Continuing our Reflections from Detroit series, Nada Elia recounts the struggle for solidarity with Palestine at the US Social Forum.
Standoff with StandWithUs, by Nada Elia
In my mind, US Social Forum 2010 will always be the “Standoff with StandWithUs” conference. How could it be otherwise, when all my energy, as well as that of dozens of Palestine activists, before and during the five-day meeting (but, thankfully, not since) was devoted to shutting down the workshop that StandWithUs (SWU), a violent racist hate group managed to get included in the program?
What follows are my own reflections — partial in that they are biased, truncated, and offer only my perspective on the standoff. I offer them somewhat reluctantly, because I feel that it is important to record this historic moment, while fearing they may be misunderstood as an all-encompassing critique of the forum and its organizers. As an organizer myself, I am fully aware of the work involved in organizing a conference, and I speak as someone who has organized three-day, 2000-member conferences, i.e. gatherings that pale in comparison to the 5-day, 20,000 participants USSF. I know how much planning is needed in order to pull through an event of this magnitude, and I appreciate that USSF 2010 was overall an extremely successful gathering, whose momentum will hopefully continue to ripple through multiple progressive American communities. My reflections, then, are offered humbly as a brief retrospect of USSF’s process of addressing StandWithUs, and commentary on what this process says about the US left’s still tenuous relationship with Palestine solidarity work and Palestine activism overall.
Art by Jesus Barraza
The “buzz” about StandWithUs (SWU) presenting a workshop entitled “LGBTQI Liberation in the Middle East” at the USSF started within minutes of the Forum’s full schedule finally being posted online, a week or so before the five-day event was to open. Palestinian activists and our allies, who had proposed a great many workshops, were super excited to see that every single one of these had been accepted. The initial euphoria, however, was soon completely gone, dissipating into utter shock and awe as we discovered that a workshop by StandWithUs was also on the program. StandWithUs? Really? How could that be?
StandWithUs is a racist hate group, an Israel apologist organization known for its history of keeping records on Palestine activists, which it then uses to disrupt their personal and professional lives. SWU is a group that prides itself on its censorship of any discussion of Israeli excesses and its intimidation of progressive activism. Here is a video of the hate group in action.
Of course, I know better than to assume any public forum to be a “safe space.” And yes, the USSF is a public forum, and as such, I and my fellow Palestinian activists (and, I would assume, any seasoned activist, whatever their particular cause) knew there would be disruptions, heckling, de-railing, and all the variations on the theme of bigotry and intolerance that pervade all socio-political spaces. Nevertheless, the USSF did present itself as a progressive left forum, its points of unity, posted on its website, specified the forum was anti-racist and non-violent, hence a group that engages in this type of action must—by the very guidelines of the USSF—be excluded. And now, they were going to facilitate a workshop on queer Arab communities?
Immediately after seeing the SWU workshop listed in the program, queer Arab activists in the US contacted our Arab sisters, and four queer Arab activist organizations issued a letter entitled “Arab Queers Say No To Pinkwashing,” exposing the truth about SWU and calling upon the USSF to cancel the workshop, which would have totally misrepresented our circumstances for the purposes of painting Israel as a gay haven in the Middle East. Here is an excerpt:
StandWithUs has no connection with the LGBT movement in the Middle East apart from ties to Zionist Israeli LGBT organizations, yet it claims to speak for and about our movements. It has no credibility in our region, and as organizations working in and from the Middle East, we condemn its attempt to use us, our struggles, our lives, and our experiences as a platform for pro-Israeli propaganda.
The “pinkwashing of apartheid” is a relatively new development in Israel’s PR campaign, yet one that numerous observers of the Middle East have noted. Jasbir Puar explains:
Israeli pinkwashing is a potent method through which the terms of Israeli occupation of Palestine are reiterated – Israel is civilised, Palestinians are barbaric, homophobic, uncivilised, suicide-bombing fanatics. It produces Israel as the only gay-friendly country in an otherwise hostile region. This has manifold effects: it denies Israeli homophobic oppression of its own gays and lesbians, of which there is plenty, and it recruits, often unwittingly, gays and lesbians of other countries into a collusion with Israeli violence towards Palestine.
In reproducing orientalist tropes of Palestinian sexual backwardness, it also denies the impact of colonial occupation on the degradation and containment of Palestinian cultural norms and values. Pinkwashing harnesses global gays as a new source of affiliation, recruiting liberal gays into a dirty bargaining of their own safety against the continued oppression of Palestinians, now perforce rebranded as “gay unfriendly”. This strategy then also works to elide the presence of numerous Palestinian gay and lesbian organisations, for example Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (PQBDS).
Was the USSF going to be complicit? Having submitted the Queer Arab groups’ statement, and forwarded a number of links about SWU, including one to the group’s own website, we assumed the issue would soon be resolved. It seemed like a pretty straight forward matter: the National Planning Committee of the USSF explained to us that, for lack of people power, they had not screened any of the proposals, and accepted every single one. That is how the SWU proposal was accepted. However, now they knew better. The communities whom SWU was supposed to represent objected to this workshop in an eloquent letter. As a group, SWU violates the profound spirit and vision of USSF. Upon being asked, Brett Cohen, the contact person for the workshop admitted there were no Arab queer facilitators of the SWU workshop, and that he would not be willing to consider having such a co-facilitator. We also reminded the USSF organizers of the problem that had occurred three years earlier, at the Atlanta USSF, when an Israeli speaker had misrepresented Palestinians, and how the USSF planners had made a commitment not to let that happen again. Each of these reasons alone was sufficient to have the USSF cancel the SWU workshop.
Thus it was beyond shocking to hear the USSF National Planning Committee (NPC) tell us that they would not make that decision. They could not. It just wasn’t feasible. It was best for everyone if the workshop went ahead, what’s one SWU workshop, when we had so many Palestinian ones…
What??? We were in utter disbelief. We explained to them that they would never allow the KKK to present “just one workshop” about anything (let alone “black sexuality,” for example), even if there were 50 workshops about various aspects of communities of color on the program. We reminded them of their commitment not to allow misrepresentation of Palestinian issues by Zionist speakers. We argued that of course the USSF is a political space—this after we were told that some members of the NPC did not feel the USSF should be political.
To add insult to injury, we kept being told that the reason the SWU workshop would not be cancelled was because there could potentially be costly consequences to other presenters at the Forum, as SWU might pull strings to influence foundations to withhold funding to groups facilitating workshops at the USSF, if the USSF gave in to our request that their workshop be cancelled. This reasoning is a mille-feuille of layers of problematic expediency. Queer Arab rights can be thrown under the bus by some of the organizers of the USSF, out of fear that NGO funding may be withheld?
Art by Cristy C. Road
The Arab, Palestinian, and pro-Palestine Queer communities were reeling from this, but we were determined. This was important. This was a make or break test. Considering the long history of misrepresentation of Palestinian issues in the US, as well as Arab sexuality issues generally, the inclusion of this workshop was not acceptable. Too much was at stake. StandWithUs must not be allowed to exploit the homophobia our communities endure, so as to present Israel as “the only gay-friendly country in the region.”
As time went by, and we kept asking the USSF planners to cancel the workshop, only to be given answers such as “it’s only one workshop, you have dozens,” or “just tell people not to go there,” and “It’s not such a simple decision to make, we have to look at how others may potentially be impacted,” it became clear to me the USSF had no intention of canceling. While I continued to be in “behind-the-scenes” communication with a number of NPC organizers, some of whom were sympathetic, I was also very vocal in public, social media discussions, where yes, I did openly call the BS I felt we were being fed by the USSF. As we were told of some NPC members’ fears of repercussions, should they cancel, I lashed out, telling them solidarity requires making difficult decisions, taking a stand with the oppressed communities, rather than attempting not to rattle the powerful. I screamed (in all caps) that the delay in giving us an official answer was unacceptable, we needed to know, so we would plan accordingly.
I know there was some concern about my anger, my outspokenness, my “hell no I ain’t gonna take this crap” attitude, but I do believe the public pressure played a major role in finally getting the USSF to change their mind. I received personal messages from people who have not identified themselves to this day, telling me to STFU, someone I still only know as the “list moderator” accused me of being disruptive, and duplicitous, since I was working on two fronts: behind the scenes, with personal communication with the NPC, as well as in public spaces such as Facebook. I responded that if there were a third or fourth front, I’d join those too, because this was too important not to pursue all the way, and in every way.
I also received expressions of concern from members of the Palestinian community, who told me my attitude may be burning bridges with the USSF NPC that they had worked hard for the past two years to build. While networking and alliance building are of the utmost importance to me, I have to admit that I did not think burning those particular bridges would constitute a great loss, as I saw how frail they were in the first place, if now that we had a conflict, which required that the USSF take sides, we were basically being asked to “put up with SWU,” and organize your own protest if you want, as the USSF wasn’t going to cancel the workshop.
And yes, there were also messages of support, of gratitude for my persistence, my insistence that one racist workshop by a group known to advocate violence was one such workshop too many, at a progressive anti-racist anti-violence gathering.
The USSF was starting, I packed my suitcase, and headed to Detroit with a heavy heart: we had not won the battle. Not yet.
Apparently, however, our efforts were beginning to pay off. Clearly, the long years of “educating” American progressives about Palestine had not been in vain, as the USPCN and the USSF NPC continued the difficult conversation, pushing, pushing…. In Detroit itself, members of various pro-Palestine groups met again with the NPC, into the wee morning hours, arguing our case.
Finally, on Monday, June 21st, one day before the USSF officially began, the NPC released a statement about the debate. Here’s an excerpt:
We agree [Stand With Us] does not belong at the Forum, and should not have made it into our program. Also, the deliberate masking of the true nature of the workshop behind movement language goes against the transparency and accountability we expect from those participating in the Forum.
This is unacceptable to the National Planning Committee (NPC), and we deeply regret the oversight and sincerely apologize for the delay in our response. Our dilemma has been how to protect the integrity of the Forum as a movement convergence space without playing into this very underhanded, well-known, and potentially divisive tactic. We do not want to give Stand With Us a platform it does not deserve. We are aware of its history in using claims of censorship against those who defend Palestinian rights. We are engaged in a very real strategic debate about how to move forward.
And indeed, even after the NPC statement was issued, even after the USSF officially started, the debate went on.
And then, one day into the USSF, and after hours and hours of additional meetings, the decision we had worked so hard to obtain was finally announced: the USSF was canceling the SWU workshop, a workshop it should never had accepted in the first place, and which it should have simply cancelled within minutes of discovering how dishonest it was. With very little fanfare, this announcement was posted to USSF’s Facebook status on Wednesday morning, June 23:
The workshop “LGBTQI Liberation in the Middle East” (Thursday June 24 10am – 12pm) has been canceled for violating the submission procedure and transparency requirements for all workshops, and for being in violation of the anti-racist principles central to the US Social Forum.
The US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), representing Palestinian communities at the USSF, released a statement on the decision to cancel the workshop. Here is an excerpt:
In a historic accomplishment, the leadership of the US Social Forum voted this morning to cancel a workshop proposed by “Stand With US”, a Zionist organization <http://www.standwithus.com/> that sought to represent Israel as a safe haven for LGBTQI communities and undermine the broadening support for the cause of justice in/for Palestine. … This is a victory for our struggle and indeed the struggle for justice for all. This victory makes it clear that the struggle for justice in/for Palestine is an integral part of the worldwide movement for freedom, dignity, justice and peace.
Why did it take so long for the USSF NPC to do what’s right? The delay, I believe, is sadly representative of the state of the US left when it comes to dealing with Palestine. Despite the US left’s commitment to denouncing (and, hopefully, ending) colonialism, racism, militarism, state violence, occupation, sexism, homophobia, and the various interrelated evils of hetero-patriarchy, this “camp” is still home to large communities who fail to understand that our struggles are one and the same. As Noura Erakat put it in her incisive analysis:
Yet despite this yearning to nurture American solidarity, there is a vast divide between the aspiration and the understanding required for its realization — that Palestinians, other nations, and millions of marginalized Americans contend with the same structural impediments standing between them and the full realization of their human dignity. The understanding of a common enemy and the affirmation of a common humanity is the linchpin of genuine solidarity.
And yet, as the USPCN statement points out, the US Left is finally coming around. The long years of work, of “educating” American leftists about the moral righteousness of our cause, the seemingly endless task of disentangling the deliberate Zionist twinning of critiques of Israel with anti-Semitism, were beginning to bear fruit. Not only was the StandWithUs workshop cancelled, but in the closing plenary, when the various People’s Movement Assemblies came together to announce the resolutions they had drafted after five days of meetings, a number of groups expressed not just solidarity with Palestine, but an actual commitment to engage in actions for Palestine. The support we felt in that gigantic and potentially intimidating room was empowering and thoroughly comforting. Yes, we were coming together, the bridges had carried us over from one shore to another, and they could withhold traffic, including solidarity work.
It is a long time coming. It has not been an easy road, nor will it necessarily be easy now, even as we can clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel. But then again, such is the minefield of Palestine solidarity. It wouldn’t be called a struggle if it were easy.
And that makes the victory so much sweeter.
Nada Elia is a former member of the INCITE! national collective, where she co-chaired the taskforce on Militarism and Law Enforcement Violence. She is currently organizing with the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel: http://www.usacbi.org