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Where were the Palestinian voices at the Russell Tribunal on Palestine?

The Russell Tribunal is meant to expose and provide accountability for human rights abuses committed by Israel against Palestinians. But in privileging ‘expert’ voices over those of the victims, does it actually reinforce dominant power structures?

By Elisha Baskin

Russell Tribunal on Palestine, New York (photo: DESERTPEACE/ BUD KOROTZER)

The fourth and final session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine took place this past weekend in New York City. The tribunal is an “international people’s tribunal created in response to the international community’s inaction regarding Israel’s recognized violations of international law.” Its stated goal is to address the complacency and responsibility of the United States, the United Nations and other international actors in facilitating and enabling Israel’s human rights abuses in Palestine.

Turnout and enthusiasm for the event were high, most likely as a result of the VIP jury lineup, which included U.S. civil rights icon Angela Davis, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame and Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winner and subject of recent BDS controversy. The Tribunal, run much like a court, was overseen by a panel of judges that included Dennis Banks, co-founder of American Indian Movement, and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.

The Cooper Union building was full most of the time as journalists poured in and out. The crowed appeared to be mostly white, with spurs of younger activists from NY and the East Coast. Most of the sessions were heavy on the data: going though Israeli and International law conventions and statutes, reviewing the history of Israel/Palestine, the wars and the occupation – but testimony and storytelling from Palestinians were practically absent.

While a Tribunal format, or a “people’s court” is a powerful tool, it is still susceptible to institutional power traps. The 12-person jury was relatively diverse and included several people of color. However, it did not include any Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, Israelis or other residents of the Middle East, Of the 19 witnesses, only two were Palestinian. And although the jury included people with lifelong experiences pursuing human rights and justice, like Davis and Walker, their role was to listen; their voices were rarely heard. The witnesses, who consisted of scholars, human rights lawyers and former UN officials, set the tone for the proceedings, which was largely legalistic and academic, and felt far removed from daily life in Palestine. Out of 31 voices, jury members and speakers combined, only five were Palestinian.

The problem of representation and voice is acute in this context, and derives from the Tribunal’s focus on international law, leaving most of the airtime to “experts.” The choice of “qualified” speakers is often made based on traditional “professional” credentials. In the Palestine solidarity movement, this problem often arises when seeking experts on international law, or activist voices. As a Jewish citizen of Israel, I am very familiar with this dynamic by which Israeli and/or Jewish voices are sought out in place of Palestinian ones. I have been asked to speak at events on Palestine in which I am expected to speak on behalf of Palestinians. This problem was expressed recently by Jewish-American activist Anna Baltzer, who argued that the favoring of Jewish voices in the American solidarity movement is rooted in racism. She states:

Intentional or not, what happens is that just as we are trying to break down the imbalance of power and privilege in Israel/Palestine, we are recreating the same power imbalance in the U.S. context. We must challenge not only Israel’s abuse of Palestinians but the underlying racism at its core that somehow Jews are more important than Palestinians. We must acknowledge that privileging Jewish American voices rather than featuring and listening to Palestinian voices is rooted in racism.

In the case of the Tribunal, Jewish voices were not necessarily favored, but Palestinian voices were clearly lacking. This type of favoritism, in both the Jewish case and the professional “expert” case, demonstrates how Palestinian voices are marginalized.

Even if all of the Palestinians who were invited had been able to participate, they would still have been a small minority of the speakers – five out of 31. If the choice of speakers – which included South African legal expert John Dugard, British barrister Michael Mansfield, Spanish emeritus judge José Antonio Martin Pallin, and French diplomat Stephane Hessel, among others – was based on the desire to provide legitimacy, accuracy, and objectivity by privileging non-Palestinian voices over Palestinian, it reinforces the fallacy that Palestinians cannot be trusted, that they do not tell truth and therefore white, scholarly men are the best figures to educate the public about Palestine.

Throughout the weekend I noted several manifestations of this power dynamic at the podium, with one case standing out as particularly disturbing. During one session, Saleh Abdel-Jawad, one of the two Palestinian witnesses, was verbally attacked by a jury member after making the case against the apartheid analogy. Saleh was the only person on the podium to be attacked in this matter. Was it because of a substantive disagreement with his argument, or did Saleh’s identity also play a part in the aggressive attack?

Of course, this incident is minor in the larger scheme of things, but it highlighted yet again how certain types of people continue to dominate the conversation, granting legitimacy to “acceptable” boundaries of the Palestinian liberation struggle. It is crucial for Palestinian voices and experiences to be at center stage, and for others to simply step aside and find ways to support the work instead of leading it.

Elisha Baskin is a board member of Jewish Voice for Peace and a member of Boycott from Within.

Read also:
Israeli activist testifies before Russell Tribunal on apartheid question

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    1. XYZ

      Baskin doesn’t seem to understand the reason there were’t many Palestinians. The real reason is tha the extreme Left radicals who made up the panel and the audience couldn’t care less about the Palestinians (just as they don’t care about the terrible human rights abuses going on in Syria today). They simply came because it is great entertainment for this type of crowd to hear Jews get up and curse other Jews and the Jewish state. It’s that simple.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Matisyahu

      Firstly, how can Israel be an apartheid state, when many of its everyday workers, even some of the national football teams’ players and members of parliment are what you class as Palestinians! Arab Palestinians living and working in the land of Israel! Apartheid? I think not. Also, are you not totally oblivious to Israel removing every Jewish person – AND EVERY DEAD JEWISH BODY BURIED THERE – from the Gaza Strip in order to give the Arabs (not wanted by their own people, or being used as political pawns, in ‘refugee camps’) even more places to live, in a bid for peace: something people like Mahmoud Abbas will never look to, they only want the annihilation of Israel. I particularly like how your colouring of headings at the top of this page are in typical ‘Palestinian’ colours…. Fascinating. When you’ve finished ripping into Israel and slating the things it does, then you might see the truth. You also do not focus on the continuous rocket that are fired from Gaza, into Israel.. Placed like Sderot and Ashkelon, when Israel sends aid into these places, and gets nothing back – simply rocket attacks day in day out.

      Reply to Comment
      • Leen

        Wow, Israel lets ‘some’ arabs to work and live in Israel, so nice of them. Of course, let’s ignore the fact that Palestinians in Israel, West Bank and Gaza Strip are currently cut up in 3 different status. Palestinian citizens of Israel which currently face over 20 different discrimination laws simply because they are not Jewish. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who pay taxes but are not allowed to be part of the political process therefore are essentially excluded politically. Palestinians in the West Bank who are ruled by Israeli military law and are not represented in government, subjected to discrimination, have their human rights taken… and of course Palestinians in the Gaza strip who are under siege, a blockade, pretty much on a drip feed from the Israeli government. Also, isn’t a blockade an act of war? If so, surely firing rockets is retaliation to the act of war?

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      • Leen

        Also, just to jog your memory what apartheid means according to the UN

        -‘an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime’-

        Sorry, but that sounds like Israel to me whose intention is to advance Jewish rights and jewish domination at the expense of the inhabitants who simply do not happen to be Jewish.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Richard Witty

      The Russell Tribunal received zero attention, except from the left.

      Even in the left press, this is the first mention of it on 972. Open Zion had a report describing it primarily as a stacked deck, structured to be prejudicial, to deny equal due process.

      On Mondoweiss, it was lauded.

      Reply to Comment
    4. […] hoe oud hij ook is, nog steeds in staat is weer een nieuw element aan zijn activisme toe te voegen. Elisha Baskin had wel een punt toen ze zich afvroeg waar de Palestijnen waren tijdens het Russell-tribunaal, maar […]

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