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Selma James at Hackney PSC’s monthly film club. Teresa Webb reports

CatastropheCatastrophe Club is the monthly film and discussion club of HPSC (Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign) so named for the nakba or catastrophe experienced by Palestinians on the dispossession of their lands by Israel in 1948 – a catastrophe that continues today.

HPSC is a branch of the national PSC but acts locally and with autonomy, while benefiting from the resources and organisational capacity of the PSC and generally supporting their campaign objectives.  PSC in turn maintains a high level of contact with Palestinian activists, drawing on them to determine its campaigning priorities.

Searching for films that tell the truth

Over the 5 years that Catastrophe Club has been running, activist and film programmer Miranda Pennell has scanned the new releases and searched the archives to find films that show the truth about Israel’s occupation of Palestine - a truth that is almost universally covered up, misreported, misrepresented, and lied about.   On the last Tuesday of each month, members of HPSC and up to 40 others sink into the comfortable furniture of the upstairs room at Passing Clouds  (Richmond Road, Hackney E8 just off Kingsland Road). They might enjoy a plate of tasty Palestinian food and buy a drink from the bar. For a donation, they will see a carefully chosen film usually paired with a speaker who develops the themes of the film, sometimes the film’s director.

A Village Lies under the Forest

Still from “The Village under the Forest”Catastrophe Club’s recent projection was “Village under the Forest”, and the discussion that followed was led by Selma James, founder of IJAN (International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network).  The film is a documentary made by Mark J Kaplan and narrated by its protagonist, Heidi Grunebaum, a South African Jewess.   In common with many Jewish people throughout the 20th century, her family would donate funds raised and money saved to the Jewish National Fund (JNF).  This hugely powerful Zionist organisation buys up land to enable Israel’s growth, now controlling land belonging to millions of Palestinians.

Land Theft

There seems to be no limit to the ways the Palestinians are forced to give up their land.  Israel takes possession through court cases using laws made up for the purpose and interpreted to suit the occasion; changes land designation without warning, for example to “military site”, with no access for farmers to work their land. Through such deceit, Israel has grows inexorably, while Palestine becomes an archipelago of tiny Bantustans [see “Disappearing Palestine” map which captures the full horror and scale of this process – these are available free from the PSC office.]  The monstrous Wall twists and turns to divide and enclose Palestinian lands earmarked for settlement, and to make permanent recently settled areas.  More often naked violence is the chosen route to land takeover. If this is meted out by the settlers themselves, the Israel Defence Force turns a blind eye.

Despite the media focus on their firing of sporadic rockets, it would be closer to the truth to note that the Palestinians exercise a remarkable degree of restraint in resisting their occupiers and oppressors.  They stoically endure the   privations, indignities and suffering imposed on them by Israel’s occupation.  [Another recent film sheds a bright light on this:  “Five Broken Cameras”, lets us see through the lens of Palestinians in Bi’lin experiencing and resisting the inhumanities of the occupation.  One can only admire their courage and creativity in the face of unrelenting violent repression.]

“Greenwashing”

Yet there is a further twist in the tale of the wholesale takeover of Palestinian lands.  The film’s subtitle “when greening is an act of obliteration...” sums up the shocking fact which the protagonist of  A Village lies under the Forest has to face when she visits Israel:  the JNF tree planting scheme to which she donated had as its aim to cover up an enormous crime  – the 1948 destruction and depopulation of  many Palestinian villages including the one featured, Lubya. The trees are planted so as to hide the remains of the village as if it never existed, as if the Palestinians did not exist.

In this way, the JNF is “greenwashed” into an environmental organisation.  The much-vaunted project of “greening the desert”, was based on the theft of Palestinian water supplies, along with the takeover and settlement of their most productive farmlands.

The JNF’s supporting role in the Israeli government’s work of destruction and displacement carries on with no sign of let-up.  The major focus is on East Jerusalem, in an attempt to oust Palestinian citizens and turn Jerusalem, which is considered by Palestinians as their capital, into an entirely Israeli/Jewish city.  The JNF have taken up all the available space for movement in the Palestinian area under the guise of a “National Park” which cannot be built on – a classic case of “greenwashing”.

Grunebaum’s narration of her experience, honestly told in its terrible naivety, its acceptance of Zionists’ deliberate distortion of history and reality, is interspersed with emotional remembrances of their former lives in Lubya by some elderly Palestinian refugees. Accompanied by heartrending Palestinian songs, they communicate painfully the loss they bear.

Pride of the Conscientious Objector

Almost as poignant, the film included an interview with Israeli activist and founder of Zochrot [‘Remembering’] Eitan Bronstein, who had refused to do military service on seeing the anti-Arab racism, which drives the Israeli Defence Force. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he spoke proudly of his two sons’ refusal also to do military service – tears of pride in them and one imagines, tears of shame at his government’s actions.

The latest and most extreme act is the attempt to clear Al-naqab (the Negev) of Bedouin villages in what can only be described as ethnic cleansing.  Earlier this year, the Knesset approved the Prawer-Begin Plan which, if fully implemented will result in the destruction of more than 35 villages and towns in the Negev and the forced expulsion of more than 70,000 Palestinian Bedouins.  This process has already begun. The Prawer Plan is the largest Israeli land-grab since 1948, and epitomizes the nature of Israel’s policy:  Israeli-Jewish demographic expansion and Palestinian-Arab demographic containment  [PSC information sheet 2013].  Protests are being held around the globe and on site – join one!

Selma James:  a young woman of 80+

The mood of this very moving and sad film was counterposed by the humour, positivity and anger of the speaker, Selma James.  This lively young woman of 80 plus years led a wide-ranging discussion, some issues arising from the film but touching on many themes.  A lifelong anticapitalist feminist, she has written several books and many pamphlets, including Marx and Feminism, and A Woman’s Place. She was the originator of the Global Women’s Strike, based in the struggles and demands of grassroots women - domestic workers, sex workers, rural workers and street vendors from many countries.   It is formed of autonomous groups, who campaign together around shared objectives.

Selma James is perhaps best known for the important idea that women’s labour in reproducing the working class should be at least and at last acknowledged, and ideally paid for – this is the basis of the International Wages for Housework Campaign. This has been a symbolic success, if not financial.  Anyway “a wage” she says, “ is not only money – the Tories are robbing us of a National Health Service; that’s our wage.  We take a wage cut every time they cut any social service”.

A book setting out James’ main political concerns and struggles, leading to various major actions over the decades, “Sex Race and Class” is available from www.globalwomenstrike.net

Graphic from IJAN leafletInternational Jewish Anti-Zionist Network

Selma’s Brooklyn Jewish upbringing with working-class, revolutionary minded parents, and her own growing anti-Zionism, led her to form the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.  Contact them at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  The Network acts in solidarity with the Palestinians on their express wishes.  Their current focus is the growing campaign for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) – don’t buy Israeli goods, don’t invest in companies that support the occupation, prevent Israeli academic and cultural tours and visits from whitewashing the occupation.

IJAN has recently produced a report on Israel’s relationship with repressive regimes, supplying military training, weapons and technology to undermine popular movements.

A member of the audience stated her appreciation of the presence of Jewish activists within the Palestine Solidarity movement.  In her response Selma pointed out that Jewish people have always been at the forefront of the fight for justice but thanks to the state of Israel, Jewish people are now equated with apartheid and injustice.

Catastrophe Club: The last Tuesday of every month at 7.30 pm at Passing Clouds, 1 Richmond Road E8 3HN.
Hackney PSC also have monthly action planning meetings, and other events.

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