by Philip Ferguson
The Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip at the start of 2009 and the attack on the Mavi Marama are two particularly brutal actions by the Israeli state which impacted on many people around the world and created wider sympathy for the Palestinian cause. In New Zealand, however, although there are activists campaigning around issues in Israel/Palestine, the campaigning remains both numerically and politically weak.
There is a strong tendency in New Zealand, for instance, to emphasise justice for (or, even worse, sympathy for) the Palestinians rather than solidarity with the Palestinians. The differences between these few words, which may seem trivial, are actually immense at a political level.
If you are in favour of something for people, it suggests that they cannot fight for it themselves and so you are campaigning for it on their behalf. This essentially portrays the oppressed as passive victims. But the Palestinians are not passive victims – they are an oppressed people and they are fighting every day for their liberation, regardless of what people sitting comfortably in the West are doing or not doing. The notion of doing something for people is essentially condescending.
On the other hand, if you are in solidarity with people, it suggests that these are folks struggling for their rights and you are providing active support for their struggle. You are not replacing their struggle, you are not the struggle, you are carrying out your own struggle as a form of active support of their struggle.
These differences in perspective have been continually manifested in New Zealand in political activities around the Israel/Palestine conflict since the invasion of Gaza – a period in which several new groups have sprung up challenging various policies pursued by the Israeli state and opposing the re-establishment of an Israeli embassy in New Zealand.
Redline stands in the solidarity with camp. We emphasise the importance of not seeing the Palestinians as helpless victims but as the active agents of their own emancipation. Indeed, the problem with the justice for perspective goes beyond condescension; often these campaigners, however genuinely-motivated, leave out the Palestinians altogether.
A good example of this (perfectly logical) consequence of the justice for perspective was the political platform adopted by and press releases issued by the NIEW (No Israeli Embassy in Wellington) group. The original platform of this group focused on attacking some policies of the Israeli state, while leaving out the Palestinian resistance altogether. It was as if the Palestinians, or certainly the Palestinian resistance, did not exist at all. Press releases by NIEW in the lead-up to the re-establishment of the Israeli embassy compounded this problem – not only was the Palestinian resistance left out, the United Nations, the very body which voted to hand over Palestine to the Zionists, was called upon to intervene to impose a ‘just’ settlement. The Palestinians, it would seem, have no role to play other than as helpless victims who then become supplicants of the United Nations’ supposed kindness and generosity.
The other weakness of the justice for wing of the movement is that it fails to face up to the fact that the problem is not this or that Israeli policy, but the very existence of the Israeli state. It’s fair enough if new people coming into activity on the Israel/Palestine issue haven’t yet joined up the dots – none of us have joined up the dots when we first get involved in progressive politics. Unfortunately, however, there seems to be a wilful resistance to joining up the dots coming from people who have been active on the issue for years. For these folks, it is OK to criticise Israel for this or that abuse of human rights, but the critique is only allowed to go so far and no further. It is restricted to a human rights critique, rather than an anti-imperialist critique of Israel and a workers’ solidarity and internationalist approach to the Palestinians and their struggle for emancipation.
With the justice for approach, the critique is cut off artificially, rather than being allowed to take its logical course and show that the Israeli state, by its very nature, cannot be other than brutal and repressive in relation to the Palestinians. There never has been a liberal Israeli state in relation to the Palestinians and there never can be, because the state itself, in fact the country itself, is based on the dispossession of the Palestinians and this dispossession is not simply historical but both continues and expands today. And logically so. You can’t have an Israel which is not anti-Palestinian and which does not continuously attempt to oppress the Palestinian people.
It’s interesting to compare the development of a small but important movement in New Zealand around the Palestine/Israel conflict with the development of the anti-apartheid movement in New Zealand. In 1960 the slogan was “No Maoris, No Tour” – in other words, if the South Africans didn’t accept Maori players in the All Blacks, then the All Blacks shouldn’t go to South Africa. A good demand but also, by itself, woefully inadequate because it entirely left out of the picture the black masses of South Africa, people who at that very time were actively struggling for their emancipation. The period from the end of WW2 until the Sharpeville massacre in February 1960 was one of intense struggle in South Africa, with mass mobilisations of black and other South Africans against apartheid.
Later, the anti-apartheid movement in New Zealand emphasised this country’s international reputation as a reason there should not be sporting contact with apartheid South Africa. Such contact, many anti-apartheid activists suggested, tarnished NZ’s good image abroad. Again, what about those being oppressed in South Africa by apartheid?
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the notion that the main reason to oppose sporting, and other, contact with apartheid South Africa was to show solidarity with the liberation movement in South Africa. This was a huge political advance, albeit one that came far too slowly. Activists today should be standing on the shoulders of the experience of the anti-apartheid movement, rather than starting from scratch politically, ie being back where the movement here was in 1960 in relation to South Africa.
Building an effective movement in New Zealand against Israeli injustice requires understanding of several key political points.
One is that the people who the Israeli state oppresses are neither invisible nor powerless. They are the Palestinians and they are perfectly capable of resisting everything that the Israeli state throws against them. Our job is to be in solidarity with them – ie to assist them however we can, including materially.
Another key point is that the problem is the very existence of the state of Israel. All the abuses of human rights, all the repression and brutality, is the logical consequence of the existence of Israel. It is pointless calling on the Israeli state to behave itself, as if it actually could do so. The state of Israel has to be dismantled – and, of course, the only people who can do that are the Palestinians, in alliance with progressive forces which emerge in Israel in opposition to Zionism and/or with the wider Arab masses in the context of an Arab-wide revolution which remakes the entire region.
Thirdly, calling for imperialist institutions, whether the United Nations or the US or British or New Zealand governments, to broker some kind of new peace deal, or make the Israeli state see the error of its ways, simply compounds the obstacles faced by the Palestinians and gets in the way of building an effective solidarity movement based on the principle of support for Palestinian self-determination.
Fourthly, we can best show solidarity with the Palestinian liberation movement by exposing the nature of the Israeli state and supporting the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Within this context, leftists in New Zealand have a particular responsibility in providing political and material support for the most progressive sections of the Palestinian movement, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Lastly, for workers and progressive people generally in New Zealand, supporting the Palestinian struggle is in their interests. It’s not a matter of feeling sorry for the “poor Palestinians”; it’s a matter of class solidarity. Workers here are part of a global class and our class will not come to think of itself as a class without identifying with the oppressed here and globally. Moreover, workers will not be liberated anywhere without an understanding that we need to be liberated everywhere.