Can occupiers struggle alongside the occupied?

6 February 2014

The question of how Israeli activists should act when offering support or solidarity to Palestinians is a troubling and recurrent theme.

Organizations such as Peace Now have often revealed themselves to be essentially Zionist, more concerned with peace for their own society than justice for Palestinians. The history of Israeli-Palestinian relations has been peppered with “dialogue” projects which offer Israelis ways to demonstrate how “reasonable” they are in speaking to “the enemy” but present no challenge to the fundamentals of the occupation.

Anarchists Against the Wall (AK Press) is a small book about an organization that has tried — with varying success — to be very different. Anarchists Against the Wall (AATW), as a group, has tried to “stress that we are not equal partners but rather occupiers who join the occupied in their struggle” and to highlight that it is the “relentless popular resistance movement” of Palestinians which “embodies all that is dignified and human about the struggle for freedom and equality.”

The values inherent in this include the necessity of outside activists establishing whether they are wanted or welcome in a Palestinian community, rather than just assuming that their presence is desired or useful.

Edited by Uri Gordon and Ohal Grietzer, Anarchists Against the Wall includes contributions by Adi Winter, Adar Grayevsky, Yanay Israeli, Jonathan Pollak, Leehee Rothschild, Kobi Snitz, Roy Wagner, Tali Shapiro, Sarah Assouline, Iris Arieli, Uri Ayalon, Yossi Bartal, Ruth Edmonds and Chen Misgav.

The book itself is divided into two sections. Following a broad-brush history of AATW — influenced by Palestinian and international movements from the second intifada, it emerged in protest camps set up against Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank during 2003 — the first section is composed of “official” documents.

These set out AATW’s main positions and arguments, giving a sense of the ideas and priorities which have driven them.

Snapshots of struggle

These offer snapshots of historical moments in the struggle against Israel’s wall and settlements, and of AATW’s desire to build an alternative language to that of the increasingly right-wing “peace” movement. As early as 2003, we see Israeli activists using terms that are now commonplace among international activists — describing the situation as “apartheid” and the West Bank as a “ghetto … being built by Jews.”

Other early documents include clearly articulated anarchist principles, focusing on “pragmatic rather than ideological” methods of resistance. A January 2004 declaration uses the phrase “no masters and no slaves” — echoing the anarchist slogan “No Gods, No Masters” — and insisting that “the Berlin Wall was not dismantled by rulers and agreements but rather by citizens who felled it with their own hands.”

In the second part of the book, individuals who have been part of AATW reflect on their experiences. This is, perhaps, the section that some will find less comfortable to read.

When Israeli activists talk about the experiences of seeing comrades injured and of being isolated from Israeli mainstream society, it is always tempting to ask: but how does this compare to what Palestinian activists go through?

There is always a danger, in focusing on the experiences of activists from privileged positions, of self-indulgence and solipsism. Anarchists Against the Wall argues, however, that there is a “legitimate space” for discussing movement dynamics in the interests of improving them.

Disproportionate attention

As Anarchists Against the Wall suggests, the attention that is sometimes focused on the group, often disproportionate to its numbers and impact, has not necessarily been sought, but is the result of international activists who have “projected more of their aspirations and hopes on us than we deserve.” This is a problem of global injustices (Israeli rather than Palestinian activists often find it easier to get visas and pay for flights), but also one of the racism embedded in Western activists, who find it easier to talk to someone who is socially and linguistically “like them.”

Anarchists Against the Wall, therefore, raises important issues which are often under-discussed in all movements, especially those concerned with “solidarity” or being “allies.” These include problems of burnout, machismo, martyr-complexes, informal hierarchies, and the challenges of maintaining radical analyses and positions while not seeming gratuitously weird or extreme in the eyes of “ordinary” people.

These may be discussed in a specific Israeli context — for instance, the failure of “radicals” involved in the Sheikh Jarrah campaign in occupied East Jerusalem to find useful ways of articulating the fundamental inconsistencies of the “soft left” and Zionist peace movement positions.

But there are lessons here for radical movements much more widely.

To what extent are our choices of tactics informed by our own desires to appear radical or daring, rather than an assessment of their effectiveness? What happens when activist “lifestyles” alienate those who are politically sympathetic but socially “mainstream”?

Some of the more specific issues also expose the dynamics of the Israeli Zionist mainstream, and provide a useful counter to narratives which separate the actions of the Israeli state or the army from “ordinary Israelis.”

“We’re all responsible”

One contributor clearly states, “To me, Israeli citizens are the ones to point the finger at; they are the ones who elected these politicians … they … are the ones who do not revolt against racism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing … despite this powerful indoctrination, we are all responsible for our actions.”

Personal accounts contradict the idea that activists have to be “red-diaper babies” or social loners. Many are “normal” people who, whether through slow processes of radicalization or “road-to-Damascus” incidents, have faced up to the inconsistencies on which their privileged positions depend.

While the occupation is a key part of this, many also engage with the fundamental racism of Israeli society and its prejudice against and exploitation of asylum-seekers and non-Jewish migrant workers.

Anarchists Against the Wall, and the book that it has produced, are not perfect, and do not purport to have definitive “answers.” The members and editors involved are the first to admit that. But this little collection asks important questions, and tries to answer them with courage, realism and honesty.

There are significant points here for those struggling for a just peace in the Middle East. But more than that, there are valuable lessons for anyone trying to build healthy radical movements across the globe.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.

Comments

is prone to it as well.
“the Berlin Wall was not dismantled by rulers and agreements but rather by citizens who felled it with their own hands.”
It was dismantled as the result of imperialist take-over of the USSR (and DDR). And, of course, it had nothing to do with the aparteid wall. It was built as a protection against imperialist dirty secret war.

It seems that in Israel, as well as in the West anti-USSR ideology is still something of a must for leftists, being a simple result of non-critical repeating of imperialist propaganda. Sure the lies are not helping to fight a typical imperialist force like Zionism.

And, of course, anyone hoping for more or less mass movement or even support from Israel Jews for the rights of Palestinians is just kidding oneself. AATW is the tiny minority, as well as other anti-Zionist Jews in Israel.

A book by occupiers about not being occupiers? Sounds legit.

If they were serious they would not have written this book. This seems to be the flip side of finding token "authentic" Palestinians who have been screened by XYZ group of left-leaning Jews, namely, left-leaning Jews talking about Palestinian leadership.

Give me a break. If that was the idea that they wanted to express, they could have at least gotten some diversity among the voices that expressed it -- AKA not just self-described "occupiers" basically engaged in narcissism about their own privileged status.

It's also worth noting that this is hardly an "Israeli" problem, as Israelis include Palestinian citizens of Israel, African immigrants, and crazy people like Gilad Atzmon. This is a WHITE, JEWISH problem -- and it doesn't just exist in small Israeli anarchist outfits in the West Bank, it also exists in the so-called Palestine solidarity movement in the UK and the United States, where virtually every "legitimate" Palestinian rights organization is staffed by, led by, or explicitly represented by Jewish people, along with token Palestinians who are more interested in gate-keeping for phantom "anti-Semites" than discussing the very real racism against Arabs and Muslims that simply gets reproduced in leftist outfits. This is a larger problem for the left -- the left in the West is largely just a movement of white people trying to grapple with their own identities and privileges, within which Jewishness is reproduced as another form of whiteness through its presentation as a colonial opposite to Palestinian indigenes.

As for Anarchists Against the Wall, anyone who has dealt with their members knows that many of them embrace the very privilege that is criticized above. Many of the ones who speak out about "privilege" do not even know what it means -- they think it simply means recognizing that as Jews and Israelis, they are given certain advantages that others don't have. Bullshit. It means they not only have those advantages, but also have social power, increased legitimacy, and greater authority even in the annals of dissent, and that even hypothetical, non-existent threats to their well-being (i.e. phantom anti-Semitism) are more important and more significant priorities than opposing very real, systematic racism a la Zionism -- something that prominent left groups in the United States and UK often refuse to condemn (i.e. Jewish Voice for Peace, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation).

And that means even the groups that condemn this reality often themselves reproduce the very problem they claim to be criticizing -- as with this book, which is like reading a sign that says "Do Not Read This Sign" or "This Pen is Blue" (written in red). Same thing with many male feminists (I'm a man feminist, listen to me, I've overcome my oppression, oh and please sleep with me, and then read this book I wrote about female leadership).

I doubt that either Joe Smack (or Lidia) read the book or knows much about AATW. Rather than engage with endless and insoluble questions about 'privilege' AATW subordinates itself to Palestinian initiative in order to attack dispossession directly. In this case, privilege theory is a necessary first move for political action but ultimately it tells us little about the group's dynamic. I think this confuses Joe Smack. He can't understand that despite its modest theoretical commitments to anti-privilege and moral suasion the real work AATW does is in physically confronting the compromises imposed by Israel on the Palestinians. The determination they bring to this work has helped forge what is currently the strongest link between insurgent Palestinians and Israelis.

mean well. I pointed to their ideological subordination to the staple of imperilaist propaganda, at least in one case. No more no less.

"it means they not only have those advantages, but also have social power, increased legitimacy, and greater authority even in the annals of dissent, and that even hypothetical, non-existent threats to their well-being"

This is a list of advantages.