Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Russell Tribunal in East Village III: Final Reflections

At the closing press conference of the New York Russell Tribunal on Palestine, 95-year-old Stephane Hessel, last surviving co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, exhorted the media to “BE BRAVE!”

So: were the media listening? Unfortunately, as far as the mainstream newspapers are concerned, the response is a predictable negative. The only mainstream “listener” was Sohrab Amari, an assistant books editor at the Wall Street Journal (if a paper so far to the right can truly be describes as “mainstream”). However, he only turned up on the first day and clearly was listening with only one ear.

Typically, even the headline of this article was inaccurate: Israel on Trial in New York. As far as the Tribunal is concerned, Israel was condemned according to due process at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in July 2004. It has not been in the dock at any session of the RToP, which has concentrated on the question of international complicity with Israel’s crimes. Hence Amari’s whinges that “there was no one to speak for the defendant, the world’s sole Jewish state” and that “the verdict was never in doubt” were deliberately beside the point.

In fact it appears that jury member Roger Waters informed Amari that the RToP “is a people’s tribunal and we do invite the other side to attend.” Amari wonders parenthetically “Why would the Israelis have declined such an invitation”? However, at the very start of the event Pierre Galand informed the audience that not alone had Israel declined to attend, but that neither of the actual defendants – the US government and the UN – had even responded to the Tribunal’s invitation to send representatives.

According to the self-styled “news dissector” Danny Schechter, who gives a largely fair account of the event, Amari repeatedly complained to him that “‘It’s so one sided…’” Schechter comments: “That was strange coming from a member of the Journal’s Opinion page that is known for being… as one-sided as they come.”

Schechter himself, however, writing for the informative but erratic website Global Research, gave a rather misleading impression of the atmosphere at the Tribunal: “the whole event tended to be passionless, academic and legalistic. There were long lectures on legal precedents that the lawyers in the room might have appreciated but put some people around me to sleep.”

Certainly I noticed nobody sleeping, and if anybody was so inclined there was nothing to stop them from stepping into the foyer and sampling some of the delicious and punch-packing Ethiopian coffee laid on gratis for participants. And how could a legal tribunal, even a civil one, be anything other than “academic and legalistic”? My own feeling, and one that was shared by everyone whom I met, was that the atmosphere was enthusiastic and, indeed, passionate.

However, Schechter dealt convincingly with an issue that had puzzled (and, to be honest, disappointed) me: the total absence of Zionist protestors outside the Cooper Union. Here’s Schechter’s take:

[At the Capetown session of the RToP] South African supporters of Israel mounted an angry protest that drew major media attention.  Perhaps that’s why the often vociferous pro-Israel lobby in New York stayed away this time, hoping the Tribunal and its findings would be ignored…

Another considered account of the Tribunal that nonetheless made what I consider to be unjust and rather gratuitous criticisms came from Christopher Federici, who contributed it to the Palestine Chronicle. Referring to the testimony from Vera Gowlland-Debbas, former Rapporteur for the UNCHR, Federici writes:

The sobering inference from this testimony is that the existing international legal framework is insufficient in addressing the Israeli occupation, as the establishment dominated by American and European elite [sic] is clearly disinclined to act upon its own mandate. Mired in cynicism, the entire mission of the Tribunal appeared futile with its strict emphasis on discussing a power structure that most speakers acknowledged provides little recourse for Palestinians.

Why “mired in cynicism”? Surely the cynicism is elsewhere, and surely it was part of the brief for the RToP to ascertain the insufficiency of the existing international legal framework and to establish that it “provides little recourse for Palestinians”? But there’s more:

Ultimately, the Tribunal appeared conflicted by stark contrasts between the desire to project a sense of procedural legality and the inescapable underpinnings of activism that drove the very desire to organize. This conflict, it could be argued, sullied the effectiveness of either initiative.

Where is the conflict? That there is a complex dialectic between the respective underpinnings of procedural legality on the one hand and activism on the other is self-evident, not least to international lawyers and activists, and is seen by most of them (in my opinion and experience) as a productive factor. I met nobody in New York who felt "sullied", but then I didn't meet Mr Federici.

Similar language was used in a still more damaging article by Abraham Greenhouse, who blogs at the widely respected website Electronic Intifada to which I am myself an occasional contributor.

While the “witnesses” were mainly international law experts at home in the world of inter-governmental bodies and narrowly-defined protocols for advancing an action, the majority of attendees…  were oriented toward grassroots activism operating largely outside of such channels. This particular contradiction resonated throughout the entire event.

Once again, where Greenhouse sees a contradiction I see a dialectic. He seems to see “grassroots activists” as brawny doers indifferent to theoretical refinements, as opposed to narrow specialists with their heads in the law-books, thereby grossly caricaturing both. His claim that  

the very experts explaining the myriad ways in which the United Nations and all its organs were so thoroughly broken had yet to relinquish the idea that these remained the most viable mechanisms for achieving justice for Palestinians

bears no relation to the strong critiques of the UN voiced by, among others, Vera Gowlland-Debbas, Phyllis Bennis, or Peter Jansen. Furthermore, the Tribunal's conclusion that the UN is itself in violation of international law in its failure to implement its resolutions on Israel is surely radical and important. Greenhouse's huffy assertion that

Grassroots Palestinian activists and their allies are no longer accustomed to such a dismal view of their own agency

belies the fact that no such “dismal view” was forthcoming (except perhaps from the increasingly dismal Noam Chomsky), the vitality of civil society activism having been emphasised by speaker after speaker.

In short the “futility of relying on [the] UN” mentioned in the title of Greenhouse’s piece and posited by him as a critique of the RToP could, on the contrary, have served as a subtitle for the Tribunal itself. Greenhouse reserves his most pompous pronouncements for the end of his article:

 I’m less concerned about finding the perfect descriptor[sic] for Israel’s ongoing assault on the lives and rights of Palestinians than I am about fighting it. The terms that matter most to me begin with B, D, and S.

By Jove, the man thinks he has invented the wheel! Greenhouse seems to be implying that none of the speakers at the Cooper Union share his heroic desire to fight for Palestinian rights. But not alone was BDS advocated by many these speakers, it was also at the heart of the three previous sessions – I can well remember the collective intake of breath when it was advocated, against all expectations, in the conclusions of the jury at the end of the first (Barcelona) session. Indeed the advocacy of BDS by such a venerable institution may be instanced as one of the many refutations of Norman Finkelstein’s deplorable thesis that BDS is a “cult”!

Nobody would suggest that Palestinian rights activists should refrain from critique of the Russell Tribunal out of some misplaced sense of loyalty, and in the course of these blogs I’ve made one or two criticisms of my own. Nonetheless, many of the criticisms in “progressive” outlets are less than comradely; they give the impression that certain vain activists feel that a bunch of toffee-nosed intellectuals is attempting to trespass on their territory.

Ultimately, the RToP is simply another tool in the struggle for Palestinian rights, which is simultaneously a struggle for a better world order. We can never have too many such tools.

As I was writing this piece, I discovered that RToP coordinator Frank Barat had published his own response to some of these criticisms. I’m proud to end my own account of the New York session with Frank’s words:

So don't get me wrong, criticism is important, actually crucial. Receiving feedback from activists about the tribunal's work is essential. No one is perfect. We strive on constructive criticism. But please be fair.

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