A “revolutionary thrill that will soon pass”?

This sentence is taken from Sophia Aram’s April 29 column on France Inter, “De la Seine à Science-Po” (“From the Seine to Science Po”, in reference to the much-criticised slogan “From the River to the Sea”*). This column is just one example of the wave of editorials, speeches, articles, etc. criticising, or even mocking, as in this case, the French students (but not only, as the movement was born in the United States several months ago) who have mobilised in recent weeks in support to the Palestinian population, victims of a massacre perpetrated by the Israeli government following the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023 (mobilisations had already been taking place since October, and for years in fact, in support of the Palestinian people, but took on a different dimension in France since the blockade of Sciences Po Paris by students at the end of April, and of other campuses thereafter).

Reactions go beyond criticism in the media and on social media, with the President of the Île-de-France region, Valérie Pécresse, announcing the suspension of her subsidies to Sciences Po. Various arguments are used to discredit the mobilisations: the use of slogans without linking them to their context*, the use of red hands – common in demonstrations, particularly environmental ones – to refer to the blood on the hands of criminals (the students were accused of referring to the Ramallah massacre in 2000, when two Israeli soldiers were killed and one of the murderers brandished his bloody hands; which they immediately denied). All this serves to make them look back on their youth or their privileged status, to discredit them, as Sophia Aram put it in her column: “whose fight for Palestine is much more recent than their fight against acne” (“dont le combat pour la Palestine est beaucoup plus récent que celui qu’ils mènent contre l’acné”, free translation).

These various arguments are far from addressing the substance of this action, which is simply the action of young people aware of human rights and wishing to act at their own level, with their own means, to bring change in the institutions that still support, or fail to condemn, the Israeli government’s policies and the crimes and human rights violations it commits.

Finally, the issue of political instrumentalisation is also raised, with the open support of the French political party, the France Insoumise, and the presence of its representatives at protests and blockades. This criticism is understandable, but should not be used as an argument to undermine the sincerity of human rights activists, who did not necessarily seek or desire this political affiliation.

The media’s treatment of the Palestinian question also reveals a problem of freedom of expression on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in our society more generally. Indeed, it seems difficult to criticise the policy of the Israeli government without being accused of antisemitism, or even of apology of terrorism. Mathilde Panot and Rima Hassan (LFI) are examples of these defamatory accusations, having been questioned by the police for “apology of terrorism” on April 30, after their comments linked to this conflict. Beyond their unwillingness to listen to the humanist demands of these movements, these intimidation lawsuits (SLAPP suits) threaten freedom of expression and jeopardise the rule of law in our democratic societies.

What about other issues? 

When groups of activists make noise about one issue rather than another, they are often told “what about [another cause]”; “we haven’t heard from you on that one”, etc., no matter what we are fighting for. In her column, Sophia Aram goes so far as to speak of the “indecency of their brilliant selective indignation”. 

It is important, especially for us in GROW, to take an intersectional stance and not focus on one struggle or group and forget about the others. But we are only humans, with our own limits and shortcomings. 

Everyone starts somewhere in their activism. Everyone has their own sensitivities. Some may be more committed to what is happening in Ukraine, others to the Iranian women, or the Yemeni, others to environmental issues, others to mental health, and one issue can be a gateway to another. All these causes are noble, and it would be cruel to discredit the fight for one of them, under the pretext of having spoken less about another. It is simply impossible to be an expert in everything, and above all to have enough energy (and time) to fight on a daily basis for the multiplicity of conflicts, injustices and misfortunes underway in the world (there were more than 15 conflicts in 2023, according to the UN).

The question of Palestine is central and galvanises so many people, because it crosses so many subjects, that resonate deeply with many. Many have been made aware of human rights through the Palestinian question. Colonialism, international justice, the functioning and (im)power of international institutions, Western influence, Islamophobia, the protection of civilians, children’s rights, women’s rights, refugee rights, access to information, freedom of movement, the right of peoples to self-determination, and the more technical issues of apartheid and genocide – these are just some of the issues that emerge from a study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and which make this question, more than any other, cause a reaction. And quite simply, the astronomical figures – over 30,000 dead since October, most of them civilians, incomparable to other contexts – mean that it may just be impossible to act as if nothing had happened, as if it was only a proportionate attack, a retaliation, or a simple right to defence. Children have been dying every day for months, and the Israeli government has not lost its support. There are no longer any universities in Gaza. All these facts explain and justify the students’ movement.

At a time when the far right is so powerful, when autocracies are multiplying and continuing to mistreat their populations, their minorities, to limit the prospects of their youth, you should be proud that this generation is not sitting idly by. Proud that this generation is mobilising, that it is not capable of studying international relations, political science, philosophy, and all the values they are taught in these courses, with, a few hundred kilometres away from the university lecture halls, the very opposite of these theories is taking place. Personally, I take pride in identifying with this youth.

*Background to the slogan “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free”: This slogan has been criticised for calling for the destruction of the State of Israel (calling for the creation of a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea). Yet, 

The slogan was born of the demands of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which, from its formation in 1964, had called for the creation of a single state stretching from the Mediterranean (“the sea”) to the Jordan (“the river”), the river that marks the eastern border between Jordan and Israel – but also partly between Jordan and the West Bank. A geographical area that would encompass the territory of Palestine as it existed prior to the UN resolution of 1947, dividing it into two states (one Arab, the other Jewish).” (Quelle est l’origine du slogan polémique « From the river to the sea » utilisé par les soutiens de la Palestine ?, Libération, free translation)

This slogan is chanted by activists as a tribute to the idea of a possible union, but above all to call for an end to the discrimination perpetrated against the Palestinian people. 

To go further…

(In French)

Entretien avec Rony Brauman sur Arrêt sur image, « Rony Brauman, face aux arguments d’Israël ».

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