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Palestine Activism in an Anti-Racist Framework

Acting in Faith  |  By Mike Merryman-Lotze, Aug 10, 2015

Raise your voices against all oppression (www.ryanrodrickbeiler.com)

Photo: AFSC / www.ryanrodrickbeiler.com

Though this piece, an exploration of working within an anti-racist framework in all work against oppression, but particularly in the movement to end the occupaton of Palestinian territory, is a personal statement by Mike Merryman-Lotze, it does reflect AFSC's organizational position with regard to this issue. Update, Sept. 7, 2016: Alison Weir wrote a response to this blog postWhile the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a member of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Mike Merryman-Lotze serves on its steering committee in an individual capacity, not as a representative of AFSC.  AFSC takes no position on the action of the US Campaign to End to the Israeli Occupation to break off its relationship with If Americans Knew.

Since late May the Palestine-Israel activist community has been roiled in controversy as a result of a decision made by Jewish Voice for Peace to disassociate from If Americans Knew and its director Alison Weir as well as the decision several months later by the US Campaign to End the Israel Occupation to remove Alison from its coalition for violating the US Campaign anti-racism policy.  The separate US Campaign and JVP actions came in response to Alison’s repeated use of media platforms provided by racists and anti-Semites to promote her views on Palestine and her public position that as a matter of principle she will continue to use any platform provided to her to speak about Palestine regardless of how else those platforms are used. 

The dispute between these organizations has opened discussions within activist and Quaker circles about what it means to work within an anti-racist framework and about whether such a framework is important to Palestine-Israel activism.     AFSC constituents have expressed concerns regarding how racism is or should be identified, defined, and addressed in Palestine activism, and these questions apply more broadly.   In my role at AFSC many of these questions have come to me and that is what leads me to write this note.

I should state from the start that I am not a disinterested party in this process.  In late May I wrote two public notes in a personal capacity raising concerns about the position taken by If Americans Knew and I communicated my concerns directly to If Americans Knew while dialoguing over email with Alison.  I am also a member of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation’s Steering Committee and was involved with its decision making process on this issue.  I support the US Campaign decision, believing that it must enforce its anti-Racism principles if it wants to remain a coalition for justice and that those principles were violated by If Americans Knew.

In noting my connection to this controversy, I also want to be clear that I am not motivated by either personal or organizational animus.  I don’t know Alison personally and haven’t worked with If Americans Knew.  My only direct interactions with Alison occurred when I was working in Ramallah during the Second Intifada and Alison visited the organization I worked for during her first trips to Palestine.  The growth of If Americans Knew over the last 15 years is impressive and many of the materials that it has produced are excellent.  I do not want to take away from the good work that If Americans Knew and Alison have done over the years.  At the same time, those good works cannot be used as an excuse to ignore other problematic actions and positions.     

My motivation for writing about this issue in May and for publishing this statement now is not to label, shame, or shun either Alison or If Americans Knew.  I also am not interested in focusing on the specific details of the If Americans Knew dispute which are addressed extensively in other locations.  However, I believe that it is important to address openly differences in principle within our movement.  I strongly disagree with the If Americans Knew position that it is OK not to vet speaking and publishing opportunities and that as activists we should, as a matter of principle, accept any platform offered to share our opinions.  I believe that these positions are a violation of the anti-Racist framework that must guide our activism and my goal here is to put forward both my thoughts regarding what it means to organize for Palestinian rights within an anti-Racist framework and how I reached these conclusions.  I offer these thoughts in a spirit of public dialogue and with an openness to being challenged. 

Towards and Understanding of anti-Racist organizing

Palestinians waiting in Hebron by Peter ShaeferIn putting forward my views I think it is important to explain who I am and how I came to my positions on these issues.  First, I am a straight, white, protestant male and I understand that these and other aspects of my identity both shape and limit my understanding of race, racism, privilege, and rights.

I am not a natural activist.  I grew up in rural Washington State, living in a town of 500 people until I was six and then in an unincorporated community nine miles outside of a town of 3,000 until I left home for college.  My parents were missionaries before I was born as were my grandparents, several aunts and uncles, and now several cousins.  I grew up in the evangelical church.  This was not a diverse nor a liberal environment in which to grow up.  Activism was not a part of my life. 

At the same time, I grew up in a family where social justice was important.  My parents fit within the progressive evangelical camp and within our home there was always an emphasis on living out faith in ways that push forward justice.  While we attended mainline and evangelical churches throughout my childhood we also maintained a connection with a local Quaker meeting.  My parent’s connection to Quakerism began in the 1960s when my dad was a conscientious objector and my mom volunteered at a Quaker draft counseling center.  Although my grandfather became Presbyterian when he married my grandmother, the Lotze family roots are in the Brethren Church and the Brethren peace testimony was never left behind by our family.  Having family all over the world also helped me gain a globalized perspective that I otherwise might not have gained in a rural small town. 

My parents’ commitment to social justice influenced me but with clear limits.  Through my late twenties I had not developed solid understandings of power, privilege, race, or structural racism and injustice.  I grew up accepting the mainstream narrative about race which holds that racism was largely eradicated through the civil rights movement and that our job now is to be color blind and police our own actions.  Moving beyond this framing and to deeper understandings of power, privilege, race, and racism is an ongoing process and I recognize that I still have much to learn. 

My process of developing a deeper understanding of these issues developed as a direct result of my engagement in Palestine and Israel.  My first experience in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories came in 1996 when I spent 4 months in Jerusalem studying the conflict with Palestinian and Israeli professors.  When I returned to the U.S. I became involved with student organizing on Palestine and in 1998 volunteered with Human Rights Watch in their Middle East program.  In January 2000 I moved to Ramallah where I worked with a human rights organization until mid-2003. 

As I have written elsewhere, living in Palestine during the Second Intifada was transformative.  I was forced out of my comfortable understanding of the world as I struggled to understand the dynamics of the violence that I witnessed on a daily basis.  Over the 15 years that have passed since I first moved to Ramallah I have gradually come to appreciate the structural aspects of both violence and racism, and it is this appreciation that leads me to lift up the ideas below. 

Challenging Structural Inequality and Injustice

Palestinian community of Umm al-Kheir. The community is in the Southern West Bank and threatened with forced displacement.  Its homes are regularly demolished.  It is also located directly next to a settlement built on community land.  The settlement can be seen in the background of the picture with the shacks of the  village in the foreground. One of the core messages I have tried to emphasize through my Palestine-Israel activism work over the last several years has been that those seeking change in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory should not over emphasize acts of individual violence as they analyze the dynamics of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.  Acts of individual violence must be condemned and their impact on individuals, families, and communities cannot be understated.  Collectively we must stand firmly against all violence.  However, acts of violence must be seen within their larger social and political contexts.  In Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory that is a context of past and ongoing dispossession, inequality, and occupation. 

The roots of the conflict cannot be found in personalized violence nor misunderstanding between people.  We must recognize that the core of the conflict is the institutional discrimination and violence that emanates from the systems of power that are in place in order to privilege the rights of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.  These systems in turn cannot be delinked from the history of European/Jewish settler colonialism that displaced and dispossessed Palestinians in 1948 and before, that continue through the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territory, and that permeate Israeli and Palestinian institutions, culture, and daily life through systems of legal and political segregation and discrimination.

To transform this reality it is not enough for us to call for an end to physical violence and the occupation.  We must also actively work to oppose the economic, social, and political structures that benefit from and support this system of inequality.  We must challenge the dominant narrative that guides the United States led peace process and that emphasizes partition and ethnic separation over rights.  We must call for Palestinians’ right of return, recognizing that arguments against return that deny rights because of a perceived need to maintain a particular demographic balance are fundamentally racist.  We must challenge the corporate and economic interests that are benefiting from and sustaining conflict and inequality.  We must support those Palestinians and Israelis who are working separately and through co-resistance to end the systems of power that keep them trapped in a conflict that is destructive to both people.

A clear recognition of the structural nature of the conflict is what leads to a position supportive of anti-normalization principles.  Normalization is generally defined as any project, initiative, or activity, in Palestine or internationally, that aims (implicitly or explicitly) to bring together Palestinians and Israelis (people or institutions) without placing as its goal opposition and resistance to the Israeli occupation and structural inequalities.  This definition builds from the idea that programs that bring people together without focusing on the political and structural aspects of the conflict artificially reduce the conflict to an interpersonal and relational struggle based on misunderstandings and conflicting historic narratives.  In this context, the push towards resolving the conflict becomes focused on building interpersonal understanding and co-existence, while political and structural injustices resulting from the ongoing occupation and structural inequalities between Palestinians and Israelis get pushed to the side or ignored.  Rather than serving as transformative processes, such programs often further entrench conflict by providing a veneer of normality that serves to cover real inequality. 

I was involved with discussions that led to the Palestinian NGO Network decision in late 2000 to end people to people programs with Israelis.   It should be understood that this 2000 decision and the anti-Normalization positions that have since developed are not about refusing contact between individuals based on identity.  Rather, they are positions that recognize the unequal power dynamics that exist between people in situations of injustice and that account for that inequality in considering how individual and group interactions either further or challenge injustice. 

While anti-Normalization positions were first developed by Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territory as a response to dialogue and people to people programs that they viewed as reinforcing rather than challenging injustice against them, the Palestinian position has also shaped and informed the thinking and actions of activists outside of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.  A key part of international activists’ work to transform realities on the ground in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory involves challenging the accepted and dominant narratives about both the history and current context of the conflict.  Challenging narratives requires careful consideration of how and where one speaks and what forums are used to promote discussions and views. 

Dialogue and discussion groups are not value neutral forums.  Media platforms are not value neutral.  The various platforms that we use to promote ideas and the forums that we participate in can either reinforce or challenge injustice.  As activists it is our responsibility to think carefully about how and where we present our position.

This is not to say that we should only speak in comfortable environments and to audiences that agree with our positions.  To bring change we must make speaking to people with whom we disagree and in places where our opinions are not popular a core part of our work.  However, as we reach out to individuals and groups with whom we disagree, we must ensure that we are challenging and not reinforcing discriminatory, racist, or otherwise harmful ideologies held by these individuals and groups whether related to Palestine or to other issues. 

Palestine Activism in an Anti-Racist Framework

AFSC student training, photo by AFSCSetting out the ideas and principles outlined above in the context of a discussion of how anti-racist principles should guide the Palestine activist movement in the United States is important because I believe that it is this framing that must lead Palestine-Israel activists to a deeper analysis of racism and injustice in the United States.  It is this framing which has led me to a deeper analysis of race, power, racism, and injustice in the United States. 

It is my belief that just as it is not enough to focus on individual acts of violence in Palestine, it is not enough to focus on obvious and overt racist acts and statements as we challenge racism and injustice in the United States.  Learning from our work on Palestine, we must begin to place overt acts of racism and injustice in their larger social and political context and address systems of structural oppression.  This context is not just a history and system of explicit white racism and legal segregation which ostensibly ended with the civil rights movement, but also a historic and ongoing reality of economic exploitation and inequality, restricted opportunity, discriminatory policing and many other factors that entrench inequality and injustice.

The roots of racism in the U.S are not only to be found in personal racism and misunderstanding between people.  While recognizing the reality of individual responsibility for racism and racist acts, we must also recognize that racism in the U.S involves institutionalized discrimination and violence that emanates from systems of power that are in place in order to privilege the rights of white U.S citizens over people of color and those defined as “other”.  These systems in turn cannot be delinked from the history of U.S settler colonialism, slavery, and economic exploitation that set in place systems of control and privilege which allowed for legalized social, political, and economic segregation into the 1960s; systems that have not been truly transformed and ended despite the end of explicit legal segregation. 

Understanding that racism in the U.S. is not just personal but also structural means understanding that racism is present in nearly all institutions and relationships.  To transform this reality it is not enough for us to call for an end to blatant discriminatory and racist acts. It also is not enough to guarantee voting rights, set in place affirmative action policies, and regulate individual actions. 

We must also actively work to oppose the economic, social, and political structures that are benefiting from and sustaining inequality and racism in the United States.  We must challenge the dominant narratives that have developed since the 1960’s and that hold that the civil rights movement is a movement of the past and that we are seeking a color blind society which prioritizes individual reconciliation over rights.  We must challenge the economic and corporate systems that marginalize and exploit communities of color.  We must work to undo laws that are discriminatory either in intent or impact.  We must end the systems of policing and mass incarceration which devastate communities of color.   We must seek fundamental transformations in society. 

All of this is stated with a clear recognition that activist’s time and ability to work for change across multiple issues is limited.  This is not a call for Palestine activists to change focus and become full time anti-Racism activists and it is not a call for anti-Racism activists to become full time Palestine activists.  However, U.S. based Palestine activists in particular must recognize that their activism occurs within the context of U.S. structural racism and as (overwhelmingly middle class and white) U.S. citizens we are complicit in and benefit from that system.  

Our work for justice in Palestine and Israel must therefore be integrated into larger anti-racist and peace and justice frameworks.  We cannot only be concerned with Palestinian rights.  Rather we must see our work for Palestinian rights as coming out of an overall commitment to rights based activism which motivates us on principle to address all injustice and rights violations and thereby leads us to action for Palestine and Israel. 

Challenging structural racism and injustice in the U.S. must be a priority for us, and we must understand that even in the context of our Palestine activism our actions can reinforce racism and injustice in the U.S. if we are not conscious of power structures.  We must frame our work as part of a struggle not only to overcome the visible systems of oppression in Palestine but also the social, economic, and political systems of oppression and exploitation that sustain injustice in Palestine, Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere. 

In addition to the principled reasons for supporting an anti-Racist approach to organizing, there are very practical reasons for building an intersectional movement for social justice.  G4S, one of the companies supporting the Israeli prison system and systems of control in the West Bank, runs private prisons in the U.S. and has contracts with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency through which it coordinates the deportation of undocumented immigrants.  Hewlett Packard, which supplies magnetic IDs in Israel and Palestine that are key to restricting Palestinian movement, provides software to facilitate the detention and tracking of prisoners and undocumented immigrants in the United States.  Elbit Systems took its learning from building the Israeli wall through the West Bank and has applied it as it helps build the wall going up along the U.S.-Mexico border.  The police in Fergusson, Missouri, New York City, and other locations across the U.S. received training in Israel. 

These connections make it clear that injustice is not contained by borders.  Local injustice links to larger systems that connect together globalized injustice.  Understanding this we should not see our movement for justice as single issue or localized.  We must link with other movements to overcome injustice and also must recognize hetero, patriarchal, white, Christian, and other privilege while constantly struggling to undermine them in our movement.  We must work to overcome racism, heterosexism, misogyny, ethno-chauvinism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of discrimination and oppression wherever they exist. 

Similar to how Palestine activists have taken positions on anti-Normalization that recognize how activism can feed into dynamics that either support or deny Palestinian rights, we must recognize that our actions can (intentionally or unintentionally) either challenge or reinforce racism and discrimination in the United States.  Even while speaking out against U.S. support for Israeli militarism and in support of Palestinian rights, we can reinforce and give legitimacy to other problematic, discriminatory, or racist systems of power if we are not principled about the platforms that we use to promote our views. 

Challenging injustice requires carefully considering how and where we speak and what forums we use.  As was noted above, the forums that we participate in and the media platforms that we use are not value neutral and can either reinforce or challenge racism and discrimination.  As activists it is our responsibility to think carefully about how and where we present our positions.  It is our responsibility to refuse opportunities where our actions may reinforce systems of oppression even while providing an opportunity to educate others about the issue about which we are passionate. 

In practice this means vetting who we work with, refusing to accept platforms from racists and anti-Semites, standing consistently against all discrimination, stepping away from our own privilege, and taking our lead from those who are subject to oppression and discrimination.

The core of the concerns raised by the US Campaign and Jewish Voice for Peace regarding Alison Weir’s multiple appearances on and use of media platforms used to promote anti-Semitism and racism should be viewed in this context.  What has been found problematic is not individual statements or explicitly anti-Semitic and racist actions by Alison or If American’s Knew, but rather their repeated use of platforms that promote anti-Semitism and racism to share messages about Palestine and their insistence that speaking on any media platform without regard to how it is regularly used is principled.  This is a position that is inconsistent with an anti-racist approach to organizing.  We must consistently challenge the power structures that entrench racism, discrimination, and injustice in society.  We cannot use those structures for our own ends. 

Accountability as Activists

AFSC training, in background, "Creating caring world citizens"Before ending these reflections it is important to briefly address the issue of accountability within activist circles.  Many activists have stated that challenging racism that is not directly related to the Palestine-Israel issue is divisive and distracting from the Palestine rights movement’s main concerns and thus should not be a focus of activists’ attention.  Bringing these issues up “divides” the movement and plays into the hands of those opposed to our work.  They state that reconciliation and moving forward is more important than accountability and challenging problematic behavior. 

I firmly believe that we must move beyond these positions.  Calling for accountability is not an unhealthy and divisive process but rather a necessary part of building a strong, intersectional rights based movement.  Demanding accountability is necessary within community even if it is not comfortable.  Accountability is not about shunning or blacklisting.  Instead it should be seen as respectful disagreement and challenging action for the purpose of ending problematic behavior and changing problematic positions.  It is about recognizing that our actions (and inaction) can result in real harm to people subject to discrimination, racism or other injustice if we do not take into account actions that perpetuate injustice against them.  It is also about working to ensure that we are not doing harm but rather consistently working for justice. 

Our comfort as activists cannot be our primary concern.  Just as we push others to places of discomfort by challenging their beliefs and understandings about Palestine, asking them to embrace discomfort and thereby transform their understandings and actions, we must equally embrace discomfort and self-reflection as we challenge our own privilege and prejudices. 

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. noted that the greatest stumbling block to challenging racism was not the racists of the KKK but rather the white “moderate” who “is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods…”

If we truly are a movement for justice then we cannot be comfort seeking moderates.  Instead we must embrace discomfort and challenge, letting go of personal privilege and prejudice as we continue to push for structural and societal changes that will result in justice for all. 

About the Author

Mike Merryman-Lotze is the American Friends Service Committee’s Palestine-Israel Program Director.  He coordinates AFSC’s Israel and Palestine focused advocacy and policy programming, working closely with AFSC’s offices in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and throughout the US. 

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