This summer a great deal of media attention was given to the flotilla of international activists determined to break through the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Major newspapers, television networks and other media outlets covered the well-choreographed drama that followed: the attempted departure of ships from Greek ports, the Greek government’s refusal to allow the ships to embark, the wave of activists who tried to instead fly to Israel as part of the “flytilla” and the ensuing blacklisting of activists at European airports and arrest of several dozen activists at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport.
The 2011 “Freedom Flotilla II” was a follow-up to the 2010 “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” that departed Cyprus with the intention of reaching the Gaza Strip to deliver humanitarian aid and construction materials; however, nearly halfway to their destination, the flotilla was intercepted by Israeli naval forces. On the MV Mavi Marmara, a Turkish flagged vessel with several dozen activists onboard, confrontations erupted between the international activists and the Israeli commandoes; resultantly several Israelis were injured and nine activists were killed.
In the aftermath of these actions organized and executed by a loose network of international activists, ties between Israel and Turkey have become strained and Israeli and Turkish politicians have increasingly exchanged tough rhetoric. This is not to suggest that the flotillas were the sole cause of the current tensions between Israel and Turkey; rather, the efforts of international activists have provided a catalyst by which underlying tensions between Israel and Turkey have been brought to the forefront and exacerbated.
While the actions of international activists engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have received a high degree of interest from the media, this is not the only venue in which international activists engage with issues of social equality, economic disparity, environmental degradation or human rights violations. Less reported instances of international activism from this summer included solidarity demonstrations with Egyptians and Libyans seeking to overthrow their governments, anti-war demonstrations in Afghanistan and environmental campaigns across the world organized by Greenpeace.
At times these international activists participate through more structured organizations, such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace or Human Rights Watch. At other times, the networks of activists are less structured associations of likeminded individuals who share similar political, economic or moral perspectives. While coalitions of international activists can engage in more on-the-ground, direct actions (e.g. demonstrations, protests), there is also a wide array of indirect or virtual action (e.g. Facebook groups, awareness campaigns, emailing campaigns). Despite the different organizational structures utilized by international activists and the various actions they undertake, there are unifying features that raise thoughtful questions for anthropologists and other social scientists.
For instance, how does international activism impact local communities? Does international activism empower these communities or does it commodify acts of resistance, dissent and opposition and, ultimately, diminish the political, social and moral significance of these actions? How does international activism in an increasingly interconnected, technologically-driven world recast and reframe previous understandings of resistance, solidarity and social movements?
This column is dedicated to exploring these and other related questions in order to further define international activism in anthropological terms, explore how it functions as a social, cultural and political interaction and consider the consequences of international activism to the established social, cultural, political and economic orders. Throughout the year, this column will present a range of perspectives on international activism and a variety of firsthand accounts from international activists in the hopes of opening up new avenues of inquiry and exploration on the topic.