Pros and Cons of Solidarity with the Palestinian Struggle

11 Jul


            The posture of solidarity with the struggle of ‘the other’ is more complex than it might appear at first glance. It seems a simple act to join with others in opposing severe injustice and cruelty, especially when its reality is experienced and witnessed first-hand as I have for several decades in relation to the Palestinian struggle. I was initially led to understand the Palestinian (counter-) narrative by friends while still a law student in the late 1950s. But my engagement was more in the spirit of resisting what Noam Chomsky would later teach us to call ‘indoctrination in a liberal society,’ a matter of understanding how the supposedly objective media messes with our mind in key areas of policy sensitivity, and none has turned out in the West, especially in North America, to be more menacingly stage managed than the presentation of Palestinians and their struggle, which merge with sinister forms of racial and religious profiling under the labels of ‘the Arab mind’ and ‘Muslim extremism.’ The intended contrast to be embedded in Western political consciousness is between the bloodthirsty Arab/Palestinian/Muslim and the Western custodian of morality and human rights.


            Perhaps, for very personal reasons I had since childhood taken the side of the less privileged in whatever domain the issue presented itself, whether in sports or family life or in relation to race and sexual identity, and professionally, in foreign policy. Despite being white and attracted sexually only to women, I found myself deeply moved by the ordeal in democratic America of African Americans, gays, and later, members of indigenous communities. I have sustained these affinities despite a long career that involved swimming upstream in the enclaves of the privileged as a longtime member of the Princeton University faculty.


            In recent years, partly by chance, most of these energies of solidarity have been associated with the Palestinian struggle, which has involved mainly in my case the bearing of witness to abuses endured by the Palestinian people living under occupation or in varying forms of exile, especially in my role as UN Special Rapporteur. This is an unpaid position, and affords me a much higher degree of independence than is enjoyed by normal UN career civil servants or diplomats serving a particular government. Many of these individuals work with great dedication and taken on dangerous assignments, but are expected to conform to institutional discipline that is exercised in a deadly hierarchical manner that often links the UN to the grand strategy and geopolitical priorities of a West-centric world order. This structure itself seems more and more out of step with the rise of the non-West in the last several decades. Just days ago the Indian representative at the UN called for a restructuring of the Security Council to get rid of its anachronistic cast of characteristics that overvalues the West and undervalues the rest.


            Bearing witness involves being truthful and as factually accurate as possible, regardless of what sort of consensus is operative in the corridors of power. In a biased media and a political climate that is orchestrated from above, the objectivity of bearing witness will itself be challenged as ‘biased’ or ‘one-sided’ whenever it ventures onto prohibited terrain. In actuality, the purpose of bearing witness is to challenge bias, not to perpetuate it, but in our Orwellian media world, it is bias that is too often presented as balanced, and truth witnessing that is either ignored or derided.


             The witness of unwelcome truths should always exhibit a posture of humility, not making judgments about the tactics of struggle employed by those fighting against oppression, and not supplying the solutions for those whose destinies are directly and daily affected by a deep political struggle. To do otherwise is to pretend to be thea purveyor of greater wisdom and morality than those enduring victimization. In the Palestine/Israel conflict it is up to the parties, the peoples themselves and their authentic representatives, to find the path to a sustainable and just peace, although it seems permissible for outsiders to delineate the distribution of rights that follow from an application of international law and to question whether the respective peoples are being legitimately represented.


            These comments reflect my reading of a passionate and provocative essay by Linah Alsaafin entitled “How obsession with ‘non-violence’ harms the Palestinian cause,” which was published online in the Electronic Intifada on July 11, 2012. The burden of her excellent article is the insistence that it is for the Palestinians, and only the Palestinians, to decide on the forms and nature of their resistance. She writes with high credibility as a recent graduate of Birzeit University who was born in Cardiff, Wales and lived in England and the United States, as well as Palestine. She persuasively insists that for sympathetic observers and allies to worship at the altar of Palestinian non-violence is to cede to the West the authority to determine what are acceptable and unacceptable forms of Palestinian struggle. This is grotesquely hypocritical considering the degree to which Western militarism is violently unleashed around the planet so as to maintain structures of oppression and exploitation, more benignly described as ‘national interests.’ In effect, the culturally sanctioned political morality of the West is indicative of an opportunistically split personality: nonviolence for your struggle, violence for ours. Well-meaning liberals, by broadcasting such an insidious message, are not to be welcomed as true allies.


            In this connection, I acknowledge my own carelessness in taking positive note of this shift in Palestinian tactics in the direction of nonviolent forms of resistance, being unwittingly paternalistic, if not complicit with an unhealthy ‘tyranny of the stranger.’ It is certainly not the case that Alsaafin is necessarily advocating Palestinian violence, but rather she is contending that unless the Palestinians realize that they must mobilize their own masses to shape their own destiny, which leads her to lament because it is not yet happening, nothing will change, and the occupiers and oppressors will continue to dominate the Palestinian scene. In effect, Alsaafin is telling us that deferring to Western canons of struggle is currently dooming Palestinians to apathy and despair.


            I find most of what Alsaafin has to say to be persuasive, illuminating, and instructive, although I feel she neglects to take note of the courage and mobilizing impact of the prison hunger strikes that have ignited the imagination of many Palestinians in recent months. Also, to some extent, my highlighting of nonviolence was never intended as an input into the Palestinian discourse or as favorable commentary, but seeks to challenge and expose the untrustworthiness of Western liberals who have for years been lecturing the Palestinians to abandon violence for the sake of effectiveness, arguing that a supposedly democratic and morally sensitive society such as they allege exists in Israel would be responsive to a nonviolent challenge by the Palestinians, and this would in turn lead to a more reasonable and fair negotiating approach by the Israelis out of which a just peace could emerge.  As should have been understood by the harsh Israeli responses to both intifadas, Israel turns a blind eye to Palestinian nonviolence, or even does its best to provoke Palestinian violence so as to have some justification for its own. And the usually noisy liberal pontificators such as Tom Friedman and Nicholas Kristof go into hiding whenever Palestinian creativity in resistance does have recourse to nonviolent tactics. These crown princes of liberal internationalism were both silent throughout the unfolding and dramatic stories of the various long hunger strikes. These were remarkable examples of nonviolent dedication that bear comparison with Gandhi’s challenges hurled at the British Empire or the later efforts of the IRA to awaken London to the horrors of prison conditions in Northern Ireland, and certainly were newsworthy.


            At the same time, there are some universal values at stake that Alsaafin does not pause to acknowledge. There are two of these truths intertwined in bewildering complexity: no outsider has the moral authority or political legitimacy to tell those enduring severe oppression how to behave; no act of violence whatever the motivation that is directed against an innocent child or civilian bystander is morally acceptable or legally permissible even if it seems politically useful. Terrorism is terrorism whether the acts are performed by the oppressor or the oppressed, and for humanity to move toward any kind of collective emancipation, such universal principles must be affirmed as valid, and respected by militants.


            Also absent from the article is any effort to situate the Palestinian struggle in an historical and geographic context. There are tactical realities in some situations of conflict that may make those who act in solidarity a vital part of the struggle that participate on the basis of their own political calculus. The Vietnamese recognized the importance of an autonomous Western peace movement in weakening the will of the American political establishment to continue with the Vietnam War. The global anti-apartheid campaign turned the tide in South Africa, and allowed the internal forces led by the African National Congress to prevail in their long struggle against settler colonial rule and racism. We all need to remember that each struggle has its own originality that is historically, politically, and culturally conditioned, and the Palestinian struggle is no exception.


            As Alsaafin powerfully reminds us who attempt to act in solidarity, while she is addressing a related message to the Palestinians, it is for the Palestinians to exert leadership and find inspiration, and for the rest of us to step to one side.  We must be humble for our sake as well as theirs, they must be assertive, and then our solidarity might make a welcome contribution a rather than unintentionally administering a mild depressant.   

11 Responses to “Pros and Cons of Solidarity with the Palestinian Struggle”

  1. Albert Guillaume July 12, 2012 at 5:36 am #

    As long as Israel dominates the American political scene, there is not much hope for fairness and peace for the Palestinians.
    They control the press, ergo the opinions and sentiment of the masses.
    The only hope the Palestinians have is, that the west makes a fatal mistake on the international chessboard of politics, which will cause a power-shift to the east. But will it happen in time for there being left a viable Palestinian nation, that then can take its rightful place in the family of nations.
    Who will carve the epitaph in the headstone of the empire, for which the grave is already being dug? And in which language will it be?

  2. Mark Braverman July 12, 2012 at 8:50 am #


    Thank you for this excellent and timely posting, and also for bringing Alsaafin’s important piece to our attention. Her perspective and reflections are very worthy of our attention as we as Americans consider our options in the face of the continuing colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestine taking place under our noses and with the diplomatic and financial support of our nation. I just came across this 1964 statement by Nelson Mandela quoted in Thompson’s history of South Africa:

    “…fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and few and fewer rights…[I]t would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching non-violence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force.”

    I have become increasingly aware of the limits — indeed the pernicious effects — of many of the approaches or so-called actions of “liberal” or “progressive” elements in our own civil society, often related to combatting “the occupation” but in fact serving to shore it up. One example is the resort to “positive investment” in the Palestinian economy as a counter to moves to divest church pension funds from companies like Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett Packard who are profiting from Israel’s illegal activities. Another gambit is the move to boycott “settlement goods,” now gaining in popularity as an alternative to the call for a comprehensive economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel. This serves to separate “occupation” from the Israel/US colonization machine, as if the settlers were not the creation of the state and could exist without the state’s support. Of course, these strategems serve to provide comfortable alternatives for liberals and progressives still not willing to run afoul of Zionist advocacy groups. The South African government in its own waning years in the late 1980s sought reform in the shape of economic investment in the Homelands. It’s interesting that Alsaafin also suggests how Palestinian nonviolent resistance efforts have been co-opted by the client government working for occupation powers.

    So as she counsels Israelis to return to their own society to work for change, we will do well to do the same, building our own grassroots movement to educate ourselves about the facts of the situation and developing ways to change our own government’s policy toward Israel. We can support the Palestinians by visiting them and hearing their voices.

    • Richard Falk July 13, 2012 at 3:35 am #

      Thanks, Mark, for such a perceptive comment. I especially valued your calling attention to the Mandela quote and to that part of Alsaafin’s analysis that suggests transforming our own reality before engaging our energies in the struggles of others. I hope you are fine, and continuing your important work of reflection and interpretation from a cultural/religious perspective. Greetings, Richard

      • Mark Braverman July 13, 2012 at 3:59 am #

        Thanks Richard — given the facts of this situation, focusing on building the grassroots movement in this country seems to me to be the most hopeful strategy for dislodging the catastrophic political situation over there. To that end, I’ve continued my work with the churches. They are moving along at an accelerated pace with boycott and divestment initiatives. The best models are what the churches did in the Civil Rights and anti-Apartheid movements. A very important development is the U.S. Christian Response to the Palestine Kairos document – I would be very interested in your thoughts when you have a chance to look at it. You can’t be a signatory — neither can I — but perhaps you would write a word of endorsement.

      • Richard Falk July 16, 2012 at 7:56 am #

        Mark: Ever since I was a student of Paul Tillich at Harvard in the late 1950s I have been very drawn to kairos thinking, and I will definitely look at the website, and in all likelihood offer an endorsement. Greetings, Richard

  3. rehmat1 July 12, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    Well, the Zionist regime showed its arrogance once again. Netanyahu has rejected the latest UNHRC panel to investigate the illegal Jewish settlements in PA territories.

    According to Israeli propagandists the three females are “unfit” to judge Israel’s treatment of native population in the occupied territories – because Justice Christine Chanet, based on her personal experience in the past, said that “it’s very difficult to have real dialogue” with the Zionist entity. Asma Jahangir , a former President of Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association – is sister of Hina Jilani who was on the UN’s Goldstone Commission in 2009. The commission was chaired by Justice Richard Goldstone, a Zionist Jew from South Africa. Justice Unity Dow, is the first female Justice of Botswana High Court. She is also an author and human rights activist.

  4. Rabbi Ira Youdovin July 16, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Prof. Falk,

    Recently, you’ve been championing and celebrating Palestinian non-violence. Suddenly, an article by Linah Alsaafin you found posted on the Electronic Intifada moves you to do a 180, proclaiming a mea culpa acknowledging your “carelessness,” and being “unwittingly paternalistic, if not complicit with an unhealthy ‘tyranny of the stranger.” After decades of deep involvement with the Palestinians, isn’t this reversal more than a little abrupt?

    You claim Alsaafin isn’t advocating Palestinian violence. Isn’t that stretching things a bit, as the title of her article is “How Obsession with Non-Violence Harms the Palestinian Cause”? She trashes Salaam Fayyad, and elsewhere, she does the same to Mahmoud Abbas and the entire Palestinian Authority for urging non-violence.

    Who is Linah Alsaafin? You make no mention of having had any contact with her, but write that she has “high credibility” because (1) she was born in Cardiff, Wales; (2) she’s a recent graduate of Birzeit University; and (3) she’s lived in England, the United States and Palestine.

    Let’s look at these bona fides. (1) I’m not a historian so maybe I’ve missed why Welsh lineage gives one “high credibility” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (2) Based on your many years teaching at Princeton, one of America’s foremost universities, would you say that merely studying there qualifies one as an expert on New Jersey? (3) Ditto for merely living in Palestine, especially as Ms. Alsaafin apparently has spent a substantial part of her young life living elsewhere.

    I sense that you really don’t favor violence over non-violence. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) On the other hand, the root of your enthusiastic response to Alsaafin’s article is equally troubling. She says, and you agree, that outsiders have no right to criticize Palestinian policy and tactics, for any reason. I emphasize “for any reason” because that tells staunch supporters like yourself that your support is welcome, so long as you don’t utter one critical word, even if your intent is trying to help the Palestinian People achieve an independent state.
    While her point that only Palestinians are entitled to determine their objectives and strategy is self-evident, telling allies that they must check their values at the door is problematical.

    We in the North American Jewish community have dealt with this issue as it applies to our relationship with Israel. Is it fair to Israel and to our own integrity to withhold criticism, especially when its intent is to help steer Israel away from an ill-advised tack? I believe that neither you nor most your readers appreciate the volume of criticism publicly directed at Israel by North American Jews. Indeed, because we are by no means homogeneous in our political views, criticism comes from folks who oppose the occupation, as well as from folks who advocate annexing the entire West Bank.

    At the present time, the Palestinian body politic is rent by controversy over violence vs. non-violence, as well as the more basic question of whether to settle for nothing short of annihilating Israel (Hamas) or seeking an independent, prosperous and secure Palestinian state living in peaceful co-existence with the Jewish state (PA). The latter leads to a brighter future for both Israelis and Palestinians. The former condemns Palestinians to a long, futile and increasingly lonely struggle.

    As my Bubbe (Jewish grandmother) might have said, “A little wise advice wouldn’t hurt,” even if it comes from the outside.

    Rabbi Ira Youdovin

    • Richard Falk July 17, 2012 at 2:22 am #

      Dear Rabbi Youdovin:

      As usual you raise a series of difficult and complex questions that I find hard to handle because you misunderstand my own position in several key places for which I accept some responsibility, especially with word choice and greater clarity about I am trying to express.

      Actually, my favorable response to her Linah Alsaafin’s article was rooted in my experience in the American civil rights movement. I came to realize there how much resentment was caused by white liberals telling black activists how to conduct their struggle. She reminded me that I was to some extent guilty of similar arrogance in relation to the Palestinians.

      As for her ‘credibility,’ I was making a simple point that she was both an outsider and an insider, and that gave her voice some authority. I have no idea whether she is an expert or not, but I found that her assessments, while overstated in some respects, called my attention to some issues that I had not been sensitive about.

      On nonviolence, I read her title as making two points: first, that the Western obsession with Palestinian nonviolence was particularly inappropriate because of the reluctance to criticize Israeli excessive violence, including in the manner in which its prison system abuses Palestinian children. And secondly, that it is not up to those not suffering from oppressive violence to tell those who are seeking to resist what tactics they should employ. As one reader of the post pointed out to me Nelson Mandela made the exact point in 1965 when he reacted with scorn to the advice of Western liberals to the ANC, asking the rhetorical question, “what has nonviolence done to help our cause?” and answering it by saying “Nothing except to have our nonviolent actions met with even great violence.” (these are not his exact words, but does convey his meaning)

      My own convictions are strongly aligned with Gandhi, King and nonviolent struggle for justice, and that personal outlook may have spilled over into my comments on the shift in Palestinian tactics. My main point, however, is the hypocrisy of liberal pundits who have been insisting on the efficacy of Palestinian nonviolent tactics given their view of Israel as a morally sensitive society, and then their stony silence when such tactics are relied upon.

      As for North American Jews exhibiting diverse views toward Israel, we again have very different understandings. Sure Peace Now Zionists can disagree with pro-settlement Zionists, but if the disagreement questions the premises of Zionism, then I find intolerance by the main organs of Jewish opinion, reinforced by allegations of ‘anti-semitism’ ‘self-hating Jew’ and the like.
      Besides, I was not talking about diaspora Palestinians counseling the Palestinian struggles against occupation, but about non-Palestinians instructing the Palestinians on how to conduct their struggle.

      Finally, it is in my view a mistake to treat Hamas as ‘terrorist’ movement at this stage. Its leaders have repeatedly stated their interest in living in peace with Israel if it withdraws to the 1967 borders. Of course, there are Palestinians who continue to threaten 1948 and 1967 Israel, but they are minority, and a distinction should be drawn between questioning Israel’s legitimacy and accepting its reality. Britain moved toward peace in Northern Ireland only when it accepted the IRA as a political actor and the IRA accommodated the realities of a divided Ireland even though the IRA never abandoned its belief expressed in foundational documents that the division of Ireland was illegitimate and an imperialist move.

      I am not sure that you will be much appeased by this effort of mine to respond, but I thank you for making me think a bit deeper about my views.

  5. tweetpalestine July 17, 2012 at 3:58 am #

    As an activist living in Palestine I could write a book to comment on what Lina wrote …but i would like ppl to understand that what she wrote was based on her experience in popular resistance that is no longer than 6 months, after which she decided to become a journalist apparently and no longer identifies her self as an activist or attends popular resistance protests! I would have hoped that knowing lina personally she would have used her criticism to work on developing the movement from inside but i guess it is much easier to critic the work of others than trying to change it! Another point the quotation she used in the article are taken in a journalistically unethical manner, from personal conversations with other activists and without informing them about the article. There are so many opinions in Palestine regarding popular resistance, i would have hoped Richared would have taken into consideration that her views merely represent her and the majority of activists that attend popular resistance protests and work in them for years now do not share this opinion. That being said there is a lot of criticism on certain issues within popular resistance from activists, which are dealt with and discussed usually amongst activists to try and find solutions! i urge you to read this article

    And thanks for the article and support

    • Richard Falk July 17, 2012 at 4:14 am #

      I appreciate your comments and will try to become better informed about these issues. I was responding to her article from the perspective of someone who is neither Palestinian nor living under occupation, and felt she expressed some important cautionary reminders to those of us who seek to act in solidarity, but with political sensitivity. Thanks for your sharing your understanding of the situation of popular struggle.


  1. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » Pros and Cons of Solidarity with the Palestinian Struggle - July 16, 2012

    […] Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).Go to Original – Join the BDS-BOYCOTT, DIVESTMENT, SANCTIONS campaign to protest the Israeli barbaric siege of […]

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