by what I saw on Wednesday. I’ve enjoyed my month in Melbourne, it’s a politically vibrant city and there is some excellent Palestine advocacy work going on here, but if that’s the state of its grassroots Palestine solidarity, I’ll be glad to see the back of it.