Against the Law

By organizing based on international law, the struggle for Palestinian liberation has been transformed into a question of rights.

In late 2011, a tweet was posted from the Occupy Wall Street Twitter account. Written in support of the flotilla that the Israeli military had just intercepted, it read: “We support and would like to express #solidarity to #FreedomWaves #Palestine #ows.” The message was quickly deleted.

A mealy-mouthed explanation circulated: the Tweet was “unauthorized” and had not been subject to Occupy’s consensus-based decision-making structure. And it was never discussed because consensus on Israel/Palestine would have been impossible to achieve — a dispiriting fact. It’s difficult to imagine other contexts where support for activists trying to break a brutal blockade would have been so hard to muster.

But that fact remains. Whether because of lingering Zionism or lack of analytical clarity, the Left has had trouble accepting the reality of Israeli colonialism. Indeed, the refusal to consider Israel’s nature seeps into movements that actually oppose Israeli crimes. Progressive disapproval too often fixates on Israel’s excesses: riotous settlers, wars on Gaza, spotty record with African immigrants, and right-wing fundamentalists. More provincially, some see such missteps as endangering US national and geostrategic interests.

The upshot of this view is that Israel must be brought back into the orbit of responsible nation-states by defanging the lobby, cast as a powerful bully that silences public debate and harasses clueless or benignly venal politicians interested only in the next election cycle. Boxed into a claustrophobic context where Israel and America’s structures and institutions are barely discussable, organizing works by expanding the possibilities for domestic conversation, and every half-sensible public utterance is lauded as a movement triumph, another example of how the discourse is shifting. But to where?

Unfortunately, by focusing on the peripheries of Zionism and the margins of the state, too often we’re left with a left that mimics liberal pieties and moralisms, and has increasingly been unable to offer sustainable analytic clarity on Palestine. The focus on this or that wayward Israeli policy leads to a myopia when it comes to Israel’s settler colonial nature and imperatives vis-à-vis territory and the indigenous population. And the lobby fetish only aggravates the problem. Can anyone seriously argue that were it not for the lobby Israel would decolonize? To ask the question is to answer it. This fuzziness about the target of organizing makes it hard to imagine what a coherent analysis and strategic clarity in support of Palestinian self-determination might look like, or how organizing in Palestine ought to be linked to organizing elsewhere.

Blurry goals and analysis mean that leftists get bogged down organizing for pittances. This includes not just the focus on the lobby, but also ill-fated attempts to encourage even-handed US policy. For example, earlier this year during Obama’s trial balloon, potential nomination, actual nomination, and eventual confirmation of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, Republicans harshly attacked the former Senator for making one or two public comments about the existence of Palestine. Hagel’s opponents intimated that he is out of the mainstream on the special relationship with Israel. His nomination remained controversial until his confirmation. At the same time, large chunks of the respectable core of organizations in support of Palestinian rights — Jewish Voice for Peace and Code Pink, among them — rallied around a Republican, a senator, and a potential Secretary of Defense, on the basis of milquetoast comments he made years ago. They saw him as a potential ally or, at least, the kind of figure that should be cultivated precisely because he is out of the mainstream.

Such a narrow focus on high politics also leads to problematic movement strategies. Given the special relationship, the argument goes, domestic work on American policy is the most efficient path forward. Whatever autonomous strength the Left may have is directed towards pressuring lawmakers to bring Israel into compliance with US policy and strategic interests or, in the most radical iteration, with UN resolutions. But it seems clear that Hagel cannot be meaningfully understood as marginal. Nor is the Defense Department a potential ally of the Left. American popular discourse on Palestine is so solidly conservative that as soon as leftists get involved, they have to serve as a counterweight and as a result, it’s easy for them to get sucked into a piecemeal, reformist agenda. This ought to be unacceptable.

And this realpolitik is omnipresent: in the academy, in coalitions of grassroots movements including Occupy, and in progressive and radical left parties. Palestine organizing in the US inevitably operates against the backdrop of American nationalism, and in turn, it often treats Palestine and the Israeli/American relationship as exceptions, immured from larger structures of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism.

Although the language of internationalism sometimes remains, and flourished briefly during the recent Arab uprisings, solidarity and left Palestine organizing is increasingly isolated in the US. Gone are the days when solidarity formations worked with Palestinian communities in the diaspora, the PLO, and kindred Palestinian political parties. Instead, and in part because there is no longer a Palestinian representative body, Palestinian solidarity now almost exclusively interfaces with large civil society umbrella groups and NGOs in Palestine, and with only a few exceptions — including the US Joint Struggle Delegation to the World Social Forum Free Palestine in Porto Alegre, and student collaborations with other campus movements — they do not have a sufficiently direct relationship with progressive formations in Palestine or Palestinian communities in exile.

Such disconnects are linked to other problems. Increasingly, the movement seems composed of constellations of well-known figures — academics, artists and poets, journalists, activists, Twitterers — who generate thinking and rhetoric that becomes associated with them as individuals. In the past, this kind of thinking was collectively deliberated and determined. Such people clearly contribute to advancing the Palestinian cause, and there is much to laud in the decentralized work of countless Palestine organizers. But the way the abundance of voices maps onto the wider strategy of public engagement here has had the unintended consequence of crowding out collective work.

Such individualism also flourishes because of a Palestine organizing practice that appeals to the lowest common denominator of potential supporters in the West — often assumed to be white, liberal, and elite. Palestine organizers often use the term to describe the effort to build the most minimally achievable consensus against Israeli state practices. This practice often assumes and implies that the liberation project is dead. And it enables left movement organizers in the US to act in ostensible solidarity while sustaining the acceptability and prestige necessary to operate in the domestic context. It is an ideological issue. But it’s also a practical one: groups reliant on donors are concerned to appear centrist enough to be funded, and balanced enough to avoid being slandered as antisemitic.

This appeal to the lowest denominator of favorable Western opinion also has an affinity with an insistence on legal remedies. Almost all prominent Palestine organizing, including the solidarity movement, bases the struggle and its claims on international law. Indeed, the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions by Palestinian civil society groups was made in order to pressure Israel to adhere to international law. We support BDS as a potentially fluid and inclusive solidarity tactic, but we consider it problematic to pivot movement strategy on bodies of law that emerged in order to regulate imperialism, and that often function to legalize Israeli colonization and colonialism. Laws have no enforcement agents except for the states they regulate. And although international law has its critics, in this context they frequently argue that it can’t succeed without grassroots organizing to force recalcitrant states to accept it. This shifts the struggle to the plane of abstract, rights-based national claims, and burdens the movement with the responsibilities of both plaintiff and police.

Through the rise of organizing based on international law, the larger struggle for Palestinian liberation has transformed liberal, left, and Palestine solidarity discourse into a question of rights. The controversy over the utility of the law is as well known in Palestine as it is elsewhere: international judicial rulings against the separation wall may move it a few meters, but they don’t challenge its existence, or the occupation that put it there. There is a real question about what specifically the law can ameliorate for Palestinians under occupation and in diaspora, but there is also a larger issue. The move towards legal practice was supposed to step around the bogus peace process, and to get us beyond the logic of negotiations. Legal rulings can lead to small changes in their status on the ground, or big changes in the UN, but the West Bank and Gaza remain in a state of suspension within Israeli colonial logics. And such changes cannot be understood without reference to the Oslo accords. Rhetorically, Oslo was supposed to solve the Palestinian question and establish a Palestinian state within five years. In practice, Oslo has served the occupation, and established a new security apparatus and leadership structure that quashed and delegitimized popular struggle.

For Palestinians in the US, organizing has also transformed, in part as the result of a generational shift. But this change is also embedded in a larger context. The diaspora communities once shaped the framework for political action and attachment to Palestinian national formations both in the camps and elsewhere. But increasingly, this relationship between exile communities and the national movement has morphed into deep political alienation from a leadership that has abandoned both refugee claims and the diaspora’s role in the movement. While some in Palestine and in the diaspora work to cultivate structures of representation, and some work to reclaim the PLO and to establish direct elections to the Palestinian National Council, most young Palestinians in the US have not yet taken up this work. Instead, they are the cadres of the BDS movement, marching alongside solidarity organizers, pushing Israel in the direction of compliance with international law, and short-circuiting the Israeli state’s propaganda apparatus. There have been many high-profile successes, but they have happened largely without diaspora community organizing and without reference to it.

Still, in general that alienation from national leadership and institutions has not pushed Palestinian communities to rescind their national rights, claims, or anticolonial politics. Palestinian community organizing may be frustratingly slow, but it does not tend to articulate legitimacy through the law or in an effort to convince potential supporters. Palestinians still talk about liberation. Appeals to rights — like the right of return — are made with the intention of achieving transformative justice, and are propelled by the will to determine and chart Palestinians’ own national path, rather than to force Israel to acknowledge the existence and validity of such rights. In contrast to movements formed with the intention of creating broad consensus among non-Palestinians in support of international law, Palestinian organizing tends to work, as many in the movement have signed their communiqués, “until liberation and return.”

In turning towards organizing practices designed to work in the American context and on nationalist terms, the Left often neglects these anticolonial principles and seeks out Jewish voices to validate Palestinian claims. In turn, it privileges Jewish discourse, anxieties, and histories in ways that marginalize Palestinians in their own struggle. At its least productive, the exclusion of Palestinian community voices from both popular narratives and organizing treats the question of Palestine as an intra-Jewish problem. In turn, this prods activists to organize for Palestinian rights under the Jewish state, towards multiculturalism and tolerance rather than justice, towards a better colonialism rather than the end of colonialism.

The point here is simple: Palestinians are at a low point — fragmented, under siege, excluded, harassed. Their ongoing struggle goes largely unacknowledged. If the Left wishes to be in solidarity, it ought to affirm an anticolonial and anti-Zionist struggle rather than frame political possibilities in the terms of the domestic context. One way it can begin to do so is by seeking reference in Palestinian communities both in Palestine and in exile, and their collectivities, and by supporting democratic grassroots formations and mobilizations. There is no wishing away the problem. It is only by acknowledging colonialism that we can get rid of it.