Revolution #193, February 21, 2010
Gaza Freedom March: A Call to the World
Part III: Coming from All Kinds of Places
At precisely 10 am on December 31, 2009, a dozen or so "tourists" moved swiftly into eight lanes of traffic in the middle of a main thoroughfare through the center of Cairo, Egypt. Hundreds of signs in English and Arabic emerged from suitcases and backpacks: "End the Siege!" "Free Gaza!" This was the signal. Within seconds, hundreds of other "tourists" poured into the streets to join them—the Gaza Freedom March was on!
Egyptian security forces, with plainclothes thugs in the lead, kicked, punched, shoved, tossed, and beat the protesters—who sat down, linked arms, threw themselves on top of their comrades to protect them, and struggled to hold their position. Security forces finally managed to push the protesters to the sidewalk, where they were surrounded and detained by phalanxes of riot police for seven hours. The Gaza Freedom March, which was already front-page news in Egypt and the Middle East, became a living call to the world: Free Gaza!
This is the story of how the Gaza Freedom March came to be. Why it took place in Cairo, instead of Gaza, Palestine as intended. Who were the people who came from around the world to be part of it? And what light the whole experience sheds on the urgent and vital stakes of breaking the siege of Gaza, and the struggle for freedom for the Palestinian people.
People came to the Gaza Freedom March from around the world. The French contingent included a number of Arabic speaking immigrants. Members of the 10-person delegation from the European micro-state of Liechtenstein (total national population 35,000) distinguished themselves by slipping past Egyptian authorities to reach the resort town of Al Arish, near the Gaza border, where they were detained by Egyptian authorities under virtual house arrest.
Several hundred people came from the U.S. and Canada. Others came from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malta, Mauritius, Netherlands, Norway, the Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, England, Scotland, and Venezuela.
They came with all kinds of backgrounds, experiences, and political and philosophical views.
Coming from All Kinds of Places...
Emily is a PhD candidate from Boston. She spoke passionately about learning about "the number of babies that are born blue right now in Gaza because of the nitrate levels in the waters." She explained: "During Operation Cast Lead, water and sanitation systems [in Gaza] were completely destroyed. The materials for reconstruction are at the borders, but they are not allowed in. So nitrate levels in Gaza are 30 times world health standards, and babies are being born blue because of the nitrate levels—blue and dead."
Dennis from Arizona stood out with his ever-present cowboy hat. He celebrated his 68th birthday in Cairo for the GFM; the Israeli-orchestrated massacres of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in '82 had a big impact on him becoming active in support of the Palestinians.
A number of youth living in North America or Europe, but from Middle Eastern backgrounds, were on the march. One woman told me about being the only person in her Texas high school who didn't support Israel's war on Lebanon in 2006. Her involvement in the Gaza Freedom March was covered in mainstream media in Dallas-Ft. Worth. One man in his early 20s told me: "I am Palestinian and the cause has always been important to me. My parents raised us to be activists and knowledgeable about what is going on." He visited Palestine twice growing up, and said visiting the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza "was brutal and quite a life changing experience. I vowed to go back."
People on the Gaza Freedom March were provoked to look into the situation of the Palestinian people by teachers, or influential opinion makers. I spoke with a few college students who had been exposed to an understanding of the Palestinian people through teachers in high school.
Others learned about Palestine through pretty mainstream avenues. Joel, a recent college graduate living in New York City, told me he had been "apolitical" until last year's Israeli attack on Gaza. "I've always been taught that this conflict is misdefined and incomprehensible." Right after Israel's attack, he read Jimmy Carter's book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, where he said he learned that "The Israelis are encroaching on other people's land and are attempting to steal it. They've engaged in policies since the foundation of their state to take away land from the indigenous people." Joel said, "There are a lot of parallels that have been drawn in my mind to how America has been founded by taking land away from the indigenous Native Americans that lived in America. So, on a basic moral level, creating your nation by taking other people's land seems very wrong to me. "
I talked to a woman from Japan who went through a process of having her consciousness raised when she was approached to help translate the book Dissent: Voices of Conscience, by Ann Wright—one of the organizers of the Gaza Freedom March. After that experience, she found herself organizing a speaking tour opposing the Iraq war by Ann Wright in the U.S. colony of Guam and many Japanese cities.
There were people on the March from every possible slice of the spectrum of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious views (along with other trends including Buddhism). Muslims I spoke with from North America and Europe ranged theologically from those who had a liberal interpretation of the Qur'an (Koran), to others who held a literal interpretation of the Qur'an. Jewish people on the GFM included both those motivated by their religious beliefs, and secular activists for whom the Jewish connection is more cultural than religious. They shared a compulsion to not allow the Holocaust to be invoked to justify the oppression of Palestinians. There was also an international contingent of ultra-orthodox Hassidic Jews whose opposition to Zionism is rooted in a literal interpretation of the Torah.
A striking phenomenon in this mix was how many people cited their interpretations of Christianity as the motivation for being on the march.
Linda, from Canada told me, "I grew up in a Christian home... and I grew up with the idea that Israel was right, that this was the chosen people idea. And I never questioned it. I didn't investigate it because I didn't think it warranted investigation. It was right, period." She was encouraged by a friend to do online research into the situation of the Palestinians, and the nature of Israel. She told me, "As I was doing this research, as I was getting actual information and understanding and facts, as a Christian, I can't find myself having been facilitating the suffering and torment of people, the murder of people. That is in complete, complete violation with my faith."
Alice, from the D.C. area, learned about the situation of the Palestinians two years ago when she heard Bishop Desmond Tutu speak in Boston. She told me, "I think it's important that Palestinians know that there are Christians who care about them, not only Muslims."
I spoke with a number of participants in the GFM who were academics and felt drawn to put their bodies on the line for the ideas they engage with. Maia is a teacher/writer/dancer-aerialist in her 30s. She studies radical movements in South Asia, and felt "As a scholar... it's very important to resist not just in theory but in practice; not just intellectually but physically." Diane, a feminist professor, saw "a parallel between what is going on in Gaza, and what is going on with indigenous people around the world." And she told me that "as a Black woman I needed to get down with this issue to figure this out, to see what's going on. Communities of color should be concerned about the Palestinians."
...Going Through All Kinds of Changes
People on the Gaza Freedom March found themselves up against fierce resistance from the powers-that-be, and took risks in Cairo they hadn't expected to take in a police state. Diane told me, "I mean, my god, I was sleeping in this room in a hostel, and outside the room were these strange men in the hallway smoking cigarettes and looking at television. And we came to find out that they were the police!" She said the experience of the march "was a life changing experience," and that "it just seems as though the situation propelled you into things you (normally) wouldn't do."
For many, that included being open to radical new ideas.
People were questioning assumptions they brought to Cairo. A student from the U.S. posed, "Why are we supporting countries in the Middle East that commit human rights abuses that violate international law?" Another noted that it seemed outside the U.S., "We are looked at as war mongers and nothing else." In some ways, people were gravitating towards breaking out of the framework of looking at the world as Americans, even as they still used the first-person pronoun "we" when talking about the United States (or Canada, or Europe). "What is it with the United States?" an older woman asked me one day. "Why are we always in bed with these repressive regimes?"
I have a vivid image, as I reflect back on our time in Egypt, of being holed up in a restaurant with a steaming plate of koshery—a popular dish in Cairo comprised of spaghetti noodles, macaroni noodles, lentils, chick peas, a sprinkling of fried onions, and hot sauce. I was chowing down on a big bowl of this dish with a woman in her 40s from Washington State, while we were evading the Egyptian police and summing up our time in Cairo. She was livid, furious, and railing at the repression we faced, but the terms of her outrage were that her "tax dollars" were being used to fund the Egyptian security forces who were pushing us around and not allowing people to protest.
She was insistent that the minute she got back to the States she was going to give her senator a piece of her mind. I heard her out, all the while cringing inside as I envisioned all that righteous anger dissipated into lobbying a congressman. After a while, I just had to interrupt and ask whether, after all we'd been through, she ever considered the possibility that her senator, and the whole setup he was a part of, were part of the problem, not the solution? She paused and took a breath. I wasn't sure if she was offended... or thinking. "Yes," she said, "I have." Which opened the door to being introduced to the need for, and possibility of, a whole different kind of system and government that was about getting rid of, not enforcing and reinforcing oppression and exploitation around the world.
Many people on the GFM were intrigued by the perspective of Revolution newspaper on events they were a part of, as well as on other things. People I hadn't met would come up to me and comment on things they read at revcom.us. One prominent theologian came up to me after I did a short report on who I was at one of the morning orientation meetings, and asked how he could learn more about our prison readership and the impact we were having in prisons.
During another meal, this one at a more upscale restaurant, someone asked what Revolution newspaper was all about? I said that the short answer was that we are part of getting the world communist revolution back on the map, of initiating the next stage of that revolution. There was a moment of somewhat awkward silence at the large table as people looked at each other. The first person who spoke was a woman in her 70s who had immigrated to the U.S. many years ago. She said, with a rather sober tone, "An admirable goal." This and similar moments provided opportunities to introduce people to the Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, to explain the role of Revolution newspaper in preparing for revolution, and to introduce people to Bob Avakian, the leader of the RCP, and his new synthesis1.
One impact of putting this on the table was, in many cases, opening up discussion, and debate about the possibility of a radical force emerging in the world opposed to imperialism and all its horrors, but also not within the oppressive framework of Jihadist Islamic fundamentalism.
* * *
So many different channels led people to the Gaza Freedom March. If you looked at the process of people becoming politically conscious and active, and taking tremendous risks for a just cause, in some kind of linear mechanical way ("when things get really really bad, everyone will rise up together"), you would never predict an Emily... a Linda ... a Dennis... a Diane... or my friend from Washington State. But the egregiousness of the oppression of the Palestinian people, and the really horrific things that Israel is doing, moved these "ordinary people" to step out. They went up against repression, peer pressure, and often the wishes and advice of family and friends. They acted with courage, determination, and creativity.
In reflecting on all these people, the changes they went through, and the exchanges I had with them, I thought back to the experience of the 1960s, when many of my generation worked with what at the time were the equivalent of NGOs (like the Peace Corps), or who entered the civil rights movement with goals of making America "live up to its ideals." We were compelled to check out radical politics in response to great events in the world (like the Vietnam war), and because of the work of revolutionaries. And then we were—in many cases—ushered through the door to the revolution with the assistance of a policeman's baton.
Many of those participating in the Gaza Freedom March had their convictions, and determination to break the siege of Gaza strengthened through experiences they had in Gaza, in the West Bank, and among Palestinians in Israel. In the next installment of this series, I'll share some of those stories, the powerful impact they had on those involved, and explore what those experiences reveal about the nature of the state of Israel, and the oppression of the Palestinian people.
Bring Alan Goodman to present a slideshow report-back from the Gaza Freedom March to your group, student organization, church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Contact Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Watch video clips from Alan Goodman's report-back from the Gaza Freedom March at youtube.com/alanxgoodman
1. Avakian describes the new synthesis this way: "This new synthesis involves a recasting and recombining of the positive aspects of the experience so far of the communist movement and of socialist society, while learning from the negative aspects of this experience, in the philosophical and ideological as well as the political dimensions, so as to have a more deeply and firmly rooted scientific orientation, method and approach with regard not only to making revolution and seizing power but then, yes, to meeting the material requirements of society and the needs of the masses of people, in an increasingly expanding way, in socialist society—overcoming the deep scars of the past and continuing the revolutionary transformation of society, while at the same time actively supporting the world revolutionary struggle and acting on the recognition that the world arena and the world struggle are most fundamental and important, in an overall sense—together with opening up qualitatively more space to give expression to the intellectual and cultural needs of the people, broadly understood, and enabling a more diverse and rich process of exploration and experimentation in the realms of science, art and culture, and intellectual life overall, with increasing scope for the contention of different ideas and schools of thought and for individual initiative and creativity and protection of individual rights, including space for individuals to interact in "civil society" independently of the state—all within an overall cooperative and collective framework and at the same time as state power is maintained and further developed as a revolutionary state power serving the interests of the proletarian revolution, in the particular country and worldwide, with this state being the leading and central element in the economy and in the overall direction of society, while the state itself is being continually transformed into something radically different from all previous states, as a crucial part of the advance toward the eventual abolition of the state with the achievement of communism on a world scale."[back]
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