Palestine Solidarity and the New Internationalism: An Interview with Jesse Rosenfeld

Faraz Vahid Shahidi

Jesse Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Israel/Palestine. He has published articles with The Nation, The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique, Al Jazeera English, The Irish Times, Ha’aretz, and Foreignpolicy.com. More recently, he was on assignment reporting on the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla II for NOW Magazine. During his time with the flotilla, he regularly provided news and analysis of its mission, its encounter with Greek authorities, and the broader context of global politics. In this interview, he assesses the tactical and strategic lessons of these events and considers their significance for both the global Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and international solidarity more generally. Faraz Vahid Shahidi interviewed Rosenfeld in Toronto, during the summer of 2011.

The Freedom Flotilla II consisted of ten ships carrying 1000 activists from 20 different countries. How did you end up on the flotilla and what were your motivations for participating?

I was invited to join the flotilla on assignment. I’d been covering the Middle East since 2007 and NOW Magazine commissioned me to cover this story. I also received an invite from John Greyson, a local pro-Palestinian film-maker, who affectionately described the project as a “Mediterranean cruise to Gaza.” I was sold.

What interested me most about the prospect of covering this story was that I’d been consistently shut out of Gaza. Because I’d refused to sign up for an Israeli press office card when I was last there – in order to get a press office card, you have to agree to file any defense-related stories through the state censor, something I wasn’t particularly ready to stomach doing – access to Gaza was incredibly difficult. The flotilla provided an opportunity to get around this obstacle.

I first arrived in Palestine in September of 2007. This was the first week of the siege of Gaza, at least in the sense we mean it today. I was in the region during the 2008-2009 attack, but without press access to Gaza. As a result, I focused my coverage on the reactions to it on the West Bank and amongst Palestinian Israelis. I also reported on the rise of Jewish nationalism surrounding Gaza. I felt that reporting on the siege would be incredibly important if the flotilla did manage to reach Gaza. It would allow me to investigate the nature of the siege, the situation in Gaza, and the way that Gaza is connected to the rest of the world. Particularly in the context of the Arab Spring, it was important to record the siege’s ramifications on the concepts of freedom and unity spreading across the region. These were the driving forces that made me want to sail with the flotilla.

Why didn’t the boats reach Gaza? Does their failure mean that the flotilla wasn’t a success?

If we wanted, we could create a score ratio and apply it to the predetermined objectives that we failed to fulfill. But it’s probably more important to look at the political impact of the flotilla and what it has revealed about the world.

For one, because we were obstructed by the Greek government, the flotilla showed how Israel’s allies would crudely and explicitly come to its defence. It revealed how power politics are currently shaping the West’s and Israel’s relationship to the Middle East. It said something incredibly powerful about this current age of austerity when Greece – historically one of the strongest European allies to the Palestinian struggle – fell into such a position of economic decay that it literally sold its foreign policy to an Israeli-European Union-US pressure campaign. It was fascinating to see how austerity could bring together states and governments to solidify their positions on foreign policy objectives and economic relations. It became clear that Israel had been engaging in a campaign of economic blackmail against Greece. For Greece, the possibility of an upgrade in economic relations with Israel was at stake. If Greece allowed the boats to go, it could create tension. In terms of leverage, however, it’s always been understood that Greece – the major European exporter to the Middle East – would be far more logically dependent on its relations to that region than to Israel and its allies.

But patterns in global politics unfolded in that Greek man-euver. Directly after last year’s assault on the Mavi Marmara (where Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish nationals during their raid on the first flotilla) and the disruption of relations between Turkey and Israel, Israel went directly to Greece and offered an economic upgrade. It effectively told Greece: “you’re an historic ally of the Arab world and we are historically allied with Turkey, but we 
want to switch this arrangement and found an Israel-Greece alliance.” The subtext was “Don’t let this flotilla set sail and we will both profit from this new relationship.” The flotilla activists felt that there was no legal way that the Greek government was going to prevent them from leaving port, particularly in the context of the anti-austerity protests sweeping the country. But what became clear was Greece was too desperate to turn down Israel’s offer to include Greece in the risky venture of exploring and contending sovereignty over unclaimed gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea – a venture that might provide the Greek economy a new national resource. By the time the flotilla was scheduled to set sail, the Greek government had already sold the country – specifically, sold its foreign policy – to an IMF austerity package and had lost all popular credibility.

In this context of declining Empire, I think people realized that foreign policy was simply a commodity that could be sold 
along with everything else. This is incredibly important to understand. The events surrounding the flotilla reveal a lot about the way that the West is both responding to its decline in global power while, at the same time, negotiating its prospects for further intervention in the Middle East.

It’s also crucial to consider the flotilla in light of the Arab 
Spring. The boats were stopped in Greece partly because of economic leveraging, but the reason Israel resorted to such desperate measures was the Arab Spring. In the past, when different delegations have tried to march to Gaza, they’ve often become bogged down in Egypt. There, a few token representatives have typically been allowed to enter Gaza and the immediate situation becomes defused. But in the context of a popular uprising in Egypt, where control of public squares has symbolized liberation from repression, Israel couldn’t risk its standard tact. And the threat was coming not just from Egypt, but also from Syria and Lebanon, where Palestinian refugees were clashing with soldiers along Israel’s northern borders. At the same time, there was growing unrest in the Palestinian unity movement, which had begun to reject its formal leadership. Every clash since March 15th – the date of the Palestinian unity protests – has tackled a symbolic border that embodies the nature of Israeli apartheid. Israel could not handle the symbolism of boats challenging its borders from 
the West. More generally, Israel could not deal with an actual additional, international challenge to its borders.

Those were some of the most important political consequences of the flotilla. Did it deliver aid? No. Do I really care? No.

Why is the discourse of aid so significant?

Aid is not the foremost issue for Gaza. Israel’s attempts at increased cruelty and heightened siege proved relatively ineffective, and these tactics were abandoned. People can live in Gaza right now – even if uncomfortably. The problem is that people can’t live freely.

When I spoke with Mark Regev, the chief media spokesperson for the Israeli government, who’s very adept at speaking to particular sensitivities and issues relevant to the media of various Western countries, his first thought was: “Aid, here’s the issue.” He immediately began to tell me about how the lone French and international boat that the Israeli navy commandeered wasn’t even carrying aid. When I replied, “Yeah, but the activists are saying this isn’t about aid. They’re saying that this is about the political conditions that Israel is creating by way of siege,” he just didn’t know how to respond. He had to pause for a minute because, in many ways, Israel needs this discourse of aid.

First of all, the discourse of aid presents Israel with an opportunity to outsource its responsibilities as an occupier (responsibilities that are stipulated under international law) to international agencies. It helps them to network around 
occupation, thus making occupation more sustainable. Organizations building infrastructure in Palestine are basically providing all of the services for which the occupier is traditionally responsible. These responsibilities are outsourced to aid, thereby reducing the cost for the occupier – both politically and economically.

Second, if you want to understand Palestine and the current system of occupation, you have to understand the politics of aid and how it’s made this process possible. “Aid” has provided Israel with an alternative political process for recognizing and negotiating with a liberation struggle. The production of this discourse was a deliberate political maneuver aimed at undermining the process of negotiating an end to Israel’s ongoing colonization of Palestine. Backed by American and European funding, Israel’s approach was essentially to say: “Develop your health organization, or agricultural organization, or NGO; throw a line about ‘peace’ in there and maybe some joint meetings with Israelis, and we’ll fund you plenty.” This changed the conditions, and replaced the nationalist political leadership and economic elite’s interest in revolt with a bought-off interest in ongoing collaboration. This has been the general outcome of aid and the international NGO presence in the region.

So, to me, one of the greatest successes of this so-called “aid flotilla” was that it actually killed the discourse of aid. At the very least, it helped us realize what role aid had been playing in the occupation. In many ways, though, we still need to get away from the guilt politics and “helping hand” mentality of many international activists. Activists and the various arms of the Palestinian struggle must take stock of all these different elements and develop a broader understanding of the Israeli system of apartheid. There were profound lessons from the flotilla experience that people have yet to actually grasp, just as people couldn’t grasp the meaning of Tahrir Square until people’s persistence revealed the power of symbolism and began to clarify the meaning of revolt in the region.

What sort of transformations in Israeli policy – foreign and domestic – have we seen as a result of projects like the flotilla?

Projects like the flotilla contribute to Israel’s self-isolation. The only way that Israel can justify its brutal repression of civil non-violent action is through a massive retreat into itself, and this shuts down its ability to interact with the world. In their response to the Freedom Flotilla II and to previous delegations to Gaza, the state effectively isolated itself. The flotilla prohibited Israel from living comfortably with the duality that combines the perception of liberalism with the reality of ethnic exclusivity. It has forced the state and its people to make a choice – and, as you can see from the Israeli electorate, they are choosing Jewish nationalism. But forcing the choice means that it’s no longer possible for the state to live comfortably with the contradictions that it relies upon. It forces the state to acknowledge what it doesn’t want to; one of Mark Regev’s biggest mistakes when speaking to me was to declare that, in fact, “It isn’t about aid.”

The flotilla directly contested Israel’s sovereign claims, even if only symbolically. This stands in contrast to Palestine solidarity efforts that feature appeals to power and demands for better representation. While both modes are important, what unique contributions do you feel that each makes? Will they ever be in conflict?

Israel’s violent defence of its borders and its system of segregation are statements of control and supremacy. When you have lines of Israeli soldiers taking cover behind defensive dirt mounds along the borders with Lebanon and Syria – who pick off unarmed protestors as if they were part of an invading army – it becomes clear what kind of state Israel perceives itself to be. The priority is to expose what Israel’s borders represent, to highlight their symbolism for the state itself.

It’s not easy to replicate the flotilla’s mode of organizing. For one, it’s expensive. But, if you contrast it with the resources spent elsewhere, the flotilla provides far more effective results than when states have spent resources providing arms to Palestinians. This is precisely where the international dimension of the Palestinian struggle comes into effect. A delegation of boats wouldn’t have been possible, and wouldn’t have had as great an impact, without a massive campaign to raise resources and awareness. Projects like the flotilla are feasible – politically and economically – because of broad-based solidarity movements. These movements provide the resources and the internationalism that justify the flotilla. So, when looking at the flotilla and its relation to BDS, the two modes of organizing aren’t detached in any way.

The BDS movement makes it possible to go to Palestine and engage with the struggles on the ground. The international struggle has a dual character. It’s not just about shutting down interaction with the Israeli state and isolating its ethno-nationalist support base; it’s also about providing direct support to Palestinians fighting for freedom. Each mode complements the other. In fact, in order to do the latter, you need to do the former. You can’t sustain a very large international solidarity campaign without a broad based mobilization in the countries where activists are coming from. You can’t be of use to the struggle unless you have the necessary political and financial support. The various dimensions of international solidarity that we’re familiar with – BDS and the flotilla being only two examples – are not antithetical to one another by any stretch of the imagination.

And there are consequences when we forget that our tactics interlock and end up fetishizing one over all the others. BDS becomes a problem, for example, when it becomes the sole focus. There are those who only want to talk about BDS, either because they feel that it’s the only role for the international community or because they just believe that it’s the only answer. What gets lost is a broader conception of the role of international struggle.

This was the second international flotilla destined for Gaza and there are likely to be more in the future. How do these particular projects figure into the larger struggle against Israeli apartheid?

Following up on your previous question, we need to think about how BDS and the flotilla fit into the general solidarity movement. Both are tactics, and both are currently working far more at the existential level than at the material level; neither is an ethic nor an overall prescription for the movement.

It’s better to begin by looking at the Palestinian question – and this will become more prominent in the context of the Arab Spring. It’s better to look at how the multi-dimensional campaign or liberation struggle in Palestine is similar to the one that took place South Africa. Seven out of ten Palestinians are refugees. That is one dimension of the struggle. A second dimension concerns the Palestinian citizens of Israel who are engaged in civil struggle based on an existential connection for survival. On another front, you have the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel has defined itself and its borders in terms of these various dimensions. Likewise, each dimension merits unique forms of struggle. In this sense, the question for the international campaign has always been to determine what kind of support it can provide to these three dimensions of the Palestinian struggle. And, specifically,  its most important role is in helping to provide an apparatus for communication between these different dimensions. The international campaign can provide haven for exiles from the struggle and resources so that the struggle can continue. It can also amplify Palestinian demands and mobilize resistance.

Defining and isolating Israel as a regime of ethnocratic segregation requires movements like BDS, but it doesn’t end there. There is a larger struggle, the internationalization of a clash with Israel’s borders. Politically, that was one of the most important things about the flotilla – the clash with Israel’s borders provided the first real opportunity for the Palestine international solidarity movement to meet the Arab Spring.

What does the recent wave of social protest in Israel mean for the Palestinian liberation struggle?

As of now, it doesn’t mean anything. The protests aren’t dealing with colonial politics or the occupation. They are organized predominantly around housing issues and have even encompassed parts of the settler movements as well. Palestinian Israelis are barely seen in the struggle, through no fault of their own. In terms of the Israeli protesters’ political impact, they will eventually have to deal with the contradiction of demanding social justice while ignoring occupation. But at that moment, the movement will split. This split may regenerate a new Israeli Left interested in challenging the occupation. It may not. But no one is really making these connections at this point in time.

Recently on Electronic Intifada, Mairav Zonszein wrote about the invisibilization of Palestinians in our solidarity work. Specifically, she described the media’s tendency to replace Palestinians with images of Westerners experiencing repression allegedly characteristic of Palestinian life. How can Palestine solidarity organizers address the concerns raised in Zonszein’s article?

The flotilla was composed predominantly of white, Western bodies. In essence, they were people who could pay their way onto the boat. The fact is, when you deal with the question of Palestine and the international solidarity campaign, it’s mostly happening on campuses and among the intellectual classes. Palestine is not the struggle of the Canadian worker.

The experience of being in Crete with the flotilla activists was very interesting. It was somewhere between James Bond and Inspector Gadget – on both the Israeli and the activist sides of things. There were interesting, and sometimes comical, attempts at security culture. Nevertheless, the actual feeling of international pressure, in terms of surveillance and attempts at destabilization, was very real. You had middle-class, middle-aged activists from the West who had very little experience dealing with this kind of stuff, and they handled it relatively well. But it wasn’t Gaza. It wasn’t Ramallah. It wasn’t even Jaffa. The focus was on Crete, on these international activists.

The perception wasn’t so much that this was Gaza, but that Greece’s effort to stop the flotilla was an important instance of outsourced occupation. This is how the Israeli occupation works; Israel could expand the blockade across the Mediterranean and have Greece enact it. That’s what activists were highlighting when they likened their situation to conditions in Gaza.

What you’re trying to tackle with this question is the common tendency to make both the pro- and anti- sides of the Palestinian debate free of actual Palestinians. Well, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t engage in massive international actions like this and not expect the entire world’s attention. There is an international dimension, an international face, to the Palestinian liberation struggle. But the imagery that accompanies this international dimension isn’t always the fault of international activists. Sometimes, it’s not even a Western imposition but, rather, arises from political choices made by Palestinians themselves. In 
villages like Bil’in, Palestinian activists will encourage the 
media to spend a lot of time talking to international activists who get injured because they know it will gather attention. Unfortunately, Palestinians getting hurt doesn’t. Similarly, you regularly have Palestinians from the popular struggle asking Israelis to speak to Israeli media – and Israelis expects it to be a Jewish debate anyway.

Talking about international activists doesn’t necessarily take away from the struggle. Does it create potential long-term problems over perspectives on who is involved? Yes, if not fleshed out and challenged. There is reason for concern when the international movement begins to dominate the rest of the Palestinian struggle, or when immediate sympathies lead Palestinians to feel the need to eliminate their own perspective to highlight an international one. Those would be problems down the road, and they’re things to that we look at, think about, and discuss. However, it’s incredibly important to understand that foregrounding the “international” face is are often a political calculation intended to bring attention to issues that may not otherwise get covered. There is a political function to the use of certain images, and these images need to be 
understood accordingly.

The reason Palestinians are absent from a lot – though not all – of the images of struggle over the past several years is because the focus has shifted to the international dimension. However, this international dimension has been the only thing keeping the focus on the Palestinian struggle during these years of division. In many ways, what Zonszein’s critique highlights where the Palestinian liberation struggle has been over the past several years, and the level of despair in which it finds itself. But at this point, the Palestinian struggle is increasingly coming together, and that’s why I think these questions are being raised now.

More important than the representation of bodies, however is the representation of ideas: what is being presented, when, and why? Who is responsible for that presentation? What are they choosing to talk about? Does it create something that an audience with no conception of Palestine can relate to? Now, with the Arab Spring, we are at a different juncture. Until now, the white, Western face filled the void created by the Orientalist divide. It filled the void that arose from an inadequate understanding of Palestinians, and Arabs in general, who were thought to have a different set of values or experiences to which others would have trouble relating. When the default became the values of tolerance or co-existence, this reinforced Orientalist images. However, the Arab Spring obliterated this. It revealed a common set of values; the basic desire for freedom has again been exposed, and it serves to undermine Orientalist understanding. For this reason, it may no longer be politically useful to use those white faces, even in the Palestinian struggle. Instead, our work can ground itself in these shared values and opposition to the abnormality of Israel’s actions, especially vis-à-vis these shared values. The running joke has been, “give it a couple of months, and Israel will be the only non-democracy in the Middle East.” That speaks to the generalizability that’s beginning to obliterate the Orientalist divide. We no longer need the white face to show the world what it should already know. It’s no longer needed because the Arab face is saying that for itself.

How do projects like the Freedom Flotilla II equip us to be better solidarity organizers?

I think people should stop thinking of it as “solidarity work.” People should look to the Middle East for opportunities for a new internationalism, an understanding of the shifting nature of Empire, and a changing discourse about the relationship between social movements and states. Solidarity is the principle of support while fighting for one’s own liberation, but the idea has been sorely misunderstood. One of my major critiques of solidarity politics is the tendency to say: “I’m just going to shut up and do what you say because you are more oppressed than I am.” No progressives in the Middle East think like that! Nevertheless, these politics of guilt prevail among North American organizers, as well as among Jewish Israelis who work with Palestinians. Instead, we need to understand that we’re entering an age of austerity. We’re part of a world where global power politics are shifting, where economic capital is remaining as exploitative as ever, and empire is in decline. We are all tied up in this. Sure, we have our unique angles and unique experiences; however, if we’re actually interested in fighting for a different world, we have to be able to come to the table and think about the experiences we share. But solidarity politics has become a politics of support and deflection, where you don’t engage and don’t ask questions. People struggle for other people to achieve rights that are completely legitimate, but they’re not actually forming new relationships. They’re not building an international struggle.

There’s a great opportunity to mobilize by building on the inspiration and values that underscored the riots in Cairo and elsewhere. I really believe that they’re beginning to be understood as shared values. And these shared values are far more useful for a new internationalism than are alternative concepts of solidarity or aid. Looking at the Middle East, people are beginning to see something that they can identify with; the question now is how to universalize or internationalize these aspirations.

The Arab Spring has renewed global humanism and internationalism. It has helped define the terms needed for people and movements to connect and build a global system of justice. What the Arab Spring fundamentally did was provide a model of struggle and of common values. In this moment of incredible transformation, we need to get to a point where social movements can dialogue with states, rather than simply oppressed factions (that we may or may not politically agree with) against colonial or imperial states. And that’s what the solidarity movement needs to understand in terms of moving the struggle forward and actually building the foundations for a genuine liberation struggle that not only truly inspires, but also meets the needs of those who are demanding it. I think that’s where solidarity politics need to move. If we want to contribute anything useful to international struggles, and if we want to be part of a pro-active effort to change the world rather than simply being a reactive, supportive apparatus, we must recognize that solidarity politics are not yet genuine internationalism.