by Jackie Smith
Last month, as Israel mounted a new series of attacks on Gaza, people were in motion on the opposite side of the world in an effort that should inspire hope that the Palestinian people will one day enjoy peace, freedom, and dignity in their lands.
On November 28-December 1, the World Social Forum Free Palestine brought together more than three thousand activists from 36 countries in Porto Alegre, Brazil to help build worldwide support for the Palestinian struggle. This unprecedented event reflects a recognition that governments will not address the underlying causes of violence in the Middle East and that people must come together to solve this crisis ourselves.
In other words, the solution must emerge from the grassroots. We should not continue investing our energies and hopes in state-led or state-centered peace initiatives. The official WSF-Free Palestine website points out this shift from a state-centered to people-centered approach: "Exactly sixty-five years after Brazil presided over the UN General Assembly session that agreed upon the partition of Palestine, Brazil will host a different type of global forum."
It is telling that the stories of persistent and escalating violence in Gaza drew substantial media attention and debate, while the story of the WSF Free Palestine drew almost no coverage even from alternative media sources. I hope this small effort to help tell our movements’ stories can contribute to a greater awareness of the need to be more pro-active and creative in our work to change the dominant narratives of politics. For it is only through this work that another reality will become possible.
The World Social Forum-Free Palestine represented the first global, movement-based initiative aimed at providing “space for discussion, exchange of ideas, strategizing, and planning in order to improve the structure of solidarity.” Over 150 workshops explored topics such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, artists against the wall, media strategies, and developing understandings of how labor, GLBTQ, anti-racism, immigrant rights and other groups—can come together. A November 29 march and rally recognized the UN-designated International day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
A World Parliamentary Forum brought together legislators from around the world to subvert the exclusionary, anti-democratic practices of conventional international diplomacy. Like many matters of foreign policy, decisions about governments’ policies in regard to Palestine are often removed from democratic deliberation, even by elected representatives.
As in other thematic WSFs, this one focuses attention on how economic globalization contributes to the social exclusion and dispossession that motivate movements and organizations such as those working on human rights, environment, peace, etc. Developing an analysis of these systemic connections can help unite diverse movements around shared struggle. To this end, delegates attending the WSF Free Palestine stressed the links among movements resisting “mass incarceration, state surveillance and targeting of communities, repression of popular movements and activists, militarized borders, land and resource appropriation and privatization,” and those advancing “indigenous self-determination, the rights of refugees, the sustainability of the land and natural resources and the creation of [people’s economies].”
By inviting people from all parts of the world and from all different progressive movements, the WSF Free Palestine sought to demonstrate the ways that “we are all Palestinians.” The system that denies Palestinian rights to dignity, land, and sovereignty is the very same global system producing increased inequality, economic vulnerability, and state repression affecting people all over the world.
Organizers in the United States and Canada involved in the United States Social Forum sent a delegation of 20 organizers to the WSF Free Palestine, hoping to address an urgent need to unite the left in this part of the world. For too long, movements for peace and justice in our region have avoided speaking out for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic. Zionists have been allowed to intimidate progressive activists and divide us.
The joint delegation was made up of activists from a variety of Palestinian solidarity groups as well as the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, labor, youth, anti-racism, immigrant rights and environmental organizations (see a list of delegation members here). They organized a series of workshops on topics such as environmental justice, land grabs, anti-Arab discrimination and racism, gender justice, and mass incarceration and state repression (click here for the full program). The rationale and guiding principles of the delegation are outlined in their “Case for Joint Struggle Across Borders.”
The idea that social justice requires popular efforts to build unity among diverse groups and develop concrete projects to address human needs in Palestine is one that guides the larger World Social Forum process. The WSF began in 2001 as a convergence of social movements around the world to provide space for considering alternatives to the violent, neoliberal global order and for developing networks and strategies for making those alternatives possible. It calls us to begin telling a whole different story about the Middle East and about ourselves. We must begin by recognizing that the so-called “Arab-Israeli conflict” is not a conflict between people of different faith traditions and ethnicities but rather a result of a long historical trajectory of colonial expansion which has justified the denial of Palestinians’ (and other indigenous groups’) rights to land and livelihood in the name of “progress” and state security. Moving beyond the idea that states are the only legitimate and appropriate structures for organizing communities, we might discover more peaceful and cooperative ways to build solidarity and re-define communities.
In short, the WSF Free Palestine offers a new path to bringing peace and justice to a region that has suffered much, and in the process it can contribute to the larger struggle to address the underlying causes of state violence and dispossession that are becoming increasingly apparent in the lives of all of us. The conversations begun in Porto Alegre will continue at the World Social Forum in Tunis this coming March, and I hope more will join in these increasingly urgent deliberations about what kind of world we want.
TO OUR READERS: We went to press before the delegates on the US-Canada Joint Delegation to the WSF-Free Palestine could write up their story about this momentous event. The following report offers a report on what happened and why it is important to our movements. In the next issue we will feature writings from the delegation on the specific work that was accomplished and how this will be carried forward through the USSF. Check back to this site as we will also provide updated links to stories that appear in the meantime.