Palestine solidarity activism has made significant gains in the US over the last decade.
A national student movement has been built, cross-movement solidarity has been reinvigorated and a series of victories have been achieved in the push for boycott, divestment and sanctions. These victories have ranged from churches and universities supporting BDS measures to the blocking of Israeli cargo ships.
For a moment it felt like the Palestine solidarity movement was on the offensive.
But Zionist groups and officials fought back through anonymous websites that dox activists, the proliferation of anti-BDS laws and, most recently, Donald Trump’s executive order.
Because of Trump’s order, a student or teacher who states “Israel is a racist endeavor” – or words to that effect – can be investigated for allegedly violating the civil rights of Jewish people. This is exactly where the Zionist movement wants us: on the defensive, exhausting our energy and resources.
Combating these attacks is work for groups like Palestine Legal (where I am currently employed). This defensive work should not be the primary focus of people building towards the complete liberation of Palestine.
It is 72 years since the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, when approximately 800,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes by Zionist forces.
That period is known as the Nakba or catastrophe. And as long as the right of return is denied, this catastrophe will continue.
We should concentrate now and in the months ahead on advocating one democratic, decolonized state in all of historic Palestine and on the core issue of justice for Palestine – the right of return.
Defending our beliefs
The right of return for Palestinians uprooted by Zionist forces in 1948 – including their children and grandchildren – is the central issue of justice for Palestine. Yet it often remains an afterthought for solidarity activists.
There are a few main reasons why that is the case.
First, the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is the most visible form of Zionist aggression against Palestine and is how most of the world understands the Palestinian issue. The right of return complicates this narrative.
Second, it is difficult to incorporate the right of return into campaigns that focus almost entirely on the occupation.
And, third, Zionist opposition to the right of return is intense, often coming with false and distracting accusations of anti-Jewish bigotry.
The first two barriers are a matter of strengthening our own internal education and public-facing work to reflect that all of historic Palestine – including present-day Israel – is “occupied Palestinian territory.”
The third barrier is a matter of pushing through and transcending Zionist noise: Implementing the right of return is a just, moral, anti-racist and anti-colonial practice.
Opposition to the right of return for Palestinians is itself racist. Activists should not be distracted by Israel’s smears.
If avoiding the return of Palestinians is one of the ultimate goals of the Zionists’ project, why would we ever organize on their terms?
If we believe in the right of return, we must defend our beliefs over and beyond efforts to silence us.
As the anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon asserted: “We are powerful in our own right and the justness of our positions.”
BDS campaigns should apply to all of Israel over its ethnic cleansing and refusal of the right to return, rather than only boycotting companies complicit in the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Maximal justice requires maximal solidarity.
Digging up a toxic tree
Palestinians living under forced exile and refugeehood, occupation and siege are enduring far more than noise for us to be frightened by Zionist scare tactics. Palestinians’ material lives, homes and families are on the frontlines of destruction each second of every day.
The very threats Zionists claim Palestinian liberation represents form the very core of Zionist policy in Palestine over the last 100 years: eliminating the fundamental culture of a society, mass expulsions, subjecting a minority population to discrimination and denying the right to self-determination.
We must firmly resist these policies.
Focusing only on anti-occupation work serves to bolster Israel’s larger colonial project and is a disservice to the plurality of Palestinians who do not live under direct occupation.
Advocating for Palestinian liberation in its fullness means placing the right of return at the center.
It means our understanding of Palestine cannot stop at the West Bank, Gaza or even present-day Israel. It must extend to refugees in exile who have borne the brunt of Zionist dispossession – especially to Palestinians living in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria or fleeing across the Mediterranean to Greece and other parts of Europe.
There is no Palestine without the return of Palestinian refugees to the entirety of their land.
Without the right of return, if Israel somehow says “OK – you can have a real state in all of the West Bank and Gaza,” Israel still walks away having stolen 78 percent of historic Palestine and denying a majority of Palestinians their right to live on the land they’re originally from.
Israel continues to lay a unilateral claim to an ethnocratic colony built on stolen land.
So it is incredibly convenient for Israel if we waste our energy trying to reach the lowest hanging fruit on the tree, instead of digging up the entire toxic tree from its roots.
It is also incredibly convenient for Israel to distract us from even that task by forcing us to spend time explaining “criticism of Israel is different from anti-Jewish hatred” and arguing “we have a right to boycott.” It takes the center of the conversation away from Palestine and instead focuses it on debates about “rights” in the West.
There are a number of fundamental Zionist injustices. They include the 1917 Balfour Declaration, when Britain – then a dominant colonial power – effectively approved the establishment of a Zionist state in Palestine, the Nakba of 1948 and the 1967 seizure of the West Bank and Gaza (as well as parts of Egypt and Syria).
If we understand these injustices – and how they endure in 2020 – we need to put the Zionist project on the defensive for being a racist, violent, colonial regime.
In the aftermath of Trump’s “Deal of the Century” – “Steal of the Century” would, of course, be more accurate – and in the face of Israeli annexation in the West Bank, the solidarity movement can aspire to much bolder demands that transcend the political constraints surrounding us. We are still stuck in the frameworks set by colonizing forces: the Oslo accords, “peace” talks, settlements, security coordination, the Palestinian Authority.
We need to use language that describes a future with freedom and justice. Fortunately, Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine each gave us this language in the 1960s.
Fatah spoke of “fighting to create the new Palestine of tomorrow – a democratic, non-sectarian Palestine where Jews, Muslims and Christians will work, worship and live peacefully together while enjoying equal rights and obligations.”
The PFLP shared this objective of a secular state and clarified that “Israel has insisted on portraying our war against it as a racial war aiming at eliminating every Jewish citizen and throwing him into the sea.” A basic strategy therefore “must aim at unveiling this misrepresentation.”
These Palestinian revolutionary organizations presented an incredibly clear vision for one shared, democratic state – which Zionists have sought to sabotage and obscure ever since.
It is our responsibility to help unveil these misrepresentations.
In 2018, I led a Black for Palestine (B4P) delegation of African, Arab and Indigenous organizers from Turtle Island (what Indigenous people and their allies call North America) and Southern Africa to visit Palestinians and their comrades in Lebanon.
B4P understood the right of return as central to justice for Palestine. It held that effectively advocating for the right of return required cultivating direct relationships with Palestine’s refugees.
Lebanon was one of the last sites of historic engagement between African and Palestinian revolutionaries.
Prominent Black activists such as Huey Newton, Muhammad Ali and June Jordan all visited Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. And Palestinian revolutionaries in Lebanon trained African anti-colonial fighters, including those struggling against apartheid in South Africa.
A Black for Palestine delegation visited Lebanon in 2018. (Black for Palestine)
A few of our B4P delegates visited Palestine and Jordan, where we also met Palestinian refugees. Almost every Palestinian we encountered in Lebanon and Jordan had never set foot in Palestine, while some of us – with US passports – had been to all three places in the span of two weeks.
This marks the fundamental injustice of Zionism: People who have no roots in Palestine can visit and live on the land, while the people with actual roots are subjugated and barred from entering.
In Lebanon, younger Palestinians are growing evermore desperate – unsure of how to build a future for themselves in the camps.
They are navigating an immense amount of stress and depression and other impacts of physical and economic war. Some are risking their lives to flee from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza to seek refuge in the West and dying along the way.
None of this suffering is necessary when there is a clear place for Palestinians to live in dignity.
In the same way that visiting Palestine and seeing the occupation firsthand has a catalyzing effect on solidarity work outside, visiting the camps in Lebanon transformed me. Some of the people I now care most about in this world are Palestinians living in exile in Lebanon who have more right to any inch of land in historic Palestine than any Zionist colonizer.
For me, what’s at stake in the right of return is the old man who could see where his original village was from the border of southern Lebanon but has not set foot there in 72 years. Or the old woman who hosted me in her family home in a refugee camp and recalled with great detail how she and her family were displaced during the Nakba.
I had hoped we could build towards the day that she could return home, but she died shortly after I met her in 2017.
What’s at stake in the right of return is meeting the generation who lived through the Palestinian revolution and through a moment where victory, and the possibility of return, seemed much closer than they are now.
It’s the current generation of young organizers at Al Naqab Center and the Palestinian Cultural Club in Lebanon who are working so hard to build infrastructure for the generations after them to preserve their heritage and continue their struggle. And it’s the young generation before them who yearn for a future outside of the chokehold of the refugee camps and outside of exile and forced impoverishment.
What’s also at stake is the comrade whose conversations with me informed this article being able to have the future he deserves. His family is originally from Deir Aban in Jerusalem but has been exiled to Dheisheh, one of the refugee camps in the Bethlehem area, because of the Nakba.
Thorn in Zionists’ side
We are now in the last generation of Palestinian refugees who can say “my grandmother was born in Akka, in Lifta, in Safad” and the last generation of Israeli settlers who must acknowledge “my grandmother was born in Poland, in Germany, in Morocco, in Brooklyn.” We are entering a new paradigm where the colonizers assert a claim to the land through contemporary roots, while the colonized seem to be rooted in exile.
Those of us who believe in Palestinian liberation must ask ourselves: How will we create a new paradigm? How will our work shift when we name the right of return as the first justification for BDS and not the last?
How will our work shift when we prioritize refugees and their right to return as our main focus?
To get there we have to ask: What relationships do we have with Palestinians living in exile and do we even know what their conditions of struggle are? How can we support the development of a strong refugee population?
Which groups are making these efforts and how can we support them?
The right of return is related to a process that is central to justice for all colonized people in the world: reparations.
The right of return is a thorn in the side of Zionists in the same way that reparations for colonialism and slavery are thorns in the side of the imperial West. The same states cast the right of return and reparations as “unrealistic” because the entire existence of these states is predicated on our oppression.
Returning one inch of land or paying even one dollar to the colonized exposes every colonial power to material liability for their crimes. It exposes to the colonized that justice is possible.
Realizing the right to return of the world’s most recent victims of colonialism gives hope and inspiration to those of us who have been denied reparations for much longer.
So my own commitment to the right of return is in deep alignment with the insistence by the Mozambican revolutionary Samora Machel that “solidarity is not an act of charity but mutual aid between forces fighting for the same objective.”
The world we inhabit today is the result of the dreams and nightmares of Europe’s imagination. Our task as colonized people and the task of our comrades is to imagine and create a new world that saves us from the nightmare we are currently caught in.
If we accept the limited scraps offered to us by our colonizers, we will get nothing. But if we demand the moon, we may – in our endeavors – reach the stars.