On the 16th of December 2010, about forty people crammed into a small lecture theatre on a snowy night in London. Just one week on from the tuition fees protest, the topic of this evening’s event could not have been more timely.
Why am I an activist? This is a very personal question – why should a non-Palestinian become a Palestinian activist? Is it our fight too? Or should we take the advice of Malcolm X and work among our own kind?
“Work in conjunction with us – each of us working among our own kind…Working separately, [we] actually will be working together.”
I do not consider myself to be much of an ‘activist’, but I have certainly been involved in ‘actions’. I am probably the sort of person that the four speakers were trying to reach: the potential activists, those who have dabbled and who could become useful foot soldiers in whatever the fight may be.
There were four speakers at this event:
1. Dr Ghada Karmi, Palestine.
A fellow and lecturer at the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies at Exeter University.
2. Eyal Clyne, Israel.
Has worked with Physicians for Human Rights–Israel (PHR), the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Breaking the Silence, a series of testimonies given by Israeli soldiers against the actions of the Israeli army in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9.
3. Frank Barat, France.
The coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which seeks to reaffirm the primacy of international law as the basis for the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. http://www.russelltribunalonpalestine.com/en/
4. Jody McIntyre, UK.
A blogger and champion of the Palestinian cause. Recently he became a potent symbol of the protest movement in Britain after he got thrown out of his wheelchair by policemen during the protests against the rise in tuition fees.
1. Dr Ghada Karmi, Palestine
“Students have become a vanguard of mass protests that will get bigger and bigger.”
What makes an activist?
- There is a cause(s) that you feel strongly about.
- Reading about it is not enough. You believe that you have to do something.
It is this activism that changes history, not politicians or kings. The normal, natural course of history is that the powerful dominate and continue to dominate. It takes people to stand up and say ‘no’ for things to change.
The word activist has negative connotations in the popular use of the word, in newspapers and so forth. It implies that the person is someone a bit hysterical, not part of mainstream society. But in reality is means to put your money where your mouth is.
Ghada Karmi’s Cause
Ghada was born into her cause, she had no choice but to be an activist. How could she stay at home, watching television when her family lost their home, lost their land, lost everything in 1948? The state of Israel stole everything from her when it was created in 1948.
If there wasn’t an Israel, she said, she probably wouldn’t be an activist. She’d be in her own home, in her own land doing the things that we take for granted. We expect, for example, that our home will always be waiting for us when we go abroad, that our children will grow up in our land, that we will die and be buried in our own land. Ghada will never have that.
“It’s the sort of thing you only understand when you lose it.”
The point is that this theft of her home was an unjust act. She could have lost her home to an earthquake – it would have been sad, no doubt, but it would be a very different feeling to the one she has now. A colossal injustice has been perpetrated that has not been put right.
Ghada can think of no parallel to this injustice in history for two reasons:
- Other injustices have an end, they don’t drag on and on in the public eye for 62 years like the injustice perpetrated by Israel on the Palestinians has.
- The oppressor is not normally applauded for their unjust actions, in the way that Israel has been.
The Future of Palestinian Activism
Ghada Karmi finds it deeply impressive that there are non-Palestinian activists, that there are even Israeli pro-Palestinian activists. This gives her hope for the future, that injustice is injustice whatever your nationality.
Furthermore, she has seen the injustice of the Palestinian situation rise in the public perception over the years. When people used to ask her where she was from, she would answer “Palestine,” and they would say, “Pakistan?”
Ghada Karmi ended her speech with a call to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. She said this was the best way to hit Israel directly, the best way to help the pro-Palestinian cause in the UK. Israel must be isolated and shunned, like South Africa was under the Apartheid regime. Israel should not be welcome in the family of nations.
“Revolution until victory.”
2. Eyal Clyne, Israel
“Why should I care about Palestinians?”
It is the same, Eyal says, for why he should care about blacks or about women or about gays, being white, male and straight. Justice is universal. We all know the feeling of what it is like to be on the other side.
Life Under Occupation
- Two days ago the Israeli military demolished 11-13 fresh water wells in the Judea desert in the south of the West Bank. This was some Bedouin families’ only fresh water supply. The reason given by the Israelis was that they had no permit – but the wells existed from before the Israelis had control over the West Bank.
- A Palestinian who sold household goods in the market opposite Herod’s Gate recently was refused renewal of his trade permit and was told to find somewhere else to sell. He will probably be evicted next.
This is what it is like to be under occupation.
The Framework of Occupation
Eyal is a born Israeli, his parents are as well. We are into the third generation of born Israelis, born into the occupied situation. From a very young age, Israelis understand the assumptions behind the occupation:
- Eyal used to believe that the Israelis were really trying for peace, really trying to get along with the Palestinians, really trying to do the right thing.
- Eyal used to believe the security explanation, that Israel is in a dangerous and delicate situation. This is a key concept, not just for justifying oppression to the outside world, but also to Israelis themselves.
“I feel lied to.”
Cracks in the Story
There are problems with this framework, however; “cracks in the story.”
1. Housing demolitions.
There have been 20,000 housing demolitions to date. But these demolitions, this wanton destruction of thousands of family homes, are not for security. The reason given for the overwhelmingly majority of demolitions is that the house lacks a building permit.
The excuse is legal, the true reason is political. The reason that these buildings do not have a permit is that the Israeli authorities do not give them out, they do not want Palestinians building permanent homes on their own land.
2. The ‘security’ fence.
The ‘security’ fence used to be known as the ‘separation’ fence. This was changed when the Israeli government realised that in Afrikaans ‘separation’ is ‘apartheid’. This fence has cost $2-3 billion in taxpayers’ money, yet it is three times as long as the Green Line, along which the Palestinian state is demarcated.
Why? Because 80% of the fence is built inside Palestinian-allocated territory, weaving in and out, cutting towns from their agricultural land, carving out prime cuts for Israel, dividing friends and families from each other.
The sad truth is that the wall was not built for security. If it was built for security:
- Why not build it on the Green Line or even inside Israeli territory?
- Why is it still only 55% complete, with much of it’s length open?
- Why do so many of the checkpoints separate Palestinian towns, not from Israeli territory, but from other Palestinian towns?
- Why are settlers still encouraged by the Israeli government – surely they are a security risk as well?
- Why is so much agricultural land taken for security reasons?
And so it goes on, these cracks appearing in the framework of oppression.
It’s not just Israelis who are born into this situation, people in the UK are also being born into a situation where the Israeli occupation of Palestine is the norm. It is taken as a given that the Israelis are really trying and that they need to secure their lives against the terrorist threat. The Peace Process is another myth in this story.
Why am I an Activist?
- “I can’t trust these people. I have to do it myself.”
- Some things are beyond politics.
But why is he an activist for the Palestinians?
- Because it is good for him and his family. The security will improve with peace.
- Justice is beyond politics. Human rights must be universal.
- He doesn’t want people to get away with crimes, like the female settler he saw who crushed a four-year old boy’s teeth with stones.
Eyal’s Advice for Activists
- Always have room for listening. It’s complicated, there are not always good and bad guys.
- This situation is bad enough as it is. Don’t make it worse by demonising one side or the other. This situation could happen to anyone; look at what happened to the people of Germany under the Nazis, for example.
- Use details, use facts. Don’t just paint with slogans or labels, like apartheid and so forth. Stick to the facts.
3. Frank Barat, France
“To be an activist is to be alive.”
For Frank, why be an activist is a tough question – and why Palestine?
As a Frenchman born into a comfortable family, the only injustice he ever remembers suffering was when his dog died in mysterious circumstances when he was four.
In the absence of any personal injustice to right, his gut response to the question was simply: “to be an activist is to be alive.”
It follows, then, that the real question should be:
Why Aren’t There MORE Activists?
John Pilger recently uncovered US governmental documents that put activists and investigative journalists on a par with terrorists as a security threat the US government. That’s why there aren’t more activists: because activists are a threat to the powerful and so the powerful seek to prevent activists from developing. They do this by ‘manufacturing consent’, to use the words of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (via Walter Lippman).
This is achieved in three ways:
The education system teaches conformity. It teaches you that all is well in the world, or at least that all is well in your country compared to other less fortunate places. It does not teach scepticism; teaches don’t like it when you ask too many questions. School teaches you what life should be like: a nine to five job, one car, two cars, a house, a mortgage, X-Factor in the evening, football on the weekend.
And if you don’t subscribe to this life, then the powerful try to make you feel like you are alone. That you are alone and you don’t have any money – why don’t you get a job and buy an iPhone? Unions are portrayed as evil or hooligans. Even your non-activist friends ‘don’t get it’, when you go and see them they only talk about their credit cards. All this isolates the budding activist, discouraging them or at least making their actions less powerful.
Police are turning into the armed wing of the government, when they should be civil servants. In this country you might get hit by a truncheon, arrested or kettled for twelve hours; in Palestine and Israel you might get shot. It’s all repression.
So why, despite all of this, are there still so many activists?
Activism is a way of life. It is very rewarding, very empowering. When was the last time you felt power? Was it when you bought that iPod or got drunk or played Tetris? Or was it when you were standing with 20,000 other protesters fighting for your rights outside Parliament?
Life should be about standing with the oppressed and never shutting up.
Frank ends with a quotation from Howard Zinn, the recently deceased American historian:
“The reward for participating in a movement for social justice is not the prospect of future victory. It is the exhilaration of standing together with other people, taking risks together, enjoying small triumphs and enduring disheartening setbacks – together.”
3.5 The Organiser, Bangladesh
While we waiting for Jody McIntyre, the organiser of the meeting recounted a little tale about his experiences in the student tuition fees protests:
“We occupied a room at UCL. It was very successful. We left it recently because it’s Christmas break and we wanted to go home…”
He also talked about how he was kettled in Parliament Square for twelve hours by the police. They would not let him leave, despite the peaceful nature of their protests. They would not let women go to the toilet. They would not let his eleven year-old cousin leave.
He compared their kettling at the hands of the police to the ‘Protest Zones’ in Beijing during the Olympics in 2008, which received widespread condemnation at the time by the British press. And now it is happening in London.
4. Jody McIntyre, UK
“Challenge the system.”
Jody was greeted like a hero when he showed up. It’s been a busy few days for him, in the full glare of the media spotlight. We watched the footage of him being thrown from his wheelchair and dragged across the tarmac road by police during the recent student protests against the rise in tuition fees.
We also watched his subsequent interview with the BBC’s Ben Brown in which the interviewer seem more concerned by Jody’s threat to the police than the brutality of the policemen’s action – or even the whole reason why they were there in the first place: the rise in tuition fees.
You can see both videos here: http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2010/12/15/jody-mcintyre-who%E2%80%99s-apathetic-now/
A man with cerebral palsy would find it hard to present a threat to an army of policemen, but Ben Brown persisted with questions such as:
“There’s a suggestion that you were rolling towards the police in your wheelchair, is that true?”
“Were you throwing anything at the police on that day?”
This line of questioning reportedly drew over 5,000 complaints to the BBC. Nevertheless, Jody was given the time and space by the BBC to make his points and he scored highly against this ludicrous line of questioning.
Education for the Oppressed
In his speech, Jody made the connection between the fight for free education in this country and the fight for free education for oppressed students all across the globe, from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Pakistan to Palestine.
As UCL stops for the holidays, these countries suffer constant ‘holidays’ from education thanks to the actions of military oppression. Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008/9 was one long holiday for the students there. So too for students prevented from attending university in the West Bank because they find the checkpoints suddenly closed against them.
Jody talked about the example of the Hanoun family, who were evicted from their home in East Jerusalem just three days before the daughter was due to take her exams in Psychology. She did her revision in the street and passed with the highest mark in her year.
But Jody exhorts us not to only challenge individual cases, but to challenge the unfair system that allows them. Education is always attacked by the oppressor because education gives people the power to rise up. It is a fight for our minds.
And that fight starts with ourselves. Why is it that everyone in Palestine knows who Arthur Balfour is, but that no one in Britain does? Very few Britons know about our own former Foreign Minister, the man who set into motion the acts that led to the foundation of the Israeli state and the on-going oppression of the Palestinians.
Jody tells us we should hit shops that support the occupation by importing Israeli goods ‘by any means necessary,’ to quote Malcolm X. Jody says that he doesn’t support individual acts of violence, but that, just as the Palestinians have a right to rise up against the oppressor, so do we against our government.
Why am I an activist?
“Because everyone of us has a moral duty to stand up and speak out for those who do not have a voice.”
So Why Am I an Activist?
This was a fascinating evening of speeches, each person bringing a different reason for activism to the party. Ghada Karmi’s activism of necessity, Eyal Clyne’s activism of universality, Frank Barat’s activism of exhilaration and Jody McIntyre’s activism of duty.
I know that I have certainly felt each of these when I have activated (is that a word?). I have fought to protect rights I enjoy that are under threat, I have fought for sympathy out of the rights of others and I have fought out of a sense of moral duty.
But the most interesting reason was that spoken about by Frank Barat: the exhilaration of activism. I was very happy that one of the speakers mentioned this, because there is no question that activism is exciting. It does make you feel powerful.
This is a good thing because it can drive us to greater achievement, greater victories; but it is also a great danger. It is important that we don’t lose ourself in our feelings and remember what we are fighting for.
Finally, I’d like to thank the organisers for putting on a great event.