The Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group (NSPIRG) is a campus-based organization whose goal is to provide resources to student and community projects that have an anti-oppression focus. What that means is that we look at where power is located, support efforts to hold that power accountable, and empower those without it. It’s not as simple as you might think: while it’s easy to say that you’re against homophobia, we often bite our tongue before telling our friends that they just made a homophobic comment to avoid awkwardness. Nor are issues black and white all the time. Think about the war in Iraq, for example. The largest protest in world history was against the US-led invasion, but the hundreds of thousands of Canadians that marched against it were certainly not supporters of Saddam Hussein’s regime either. Because oppression is complex, challenges to it must be as well.
As far as complexity goes, the Israel-Palestine issue might just top the list. What happens when a People fleeing genocide force hundreds of thousands of others off their land, and with the help of the world superpower set up an elaborate system of ethnic containment? And the displaced Palestinians, whose leadership is rife with corruption, often resort to terrorism to resist their imposed conditions? How to take a constructive stand against oppression in this situation is not obvious.
It is in this context that a problem arose at a recent protest against the Israeli bombing of Gaza in early November. The Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group participated in the demonstration and voiced our opposition to the bombings. There were two protesters present with signs comparing the Israeli flag to anti-Semitic symbols. While the individuals only represented themselves, other people present should have had the signs removed. It doesn’t matter whether or not Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians are violent and racist, using such symbols is anti-Semitic and unacceptable. It does nothing to challenge injustice, shuts down possibilities for dialogue and, to repeat, is anti-Semitic. The sign holders should have been challenged by NSPIRG members and were not. We bit our tongues to avoid awkwardness. This was a deeply regrettable mistake, and for it we offer sincere apologies. We apologize to members of the Jewish community, for whom the symbol has a particularly nasty meaning. We also apologize to Palestinians, whose legitimate grievances are not heard because of the anti-semitic broad strokes.
As individuals that try to do their homework on the issue, we see Israel as being in a position of power over Palestine and we do not see the Jewish State using it for peace. We see ever-expanding settlements that force Palestinians onto smaller and smaller portions of land and their natural resources expropriated. We see a network of checkpoints and Jewish-only roads that stifle and humiliate Palestinians. We see a military and political leadership that refers to bombing the most densely-populated region on earth as “cutting the grass.” We feel the need to speak out against it. We are not uncritical of Palestinian movements. The Fatah and Hamas are demonstrably corrupt, and even if one accepts the right of peoples to resist occupation, firing missiles at Israeli civilians is wrong.
Standing against complex oppression requires precision, yet the tools to fight it are often blunt. When challenging some of these things, it’s important to not perpetuate other oppressions. If the security of Israeli Jews comes at the cost of oppressing Palestinians, then a just peace has not been found.Likewise, Palestinian movements for self-determination must free themselves from the taint of anti-Semitism.
Some will oppose the perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict articulated here, and that’s okay. We invite dialogue from all perspectives, and do not shy away from difficult conversations. We will continue to fulfill our mandate of working for social justice, which sometimes includes self-criticism. Hopefully the day where we speak of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as a thing of the past will come soon.