The question of how Israeli activists should act when offering support or solidarity to Palestinians is a troubling and recurrent theme.
Organizations such as Peace Now have often revealed themselves to be essentially Zionist, more concerned with peace for their own society than justice for Palestinians. The history of Israeli-Palestinian relations has been peppered with “dialogue” projects which offer Israelis ways to demonstrate how “reasonable” they are in speaking to “the enemy” but present no challenge to the fundamentals of the occupation.
Anarchists Against the Wall (AK Press) is a small book about an organization that has tried — with varying success — to be very different. Anarchists Against the Wall (AATW), as a group, has tried to “stress that we are not equal partners but rather occupiers who join the occupied in their struggle” and to highlight that it is the “relentless popular resistance movement” of Palestinians which “embodies all that is dignified and human about the struggle for freedom and equality.”
The values inherent in this include the necessity of outside activists establishing whether they are wanted or welcome in a Palestinian community, rather than just assuming that their presence is desired or useful.
Edited by Uri Gordon and Ohal Grietzer, Anarchists Against the Wall includes contributions by Adi Winter, Adar Grayevsky, Yanay Israeli, Jonathan Pollak, Leehee Rothschild, Kobi Snitz, Roy Wagner, Tali Shapiro, Sarah Assouline, Iris Arieli, Uri Ayalon, Yossi Bartal, Ruth Edmonds and Chen Misgav.
The book itself is divided into two sections. Following a broad-brush history of AATW — influenced by Palestinian and international movements from the second intifada, it emerged in protest camps set up against Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank during 2003 — the first section is composed of “official” documents.
These set out AATW’s main positions and arguments, giving a sense of the ideas and priorities which have driven them.
Snapshots of struggle
These offer snapshots of historical moments in the struggle against Israel’s wall and settlements, and of AATW’s desire to build an alternative language to that of the increasingly right-wing “peace” movement. As early as 2003, we see Israeli activists using terms that are now commonplace among international activists — describing the situation as “apartheid” and the West Bank as a “ghetto … being built by Jews.”
Other early documents include clearly articulated anarchist principles, focusing on “pragmatic rather than ideological” methods of resistance. A January 2004 declaration uses the phrase “no masters and no slaves” — echoing the anarchist slogan “No Gods, No Masters” — and insisting that “the Berlin Wall was not dismantled by rulers and agreements but rather by citizens who felled it with their own hands.”
In the second part of the book, individuals who have been part of AATW reflect on their experiences. This is, perhaps, the section that some will find less comfortable to read.
When Israeli activists talk about the experiences of seeing comrades injured and of being isolated from Israeli mainstream society, it is always tempting to ask: but how does this compare to what Palestinian activists go through?
There is always a danger, in focusing on the experiences of activists from privileged positions, of self-indulgence and solipsism. Anarchists Against the Wall argues, however, that there is a “legitimate space” for discussing movement dynamics in the interests of improving them.
As Anarchists Against the Wall suggests, the attention that is sometimes focused on the group, often disproportionate to its numbers and impact, has not necessarily been sought, but is the result of international activists who have “projected more of their aspirations and hopes on us than we deserve.” This is a problem of global injustices (Israeli rather than Palestinian activists often find it easier to get visas and pay for flights), but also one of the racism embedded in Western activists, who find it easier to talk to someone who is socially and linguistically “like them.”
Anarchists Against the Wall, therefore, raises important issues which are often under-discussed in all movements, especially those concerned with “solidarity” or being “allies.” These include problems of burnout, machismo, martyr-complexes, informal hierarchies, and the challenges of maintaining radical analyses and positions while not seeming gratuitously weird or extreme in the eyes of “ordinary” people.
These may be discussed in a specific Israeli context — for instance, the failure of “radicals” involved in the Sheikh Jarrah campaign in occupied East Jerusalem to find useful ways of articulating the fundamental inconsistencies of the “soft left” and Zionist peace movement positions.
But there are lessons here for radical movements much more widely.
To what extent are our choices of tactics informed by our own desires to appear radical or daring, rather than an assessment of their effectiveness? What happens when activist “lifestyles” alienate those who are politically sympathetic but socially “mainstream”?
Some of the more specific issues also expose the dynamics of the Israeli Zionist mainstream, and provide a useful counter to narratives which separate the actions of the Israeli state or the army from “ordinary Israelis.”
“We’re all responsible”
One contributor clearly states, “To me, Israeli citizens are the ones to point the finger at; they are the ones who elected these politicians … they … are the ones who do not revolt against racism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing … despite this powerful indoctrination, we are all responsible for our actions.”
Personal accounts contradict the idea that activists have to be “red-diaper babies” or social loners. Many are “normal” people who, whether through slow processes of radicalization or “road-to-Damascus” incidents, have faced up to the inconsistencies on which their privileged positions depend.
While the occupation is a key part of this, many also engage with the fundamental racism of Israeli society and its prejudice against and exploitation of asylum-seekers and non-Jewish migrant workers.
Anarchists Against the Wall, and the book that it has produced, are not perfect, and do not purport to have definitive “answers.” The members and editors involved are the first to admit that. But this little collection asks important questions, and tries to answer them with courage, realism and honesty.
There are significant points here for those struggling for a just peace in the Middle East. But more than that, there are valuable lessons for anyone trying to build healthy radical movements across the globe.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.