Academic journal article Theory in Action

Discourses and Differences: Situating Pro-Palestine Activism in Discursive Context

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Discourses and Differences: Situating Pro-Palestine Activism in Discursive Context

Article excerpt

Activism on behalf of Palestinians, carried out by diaspora Arabs and non-Arab residents of the United States and other Western countries, has gone almost unstudied in the literature on social movements, despite the fact that the question of Palestine and Palestinians is key in the lived experience of the well-studied contemporary peace and anti-war movements. The best explanation for this omission probably rests in the narrow range of acceptable positions in American political discourse on Israel, Palestine, and Palestinians: academics who are not personally engaged in activism around the issue avoid studying it, out of a worry that their work will become tainted with the political positions of those they study, while those who engage with pro-Palestinian movements choose instead to focus their intellectual work on substantiating Palestinian claims to justice. Documentation of the dynamics of this movement drop to the wayside under these conditions.

This is unfortunate, because activism on behalf of Palestinians is both interesting for the amount of attention it takes up in the lives of Arab community organizers and peace and social justice activists of all ethnic backgrounds, and because the structure of pro-Palestinian movements has implications for the study of social movements more broadly. In particular, the experience of the highly ideologically divided proPalestine movement sheds new light on the work done by ideas and language within social movements. Most social movement scholarship understands the ideational element of social movements and individual social movement organizations through the lens of "framing," in which individuals and organizations use conceptual frameworks, built within the movement, to explain and motivate action. But when applied to the experiences of pro-Palestine activism, this conception falls short. Some organizations share substantial elements of their frames, and consider themselves a part of the same movement. But the ways in which they use language and ideas can be wildly divergent, and can have substantial impacts on how groups collaborate (or don't), how they are understood by others, and what the effects of their actions will be. Using a framing approach will end up rendering a great deal of the variation between activist groups and political actors invisible, in ways that constrain our ability to understand the antecedents of social change.

In contrast to the narrow, positivist concept of framing, the dialogicaldiscursive understanding of how language is used by social movement organizations takes into account the ways words work between people, as opposed to assuming that their meaning is unproblematically legible from their bare meanings. By understanding how different social movement organizations, or factions of a social movement, deploy their language and ideas in different discursive contexts, we can explain why movements putting forth very similar arguments about a given social or political issue can be heard differently, which affects the extent to which they will be able to effect the transformations they desire. The broader context in which they deploy their words and actions will change the interpretation that others give to the them, which will change the likelihood of a movement organization gaining traction or being able to win victories.

This article uses the example of two pro-Palestinian activist groups in New York City, Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, and Al-Awda New York: The Palestinian Right to Return Coalition to demonstrate the utility of a discursive approach to language and ideas within social movements, particularly highly divided or divisive movements. In the specific examples of Adalah-NY and AlAwda, the ways that the two groups are oriented towards different groups of Arab and non-Arab interlocutors shapes the discursive fields in which they orient themselves.

I begin by introducing both organizations and discussing the literature on framing, particularly the notion of diagnostic, prognostic, and mobilization frames. …

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