When past activism meets present

Protestors hold a sign reading: Occupy Blinken's house

Pro-Palestinian protesters set up tents across from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Arlington home on 27 January to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Probal Rashid ZUMAPRESS

The horrifying Israeli assault on Gaza has revealed an indisputable shift in American public opinion, with demonstrably greater sympathy for Palestinians than existed even 10 years ago.

The global support for a ceasefire surpasses the growing grassroots support in the United States and Canada, showing Israel and the United States losing support and becoming increasingly isolated. Astute, capable young organizers and activists continue to rally appeals to conscience and press for policy changes in the region.

At the same time, many, if not most, remain unaware of activities undertaken in prior years. Can those activities, and the lessons learned offer any relevance or insight to this new generation of leadership?

In 1983, the UN convened an International Conference on the Question of Palestine for member states. The UN also conducted an historic Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) meeting in a parallel track, the culmination of months of planning and outreach.

Over 100 NGOs, primarily from Europe and the USA, but including Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, deliberated for days and launched a new international grassroots movement.

Its success resulted in the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP) and the Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR) reframing their program of work to focus on the development of an NGO network. The International Coordinating Committee of NGOs on the Question of Palestine (ICCP) came into being.

Over the next 15 years, the movement that this gathering launched would bolster United Nations advocacy and public information efforts, provide a platform for thought leaders, and encourage dialogue and unified organizing efforts among disparate organizations across continents.

Common commitment

In addition, these meetings facilitated discussion – sometimes quite tense – between and among NGO leaders and Palestinian national leadership on multiple issues, among them the relationship between a liberation struggle and a solidarity movement, the transition from liberation movement to national authority, the role of NGOs in civil society and more.

Eventually, more than 1,200 NGOs affiliated with the ICCP and their activities would grow beyond simply organizing an annual symposium. Yet, today, few who were not intimately involved remain aware of the movement and its contributions to supporting Palestinian human and national rights.

In addition to the international UN-sponsored symposium, regional symposia occurred around the globe. In North America, this led to the founding of the North American Coordinating Committee (NACC), a bi-national coalition that included 75-100 North American organizations.

Some were large complex national organizations such as mainline Protestant Christian denominations, secular peace and justice organizations, and even one of North America’s largest and most progressive trade unions, the Canadian Autoworkers.

Others were smaller, often community-based solidarity or peace organizations. There were Arab-American and Jewish-American organizations.

Altogether, its constituent members conducted education and advocacy campaigns, lobbied, organized demonstrations and sit-ins, provided humanitarian relief and development assistance and more. In short, they ran the full gamut of nonviolent activities. The NACC itself organized and coordinated an urgent action network of nearly 100 organizations, and published an annual resource directory.

Moreover, the ICCP, the NACC, and other regional bodies (such as the European, Asian and African Coordinating Committees) conducted their activities with extraordinarily limited resources. Neither the international nor the North American office ever had more than one staff person.

However, what bound these disparate organizations together – both at the international as well as the regional level – was a common commitment to what became known, generally, as a “two-state solution” as outlined in UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and all other relevant UN Resolutions. That is, organizations affiliating through the UN affirmed their commitment to a negotiated solution.

This provided a framework that proved acceptable to the affiliated organizations while sidestepping certain other aspects. Some organizations, for example, defined themselves as anti-Zionist, while others did not take a position or even considered themselves Zionist. There were additional organizations that did not formally affiliate yet would send “observers” to the symposia and often asked to be included in activities such as the urgent action network.

What comes next?

The demise of the ICCP and the NACC remains a complicated picture that deserves serious attention and discussion. Factors included the demise of several secular organizations, the severe loss of membership and reduction of resources among mainline Protestant denominations, and even the attitude of the Palestinian leadership at the UN itself.

Nevertheless, the achievements of the ICCP and the NACC, as well as their demise, offer lessons that might be of value to a new generation. Furthermore, it raises pressing questions for today’s leaders.

What comes after the current crisis passes?

Can the new generation identify and enact a framework that will encourage cooperation, thus bolstering their efforts? Can they identify and implement sustainable operations? For an earlier generation, the UN provided a framework that conveyed legitimacy and convening power. Is it possible that the UN might once again provide such a framework? If not, can the new generation find or invent a suitable framework for themselves?

Equally important, what strategies should be adopted in the face of mounting opposition – much of it unprincipled bullying, intimidation and disinformation.

This is already taking place.

Character assassination, ad hominem attacks and perceived guilt by association are being launched against young professionals and others speaking out in support of Palestinian rights and challenging Israel’s unbridled military campaign.

Sadly, one lesson from the past is that emerging leaders must prepare for the possibility that attempts to silence them could escalate to include violence, attempted infiltration or burglary and vandalism. ICCP and NACC leaders could document and amplify all of these reprehensible activities that were directed against them and will likely be deployed against emerging leaders, particularly as those used to dominating public discourse find themselves increasingly in the minority.

An encouraging positive lesson drawn from the ICCP and NACC experience is that the effort put into building an effective coalition can produce unexpected positive results. Building an effective coalition takes time, energy and commitment. Human relationships help overcome disparate organizational outlooks, and so, with the ICCP and the NACC one could find committed atheists respectfully working alongside church leaders.

But, organizations, like people, often have boundaries that need to be respected. Coordination does not mean domination, nor does it require agreement on everything. Nevertheless, identifying common principles and undertaking coordinated actions bolster and give greater emphasis to those areas where common agreement occurs.

Although some may argue it is premature, the question of what comes next must be addressed, particularly given the threat to a rules-based order and international law posed by this crisis.

Revise the narrative

Once the crisis abates, how to maintain momentum and sustain gains? The measurable change in public opinion creates a new and unprecedented opportunity to transform the narrative and introduce lasting change. Clearly, US policymakers are already working to fashion their own answer – activists need to be doing the same.

The question of sustainability was perhaps the single greatest challenge that a prior generation of leaders proved unable to solve. Beyond that, here are some possible avenues to pursue:

First, revise the narrative.

To a certain extent, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has helped transform the dominant narrative. Continue to challenge the simplistic and destructive binary narrative of “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian.” It is not and never has been a binary political equation and the people promoting this do an injustice to men and women of conscience and goodwill – not to mention a great many ordinary citizens – who refuse to accept this simplistic idea.

We all have met Palestinians, who, were roles reversed, would treat Israelis the way that they are currently being treated – or worse. Similarly, we have met Israelis who want far worse for Palestinians. At the same time, our lives have been enriched by the many Israelis and Palestinians who genuinely seek peace and coexistence.

Second, rally continued support for Palestinian national and human rights.

Whether two states or one, the inequities should continue to be pointed out and basic rights affirmed. Somewhat related, advocates need to convey the importance of protecting the Palestinian people. Insist on aid that begins to approximate US aid to Israel.

Third, reduce aid to Israel. When even former US ambassadors are calling for a reduction in aid, this should be pursued.

This is far from a complete listing of vital concerns, but it may be a place to begin.

As painful and anguishing as the current moment may be, it compels us to embrace collaborative strategic thinking that includes forging viable coalitions dedicated to securing and protecting the human and national rights of the Palestinian people.

It is also important that, even as we confront an immediate horrifying crisis, we continue to look forward as well as learn from the past.

For an earlier generation, the UN provided a framework that conveyed legitimacy and convening power. Is it possible that the UN might once again provide such a framework? If not, can the new generation find or invent a suitable framework for themselves?

This article represents a collaborative effort among people whose collective involvement totals more than two hundred years.

Kathy Bergen was the General Secretary of the International Coordinating Committee for Non-governmental Organizations on the Question of Palestine in Geneva from 1990 until 1994. Of the 43 years she worked on Palestine/Israel issues, she worked in Jerusalem for nine years and in Ramallah for 7 1/2 years.

Don Betz is a former professor of political science and retired university president. He was a liaison officer for the United Nations International Conference on the Question of Palestine (ICQP) in 1983, with a concentration on non-governmental organization participation, and in the Division for Palestinian Rights. Betz served as the Chair of the International Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine (ICCP) from 1984 onwards. The ICCP network expanded to over 1200 organizations worldwide.

Larry Ekin served five terms as the Chair of the North American Coordinating Committee. In cooperation with the Middle East Council of Churches, he founded the Ecumenical Travel Office and personally led more than 20 delegations to the region. He is the author of Enduring Witness: The Palestinians and The Churches and other publications.

Rev. Dr. Don Wagner is a retired professor of Middle East studies, Presbyterian clergyperson, and human rights activist. He was the National Director of the Palestine Human Rights campaign from 1980-89 and member of the NAAC Steering Committee and of the International Steering Committee during the 1980s.