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.