ISM tour comes at potential turning point for Palestine

Photo: Rana Nazzal, Joe Catron and Islam Maraqa on the ISM Tour

By Joe Catron, April 2018

This year’s International Solidarity Movement tour, which brought ISM coordinators and volunteers to speak at over two dozen sites across Canada and the United States, came at a crucial moment in the struggle to liberate Palestine. Fresh on the heels of an Israeli occupation court’s sentencing of seventeen-year-old Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi to eight months of military detention for defending her home and family against enemy soldiers, Gaza’s Great March of Return, and Israel’s wave of massacres against unarmed Palestinian refugees seeking return to their homes, erupted midway through our travels across the continent.

These two developments, and the global campaigns around them, have raised fresh awareness of Israel’s seventy years of violence against Palestinians among untold millions, and brought thousands of new activists into solidarity movements, at a time when Israel’s standing among its traditional supporters had already begun to wane. A January poll by the Pew Research Center showed Democratic voters in the U.S. nearly split, with 25% now sympathizing with Palestinians and 27% still favoring Israel. In 2017, a Brand Israel Group study found that support for Israel among Jewish college students in the U.S. had plunged by 27% over six years.

Israel’s internment of Ahed Tamimi and massacres of Palestinians in Gaza have seemingly escalated these ongoing trends. Perhaps we could have already imagined breakthroughs like a pledge by 51 student organizations at New York University to boycott Israel and groups supporting it on campus, an endorsement of divestment from occupation contractors by two-thirds of students in the biggest referendum in the history of Barnard College, and a unanimous vote by the Durham, North Carolina city council to ban police exchanges with Israel.

But a statement by five members of Congress “calling on Israeli soldiers to resist … illegal orders from their superiors” demonstrates the pressure many elected officials increasingly feel from their constituents. And Israeli-American actress and outspoken Zionist Natalie Portman’s refusal to accept Israel’s Genesis Prize at a ceremony in Tel Aviv shows that some of Israel’s strongest supporters are no longer willing to answer for its crimes against Palestinians.

The shift in public opinion was obvious on tour. In church halls, neighborhood coffeehouses and university auditoriums, members of audiences large and small voiced their desire to do more for Palestine. Many, during question and answer sessions, asked for insights on how to meaningfully oppose the $3.8 billion in military aid given to Israel by the U.S. every year. After events ended, some mumbled with embarrassment that they used to be Zionists. And in a striking change from years past, not a single current Zionist made a visible appearance.

Photo: Joe Catron and Islam Maraqa support the Great Return March and remember Yaser Murtaja in Madison, WI with the Corrie family

Paradoxically, this peak in popular sentiment coincides with a decline in political mobilization, particularly among students. According to data collected by the Israel on Campus Coalition, a Zionist group, U.S. campuses hosted 1,172 pro-Palestine events over the 2016-2017 academic year, a decline of nearly 20% in a single year, with pro-Israel events outnumbering them by almost 2:1. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns on campus fell by almost 40%, while “the number of campuses experiencing anti-Israel activity decreased by 19 percent.”

As the bases of its U.S. support declined, ISM also suffered from the diversion of attention, energy and resources to regional and global crises. Today its strength in occupied Palestine has reached an historic low, with its teams unable to fulfill requests from communities facing attacks by Israeli soldiers and settlers and its apartments in targeted areas vacated for lack of funding.

But history itself – the resistance of a Palestinian national movement entering its second century, coupled with Israel’s brutal repression and the revulsion it inspires in decent people – has given us the ingredients for effective, thriving solidarity movements in both the U.S. and Palestine. The only question is how to use them. And much of the necessary infrastructure, including ISM, is already in place. Our challenge now is to revitalize it with the participation and support Palestine deserves in its 70th year of settler-colonialism, ethnic cleansing and occupation.

Joe Catron, a long-term ISM volunteer, lived in the Gaza Strip between March 2011 and October 2014. He spoke on the recent ISM tour.