The Palestine solidarity movement should focus on Palestine
The Zionist narrative should not be allowed to shape and dominate the discussion on Palestine.
Nada Elia holds no punches. A principled activist and an accomplished academic, she writes with honesty and vigour.
As I embarked on a worldwide speaking tour, an article she wrote two years ago was present in my mind. Entitled, “No More Mr Nice Guy: White Male Israeli Activists Exploiting Palestine Solidarity”, the article details a degree of exploitation of Palestinian solidarity by ex-Zionist intellectuals, who seek high fees and special treatment when they travel the world talking about their moral awakening and ideological conversion.
Indeed, some of these “nice guys” generate so much income that they turned solidarity into thriving careers.
For the record, I don’t seek honoraria myself, and if/when honoraria are available due to the rules of certain academic or research institutes, I request the money be sent to a charity that works to empower Palestinian communities at home.
It is the matter of principle. Money has corrupted the Palestinian cause. Donors’ money, billions of dollars received by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah has turned a revolution and a national liberation project into a massive investment with many benefactors and many beneficiaries. Most Palestinians, however, remain poor. Unemployment is skyrocketing.
With the billions raked in by the corrupt PA since its founding in 1994, most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories still live in dire economic uncertainty. Women are hit hardest.
A recent report by Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett speaks of a depressing reality in the West Bank that effects women in particular. While 13 percent of all Palestinian women hold university degrees (compared to 9 percent of men), only 19 percent of all women are employed or seeking work.
To think that women, especially Palestinian women, are marginalised even within the 'Palestine solidarity movement' in favour of the glorified Israeli intellectual, whose main selling point is that he is an awoken 'anti-Zionist' is galling, to say the least.
Although Palestinian women are some of the most educated women in the region, they have the least work opportunities. The ratio of employment among Palestinian women, 19 percent, is significantly lower than that of working women in the Middle East and North Africa region, which currently stands at 25 percent, and even more negligible if compared with the global average of 51 percent.
This should not be the case, as 62 percent of all students currently seeking university degrees in Palestine are female.
According to Fawcett’s report, the main reason behind the trials of Palestinian women is the Israeli occupation, which has battered Palestinian industries that traditionally employ women, namely agriculture and manufacturing.
Back to Elia’s article – “No More Mr Nice Guy”. “I have discussed this with many friends, all but one women of colour, and we have all expressed extreme frustration at the opacity around this topic,” she writes.
“We (women of colour) are generally the speakers who accept the lower honoraria. More seriously, we are the ones who are offered the lower honoraria,” Elia elaborates.
Compare this to “Mr Nice Guy”, who receives the “royal treatment… Has a set rate… Does not negotiate, and gets what he has asked for”.
“The discrepancy in honoraria is most obvious when activists for justice in Palestine celebrate decent Jews for exactly that – being decent. ‘Nice’ Israeli men are in a class apart, placed on a pedestal, considered heroes for not being violent, racist murderers”.
To think that women, especially Palestinian women, are marginalised even within the “Palestine solidarity movement” in favour of the glorified Israeli intellectual, whose main selling point is that he is an awoken “anti-Zionist” is galling, to say the least.
To think that Palestinian women are experiencing a similar reality – educated but disadvantaged because of the Israeli occupation – at home, is remarkably unfair.
But I will take the argument even further: the Palestinian intellectual and the Palestinian narrative as a whole are underprivileged as well, even by those who maintain that they fight for Palestinian rights and freedom.
How this came about is interesting and multifaceted. It is the outcome of self-censorship and the inherent defensiveness among Western solidarity activists, often petrified by the unfair label of “antisemitism“.
I rarely experienced the same sentiments when travelling in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. The Southern hemisphere relates to Palestine on a whole different level – unique and mutual historical experiences. For them, solidarity with Palestinians is often rooted in their own history of anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggles.
Palestine needs new blood, capable, self-asserting women and men who must reclaim, indeed, liberate their narrative and their honourable struggle.
The first solidarity with Palestinians meeting I ever attended soon after I left Palestine over two decades ago was in Washington State. It rarely addressed the viewpoint of Palestinians.
Usually elder activists, some announcing that they have fought for Palestine for decades, charted what they assume was a pro-Palestine discourse without exhibiting a deep-rooted understanding of Palestinian reality, history or fathoming the complexity of Palestinian culture, life and collective aspirations.
The meeting focused mostly on how Israeli soldiers are, too victimized by the Israeli occupation, as they developed debilitating post-traumatic stress disorders that bode badly for their families and social lives.
When they spoke of the Palestinian people, they presented them as victims, numbers, figures and charts plagued with human misery and infinite sorrow. And of course, they decried the violent Palestinians and duly condemned any form of “terrorism” and “antisemitism”.
In recent years, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, and the work of many independent Palestinian activists and intellectuals challenged the apologist approach to solidarity, through assuming leadership and presenting a pro-active, Palestine-centered discourse. But the old trend is too powerful to be expunged easily.
The main challenge for the solidarity movement is that it was constructed in response to the powerful and omnipresent Zionist narrative in the West. The latter defined the discussion on Palestine, determined the priorities and the language.
Many Palestine solidarity groups around the world, but especially in the West were formed to combat the misrepresentations and challenge the popular conception that moulded the Palestinian as a “terrorist” and the Palestinian people as an obstacle to the rise of progress and civilisation, supposedly epitomised by Israel.
That integral defensiveness of the Palestine solidarity movement meant that the debate, in fact, the whole discourse is almost entirely, though unwittingly framed around Israeli, Zionist priorities.
For them, Palestinian culture, history, politics are, at times subordinate compared with Zionist history and Israeli politics. Their understanding of the refugee crisis, for example was shaped by Israeli historian Benny Morris (a Zionist par excellence) not Palestinian historian Salman Abu Sitta. His latest book, Mapping My Return, should be obligatory reading for anyone truly keen on understanding the Right of Return.
But Palestine was not invented in 1948. It was not the formation of Israel upon the ruined cities and villages of Palestine that gave rise to a people called Palestinians. Palestinian national identity is not an accident bestowed upon the Palestinian people by Israel.
Those who stress the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees speak of the centrality of the Nakba of 1948; those who champion the “two-state solution”, negate the history of the Palestinians prior to the war and Israeli occupation of 1967.
This convenient exploitation of Palestinian history has fragmented the identity of the Palestinian, in the minds of many, and, in essence dehumanised Palestinian people – an ancient people that existed and thrived millennia prior to the inception of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century.
“As a Palestinian, my best argument against Zionism is my own story, my memory, my recollections and the oral history of other Palestinians.” wrote Professor Rima Najjar.
Yet the Palestinian memory is rarely the centre of discussion, which has been centered, for nearly 25 years, around the futile language of a “peace process”, “painful compromises”, “land for peace formula” and the “two-state solution” that was never intended to solve anything in the first place.
The discourse, even that championed by some in the Palestine solidarity movement is often shaped by and caters to Israeli, Western sensibilities. It would be unthinkable, for example, for a mainstream solidarity group to publicly defend Palestinian armed resistance, or the democratic choices of the Palestinian people during the 2006 elections.
“Cultural resistance (is) the only resistance we can use as Palestinians whose path to political resistance is effectively blocked,” wrote Najjar. “That, coupled with the collective solidarity engendered by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement, is the strongest argument against the unconscionable practices of the Zionist Movement.”
I concur. Palestine is not a chart or a PowerPoint presentation jumbled with numbers and statistics. Palestine can neither be understood through the discourse of the Zionist movement (which was and remains dedicated to the erasure of the Palestinian identity) nor the stifling political discourse of the “peace process” and other pretences.
If the Palestinian discourse is not communicated in a decisive, unapologetic manner, independent from the validation of the West or anti-Zionist Israelis, it will never truly leave the kind of global impact that could potentially banish the Zionist discourse, one that is based on fabrications and riddled with falsehoods.
For that to happen, Palestine’s new historians, cultural ambassadors and activists must take the stage and speak for their people and themselves. Their role should extend beyond being the narrators of victimisation and misery. Palestine is also a place of resistance, hope and empowerment, exemplifying a strong, rooted culture that survived and defeated numerous invaders throughout history.
The empowered new generation should fight for its position at the helm of this process. Palestine needs new blood, capable, self-asserting women and men who must reclaim, indeed, liberate their narrative and their honourable struggle.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.