Leiden International Studies Blog

Having Conversations in Occupied Palestine and Fortress Europe

Having Conversations in Occupied Palestine and Fortress Europe

Through spending time in Palestine and migrant solidarity movements I have become heavily disdainful of calls for “dialogue.” We are always being told that what needs to happen is another conversation, more diplomacy. With each conversation the oppressive hierarchies only become more entrenched and their complete undoing becomes harder to imagine. What is needed is not conversation but rather principled direct action against racism and supremacy in all their manifestations.

Israel/Palestine and the “Having Conversations Industrial Complex”

As I begin writing this Palestine is having another moment in the spotlight. Every so often “the conflict” (so called) is on the receiving end of a flurry of international media attention. Usually, Israel is pushing the boundaries of what is geopolitically acceptable, a host of politicians and international political bodies condemn its behavior, it moves ahead anyway, and everyone forgets about it. A few months or years later, it does something shocking again, and the cycle is repeated. This time around, the talk is of Israel’s planned annexation of swaths of the West Bank. Anyone still invested in a “two-state solution” - whether sincerely (and naively) or cynically (and strategically) - shakes their head in disbelief. To anyone who understands that while “it had many strains historically, the Zionism that took hold and stands today is a settler-colonial movement,” the goal of which is to seize Palestinian land and remove Palestinians, annexation as the next step seems completely logical and not at all unexpected.

In early July an article was published in the New York Times wherein Peter Beinart, a liberal Zionist, formerly deeply committed to a two state solution, states that he is no longer a believer in a Jewish state. As groundbreaking as this seems, he still refuses to engage the critique of Zionism that Palestinians and supporters have been making for decades. Lana Tatour responds, in the Middle East Eye, that “in his call for a one-state solution, Beinart tries to have his cake and eat it too.” Rather than reckon with Zionism as a racist, settler-colonial ideology, he maintains that one can remain a committed Zionist and at the same time ‘make peace’ with the Palestinians. His is a vision of a future with peace but without justice. The issue, as Steven Salaita puts it in “Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine,” is that “oppressors are not allowed to request forgiveness if they refuse to relinquish their ill-gotten power.” Equality under one state is an important step forward, but needs to be firmly rooted in a framework of decolonization (fundamentally opposed to Zionism).

Beinart is participating in, and a prime benefactor of, what journalist Alex V. Green calls “the Having Conversations Industrial Complex.” The Having Conversations Industrial Complex is “a loose assemblage of professional speakers, non-profit organizations, astroturfed activists, diversity consultants, academic advisory boards, panelists, and politicians who are paid to generate a “conversation” that doesn’t need to show tangible results. Rather, the only role of the conversation is to generate more conversations.” It functions to obscure “the insidious creep of what the Palestine movement terms normalization, the practice by which an intolerable state of affairs becomes business as usual, by treating structures of violence as partners in search of solutions.” This is precisely what Beinart is doing; bringing the oppressive structure - Zionism - into the room and proposing that it can be part of the solution to the problems it produces - the dispossession, displacement, and domination of Palestinians.

On the ground in Palestine and at the walls of Fortress Europe

Recently cities across Europe have seen Black Lives Matter protests in solidarity with the uprisings against racist policing in the US. These protests have not just been in solidarity though, they have also been against white supremacy and racism in their specifically European manifestations. And of course struggles for racial justice are not new to Europe. For example, every year that I spent living in the Netherlands there were protests against Zwarte Piet, always decried by “white moderates” who insist that what is needed is a “rational,” “reasonable” conversation, not loud and brash protest. Some of the most flagrant racism I have seen has been at Europe’s borders. Anyone who has been involved in migrant solidarity work knows that in Europe, the fact is Black Lives don’t matter. Throughout the continent, stretching across the Mediterranean and deep into North and West Africa, black and brown people are brutalized and killed, en masse, by the EU border regime.

Since 2015, when I was in the middle of my studies in the Hague, I have been involved in different migrant solidarity groups across Europe, all of whom work in the spirit of harm reduction. A harm reduction approach is one that emphasizes meeting people, non-paternalistically, on their own terms. It means allowing them to articulate their own needs and listening to them rather than telling them what they need or what they should be doing. It always entails a refusal of the border and its racist, exclusionary logic. While the EU pushes people into taking ever more dangerous migration routes, a solidarity network of activists and organizations is working to try to make travel as safe as it can be for people on the move. This resistance is based in opposing what Harsha Walia calls “border imperialism.” Border imperialism, she writes, is “characterized by the entrenchment and re-entrenchment of controls against migrants, who are displaced as a result of the violences of capitalism and empire, and subsequently forced into precarious labor as a result of state illegalization and systemic social hierarchies.” Having an analysis of border imperialism ensures that “the myth of Western benevolence toward migrants” is disrupted and that focus is placed squarely on the border regime itself.

I also spent some months in Palestine (the West Bank, specifically) last year. During my time there I was involved in a non-hierarchical, Palestinian-led, direct action group. Again, I situate the work we were doing within a harm reduction framework. There, given the sophistication and vastness of the oppressive structure, the most we could possibly hope to do was reduce the harm it causes. Both of these experiences (in Palestine and migrant solidarity) convince me that “having conversations,” for the most part, tends to accomplish little at best. At worst it can cause radical movements to get sidetracked. Harm reduction is essential in the short term but in the long term the goal, of course, must be to eradicate the harmful structure. Powerful people have been having conversations about Palestinians (or “Arabs,” if they daren’t imply that Palestinians are, in fact, a people) and migrants for decades and in the meantime conditions only worsen for both.

​​​​​​​Resistance is not Abuse

Calls for “conversation” tend to rest on a flattening out of power differentials between groups. You can only expect that resolution will be reached through conversation if you fail to grasp that, in both of the contexts I have mentioned above, there is a dominant party who is invested in maintaining the oppressive structure. In the case of Palestine, much time and energy is put into not only flattening out the power differential, but inverting it. Israeli and Zionist lobby groups have, as Salaita puts it, successfully popularized the notion that “the colonizers, those with nuclear weapons and land and resources and legislative power and the full support of the United States, are the oppressed party.” This reminds me of the stickers proclaiming “It’s ok to be white” that cropped up around the Hague in my final year of university.

Sarah Schulman, in her book “Conflict Is Not Abuse,” explores the similarities between behaviors arising from trauma and behaviors arising from supremacy (both are at play in Israel). The traumatized and the supremacist both, she writes, “refuse to hear or engage information that would alter their self-concepts [...] For the supremacist, this refusal comes from a sense of entitlement; that they have an inherent ‘right’ not to question themselves. Conversely, the unrecovered traumatized person’s refusal is rooted in a panic that their fragile self cannot bear interrogation.” The inscrutable self is pitted against the spectral Other. The Other, just by virtue of existing, becomes de facto abusive. When the Other (the Palestinian; the black or brown migrant) resists or responds to an unjust situation, their resistance - their assertion of humanity - is cast as unjust, as abusive. It is the responsibility of the “third party,” the person of conscience, to examine the realities of current aggression and power and to take a principled stand with the truly oppressed.

It takes little examination to uncover that Palestinians, since the Nakba 72 years ago, have been resisting Zionist aggression and domination. Migrants are responding to conditions created by centuries of colonial and ongoing imperialist conquest, exploitation, and impoverishment of indigenous communities. The Black Lives Matter movement is demanding justice for centuries of colonialism, enslavement, and white-supremacist violence in all its manifestations. Black people should not be expected to reason with white supremacists, migrants should not be expected to reason with racist xenophobes, and Palestinians should not be expected to reason with Zionists. Each of these groups (none of which is homogenous) is entitled to resist historical wrongs that have been, and continue to be, perpetuated against them, and to refuse their dehumanization and subordination.

No Platforming, Boycott, Refusal

Having conversations has been failing Palestinians for decades now. “Peace talks” inevitably serve as a smokescreen to conceal further acts of Israeli aggression and settler-colonial expansion. What is needed is not another conversation, but rather a principled refusal to “discuss” the ethnic-cleansing of Palestine and the parameters within which it is “acceptable.” During the 5 years I have been involved in migrant solidarity in Europe, many conferences have been held, reports written, and conversations had about “what to do about the migrants.” Meanwhile migration into Europe becomes more dangerous for all but the rich few who can legally pay their way in.

I moved to the city I live in now a year ago. In this year I have witnessed the (further) growth of a far right movement mobilized in particular around fear of and opposition to immigration. As in the Netherlands with protests against Zwarte Piet, “centrists” have come out in force against any anti-racist action that aims to counteract or disrupt this movement. They argue that instead of action what is needed is conversation, that if all are given their say the good ideas will prevail and the bad ones will wither away. This argument completely ignores the fact that the “bad” ideas are gaining traction, becoming institutionalized and almost hegemonic in certain contexts. This is why racism should not be given a platform at all. If we hope for a future that is less cruel than the present, we need to take measures to prevent cruel ideas from gaining popularity.
So, when it comes to anti-racism I am in favor of a no-platform approach, and this extends to the anti-racist struggle in Palestine. I am a supporter of Palestinian (and international/ist) direct action against Israeli apartheid and settler-colonization, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. BDS, Salaita writes, is a “movement for justice that has arisen from a need for action as a result of failures of dialogue.” Rejectionism, he writes, “is the common base of BDS because the structures of colonial power do not allow dissent beyond carefully managed principles.” The more Zionists are invited into the room to have conversations, the more Zionism (I repeat: a settler-colonial political ideology) itself is legitimized, normalized, eternalized.

When it comes to fighting against oppressive, supremacist ideologies, liberal “diplomacy” - “having conversations” - is an ineffective route to take. Some ideas are not worthy of debate. Neither white supremacists in Europe nor Jewish supremacists in Israel/Palestine should have their ideology legitimized through “discussion.” Their supremacist ideology should be rejected outright and direct action should be taken to dismantle the racist hierarchies they seek to preserve. Taking sides, standing with the oppressed, is a matter of urgency. Liberal “bothsidesism” is inadequate and only serves to provide cover to the dominant as they consolidate their domination. The time for conversation is past.


The writer is a graduate of International Studies who has been involved in the Palestine and migrant solidarity movements.