Workers Against Imperialism: Resistance in Palestine, Britain and Beyond

by | 22 Apr 2024

Close up of watemelon’s red ripe slice and black stones isolated over blue

On 25 March 2024, Francesca Albanese presented ‘An Anatomy of Genocide’, her report to the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. The report describes an ‘intentional distortion’ of international humanitarian law through a strategy of ‘humanitarian camouflage’ by Israeli executive and military leadership, and outlines the commission of three acts violating of the UN Genocide Convention. The identification of a ‘genocidal logic integral to its settler-colonial project in Palestine’ echoes Amnesty International’s recognition of the decades-long creation of apartheid by the state of Israel. 

Many scholars – and likely many readers of Critical Legal Thinking – who have long been critical of international human rights regimes, find themselves in the strange position of fighting simply to re-state Albanese’s and Amnesty International’s terms. On one hand, the failure of international law, human rights law, and the ‘international community’, to prevent or halt genocide in Gaza affirms our sense that these systems have been (at best) ineffectual and (at worst) complicit in global violence all along. On the other hand, as Palestinian activism and support for Palestine is being criminalized (e.g. in a “McCarthyite Backlash” in the US), the terms of NGOs, IGOs and human rights – not least ‘genocide’ – are becoming sites of struggle. We find ourselves reaching for those terms as we reach for resistance. 

Contestation over the expression of Palestinian resistance and solidarity with Palestine has been especially fraught in universities. Academic freedom promises protections from state or university intervention in our research that is stronger than the right to ‘free expression’ alone. We’re told to do “ethical” and “engaged” research. Yet universities have traditionally been sites where the expression of resistance to imperialism is repressed – not least via Prevent (in the UK), in the name of security (e.g. against Black Lives Matter activism), and, contradictorily, in the name of “free speech” (against “censorious” leftist and decolonial movements). As Rebecca Gould documents, this was already true for research relating to Israeli settler-colonialism prior to the most recent assault on Gaza. As peace activists point out, many universities’ investments in imperialism are not solely rhetorical, but also material. UK Universities, for example “invest nearly £430m in companies complicit in Israeli violations of international law.”

In this context, it has been difficult to have scholarly conversations about Palestine, not least for those of us working on resistance to imperialism, colonialism, or on liberation or critique, or on (or, especially, from) Palestine itself. Given the contestation over language, and the denial of even the most basic of human rights, it has also been a challenge to envisage resistance beyond the language, institutions, respectability and (albeit weak) legitimacy of human rights regimes. But for those of us critical of rights and researching resistance, we must ask ourselves, at this moment, how can we stretch our political imaginations to imagine liberation in a meaningful sense? What can we look to? What languages of resistance? What forms of belonging and collectivity? What acts of refusal? 

The posts in this series respond to these questions. They capture a  conversation on workers’ resistance for the Law & Resistance Research Group at Sussex Law, which took place in March 2024, the same month of Albanese’s report. The conversation included contributions from Ihab Maharmeh (Politics), Ben Rogaly (Geography) and Bal Sokhi-Bulley (Law). With a focus on anti-imperialism, neoliberalism and workers’ resistance we share here how Palestinian workers, radical Jewish poets and songwriters, and South Asian Garment Workers,  respond to attacks on freedom, rights, and even existence. 

The posts that follow refuse the false separation of legitimate academic, legal or political knowledge from the so-called ‘personal’: we are Palestinians, singers of radical Yiddish songs, and Sikh descendants of factory workers. In person, our conversation was embodied and emotional too, not least when listening to Yiddish and Sikhi poetry, or sharing our grief and hope. While a purely legalistic rights-based framework seems to offer the protection of respectability and legitimacy, by refusing it we open the door to a much more expansive conversation on resistance. 

Our anti-imperialist stand draws on decolonial and radical critique to challenge the slow death of working communities experienced as the legacy of colonisation. In this vein, we detail the ways that specific forms of resistance flow from, and respond to, particular forms of subjecthood. As Ihab Maharmeh explains, Palestinian workers are subjected to a new kind of dispossession made possible by neoliberal settler colonialism. Palestinian workers express resistance not through workers’ rights (which they are denied) but through practices of language, evasion and refusal. As Ben Rogaly shares, some Yiddish poets and songwriters write of their dreams of freedom and liberation for all rather than advocating for a Jewish state or Jewish colonialism. And, as Bal Sokhi-Bulley describes, South Asian garment factory workers resist racial capitalism from their positions of racialised and feminised exploitation by a racist state.  

A particularly impactful moment during our conversation followed questions from the audience about “political strategies” and “what comes next”. Ihab Maharmeh responded: “first, we must recognise, we must say, ‘there is resistance’”. This statement reminds us of the danger of erasing resistance by bringing in an instrumental or institutional lens too quickly. It reminds us of the beauty and hope that resistance carries; that ‘there is resistance’ even in the most violent, imperialist and capitalist circumstances; and, that resistance to imperialism is inherently worthy of our attention. 

Darcy Leigh is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex, whose research and teaching focus on European settler colonialism and eugenics. Darcy’s recent work traces the colonial lineage of antisemitism, transmisogyny and the resurgent right – and explores Indigenous, Jewish, trans and queer social movements’ resistance. 

Bal Sokhi-Bulley is a legal academic who writes and teaches on critical approaches to rights. Her recent work uses the concept of ‘radical friendship’ read through Sikhi to look at alternative practices of resistance. For instance, see her latest on The Farmers’ Protests

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