Victoria Brittain: Welcome Remarks

From the archive (legacy material)

Victoria Brittain | Resisting Israeli Apartheid conference | 5 December 2004

[Note: French translation available here.]
Welcome to all, especially those who have come from far – Lawrence Davidson and John Docker from the US and Australia, Ilan Pappe, well known to us all here now from his frequent visits, Ur Shlonsky from Switzerland, and most especially, to Palestinians Lisa Taraki – an intellectual guide to us outsiders on the academic boycott, and Omar Barghouti – a prolific and important writer, as many of you will know from his words.
We are brought together by a wide coalition of organisations, congratulations to the organisers for getting such a coalition together, nothing is more important in solidarity work.
It is good to be in an academic institution for this meeting.
The recent news of the four Gaza students forcibly expelled to Gaza, and with their academic work thus undermined, is just one symbol of how education is in the forefront of the destructive policies of the Israelis.
Also, this is a time for intellectuals everywhere to be showing leadership qualities, when politics across the world are so devalued, and people disillusioned and tempted into apathy. I am of course not only speaking about the United States, but also about our leaders in Europe, and particularly in the UK. On the issue of the future of Palestine, in particular, such intellectual leadership is crucial, given how the political leadership in the OPT has become so pressured by the US support for illegal Israeli aggression on so many fronts, and its profile has been deliberately confused by the meddling of outsiders in Palestinian leadership questions.
The importance of an academic and cultural boycott as part of a strategy of isolating Israel by divestments and other boycotts will be discussed in detail in the session after the keynote speech by the poet and academic, Tom Paulin.
Two years ago the Palestine Solidarity Campaign held a conference on sanctions and divestment, in which we drew some parallels with the strategies of struggle which freed South Africa from apartheid.
The first speaker was an old freedom fighter, Ronnie Kasrils, then Minister of Water and Forestry, now Security Minister. He came to the conference because it was a solidarity conference and as he said, when I called him to ask him – we can’t refuse the same solidarity you all gave us.
I want to read a little from his speech: “We in South Africa know about racial oppression. We fought it and defeated it because it was unjust…”
He went on to quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu as saying that the violence of the apartheid regime, as inhuman as it was, “was a picnic” in comparison with the utter brutality of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
And how much worse have things got in the two years since he spoke.
Minister Kasrils also talked of how much grass roots campaigns had isolated the apartheid regime: “politically, economically, diplomatically, socially, culturally and militarily.”
Conferences like this one are really important in these campaigns – as we know from the history of the ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
At times when things looked extremely bleak, international meetings of AAM people from around the world encouraged everyone enormously. We learned a lot from each other. But the key was always that we learned from those who came from the frontline – those like our guests today from Palestinian and Israeli universities.
But there is a lot of work ahead of us to emulate what was done to help change South Africa. Though, as Ronnie Kasrils said, “South Africa is an example of what is possible”.
Many of you may not know how very, very sharp was the struggle for South Africa’s freedom. Ten years after majority rule it is easy to forget that just a very few years before that we in the anti-apartheid movement were deeply absorbed in battles over perception, over media bias, over western government indifference and downright lying, which mirror exactly what the solidarity movement is doing for Palestine today.
But just a few years BEFORE that, it was hard not to be discouraged at what seemed to be an immoveable situation. 
To give you just a flavour of the atmosphere: The 1987 Harare conference on Children, Repression and the Law in apartheid South Africa brought together the great exiled ANC leaders with the children who were targets of the apartheid regime’s attempt to break the spirit of resistance. Most of the young leaders in the internal structures of resistance, the United Democratic Front, had never met   Oliver Tambo, Thomas Nkobi, Jonny Makatini, and so many others. I wrote at the time of how that generation had carried the burden of two decades of leadership from exile. “These were the people who, in the early 1960s when all seemed lost and the organisation smashed, had inspired the Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella’s famous speech to all Africa, “let us die a little for the liberation of South Africa.” Sacrifice was a norm, and the next generation made it one too.
It was only   three years before that historic meeting, in 1984, that one of the AAM pamphlets quoted the British Foreign Office minister, Malcolm Rifkind, saying in the House of Commons that, “the South African courts have a healthy reputation for independence”, just after the arrest of the entire leadership of the newly formed UDF. The pamphlet spelt out the practices of torture, of lengthy detention of state witnesses, and the entire coercive state mechanisms, which made such a statement from a man in a leadership position utterly shocking, and exposed the real collusion of those in power with the status quo. This   is of course why today people like us have no alternative to taking the responsibility of speaking and acting as we are for Palestinians.
South African history in those hard years was of course moving faster than any of us knew or could have imagined. The same will be true for Palestine.
We never know when the tide is turning, but meetings like this can be key moments.