Documentation and Narratives
The fourth session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) took place in New York City two weekends ago. According to an info sheet in the program folder, it was an “International People’s Tribunal” that “has no legal status, [but] like other Russell Tribunals on Vietnam, Chile and Iraq, its legitimacy comes from its universality and the strength that it draws from the will of its citizens and the support of international personalities…” If anyone is interested in the actual content, you can go to the RToP’s website (and I would also recommend you take a look at Ethan Heitner’s wonderful renderings, with sketches, of each day). But I bring this up here to talk about the value and limitations of documentation.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” an acquaintance said with a laugh when I bumped into her during a coffee break on the first day of the session, and I was happy to hear that because I didn’t really know what I was doing there, either (a future Library Juice post notwithstanding). But then I reminded myself, again, that it was called a “people’s tribunal” for a reason, that our very presence in the audience was necessary and gave the event weight. (There is also something called the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, which formed in 1979 and recently held a session in India about agrochemical transnational corporations.) We were what made it all different from the issuing of another bunch of reports and essays. The jury was stacked, as it were, composed of people whose progressive politics in general and on Israel-Palestine in particular are well known. And the event certainly wasn’t about hearing the voices of those most directly affected by the issue at hand, as there were only two Palestinian speakers the entire weekend (there would have been a couple more, had illness and visa denials not prevented their presence). But there we all were in the Great Hall at Cooper Union, having gotten up early on a Saturday morning for this sold-out tribunal.
The session opened with an introduction (in French, and tant pis to the majority of the audience who didn’t realize they would be needing the translation headphones) by Pierre Galand, who told us how Bertrand Russell had formed the first Tribunal (on Vietnam) in 1966 to combat “the crime of silence.” He also explained that as the audience, we were participants in the tribunal and as such should rise when the jury entered and filed out, refrain from applause, and generally behave as befitting a serious event in which we played a serious role. (Being asshole Americans, most of us had a hard time with even these limited directions and just laughed it off when Galand tried to shame us by comparing New York with all the other world cities where people managed to conduct themselves properly.)
And so the weekend proceeded, with hours of intricate presentations. And we listened. And I formulated questions in my head: Does the proclamation of a foregone conclusion have value? Is having a big event and inviting ordinary people (albeit those who already care deeply about the issue) to hear testimony important if only as an affirmation and inspiration to keep up with their solidarity work? Will the additional documentation and judgment change minds?
Regarding the documentation, the single livestream file is online, but this is not useful if you want to find a particular witness’s presentation. The RToP website has all of the reports, of course, including a draft one for the NYC session, but I don’t know how easy it is to find the multilingual softcover reports that detail each session. A book about the London tribunal came out from a trade publisher and, according to WorldCat, is held widely in academic libraries around the world. I wonder if any public libraries have ever done programming related to these “people’s tribunals”?
And regarding the judgment and the changing of minds – as one commentator put it, “The conclusion was essentially preordained, but its importance lies in the fact that the findings were presented by a jury full of luminaries like Angela Davis and Alice Walker to a United Nations body.” Well, but that depends on whether you consider someone like Angela Davis a “luminary” or a culturally irrelevant ex-Black Panther.
Another commenter wrote afterward, “While the ‘witnesses’ were mainly international law experts at home in the world of inter-governmental bodies and narrowly-defined protocols for advancing an action, the majority of attendees (and indeed, of the local organizers who worked countless hours to make the event a success) were oriented toward grassroots activism operating largely outside of such channels. This particular contradiction resonated throughout the entire event. All through the proceedings, there was a distinct sense that different segments of those assembled were processing all of the same facts, and yet arriving at radically different conclusions.”
I don’t know if the conclusions were quite so radically different, but the sort of disconnect between the witnesses and the attendees pales in comparison to the disconnect between the overall RToP conclusions and many US perceptions of this particular subject. (Consider how the narrative in the [very minimal] mainstream journalistic coverage was unaltered.) Oftentimes facts and legal justifications are just not enough, and it all has to do instead with political will and public opinion shifts and individual reflection and critical thinking.
So, as usual, the upshot is that a rational assemblage of truthful evidence is only part of the surround of information that shapes our thinking, whether we are a US senator or a random librarian. (I also thought of the circle of information and the human role in it when juror Alice Walker spoke up after Jeanne Mirer’s particularly harrowing testimony about life in Gaza, telling her, “Thank you for going, seeing, witnessing, and sharing with us, with such compassion.”) From our personal lives to our political actions, we are usually guided by one narrative or another, and it’s everything from the recorded testimonies of expert witnesses to the stories we tell ourselves that ultimately change the world.
If you are interested in this topic, a delegation of librarians to Palestine is being planned for next summer. Get in touch with me if you’d like more information when it’s available.