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On Palestine, change is underway. Despite the best efforts of Binyamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama and John Boehner, the Palestinian cause is gaining ground in the American mainstream – a necessary step for changing the reality on the ground. Just how much we have gained was evident in downtown Manhattan in the first week of October.
The first Russell Tribunal was convened by Bertrand Russell in 1966 in opposition to the American war in Vietnam. Jean Paul-Sartre and Julio Cortazar were only two of about 30 Tribunal members who gathered to review evidence of war crimes. Their activism led to a condemnation of the war and a non-binding, but morally profound verdict finding that crimes against humanity had been committed.
The 36 years since the first Tribunal was organised have seen the model replicated to highlight crimes in Chile and Iraq. Today, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine is the latest citizens’ reaction to a monumental injustice. Israeli apartheid has been permitted to metastasise unimpeded across Palestinian lives – and that has galvanised the human rights community.
I attended the New York session of the Tribunal – the fourth in a global series – on October 6. The discussions took place at Cooper Union, a venerable American institution of higher learning in downtown Manhattan. The auditorium hosting the Tribunal was full of participants and members of the media. On stage, Alice Walker, Roger Waters and others bore witness as evidence of apartheid was presented by a range of experts.
The fact that the gathering had been organised at a prominent venue in the heart of New York City was significant. Equally notable was the lack of visible protesters or disturbances at Cooper Union or in the surrounding area. By contrast, a small group of Palestine activists would have been greeted by zealous anti-Palestinian protests only a few years ago.
The difference indicates a change in American views. While there are numerous causes for it – including Israeli arrogance in Washington – civil society activism continues to be the most potent driver of progress. In other words, meetings like the Russell Tribunal on Palestine are driving normative change. In turn, that change strengthens the justice movement and enables meetings like the Tribunal to convene.
Organised gatherings like the Tribunal represent only one of three mutually reinforcing platforms of the Palestine justice movement in the US. Student and new media activism also contribute a great deal in changing perceptions of what is happening on the ground.
Activism at universities
Not surprisingly, some of the most committed social justice work takes place at universities. Politically conscious students were some of the most effective campaigners against the war in Vietnam, segregation in the American south and discrimination against LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) individuals. The university environment – with its high degree of ideological cross-pollination – allowed young people to learn from prominent activists like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky who helped cultivate their commitment to social justice.
Activism at universities is particularly notable for its self-propulsion and reliance on forward movement. In an environment where membership in organisations is subject to high levels of turnover, new ideas and energy are elemental parts of building an on-campus movement.
Today, that energy and focus on growth means that the national Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) movement is flourishing at an unprecedented rate. Young Americans of all races are taking a stand against apartheid in Palestine. If Palestine is anything like Vietnam, civil rights, or South Africa – and I believe it is – then their movement on this issue portends a policy change in the future.
The growth in student activism cannot be completely set apart from the role that new journalism and media are playing in highlighting occupation. Much of the video footage that has helped to move public opinion in the US has been recorded by citizen-journalists.
Young people who engaged at the undergraduate level are particularly good at adopting new technologies in service of their activism. Furthermore, many of them continue to participate in disseminating news and information after they have graduated and entered the workforce. Their inter-connectedness across social media facilitates the process of debunking hasbara, or Israeli propaganda, at a faster clip than it can be generated. Crucially, mendacity is not a viable tactic in an internet age.
Finally, new potency is being invested in the Palestine justice movement by veteran activists of other struggles. The impact of this relatively new phenomenon has been enormous. Gatherings like the Russell Tribunal help to reinforce the tendency of people like Sarah Schulman and Naomi Klein to work for justice in Palestine. Their work helps to generate support for the movement among other veterans who can offer valuable experience and tactical support.
For instance, one of the most important developments these past several weeks has been the emergence of a pro-justice Christian coalition in the US. A group of 15 ecumenical groups signalled a willingness to take on that most sacred of cows, American military aid to the Jewish-privilege state, when they sent a letter to Congress requesting a policy review . Their moral courage has resulted in defamatory campaign waged by several Jewish establishment groups. So far, the coalition’s resolve has not wavered.
As the conversation about Palestine matures and develops in the US, gatherings like the Russell Tribunal will only proliferate. The virtuous circle produced by different types of activism helps drive more types of engagement amongst different segments of society. These mutually reinforcing processes drive normative change. And as the organisers of the Tribunal know, that work is an indispensable part of what it takes to defeat apartheid.
Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American graduate student of Public Policy at Harvard University and co-editor of After Zionism (Saqi Books, July 2012).