The Underestimated Power of Grassroots Movements: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Beyond

Tuesday, February 12, 2019
Israeli and Palestinian women march together as part of an event organized by "Women Wage Peace," group calling for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, near the Jordan River. October 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Suhad Babaa

Executive Director, Just Vision

Maria J. Stephan

Director of the Program on Nonviolent Action, United States Institute of Peace

Jamille Bigio

Senior Fellow, Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations

As the U.S. government, United Nations, and others look for a way out of the current impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the Donald J. Trump administration prepares to launch its Middle East peace plan, Just Vision’s Suhad Babaa and USIP’s Maria J. Stephan reflect on the potential of grassroots movements to shift the political dynamics that have stalled previous peace efforts. 


BIGIO: Thank you, everyone. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Jamille Bigio. I’m a senior fellow with the Women and Foreign Policy Program here. Our program has worked with leading scholars for more than fifteen years to analyze how elevating the status of women and girls advances U.S. foreign-policy interests.

I’m going to take a moment before we begin to thank the Compton Foundation for its generous support of today’s discussion. And I also want to remind everyone that the presentation, discussion, and question-and-answer period will be on the record.

Today we’re exploring the underestimated potential of grassroots movements to shift the political dynamics that have stalled peace efforts around the world. It’s an opportunity we can ill afford to ignore for our hopes for success from the current peace talks in Afghanistan and Yemen to the search for ways to break the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

We also have seen from history the potential of grassroots movements to drive social, political, and economic change. In fact, nonviolent movements are nearly twice as successful as violent ones at achieving their objectives. And around the world, from Liberia to the Palestinian territories to here in the United States, women have overcome social and economic inequalities to assume leading roles in these nonviolent campaigns and have been central to their success.

Now, to explore these issues, we are lucky to be joined today by Suhad Babaa, the executive director of Just Vision, an organization dedicated to increasing the power and reach of Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. She’s also the executive producer of the acclaimed feature-length documentary Naila and the Uprising, which we’ll see a clip of today.

We’re also lucky to be joined by Maria Stephan, director of the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace and an expert on the role of nonviolent movements in transforming violent conflict and advancing just peace.

We’re going to start today’s discussion hearing directly from the leaders of some of these grassroots movements, both through a new PBS series focused on the role of women in peace and security as well as through exclusive footage from Naila and the Uprising, which chronicles women’s participation in the most vibrant nonviolent mobilization in Palestinian history, the first intifada.

Suhad has been intimately involved in both of these efforts and is going to provide a few more remarks to help us understand the significance of these films before we view the clips.

BABAA: Fantastic. So, first of all, just thank you all for being here. It’s a tremendous honor. I know that there’s a lot of expertise in this room, folks who have been working in the trenches across every level, whether at the grassroots, policy-wise, across the globe and locally. And so I’m looking forward to hearing from you all and to engaging in this conversation.

And Jamille, thank you so much, the Council on Foreign Relations, for having us today. It’s a tremendous honor again.

Just as a little bit of background, the first clip you’re about to see is actually the trailer from the Women, War and Peace II series. This s a series that was produced by Abigail Disney’s team at Fork Films, together with WNET 13, PBS. And our team at Just Vision is incredibly moved to be part of the Women, War and Peace II series, which will be airing in March 2019 for Women’s History Month across the nation.

It means a lot to a couple of things; one, celebrating and recognizing the contributions of these women leaders across contexts, across time. And while women have played such a significant role in some of the greatest social transformations of our time and history, we often know that their work is invisible. So celebrating and honoring them is incredibly important.

It also means a great deal to ensure that Palestinian and Israeli women who are part of that canon are included in the conversation. And so it’s meaningful to have Naila and the Uprising be part of that series.

And without further ado, I just want to share a short clip from that.

(A video presentation was shown.)

BABAA: And the second clip you’re about to see is from Naila and the Uprising itself. To take a step back, Just Vision, the team I’m with, has been working in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories for about fifteen years. About six years ago, after hearing from many of the Israeli and Palestinian activists and organizers we’ve been working with, we began to research the first intifada, which, for some of you in this room, I know, including Maria Stephan next to me, has been someone who’s studied this period intensively in Palestinian history.

For academics and scholars, it’s well known that the first intifada was an iconic period of Palestinian-led nonviolent mobilization that was composed of marches and strikes, sit-ins, some of the very same strategies and tactics that we see in civil-disobedience campaigns across the globe.

But for many of us who may have lived during that time or have seen images from that time, the dominant images that come to mind are stone throwing, Molotov cocktails, and military incursions. And one of the things that we wanted to do was actually uncover the nonviolent components of that campaign that largely went missing from what was accessible to mainstream and everyday audiences.

Now, that was a very intensive research process—it took us about eighteen months—where we interviewed, on one hand, leaders that were in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO, and exiled during that time, as well as the underground leadership that was locally responsible for the organizing efforts, as well as an analysis of how Israeli journalists and mainstream media at the time were covering those efforts and what may have been missed.

And one of the things that came out of that research that even surprised us, we knew that women were participants of the movement by and large because of the fact that the first intifada was in many ways as successful as it was due to the diversity of the movement itself, cutting across gender, class, political parties, age, and so on.

What we hadn’t realized until those interviews and diving deeper into the research was that women were actually part of the decision-making processes of the leadership itself. And when we knew and came across that, that was a story we realized we had to tell, both for the importance of bringing lights—to light the role that women have played in nonviolent movements; not only are nonviolence more likely to succeed in shifting dynamics on the ground across the globe. It’s for resistance movements.

We also know that women’s involvement has a key role to play in whether or not those movements sustain nonviolent methods and strategies. And actually, one of the key indicators of whether a movement maintains nonviolence is its ethos toward women in public life. And that felt to be an incredibly relevant story to tell, both in the region, as we see a backsliding of rights across the region, but also as women’s rights and women’s issues are on the table across the globe. And we’re seeing that systematically and universally taking place.

And so that’s the story that we set out to tell. You’re going to see a clip of that. Part of this clip is really diving into strategies and tactics and giving you a sense of what that looked like in all of its various forms. And the hope here is really to, on one hand, again, celebrate and recognize the role that Palestinian women played in these efforts, and on the other hand, make sure that we’re pulling out the lessons learned for today’s rising generation.

(A video presentation was shown.)

BIGIO: Well, thank you, Suhad; and incredibly powerful to see the stories that will be aired, both through the PBS series looking at Egypt, Bangladesh, Palestinian territories, and Northern Ireland, and to have a chance to understand how the Palestinian story fits within that.

We just saw some of the tactics that women used to build a peace movement. And I wonder if you could reflect on what women-led organizing looks like today in the region and how that relates to the experiences surrounding the first intifada and the influence of the Oslo accords.

BABAA: Absolutely. So to take a step back, I think it’s important to kind of contextualize what happened thirty years ago. Part of our desire to go back in time was twofold. On one hand, we wanted to make sure that the lessons, both the successes and the shortcomings of the movement, were lifted up for today’s rising generation while the veteran leaders of that time were alive to tell their stories first-hand.

On the second front, we knew that the first intifada is a legacy of what continues on today in Israel and occupied Palestinian territories with ongoing organizing efforts, and really deep questions that communities are facing and grappling with that are different but also very familiar to those that we were looking at during the first intifada.

You didn’t see this in this clip, but one of the pieces that drove the women during the Palestinian uprising was the common refrain that came up through the interview—throughout the interviews, which was that they were not going to be running a national liberation struggle without ensuring that gender and women were being put on the map in equal weight to men.

One woman actually says, you know, I wouldn’t do this if I knew that, at the end of the day, after our societies are formed and freedom is reached or a state is established, that I would be under the thumb of men in my society. And that kind of intersectional approach to the movement, I think, was critically important during the Palestinian uprising and helped it be as inclusive and pluralistic as it was to ultimately achieve some goals and some ends that were meaningful that we need to be able to lift up.

One, you know, Palestinians—the first intifada effective in being able to put Palestinian self-determination on the map for the first time. Up until that point, the main plan that was on the table was the Jordanian absorption plan, where Palestinians would be essentially absorbed in the Jordanian government, which today constitutes ethnic cleansing, right, and is considered a fairly fringe policy that only your most conservative hawks are looking at today in the region, and mainstream this idea of Palestinian self-determination and statehood.

The other piece that was really critically important was the rise of Israeli civil society. So part of the aim of any nonviolent movement is to gain support from allies and actors across the board that share similar sets of values and to raise awareness around these issues.

During the first intifada, you actually see the rise of some of your most prominent Israeli human-rights organizations, which that’s B’Tselem or Women in Black or the Israeli Committee Against Torture, and so on, that become key anchors in civil society and continue organizing today.

This is also the rise of the Shalom Achshav peace movements and many of the Israeli women that you didn’t see in this clip that also participated in organizing efforts underground were key players in helping get Palestinian women out of jail when they were imprisoned for doing no more than passing out leaflets that were calling for marches, when their children were ill and they were in administrative detention and couldn’t take care of their children. And so there was some really deep solidarity and strategic organizing that was also happening across lines, and that work continues today.

Now, at the same time, when we talk about some of the shortcomings, the first intifada was successful in gaining international and Israeli recognition of Palestinians for the first time. And it led to the Washington and Madrid talks that were taking place with the local leadership of the Palestinians and making progress under President Bush Sr. at the time. And Oslo was taking place in secret back channels, as many of you know.

One of the things that ended up happening in the emergence of Oslo, with the PLO launching the secret talks with Israeli officials, is that they actually cut out the grassroots leadership that were involved in the Madrid and Washington talks. And in cutting out the grassroots leadership, they also cut out the very women who were core to the movement and the uprising that were involved in the Madrid and Washington, D.C. talks.

And so one of the things that we hope that this film does, in addition to inspiring what’s potential in people-led movements, and what’s the importance of including women not only in rank and file but also in the decision-making processes, is understanding that when these movements succeed in generating enough pressure for political actors to start behaving differently, that it’s critically important to have the grassroots and women at the table as part of that.

And I didn’t even get to the today part. (Laughter.)

BIGIO: Let’s come to that, but just with the historical frame. I think Maria can come in well here, given your research of what lessons there are on the potential of civil-resistance movements, like what we’ve just seen in these clips, to create space and momentum for peace processes.

STEPHAN: Sure. Well, first, thanks, Jamille, again, and CFR, for hosting this event. And congratulations to Suhad, Emma, Just Vision, for a remarkable film. I’m so happy that it’s going to be shown on PBS for millions of viewers. So that’s exciting.

What I especially love about the film is that it really does show all of the different aspects of women’s participation in mobilizing a broad-based coalition, kind of doing the behind-the-scenes organizing, and to dig into generating pressure that did not exist before to kind of launch into a peace process.

And I think that’s one thing that we know historically about successful civil-resistance struggles is that, you know, they succeed largely by attracting large, broad-based, diverse participation. And when large numbers of people across society engage in organized noncooperation protests, that generates into significant pressure and power.

The reason why nonviolent resistance has historically been twice as effective as armed struggle is that they tend to attract 11 times the level of participants as the average violent campaign. And so when you think historically to all the maybe people-power campaigns that come to mind—the anti-apartheid struggle, the movement against Marcos in the Philippines, Polish solidarity movement, you know, more recently what happened in Serbia and the Gambia; we’re seeing protests today in Sudan, Venezuela—you’re seeing large mass mobilization and noncooperation from the status quo that just shifts power dynamics.

And I think, to answer the question of kind of how people power relates to peace processes, which is something that we focus on a lot at the U.S. Institute of Peace, is really having to do with this question of power asymmetries. A lot of conflicts around the world are prolonged, sustained, because you have just fundamental power asymmetries at play. And the question becomes how do you kind of level the playing field such that negotiations are going to lead to meaningful settlements?

So how do you shift power in these conflicts? And I think this is where, you know, kind of the organized mass-movement escalation of the conflict in many ways can get to the point where you can have a meaningful conversation about the de-escalation and the resolution of the conflict.

And so it’s this interesting kind of dynamic where we’re talking about nonviolent approaches across the board—negotiations, facilitation, mediation; everything that we commonly associate as well with the peace process in Israel-Palestine, with Oslo, but the whole idea of what gets to negotiations in the first place when you have these power asymmetries, and then what allows you to maintain momentum over time.

A lot of the research that has been done on the kind of civil-resistance peace-building nexus, some of which has been funded by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict—I see Peter Ackerman here—have been looking at how communities have mobilized, both in challenging dictatorships and getting to negotiated, like, peaceful transitions.

I think Tunisia, for example, is kind of a classic case where, you know, a mass movement led by labor unions, professional unions, civil-rights groups, organizations, came together, kind of generated pressure for dialogue, negotiations. Then you had a national dialogue quartet that kind of was in a position to, you know, negotiate the roadmap, the settlement, all while the pressure of the mobilization was still there; so the potential of the unions and others. So it kind of helped to bring about the transition in that country.

The Liberia mass movement led by women, Muslim and Christian women, which was then chronicled in a very well-known film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, is a classic case where, fourteen years into civil war in Liberia in 2003, a coalition of women—Muslim, Christian—came together and said enough is enough; we need to pressure all sides of this conflict; so pressured the Charles Taylor government and the rebels to first get to the peace table, so to first agree to have talks, and then literally they surrounded where the negotiations were happening and said we refuse to leave until there’s a resolution.

So the pressure, the power—like, there were sex boycotts during that campaign; all the classic kind of tactics that sometimes women are more uniquely positioned, let’s say, to participate in—were present there.

And so I think just this idea of you need sometimes the pressure, the escalation, to get to the point where you can have the kind of meaningful dialogues to get to resolution is where the civil resistance and peace building come together.

BIGIO: So let’s come back to today. What role do we see for grassroots movements in Israel-Palestinian process today? And where are women within that, as well?

BABAA: So there’s a couple of ways to look at the question. One is what’s actually happening on the ground today. And our team at Just Vision—by a show of hands, has anyone seen the film Budrus in this room? OK, great. So we have some folks in this room that have.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Budrus is one of our documentaries that documents the story of one Palestinian village called Budrus, which is today in the occupied West Bank. And in 2003, when the Israeli government announced its plans to build a separation barrier through its lands, it would have cut through the cemetery, just past the girls’ school, and confiscated the agricultural lands of the community, which would have essentially led to the destruction of the community. It’s an agricultural community.

The community decides to wage a nonviolent campaign where they work very closely with Israeli allies and international allies in a concerted ten-month daily actionable protest that is successful in generating enough pressure to force the Israeli government to change the route of the separation barrier. They essentially win.

Now, this is the height of the second intifada, and the dominant stories that we’re seeing in our headlines are about suicide bombs. And there’s nothing that’s being stated about what’s happening in Budrus. And so Budrus was really our effort to correct that narrative, correct that omission that we saw as incredibly important. If we only knew that that kind of nonviolent mobilization was taking place, could it inspire others? Could it actually change the dynamics on the ground at the time?

Now, what was really important in Budrus is there was a women’s contingent that formed. For those of you who have seen the film, you might remember the fifteen-year-old Iltizam Morar, who one day goes to her father, Ayed Morar, who’s the main community organizer around the effort, and says, Baba, why are there no women at the frontlines? And he looks at her like a true community organizer and says, well, Iltizam, if you want women to be involved, please organize the women and they will join us. She does that, and it completely changes the dynamics of that movement. The women are actually the first to break through the line of Israeli soldiers in front of the tractors that were uprooting the olive trees and completely changes the dynamics.

In the interviews that we had with her, she was drawing on the legacy of the first intifada. She was drawing on her mother and her aunt’s involvement during the first intifada as inspiration for what was possible for her.

And so you continue to see women playing a very critical role in these campaigns. In Gaza, for those of you who have been following, there have been ongoing marches and protests taking place in Gaza, largely nonviolent, with unarmed protesters at the frontlines. Many of those actions that are taking place are being organized by Palestinian women at the frontlines.

When you’re looking at solidarity protests that are taking place Tel Aviv and in Haifa and in Nazareth, for what’s happening in Gaza, many of the leaders of those movements are also Israeli women. And so we see the role that Israeli and Palestinian women continue to play at the frontlines, and yet we don’t often hear their stories. That’s on women’s involvement.

On nonviolent campaigning, across the region we’re seeing an upsurge of continued nonviolent campaigning, from Hebron to Nablus to Nabi Salih, which are all towns and villages, communities, in the West Bank, Gaza. We’re also seeing ongoing protests in Israel proper—Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Haifa, and the Negev, which is in the south, where many Bedouin communities are.

The question for us is really a question of visibility. Part of our belief at Just Vision is that, in order for these movements to gain traction, people have to be paying attention to them, that, in fact, nonviolent actors and violent actors vie for the same thing, and that’s attention and support. And if we’re able to actually drive our attention to those actors, we provide them with the moral support to sustain their movements, the belief that they have the power to create change, and also changes the power dynamics of political holders who recognize that they have to be paying attention to the constituencies.

And so our goal at Just Vision, recognizing that it’s not sufficient—visibility is not sufficient; there are many strategies and tactics that need to be at play all at the same time—we know that visibility and strategic storytelling, to make sure the role models, the change makers, the real kind of stories that are not being heard in our mainstream media is reaching international audiences. It’s going to be critical in shifting this tide.

BIGIO: Looking beyond Israel and Palestinian territories, we see mass protests happening around the world today and capturing the media attention and the visibility that you spoke of as being critical to supporting their success.

What strikes you, Maria, about what’s happening with these mass protests? And what influence do you see them having?

STEPHAN: Sure. Well, if it feels to you all like there are a lot of protests happening around the world, there are. We are living literally in the most contentious period in human history, so documented there are more protests happening around the world now than at any other time.

My colleague, Erica Chenoweth, kind of collects data on major nonviolent campaigns, and has just kind of found a really large, significant uptick in the number of nonviolent campaigns. Definitely over the past three decades, but especially since the end of the 2010 period there has just been a massive increase in the number of people power movements around the world.

I would note, though, that we have seen, since 2010, a slight decrease in the overall effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns around the world, so it’s something—a dynamic that we’re exploring why. So historically we know compared to the armed struggle and violence, nonviolent resistance is still significantly more effective. Armed struggle has become very, very ineffective around the world.

But yet why is there kind of this dip in the nonviolent effectiveness? And we think it has to with something—with regimes learning from each other how to contain and repress movements. We think like there has been some down sides to all the digital mobilization, so a lot of excitement about digital coming out, mobilizing protests, sometimes before movements have prepared and done all the requisite organizing to sustain the movement but, you know, in terms of where, it’s happening around the world and for various causes. I mean, we have been tracking closely what has been happening in Sudan most recently with kind of unprecedented, dispersed protests challenging the Bashir regime. We have been following what has been happening in Venezuela, kind of very diverse, cross-cutting protests and movements, and I think there is a growing realization that, you know, nonviolent resistance is influential on the world stage. I’m not sure there is always, you know, an appreciation in the policy community for the kind of power of the movements and what it means in terms of advancing, you know, international peace, and security, and how to support these movements. But I think, you know, movements—and when I reflect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what is so kind of nicely portrayed in the film is just the power of movements to disrupt a status quo when people don’t think change is possible, or when there is a hopelessness, when there is a sense that things aren’t moving along. It’s hard to predict the emergence and success of nonviolent movements. That’s one thing that’s hard to do. There’s not a lot of good data for how you know when they are going to emerge and kind of sustain themselves.

We generally know why they succeed but not why they emerge, and I think, you know, there’s just kind of an appreciation that sometimes you need a disruption in these cases and that human agency matters. I mean, there’s a lot of—there’s a rise of global authoritarianism around the world—that’s pretty well documented by Freedom House and others, but there is kind of also a very strong and powerful response. And I think that’s something that kind of we’re seeing around the world, is even in the most closed, repressive environments, you know, ordinary, unarmed civilians are able to find ways to organize, push back, sometimes with remarkably dramatic results.

BIGIO: You mentioned that policymakers underestimate the potential that these movements have and also don’t always understand the ways in which they can engage with these movements. What recommendations do you have for policymakers on that front?

STEPHAN: Nonviolent resistance is a skills-based activity. You can learn how to do it better, and activists can learn from each other, and so one of the most helpful things that policymakers can do is just to facilitate conversations between activist movement leaders, expose themselves to, you know, all the materials that organizations like ICNC, USIP, others around the world have been developing on strategies and tactics of nonviolent resistance, or just like expanding the aperture of the tools and approaches.

I think the amplification of nonviolent resistance in places where it does not always get headlines is incredibly helpful. It just helps to change the conversation about different options, different possibilities, and you know—and I think Israel-Palestine is one clear case where, yeah, darn, I wish there were more emphasis on, you know, the role of citizen mobilizing in Palestine and Israel, and how that could shift the power dynamics, and kind of feed into a negotiation process. I wish that were more of the policy conversation in town.

The amplification, the solidarity through just meeting with them, talking to them, diplomats like talking to activists and kind of non-traditional civic actors in places and, you know, just finding a way to kind of communicate that perspective is already a very helpful starting point.

And I would say, in a policy sense, you know, repression targeting activists is a big problem around the world, and I think part of the reason why there may be kind of a slight dip in the overall efficacy of nonviolent resistance is that regimes are just learning how to do repression more actively, both online and offline, and I think, you know, governments and multilateral organizations have a role to play in mitigating repression, both in their engagement with security forces, diplomatically, you know, through their engagement with other governments. So helping to support an enabling environment for nonviolent mobilizing resistance, I think, is one of the—you know, separate from direct support to activist movements, I think that’s one of the most important things that policymakers can be thinking about and doing.

BIGIO: All right, thank you.

OK, let’s open it up to questions now. If you could raise your placard and introduce yourself and your organization—please, sir.

Q: Yeah, Jim Slattery with Wiley Rein.

I’m curious. Do you see religious institutions and players in the regions where you are working as friend or foe? And how do you engage the religious communities in these areas in a constructive way? Or is it possible?

BABAA: I think when we’re working in an environment and a global environment where oftentimes I think religion has been weaponized, it becomes really important to recognize the cooptation of religion and faith in these movements or by various actors.

At the same time, some of the most important community organizers on the ground today come from religious and faith-based backgrounds, and they hold that very proudly. And it’s those values that drive their organizing today. And so we certainly see that, you know, during the First Intifada, there’s an amazing scene where one march begins at a church and ends at a mosque. And it was really important, when we asked them why they organized that march in that way, they wanted to make sure that it signaled to everyone that this was inclusive and didn’t break down on faith-based lines; that this was about human values, and human rights, and self-determination, and equality. And we continue to see that today for certain.

I think one of the things that becomes increasingly difficult in conflict spaces is that there’s always a power vacuum, and when you have a power vacuum, all kinds of actors that may not have—that have conservative—and conservative isn’t quite the right word, but who have bad intentions are able to seize that power. And so, for example, we’re seeing across the region some extremists emerging in both Israeli and Palestinian society that wouldn’t have been there thirty years ago, right? And that’s something that’s real with ongoing conflict that becomes justification for their agendas. And so being able to decipher between those actors becomes really important.

But I will share that faith-based leaders across the region continue—Jewish, Muslim, Christian—continue to organize on the ground, and they are bound by a shared set of values not based on religious or ethnic baselines.

BIGIO: Maria?

STEPHAN: Yeah, I mean, I think faith-based actors, religious organizations, institutions historically have played a critical role in a number of major nonviolent struggles. I mean, I think the classic cases are probably the role of the Catholic Church in the Polish Solidarity movement, in the ’80s in the Philippines—

Q: Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement here in the United States.

STEPHAN: In the civil rights movement and, you know, a lot of—incidentally to that point, most of the trainings and like strategizing in a nonviolent discipline were happening in church basements, you know, during the civil rights movement. And so there is a lot—I mean, religious leaders tend to afford moral authority and legitimacy to movements: being able to call upon religious text to justify non-cooperation even, so you can draw on various faith traditions to be able to make the case for not obeying with unjust authority, laws, rules, whatever; and I think also, you know, just the participation of religious leadership can offer protection for activists—not always, but churches, mosques, and the like have sometimes for activists provided sanctuary.

So they are kind of different roles, and even from a hierarchy perspective, affording support to activists and movements can just politically make a difference. And so, yes, I think there are a lot of examples of this.

BIGIO: Thank you. Here.

Q: I’m George Saylor with DLA Piper. Thanks to the panel for an excellent presentation.

My question concerns the evolution of the grassroots movements here in the United States on Palestine-Israel and the peace process. In the last decade or so, we’ve seen a number of grassroots organizations emerge that are really informing the debate in a very constructive way. You are seeing a lot of college campuses where kids are talking about equal rights for everyone—Palestinian and Israeli—and not as concerned with borders or citizenship.

And if the panel could comment on that I think it would be very interesting.

BABAA: So Just Vision works across American, Israeli, and Palestinian societies, and I think one of the heartening things to see is that the—there is a deep shift in the discourse and the debate in many of the spaces here in the United States that haven’t historically activated on this issue. University campuses, college campuses have long been at the front lines of that conversation, and there are many teams across the spectrum, so looking at J Street to JVP, T’ruah to U.S. Campaign, Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Arab American Institute that are working in coordination and in complementary efforts to change that conversation over time.

I also think that we’re starting to see political leaders who are looking at this from a more nuanced lens, looking at how do we talk about a rights-based conversation, and that’s still early on. We still have a lot more work to do on that front, but a lot of the grassroots movements that we are seeing in the United States are taking its cues from a changing discourse also in Israel and Palestine. So when we talk to people like Ayed Morar, when you ask him are you looking for a one-state or a two-state configuration, for example, he says, look, I don’t care about the nation-state configuration. What I care about is whether or not my child has equal rights to Jewish Israeli children. And that can look like a number of things.

What I take away from that is that what is fundamentally at the heart of the conversation, increasingly so, is saying this needs to be rights respecting. This has to hold the dignity of all populations. We have to ensure the well-being of all populations, and whatever configuration emerges, if those are foundational to that, then we can have a conversation about how this continues to play out in resolution.

Many students—Jewish, Muslim, Christian students, Palestinian, Israeli students, educators are starting to look at ways of having this conversation, and I think that’s an opportunity here in the United States. I also think that we have to be able to as—you know, going back to this question of what can we do policy-wise, Maria touched on the role that policymakers play in intervening when there are attempts to silence and repress movements.

What we’re seeing is that a lot of the—you know, it’s kind of common practice that Palestinian activists and organizers are being detained, and arrested, and targeted for their activities. That has been long the case. Over the last many years we’ve seen those policies and practices lead out onto Israeli activists and organizers where we are seeing unprecedented laws being passed by the Israeli government to curb dissent within its ranks. And we’re seeing that now encroaching on U.S. soil where speaking about Israel and Palestine has become taboo.

Part of the thing that is really important for Just Vision is through the stories that we tell, whether it’s documentary film, we have a Hebrew language news site called Sikha Mekomit or Local Call, and through the engagements that we have is to actually use these stories as a launching pad to say, look, what can we learn from these movements? How do we think about a rights-based discourse on this issue—and really support the people who are advocating for the very values that we recognize and hold dear. And think many of those in this room would agree with those values of equality, and rights, and freedom for all.


Q: Hello, I’m Alison Brisk, and I’m University of California Santa Barbara, but here in D.C. for a while. And I think I’ve corresponded with a couple of you because I’m a researcher of other regions, other—I’ve, for decades, been looking at women’s movements, indigenous people’s movements, democracy movements, mostly in Latin America but also India, South Africa.

And so I’m thinking comparatively. I agree and coincide with absolutely everything you are saying—that’s fabulous.

On this issue, though, of declining effectiveness and backlash, which is what everybody is asking me—(laughs)—and I’m trying to see what you are seeing, I have two theories I’d like you to entertain. One is that the nature of the issue now is more important so, for example, if you organize an environmental protest you get a lot of visibility, but anything that’s seen as nationalist struggles a little bit more, I think. That’s one—so issue, character.

And the other is scale. I think that grassroots movements are still relatively effective on grassroots issues, and we see the winds locally. But protesting any foreign policy of anyone, and of course, unfortunately, so interwoven with Israel-Palestine, you know, we just don’t get a lot of effectiveness and—I mean here. You can protest until you are blue in the face. Foreign policy is not—doesn’t respond. Anyway, do you have any thoughts?

STEPHAN: Yes, I do. (Laughter.) Thanks for those questions—no, those are great questions.

I mean, I think framing always matters with movements and their effectiveness. On the one hand, I hear you on the framing around environmental movements, and that kind of attracting attention, and at the same time, I think there is such—we’re living in such an intersectional moment that actually connecting causes and injustices is probably a source of empowerment for movements today.

So overly framing might actually be a weakness in certain cases. I think nationalism in general and nationalist movements, maybe not for good causes, are actually on the rise internationally, so kind of far right, far left, nationalist populism I think is, you know, largely contributing to the resurgence of authoritarianism around the world, so I feel nationalism still—and national causes are still a major kind of driver and motivator.

But I think just in general in answering the question, I think how people frame issues, causes, and how they are related to people’s lived experiences and daily lives—so we have Shaazka Beyerle in the room, who does work on anti-corruption movements. Well, in many places around the world, framing it as an anti-corruption movement is not necessarily going to be particularly effective. Framing something as a human rights movement is not necessarily going to be effective. But if you talk about access to water and connecting that to abuse of power and theft of funds, you know, to make it kind of real to people’s daily lived experiences around the world, that tends to, I think, be an effective approach in many places. So that’s a little bit to the framing.

In terms of protesting foreign policy, I mean, you know, streets protests and large gatherings are one tactic out of hundreds—by now thousands—so of nonviolent approaches to bringing about change. I mean, at the end of the day, what changes any policy is pressure coming from different places, and pressures not only derived through the mass protests and the like, but what causes so-called defections or loyalty shifts within any power holder’s key pillars of support. So change happens.

It was a remarkable scene here, actually, around the shutdown and what brought about the immediate shift in the shutdown the last time. I mean, without opining on the politics of that, it was pretty remarkable that the FAA and the flight attendants’ union, when they threatened that flights may not come in, whatever, you saw a pretty quick change in domestic kind of policy.

So I think it’s how people organize, how they kind of get at points of leverage and other pillars of support in order to inform and influence. But it’s not easy, of course, and to have more movements in general it’s hard. Once the beast is turning and things are in motion, it’s hard to stop something like this, but I think there remains huge potential for Americans to influence U.S. foreign policy through creative organizing and nonviolent action.

BIGIO: Thank you.

Q: Thank you. Dane Smith. I’m particularly interested in the Sudan. The Bashir government is a failed government by any standard. It lost the south, and the economy has been deteriorating for decades now.

And the default way of changing governments in Sudan, changing authoritarian governments, is a popular uprising. And yet, it hasn’t happened yet. This uprising, which is broader than Khartoum, is certainly very interesting, but I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on the dynamics there. Are there alternative religious leaders, for example, who are playing a role in this? Why isn’t it happening faster?

STEPHAN: That’s a great question, and I’ll actually like link a dynamic of what’s happening in Sudan to what happened during the First Intifada. So I think, you know, protests began in April, most—you know, immediately over the rise of food prices, traditional economic issues that kind of brought people out into the street. And it began outside of Khartoum, so this was starting, you know, in kind of villages, towns, and the like, and kind of caught on fire in the same way that the First Intifada began in Gaza and kind of—you know, kind of spread all over the place.

And I think what’s really interesting about what’s happening in Sudan now—and by the way, this is a country that has seen two nonviolent uprisings topple military dictatorships, in 1967, in 1985. So two civil resistance campaigns in that country have nonviolently removed dictators from power. So there is a history of nonviolent organizing in Sudan.

But what has happened most recently is that a coordinating group has come together to kind of strategize the protest. Their main constituents are professional groups and organizations. So in the same way that a lot of united national leadership of the uprising that brought together different strands, political strands that were backed by popular committees in the occupied territories during the First Intifada, you are seeing kind of an interesting coming together of kind of these groups inside Sudan to strategize, to plan, to connect with the protesters and the activists out in the street. So that’s why I think people are saying that what’s happening in Sudan now is somewhat unprecedented in recent years and has great potential.

In terms of transition plans, there are plans coming from universities. I think religious leaders have been part of the conversations about what would a transition look like, a peaceful transition in the country. So I think there are just some interesting dynamics to track that are going on in the country. But the level of repression, targeting activists, and the like remains profound, and so it’s unclear what it going to happen, but definitely significant what’s happening in the country.

BIGIO: Thank you.

Q: Maria made a very important point that successful nonviolent resistance movements are skills-based activities. What that basically means is that you have a wide variety of tactics to choose from, and the selection of tactics, the sequencing really makes a difference like it does in other conflicts.

What I don’t think women get enough credit for is the generalship involved in movements where they are actually selecting tactics as part of an overall strategy. So let me give you three cases where that has actually occurred.

After Gandhi was arrested because he made salt on Dandi Beach, it was a woman who led the Dharasana salt raid that basically drove the world public’s involvement to what was occurring there.

The second case would be, and this—and people don’t really know very much about this, but after the Gdansk shipyard strike began, there were some people in leadership who felt they had to take this out into the streets of Warsaw. It was a woman who said that would be a horrible mistake, and they kept the movement inside the shipyard, and that was where the power was.

And the third case is in the Port Elizabeth boycotts that were a critical pivot point in the anti-apartheid movement. It was woman traders who came to the leadership and said, look, you know, we could shut down all the retail stores in Port Elizabeth because we could give you alternative sources of supply, and that you should really look at this.

And so it’s this kind of generalship by women that I think is overlooked historically.

STEPHAN: Also the remarkable organizing of the medical committees and, producing food—so like being able to sustain a movement and the role that women have played historically in doing that.

I think of the Maidan as an awesome case in Ukraine of where women were like running the show behind the scenes and like keeping—excuse me—that movement going, and that’s something that Naila and the Uprising kind of really emphasizes, and also tactics women can do in many cases that men cannot. Women, in many cases, are able to get past checkpoints in a way that men are unable to in certain cases.

Obviously, sex boycotts gets a lot of attention just because it’s usually dramatic, but also like women in their role as mothers, so I think about the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, were able to carve out space and kind of call for “where are our sons?” as the mobilizer in a place where protesters had been—disappeared, beaten up.

So women are able, through various tactics and kind of taking the initiative to carve out spaces and create spaces in places where otherwise, you know, violent repression has kept people home and, you know, afraid.

BABAA: And I want to just add a couple of things to that, too, and also circle back to your question because I think it is important on Israel-Palestine to speak a little specifically about that.

During the First Intifada, one of the amazing things: we interviewed a total of about twenty-four women who were involved in all forms of organizing, some of whom were organizing in refugee camps and from refugee camps, some of whom were your intellectual kind of elite establishment, some of whom were part of the PFLP, or Fattah, or across political parties. And across the board what we were stunned by was just the level and the remarkable kind of humility in which they carried their work forward. So you had some women who were elderly at the time. They were in their—you know, going into their sixties and seventies, that shared with us that their role was actually to monitor the Israeli checkpoints that were set up to identify if there were young men that were getting held up by Israeli soldiers. They would actually go over and say why are you messing with my son or my grandson. And they would offer that kind of level of protection.

You had folks who were organizing food—basically like organizing cooking all night long to get around the curfews, and they would distribute food across balconies of Palestinian homes to make sure everyone was eating; children who were delivering milk, and eggs, and so on, so that folks could eat while the shops closed down.

And all of these layers of participation which we often forget about that takes a movement—that is required to sustain a movement, and build a movement, and is fundamental to movement building is often overlooked, so I just want to hold that.

And the piece that I wanted to talk about with Israel-Palestine, and specifically with this foreign policy issue, one of the reasons that Just Vision emerged was recognizing that, for international audiences—we do have local strategies, but for international audiences one of the big challenges in the United States, you certainly have the polarized conversation, but by and large, most people either feel like this is an issue that’s far away and doesn’t touch their lives, or it’s intractable and there is nothing that can be done about it.

And part of the role of storytelling and the reason that we decided to focus on strategic storytelling was knowing that part of the challenge with Israel-Palestine is bringing in the people’s backyards, making it relatable, identifying what the stakes where, communicating the shared values. And one of the things that we’ve seen across time is that it’s remarkable, when people see what’s possible, the shift that occurs in one’s involvement and engagement. We’ve seen some folks who certainly have moved in their political persuasions on this issue as a result of seeing our work. We’ve also seen folks who are saying, wait a second, I had no idea this is happening; how do I get involved, who have then gone on to be foreign service workers, and diplomats, and policymakers themselves, or who have become organizers on this issue themselves, who are connecting the dots across social movement organizing in places like Ferguson, in places like Baltimore, in places like juvenile detention centers in San Francisco.

And I think that’s the powerful piece of storytelling here, is you get to see yourself in others. And when that connection happens, some remarkable partnerships and allies emerge. And so that’s one of the strategies, I think. It really, I think, dovetails with what Maria was talking about around the toolbox and the array, right? In many ways, storytelling is a tool of nonviolent movements so how we communicate about what’s happening, and what’s at stake, and why this is happening, what the concerns and needs are, are also really fundamental to gaining support and getting people to believe that there is change that is possible and within reach.

The last piece I’ll say is that I think about Israel-Palestine as a social movement. And when I think about slavery in the United States, and I think about how long it took for civil rights to be won, and not knowing about when the watershed moment would be of the ’50s and ’60s, and then I think about the continued work that is taking place across the United States around police brutality issues, around questions of inequality and systemic racism, I think about this as a continuation of that very same legacy and movement. And so I think about Israel-Palestine similarly through that lens.

And when we are looking at this particular moment in time, while it’s unpredictable and hard to tell what will emerge and what will happen, what we do know is that paying attention to all aspects of our communities is important, and paying attention to the roles that everyone can play is really important. That includes women as fundamental building blocks and holders of our communities.

And I also think that also means paying attention to the people that often are—the communities that are often not seen in our policy spaces, in our media spaces, to make sure we’re actually listening and understanding what those concerns are so that we can respond adequately and fully grasp the real concerns that are playing out in our backyards that we may be unaware of.

BIGIO: This is an incredibly rich conversation, and I know it could go on much longer. You can tune in March 25 and 26 on PBS to see these films. Please do.

And please join me in thanking Suhad and Maria for their thoughts. (Applause.)

Thank you all for joining us.


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