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Coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine responds to criticism of New York session

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Jury of the 4th session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in New York. (Photo: Nathanael Corre)

I do not normally spend time replying to comments or articles attacking/criticising either myself or the organisation I am involved in, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, mainly because they are written by Zionists or supporters of Israel.

Those people, running out of arguments, running out of everything actually, tend to attack the messenger and never talk about the message. Their main goal is to waste your time.

But when those pieces are written by fellow activists, this is an altogether different ball game.

Following the recent 4th session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) in New York, a few articles criticising the initiative were published on very popular websites (at least in activist’s circles) such as The Electronic Intifada, +972mag and The Palestine Chronicle.

The problem I have with those pieces is that they are very shortsighted, often factually wrong and seriously miss the point of the tribunal and of its last session in New York.

Let’s start by talking hard facts.

The RToP is not the New York session only. Think of it as a four-part TV show. Each part is relevant to the other one, and only works because of the previous and next one. The RToP started in 2010 in Barcelona and will end in 2013 in Brussels. In between, the tribunal held sessions in London, Cape Town and New York, and is best understood as the sum of its parts, with each tribunal building upon the last.

The main issue coming out of those pieces is that there were very few Palestinians present at the New York session. How can you talk about Palestine without Palestinians?

The problem I have got with this assertion is two-fold.

First, the tribunal has made clear from the start that it was focusing on third parties’ complicity in Israel’s violations of international law. The tribunal does not focus on Israel and does not have the ambition to propose a solution to the Palestine question. The tribunal focuses on the enablers of Israel’s crimes. The focus in on us, citizens of the world, to be aware, educated and take action against our governments and corporations. The goal of the tribunal is to push international civil society into action and globalise the Palestine question.

Second, being criticised for not inviting Palestinians by people that know very little about the organisational process is wrong.

For the New York session, we had invited at least 10 Palestinians. Only four were able to make it, and out of those four, one was denied entry to the US and another one fell ill a couple of days before the tribunal. If you take into consideration the four sessions of the RToP, 22 Palestinians gave testimonies. This does not include Palestinians working on the legal committee or Palestinians on the organising committee. Can you name any other event that has had that many Palestinians involved in prominent positions?

Also, our goal is not to invite Palestinians for the sake of it either. Having 10 Palestinians on the panel in Cape Town was very relevant due to the topic of the session (Apartheid). When talking of UN and US responsibility, could a Palestinian do a better job than Peter Hansen (UNRWA general commissioner to the OPT for more than 10 years) in describing UN actions? No.

Rebuking the second assertion is not going to take me long. Our jury has been described of being composed mainly of “silver haired white men.” Would you say this about Angela Davis? Or Alice Walker, Cynthia McKinney, Mairead Maguire or Dennis Banks? What about Ronnie Kasrils, who spent years in exile fighting for the rights of black South Africans, or Miguel Angel Estrella, who fought against the military junta in Argentina and faced horrendous consequences for it?

Then what about if a “silver white haired white man” gets angry at a Palestinian (Saleh Abdel Jawad) for completely discrediting the work of the previous session of the tribunal on Apartheid, which was embraced by the whole solidarity movement? Should Michael Mansfield had remained silent because Saleh is Palestinian? Now tell me, who is being patronising?

The last main criticism we received is that we overlooked the BDS movement, and that linking international law with grass-roots activism is problematic. Really? Isn’t the BDS call only about international law? Saying that international law and activism don’t go together is plain wrong. The activist community, in the last few years, has made huge steps forward because it focused more and more on international law and a rights-based approach. Why do you think the Israeli government is calling this ‘law fare’?

Don’t get me wrong, international law might not solve the Palestine question. But it can definitely help us — the people — solve it. We do need to use all the tools we have in our hands to win this battle and international law is a very important one.

Regarding overlooking the BDS movement, I would refer you to our website as this piece is already getting longer than I had planned. The jury in the findings of all the sessions of the RToP endorsed BDS as one of the most important tactic of the pro-justice movement. The London session was pretty much entirely focused on BDS, with groups like Code Pink, Who profits?, Unions, Campaigns against Agrexco, Dexia, Veolia…on the panel. Then, the findings of the Cape Town session on apartheid have constantly been used by the BNC in their press releases. The findings of the London sessions, on corporate complicity, are used as a tool by European activists on a weekly basis.

This is what the tribunal is about. Working alongside campaigns and pro-justice movements. Bringing facts, documenting the truth, the situation on the ground, to make sure those campaigns have all the tools they need to grow bigger and bigger and bigger. What would have been the impact of having someone on the panel in New York scream: “BDS is the way”? We are all BDS activists. Pierre Galand is one of the most important people in Belgium to push for BDS. Ben White, Ilan Pappe, Diana Buttu, David Wildman, Phyllis Bennis…all work on BDS on a daily basis.

By being different than other conferences, the tribunal’s main idea is to bring more people on board and also try to mainstream the issue. Focusing on international law has allowed us to slowly bring people in the fight for justice that might have not done so if the approach had been more radical. Nowadays, being able to count on people such as Harry Belafonte, Alice Walker, Roger Waters, Dennis Banks, Angela Davis, Miguel Angel Estrella and hundreds of others is a huge step forward, not for the tribunal, but for the whole pro-justice movement. Towards this end, we were proud to hear seasoned US activists telling us, again and again. “This is the single biggest pro-Palestine event we have ever had in the US. Period. You have helped bring Palestine to the heart of the beast.”

So don’t get me wrong, criticism is important, actually crucial. Receiving feedback from activists about the tribunal’s work is essential. No one is perfect. We strive on constructive criticism. But please be fair.

Comrades normally sort things out around a dinner table. Mine is quite small, but I’ll make sure there is space for everyone next time around.

Frank Barat

Frank Barat is a Human Rights activist based in London. He is one of the coordinators of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a popular tribunal created in 2009 to expose and examine Israel's impunity in regards to its treatment of the Palestinian People. He has edited two books; 'Gaza in Crisis' with Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe, and 'Corporate Complicity in Israel's Occupation' with Asa Winstanley. He has also participated in the book 'Is there a court for Gaza?' with Daniel Machover.

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One Response

  1. Christopher Federici on October 17, 2012, 8:36 pm


    I feel compelled to respond as you linked directly to my article at The Palestine Chronicle, yet your critique seems lacking in any substantive points that relate specifically to my piece.

    Your rebuttal to criticism of the RToP coming from within the activist umbrella opposed to the Israeli occupation seems to address several direct critiques: the lack of Palestinian voices at the Tribunal, the lack of discussion on BDS and the problems of linking international law with activism.

    As for the lack of Palestinian representation at the Tribunal, I wrote in my piece:

    Galand revealed that Leila Shahid, the EU Ambassador from Palestine, had been denied visa entry by the U.S. Embassy in Brussels. I later confirmed that Raji Sourani, founder of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, was also denied a visa by the US authorities in Cairo, adding to the marginalization of Palestinian voices at the Tribunal. Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, cancelled due to illness.

    It is true, I was disappointed about the lack of Palestinian perspectives at this particular session of the Russell Tribunal. I was not present in London, Barcelona or Cape Town, so I did not feel compelled to discuss those sessions in detail. It’s encouraging and praise-worthy that you brought together such a coalition of Palestinian voices to discuss life under apartheid in Palestine at your Cape Town session. That shouldn’t, however, be used as a rebuttal for the lack of representation at the NY session, unless you intend to imply that making a token gesture at one session absolves the Tribunal of any responsibility to remain inclusive at other sessions. But that’s beside the point, as I didn’t hold the Russell Tribunal personally responsible at this session; I pointed out the cancellations were due to visa rejections and illness. One can speak about the troubling lack of Palestinian participation, certainly, without that being an indictment of the Tribunal’s efforts, no? I think it was quite clear that I was criticizing the US State Dept.’s efforts to hinder Palestinian expression at this session. So, I’ll assume your commentary on this aspect was not directed at my article, but rather the much harsher critiques offered by Abraham Greenhouse at Electronic Intifada and Elisha Baskin at +972mag.

    As to your second point about BDS, my piece in no way suggested that the Tribunal overlooked BDS as a tool. I mentioned speakers David Wildman and Phyllis Bennis, both of whom broached the topic of BDS, and I wrote at length about what Ilan Pappé shared with me regarding his views of BDS. I did write:

    Referring to successes of the BDS “tactic” in forcing a conversation within Israel, Pappé offered a sense of optimism painfully lacking throughout the Tribunal when he remarked, “I think that in conjunction with a Palestinian agency of solving the problems of representation, in conjunction with the solidarity movement activity on other issues and in conjunction with our role as Israeli Jews inside Israel to reeducate our compatriots, [BDS is] an important link in this matrix opportunity.”

    The emphasis on international law, and the widespread recognition among the speakers that international law has not been enforced, is a sobering and disenfranchising sentiment. I merely noted that Pappé brought a sense of optimism that was otherwise lacking at the Tribunal. I don’t think any reasonable interpretation of my article could conclude that I was unfairly criticizing the Tribunal for its failure to focus on BDS.

    To the contrary, actually, the single criticism I levied at the Tribunal was that it was overly conflicted by dueling sentiments, the desire to project a structural foundation of international law and its inescapable activist mentality that motivated the very formation of the Tribunal. I stand by this critique, yet I don’t think you addressed it in your rebuttal. You suggest that international law and activism go hand in hand. I’d agree, to an extent, with this, in that activism on behalf of Palestine is informed and influenced by the belief that international law has been flagrantly violated. It’s also motivated by morality, compassion and humanity, which, I believe is where the majority of criticism of the strict legal focus of the NY session is derived.

    What I wrote about this was:

    The sobering inference from this testimony is that the existing international legal framework is insufficient in addressing the Israeli occupation, as the establishment dominated by American and European elite is clearly disinclined to act upon its own mandate. Mired in cynicism, the entire mission of the Tribunal appeared futile with its strict emphasis on discussing a power structure that most speakers acknowledged provides little recourse for Palestinians.

    This was in reference to my reflections of the first day, before any discussion of BDS, or sociocide, or activism were every really mentioned by any of the speakers.

    I went on to write:

    Ultimately, the Tribunal appeared conflicted by stark contrasts between the desire to project a sense of procedural legality and the inescapable underpinnings of activism that drove the very desire to organize. This conflict, it could be argued, sullied the effectiveness of either initiative.

    Again, I stand by this. If the Tribunal was about international law, as you suggest, then it would behoove you to make sure your speakers and jurists actually understand international law. I’m not convinced that Alice Walker, or Angela Davis, or Russell Means, or Dennis Banks, or Roger Waters, or any of the other “experts” in international law serve that purpose. They are activists, not legal scholars, and yet you are asking them to reach legal conclusions. That seems to invite dismissal by outside observers and commentators, no?

    You wrote that the mission of the Tribunal would be jeopardized if its approach were more “radical.” I didn’t write this in my article, but I’d suspect that the selection of speakers and jurists that you so glowingly refer to actually are viewed as “radical” among most segments of the American public. This is problematic if your intention is to address the mainstream American public. More so, when you factor in that the Tribunal specifically did not invite speakers such as Alison Wier, who has a gift for speaking to the American public about this issue. In fact, in our discussion at the Tribunal, you told me that one of the reasons she was not invited was because she does not have a background in international law. That strikes me as an odd justification given the bleak international law credentials of the overwhelming number of jury members and several speakers. But, again, that is beside the point, because I did not discuss that in my article.

    My piece was not a fluff-piece. I was not struck by a desire to make a mockery of myself by exalting every minor aspect of the Tribunal and glorifying the passion, bravery and humanity of all its organizers. If that is what you are accustomed to hearing from your “fellow activists,” I suppose I can understand why you are so defensive about my article.

    My article was meant to glean some perspective on the atmosphere at Cooper Union, the structure, the purpose, the message, the testimony. And in doing so, I reflected on some aspects that struck me. It was a fair assessment, neither overly critical, nor dripping with adoration. It was simply honest.

    I cannot speak to the motivations of Greenhouse or Baskin. But, I sense that you are mostly on the defensive about their articles, and yet you lumped my piece in with theirs ostensibly because I offered something more thoughtful than a ringing endorsement. You make salient points regarding not inviting Palestinians simply to invite them, regarding accusations of an overly European panel, etc. You make many salient points, but none of them seem pertinent to my article.

    You say criticism is not only important, but crucial. Your reaction to my very temperate piece suggests you may need to reevaluate your reception to such criticism.

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