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Difficult Conversations, Part Two

April 7, 2012

This is a sequel to my essay “Difficult Conversations:  Speaking truth to Allies,” which was published in Make/Shift, after being rejected by Polyphonic Feminisms.  I wrote about that earlier challenge here


Today, as an organizer I am extremely encouraged by the alliances I see forming all around me, wherever I go, between different groups that are rallying together behind the call for BDS.  The activist landscape is transforming, as a genuinely global network grows stronger.  And as BDS is about justice and equality for all, and equality does mean the loss of privilege of the privileged, we are also witnessing some of our long-time allies get cold feet, and break away.  The most recent and, I must say, quite surprising, example, is Norman Finkelstein who, having long supported BDS, is now dismissing it as a cult,  disingenuous, dishonest, because if BDS achieves its goals, “there is no Israel.”  By which he clearly means there is no Israel in which Jews are privileged over non-Jews.  But I think he is too dishonest to say so.


So it is time to revisit the necessary “difficult conversations” within alliances.  It is time to Speak Truth to Allies again, about the loss of privilege in anti-racist work.    

 A man who does not beat and rape women is not great, he’s just not a criminal.  A white man who does not kill black teenagers is not a god, he’s sane.  And similarly, a Jew who does not oppress Palestinians is not superhuman, s/he’s decent.  

So can we stop idolizing our decent Jewish friends, please? 

 I say this earnestly, because I have been noticing a greater focus on the Jewish voices speaking against apartheid.  I still get announcements of events, panels, conferences, where the keynote speaker is a “decent Jew,” but of course, they are not presented as “decent,” they are presented as heroic.   But something even more disturbing that I have been witnessing around me is the disproportionate amount of energy and resources these “decent Jews” get.  Because, we are told, they need “support” for being decent.

 One example, from Seattle where I live:

 We have a still-young but quite strong BDS coalition, and we can put on many actions, which of course all require energy, and many of which require funding.  I fantasize about taking out big ads in the paper, plastering the bulletin boards with culture-jamming messages, running our Metro bus ads six months a year… I would like to be part of a US contingent of diaspora Palestinians who would go to Brazil for the World Social Forum in November.  I can dream big, but I live small, for lack of resources.  And I am not alone in that.  Amin Odeh, another Seattle-based Palestinian, is a man I totally look up to.  His long-standing commitment has been unwavering, for decades, despite challenging personal circumstances.  For decades, he has been willing to speak his story again and again, because people need to hear it.  Amin, I have no doubt, could use some “support,” and I would dare say he could use support for being well above decent.  Born and raised in Aida refugee camp, Amin grew up in deprivation, saw many family members imprisoned, and is one of the gentlest men I know. He does not only preach non-violence, he practices, lives it.  Amin is heroic.  I can name many other such inspiring Palestinian activists, but I will refrain.

 During announcements at our last meeting, one member of our coalition asked to speak for a few minutes, during which she raved about the Israeli writer /activist Miko Peled, saying we had the opportunity of bringing him to town, but that to make this happen, we would need commitment from many of us, and funding, to fly him over, put him up in a hotel, and give him an honorarium.

 She asked for a major commitment from our community, because we had that incredible opportunity, to bring Miko Peled to Seattle.  A seasoned activist, she was nevertheless awestruck… 

 Miko Peled is a very decent man.  So is Amin Odeh.  I am a decent woman, if I say so myself.  Who is Seattle going to pool its resources for?  And are we supporting Miko because he is a decent Israeli—as if that were a superhuman accomplishment, when we could be supporting the Palestinian activists who, against the greatest odds, keep on keeping on?  Why, in an alliance that seeks equality where it is not yet achieved, are we privileging our Israeli allies, our allies with power? 

 Miko Peled, like Jeff Halper, and Mark Braverman, are not heroes, they’re decent men, born into privilege, and still benefitting from it.  Indeed, Halper and Braverman are US- born Jews who made aliyah, “returning” to the country my family was expelled from, which I cannot visit.  Let us not idolize them.  BDS is about achieving equality for all, it is  about achieving Palestinian sovereignty.  So it is up to us, the BDS organizers, to be intentional in prompting and centering our leadership, rather than supporting Israeli voices.  Let’s start channeling our resources and energies towards Palestinian activists.  Let us support the disenfranchised Palestinians, instead of those who, until BDS accomplishes its goals, are necessarily speaking from a position of privilege. 



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  1. Nada,

    You are the master of difficult conversations! I’m really happy you are blogging! I’m noticing this phenomenon you are describing in regard to queer activism against pinkwashing. Keep an eye on it and you will see what I mean.

    • I have noticed it, Amal. Palestinian queers have a super-sophisticated analysis, but allies get the space to share theirs, while Palestinian voices are mostly muffled 😦

  2. Thank you so much for your fire. It’s amazing and needed.

  3. Update: As a recipient of many activist lists around Seattle, I became privy to Peled’s requests when he gives a talk: Travel expenses (OK, this is reasonable), Honorarium (sliding scale, between $1000 and $1500, I kid you not), three-star hotel (yup, no two–and-a-half will do for this caliber activist), and $75 per diem (you know, in case not every single cup of coffee is picked up by the hosts).
    Yes, I am naming Peled, because I have the details about his visit. But, sadly, he is not unique, as much as just one more representative of the deeply flawed phenomenon, of privileged people making a living out of telling the world about our dispossession. To the tune of $1500 a talk.

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