At The Russell Tribunal on Palestine In New York

The needs and concerns of the Palestinian people are not in the news much in the United States even though the issues have been around for decades in the city that hosts the United Nations and where there have been, over the years, persistent resolutions based on allegations of international law violations and apartheid-like abuses in the territories occupied by Israel.


In this same period, there have also been many detailed studies as well of media coverage that prove that our media rarely covers Palestinian concerns, or features Palestinian perspectives in talk shows or even news programs unless and until violence erupts.


Criticisms of Israeli behavior raised by foreign leaders are also ignored unless they are made by the Iranian President in the context of his dispute with Israel.


And then, many media outlets are more focused on noisy allegations of anti-semitism on his part than on any exploration of the underlying issues which are always treated as matters of contention, not of facts.


Advocates of Palestinian rights and critics of violations of International law seek, often without much success, to call attention to the realities on the ground not just in an ideological debate. They want to change a US policy that often marches in lockstep with Israel, in part, because of the power of the Israeli Lobby.


One of the more visible organizations trying to fill the gap is the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, an ‘international peoples’ tribunal modeled on the initiative by the late British philosopher, Lord Bertrand Russell, an esteemed lecturer, author and moral leader who first created the Tribunal concept in the 1960’s to feature well-known intellectuals to expose war crimes in Vietnam.


I covered that event when it took place in Stockholm with a jury made up of the likes of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone du Beauvoir, Swedish Playwright Peter Weiss and American anti-war activist David Dellinger among others. It drew global attention and denunciation by the US government when Vietnamese witnesses testified about the chemical defoliation of their country, and systematic human rights abuses.


I remember American TV correspondent Morley Safer doing a stand-up after one session on the stage, after the audience left, denouncing the allegations of war crimes and dismissing the Tribunal as communist propaganda.


Thirty years later, his own news magazine, 60 Minutes carried reports confirming that there were indeed brutal atrocities being committed in places like MyLai where American soldiers slaughtered innocent civilians including many children. Had Safer not been so eager to discredit Vietnamese experiences, something might have been done about the abuses earlier.


Today, the Russell Tribunal is back and focusing on “the complicity and responsibility of various, national and international and corporate acts and the perpetuation of Israel’s impunity under international law.” It seeks to provide a platform for “international personalities who advocate for an end to Israeli occupation and the denial of Palestinian rights.”


It is meeting this weekend in The Great Hall of Cooper Union where President Abraham Lincoln debated his political adversary in 1860 just as the civil war was building steam.


The packed event in New York followed earlier sessions in Barcelona (focused on EU complicity), London (on corporate complicity) and in Cape Town likening Israeli policies to apartheid era crimes in South Africa.


The jury this time included former South African Intelligence Minister and Liberation movement leader, Ronnie Kasrils, South African lawyer John Dugard, Writer Alice Walker, Activist Angela Davis and former US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinnie as well as luminaries from Europe and even Native American leader Dennis Banks.


This Jury heard testimony from Israeli historian Ilan Pappe on the origins of Zionism and its commitment to expel Palestinians before the State of Israel was even born. There were many legal experts on the role of the UN in providing help to Palestinian refugees but rarely defending Palestinian rights. Speaker after speaker denounced the UN for going through the motions and being muscled by Israel and the US.


One speaker said the UN was a “cruel joke” when it came to fulfilling its obligations to Palestinians over the decades.


The audience was cautioned not to applaud and so the whole event tended to be passionless, academic and legalistic. There were long lectures on legal precedents that the lawyers in the room might have appreciated but it put people around me to sleep.


Ironically, no Palestinians spoke on the first of the two-day session on Palestine. Noam Chomsky was slated to address the Tribunal Sunday but he apparently came down with laryngitis so I was told he was unlikely to appear.


What was impressive was the many young people from activist groups and college campuses, and from Middle East backgrounds, who did turn up. They seemed to appreciate the “teach-in” orientation of the speakers who crammed their presentations with facts and context.


Personally I would have liked a more colorful and energetic style to inspire them to get more involved on the issues. More interaction between the jurors and the audience would have been helpful to challenge what felt like a one-way old-fashioned format.


There were many cameras from alternative media groups, not the mainstream media, although I did run into one cocky journalist from Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal who was clearly there to “expose’ the tribunal.


I had a short exchange with him. He criticized the event for only having one point of view—although the speakers varied in their approaches. He introduced himself as an Iranian American after denouncing Iran to me for criticizing Israel.


“Classic anti-semitism,” he smarted.


“It’s so one sided,” he said repeatedly. That was strange coming from a member of the Journal’s Opinion page that is known for being overwhelmingly on the right, as one-sided as they come.


He then baited me out of the blue, asking if I thought Bin Laden was behind 9/11. I said probably, but, added that I believed there is a great deal we still don’t know


At that, he sneered at me as if I was some kind of denialist or 9/11 nut and walked away. I didn’t get to remind him that President Obama said last week he was sorry they couldn’t have put Bin Laden on trial.


My suspicion is that he was killed, not captured, to prevent just such a trial. Imagine what he might have revealed?


News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at Newsdissector.net. His latest books are Blogothon and Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. He hosts a show on ProgressiveRadioNetwork (PRN.fm.) Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org 

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