Let’s get real about colonial ‘solidarity’

[I write this essay as a non-Palestinian in the movement for justice in Palestine to non-Palestinians within the movement, specifically in America. When I say “we” in this article, I’m speaking to us, the non-Palestinians in the movement for justice in Palestine. Palestinians inherently have a different stake in the resolution of the question of Palestine than the rest of the movement. While the land may represent a cause to us, for Palestinians, it is their homeland, and often where their loved ones live. While the struggle is a passion for us, for Palestinians, it is part of the path to their liberation. Given these indisputable differences, there are questions about the nature of our solidarity that all non-Palestinians who stand with Palestinians must answer.]

Picture this: A young Quaker grows up standing against the “War on Terror” in Washington D.C. hears about Palestine around the edges of conversations on US imperialism. He meets Palestinians, learns the history, creates a narrative of the Palestinian struggle from the marchers carrying Palestinian flags at ANSWER Coalition rallies and slogans put on bumper stickers about human rights. He follows Electronic Intifada and starts teaching himself Arabic. He likes the pictures of Palestinians peacefully protesting in the first Intifada and anything else that confirms that the Palestinian struggle is the ‘right kind’: nonviolent, moving towards the establishment of a pluralistic state, etc. He ignores the messiness that is the whole of the Palestinian struggle. He develops opinions on Palestine, filters them through a political experience coming almost entirely from the global north, and proceeds to share them with others, convinced he’s the first to reach these brilliant conclusions.

I committed my own “columbusing” of Palestine in the early years of my activism. Many of us, who have joined the Palestinian struggle from a wider commitment to opposing imperialism and standing up for the oppressed, probably have cringe worthy moments in the early parts of our own activism on Palestine. I owe a huge debt to the many Palestinians (mostly women) who sat me down and schooled this white boy on my own role in this movement, what solidarity really meant and when it is actually decolonial. I had established a Palestine in my mind where my political imagination dictated a future for an already colonized people, reproducing the same colonial thought processes I was chanting against in the streets.

Hard questions make movements grow. Movement history has taught us that if we stop asking the questions of ourselves that we ask of the Empire, we reproduce the dynamics that turn liberation movements into autocracies. Some of the conversations I’ve seen happening recently within the wider solidarity movement are moving towards, and in some cases, replicating the same kinds of colonial attitudes that we are inherently fighting against.

PROTEST CHICAGOFor starters, there is the question of non-Palestinians’ role in deciding the future of Palestine. Given it’s not our liberation struggle, why do we allow ourselves and our comrades to dictate—just as the colonizer does—the future of their land, state, and politics?  Palestinians are working through a real lack of unity around what statehood and their struggle will look like for them in the future, especially within ‘48 and ‘67. Too often we as a solidarity movement, especially on the far left, gloss over this discord because it seems politically convenient to do so. We want to participate in the discussion of what the future of Palestine looks like because we’re passionate about our vision of a globally liberated future, and we want Palestine to be in that vision. However, when we act on that desire, we refuse to check ourselves on our own position in the movement. We know that the intention behind any political movement doesn’t matter, it’s what we do and how we do it that is important. Palestinians have always been denied political agency. What distinguishes our well intentioned acts of solidarity with Palestinians, when those acts are conditioned on the “correct” forms of statehood, struggle, or politics, from the impact of the colonizers we’re in struggle against?

That being said, Palestinians are not a monolithic group. We need to acknowledge that we filter the Palestinian voices who we center in our movement. “Palestinian” isn’t a catch all category for complex human beings, who have selves outside of a national identity.

We align with Palestinians partially based off of parts of their identity: political vision, class, race, gender, language, sexuality, ability, educational level, etc., which match closely with our own politics and identity. I would center Shadia Mansour over Salam Fayyad, Nariman Tamimi over Mohammad Dahlan. While we say that we center Palestinians, we should be real about this difficult reality of solidarity and why that is different than the ideals that we claim. What does this mean about our movement? I have no easy answers, but I think we need to keep asking this question.

We should consider our stake in the movement for a liberation that is not ours. How are we both stepping up to the work that needs to be done in the movement and being aware of how much space we take up? Palestinians will always carry the movement; they don’t have a choice. For the rest of us, we must always be aware of how much space we take up as we participate, and how much of the movement’s weight we put on Palestinians. We should ask ourselves: How are we finding the balance between the need to prevent all of the organizing work from falling on Palestinians and the need to open space for Palestinians to grow and take leadership within the movement?

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 9.44.35 PMI am concerned when non-Palestinians in the Palestinian liberation struggle feel entitled to participate in discussions or determine decisions that are inherently Palestinian. Palestinians have been exploited by external political causes since 1948 and treated as pawns in the geopolitical game. We reproduce this colonial dynamic in miniature within our own movements. Are we denying Palestinians their agency, patronizing them when their political analysis doesn’t match our own?

In mixed activist spaces with Palestinians and non-Palestinians, Palestinians are forced to navigate our expectations of them as activists: how to act in ‘solidarity’ with themselves. Palestinian internal oppression is compounded every time we critique their own political agency, demand that they perform emotional labor for us, or cause them to doubt their own lived realities. Far too often, we erect tremendous barriers to Palestinian participation in the solidarity movement, and then sit back, bewildered, when no Palestinians join us.

Our solidarity must be decolonial or it will be bullshit. If our solidarity is not decolonial, then the solidarity movement, as a force, will be no different than the U.S. State Department, enforcing the politics of external forces on Palestinians and Palestine. The colonial vision of preconditioning our work here in the U.S. on what we judge to be the ‘correct’ future vision for Palestine is something that we need to address in our movement. Americans in particular have never had the right (even though we’ve been using our power to do so) to tell Palestinians what they should be struggling for; those are always inherently conversations for the Palestinian community.  

Palestinians are entirely capable of creating a uniquely Palestinian vision of liberation; it’s our job to make sure the Empire gets out of their way. It is neither our place nor our responsibility to draw a future for Palestine after liberation. When we gaze upon Palestine and see a blank space on the map for our own personal political leanings, we reproduce Zionism.

Tory Smith

Tory Smith is a queer organizer and investigative researcher based in Philadelphia, actively trying to work for queer and trans liberation, fighting Islamophobia, ending white supremacy, and creating masculinity not based on patriarchy, spiritually rooted in Quakerism. His activist life started in the early years of the 'War on Terror' in Washington D.C. He is an alum of Birzeit's Palestinian and Arabic Studies Program and National SJP, two things that continue to shape his activism today.

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