‘The old will die and the young will forget.’ – David Ben Gurion, 1948 (1)
When I first went to Palestine in 1965, Ben Gurion’s prediction seemed plausible. Palestinians and the Palestine solidarity movement were nearly invisible outside the Middle East. The Palestinian narrative was not commonly heard, except among academics and specialists who rarely had the opportunity to address the public. Building an international movement was an unlikely dream and dependent mainly upon the good graces of sympathetic governments and NGOs, which proved elusive.
Today, the prediction seems more like wishful thinking, bordering on delusion. Both Palestinians and their allies throughout the world are more numerous and better organized than ever. They are mounting increasingly sophisticated movements to challenge the Zionist project of expelling the indigenous population from Palestine and replacing it with racially and ethnically selected immigrants.
The reasons for this are many. Foremost is the enduring determination of Palestinians to stand up for their rights and to correct the wrongs done to them, even when the likelihood of prevailing appeared dim. This determination spawned Palestinian champions that included resistance fighters, writers, academics, artists and politicians who have carried the cause into new dimensions and to new audiences.
Of course, the rise of the internet as a tool of communication, information dissemination and organizing has also been a major factor in empowering the Palestinian cause. However, social movements have always been able to organize by other means, as exemplified by the abolitionists, women’s suffragettes, trade unionists, U.S. civil rights advocates, and anti-apartheid organizers. Many of them started with small seminal groups that grew in number and size finally coalescing and following a well-worn path to popular acceptance.
In the case of Palestine, the motivation for the movement was also furthered by the greed and ruthlessness of the Israeli and Zionist leadership who continued to confiscate land, expel and impoverish Palestinians and conduct wars and pogroms on both Palestinians and their Arab neighbors. Each of these actions brought Israeli intentions to world attention yet again, enhancing Israel’s image as a pariah society bent on genocide.
Continued Israeli brutality also helped to foster Palestinian movements both inside and outside the areas under Israeli control. Many of the movements that began within Palestine are now linked not only to their brothers and sisters outside, but to wider international support as well. This has emboldened more of them to speak out in self-defense and assume roles of leadership in the international Palestinian rights movement as well as at home. This relationship between Palestinians living under Israeli control, those outside and the international solidarity movement was powerfully brought into focus by international support for the Palestinian hunger strikers held without charge – sometimes for years – by the Israeli military.
The expulsions also sent exiled Palestinians into the societies upon which Israel depends for support, providing additional voices outside of Palestine willing to challenge the Zionist case. Today, these exiles and their offspring are becoming leaders in their new homes, while retaining more commitment than ever to righting the wrongs of the Palestinian expulsion. Simply put, second and third generation Palestinians in other lands are angry at the humiliation of both their parents and their remaining families in Palestine, but they do not see themselves as foreigners in their expatriate homes, and are therefore not intimidated in pursuing their cause. Instead, they perceive their pursuit of Palestinian rights as merely an extension of their rights as citizens to have a voice in the foreign policy of their diaspora governments and societies.
These ambassadors for the Palestinian cause also have many new allies in the societies that once barely acknowledged their existence. As with the movements that preceded them, other societies are impelled to support and participate in the Palestinian cause, initially by a sense of social conscience, as the myths and misinformation that supported the injustices are exposed, but also by moral outrage at having been deceived by Zionist propaganda.
Later, as they become more informed, the citizens of these societies may begin to recognize the price – including the blood of their soldiers as well as massive foreign aid – that their countries have been paying for support of Israeli policies. At that point, they conclude that such support is contrary to their own interests and values, and become advocates for Palestinian rights out of common interest.
The Beginnings of a Movement
Today, despite the setbacks that Palestinians are facing in areas controlled by Israel, international popular support for Palestine is growing faster than ever. In fact, Israeli strategic advisors recognize it as the greatest existential threat to the Zionist state. (2)
This is not unprecedented. The growth of the Palestinian rights movement has followed a progression similar to that of other movements. The basis of such movements has been a great social injustice affecting large numbers of people. Inside and outside the population affected by injustice, advocates often begin as small, disempowered and fragmented groups and individuals, reminiscent of Margaret Mead’s quotation about the origination of social change among small groups of dedicated individuals. (3)
If these groups are only partly successful and if the injustice persists or worsens, the groups may begin to proliferate and grow in number and diversity, each appealing to different constituencies, typically with different views on both the issues and the nature of remediation. This process may wax and wane with external developments, as with the first intifada, followed by the Oslo agreements. During this stage there is also typically a struggle for the voice of the movement and the articulation of its aims, principles and means.
Today, however, the Palestinian rights movement is well into the second stage of progression: the formation of coalitions. When smaller groups proliferate beyond a critical number, they find their size to be a significant disadvantage in competing for support, even among a growing constituency. At this point, they increasingly form alliances in order to achieve common goals, while retaining their individual identities and priorities. Individually, the groups provide innovation and diversity, but collectively they empower each other and the movement.
The Palestine Liberation Organization is itself an early example of a strategic alliance within the Palestinian community. Other examples are the international network of al-Awda Right to Return coalitions, the Network of Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees, and the Palestinian NGO Network (PENGON). The unified human rights appeal of the Palestinian Christian community, as represented by the Kairos Palestine document, is also a notable example of this type.
In the solidarity community, national coalitions have formed in various countries for the purpose of both supporting Palestinian efforts and influencing the foreign policy of the countries concerned. Some, such as Friends of Sabeel, Friends of al-Aqsa and others, organize along religious or other parameters, and transcend national boundaries. At the same time, international ad hoc coalitions have been created in order to implement specific projects, such as the land and sea convoys to Gaza, the Gaza Freedom March, and others.
These projects are notable for bringing together groups that have never previously worked together. Although sometimes thwarted from accomplishing their stated goals, the projects have forged new networks of individuals and organizations that are now able to build upon shared resources and common interests. In addition, the exposure to different societies with different narratives and viewpoints on Palestine has been catalytic in the evolution and unification of these perspectives. In simple terms, the participants in these projects now have allies that they know personally all over the world and upon whom they can call for further action.
Towards a Unified Global Movement
Some readers will note the omission of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign from above mention. This is because BDS is an example of the third stage in the progression of the movement: global unification of effort. It is the first of its kind to create a unified and focused Palestinian advocacy project on a global scale, but it is not the only one, and will hopefully be joined by many more. In 2011, for example, the Global March to Jerusalem (GMJ) was formed, which articulated very ambitious plans for a massive nonviolent march on Jerusalem. Although these plans were redefined and only partly successful on the first try, the effort was informative about the possibilities for a global movement, upon which the GMJ intends to build further attempts.
Lessons have been learned from all of these efforts, and permit us to speculate upon the elements that will unify the resources of highly disparate groups and societies into a global movement for projects that translate resistance against social injustice into substantive social change.
Most important among these is the necessity to recognize that there is a wide range of perceptions and perspectives with regard to Palestine. In some societies, Islam and the sanctity of Jerusalem is a major element. In others, it is hardly a factor at all. For some, political ideologies and parties are a major factor. Others approach the issue primarily from a human rights or social justice perspective, including a large proportion of the anti-war movement, which views justice in Palestine as a key element in reducing the threat of war in the region and the world.
The diversity of views is a paramount consideration. Information about Palestine is expressed very differently in the U.S., Russia, Iran, Western Europe, Korea, Indonesia, Latin America, China, South Africa, Pakistan, Japan, India, the Arab world and elsewhere. Politically, potential partners include advocates of a two-state solution as well as those who insist upon removal of the non-indigenous population and a complete reversal of the effects of Zionist settlement. Some seek secular rule while others are committed to the implementation of their own understanding of God’s will, as dictated by Muslim, Christian or Jewish scriptures. Nonviolence is a creed for some, while armed resistance is a right and an imperative for others.
Is it even possible to bind such diversity together? The jury is still out on this, but there are hopeful signs that as the movement matures, it will begin to coalesce along lines of consensus. Based upon the experience of other social movements as well as current trends in the Palestinian rights movement, the following principles appear to be conducive to global unification:
1. Choose a goal that is limited but widely shared. “Justice in Palestine” is a universal goal, but far too broad and subject to interpretation to serve as a practical project. In contrast, the BDS movement offers three specific goals: the end of occupation and colonization, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the implementation of the Palestinian Right of Return. Such concrete goals enable wide participation, from those who would target only the products of Israeli companies located on land occupied in the 1967 war to those for whom any interaction with the Zionist state is unacceptable. Signed by 171 Palestinian organizations inside and outside Palestine, the BDS call expresses the collective aspirations of the Palestinian people and serves to legitimate the support and participation of solidarity and human rights groups everywhere.
Similarly, the image of a vast nonviolent convergence on Jerusalem to protest ethnic cleansing was selected for the Global March to Jerusalem on the basis of its wide appeal but limited focus, as well as the broad possibilities for interpretation and participation.
These movements, as well as the efforts to break the siege of Gaza, also have in common that they are achievable in stages that permit success to be realized in periodic increments, which is important to maintaining momentum and providing encouragement to supporters and participants.
2. Articulate a set of principles that defines the movement but is widely accepted. The issue of Palestine generates strong disagreement on facts, priorities, a definition of justice and the shape of a solution. There is a temptation for each group to insist that all the other constituent groups in a movement must conform to its strongly held principles.
This temptation must be resisted. It is the nature of a coalition that the constituents have divergent agenda on some issues but make common cause for coincident strategic goals. Accordingly, the principles need to be few in number and as general as possible while maintaining a coherent and meaningful set of values and objectives.
Although the principles must not be overly restrictive, without them the movement risks becoming “United for Peanut Butter and Jelly” or the “Coalition for Applehood and Mother Pie.” The coalition must be inclusive, but it is the nature of every movement to be exclusive of those who do not subscribe to its principles. The aim is to determine which principles are both necessary and sufficient to the goals of the movement, and not to insist upon those about which some members may be passionate but which are not essential to the coalition.
As previously indicated, the BDS movement accomplishes this by encouraging all forms of boycott, divestment and sanction against Israel, but allowing each group or individual to select its own targets and act according to its own criteria. What binds them together is their willingness to make Israel pay a price for its violation of Palestinian rights.
In the case of the Global March to Jerusalem, the common thread is to create a massive nonviolent march to Jerusalem and to protest on site, in person and in massive numbers for Palestinian human rights. However, the groups and individuals are free to choose their own reasons for supporting the movement, to articulate it in their own way and to organize their own local or regional support actions.
3. Accept participation and endorsement from all groups and individuals that agree to the set of principles. Although it is the nature of every movement to be exclusive in its aims, principles and acceptable practices, a unified movement (and most successful movements of any kind) is inclusive of all who accept its principles. It seeks adherents and participants, and therefore grows by virtue of its inclusivity.
There is often a temptation to try to exclude certain individuals or groups on an ad hoc basis. This also must be resisted. If there is a principled basis for excluding some participants, this basis must be articulated in the movement’s principles. Otherwise, it becomes little more than a private club, where individual members are approved or disapproved by the rest.
It is sometimes difficult to conform to this requirement, as some individuals or groups may refuse to work or be associated with certain others. However, exclusion is a slippery slope. It is better and more defensible to allow some participants to exclude themselves for their own reasons than for the movement to be the agent of exclusion for purely strategic and non-principled reasons. If the movement remains true to its principles, chances are that the reticent groups will return. On the other hand, exclusion of a particular group or individual by the movement can create ill will and division, which work against the objective of unity and may be more difficult to repair.
4. Accommodate a wide range of narratives that appeal to different constituencies in different settings. Different narratives are effective in different societies. In some, there is almost universal support for the Palestinian cause; in others, the Israeli government position dominates policy and the media. Religion plays a big role for some groups, while others demand its exclusion. In some societies, a nonviolent approach has broad appeal, while in others the resistance fighter is a major inspiration.
A global movement needs to permit this range of narratives while holding to its principles and core message. Different societies must be permitted to place this message in the context of what is most effective locally, as long as it does not contradict the same message that is being disseminated elsewhere.
5. Establish a system of governance that represents and empowers a diversity of participating societies, and is inclusionary of as many voices as possible within those societies. In order to establish a united global movement, all potential members of the movement need to feel that they are welcome, that they participate in the decision making and that their views are valued. This requires diversity along several parameters, including roughly equal or proportional representation by gender, geography, religious affiliation, political affiliation, etc.
A partial exception to this is that the affected community – in this case the Palestinians – must have priority in the representation, so that its will receives special weight in every decision. This is necessary because the decisions of the movement affect that community disproportionately, and because the struggle is fundamentally theirs. Their leadership and approval are therefore paramount. It is not recommended, however, that any community – even the Palestinians – constitute a majority in the movement; otherwise it cannot truly be considered global in scope, and will not appear to be so. In addition, care must be taken that the Palestinian voices in the movement are diverse and represent the full spectrum of Palestinian constituencies, insofar as possible. Similarly, all societies in the movement need to be representative of the diversity within themselves insofar as possible, so as to engage all of their communities.
Although some societies are more accustomed to hierarchical governing structures and others to a greater sharing of authority, it is recommended to avoid concentration of authority and to rely on collective decision making insofar as possible. The most representative bodies of the movement should be the supreme authority, with all other authority (e.g. to committees and offices) being delegated and subject to review and approval.
6. Establish a system of communication that allows decision making to be as open and transparent as possible, with participation from and empowerment of as many voices as possible. A global movement requires a global communication network. Besides its necessity for decision making, strategy development and sharing of resources, it is an important way for participants in the movement to feel connected with each other, which is vital to the growth and empowerment of the movement.
Today, websites, email, social media, and other internet tools are some of the most inclusive and flexible means of communication at our disposal. However, voice communication and the postal service continue to be indispensible for certain functions. In addition, in-person conferences and meetings serve an important function of bonding the participants and renewing commitment in a way that electronic and print media cannot. They also allow for secure private conversations, which encrypted electronic communication can also help to facilitate.
It is still the case, however, that not all societies and participants use internet media to the same degree and with the same effectiveness, which can depend upon factors like availability, access and income. The remedies for this are to assure that at least some members at each location are proficient in internet use and can act as intermediaries for those who are not, and to maintain a mix of media. Otherwise, we risk selectiveness of participation for technical reasons, which would be unfortunate.
Different types of projects also have different communication needs. In the case of BDS, for example, most of the implementation decisions are made relatively autonomously at the local and regional level, simply because the circumstances and opportunities differ accordingly. International coordination therefore takes the form of sharing information and strategies, as well as suggestions for focusing attention on specific targets. Internet-based communication is largely adequate for such purposes, while periodic opportunities to gather at international meetings and conferences help with brainstorming and maintenance of esprit de corps.
The Global March to Jerusalem and similar efforts that confront Israel directly, on the other hand, require much more international logistical and practical coordination and decision-making. As a result, direct contact between and among participating societies and their representatives becomes more essential, with more in-person meetings. However, international meetings are by their nature impractical for daily communication and permit only a small fraction of constituent participation. Internet-based communication systems are therefore necessary in order to maintain the required level of popular participation and support.
A word should also be said about language considerations, which have been an obstacle to international organizing since time immemorial. The use of English as a lingua franca cannot be taken for granted. A global movement must make communication accessible to all, regardless of language, and not allow proficiency in a specific language to become a selection criterion, even unintentionally. At international meetings, simultaneous interpretation must be a high priority, and participants in internet communication must be encouraged to use the language with which they are most comfortable, as well as to avail themselves of free internet translation software (regardless of its limitations). Such translation allows the use of multiple languages in the same conversation.
7. Provide an opportunity for all to participate. Participation is the key to a global movement. All participants must feel that they are contributing in some way and that their voice counts. Popular committees, local events and regional organizing are therefore all important components for success.
In addition, local news needs to be shared internationally, so that participants recognize that they are part of a global movement and can celebrate each other’s activities. In the case of BDS, for example, victories against Veolia or Caterpillar are announced internationally, regardless of whether they take place at local councils in small communities or at a national or international level. Similarly, the turnout of 100,000 demonstrators for Jerusalem in Morocco and a small but enthusiastic group in Korea for the 2012 Global March was were both causes for celebration by the entire movement.
There are, of course, many more components to a successful movement, whether global or not. Fundraising, media strategies and many more can be cited. However, in order to become global, a movement must adapt its principles and terms of reference to accommodate the range of societies that will be included. This requires a special effort to understand diverse, unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable narratives.
It is worth the effort. The development and application of common principles requires a negotiation process that is itself educational and transformational. When one of the constituent groups of the GMJ first proposed such a set of principles that it considered noncontroversial, for example, it was completely rejected. Upon rewording by the rest of the group, however, the result was accepted by everyone. Similarly, creative solutions were found to overcome objections to the roles of individuals or parties that some groups needed to accommodate.
The result was a new appreciation by everyone of the needs of others, and by the movement for new ways of thinking. There is no unity without understanding and respect. The dialogue that takes place between groups that have never previously worked together can fundamentally change a movement and forge it into a new and powerful force.
The Fourth Stage of a Successful Movement
M.K. Gandhi is reputed to have said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” (4)
The four stages in movement growth outlined in this discussion do not necessarily mirror Gandhi’s description, but the outcome is the same. If the third stage is a global movement, the fourth will be its acceptance in popular culture and the success of its narrative and message. Today, no one seriously advocates slavery, or suggests revoking the right of women to vote. However, movements had to form, grow and eventually become part of the popular discourse for this to happen. In the later stages of the anti-apartheid movement, this discourse was captured in song, sport and other forms of popular culture, such that people who had little notion of the substantive issues nevertheless considered themselves anti-apartheid. This was the point of no return. Governments came under increasing pressure from their constituencies to end support of South Africa, and the South African leadership came to recognize the futility of trying to resist the rest of the world.
Popular will triumphs when it becomes consensus. And unlike the many years of hard work, sacrifice and organizing that characterize the first three stages of a movement, this last one happens suddenly, and is a sea change that often comes as a surprise to those who have spent so long trying to bring it about. It is also a time of flux, as many new adherents join the cause. At this stage, control and leadership of the movement often pass from those who have helped to define it until that point to newcomers and even opportunists, who will nevertheless claim to have been part of it all along.
We should welcome these developments. The victory of a movement rarely conforms to the vision of the victors, but it nevertheless expresses the will of the people. Those who have brought the victory to fruition must at that point accept it as their child, grown to adulthood, and allow it to have its own life, even if parenthood never fully ends.
Victory is never inevitable, but for Palestine it may be closer than we think. The hardest time for a movement is just before it wins, because that is when it encounters the greatest resistance. In the US, the final struggle against slavery was a civil war. In South Africa, the Emergency Laws were the last gasp of apartheid, though few recognized it at the time. In Palestine, the increasing brutality of Israeli repression, the movement of political power in Israel toward the most fanatical racists, and the emigration of Israeli Jews to other countries should indicate that the struggle for Palestine will not be won on the floor of the US Congress or the United Nations or even in the leadership of the Arab nations. It will be won in the hearts and minds of the world’s peoples.
– Dr. Paul Larudee is a co-founder of the movement to break the naval blockade of Gaza and of the Global March to Jerusalem. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.
(1) David Ben-Gurion’s diary, July 18 1948
(2) Reut Institute, The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall, February 14, 2010, http://reut-institute.org/Publication.aspx?PublicationId=3769
(3) “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ¯ Margaret Mead (source unknown)