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175, November 2012 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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International Solidarity from a Palestinian Perspective
By Dina Zbidat
In 2010, I moved to New York City to study at Columbia University after spending most of my life in Sakhnin, a Palestinian town in Israel, and in Jerusalem where I completed my bachelor’s degree and worked for a couple of years. The daughter of a political prisoner and member of a very politically active family, I knew that I would not be able to adjust to life in New York unless I found a framework through which to continue fighting the Israeli occupation and colonisation of Palestine.

During the first week of my studies I met several amazing Palestinian-Americans on campus who introduced me to C-SJP (Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine), a solidarity student group active in raising awareness on campus and in New York about what is happening in Palestine. As a Palestinian who could actually live in our homeland (unlike many of my Palestinian-American friends), I felt out of place living abroad. I missed the type of demonstrations back home, the direct confrontation with Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, and the feeling that I am a meaningful part of the Palestinian struggle, directly resisting the occupation.

My involvement with C-SJP definitely gave me a sense of direction - a feeling that even abroad, I can still make a change. My activism in an American solidarity group, however, also presented me with several dilemmas that I will discuss in this article, concluding with a discussion on accountability of solidarity groups.

Several years ago I was obsessed with finding meaningful names for my future children. Every day I would come up with names and ask my father for his opinion. One of those names was Tadamon, Arabic for solidarity. “Why did you choose Tadamon?” my father asked. I told him that it is a very important word for Palestinians since tadamon with the Palestinian people and their struggle is a very well-known slogan. My father then explained to me that tadamon with something/someone means that you don’t belong to it, that only non-Palestinians can act in solidarity. “You are Palestinian, aren’t you?” he asked. “Of course,” I responded, and promptly dropped that off my list of kids’ names.

With this view on solidarity I moved to New York. Along with fellow hard-working students in C-SJP, I argued with hard-core Zionists on campus, organised events, got annoyed by ignorant Americans (and ignorant Palestinians), brainstormed on how to act as a solidarity group in the United States, and made friends.

Everyone familiar with Palestine international solidarity movements also knows that many arguments and disputes arise within these groups. Are we too radical? Are we too soft? Why are only two people doing all the work? Why do these non-Palestinian members think they know what it is all about and can dictate what the group should do? Why do these Palestinian members think they know it all only because they are Palestinian, though they have done very little work for the cause? And the list goes on.

Being part of an international Palestine solidarity group is exhausting due to such disputes. But as I discovered, it is especially exhausting for someone like myself, a Palestinian who lived most of her life in Palestine, mainly because the struggle in a solidarity group is completely different from that of direct action in Palestine; and I had to adapt to that.

The first thing that I had to learn was that even though we collectively envision the liberation of Palestine as our end-goal, international solidarity movements focus on gaining more international support for the Palestinian struggle and implementing a change in the policy of their own governments towards Palestine and Israel. For example, solidarity activism is not about holding a demonstration against the confiscation of land and the demolition of homes, but about exercising pressure on the US government and convincing Americans that the US government should stop funding Israel because it is not upholding international law and committing human rights abuses.

Another topic that often came up was “identitarian” politics. Palestinians are dispersed all over the world and many of them cannot find another framework for their activism except through solidarity movements. Many members are not Palestinian, and many have never been to the region. Who should speak for the group? Whom does it represent? Palestinians? Solidarity members? A certain ideology?

These two topics - the best way to act and questions of representation - came up often in discussions with my (mainly Palestinian-American) SJP friends. Why should we convince Americans of our right to liberate ourselves? Why do we need them at all? Why can’t we just fight the occupation on our own and liberate Palestine without having to explain why funding Israel is bad for Americans? At times, I would feel so desperate. I don’t care about American tax money - I care about the lives that are being destroyed in Palestine. I don’t want to waste my time convincing ignorant Americans that their money is being wasted by their government to kill innocent people; I want to confront the occupation directly!

Of course, I knew that I was being naïve. Global power distribution, US-Israeli relations, the economy, the weapons industry - all this is part and parcel of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. I would like to think that the solution lies with us, the Palestinians, and that we can liberate ourselves - whether we live in Palestine, New York, or in a refugee camp. However, reality can only change if the global mentality and power distribution change, and this must be a collective effort.

There are many hard-working activists in solidarity groups who dedicate much time and effort to the Palestinian cause. However, we have also seen too often that the Palestinian struggle is appropriated for personal ends, whether by politicians, academics, or activists. Some join solidarity movements because they think it is cool, and they approach the issue with an orientalist mentality that is in no way better than that of hard-core Zionists. Some think that they know better how Palestinians should resist. “Your methods are too violent and extreme, why don’t you try non-violent resistance, because everybody loves Ghandi.” “Don’t use the word apartheid, use racism.” “Don’t say Israeli colonisation or occupation, use the term ‘the Palestinian- (or sometimes Arab) Israeli conflict.’ ” “Don’t mention Hamas or Hizbollah,” etc. I have heard these arguments too often from members of various solidarity movements I encountered. Because the focus of their work is to convince people and to represent the Palestinians as likable people, they often forget what the struggle is really about.

Yes, we need to transform and change the global mentality surrounding the occupation of Palestine, but this should not be done by adopting the terms and methods of the oppressor or of the (so-called civilised) West. Yes, we need to work together, but not by imposing words, terms, and resistance methods on the oppressed.

Another insight that emerged during my time with C-SJP was that, to an extent, my father was right. One can only be in solidarity with something if s/he is not part of it. However, reality is much more complicated than that. Solidarity-movement members are often directly involved in the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, whether they are Palestinians in the diaspora, Jews who object to Israel using their identity to justify colonisation, or Americans who refuse to let their government be involved in human rights abuses without actively objecting to it. But when the framework in which these different members act is a solidarity movement, one always has to remember that this is what they are - a solidarity movement, and that their raison d’être is to support Palestinians in their struggle, not to dictate how to do that. Solidarity movements work from the outside in order to change the status quo and alter the general context in which the Palestinian struggle is unfolding, but it is up to the Palestinians to decide how to resist on the ground.

Solidarity movements should be held accountable for imposing (Western) ideologies on Palestinians and appropriating their struggle, but Palestinians should also realise that the struggle for Palestine is not theirs alone. It is a struggle against the current world order and mentality. Palestine is not the only spot on earth that is occupied. We should open our eyes and learn from other peoples and previous struggles.

For this cooperation between Palestinians and solidarity movements to work, it is crucial that solidarity movements listen. Palestinians are divided and fractured, and we all know that there is more than one voice one can listen to. But as long as solidarity movements remember the reason for their existence, and as long as Palestinians are aware that their struggle is not detached from political forces which impact people all over the world, I am confident that we can move toward a more just, collective future.

Dina Zbidat is from the Palestinian town of Sakhnin, in the north of Israel. She completed her bachelor’s degree in sociology, anthropology, and political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she was an active member of the Arab Students Union. She also worked for four years at Theatre Day Productions, an organisation that conducts drama and theatre workshops with Palestinian schoolchildren. In 2010, Dina received a Fulbright Scholarship to complete an MA in anthropology at Columbia University in New York.

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