Mainly Old and Familiar

Preaching To The Converted

No one will be shocked to learn that the jury—and I use the word advisedly—of the fourth session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which convened this weekend in New York, found the U.S. complicit in Israeli war crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This was the hardly-breaking news that came out of deliberations where some of Israel's harshest critics gathered for a sold out two days of cataloguing Israel's alleged violations of international (and Israeli) law. A six-page draft of the executive summary of the Tribunal, released at a press conference Monday, declared that:

Israel's ongoing colonial settlement expansion, its racial separatist policies, as well its violence militarism, would not be possible without the U.S.'s economic, military, and diplomatic aid.

It's all the usual left-wing buzzwords, fodder for those already engaged in the issue. And it's exactly why the Tribunal, particularly focused on the U.S., will fall short of its goals of bringing wider attention to the conflict. This was not a debate; the "jury" was stacked; the self-righteousness seemed matched by only the self-congratulatory nature of concisely reiterating rote criticisms of Israel and its behavior.

"We have to transmit a message that will go beyond New York, to the world," said the jury member Stephane Hessel, a former French diplomat and the only surviving drafter of the U.N.'s universal declaration of human rights, at a press conference on the findings Monday near the U.N. headquarters. The message, however, seems to have extended not very far beyond the left-wing universe that centered on Cooper Union over the weekend. A quick scan of news items shows no coverage in major American outlets (a search of the New York Times for the "Russell Tribunal" kicked out a list of articles from the 1960s focusing on the original Tribunal on war crimes in Vietnam).

Seemingly aware that mainstream media would blackout the proceedings, one of the stars of the jury, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, said, "We need this thing to go viral through social networking and other things young people can help us with." And young the jurors were not, many with roots in the old left—in every sense of the phrase. There's nothing wrong with that; it's partly a function of the Tribunal's ties to its first incarnation over Vietnam. But if aged, left-wing gravitas is what organizers were going for, they should have left out the thoroughly discredited former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who spent her only time at the podium yelling a response to a question from a grad student about Palestinian leadership.

Though overstated, many of the tribunals findings hold some water. Occupation does deny Palestinians self-determination. Settlements do violate the Geneva Conventions. And the Israeli occupation does disproportionately consume Palestine's resources. But the overstatement is particularly the problem.

"Our function is to attempt to put it on the agenda," said Michael Mansfield, a long-time human rights lawyer, at the Monday presser. "The Russell Tribunal will give us the opportunity to convince... people in this country." As a Brit, perhaps Mansfield can be forgiven for not understanding how fraught this issue is the United States and that a panel of ideological left-wingers speaking from downtown New York may not be the best way to inform the American public about Israeli transgressions against Palestinians.

After the panel, Mansfield admitted to me that he didn't know much about pushing the issue on the American scene, but that the Tribunal had leveraged social networks in Europe to garner attention. I asked if he felt that most of the crowd this weekend and at the press conference were already on the side of the Palestinians. "It obviously is preaching to the converted a bit," he said.