Monday, April 20, 2015

What Wondrous Love is This? Reflections on the Role of Love in Solidarity Work in Palestine and the United States

Adriel Borshansky“We came here to Palestine to stand in love and revolutionary struggle with our brothers and sisters. We come to a land that has been stolen by greed and destroyed by hate. We come here and we learn laws that have been cosigned in ink but written in the blood of the innocent. And we stand next to people who continue to courageously struggle and resist the occupation, people who continue to dream and fight for freedom. From Ferguson to Palestine the struggle for freedom continues.”

These are the poignant and prophetic words of the journalist Marc Lamont Hill from his visit to Nazareth last month. He was joined by a group of activists, artists, musicians and journalists who are leading the struggle against racist policing in the United States. The group spent ten days connecting with Palestinian activists in order to build on an already growing movement of solidarity between these two struggles for justice. A beautiful video captures the group’s flashmob in Nazareth in which they chant, “Palestine to Ferguson, end the occupation. Ferguson to Palestine we fight to free our nations.”

I am inspired by this growing movement of solidarity between the fight for racial justice in the United States and the fight for Palestinian rights and freedoms for a variety of reasons. For one, both struggles benefit from solidarity with each other because they share an effort to uproot white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism. While white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism take different forms in both contexts, activists have an opportunity to unite in naming and addressing them. Second, both struggles are concerned with addressing structural inequality and structural violence. By its very nature, structural oppression is harder to identify than overt cases of individual discrimination, so activists in both contexts can support each other in shifting public understanding about the very nature of racism and violence. Third, material connections show that racial injustice in America and the Israeli Occupation are already deeply intertwined. Tear gas produced in Pennsylvania is used by both the Israel army and U.S. police units; reports indicate that the Israeli army has trained various U.S. law enforcement executives; and the U.S. government is a major provider of weapons to Israel (in addition to the fact that the Israeli government is the single highest foreign recipient of U.S. government money). To be sure, I have no intention of demonizing law enforcement officials or members of the Israeli army, who are themselves often caught in a complex web of structural forces. I draw attention to injustice in Palestine and racial injustice in the United States out of a deep commitment to human liberation, both for those who are oppressed and those who are complicit in violence. Just as we affirm the humanity of all Israelis and of all law enforcement officials, and just as we remember that there are important differences between both contexts, we must also raise awareness about the human cost of maintaining the status quo. Solidarity movements like that of which Marc Lamont Hill is a part are desperately needed in order dismantle these two interconnected systems of oppression.

But in practice, what does it mean to be an activist working in solidarity with others? How can I, for example, as a White Jewish American, act in ways that are supportive of Black American and Palestinian freedom movements? As I have reflected on these questions, my work has led me to one important observation: love is not enough. Love, which lies at the core of any fight for social justice, and which appears in the very first sentence of Marc Lamont Hill’s Nazareth declaration, deserves critical attention. In its most obvious, plain-sense meaning, love in the context of social justice connotes a feeling of compassion, solidarity, and alliance. While all of these qualities are urgently needed in order to address oppressive systems in Palestine and the United States, an activist ethos of love can be limiting and even counterproductive.

One limitation of love is that it has the potential to actually cover up structural inequalities. Anyone can love oppressed individuals, and even want the best for those who are oppressed, without recognizing the systemic forces that create their oppression. A phrase that I hear often from some pro-Israel activists in the U.S. is, “I have no problem with Palestinians.” While it is heartening to know that some of these activists are not explicitly racist, there is implicit racism in their words. Failing to recognize injustice in Palestine is itself a form of support for a racist system. Having “no problems” with Palestinians is a direct affront to the urgent need for addressing their oppression. There IS a problem with Palestinians: they are systematically brutalized on a daily basis. Similarly, when White Americans attempt to deflect accusations of racism, a common trope is, “I have friends who are Black.” Loving Black Americans might sound like a form of solidarity, but it is often a convenient way of concealing (or, more likely, ignoring) one’s complicity in a system that oppresses people of color.

Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you stand idly by while saying that you “love” the mouse, the mouse will not appreciate your love. Of course, the mouse would appreciate love if it were accompanied by decisive action to remove the elephant’s foot. But love does not necessitate such action, and in fact it often helps people feel unaccountable for changing the status quo.

Second, an ethos of love has the potential to contradict the value of respect. At the Harvard Mediation Program, we talk about three core principles of mediation: informed consent, neutrality, and self-determination. Self-determination refers to the importance of allowing the parties to determine what is best for them. As mediators, we need to respect the parties’ autonomy and allow them each to dictate the terms, not just of the agreement, but of the conversation itself. If a mediator begins to feel emotionally pulled towards one party (usually the party who is most disadvantaged in the situation), a common temptation is to want certain outcomes for that party. In those moments we need to pause and remind ourselves that the parties’ interests are what matter. I was reminded of this principle of self-determination quite bluntly recently when a friend of mine told me about his struggle for freedom in Palestine. Out of a deep sense of love and sympathy, I found myself telling him about what I want for him – my desire to see him succeed and to realize justice for his family and his communities. But as good-willed as these wishes may be, he reminded me very honestly: he does not need others to want things for him. Rather, he needs others to ask him about his situation, his needs, and his desires. He needs others to be in solidarity with him by respecting his right to self-determination and asking questions first. Love, as well-intentioned as it may be, has the capacity to motivate a desire to overdetermine the future for the oppressed. Outsiders contribute to a process not too dissimilar from colonialism when presuming to know what is best for the oppressed. For activists engaged in any kind of solidarity work: we have to listen to and respect the unique needs of those we love.

Third, love is not a necessary component of justice. To use another example from mediation: a conversation between two parties can be incredibly productive without it being loving. My instinct when I first began mediating was to try to repair a broken relationship between the two parties and facilitate some sort of emotional reconciliation between them. But I quickly learned that the parties are often not ready for a conciliatory conversation and do not actually need a conciliatory conversation in order to move forward. I could mediate a case in which the parties left hating each other and hating me, but as long as they were able to share their truths and meet their needs, I would consider the mediation a success. What the parties need is a space for honest communication and, if they are ready, collaborative problem-solving. To be sure, mediators need to be sensitive to the emotions in the room and ready to check in with the parties if they are unable to share their truths or meet their needs. But as much as I might fantasize about the dream case in which the parties resolve their conflict with a hug and thank me for being such a meaningful part of their lives, reality has shown me that dignity and respect are more necessary than love in the mediation room.

Similarly, dignity and respect must be priorities in the context of the fights for justice in America and justice in Palestine. Any hope of reconciliation between Black Americans and White Americans, or any hope of friendship or love between Palestinians and Israelis, is not as pressing as the need to allow the oppressed in both contexts to voice their needs and experiences to the oppressors. Black Americans and Palestinians share a common experience of being systematically mistrusted, and their voices delegitimized and silenced. As activists working in solidarity with their freedom movements, we need to subvert this process of disempowerment by first and foremost insisting on the inherent worth and dignity of those we support. Only having laid the foundation of dignity can we begin to talk about love.

Finally, my reflections on the limitations of love would be incomplete without exploring its profound potential. As a student at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), I have been inspired by peers from various faith traditions who are fighting for racial justice in ways that are grounded in an ethic of love. “Hands up, hearts open” has become a motto at the HDS Racial Justice and Healing Initiative, and it signifies the importance of love in everything we do. Love, as a process of human connection and empathy, has the power to make people value their own humanity as well as the humanity of Black Americans, Palestinians, and all others who are oppressed. Other concepts, such as “respect” and “self-determination,” may be urgently needed in the context of solidarity work as I have shown, but they do not quite capture the heart work (not just the hard work) involved in fighting for justice. And perhaps most importantly, love has the unique capacity to sustain activists in this work. Too often, activists find themselves exhausted and hopeless, overwhelmed by the feeling of being just one insignificant drop in a tidal wave of injustice. Activists also often succumb to an ethic of “fighting back” against anyone with whom they disagree, thereby losing sight of the ultimate goal of human liberation (including liberation from an endlessly combative political culture). With an ethic of love, activists can hold each other up during moments of despair (itself an act of resistance), help each other to learn and grow into their authentic selves (itself an act of resistance), and create social movements that actually embody the ideals they stand for (itself an act of resistance). The HDS Racial Justice and Healing Initiative is a powerful example of a non-hierarchical social movement in which we sustain our team and our work through love.

So perhaps I am not so much expressing the limitations of love as I am articulating the need to redesign our purpose in loving others. Just as love can take infinite forms in the context of relationships, so too can it take many forms, for ill or for good, in the context of solidarity work. As lovers of justice, we can decide to love others by acknowledging structural inequalities, allowing others to have self-determination, and prioritizing the dignity of those we love. Without these three legs, love is not only incomplete but also unstable and potentially damaging to the causes we espouse to support. With them, love has the unique capacity to support and sustain movements in the United States, Israel/Palestine, and contexts around the world in which justice has yet to prevail.

Adriel Borshansky ’15 is a second-year student at Harvard Divinity School, and a mediator with the Harvard Mediation Program.