By Sean Meleady and Callum James

CN: death, violence, antisemitism, Islamophobia, colonialism, racism, ethnic cleansing

Norwich, like many cities and towns across Britain, has seen a number of Palestinian solidarity protests in recent weeks. These protests came in the wake of the latest series of aerial bombardments between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza, which resulted in the deaths of 256 Palestinians and 12 Israelis, according to UN figures. The spark for this recent escalation of violence occurred when an Israeli court greenlit eviction proceedings of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, and subsequent peaceful protests were brutally repressed, culminating in attacks by Israeli police on the holy site of Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, which elicited international condemnation.

More than 100 people gathered on Saturday 15 May for a rally outside The Forum, in Norwich, that coincided with a ‘Kill the Bill’ protest. This was followed up a week later with another rally outside Norwich City Hall and a march through the City Centre on Saturday 29 May. Across Norfolk, there was also a vigil for Palestine in Cromer on Saturday 15 May and a protest in Great Yarmouth a week later outside the constituency office of Conservative MP Brandon Lewis.

Palestinian Solidarity in Norwich has several different manifestations. These include the Norwich Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), who have been active in the city for around 20 years and are affiliated to the national PSC, alongside its youth branch, Young Norwich PSC, and the newly formed UEA Palestinian Solidarity Society. The latter group describes itself as ‘dedicated to mak[ing] ‘our Palestinian peers feel welcome on campus’ and ‘providing a safe space for everyone … wanting to come together to support the Palestinian cause in its entirety’.

A Palestinian flag flies high outside The Forum, Norwich City Centre. Credit: Norwich PSC

Jacob Ecclestone, Secretary of Norwich PSC, noted that the recent protests in the city showed that “a lot of people were concerned”. He is also encouraged by the recent formation of the UEA Palestinian Solidarity Society and reflected that his own group were open to developing links:

“There now seems to be quite a few students at UEA … trying to organise for themselves, which is marvellous. We want to be supportive and provide what they might need. It’s not for us to interfere or supervise; it’s up to the students themselves.” 

Serene Shibli, President of the UEA Palestinian Solidarity Society, explained that the launch of the group, which already has over 700 followers on Instagram, was inspired by a lone individual who approached her at the first Palestine Solidarity protest in Norwich, on 15 May, mentioning that a friend was interested in setting up such a society. From there, they moved quickly, realising they only had a matter of days before the final Union Council meeting of the year. They succeeded in gathering an incredible 188 signatures in support of establishing the society over the course of that weekend, and shaped the core of their committee. Shibli, who spoke of struggling to get people to speak to her about Palestine previously, was “overwhelmed” by the “amazing outpouring of support” and particularly struck by the number of “first years” and students who “hadn’t been on a society before” willing to join the committee, suggesting it indicated the SU had been “failing students of colour” and “people that have experienced oppression.”

One of the core campaigns Palestinian solidarity societies across the world, including Norwich PSC, are involved in is the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which encourages companies and institutions to withdraw financial support for Israel. Arguably, this is especially vital in Norwich, with the city’s higher education institutions having heavily invested in companies that are complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. According to a Freedom of Information request, UEA, which will come under renewed pressure for its stance from UEA Palestinian Solidarity Society, has £165,796 invested in AXA and HSBC combined, whilst PSC estimates that Norwich University of the Arts has as much as £582,240 invested in complicit companies. Ecclestone explains that,

“Several members of the committee have been active in trying to persuade local government employees and trustees to withdraw any investments in Israel; in the same way, 50 years ago, people campaigned with the anti-apartheid movement for money to be withdrawn from South African industries.”

Shibli also brings up Apartheid South Africa and speaks of the history of anti-colonial struggle Palestinians and black South Africans share, pointing to the fact that a “giant” statue of Nelson Mandela stands in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank, accompanied by his famous quotation: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” Shibli notes that black civil rights activists in the US, including the likes of Malcolm X and Angela Davis, have “consistently made this comparison” with their own struggle, whilst Palestinians have shown solidarity with US civil rights activists also.

A six-metre high statue of Nelson Mandela in Ramallah, West Bank, gifted by the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2016, seen from beneath. Credit: Wikimedia

As far as Britain is concerned, Ecclestone was heartened by the decision made at the Trades Union Congress last year to declare Israel an ‘Apartheid state’ for the first time:

“Every trade union in Britain affiliated to the TUC supported that motion. Many of those unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, which under its new leadership is extremely pro-Israel.”

Shibli admits to having “given up trying to organise within Labour” and is damning about US President Joe Biden, but Ecclestone believes that the prevailing pro-Israel narrative in the States is gradually shifting:

“There have been several younger, pro-Palestinian people elected to the House of Representatives – Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. Younger people, and in many cases younger Jewish people, are questioning this support that Israel has been given. I don’t think many people could say that Israel’s killing of 50 odd children in the last few weeks is reasonable or proportionate.”

Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (right), pictured alongside fellow member of ‘The Squad’, Ilhan Omar. Credit: Brad Sigal, via Flickr

Shibli identified the recent Israeli aggression as “the first time I think that they couldn’t control the narrative,” due to the sheer volume of “social media footage,” and pointed to the “cracking down on TikTok”, and the bombing of a news tower housing Al-Jazeera and AP journalists, as evidence of the importance of both traditional news media and social media. She insists that Israeli officials publicly calling for a ceasefire, after having “killed top surgeons in Gaza, bombed crop fields and destroyed medicine facilities,” was a cynical attempt to “have the narrative be over,” whilst “they continue to arrest Palestinians in occupied territory, and continue to harass Palestinians in the West Bank.”

Regarding the topic of antisemitism, Ecclestone stresses that Norwich PSC is vehemently opposed to any form of it, particularly after the recent antisemitic attack on Adat Yeshua Messianic Synagogue:

“One of my colleagues put out a statement expressing our deep regret. It’s important to make clear that because we support Palestine that doesn’t indicate in any way hostility to Jewish people.”

Shibli emphasises “want[ing] everyone to feel welcome” in UEA Palestine Solidarity Society and is hurt by the fact that their Equality and Diversity Officer, alongside other Jewish students at UEA who have bravely showed solidarity with the Palestinian liberation clause, has faced a horrific backlash from people questioning their Jewishness. Shibli argues that those who “speak out” risk being the victims of both “Islamophobia and antisemitism”.

She is also highly critical of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, widely adopted across Europe in 2016, for “conflating the terms antisemitic and antizionist” and thus effectively making it “impossible to critique Israel,” whilst dragging Jewish people into a conflict they “disproportionately don’t want to be involved in.” Having been frustrated at the difficulty to get people at UEA to speak with her about this issue over the last couple of years, Shibli has recently met the Vice-Chancellor, David Richardson, to discuss the University’s stance on this. By contrast, Shibli Praises the recently established Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which was formed partially in response to the controversial IHRA definition and has the support of over 200 Jewish scholars, for its “emphasis on [the] context” in which statements are uttered.

“Cultural events, when your culture is being wiped out, in my opinion, is political.”

Both of Norwich’s preeminent Palestinian Solidarity societies place a firm emphasis on cultural events. Ecclestone notes that, despites the difficulties lockdowns and social distancing regulations have posed this year, “Pretty much every month we’ve watched a film about Palestine online and then we’ve had a discussion.”

A UEA Palestinian Solidarity Society Facebook post states that, ‘To be Palestinian extends more than our current political climate’ and celebrates a ‘wonderful culture of music, food, art, traditional clothing and more.’ Nonetheless, Shibli, who is excited to hold cultural events in the coming academic year, clarifies that, “Cultural events, when your culture is being wiped out, in my opinion, is political.” She speaks movingly of witnessing the concerted Israeli effort to “wipe out cultural memories” when returning to Palestine, seeing “burnt olive trees” and people barred from returning to their home villages, which have “names in Arabic, but they’re the Hebrew names transliterated into Arabic, rather than the old Palestinian names.” Shibli compares such practices to the repression of Welsh language and culture by the English and stresses repeatedly that Israel-Palestine “is not a religious conflict” but a struggle, from the Palestinian perspective, against “settler colonialism”.

Whilst Shibli is pessimistic about the prospects of Palestinian liberation within the near future, she speaks passionately about the solidarity shown with Palestine internationally, especially by people in countries that have a history of anti-colonial struggle, from Sudan to Ireland. Within the university, she is excited to work alongside Kashmiri Society, Nepalese Society and other societies for oppressed communities engaged in “anti-colonial struggles”. Norwich at large clearly has a strong Palestinian solidarity movement for a relatively small city, with the movement perhaps as large and diverse as it’s ever been. The prospect of a new generation of younger activists working alongside established local groups to mobilise for change is a spiriting one for all those in Norfolk and beyond who care about the Palestinian cause. Rarely has the injunction Shibli references, “Think globally, act locally,” had such undeniable force as a moral imperative.

Featured image courtesy of Norwich Palestine Solidarity Campaign

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