Palestine and Israel: Reflections on the Genesis of Social Activism

A colleague of mine suggested that I contribute an article on my interest in the question of Palestinian rights and intention to participate in a World Education Forum taking place in Palestine at the end of October.  At the time I was putting together a workshop on critical pedagogy, and the ideas of Paulo Freire, Edward Said and Michel Foucault in relation to the politics of power, knowledge and social work education.   The World Education Forum taking place in Palestine will address issues in education as well as the challenges faced by women and men fighting for peace and social justice around the world especially in Palestine.  The forum will provide a space for debate and dialogue on the role of education and its economic, social, political and environmental impact at the local, regional and international levels. It will also provide for the exchange of practical experiences and cross-border dialogue.Many of us care about social justice issues and express our passion by working for a cause whether it be the environment, anti-poverty, peace or health care. I will reflect on the roots of my social activism and the intellectual journey that led me to support the cause of Palestinian Human Rights. 

What motivates people to work for social issues relates to a complexity of reasons: experience, intellectual reflection and research, and political and personal values. As a social worker I have been involved in working with a diversity of social problems including issues of poverty, violence, racism or mental illness.  I did not become a social worker out of a desire to ‘save the world’ or because I was passionate about social injustice –  it was a personal response to a crisis experienced in my initial career path  to become a professional violinist that resulted in a change of direction.  Because of severe problems with tendonitis when studying at the Royal Academy of Music I came to the difficult realization that I would not be able to earn a living as a professional musician.  Through luck, and serendipity I shifted directions and was accepted into a Social Work Program at the London School of Economics. I was fortunate to be schooled by teachers who were the intellectual ideologues of the post war British Welfare State and whose philosophy was informed and influenced by socialist thought, social justice ideals and the notion of equality.  LSE in the sixties was the intellectual cradle in nurturing resistance to imperialism and colonialism.    However, my early career was conservative – working for government agencies in child welfare and later in Canada in child psychiatry and then as a teacher for a Montreal Community College.   That’s where the jobs were.  

It wasn’t until much later when I re-entered the academic sphere and embarked on an M.A. in History that I engaged in more profound reflection on the relationship between knowledge and power.   Radical social work theory had been influenced by the ideas of Michel Foucault and I was motivated to explore his ideas in depth.  That was the beginning of an intellectual journey that included the scholarship of Edward Said, the late eminent Palestinian academic. His many publications included the seminal work Orientalism on imperialism and the role of the Academy in influencing the formation of knowledge that served the interests of colonial powers. I embarked on an intellectual exploration that provided me insight into the symbiotic relationship between institutions of education, academic scholarship and the political agenda of the State: how knowledge is shaped, mediated and becomes integral to the consciousness of popular wisdom.   How does this link to Israel-Palestine and social activism?  It has to do with the twists and turns in our intellectual metamorphosis that can lead to understanding and action. The global political events, history and the deteriorating realities for the Palestine population has led me to the conclusion that ‘silence is not an option’. 

The first decade of the twenty first century has been a disaster for human rights, justice and social democratic ideals of international diplomacy. The powerful have triumphed.  The aftermath of 9/11 resulted in the illegal war in Iraq, deaths of thousands, torture, rendition and Guantanomo.  The Bush Blair juggernaut bulldozed international diplomacy, thumbed its nose at International Law and the United Nations and preached messianic evangelicalism.  ‘If you are not with us you are against us’. Many in the Academy came on board and academics including Michael Ignatieff, a former champion of human rights served to mediate the message.  The past decade has seen a rise in the power and ideology of the ‘right’, whether it be eight years of the Bush regime or the Blair doctrine in the United Kingdom. It has also been a decade that has been characterized by a rise in the economic strength and political power of Israel.  Naomi Klein has argued in her book the Shock Doctrine [i] that Israel has benefited economically from the West’s obsession with terrorism and security.  Israel is now the leader in supplying the West with an arsenal of high tech machinery whether it is surveillance techniques, spy equipment or military armaments. The Israeli Academy is involved in the development of arms supported by generous funding from Academic research grants, Western nations and industry. Since the Oslo Accords in the early 1990’s Israel has continued to build on occupied land, demolish Palestinian homes and olive groves, and encircle and control all aspects of Palestinian life.    

The infamous Wall has instituted an apartheid regime that virtually makes unlikely the possibility of a two state solution.  Israel has ignored numerous United Nations Resolutions, flouted International Law, engineered wars in Lebanon and Gaza.  The Israeli Defense forces have bombed civilian targets such as schools leveling the Islamic University of Gaza, United Nations Aid Agencies, and used chemical weapons such as phosphorous in both Lebanon (2006) and in Gaza (2009).  The United Nation’s Goldstone report documented the war crimes on both sides during the Gaza conflict.  However Judge Goldstone an eminent South African jurist and a Jew was vilified by Israel and the pro-Israel lobby.  He received hate mail and death threats and every effort was made to rubbish his report. A Norwegian Physician, Dr Mads Gilbert was in Gaza during the Israeli bombing.  His report published in the prestigious British medical journal, the Lancet documents the death, injuries and terror that Gazan civilians experienced as well as the present deterioration in the health of civilians due to the Israeli blockade.  The majority of people in Gaza consist of generations of Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes and land in 1948 referred to as the Nakba (catastrophe). I draw  attention to the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe who has done extensive archival research on the 1948 expulsion and reveals that there was a deliberate pre-determined plan by the Zionist military elite and Ben Gurion of ethnic cleansing[ii]. Palestinians were ‘to be disappeared’ and the land and villages re-settled with Jews.  This ethnic cleansing was brutal, resulting in the killing, and destruction of Palestinian homes and people: Pappe describes the actions as ‘war crimes’.  Ilan Pappe, now teaches at Exeter University in England and left Israel a couple of years ago for the protection of his family who received intimidation and death threats.  

A double standard exists: its okay for Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service to murder and illegally forge other Nation’s passports, for Israeli drones and targeted killings to take place, and for the blockade of Gaza and containment of the population in a virtual open air prison.  But it is not okay for Palestinians to participate in non-violent resistance, or reclaim their property and land, or have the right to freedom of movement.  It is the Palestinians who are to blame for the failure of the peace process, for instigating conflict. The ‘blaming the victim strategy’ is a popular tactic just as the label ‘anti-semite’ for those who support Palestinian rights.  

Over the past decade there are several examples of Israel’s disrespect for human life that are seared in my memory.  The killing of a disabled man in a wheel chair during the Israeli incursion into the Jenin Refugee Camp in 2002, the death of Rachel Corrie in Gaza, the bombing and deaths of civilians in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009. And this year, the attack and deaths during the Israeli raid on the Gaza Humanitarian Aid flotilla in international waters. There are numerous other examples of journalists and civilians who have lost their lives. Being a witness or being a party to non-violent resistance can be a death sentence. The reporting on Israeli human rights abuse and settler violence towards Palestinians is muted and censored in the West.   Israel’s powerful political and propaganda machine has effectively silenced western dissent and the political voice in support of Palestinian human rights. An article by Dave Himmelstein titled: “A Missing Link in Support for Palestinian Human Rights: From Bil’in to Birmingham.”   (  written four years ago in 2006 details the non-violent weekly protest by the villagers of Bil’in against the construction of the Wall which was being built on their farm land.  Himmelstein made the point that this non-violent protest is comparable to the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King’s leadership, or Gandhi’s resistance to British Imperialism in India but is ignored by the West. The courage and ongoing non-violent resistance by the Bil’in community is commonplace throughout Palestine but the dominant propaganda message is that of the Palestinian terrorist, and the Hamas Islamic militant.  The representation is deliberate – Palestinians are to be feared, they are ‘the other’ and violence, expulsion, and territorial acquisition is justified and normalized. 

 An insidious trend in Canada over recent months has been the deliberate intimidation of those expressing support for Palestinian Rights.  The Harper Government’s alignment with the evangelical right, and the Bush doctrine has resulted in McCarthy like tactics and CSIS incursion and investigation. Freda Guttman, an internationally recognized artist and Palestinian rights activist was visited by CSIS officials recently as was Stefan Christoff a community worker active in human rights issues.  There have also been threatening emails to and intimidation of faculty in support of Palestinian rights throughout Canada and North America.  

 When I was in England this Summer I visited a friend who teaches at Oxford University.  She introduced me to a colleague, a distinguished Professor of law who was returning on the same bus to London.  We sat opposite each other and characteristic of english middle class culture avoided intruding on the other’s space.  Nearing London we struck up a conversation and it transpired that the Oxford Professor grew up in Israel and his parents had survived the Holocaust in Romania. I was careful not to engage in political discourse but asked if he returned to Israel on family visits.  He paused and looked at me directly saying “Would you visit Israel?” that statement opened the door for a discussion on the Israel-Palestine question and revealed that our understanding and analysis were comparable. His parting statement to me was: “I am an anti-semite” and of course I knew what he meant. 

What will the World Education Forum in Palestine achieve?  Certainly not a change in relation to ‘facts on the ground’ but it will provide Palestinian teachers with an opportunity to share  ideas and educational efforts as well as give us an opportunity to witness their reality, visit Palestinian village communities and exchange thoughts on education and pedagogy. As fellow educators we will express our solidarity.   As an amateur musician, I was moved by the efforts of Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim in fostering dialogue between Palestinian and Arab musicians and Israeli musicians in the formation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.  In 2005 this combined orchestra performed in Ramallah.   It was an inspirational performance.  Sadly, Said had died a few years earlier but Barenboim ensured that the concert took place and that all political barriers were transcended (Spain issued diplomatic passports for all those including Israelis who were not permitted access to the Occupied Territories.)  Dialogue is now not considered a viable option by those active in the cause of Palestinian rights, and the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is a movement gaining momentum throughout the world. In my opinion Israel is an apartheid state and the parallel with South Africa is appropriate.   

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed   

“Political language is designed to make lies truthful and murder respectable and give the appearance of solidarity to pure wind”George Orwell  

Palestinians do not beg for sympathy. We deeply resent patronization, for we are no longer a nation of hapless victims.  We are resisting racial and colonial oppression, aspiring to attain justice and genuine peace.  Above all, we are struggling for the universal principle of equal humanity.”Omar Barghouti, ‘Boycott as an act of moral resistance: the case for boycotting Israel’ (21 October 2008),  

[i] Klein, Naomi (2007) The Shock Doctrine. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf  

[ii] Pappe, Ilan (2007) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld Publications

Joy Moore is a teacher at Dawson College, Montreal. The Quebec Teachers Federation, FNEEQ is involved in supporting and participating in a global education forum that takes place in Ramallah and West Bank at the end of October and Joy will be participating in the Forum.