Our debate, like our struggle, knows no borders

We would like to express our thanks to the youth and student groups from Gaza who have taken the time to engage with our position paper on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, especially in this moment where a possible Intifada may break out any minute. No movement in history has ever made forward strides without important debates, and we welcome criticism of our position from comrades fighting for the same goal of a liberated Palestine, and the downfall of Zionist oppression.

Context of Our Document

Our document, released last week, “The BDS Ceiling” was written in preparation for the National SJP conference as a critique of what we see as a trend within the Palestinian solidarity movement in the United States and specifically within Students for Justice in Palestine chapters around the country to focus exclusively on BDS without a critical eye towards other steps they can take to support Palestinian resistance.  Although this document seems to have been viewed as an attack by some, we note that groups who originally signed on to the response, such as the Progressive Student Labor Front, have already begun to remove their signatures, reiterating their “support to New York City Students for Justice in Palestine and their firm and committed struggle against Zionism and racism and for the liberation of Palestine” and their consideration of our article as “far from an attack on BDS”. 

This document was both a self-criticism of the steps we as members of NYC Students for Justice in Palestine have taken as members of campus SJPs and a general critique of the national solidarity movement as a whole, directed towards the limitations of our solidarity work, not to dictate the tactics of the movement in Palestine.  We believe that we must use all possible tools within our reach, from protest to boycotts, divestment resolutions to community mobilization, alliance-building to insurrection, in order to assist the cause of Palestinian liberation.  It was in that spirit that this document was written; to examine and carry out the tactics called for in the 2005 BDS call, and to supplement the call in every way possible, by every and any means possible. We regret that our message was interpreted by the writers of the article to be an “attack” on BDS or construed to mean that we believe that BDS has reached its ceiling. Our analysis on the political trends within the student movement for Palestine in part comes from the fact that NGO employees are in powerful positions within the American national student movement. We want to make it clear that this is absolutely unacceptable. Just as in Palestine, American NGOs have an important supporting role to play in the struggle, however, NGOs can not and will not lead the solidarity movement in the United States which must belong to the Palestinian people, their independent political organizations, and their comrades.

Our Role

We would like to clarify our position. We do not attack BDS, nor reject it. We uphold it as an important tactic in the struggle for Palestinian national liberation.  Our first action as NYC SJP was to go into the Arab community in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to inform community members to boycott Israeli dates during Ramadan (which will be discussed later).  Our role as Palestinians in the diaspora and comrades fighting in solidarity for the national liberation of Palestine is to build support for Palestinian liberation, as well as organize around the issues faced by our communities in the diaspora and other oppressed people. We understand that the  leadership and actual act of liberating Palestine is the historic responsibility of our Palestinian brothers and sisters living in occupied Palestine and the camps. There have been many important historic debates among Palestinians fighting for liberation on how to go about freeing the land, and as an international solidarity organization we study these debates in order to be able to better understand what our tasks are.

When we march for Palestine, we chant loud and proud “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”, because we believe in one democratic Palestinian state, in which the oppression and settler-colonization of Palestine by the supremacist ideology of Zionism has been abolished. We do believe that it is important to share experience and knowledge from many different struggles and movements; Israeli settler-colonialism is part of the chain link of US led imperialism which oppresses people in all corners of the world, which leads to resistance and liberation struggles in all corners of the world. Our struggle has no borders, we fight against the enemy of imperialism as one, and we struggle with each other to stay sharp in this fight for the future of billions of people. Of course, in the final instance the specifics of how to go about liberating Palestine from the river to the sea have to be figured out by the Palestinian masses in Palestine, in the camps, and in the diaspora. Our role is to do what we can from around the world to create the best conditions possible for Palestinians to win such a struggle.

BDS As a Tactic

We understand BDS to be an important tactic in our struggle for international solidarity.  In fact, we ourselves have used and celebrated this tactic to build consciousness within our campuses and communities. However, through our work we have come to the realization that it is not the only tactic we must use to support the liberation of the Palestinian people. Leila Khaled raised an important point in her interview with 972 Magazine:

“BDS, of course, on the international level it is very effective. But it doesn’t liberate, it doesn’t liberate land. If there’s BDS all over the world, and the people are not resisting, there will be no change. BDS helps us to continue the struggle and to isolate Israel, and then the balance of forces changes here. It’s very important for us in the international level to have more people having campaigns, because it means the narration of our story is now on that level, people will ask ‘why are they going for the BDS?’ Now, there’s an experience, and it’s not something theoretical we are speaking about – the BDS during the apartheid era in South Africa, it helped the people who were holding arms. But if they were not holding arms it may have affected them politically, but it would not have liberated, not on the ground.”

Leila Khaled engages in an important evaluation of the successes and limitations of BDS as a tactic. BDS has played an important part in the ideological struggle worldwide to garner mass sympathy and support for Palestinian liberation. However it is not the end, and this is the point where the movement must figure out how to take another step forward.

Our analysis is that the lifeblood of Israel is its link to US imperialism. The US is itself a settler colonial empire that formed on the basis of genocide, slavery and theft of land. The descendants of these victims of the settler-colonization of North America continue to be oppressed here, alongside people all over the world oppressed by US imperialism. Without this oppression, US imperialism could not continue. Without financing and protection from US imperialism, Israel could not successfully maintain its zionist project. The link between the two is obvious; the NYPD that kills and harasses oppressed people here collaborates with the IDF. An important task for the Palestine solidarity movement is to fight alongside oppressed people in the US to bring down US imperialism.

In the article responding to NYC SJP, the writers assert that our analysis of the SodaStream campaign was based on a flawed argument, that the BNC did in fact continue the boycott against SodaStream after the closing of the West Bank plant. Nowhere in our piece did we assert the opposite, in fact the article’s argument addresses solidarity organizations outside of Palestine, not the BNC. Our analysis was correct in that as a campaign, the closure of the West Bank factory was in fact hailed as a victory, evidenced by Omar Barghouti’s statement after the closure:

“This is a clear-cut BDS victory against an odiously complicit Israeli company.”

As New York City SJP, we acknowledge the fact that a more thorough investigation into the SodaStream campaign should have been done, and for that we self-criticize. However, the overall analysis remains correct, evidenced by the campaign against SodaStream dropping in activity dramatically after the closure. The BNC itself marked this as a critical victory, saying the closure “shows that the BDS movement is increasingly capable of holding corporate criminals to account for their participation in Israeli apartheid and colonialism.”

Our analysis was not meant to attack the BNC as having a short-sighted vision of Palestinian liberation. Our criticism was leveled at how BDS is practiced outside of Palestine; we were not disagreeing with the 2005 call when we stated “In theory, the 2005 BDS call to action demands the return of the over five million refugees to wherever their home is, in ‘48 Palestine or the West Bank and Gaza. Taken to the logical conclusion, this means the eventual establishment of a single Palestinian national state covering all of historic Palestine.”  We instead believe that BDS has multiple practical applications outside of Palestine, and that we should embrace all tactics up to and beyond BDS to support the Palestinian struggle.  As mentioned above, NYC SJP has embraced BDS as a call to initiate discussions with our own communities.

This Ramadan we built a campaign in the largely Arab and Palestinian neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to boycott Israeli dates. In this action we can see the limits of BDS that we discussed in our previous document: We could encourage the simple economic boycott of Israeli dates which would deal bee stings to Zionism, or we could use the boycott of Israeli dates to initiate conversations which would serve to organize Palestinian and non-Palestinian oppressed communities into mass movements to support Palestinian liberation.  By doing this we believe we are realizing the full potential of all possible organizing tactics from BDS to community organizing.  This is the core of our critique of the mainstream BDS movement within the United States; instead of complementing the goal of building power for oppressed communities, BDS is often utilized only for the sake of a successful boycott, ignoring the potential BDS could have to help initiate a mass movement of communities and campuses for Palestinian liberation. BDS is not a separate movement from the general movement for Palestinian liberation, calling BDS activities the “BDS Movement” implies that it is somehow a different goal, as if BDS is the means to the end. BDS is part of our strategy outside of Palestine for Palestinian liberation, not the movement itself. This is what we mean by “the BDS Ceiling”: we will defend to the end the movement to Boycott Israel, but also we look critically at how we can go beyond an economistic BDS framework practiced in the United States.

How does NYC SJP/allies do this?

NYC SJP is attempting to engage in new forms of the practice of international solidarity, most notably by actively participating in the struggles of oppressed people here. Immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America are massacred at the border, and in the US are denied citizenship so they can be used as super-exploited labor for capitalism; NYC SJP fights alongside groups such as DREAM Teams fighting for the DREAM Act, members were at protests by undocumented restaurant workers demanding an end to wage theft, help with the ICE FREE NYC Campaign to end collaboration between ICE and NYPD.  NYC SJP members were at the forefront of militant Black Lives Matter marches in NYC, and stuck through the struggle even when there was heavy repression by police, and are participating in prison divestment campaigns to fight against mass incarceration. NYC SJP members are helping to fight for gender resource centers throughout the public colleges of NYC, as well as anti-sexual harassment campaigns, as part of the fight against patriarchy and for women’s liberation.

This practice of active solidarity across movements has been strengthening all struggles in NYC, and gaining valuable allies and comrades for the Palestinian struggle. As part of this practice we have expanded the focus of our Palestine solidarity organizing from just being focused on building on campuses to also doing work in Palestinian communities. As NYC SJP grows and builds the Palestinian solidarity movement in NYC, we aim to do more community work. The solidarity we are forging across struggles, and between the campuses and the communities is building a force that Zionists in this city will have to reckon with. A force that we hope can successfully challenge the Zionists who are in power, so when our Zionist City Council wants to declare that NYC supports Israel, or threatens to defund schools where SJPs are active, we can fight back and win.

We want to learn from SJPs carrying out BDS, and share our experience in community work

We envision Students for Justice in Palestine to be the leading anti-imperialist student organization in the United States. In order to get there, we require space to debate ideas, criticize each other on a principled basis within the space of the organization. In the article on the BDS National Committee website, the Progressive Student Labor Front’s signature was added when they were “unfamiliar” of the original article, and they have since retracted their signature. In their subsequent statement, they remarked,

“We do not agree with everything NYC SJP included in this statement, or their political positions in all other statements they have written; however, we know that these are political struggles to be taken up and carried out together in our movement. This is a discussion within the movement, among forces who stand in one camp, confronting Zionism… We are proud to call them – and all of the students, youth, and progressive forces who raise up the banner of Palestine inside the imperialist United States – our comrades in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine.”

This is the spirit of criticism, debate, and strategy that we had hoped to initiate by releasing our article. Even though the PSLF disagrees with some of our political points, they expressed a willingness to struggle out the differences within the movement, in order to advance the politics and practice of our collective organizing. Considering the name of the Progressive Student Labor Front was “unfamiliar” with the article yet signed on, it begs the question, which of the endorsers actually read our article, and felt strongly enough to attach their name to the piece?

Our aim in raising the points that we have in the article was not to criticize or put down the tremendous amount of work that SJP organizers have done all across the country. We continue to reiterate that we celebrate this work, want to learn from it, put it into practice, and expand it. Exploring new practices and tactics of international solidarity because we believe BDS has limitations does not mean that we attack or reject BDS. It will be important for the movement here to build strong BDS campaigns, and we seek to learn from the experiences of other SJP’s from all over the US who have made great successes over the last year. We expect every solidarity organization to allow the space to discuss strategy, ideas, and criticisms in order to relate to the wider movement.

No movement makes forward strides without important debates and struggles over differences, and we look forward to principled debates, criticisms, and engagements that aim to sharpen the movement.

EDITED: We’d like to clarify that the PSLF’s statement said “we were unfamiliar with the original article.” Nevertheless, the retraction of their signature stands.

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