Civil Rights Icons to Palestine: We’re With You


Cooper Union’s Great Hall was the stage for a milestone in the global Palestine solidarity movement October 6–7, 2012.

Black civil rights icon Angela Davis joined Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, French resistance fighter and co-author of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights Stéphane Hessel, African National Congress leader Ronnie Kasrils, American Indian Movement co-founder Dennis Banks, human rights legal powerhouses John Dugard and Michael Mansfield and several other luminaries on the jury of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine.

Gathered before a packed audience of nearly 1,000 people, including actors Harry Belafonte and Wallace Shawn, this people’s tribunal dealt a blow to one of the most serious crimes against the people of Palestine: silence.

For two days they listened to and questioned experts and historians such as Noam Chomsky, Diana Buttu and Ilan Pappé. Jurors would have heard more Palestinian voices had the US State Department not denied visas to the Gaza Strip’s foremost human rights attorney Raji Sourani and the envoy of the Palestinian Authority to the European Commission in Brussels, Leila Shahid.

In the midst of a media frenzy around a presidential election that has drowned out other news, the tribunal succeeded in garnering coverage from TIME magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera English and Arabic, Le Monde, Le Monde Diplomatique, Foreign Policy, Democracy Now!, radio and press throughout the US and from Johannesburg to Geneva. Naturally, online and print publications of the broad left covered the hearings, including the Nation, Jadaliyya, the Progressive, Mondoweiss, Electronic Intifada, Socialist Worker and many others.

It is unfortunate but hardly surprising that the mouthpiece of the US 1%, the Wall Street Journal, chose to ignore the content of the tribunal and instead attacked it by using a ten-year-old quote from a witness, snagged out of context. As one of the organizers of the NYC hearings and its press officer, I personally would like to thank their tin-eared journalist for having educated his readers of the tribunal’s storied legacy of trying US crimes in Vietnam in the 1960s with the twentieth century’s leading philosophers and historians: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Isaac Deutscher and Bertrand Russell.

Debates should and will rage in the blogosphere regarding both legitimate and irrelevant critiques of what is essentially the highest profile event to have ever taken place in the United States regarding US and UN complicity in Israel’s violations of international law.

But the central, indisputable point that the Russell Tribunal has driven home with this fourth and final session in New York City is that Palestine is no longer the third rail of American politics. Black civil rights icons now stand alongside cultural and legal figures of note to speak out in solidarity with Palestinians and in defiance of Israel’s human rights abuses and third parties’ complicity in those crimes.

Those who challenge the lack of “balance” at these hearings ignore the fact that Israeli and US officials refused to have any participation in the tribunal or issue any response at all to invitations. What’s more, Americans must ask themselves why the “debate” about Israel we most hear largely consists of how strongly each presidential candidate stands with the perpetrators of Israel’s long-recognized crimes against humanity.

The crimes themselves, condemned in the Hague by the International Court of Justice, are rarely if ever even acknowledged in the US media. Demanding that the oppressed never discuss the crimes of their oppressors unless and until their oppressors come to the table amounts to a rather tortured notion of justice.

The venue itself was a marker of the stature of the rising civil rights movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel that aims to gain most immediately from this event. It was held in the very hall where Frederick Douglass—a slave who became the leading abolitionist and orator of the nineteenth century—read out the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Sandwiched between the United Nations and Wall Street, the centers of international diplomacy and finance, the Great Hall physically placed Palestine in the middle of imperial concerns. Now it is up to activists to take the momentum from these hearings and mobilize civil society around BDS in order to win an end to occupation and apartheid.

The hearings were concluded with a gesture of historical poetic justice. The general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Zwelinzima Vavi, mesmerized the crowd with his brief account of his own impoverished life under apartheid. In the end he called for a revival of the solidarity actions and civil rights spirit that transformed South Africa less than twenty years ago.

One notable absence was the usual op-ed page attacks and letters of denunciation by prominent Zionists. They generally slander all discussion of Israel’s crimes as “anti-Semitism” or illegitimate by virtue of the repetition of the charge of illegitimacy. One can only conjecture as to why, but it appears that recent attacks on conferences on Palestine at Columbia, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania have blown back on uncritical Zionists, as greater numbers hear about these gatherings and are won over to standing up for the rights of Palestinians.

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine posed a formidable challenge to the blinkered ideologues who shill for the status quo in Israel. How do you attack a room full of civil rights icons listening to expert testimony without outing your movement as a cover for racist segregation and colonial occupation?

Juror Angela Davis explained a simple truth:

It’s clear that if this information were widely circulated there would be universal condemnation of the policies of the state of Israel that have led to the continued oppression of the Palestinian people.

Time will tell how significant a contribution the Russell Tribunal on Palestine-NYC has made to the movement for Palestinian human rights.

To me, standing at the back of the packed hall with its dramatic nineteenth-century columns and faces of men and women known and respected by literally hundreds of millions around the world it seems that Palestine’s Rosa Parks moment has finally arrived.

Sherry Wolf is the author of Sexuality and Socialism and is a member of Adalah-NY working to build the Russell Tribunal on Palestine-NYC.

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