Palestinian activism is loud, but is it enough?
(August 4, 2014)

On Saturday, July 19, I was among those who went to the Vancouver Art Gallery to protest Israel’s latest atrocity against Palestine. Actually, it’s all one, long, sustained atrocity punctuated by feverish periods of acute sadism.

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Among the carnage wrought by the world’s most moral army, four Palestinian boys were murdered for sport as they played soccer on a Gaza beach. We know about this crime because NBC reporter Ayman Mohyeldin happened to witness it, took pictures of the dead boys and announced it to the world. For his noble efforts NBC fired him from Gaza and replaced him with a Jew from Tel Aviv. NBC, like all corporate media, are indentured to Israel, so honest reporting like Mohyeldin‘s cannot go unpunished.

The official fiction that the media dutifully regurgitates for public consumption about this or any act of premeditated Israeli violence is that Hamas is to blame and Israel’s “right to defend itself” trumps everything. Palestine is never afforded the same right. Because the media dutifully abets Israeli terrorism, protests like the one at the art gallery can serve as powerful antidotes to official disinformation and warmongering. They can educate, inspire, and possibly even engender popular action. What a pity the opportunity was wasted.

To be effective, a protest needs to present a clear message and a offer a clearly defined target of attack to attract people to the cause. This one did neither.

A stale sale

The worst thing that can happen to any protest movement is to be discounted as predictable, and Palestinians in Vancouver are certainly predictable. Whenever Israel commits an atrocity, like the current massacre in Gaza, Palestinians can be expected to come out to protest, but what they have to say has already been factored in because it is familiar, tired and old.

Some sameness is to be expected because the world has for decades perpetuated an unjust status quo and abetted Israeli terrorism, but Palestinians need to focus on what is current because that is what will attract attention. There is nothing fresh or persuasive in reflexively lamenting the plight of Palestinian refugees, condemning the occupation, bemoaning unobserved UN resolutions or calling for Palestine’s independence.

As important as these topics may be, they are too abstract and distant for the average person to wrap his head around, much less spend time caring about. The signs at the rally typified this problem. I saw only two hand-made signs that made mention of the murder of the four Palestinian boys, but these were carried low to the ground and were all but invisible. The conspicuous signs featured generic slogans.

What are people supposed to make of signs like “Stop Massacre of Palestinian People”? Is this command directed at Israel or Stephen Harper!? If so, it’s laughably futile, and futility is not exactly a great recruiting tool. “Free Palestine: end Israeli Occupation/Apartheid”—at best this is wishful thinking, and who is it meant for? “Self-determination for Palestine”? This is leaden Marxist cant and does nothing to engage outsiders.

If what these signs commanded were possible, they would have been be done decades ago. Since nobody reading these signs can act on their messages, they merely shout into the wind, and their very impossibility overwhelms people and increases their sense of helplessness, which is clearly not what activists want to do.

Same old message

During the July 19 protest, a woman happened to walk up next to me wondering what all the excitement was about. I told her it was a protest about Israel’s latest mass murder of Palestinians. Her response was: “Oh, I don’t know anything about the Middle East.” I told her that she should take the time to learn because those who don’t know or who don’t want to get involved make mass crime possible. She smiled politely and continued walking.

This is the sort of person the organizers need to reach, difficult though it may be, but no activists handed out pictures or literature to passersby or tried to engage the curious in conversation. The only exceptions were the Marxists who handed out their party organ Socialist Worker, and this had less to do with Palestine than with promoting a fanciful and widely ignored ideology.

Overall, this event was inward looking when it should have been expansive. Speakers repeatedly chanted “Free, Free Palestine!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” but given the current bloodbath these explosions of bravado seemed absurd and pathetic.

In saying all of this I do not criticize the passion, dedication and integrity of those who organized and attended this and other local events. The fact that they can still attract a crowd is no small achievement, but Palestinians and their allies need to stop preaching to the converted and recycling clichés. They need to start treating protests as opportunities for constructive political education and engagement.

Mismanaging the media

Usually, Palestinian protests are actively ignored by the Israel-serving corporate media, so the sight of a cameraman from Global TV at the art gallery protest was unusual. On the one hand, this was a good development because it meant exposure; on the other, Global TV is a pro-Israel propaganda outlet, so the coverage would be made to serve Israel more than Palestine.

Near the end, the cameraman interviewed Hanna Kawas, a displaced Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem and a major local spokesman for Palestinians since the early 1980s. His show Voice of Palestine, once heard on Co-op radio, can now be found at As I listened to the interview just out of camera view, I watched another opportunity for useful engagement slip away.

The account on the Global webpage notes that the protest was billed as an emergency response to the ongoing situation in Palestine, but that was hard to tell from Kawas’s answers to the interviewer’s generic and off-topic questions, which concerned, for example, the number of Palestinian refugees and the fact that Kawas cannot go back to his home in Bethlehem.

Kawas answered politely and calmly, and even expanded at length on still holding the title deeds to his property. From his gentle, avunculur demeanour nobody would have guessed that any emergency was going on. The interview was more of a friendly chat that had nothing to do with the professed purpose of the protest. Most of it never made it to air, anyway.

Global’s job was to filter this protest through a pro-Israel prism so that any pro-Palestinian message didn’t cause Israel any discomfort, and Kawas made the interviewer’s job easy.

How much more effective would this protest have been if there had been speakers and signs to depict the carnage from Gaza, support the Palestinian government (Hamas), denounce Harper as a war criminal, directly attack the media for warmongering for Israel, and call for the governor general to dismiss Harper? These are subjects that people attending a protest can react to.

Unless organizers appeal beyond their core of true believers to neutrals and even critics, events like this will continue to be self-indulgent, ineffectual and self-defeating. For subsequent protests, it would benefit Palestinian activists to consider the following recommendations.

1) Tell Marxists to stay in the background or stay home

As sympathetic as they may be to the plight of Palestinians, Marxists, of whatever stripe, do them no favours at these events. Their boilerplate slogans and ossified dogma are precisely what Palestinians don’t need if they hope to gain support.

2) Lose the slogans

Make each sign say something concrete and meaningful. If there is a command, make sure the target is clearly defined. The following artwork depicts some possible ideas:

israeli terrorism

3) Control the media; don't be controlled

Palestinians need a passionate yet articulate media representative schooled in the art of parrying anodyne or hostile questions to get the message out. Kawas is clearly not up to the task and must make way for someone younger and more politically relevant.

4) Defend the Palestinian government

The greatest champion of the Palestinians is Hamas, and Hamas deserves support. It has never started a conflict with Israel yet is always demonized as the instigator. This is a standard fascist tactic, and it is up to protestors to put Hamas’s case before the public:: Hamas offered Israel a 10 year truce; Hamas did not start this round of bloodshed, Israel has banned the peace group B'Tselem from placing an ad naming all the children murdered by Israel.

The slow, calculated liquidation of the Palestinian people and their civilization is the great moral crisis of this or any other time, because it is a great crime that our “governments” and propaganda organs choose to support in our name.

Unlike the Jewish Holocaust®, though, this one is not fabricated, and something can be done about it.