Activism 101

If you are reading this review, you are probably pretty well-versed in the Israeli occupation of Palestine, probably know quite a lot about activism against Israeli repression and apartheid and on the history of this small and war-torn region.

With this sort of prior knowledge and experience, the reader of Our Way to Fight might at first find the book too basic, maybe even trivial. It starts from a very naïve place, and traces the steps of a man visiting Palestine for the first time, asking activists what they do and why, and collecting the facts one by one, weaving the story of Palestine from scratch.

But one must be cautious from making too hasty judgments. I was rewarded for my patience as I kept on reading and realized that the book is far more sophisticated than it seems at first.

Many books, films and articles are published about Palestine which try to bring across one aspect of the injustices, like a house being demolished, a child being arrested, a person in need of medical treatment denied exit from Gaza. There are uncountable stories, and they help to provoke an emotional response, encourage sympathy with the victim and rage at the criminals, but provide little historical and political context for the story. Many of these stories, however, help to get previously indifferent people to take action and become activists, and through their activism these people take the time to learn more about the overall context.

Our Way to Fight appears to be just a string of these short stories, sewn together into a book. It offers almost no statistics and no maps. It does not quote from famous theorists or give a long list of academic references. It does, however, describe a series of conversations with Palestinian and Israeli activists, asking them the same questions over and over – what made you become an activist? Why did you choose your path to protest? What personal price do you pay for your activism?

After hearing the shocking news of the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis in Jenin in April 4th, I turned back to chapter 2 of the book, dedicated to the Freedom Theater in Jenin. This chapter gave the book its name, reminding us that variety in the struggle, a multitude of forms of resistance, is an unstoppable tool to find the cracks through which freedom can find be expressed even under the harshest forms of repression. Mer-Khamis’s death reminded me that the activism which Riordon focused on isn’t the patronizing and detached “charity” offered by westerners to Palestinians, but the desperate efforts of those who risk their lives to try to save their own society.

The book is an exercise in humility. The author, Michael Riordon, limits his commentary to a minimum, and lets the activists speak for themselves. They describe the injustice with their own words, and in the book their humanity and individual stories become inseparable from the stories of repression and resistance in Palestine. The book seems to lack structure and direction, like a travel journal describing the interesting people which Riordon met in his travels in Palestine.

On closer look, Riordon is not so naïve. The book is a masterful feat of editing in which the stories are carefully arranged to produce a learning curve for the reader. Even though I personally know many of the activists interviewed in the book, Riordon managed to teach me many new things about them, and through them to teach me more about a topic that I have been studying intensively for many years.

As the pace of the book gradually gather speed, and the reader is introduced to more pieces of history and context, I began to realize that this is in fact a textbook in activism.

The book is intended for beginners with little prior knowledge about Palestinian resistance. To a beginner, the book does not merely give a thorough overview of Israeli methods of repression, but also of the many ways in which people chose to resist these methods.

But the book is also an important asset for those with advanced knowledge of Israel’s apartheid. It adds clarity and most importantly – humanity – to such a complex situation in which the repressors portray themselves and even see themselves as the victims, that is valuable for even the most experienced activist.

It would take much effort of self-denial for such a reader to put down the book and move on with their lives, without being compelled to contribute something to the struggle for justice in Palestine.

Shir Hever is an economic researcher at the Alternative Information Center, a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization. His book The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation has been published by Pluto Press in 2010. Read other articles by Shir.