getting off the armchair

From Armchair Activist to Activist: Taking a stand for Palestine

Tag: ISM

hating children

‘The settler kids? Trust me. You’re gonna hate them.’ The words of Francesco, an Italian trainee on the London course. This was right at the end of the weekend, and it seemed to me a sad final comment.

He was responding to a question from Henry, a Londoner who I probably got to know better than anyone else, on account of us being paired up at the start of day one for generic ‘ice breaker’ session. You know the sort of thing: Tell your neighbour a few things about yourself, including an interesting fact. They do the same. Then present each other to the group.

Henry is a 24 year old Spurs fan. He works with social services – not as a social worker, he was quick to point out, but offering support to families who might be about to have their kids taken away. Sometimes he is able to help keep the family unit together, other times it’s in the childrens’ best interest that he doesn’t.

‘Tough work.’

‘Yeah. Can be.’

‘And your anecdotal interesting fact?’

He smiled and shook his head, ‘I don’t know, man. Nothing really. Life has brought me here. Perhaps now it gets interesting.’

I liked him immediately.

I liked Francesco too though. He had strong feelings, but they certainly didn’t come from a position of ignorance. On the Saturday afternoon I was in a small group with him, attempting to put together a timeline of key events in the history of Palestine. From the early Zionist settlements in 1880, through the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the liberation of Austwitz (1945), the Nabka (1948), the Six Day War (1967), and right up to the recent Intifadas. I was mostly without a clue, and grateful of Francesco’s near encyclopaedic knowledge of the region and its history.

Henry’s question had been about speaking with the Zionists in the illegal settlements. The International Solidarity Movement is Palestinian led, but what if a settler wanted to speak with us, to share their side of the story, offer their position on the conflict? What if their children were intrigued by us, could we at least speak to them?

It was this that resulted in Francesco’s comment. And whilst stopping short of condoning his attitude, the course leaders said nothing to contradict it either. I found myself wondering if it is perhaps not such a bad thing that after three or four visits as an activist, the Israeli authorities get wise and blacklist a person. There are perhaps only so many times you can walk a young Palestinian child to school in Hebron – whilst Zionist children throw stones – before indignation calcifies into something less helpful.

It is right that the acts of violence and intimidation carried out by illegal Israeli settlers should cause revulsion and anger. But hatred, I’m not so sure. At that point, we stop trying to understand.

Henry spoke calmly, for the whole room to hear: ‘Nah, mate. I definitely won’t hate them. They’re children.’

I was right to like him.



confession / promise

‘The two rules of the ISM’, said Tony as he offered me a croissant. ‘Is that we don’t use surnames, and we don’t talk about specific travel plans.’

Beth and I were the first trainees to arrive at the small community centre in North London. Tony seemed delighted we had made it, and lamented how often people sign up but don’t show up. As it happens, he had nothing to worry about. By the time we’d finished our croissants and helped him Blu-Tack a pile of photographs and teaching aids to the walls, the group was easily fifteen strong.

Tony repeated the rules. He seemed almost embarrassed by them. ‘It’s almost certainly nothing to worry about,’ he offered. ‘On one occasion, in California or somewhere, a radical Zionist took it upon himself to infiltrate a training session, and pass on details to the Israeli authorities.’

A few nervous laughs.

Tony has a 10 year ban from returning to Israel. Hannah – our other trainer – has a lifetime ban. She is officially a ‘threat to the state’. By day two we would be role-playing an interrogative Tel Aviv border control, and receiving tips on how to pack our bags to appear more like tourists.

When a friend of mine asked how the weekend had gone, I found myself breathlessly describing a political thriller. What I didn’t talk about was how enriching it was to spend time with such kind and intelligent people; how humbled I felt during the decision making workshops, the magnitude of the scenarios; the uncertainty of my responses as we practiced communicating with the Israeli Press – and how much I want to learn.

Unable to properly articulate my feelings, and unqualified to lecture, I took the easy way out. I told my friend what I thought would be most exciting to hear.

So that’s my confession.

But I don’t want to do that here. I’m going to write about what I am learning, about the conflict and its history, the humanitarian role and a genuine reflection of my own hopes and fears. That’s my promise. I’ll probably pepper in some espionage too though. After all, I would like you to keep reading.

off the armchair

To call myself an armchair activist isn’t strictly true. I’m more of an armchair tutterer.

Tut tut, I say as injustice drip feeds into the living room with the 6 o’clock news. Tut tut, I mutter to a cosy Sunday afternoon, curled up with atrocities in the pages of a newspaper. Occasionally I might text a few quid to the acute end of a chronic problem, or sign my name on an e-petition whilst stopping short of forwarding it to friends. At my most active I wrote some letters for an Amnesty International appeal, but never quite got round to buying stamps.

No, I’m not even an armchair activist. I have a lovely cherry red chesterfield, and use it only to support bad posture and passivity. In all probability that would have been that – except it isn’t an armchair. It’s a sofa. Sitting beside me – with her feet on my lap – is my girlfriend, Beth. (That’s not her real name; we’ve been told it’s a good idea to make them up. I’ll fill you in on that later.) She doesn’t settle with a Tut tut; she buys the stamps. I guess with someone like that in your life one thing will inevitably lead to another. In October we’ll be heading to the West Bank with a humanitarian organization, standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people. In Getting off the Armchair I’ll be writing about our preparation for this, and will continue to post whilst there.