Palestinians’ sustained struggle for freedom and independence offers many lessons
The murder of George Floyd and the White House’s mishandling (to put it politely) of the COVID-19 pandemic may be providing the perfect toxic storm to fix America. The road to creating an equitable American society will be long and hard, but the U.S. civil rights movement is not starting from zero. As social movements around the world, the U.S. movement can learn much by studying other struggles for freedom. The Palestinians’ century-long struggle is a treasure chest full of valuable lessons.
As a Palestinian-American from Youngstown, Ohio watching events unfold on the streets of American cities to the chambers of power in Washington D.C., something seems eerily familiar to what I have witnessed in my 25 years of living in Israeli military occupied Palestine. Paralyzed leadership (to put it politely), the militarization of society, the economic hollowing out of communities, the growing class chasm, religious fundamentalism packaged as a plausible national reference, not to mention the need for justice system reform which sparked this latest outcry for justice for all, are all issues we in Palestine have grappled with for decades.
The ultimate lesson Palestine can offer to America’s struggle is that for all those who are serious about witnessing real change is to come to terms with the fact that you will most likely not be around when it happens, and that’s fine. In a 100-mile marathon, miles 20 and 21 are just as important as 99 and 100. The sustained struggle to change systemic societal flaws is a multi-generational effort. In America’s fast culture this realization is sometimes hard to swallow, but one must see their efforts of utmost importance even if it is only a few steps on a long path forward.
Palestine has had several versions of an Intifada, one from 1936-1939, another in 1987, and the most recent in the year 2000? What is an Intifada you ask? The root of the Arabic word Intifada means to “shake off,” as in rising up to shake off oppression. It is a term coined in the context of Palestinians uprising against the colonization and military occupation of their lands and lives. Although it is used as if it defines a specific type of mass movement, it describes multiple types of mass action, from general strikes mixed with violent confrontations to a potent mix of general strikes, mass non-violent protests, community schooling, home gardens, and boycotts, to outright violent confrontation.
No one but those at the heart of a struggle can judge which tactics are best suited for their struggle, but one thing for sure, something Palestinians learned the hard way, is that one does not want to destroy their community and social fabric along the way. Another important concept is that not every person in the street has the right to pick and choose the tactics to be used, there must be leadership, and not necessarily hierarchical leadership, that collectively decides on which form the struggle must adopt at any given moment. Each person or any single political grouping thinking they can ignore the collective effort is the key ingredient to chaos and stunning the sustainable nature needed to succeed.
Again, closely watching this American Intifada from abroad, it seems imperative that the messaging moves beyond—without abandoning—the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, as key and central BLM is to this defining moment. Nevertheless, BLM is a movement that specifically aims to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” A noble cause indeed, but not one detached from a broader array of interrelated issues.
Trump’s recent signing of an executive order incentivizing federal police reforms is a red herring par excellence, trying to keep everyone’s focus on the narrow, albeit crucially needed justice system reform. Palestine also has a lesson to offer here. Security issues must come as part of a package deal and not as an end to itself. When security becomes the means and the end, it is bound to repeatedly crumble. Security is need for sure, but for a society that respects its citizens and offers all a reason to live. When living becomes equated to death, think Gaza, no amount of security measures or Executive Orders can keep the peace.
America needs much
Messaging toward societal and structural changes must be introduced as part of a package of the movement’s demands, police reform being one element. In my business world, we use a tool called an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is the ability to state what your firm or start-up does in 30 seconds or less. For the current social movement, let us modify that tool to being able to state in a few clear sentences the issues at hand. This would be a powerful rallying tool.
For example, let us take nine U.S. structural flaws, beyond law enforcement, to articulate. I’ll contribute by asking a few questions that must be answered by the movement.
Education – Why is it that “international math and science assessments indicate that U.S. students continue to rank around the middle of the pack, and behind many other advanced industrial nations?”
Healthcare – Why is it that “the U.S. spends about twice what other high-income nations do on health care but has the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rates?” Additionally, why is it that up to 25% of Americans can’t afford healthcare while medical offices from coast to coast are treated with daily complimentary lunches, delivered right to their offices, from the best restaurants around by drug companies seeking more prescriptions written for their products? Read Selling Sickness: How the World’s Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies Are Turning Us All Into Patients for a peek into this broken industry and how we all underwrite it.
Advertising – Why is it that prescription drugs are peddled directly to consumers on prime time TV and consumer product firms like Coca Cola litter our views with hyper-advertising.
Lobbying– Why is it that lobbies have more access, more power, and more influence on Congress than all American citizens combined? A case in point that negatively affects us here in Palestine is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Read The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy to learn why the U.S. coffers are emptying for Israel’s sake and They Dare to Speak Out to see what happens to lawmakers who speak up to stop foreign countries driving U.S. policies.
Arms production – Why is it that “American companies dominated the top-100 [arms-producing and military services companies] list, with sales by all U.S. companies amounting to $246 billion – 59% of total global arms sales?” And if that is not bad enough, learn how the U.S. funds its allies to produce even more weapons of death and destruction by reading War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification by my Israeli friend and colleague in the struggle, Jeff Halper.
Food chain – Why is that “Americans are sick?” “[M]uch sicker than many realize. More than 100 million adults — almost half the entire adult population — have pre-diabetes or diabetes. Cardiovascular disease afflicts about 122 million people and causes roughly 840,000 deaths each year, or about 2,300 deaths each day. Three in four adults are overweight or obese. More Americans are sick, in other words, than are healthy.” The COVID-19 statistics are not even added here yet.
Diplomacy – Why is it that diplomacy has opened its doors to the worst that America has to offer? Diplomacy matters if military intervention is to be avoided. Accepting patent fundamentalist liars such as the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, only puts more American lives abroad at risk, not to mention the havoc such persons bring to the places they serve. There are American outfits that are seeking change here and are worthy of following, such as the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Media– Why is it that, “In 1983, fifty companies owned 90 percent of U.S. media. By 2012, just six conglomerates controlled the same percentage of U.S. media outlets,” while the S. President publicly asks why National Public Radio (NPR) still exists and aims to slash its federal budget to zero by 2023?
Jobs – Why is it that more Americans are working more and making less, while women workers are earning around 85 cents on the dollar compared to men workers? Even worse, “In 2017, for example, Black women earned 61 cents for every dollar earned by white men.”
Each of these issues has its leadership and will all take much more effort than street demonstrations to address. That is not to say mass protests should be shied away from, just the opposite. Nonviolent civil unrest is a powerful mobilizing tool, but it is not a means in and of itself. Education and long-term organizing are where change will be realized.
It goes without stating that unity throughout the movement is key. Unity does not happen on its own. Ask us Palestinians on this. The oppressing power will do everything it can do to divide the movement’s ranks, and when disunity happens, those same powers will cry out that there is no unified leadership to guide the needed changes, thus leaving things as they are, or using the opportunity to deteriorate them even further. Please do not let secondary differences divide the various elements of the movement; the stakes are far too great.
From Palestine, and I assume from every corner of the globe, the oppressed around the world are watching, as we engage in our struggles for freedom. We are not merely observers; we have as much to benefit from fixing America as every American citizen. For it is America’s narrow military–industrial–congressional complex interests that have wrought havoc across the world and prohibited other countries to be held accountable for their actions.
A better America means a better world. A corrected America means less death and destruction from Minneapolis to Caracas to Bethlehem.