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In the 1930s, there was a global Pan African movement for a volunteer army that petitioned Haile Selassie to fight Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy in occupied Ethiopia. What can this historical Ethiopia solidarity movement tell us about Palestine solidarity and the use of petitions today?  Whatever happens, after such a new petition movement to forge a volunteer armed force of Palestine solidarity gets off the ground, it will be a defining issue.

The right to petition is an undervalued democratic right. Freedom of speech, the press, and assembly are usually more valuable and powerful especially for political education, agitation against enemies of grassroots democracy, and the direct action to initiate struggle and a new society -though to be successful at the latter usually requires spontaneous transcendence of permits secured at police stations beyond ordinary rallies where protesters walk in circles waving signs. In contrast, the right to petition assumes, more than the others, that the existing government has a measure of reason, can be reformed, and that those who administer our lives from above society can be our friends. The petition process, when misconceived, can assume that hierarchical government, not independent mass action, holds the primary initiative.

The Palestine Solidarity or Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement in the United States, while growing in influence, for various reasons has not yet petitioned President Obama to divest from Israel. We cannot be sure what has happened in private among diplomats, formal and informal. We cannot be sure what will happen tomorrow. However, the conservative tendency of this movement sees President Obama as a friend and doesn’t wish to embarrass the emperor of the world. Defeating empire must be more than an embarrassment. 

The more radical democratic tendency in the movement is still learning what to do when politicians, trade union officials, and university administrators reject their proposals. Even a rejection can raise popular awareness when handled correctly. At their best, aspiring ethical Palestine solidarity activists understand the next step is placing those who appear to be progressive and enlightened above society on trial for their collaboration with empire not spreading democracy.

Still the Palestine solidarity movement as a whole increasingly is discarding an anti-imperialist stance and capitulating to American Exceptionalism. In a misreading of the South Africa solidarity movement against apartheid, many believe that the United States government took the lead in sanctions against that country in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was ordinary Black working people in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Louisiana who took the lead in the 1970s disrupting U.S. trade with South Africa in dockyards and industrial workplaces. Palestine solidarity needs more workers’ sanctions from labor today but could also learn how to petition more creatively to turn upside down business as usual.

Petitioning need not assume an overly friendly stance to nation-states and ruling elites – though we can address as “sirs,” “madams,”“excellencies,” and “right honorable gentlemen” while maintaining decorum in our letter writing. The heritage of Ethiopia solidarity of the 1930s can give Palestine solidarity activists today a new way of seeing. There are creative ways to address imperialists, and their subordinates, particularly in what we propose and ask for. We need not make it easy for politicians above society to grant what we propose. When the time is right they will come out of their parliaments and state houses and concede more than could be imagined a short time ago. This should neither be underlined as to their credit. It is not simply as Frederick Douglass suggested, “power concedes nothing without demand.” Rather, we are not dependent on the state to cultivate the popular will. We can petition for transitional demands conscious that our independent action must be the change we wish to see in the world. There is a way to petition, unlike Douglass implied, that shows ordinary people, who do not hold official positions in society, have the power.

The fascist Benito Mussolini’s Italy invaded Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, bombing the African masses with poison gas and occupying that nation from 1935-1941. This was a war of terror. It exposed the fraud of equality among nation-states under international law, the League of Nations as a country club of white ruling elites, and was a prelude to World War II.

Ethiopia solidarity was a turning point in modern Pan-Africanism and a cause traversing the African world. While the Rastafarian movement of Jamaica concluded that Selassie was “Jah,” or omnipotent, for they perceived him as a prophetic anti-colonial figure (like many did across the globe), a major aspect of Ethiopia solidarity that should not be forgotten is the movement for a volunteer army from across the African world to fight the Italians in Ethiopia. How many young people have heard of this dynamic movement? If so, they would be very clever. I didn’t learn about it until I was much older.

Thousands of African Americans, Africans and people of Caribbean descent volunteered by petitioning Emperor Haile Selassie, who was in exile in London. This was discussed in the mass journalism of the day and dreamed about in internationalist literature that inspired visions of Black self-government. Selassie suppressed that popular movement for a volunteer army, rejecting these offers of a profound solidarity consistent with the global volunteer efforts found in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), where many everyday Americans, Europeans, and peoples of African descent fought the fascism of General Franco. Haile Selassie believed that the British and American ruling classes were the better allies to restore him to power. Marcus Garvey, even in his comparatively conservative last years in Britain, condemned Selassie for abandoning his fighting people. Who do Palestinian authorities above society believe will restore them to power? This is a question that the BDS movement rarely discusses openly and frankly.

In 1935-1936, C.L.R. James, the native of Trinidad, who established his credentials as a founder of the modern Pan-African movement, as a leader of the International African Friends of Ethiopia in London, revealed his budding independent socialist stance. While others still maintained a coalition around Selassie, and this coalition joined anti-colonial activists of a certain type and liberal imperialists, James petitioned to Selassie publicly to fight “on behalf of the Ethiopian emperor” in the aspiring volunteer Pan-African army, but underscored, after defeating the Italians, he would “stay on to fight for democracy” in Ethiopia. We need to stop and think about the implications of James’s critical maneuver.

James understood where the larger imperialists, the feudal emperor, and aspiring national bourgeoisie stood but pushed further. While petitioning President Obama to divest from Israel, the Palestine solidarity movement can learn another effective approach for advancing the contemporary struggle from this episode in the heritage of Ethiopia solidarity and the Pan-African movement.

It’s time Palestine solidarity stopped resting on the shibboleths of international law and human rights talk and instead tested and pushed them further, exposing their bankruptcy, as the Ethiopian cause exposed the fraud of peace sponsored by imperialists. That is what proposals for peace between Israel and Palestine have been thus far. They have been road maps to nowhere. Will divestment from Israel or BDS become the same? Affirmation of the most sincere and committed divestment activists and questioning the conflicting tendencies in the Palestine solidarity movement can and must go together. New ways of petitioning can pose an alternative and strengthen what has been a profound awareness campaign.   

The United States allows Zionist Jewish Americans to serve in Israel’s army without giving up American citizenship. The State Department claims it does not keep records of how many U.S. citizens fight for foreign armed services – is it a thousand or thousands of Zionist Jewish Americans that fight for Israel at any one time? Each year, it is clear, hundreds of Jewish Americans join the Israel Defense Force. When petitioning to join the volunteer army for Palestine freedom, the U.S. government should be asked, in addition, to disclose how many American citizens serve in the Israeli defense force. We need not believe the data they share, if they choose to share any. The point is to underscore their compromised position, though imperialist powers can never have integrity. Even Emperor Barack Obama and Emperor Haile Selassie. Key is placing sanctions, by ordinary people, on this peculiar arrangement by volunteering to fight on the other side.

It’s a peculiar arrangement Zionist Jewish Americans have maintained, as ordinarily citizenship in one nation is based on the assumed loyalty to one nation-state and serving in one army. But a nation, a people, and fellowship are not necessarily synonymous. A true anti-imperialist movement, unlike the missteps some take in fighting Zionism, shouldn’t speak of Jewish Americans as disloyal to the U.S. What kind of anti-imperialist movement proposes loyalty to the emperor of the world as a litmus test for anyone? When we hear Palestine solidarity activists talking like this we should be alert that something is wrong.

Of course the U.S. makes exceptions, not just for Zionist Jews, and some Americans are permitted dual citizenship in arrangements with a few nations. It is crucial not to suggest that Jewish people, all who do not subscribe to Zionism, have special privileges unheard of in the world when they do not. People migrate from Russia, Ethiopia, and Switzerland also to volunteer to join the Israeli army. France, New Zealand, and Australia welcome the non-native born into their militaries. Under certain conditions so does the U.S. Those individuals who especially serve a nation-state’s policies, regardless of their race or religion, or have tremendous wealth or an important skill, are bound to have certain privileges. But international and anti-imperialist solidarity requires a greater imagination that complaining about special privileges.

It is peculiar that many Palestine solidarity activists do not wish to publicly petition President Obama to divest from Israel – this is particularly surprising for those who view him as a friend and brother. Can an anti-imperialist movement have genuine friendships with emperors in the world? Ethiopia solidarity had to ask that question both of the European imperialists and the authoritarians among their own kin. Perhaps we have come to another historical moment where it’s worth finding out.

The United States maintains at its best an implausible stance. While Israel is America’s greatest ally in the Middle East (we are told by charlatans time and again), and the U.S. will work to preserve what is termed Israel’s security, solutions are proposed that, in theory anyway, recognize Palestine’s future independence and sovereignty. It is highly doubtful, given all the imperialist sponsored peace proposals, that Palestine will ever have a sovereignty that all other nation-states in the world expect -- the right, among other things, to maintain its own military. The one-state solution (if we are fond of nation-states) promotes a greater future unity. But on what terms will the Zionist Israel Defense Force be defeated and dismantled for good? The two-state solution is an impossibility, with all the military roads and check points, a monorail would have to be built to unite the disparate “occupied” territories. For Americans, it would be like making a country out of the U.S. states of Delaware and Rhode Island. These are scraps of land far apart. But if Palestine is to have its own nation-state, what will be the quality of its army? The Palestine solidarity movement whether supporting a one-state or two-state solution (while holding its nose for both) must contribute to the establishment of Palestine’s defense forces.  

Today most African nations, except for perhaps Eritrea, really do not have a military leadership that is not endorsed and trained by the U.S. or France. We should keep in mind the U.S. and Israel propose a Palestinian future where their military is far more insignificant for their sovereignty than even these contemporary African arrangements. The Palestine military does not (as a professional entity), nor is it proposed in imperialist sponsored peace plans that it will in the future, exist.

While not being thrilled with the character of armies in history, understanding the limits of national service, how patriotism can serve fools, and that the nation-state is not the highest standard of popular self-government or democracy but a republic led by a professional minority that rules above society, it is time Palestine solidarity activists publicly use petitions to clarify this issue of the military sovereignty of Palestinians.

Palestine solidarity may achieve its pinnacle when activists form a global movement to petition Palestinian government officials to form a global voluntary army, of women and men of many nationalities. Voluntarily joining with their meager but courageous armed forces in the West Bank and Gaza to fight Israel’s settler-colonialism could be a turning point in history.

As we have found out, Israel will not even permit international humanitarian aid to Palestine that its armed forces doesn’t control. Israeli armed forces have continuously attacked non-violent Palestinians and Palestine solidarity activists making Palestinian armed self-defense a question burdened by racial stereotyping depicting all who resist as psychotic, irrational, and criminal.  On what terms will the fight for Palestinian national liberation be made ethical? Despite much Zionist propaganda that some in Palestine solidarity believe Israel has no right to exist (most in the BDS movement in fact, to their detriment, have accepted it will be a permanent feature of world politics), in fact such notions are unethical for another reason. Did the South African anti-apartheid movement accept permanent disenfranchisement of everyday Africans as its terms of engagement? Why can’t the Palestine solidarity movement see that at the minimum the jury is still out on that one?

Resistance to military domination, economic exploitation, and cultural subordination of one nation by a foreign power cannot be negotiated away -- in fact it is Palestine that has no right to exist (the denial of its right to an army being a primary exhibit).

Americans would understand the conditions of Palestinians much better if we asked where is the Native Americans’ land? Is it at the Mohegan Sun casino or Seminole Hardrock Café? The entire continental United States is the Native Americans’ land.

While many Palestine solidarity activists embrace the heritage of the African American civil rights movement, and do not in fact submit a divestment proposal to President Obama, they are not even collaborating as well as Dr. King and President Lyndon Johnson did. And if people historically understood this collaboration properly they would not speak of King as a radical. But like Dr. King, there are conservative Palestine solidarity activists who don’t wish to embarrass the president.

In recent years it has become popular and mistaken to speak of Palestinians’ “civil rights.” Why? Civil rights is something a permanent racial or ethnic minority is given, for behaving well, and is protected by a nation-state they can never control. Is this an appropriate framework for Palestinian freedom? After the Zionist state of Israel is dismantled, Jewish people of good will, who wish to live in peace, would be deserving of civil rights. Some Palestine solidarity activists have the formulation of power backwards.

Why is “the Israel-Palestine conflict” a permanent ball of fire and confusion? The fact is what is at stake is not the future of what is termed the “occupied territories” and greater affirmative action for Palestinian citizens within what is termed “Israel.” President Obama cannot be respectfully petitioned to facilitate Palestinian freedom for the same reason he cannot facilitate Native American freedom; he cannot dismantle the empire and maintain his official authority.

Asking him to divest from Israel, with a proper petitioning strategy, might be one part of turning over a new leaf toward clarifying this.  But something more will be required.  Palestine solidarity needs to desire to defeat the empire, not dialogue with it as a colonial trustee, and push from behind the aspiring rulers of the future subordinate Palestine, which by courtesy some will call “a nation.” This will need a global effort of a volunteer army.

We should underscore that after defeating Israel the Palestine solidarity volunteer armed forces should wish to stay on to fight for democracy. This by no means is meant to perpetuate colonial myths about how so-called underdeveloped peoples don’t understand democracy. In fact Palestinians have taught ordinary people who live in imperial nations much about our own self-government. It is time we return the favor by offering our solidarity on a different level. Just as the Palestinians have to decide if they want President Obama’s or ordinary people of the globe’s solidarity. The global community, not the United Nations, pursuing solidarity has decisions to make.

The U.S. government, we are often reminded, regardless of which party is in office, likes “democracy.” Empire often functions falsely under the premise of “spreading democracy” – even though the U.S. and Israel denied the outcome of elections in Gaza and repressed the Palestinians who voted by waging war against them. It’s time those who oppose racism and settler-colonialism creatively spread some democracy, expressing solidarity with ordinary Palestinians first, not those who aspire to rule above society and degrade them. This movement to petition to forge a volunteer army redefines what is often seen cheaply as a people to people foreign policy against empire.          

Palestine solidarity activists need to help clarify which class leads national liberation and anti-fascist movements. Whatever happens, after such a new petition movement to forge a volunteer armed force of Palestine solidarity gets off the ground, it will be a defining issue.    

At its best, the U.S. likes to pretend it is a neutral arbiter of peace between Israel and Palestine. Yet the U.S. government financially sponsors Israel’s armed forces, and allows American citizens to voluntarily serve in its army. Palestine solidarity activists on a world scale should petition to serve social equality by serving in Palestine’s armed forces. Petitioning the governments and official authorities in Gaza and the West Bank to welcome this volunteer army could be an education to the world.

This more serious type of petition movement to help Palestine would find divestment from Israel proposals being fulfilled much quicker – liberals all of a sudden would no longer undermine but seek to help them succeed without first setting unprincipled preconditions. They would stop saying foolish things like “I support divestment but what could Israel do to bring the sanctions to a halt?” We should respond “when should Native Americans concede they will never return to or have sovereignty over their land?” There are many who play around with anti-colonialism, like it’s a cultural decoration, in between imperialist election cycles where they spend time mobilizing for a new emperor of the world (preferably one that is “kind”). The same people are quick to embrace psychopathology of Arabs and Muslims as a measure for understanding the Middle East. Oh yes there are racial liberals also not simply conservatives. Millions of white racists voted for President Obama and yet too many saw his election as an expression of African American self-determination. It is not unfathomable that a conservative transition to colonial freedom, in Palestine, would rather embrace racists and imperialists rather than radical democrats. There is this aristocratic tendency, in contrast to a radical democratic tendency, in every colonial freedom movement.

We need to give our political opponents who support the Zionist state of Israel an alternative that would reframe how ordinary Palestinians’ resistance is quickly labeled irrational, bestial, and psychotic and Palestine solidarity irresponsible. We also need to build an alternative to the tepid Palestine solidarity stance that suggests support of Israel was against the American empire’s “better judgement.” Can emperors make ethical decisions? When did empire in history have “good judgement”? We need to get the State Department and CIA out of the Palestine solidarity movement.

Imagine how the false public discourse on how Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims are raised to be suicide bombers and child soldiers by purported bad parents would be discarded if peoples of African, Asian, Latin American, and European descent from all over the world volunteered to join the Palestinians in fighting Israel. Those who are fond of what is termed diversity, like the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, could take pride in rising up against Israel with the Palestinians out of the water and sewage tunnels to fight Israel. Such armed liberation strategies cannot be judged honorable for some ghetto dwellers and a mental disease of a people held in contempt by others.

While not motivated by fomenting guilt to be born in minds, we should fight under the principle that there is no guilty race, and individuals of every ethnic and national community have contributed to mystification, degradation, as well as liberation. It is time that the world saw a groundswell of those who wish to volunteer to fight side by side with the Palestinians that are not overwhelmingly Arabs and Muslims.  Palestine solidarity, when it doesn’t capitulate to American Exceptionalism, is the most dynamic antidote to the perpetual Terror War.

It is understandable that given the never-ending Terror War currently being pursued by the United States, it is difficult for Arabs and Muslims (with or without American citizenship) to pursue this path of petitioning for a global volunteer army without being flagged as “a terrorist.” Let’s make self-directed liberating activity something that can’t be stereotyped.  

It’s about time we stop fighting stereotypes of the “violent” Palestinian by seeking to explain seemingly special sociological burdens of conditions the condescending and charitable minded have difficulty understanding. Joining a volunteer army is not an approach that pretends that Palestinian children are a charity but the degraded condition of their parents and elders can’t be named.  Just as Zionist Jews don’t collect money to “plant trees” in Israel, Palestine solidarity should stop talking about “children” and “olives.” We understand that Israel kills many Palestinian children and uproots hundreds of thousands of olive trees. Now let’s uproot Israel’s monopoly of coercion and false claim to reason by petitioning to take more of the weight.

A war for liberation, those who wish to join it, is not special to anyone’s national character – and yet Palestine solidarity activists often avoid the obvious, that a fighting people is not only characterized by their degradation and lack of rights, but their heroism in the search for their own identity, and to form provisionally their own government.

American children should only be raised by their parents with the intelligence and depth that Palestinian children are raised. We might really rethink, when we look at Iraq and Afghanistan, which country produces more youth who are overwhelmingly raised to “blow themselves up” fighting in unethical wars, the causes of which the participants are too immature to grasp. Between Palestinians and Israelis, Palestinians and Americans, who are the backward ones?     

Those concerned with fighting special privileges and asserting their rights in the U.S., and at the same time those who wish the same rights and privileges as Zionist Jewish Americans (most who are descended from Europe) might be inspired to petition the U.S. government directly to join this volunteer armed force in Palestine.  Petitioning multiple authorities will not damage the movement for deeper self-directed liberating activity, if people ask for things that can be successful – but what are the terms of success? I recall well, a decade ago, a prominent professor who writes about the Middle East saying to me: “You don’t really want divestment to succeed, do you?” I responded: “You really don’t want to expose and topple the American empire, do you?”

It is important to remember that when one petitions a government it is not necessarily an endorsement of their authority or policies. When governments dialogue with each other they don’t give up their sovereignty to each other because they have a conversation. Ordinary people who aspire to self-emancipation and uphold a higher law, the law of conscience, need not concede anything either, when they petition.  

Still, it is crucial that we ask Palestinian authorities first, note I did not say the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, if we take seriously that they embody national sovereignty and self-determination of their own country. The goal should be to volunteer to join the Palestinian armed forces, fighting and rotating in and out of tours of duty, until their national sovereignty is finally established, and that it is no longer possible to negotiate for an independence without a true armed autonomy for self-defense. 

It may be certain that some Palestinian authorities and Palestine solidarity activists will not be delighted with a volunteer army of thousands wishing to join the struggle against the Zionist state of Israel. This might expose that many see “independence” as something facilitated by the American State Department just as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia waited on the British Foreign Office to be officially crowned again in 1941. 

They might not like the idea that certain Palestine solidarity activists might wish to stay on to fight for democracy in Palestine once Israel is defeated – this discontent from above society has been so in the aftermath of all colonial freedom movements, with dedicated and principled international friends quickly labeled as foreigners, disciplined, and discarded when a deeper democracy was defended. We should talk more about these historical experiences (Ghana, Algeria, Tanzania, and South Africa) if Palestine solidarity activists are really interested in the African world beyond a cheap symbolism.

Of course there are always anti-imperialist activists from abroad who find their niche as cultural attaches in post-colonial societies of which they are not native born, or lobbyists for the new African nation-state in Washington or London. Palestine solidarity will have its “Pan Africanists” who in the past organized support for divestment from Apartheid (if not armed liberation) and today organize to fight disease and for potable water. The global movement to petition for a volunteer army in Palestine should have conversations about this heritage. Palestine solidarity activists like to relate to the African heritage, it need not be a cheap relationship. Let’s find out about the “disease” within our solidarity movement, and the “water-carriers” for empire before “independence” is declared. Many today are fond of the slogan “self-emancipation” but this obscures many will accept an emancipation that is not self-directed by the common people.

The idea that Israel must be defeated, and American empire must be dismantled, might be ideas increasingly discarded by some Palestine solidarity activists and Palestinian authorities. Though surely the multitudes of Palestinians have globally distinguished themselves by repeated mass direct action and a heroism that reveals they will not permit themselves to lose their freedom. We should offer our solidarity first with those Palestinians. We write their aspiring representatives as a prelude to the questions we all should be asking, and everyday people can discuss how they will respond.

The 1930s Ethiopia solidarity movement for a volunteer army did not fail because Haile Selassie discarded it.  In fact it was a prelude to the modern Pan African movement that raised the need for class struggle and armed struggle, if necessary, to establish colonial freedom. But Palestine, as the frontline of American empire in the Middle East, and with Israel central to the Terror War, is one of the last chapters of the national liberation epoch, and the beginning of a new story of post-civil rights, post-colonial conflict. We need not pledge to fight for aspiring feudal emperors in Ethiopia or Palestine but fight with the grassroots. We need to delink race vindication around President Obama from undermining the anti-imperialist struggle and Palestine solidarity specifically.

It is clear when some Palestine solidarity activists wrap themselves in the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa or the Civil Rights movement in the United States, they are not advocating revolts against people of color in high places like the African National Congress or President Obama. Rather, they are appealing to the historical authority that produced their equal opportunity to enter the rules of hierarchy and domination. In every anti-racist, anti-colonial movement there are conservative forces that believe independence comes from lobbying the empire as a subordinate colleague toward transitional government. It was so in Ethiopia, Ghana, Jamaica, Trinidad, South Africa, many African Americans like Dr. King thought so – it is so among Palestine solidarity activists as well.

Let’s find out how a movement petitioning to volunteer to fight side by side with the Palestinians in an international brigade of thousands can transform the Palestine solidarity movement. Palestine has long been victimized because of its isolation. Let’s find out what type of friends Palestine’s authorities really desire and how deep the Palestine solidarity movement really can become with a true people to people foreign policy. Petitions can be creative tools, and preludes to independent mass action, if we know how to use them.  Let’s help ordinary Palestinians arrive on their own authority. It is the least we can do given how much they have taught us all about uncompromising pursuit of our own self-government.

* Dr. Matthew Quest is a historian of the intellectual legacies of C.L.R. James and the editor of Joseph Edwards's Workers' Self-Management in the Caribbean (2014).



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