Cal Tzedek: On the Right of Return and Sloppy Activism

Sunday, July 16, 2006

On the Right of Return and Sloppy Activism

This weekend I volunteered to present at a workshop at the Al Awda convention on behalf of Berkeley SJP. The topic was Student Activism. I always look forward to any opportunity I might have to lead an activism workshop at a conference, because I think student activism is usually rife with problems, and I'll always welcome a forum in which to address those problems. I'm tired of sloppy rhetoric substituting for a clear presentation of the facts, which speak for themselves in making very clear the following: 1). Israel's occupation of the 1967 territories involves a tremendous amount of structural and physical violence against the Palestinians, is indistinguishable from classical colonialism, and is predicated on a negation of Palestinian civil and human rights. 2). The right of return is a sacred, universal human right, which applies to all people, including Palestinians. 3). These rights will not come into fruition without substantial institutional pressure on the Israeli government to recognize them.

So, an organization like Al Awda is important to have. But frankly, I am disappointed in the Al-Awda convention, and there are many ways in which I feel the manner in which it was conducted can ultimately be a liability for a successful Right of Return campaign.

First of all, it is not my place to tell other activists whether they should recognize Israel's "right" to exist. But I see NO legitimate reason to put "Israel" in quotation marks, as is the case throughout the Al-Awda points of unity. Is this morally wrong? I don't think so. But I think it's flat-out stupid. It makes Right of Return activists look like crazy ideologues. Edward Said often wrote about how pointless it is to deny that Israel does exist, aside from questions about the justness of its creation, or whether it would always exist. Yes, the problematic nature of Israel began well before 1967. But is referring to "Israel" THAT much different than referring to "Palestine"? To me, this is the grown-up version of the sloppy activism employed by too many students.

Secondly, one of the presentations made references to the genocide being committed against the Palestinians. If the purpose of calling it a genocide is to create a sense of urgency, then I suppose that's one way of going about things. But the simple fact is that most people disagree with that classification, including me. I see no reason to employ that term when names already exist for the assorted crimes Israel has committed against Palestinians over several decades. (Crime A) + (Crime B) + (Crime C) = (Crime A + Crime B + Crime C). It does not equal (Crime Genocide). And I imagine a good number of serious human rights activists and advocates --who would unequivocally support the right of displaced people to return to their homeland-- would find this rhetoric outrageous.

Third, an argument was made about Zionism that I felt was pointless and obfuscatory. The presenter argued that Zionism is anti-Semitic; on the one hand, because Palestinians and Arab Jews --whom it places at varying disadvantages-- are Semitic, and on the other hand because it co-opts Jewish identity. If this is the presenter's only idea for how to demonstrate that opposition to Zionism is not anti-Semitic, then he is not focusing on actual issues, and instead is culling obscure arguments in lieu of a perfectly valid one: Opposition to Zionism is not anti-Semitic because Zionism is a political ideology which has historically projected bad consequences onto many people, and problematic political ideologies are open to criticism and even rejection without reflecting on whatever ethnic or religious group those who have supported the movement --for whatever reasons-- traditionally come from. Why couldn't the presenter say something like that? Was he hoping to convince a Jew who opposes the right of return to start supporting it because Zionism is "anti-Semitic?" Al-Awda generally makes very clear that it is not in the business of reasoning with anti-return folks, so that can't be it. So as long as the main goal is preaching to the converted, is there really any need to convince anyone attending in good faith --Jewish or otherwise-- why Zionism is "bad" and why anti-Zionism is "not bad"? The whole thing seemed vacuous.

These are just examples of what I feel is a current of irresponsible rhetoric that can only be damaging in the long term. I have no intention of painting the entire conference as an exercise in intellectual bankruptcy, but I'm also very impatient with the types of arguments and language that are more a staple of grandstanding than they are of political action.

I am told, interestingly enough, that Al-Awda Wisconsin, whose effective political campaigns I discussed during the workshop, is not affiliated with "national" Al-Awda. My support lies with the Wisconsin Al-Awda and all of the independent SJP's which live by their principles. An activist from a chapter other than Berkeley said something during the workshop that was entirely inappropriate, and he was rebuked by another activist, and his claim was also implicitly rejected by an academic. These things are incredibly frustrating to the point where all I can trust is Berkeley SJP. I can't always influence the type of discourse that defines organizations based elsewhere, although I'm always hopeful that presenting at conferences might have some impact. Nonetheless, I will be more careful in the future about whom I piggyback off of. I met lots of wonderful individuals at the conference, but ultimately, Al-Awda --for reasons ENTIRELY unrelated to its position on the Right of Return-- is not a group that I feel acts in accordance with my vision of how Berkeley SJP should act. I am not a part of Al-Awda and will take part in activism --against the occupation and in support of return-- through other channels.


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