Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

How not to build a Palestine solidarity movement

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.

9 comments on “How not to build a Palestine solidarity movement

  1. Jamiel Sabbagh
    June 28, 2011

    Hi Sarah,

    Its Jamiel Sabbagh here, I was one of the central organisers of this event you have publicly tainted as damaging for the Palestinian solidarity campaign. Unlike the misleading message the title of your blog item portrays, through relentless promoting and networking and taking education seriously SfP (Students for Palestine) and SA (Socialist Alternative) has played a central role in building the grass roots BDS campaign in Melbourne into its current state,. Here is the link to the next BDS action in Melbourne..

    I am going to correct a number of your misleading and dishonest attacks on the forum and its organisers.

    Your criticism of the organisations involved is based around the presentation of the second guest speaker and two comments by the audience. Before I address ( and correct) these dishonest and misinformed attacks it is necessary to fill in the big gaps of the account of the event and the campaign.

    The forum was a relative success (thank you for your contribution !) and it did play a role it aiding the Palestinian solidarity campaign to be at the point where it has never had this much momentum and numbers participating in it outside a big Israeli atrocity. The forum which occurred almost four months ago attracted around 45 people (the biggest pro Palestinian event in over a year and a half hosted by a Melb Uni student club). The discussion time was long and we discussed questions such as the conditions Palestinians are suffering from to a wide variety of opinions of how Palestinians will be free.
    Through the momentum and networks built through the forum Students for Palestine and FAMSY at Melbourne University hosted a counter protest to a Zionist celebration of al Nakba (Israeli independence day’) drew 80 people to the protest. Note that its the first campus protest at this size for over two years. Many of these new campaign participants have now began attending attending the regular boycott protests, built primarily by SfP, SA and CAIA, which has attracted up to 300 people. Outside a huge Israeli atrocity, actually the Palestinian campaign in Melbourne have never attracted so many participants and had so much life.

    As Students for Palestine and Socialist Alternative aspires to continue to build the campaign with other willing participants, misleading attacks of this nature only serve to to do the opposite.

    Firstly I will address what you should have addressed in the forum, your accusations of anti-Semitism. To say that you support the destruction of the state of Israel is not anti-Semitic as it says nothing about the rights of Jews on the land but rather something about a rejection to the Apartheid state itself. The honest thing to do would have been to question this ‘unknown speaker’ what she or he meant by this, the dishonest this to do would be to attack the event three and a half months later on your blog cliaming “ it sounds exactly like the Zionist propaganda which accuses the Palestinians and their supporters of wanting to ‘push the Jews into the sea” . I personally support the destruction of that state of Israel, however I think all inhabitants of historic Palestine and Palestinian refugees have a right to live in Palestine. This is not hard to comprehend, none-the-less you seem to be so keen to attack the comment. To attack the organisers of this event because of this statement is a true cheap shot.

    You claim another individual identifying as a ‘Trot’ said  ‘the Jews can just… who cares where they go?’
    You refused to get a clarification during the public forum, however four months later you have accused this person of supporting what I am not sure,.. mass dispossession? Massacres? If your accusation had some truth to it I would have been the first of a que of objections during the forum. One thing I do remember ‘the Trot in the suit’ saying, something that I as a Socialist Alternative member support is that a just solution is a democratic one state solution for all currently residing within historic Palestine in addition to the Palestinian diaspora. This is a homogeneous position within the organisation.

    The first six paragraphs of your attack is aimed at the second guest speaker. As you knew but neglected to say, you were as surprised as myself that he insistently decided at change his presentation at the last minute from the planned ‘why is Israel an apartheid state’. Half of your blog post details your disliking to his approach to the forum yet take a lot of trouble into attacking the organisers.. I cant not help but thinking you are putting your personal political grudges before what can serve the campaign.

    Sarah your attack on the forum and its organisers it based on your critical opinions of the second guest speaker and on the untruthful accusations of anti-Semitism. Your dishonest attack on the organisations involved can only serve to splinter or create stupid divisions between the pro Palestinian campaign.
    I would like to remind you that the Palestinian solidarity movement will be at its broadest and most strongest when people in it seek to involve all people and organisations who support the plight of the Palestinians. This is what Students for Palestine and Socialist Alternative is putting into practise. I would appreciate it if you could too.

    I hope we continue working together in building the Palestinian solidarity campaign,
    Jamiel Sabbagh

  2. Dwight Towers
    June 29, 2011

    I suspected that this would be your response to criticism Jamiel. Thanks for confirming.

  3. Mona Peli
    June 29, 2011

    Jamiel, your arguments are not so honest either.
    “Through the momentum and networks built through the forum Students for Palestine and FAMSY at Melbourne University hosted a counter protest to a Zionist celebration of al Nakba (Israeli independence day’) drew 80 people to the protest.”
    What objective evidence do you have that it was your networks who drew those people? How many came because the event was advertised on other lists? How many people did not attend because of the involvement of Socialist Alternative? Your education tactics are offputting. The younger generation in my family, together with their friends includes quite a number of university students who refuse to have anything to do with Palestine solidarity on campus because they see it as the preserve of those they think of as the “weirdos in Socialist Alternative” (their words not mine, when I criticised their non-attendance).

    I think you need to be more careful in your analysis of what makes a successful campaign. eg “the Palestinian solidarity movement will be at its broadest and most strongest when people in it seek to involve all people and organisations who support the plight of the Palestinians.”
    There are definitely people who want to associate themselves with the movement to further their own anti-semitic agendas. It is not just the numbers but the quality that is important.

    Talking of destruction of the state of Israel may not be anti-semitic but it most certainly is counterproductive. It is not one of the aims of the BDS movement (check the website). The fact that Socialist Alternative insists on using this and other divisive slogans makes me wonder if you have not been infiltrated by ASIO or Zionist agents provocateurs.

    My experience over years of putting up with Socialist Alternative in various forums is that they drive other people away by their hardline sectarian tactics. Perhaps most irritating is the habit of sending several members to a meeting where they wish to impose a particular viewpoint, all of whom say the same thing over and over again until everyone else has sore ears and a sore bum and goes home. A win for SA and a loss for the movement.

  4. Arwa Abuarwa
    July 6, 2011

    Thanks for publishing this, Sarah – it was definitely the right thing to do. It’s the only way to challenge this kind of crappy behaviour and attitudes which are sadly still around in the murky corners of the Pro-Palestine movement…

    Arwa XX

  5. Fathimah
    July 27, 2011

    How to create a “Palestinian” statehood

    First: Lie that the Arab “Palestinians” are “natives and “not” children of Arab immigrants that came mainly as soon as the Zionists (late 1800s early 1900s) returnee to their historic land started to cultivate the deserted land.

    Second: Ignore all the faces of the beautiful democratic equal society of the Israeli melting pot. Where all races/colors/religions not only are equal. But Arabs, Muslims in particular enjoy more rights than Jews. In employment (affirmative action). Access to holy sites. Court cases (especially involving land disputes, etc.

    Third: Keep rewriting history, as if Arab leaders are not at fault for Arab refugees, when chasing them out of ‘Palestine’ in 1948 with promises of killing the Jews.

    Fourth: Label as “racist” (and/or attach the ‘apartheid slur’ upon) any step/tool for saving lives against racist Arab and bigoted Islamic attack targeting (any) Jews to be annihilated.

    Fifth: Never explain the real fault of Arab-Islamic (Hamas, Hezbollah, or Fatah’s AlAqsa Martyrs Brigade) attackers who use civilians, to make sure their “brethren” die. For the sake of demonizing humane Israel.

    Sixth: Silence all details of the [real] apartheid of Arab-Islamic ‘Palestine” regimes (in Gaza, Ramallah) where: Jews are banned (racism, ethnic cleansing), blacks 9grandchildren of slaves by the Bedouins) are still stigmatized. Christians are oppressed, threatened and silenced. Ahmadi Muslims are persecuted.

    Seven: Never mention, who originated the racist ‘apartheid slur’ on Israel in 1961 – Ahmed Shukairy, the aide and speaker for infamous Mufti, the ally of Adolf Hitler, who assisted in extermination in WW2. The same Shukairy who identified himself a year later in the U.N. with Nazi groups in S. America. The same Shukairy who coined the Palestinian phrase:: ‘Throw the Jews into the sea.”

    Eighth: Do not talk about the 1920s beginning of the conflict by the Mufti, who called to “Kill the Jews wherever you find them, this pleases Allah.” The Arab-Islamic leader who incited the massacre in Hebron 1929, the Farhud pogrom in 1941. The pact with Hitler in 1943 and led the SS Muslim division.

    Ninth: Blame the Zionists for all Arab Palestinian self destructive system of voting for racist oppressive leaders, preferring the environment of death-Jihadism over life-democracy.

    Tenth: Blame all Arab on Arab crime (including Arab Palestinians on each other, Arab nations playing with Arab Palestinians as ping pong against Israel.

    • Sarah Irving
      November 4, 2011

      I wish I had the time to go through this tedious bit of trolling and unpick every ridiculous statement in it, but I’ll have to satisfy myself with a couple of quick points, because unlike the author of this comment I have better things to be doing with my time. But some useful pointers include:
      — Jews are not banned in nominally Palestinian-controlled territories (which of course are still effectively under Israeli military sway), unless of course this refers to the ISRAELI law which criminalises Israeli citizens who enter Palestinian cities in the West Bank, and which Israel uses selectively to criminalise its own citizens for supporting Palestinian protests or to dissuade ordinary Israelis from ever actually meeting ordinary Palestinians (in any other capacity than IDF conscripts);
      — if Christian Palestinians are so oppressed by their Muslim compatriots and neighbours, account for statements like this, from Palestinian Christians themselves rather than random trolls: and
      — what fantasy land does this description of Israel come from? “beautiful democratic equal society of the Israeli melting pot. Where all races/colors/religions not only are equal. But Arabs, Muslims in particular enjoy more rights than Jews. In employment (affirmative action). Access to holy sites. Court cases (especially involving land disputes, etc.” Some examples of this paradise of pro-Arab ‘affirmative action’ can be found here: or here: or here:
      Which, of course, puts rather a large question mark over all the other ‘facts’ in the bizarre statement above.

  6. John
    September 9, 2011

    This is the Jamiel Sabbagh who stood up at a rally and gave a speech in which he claimed that “No Israeli should have the right to trade on Australian soil.” (May 10 2011, Melbourne University, Students for Palestine protest against Israeli Independence Day celebrations)

    I was planning on joining the organisation that very day until they demonstrated themselves to be little more than racists in disguise.

    • Sarah Irving
      September 12, 2011

      Hmmm. I’ve thought for several days before approving this comment, as I’m deeply sceptical about it. But I think it’s worth it for the opportunity it presents to comment back on it…
      Firstly, it is not racist to say that “No Israeli should have the right to trade on Australian soil”. It would be racist to say that ‘no Jew should have the right…”, but that’s not what Sabbagh said, and despite some of the things that other stupid people said at the event I wrote up, I don’t believe that that’s what he thinks, either. No doubt he’d keel over with shock to see me defending him, but there you go. The sentence John quotes – and I have no way of verifying whether or not he did actually say that – isn’t the most sophisticated political statement ever (what about pioneering fair-trade organisations which sell the products of Israel’s marginalised Palestinian/Bedouin citizens?) but I would agree in the vast majority of cases with the concept of boycotting Israeli products and companies unless they are explicitly engaged in defying and working against the basic racism of current Israeli society. That’s what, as I understand it, the boycott call is all about.
      I also wonder about the motives of ‘John’ (no surname supplied, email address doesn’t come up on Google, although for any activist opposing the Socialist Alternative I can also understand why this might seem like a good way to go) in posting this comment. Maybe it’s genuine, but given the timing, ie the controversies over state attempts to repress pro-Palestinian activities in Melbourne (as documented here: I can’t help wondering whether this comment is an attempt to slur Sabbagh personally.

  7. Pingback: Shafiq al-Hout – My Life in the PLO /  Sarah Irving

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