The Patience of Activism

by Roberto J. González

This essay is part of a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip

Among the many reactions following last year’s vote on the American Anthropological Association’s BDS resolution, there was one that was particularly shortsighted–namely, the idea that somehow the ballot marked a significant and historic turning point. For example, days after the votes were tallied, the Anti-Defamation League released a statement describing the result as “an important milestone in the effort to counter the BDS movement and in support of academic freedom.” Many others seemed to intepret the vote as the beginning of the end of BDS.

Such sentiments reveal a misunderstading about how social movements work. Social movements always take time–often a long time. Howard Zinn, best known for his book A People’s History of the United States, put it this way:

You do things again and again, and nothing happens. You have to do things, do things, do things: you have to light that match, light that match, light that match, not knowing how often it’s going to sputter and go out and at what point it’s going to take hold. . .Things take a long time. It requires patience, but not a passive patience–the patience of activism. . .We should be encouraged by historical examples of social change, by how surprising changes take place suddenly, when you least expect it, not because of a miracle from on high, but because people have labored patiently for a long time. (Howard Zinn, The Historic Unfulfilled Promise [2012], pp. 46-47).

Historical examples abound: abolitionists worked for decades to end the “peculiar institution” of slavery; India’s independence movement stretched out over the course of nearly a century; women’s suffrage in many countries (including the US) only occurred after generations of activists filed court cases, pressured politicians, and protested; the American civil rights movement took many years to come to fruition; the end of South African apartheid did not happen overnight. It has existed far too long, but Israeli apartheid will not last forever either.

It is time to cast aside any lingering notions of disappointment, defeat, or discouragement after last year’s close AAA vote. Rather than lament the Israeli government’s desperate attempts to slow BDS’s growth, or panic about how much worse things might get in Israel/Palestine during Trump’s presidency, it is best to continue laboring patiently and cultivating awareness. Small efforts can have disproportionately large effects over time: a campus teach-in, an op-ed piece in the local newspaper, a classroom lecture, a simple conversation with a colleague or a neighbor or a stranger. More often than not, social change happens as the cumulative result of simple day-to-day actions such as these which, over time, have a transformative impact.

Now is the time to practice the patience of activism–and to keep lighting the match.

Roberto J. González is Chair of the Anthropology Department at San Jose State University.