When my copy of Freedom Sailors (Eds. Greta Berlin and Bill Dienst, 2012, Free Gaza Movement) arrived in the mail, I read it all in one sitting. By chance, as I was finishing the book in the early morning hours, the judicial ruling on the Rachel Corrie case was announced in Israel. Impunity continues – the judge found the 23-year-old Corrie responsible for her own death, all evidence to the contrary.
However, justice cannot be forestalled forever. Year by year, the global civil society movement Corrie was part of grows. Corrie’s sacrifice and spirit of solidarity were honored in one of the most exciting manifestations of that global solidarity—the ships to Gaza movement, which christened one of its boats the MV Rachel Corrie.
Freedom Sailors is the story of the birth of that movement with the successful defiance of the Israeli blockade on Gaza in 2008, led by the small boats Liberty and Free Gaza. Within a few short years the effort would focus world attention upon the blockade and compel shifts in government policies as a result of the massacre on the Mavi Marmara. From its inception, the effort was international, involving people around the world in a long and exhausting collaboration to end the blockade. Publication of the book also happens to coincide closely with the release of a new UNRWA report. It warns that if current trends continue, Gaza may not be livable by the year 2020.
Proceeds from the book—which sports endorsements from Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, and John Pilger, among others—will go to support exactly the sort of work it details so engagingly.
A True Movement Book
Freedom Sailors is a true movement book. It is the story of a project that spanned “two years, 250+ people, thousands of donors,” and hundreds of thousands of dollars. For a full year, the small group of initial organizers was preoccupied with fundraising, emerging with tens of thousands of U.S. dollars – impressive but well short of what would ultimately be needed. Activists would eventually be “paying for fuel on credit cards, most maxed out to get the derelict boats into harbor.”
Over two dozen contributors provide entries, each chronicling some portion of the movement as it develops from an idea tentatively ventured in an email into an ultimately triumphant movement to run the blockade and land on Gaza’s sandy shores. The breadth of writers ensures that the multitude of people and perspectives involved in this massive undertaking are represented. Several contributors were among the 40,000-strong welcoming committee of Gazans on the dock when the two boats arrived. Others were instrumental in shepherding the project through arduous logistical difficulties in Europe. Still others detail the long efforts to raise enormous sums of cash (over $700,000 in the end) when it seemed like the project would always be more fantasy than reality.
Extraordinary Feats by Ordinary People
The book has more than a few similarities with a thriller movie – a noble cause, danger, espionage, attempts to thwart government surveillance, and the inevitable paranoia. Indeed, even before the Israeli executions upon the Mavi Marmara in the 2010 Freedom Flotilla, there was every reason to fear that Israel would not hesitate to use violence against civil society protests. In 1988, the Ship of Return intended to sail with its Palestinian passengers to Haifa. It never made it. A mine exploded under the vessel in Cyprus, crippling the boat and killing three organizers.
None of the cloak-and-dagger escapades detailed in the book should be misconstrued as an indication that the Free Gaza movement’s activities were illegal – to the contrary. Yet the power and influence of Washington-backed Tel Aviv meant that “an absolutely legal action (it is not illegal under international law to sail to Gaza) had to be accomplished in secret, as if it were illegal.” The base of operations in Greece proved to be fortuitous, since Greek organizers were able to work “clandestinely, using methods devised during the fascist dictatorship in Greece” —a fine continuation of an honorable tradition. While organizing the voyage some of the activists were “living in a secret hideaway in a residential apartment in Athens… deep inside an apartment block on the far side of a courtyard from the street, and one must pass through three steel doors to reach it.”
To prepare the boats, a group of Greek participants began “work daily at 6:00 A.M., labored hard in the Greek summer sun, and skipped the afternoon break that’s supposed to prevent you dying of heat exhaustion.”
The book is a testament to the power, indeed the necessity, of the organizing work done by people who lead otherwise ordinary, mundane lives. When news accounts are published and retrospective histories written, a few famous spokespeople are generally emphasized, erasing the source of movements and their power. Vittorio Arrigoni put it well on the day of their arrival in Gaza: “History is made by ordinary people / everyday people, with family at home and a regular job / who are committed to peace as a great ideal / to the rights of all to staying human.” The tale should inspire those who fear that heroism is reserved for those etched in marble – “we truly were amateurs,” the editors acknowledge. “Most of us had never even been on a boat.”
The accounts contained within do not skirt the inevitable interpersonal tensions that had to be navigated while dealing with a multitude of languages, egos, and cultural differences. “Maybe,” one contributor wryly comments, “the gift of language is not always beneficial to the human race.”
The release date of Freedom Sailors on August 23 was not incidental. It marks the fourth year to the day since that first successful voyage touched Gazan sands. For many long torturous hours at sea, the prevailing expectation on the boats remained that Israel would block their path and drag them to Israeli detention facilities – but the moment passed.
“Land Ahoy!” someone shouted on the Liberty as Gaza came into view. When the 44 people aboard the Liberty and the Free Gaza landed, it was the first time such a thing had happened in 41 years. The authorities at Gaza Port did not even know how to guide them in, having not done so since 1967. When the ships arrived, the breakwater was packed with throngs of cheering people. Before they had even reached land, Gazan boats “sidled up to Free Gaza and Liberty and spilled their teary-eyed passengers onto our deck, who then embraced us as if we were liberating soldiers.” Another contributor recalls, “It seemed as though all of Gaza was there. We hugged each other and were hugged by strangers.”
The emotion unleashed by the breaking of the prison wall sequestering an entire people was palpable. “Is there any other port in the world where this could possibly happen?” wondered one contributor who was present. “Where before any formalities or passport checks, customs or officials, we could be embraced as lost relatives might be by whoever was near enough to embrace us? Where we could fish sparkling eyed laughing children out of the water before we had even thrown a rope ashore? I doubt it; it was exhilarating!”
Such descriptions of “a massive celebration of civil resistance” recall the joy East Germans freely expressed when they finally managed to topple the wall cutting them off from the world outside. Only the evil empire differs. An Israeli passenger recounts how Gazans sought him out, “eager to speak Hebrew with an Israeli after years of isolation from Israel.”
The future promises further actions, constantly adapting to meet the shifting geopolitical realities created by governments. In August 2008, on the eve of success, a contributor was able to write that “Greece and Cyprus have stood firm with the majority of their citizens who support Palestinian civil rights.” Israel then made a decision not to intercept the two little boats as they bore down on Gaza, hoping to thereby avoid attracting publicity for the cause. Witnessing the power of these civil society actions, governments would not be so accommodating in the years to come.
Organizers have not been intimidated by the violent repression that has accompanied more recent efforts and have continued to plan new projects. One of the current ongoing initiatives is being called Gaza’s Ark, a project to sail out of Palestine and break the blockade by skirting it in the other direction. Those interested in learning more and contributing to one of the most significant ongoing solidarity movements of our generation can do no better than to read this book.