December 4, 2012

‘Dialogue’ stands in way of justice in Palestine

Like civil rights and anti-apartheid activists before them, Palestine’s advocates must choose action over so-called moderation.

At one point in history, there was debate over the morality of slavery. At another, it was considered legitimate to discuss whether or not apartheid was an acceptable institution. And not long ago, segregation in the United States was considered reasonable. In each of these situations, there were those who peddled themselves as voices of reason in a tense discourse, who saw legitimacy in “both sides,” and who were thoughtful enough to take the middle ground. Stephen Lurie, who in his latest Viewpoints contribution (“A More Just Dialogue”) calls on pro-Palestine activists to dialogue with their pro-Israel counterparts, represents a historical archetype that stands in the way of any movement for justice.

In response to a statement condemning Israel’s recent assault on Gaza written by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and endorsed by other RSOs and SJP chapters across the city, Lurie presents what is supposed to be the enlightened and responsible position of promoting dialogue between two squabbling foes. Lurie brands SJP’s activity as a “counterproductive” radicalization of the greater Palestine-Israel issue, and urges the group to converse and sympathize with those who condone Israel’s discriminatory policies toward Palestinians. But this dialogue—this moderation and compromise, this conversation over coffee—actually inhibits the advancement of justice. Conversation with those who cannot see the occupation as an oppressive system inevitably occurs under their terms. Meaningful changes in history have only ever come from the voices of the discursive edge, while ‘dialogue’ only succeeds in restraining legitimate critique of oppressive structures like the Israeli occupation.

Lurie’s idea of “justice in dialogue” asks us to pretend that we are operating on a level playing field with equal blame to share. But we are not dealing with a two-sided war, a cultural clash, or a religious conflict. We are dealing exclusively with an oppressor—the occupier—and the oppressed—the occupied. Palestinians are routinely physically and sexually harassed at Israeli military checkpoints, activists and children are frequently imprisoned without trial or charge (nearly half of the male population of Palestine has been imprisoned), and Israel continues to displace Palestinian families to make room for settlements in the West Bank. Though both sides undoubtedly suffer from Israel’s decades-old occupation, Palestinians endure an exponentially greater loss of life, limb, infrastructure, and mental stability. There are no “two sides.”

Dialogue would only serve to sanitize the oppressive nature of the occupation. Instead, we seek to build the growing movement of people that will bring an end to the occupation, that will help restore human and civil rights to the Palestinian people, and that will make sure we are never left wondering how we allowed such a violation of human dignity and autonomy to continue under our noses. Any other strategy will dilute the action needed to see real peace and justice.

Furthermore, Lurie’s concern that SJP’s presentation of the conflict is an unfair and skewed “rail” is as problematic as his call for dialogue. One specific issue he cites in the SJP op-ed is the absence of the word ‘Hamas,’ as if Israel’s human rights abuses and international law violations are dictated by Hamas. Although Lurie stresses the importance of context, he fails to contextualize the most recent war on Gaza within the wider history of the occupation.

Lurie also criticizes SJP for not recognizing the alleged existential threat posed to Israelis. By this, we assume he is referring to the demographic threat posed by the existence of free Palestinians. But the reality is that Israel has the arms to threaten Palestinian life en masse—it does so regularly—and the military capacity for mass murder, as it has shown most recently in the last two invasions of Gaza.

On the other hand, indigenous Palestinians do not have an army or any advanced weaponry, and the rockets that Lurie implicitly alludes to pose a mere fraction of the risk posed by Israel’s almost nightly air raids over Gaza. So it is not that SJP refuses to recognize Israeli concerns; it is that, all things considered, Israeli occupation and apartheid pose an existential threat to Palestinians. And the more unaware our community and student body is of this very real development, the greater this existential threat becomes.

In shedding light on the power dynamics that fuel a globally condemned occupation and in demanding a restoration of Palestinian human rights, SJP does not radicalize the discourse. ‘Dialoguing,’ conceding Palestinian rights, and normalizing oppression does.

Segregation did not end because of dialogue. Apartheid did not end because of criticism that was gentle on the consciences of those who benefited from it. Words were not used to make the supporters of these systems feel comfortable with the status quo. Words were used to shame them, and to provoke the action that was needed to break down oppressive structures. This remains our greatest tactic.