Struggling for Solidarity: The 'International Solidarity Movement' as a Snapshot of Transnational Youth Activism
Published on: Jun 07, 2006

Mica Pollock, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, studies youth and adults struggling to talk about, think about, and address fundamental questions of racialized inequality and diversity in their daily lives. An anthropologist of education, she examines ongoing (and intergenerational) disputes over difference, discrimination, and inequality in both school and community settings. Her first book, Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School, was published in 2004. As a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2004-5, Pollock is writing a second book on struggles over racial injustice in U.S. education, entitled Toward Everyday Justice: Disputing Educational Discrimination in the New Civil Rights Era. Pollock is spearheading an international ethnographic research project, "Global Youth/Global Justice," examining young activists who analyze and address social problems transnationally and across racialized boundaries. Before receiving her M.A. in anthropology and her Ph.D. in anthropology of education from Stanford, Pollock taught high school in California.

On March 16, 2003, Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American college student from Olympia, Washington, was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer while attempting to prevent with her own body the Israeli demolition of a Palestinian doctor's home in the Occupied Territories. Photos of blond and petite Corrie, taken during the incident by fellow twentysomething nonviolent activists in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which Corrie had joined for her work in Palestine, showed her standing high on a pile of dirt in front of the American-made Caterpillar bulldozer. A small figure in a fluorescent jacket holding a bullhorn, she sat down momentarily to stop the bulldozer and then stood high on the dirt pile and looked the bulldozer's driver in the eye. The bulldozer didn't stop. It ran her over, pinning her under the mound of dirt; it then reversed without lifting its blade and ran over her again. Shortly after Palestinian ambulance drivers transported Corrie to a local hospital, she died from a crushed chest and skull, joining the hundreds of young Palestinians and scores of young Israelis killed throughout the Israeli military and settler occupation that she and other ISMers had come to challenge.

What is remarkable about Corrie's story is not the untimely death of a young person in the region. Youth have been major victims of violence on both sides, and youth have also been primarily responsible for these youth deaths in many cases: both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian suicide bombers are disproportionately young, as are many of the most violent Israeli settlers. What is most remarkable about Corrie's story is that as an American young person, she felt a personal responsibility for Palestinian human rights strong enough to make her voluntarily put herself in harm's way in the first place-and that a transnational nonviolent movement of Palestinians and "internationals" had drawn her to do this.

Since ISM's inception, nearly three thousand international activists -- the majority from Europe and North America, white, and in their 20s and early 30s (so far, the ISM has not accepted members under 18)-have been drawn through ISM's informal, email-based global network to use their "privilege" in "solidarity" with Palestinians demonstrating on the ground in Palestine, and to then go home to "tell Palestinians' story" of life under occupation to the world community. ISM is one example of a transnational political phenomenon in which critiques of the human rights violations of the Israeli occupation are developing and circulating globally. Further, young American ISMers in particular-people who, I find, come to analyze the occupation as a human rights problem worth intervening in personally-suggest more broadly that various youth today might be learning to "think globally, act globally" about a growing number of social problems.

ISM internationals like Corrie go to Palestine in person because the possibility of harm to foreign, international, American, European, and disproportionately white bodies-adjectives that, in this context, all imply privilege-participating with Palestinians in demonstrations against the occupation is expected to stay the hands of Israeli soldiers in ways Palestinian bodies have not. Demonstrators like Corrie are also expected to be more likely than Palestinians to get the violence of occupation itself noticed by home governments, and further shine the spotlight of the outside world on those Palestinians resisting the occupation nonviolently. As one of the movement's founders explained, "ISM can help support the nonviolent Palestinian resistance by tapping into the resource that internationals can provide-global attention" (Stohlman and Aladin 2003, 75). ISM activists thus explicitly attempt to wield the privilege embodied in their non-Palestinian status to enable both Palestinian survival and the growth of a Palestinian nonviolent movement, long overshadowed by a violent Palestinian minority and stunted by the Israeli violence of occupation itself. Indeed, ISM exemplifies a self-conscious transnational activist strategy of putting white, international, and, in many cases, American privilege explicitly to work for social change.

As I describe in the full version of this article, one aspect of ISM work most central to ISMers themselves is the movement's complex use of privilege: the dynamics of privilege and unequal power embedded in the movement's strategy both motivate and plague some of the movement's younger American participants. In fieldwork conducted with and among a subset of young U.S. activists, I found that activists striving by definition to work in horizontal solidarity with Palestinians worried regularly and openly about the dynamics of unequal power embedded in the very project of transporting their privileged bodies to Palestine for use as a nonviolent political tool. ISM's international members quite self-consciously utilize and actively reject the privilege of their birth- worrying all the while how this paradox both undergirds and challenges their ongoing activity. ISM, which employs international privileges of mobility, nation-based citizenship, wealth, and personal safety even while its members strive continually to be a "Palestinian-led" solidarity movement, is troubled by the very dynamics of privilege that make the work possible. International ISM activists know well that they both defy and utilize a global inequality in measurements of human worth. As one young white activist put it to me bluntly after her return, having "white, Western, Americans there-it made a difference. Israelis would not shoot-because of racism."

The International Solidarity Movement: background

In 2001, the ISM was put in motion by a simple email call from a small coalition of Palestinian and foreign activists living in Palestine-many in their twenties-who had realized collectively that the participation of visibly non-Palestinian people in Palestinian nonviolent demonstrations against the occupation seemed to enable those demonstrations to take place without a violent Israeli military response. From its inception, the ISM built its work upon a little-known legacy of nonviolent Palestinian resistance to Israel's 40-year military occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have long participated in marches and sit-ins to defy Israeli military and settlement actions, sometimes along with activist Israeli groups; Palestinians have also tried nonviolent strategies of tax resistance and curfew/checkpoint refusal (Kuttab 2001; Andoni et al 2003), and have at times orchestrated resignations from the Israeli bureaucracy to disable the architecture of occupation (Nusseibeh 2005). Younger Palestinians have also employed nonviolent resistance tactics, such as flying kites during curfew, breaking curfew to go to school en masse, and organizing discussion forums and protests (Stohlman and Aladin 2003). Throughout, however, Palestinians have often been shot at or tear-gassed by Israeli soldiers when demonstrating nonviolently alone. Citing security concerns, Israel has also exiled many Palestinian nonviolent organizers (Jawad Saleh 2003).

In spring 2001, several successful nonviolent Palestinian demonstrations involving American exchange students, Israelis, and European NGO workers living in the region convinced Palestinian organizers that having visibly non-Palestinian participants along actually seemed to protect Palestinian demonstrators from Israeli military fire. These non-Palestinian participants were literally called "internationals" to distinguish them from participating Palestinians; at another demonstration at this time "without internationals," one of ISM's Palestinian founders later told a Boston audience, 13 Palestinians had been killed. Activists began an email campaign to actively recruit international visitors to join Palestinian nonviolent resistance activities. The goal of the newly labeled International Solidarity Movement was to harness visitors' so-called international privilege to support ongoing nonviolent organizing among Palestinians and to foster additional energy for "direct action" activism among those Palestinians exhausted and demoralized by the violence of occupation. As one Israeli ISM founder, Neta Golan, put it in a public engagement in Boston, "our commitment is to keep the venue for nonviolent resistance open with our presence." A U.S. founder, Palestinian American Huwaida Arraf, told me in an interview that an exhausted older Palestinian activist had told her that such spectacular nonviolent freedom demonstrations now had to be carried forth by the "young and naïve."

The invitation to international participants to come do nonviolent direct actions in solidarity with Palestinians against the occupation, Arraf noted, was a move both ideologically committed to fostering a new global energy for ending the occupation and tactically pragmatic in wielding international privilege to support nonviolent Palestinian demonstrations. ISM's tactics expanded specifically upon previous Palestinian- spearheaded work toward an international witness corps, the Grassroots International Protection for Palestinians (GIPP) campaign, which had for years brought visitors (primarily from Italy, France, and Spain) to accompany and observe work in Palestine (Andoni et al 2003). As one ISM activist put it to me, GIPP volunteers were "more tour-like, less direct action-less likely to do clearing of roadblocks." Arraf told me that ISM's organizers hoped that a new presence of international activists actually participating in nonviolent Palestinian civil disobedience would simultaneously enable a full-fledged Palestinian nonviolent movement, foster a new global participant energy for ending the occupation through nonviolent demonstrations, and build international pressure to end the occupation through the global circulation of visitors' eyewitness reports.

In spearheading ISM's attempts to harness international privilege, Arraf, a woman from Michigan in her late twenties who was living and working in Ramallah, joined with age-mate Golan, a Jewish Israeli activist, under the counsel of both young and veteran Palestinian organizers from the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between Peoples in Beit-Sahour, an organization with a history of organizing nonviolent resistance and Palestinian-Israeli cross-cultural efforts. Arraf quickly brought in to the ranks of ISM leadership her husband Adam Shapiro, a Jewish American in his early 30s whom she had originally met in Jerusalem working for the Maine-based Seeds of Peace youth dialogue program. Under the leadership of the Rapprochement Center, Arraf and her colleagues emailed various activist groups they knew, asking readers to "come join Palestinians in two weeks of nonviolent action" with ISM. This email brought to Palestine about 50 people, mainly from the U.S. and the UK, as well as Italy and France. ISM's first campaign in December 2001 involved sit-downs at Israeli military roadblocks and checkpoints, and marches in which several hundred Palestinians and a small core of ISMers confronted soldiers in a human chain of arm-linked bodies. As hoped, the presence of internationals indeed seemed to keep Israeli soldiers from firing. Emboldened, ISM's email calls to action continued. In the summer of 2002, hundreds of ISM international volunteers-many in their twenties, many on summer vacations from college-descended on Palestine in an action notably called "Freedom Summer" in honor of the U.S. civil rights movement's legacy of nonviolent inter-group solidarity. Some ISMers came monitored by quickly assembled hometown support networks; many others came alone. Most came from Europe and the U.S. That summer, many ISMers rode in Palestinian ambulances to protect drivers and passengers with their presence. In fall 2002-3, several hundred activists traveled to Palestine in an ISM "Olive Harvest Campaign" to protect Palestinian farmers harvesting their olives from settler violence. By ISM's third Freedom Summer (2004), actions included a three-week march of Palestinians, internationals and Israelis along the "security fence" from Jenin to Jerusalem.

ISM is a strikingly physical form of transnational activism, even though a large part of ISM work involves ISMers typing email from Palestinian internet cafes and showing slides upon return home. While activists in other movements, networks, or organizations sign web petitions or send letters or money across the borders of nations to solve social problems, ISM activists transport themselves to place themselves between Israeli soldiers and settlers and Palestinian civilians, having become convinced that protecting the human rights and enabling the nonviolent demonstrations of this geographically distant population is the activists' own particular kind of power as well as their personal responsibility. Meanwhile, activists in their hometowns and states monitor their activities transnationally through cellphones and the Internet and publicize these activities through media work. The ISM network, which links activists on the ground in Palestine to activists at home ready to spring into action the moment a call or e-mail for help arrives, exemplifies current and growing trends of self-consciously transnational activism. In such activism, transnational coalitions of people leap national boundaries virtually and physically to participate together in actions designed to solve social problems conceived as a transnational responsibility. And in such activism, the world's young people are playing increasingly central roles.

Transnational youth activism: a framing

In a larger research project entitled "Global Youth, Global Justice" (GYGJ), I am working to discover trends in how young people are currently utilizing transnational partnerships to solve social problems nonviolently; this quest led me originally to ISM. ISM is by definition a "transnational advocacy network," as its members link up both inside and outside their nations of origin. While such networks have recently received a fair amount of attention, researchers have yet to focus on how young people-from both privileged and non-privileged backgrounds-may be disproportionate participants in many current forms of self-consciously transnational activism. While not all young people in transnational movements identify strongly as "youth" activists (as it turned out, most younger ISMers identified with the anti-occupation cause rather than with their age cohort), it seems to be the case empirically that these movements capitalize particularly on the available time, mobility, communication savvy, and excitement about things global that characterize the population of people increasingly labeled "youth" worldwide.

Youth actors are often depicted as the world's most spectacularly global citizens due to the increasingly global circulation and consumption of youth products and (desired) lifestyles. Young people indeed seem particularly excited to think and act globally about fashion or leisure activity, but they are also increasingly central participants in transnational circulations of analyses, information, and strategies for addressing a broad range of social problems. My study of the ISM is part of the broader GYGJ project to track a global circulation to and by diverse youth of analyses of injustice. This project leaves open for investigation the empirical question of which youth are most likely to think and act globally to solve social problems-and how the dynamics of racialized and national-origin privilege affect such global action.

Young activists may also now be key circulators of self-consciously nonviolent problem-solving tactics often ignored by researchers and in the media. Youth have already been shown to play key roles in violent transnational political activity; young people from all social backgrounds (though especially the poor) are disproportionately recruited or forced by adults to participate in militias, armies, or guerrilla movements fighting across the borders of nations or proto-nations. Young people seem to get the most attention when they break windows or hurl homemade explosives in demonstrations. Yet while observers often equate young global justice activists with such "performative violence" (Juris 2004a), this overlooks trends of self-consciously anti-violent transnational activism among the world's youth, a version of activism of which ISM is a particularly explicit example.

Today's transnational activism involving young participants might be classified along four axes in which activists analyze a diverse range of problems, address those problems through diverse strategies, link themselves spatially in diverse manners, and organize themselves through diverse organizational structures that exhibit varying levels of adult influence. First, transnational activists analyze different social problems, framing some problems literally as concerns threatening the entire world (like the environment, AIDS, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and others as local problems created through global flows or political/corporate influence (like a sweatshop or the troubles of specific Palestinian villages under occupation). Some youth activists organize around a generational consciousness as "youth", while others (like ISMers) organize intergenerationally around specific social problems or cohere around other social identifications (for example, in interviews many American ISMers identified most strongly as Americans, and as people thus responsible for U.S. support for the Israeli occupation; some identified strongly as American Jews or Christians).

Second, young transnational activists often share, transnationally, a variety of ideas for activist activities for addressing these social problems. Spectacular anti-globalization protests are only one form of today's transnational youth activism: some young people write emails or post to blogs to act transnationally, while others raise money and still others share artistic performance. Tactically, ISMers "on the ground" self-consciously model nonviolent tactics from India, South Africa, and the U.S. (such as marching and sit-ins) and intertwine these tactics with ongoing Palestinian tactics of nonviolent resistance (picking olives, camping upon farmlands slated for takeover). Back at home, ISMers raise money, publish reports, and recruit new delegates to Palestine to continue their efforts to end the occupation. Third, activists link themselves transnationally in different spatial manners. Some transnational activists (like ISM) attempt literally to link the entire globe, while others attempt to link just two or more nations. Some activists (like ISM internationals) move their bodies to single sites to participate in activism with peers, while other activists travel to fixed or changing sites for conferences and still others (like ISM support groups) stay put and facilitate the transnational transfer of knowledge via the Internet or telephone.

Finally, the ISM's organizational structure-a porous, loose, intergenerational community of activists who circulate information relatively freely and make consensus based decisions in Palestine through small affinity groups-is a good example of the kind of transnational activism that is self-consciously informal and anti-hierarchical. Other activist communities involving young people exist as more formal youth-run organizations, or even as corporate or government-sanctioned spinoffs of adult-run organizations designed for youth participation. As Fox (2000) and others indicate, every such movement, coalition, and network offers a different version of activism, varying in ideologies, tactics, political cultures, and internal cohesion.

While theorists of globalization have often focused on people of all ages experiencing globalization-either experiencing the networks of moving objects, ideas, and people central to globalization, orexperiencing the inequalities undergirding it- young activists in transnational political movements are self-consciously analyzing and redirecting globalization as well. For example, ISMers explicitly analyze the occupation as a phenomenon created through transnational processes, and thus best solved through orchestrated transnational action. Accordingly, they pursue self-consciously transnational activist tactics, creating networks for transporting ideas, people, and activist activity between nations and figuring out how to accomplish the goal of ending the occupation through the use of these transnational networks. ISM activists are thus not only using the analytic, communication and travel networks made possible by globalization-they also are actively conceptualizing and creating networks for solving social problems within a globalizing world system. By coming to analyze and address the occupation transnationally as a shared social problem, ISMers are capitalizing upon a "think globally, act globally" mentality of globalization, rather than promoting the insular ethnocentrisms that are also often a response to globalization.

Of course, in hoping that their citizenship will halt Israeli soldier or settler violence, ISMers also prove that the notion of globalization should not imply the demise of the concept or the reality of nations. Indeed, transnational political activism is often actually built upon "fundamentally national social and civic organizations" (Fox 2000, 1). ISMers join, as U.S. citizens or British citizens or Swedes, a community of internationals who, as one activist put it, have "passports as their weapons." In critiquing the Israeli occupation, further, ISMers are also calling de facto for Palestinian national self-determination. Still, while utilizing the notion of nation to empower both themselves and (they hope) Palestinians, ISMers frame their activism self-consciously as global-not just because they are linking transnational actors, but also because they are claiming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a world responsibility. As Huwaida Arraf put it explicitly, "internationals can help globalize our struggle-we believe it's a global one...Internationals are coming to link arms with us and say 'it's a global struggle for peace and justice, and everyone who believes in peace and justice can join.'"

That ISM internationals transport themselves physically to place themselves in front of bulldozers and tanks suggests a level of political commitment dwarfing that of young people who write letters or raise money or march at home to solve social problems at home or abroad. But of course, the young Americans and Europeans who dominate ISM's ranks are also perhaps disproportionately endowed with the travel funds and mobility to conduct spectacular transnational campaigns that, like the ISM, require temporary physical movement. Young Westerners (a term used interchangeably with "internationals" by some ISMers explaining the movement) are also far more likely than their peers worldwide to be connected to the Internet, even while Palestinian-founded movements like ISM and "The Electronic Intifada" (in which Palestinians report on life under occupation from web-linked sites in the Territories) demonstrate that the Internet is by no means a medium utilized only by the economically privileged (El Fassed 2003). Finally, young Americans (like Rachel Corrie herself) are perhaps disproportionately more able than youth elsewhere to be seen conducting transnational activism--that is, to play spectacular roles that go publicly recognized in the West. While political ideas about transnational responsibility for social problems might flow multidirectionally to and from the West (as stressed in ISM presentations, the original idea for ISM emanated from Palestine), ISM members' continuous struggle to publicize ongoing Palestinian nonviolent activism rather than just their own indicates that the political power to be seen coordinating transnationally to solve a social problem is often not equally distributed. Further, as I discuss elsewhere, ISMers' struggles to follow Palestinian leadership during activist activities in Palestine-regarding issues as basic as who should be "in front" during direct actions, or who should suggest such actions in the first place-raises the key question of when and whether more global activism by the privileged actually serves those who must remain local.


The phenomenon of international young people wielding their privilege to challenge the occupation through nonviolent activism in Palestine is a striking demonstration of these activists' analysis of transnational responsibility-and sense of personal power. Globalization research focused on youth tends to view them as particularly disempowered by transnational flows; scholars have suggested that with the international circulation of images of consumables comes a clash of "possible worlds" (Appadurai 1991) for young people, who drown in a sea of desires for impossible lives or flail as sudden "nobodies" in a global system that erodes local systems of meaning (Leichty 1995, Fong 2004). In the case of youth political networks, however, globalization can mean the global connection of young people committed to an ideology of social equality-and this kind of globalization may be leading youth instead to the sense of actually being "somebody" able to change the course of world events.

Whatever one thinks of young American ISMers' actions or intentions-and whether or not one believes their efforts to act in nonviolent solidarity with Palestinians serve well the Palestinian cause-in a world in which violence has often seemed the most common strategy for conducting international relations, and in which members of more powerful nations often seek unabashedly to dominate those less powerful, young activists struggling to collaborate horizontally across national borders to solve problems of social inequality nonviolently are striking. The violent treatment of nonviolent youth in this crisis-countless murdered young Palestinians, young Israeli civilian victims of suicide bombings, ISM members themselves, and even high school Israeli "refusniks" imprisoned for refusing to serve in the occupation-makes this youthful commitment to nonviolence all the more poignant. What these young activists themselves want and would have wanted, it seems, is that violent harm befalling nonviolent activists of all national origins will galvanize public outrage against violence in a new way.


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