University of Arizona | Tucson, Arizona, USA
Boycott and Solidarity at the 1968 World Youth Festival
While great strides have been made in scholarship that locates Palestinian citizens of Israel within the framework of the settler-colonial state, less attention has been paid to their positionality within broader Palestinian and Arab cultural and political formations, especially during the 1950s and 1960s. This paper seeks to address this gap in the literature through a close reading of the Seventh World Youth Festival, held in Sofia, Bulgaria, from July 26 to August 6, 1968. This quadrennial cultural festival, which brought together over 20,000 leftist activists from around the world, provided a rare opportunity for Palestinian members of the Israeli communist Rakah delegation, including Mahmud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim, to meet face-to-face with some of the roughly 500 Arabs and Palestinians in attendance.
Unlike previous such occasions, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict overshadowed many aspects of the 1968 festival. As part of the international condemnation of Israel over its invasion and occupation of Arab lands the previous year, the festival’s central committee disinvited the official Israeli delegation for the first time in its history, while also welcoming an inaugural Palestinian delegation. Some of the Arab planning committee members suggested boycotting the festival itself over its decision to allow Rakah to participate, though in the end only the Algerians refused to attend. During the festival many Arab delegates eagerly sought out Darwish and Qasim, who were preceded by their reputation as “resistance poets,” but others saw them as violating the Arab boycott of Israel by “accepting” that country’s citizenship. Meanwhile, Palestinian delegates from all over the world met each other—often for the first time—thereby subverting the political and geographic fragmentation imposed on them since 1948.
Within this complex political environment, I argue that Palestinian festival participants from the shatat, especially Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, played a key role in helping to demystify the Palestinian citizens of Israel to a wider Arab audience. Through a discursive analysis of contemporary press reports, memoirs, literary works and interviews with participants, I show how these Palestinians tried to mitigate against the collateral damage done to the reputations of the Palestinians within Israel. They did so through discussions with Arab delegates and through impassioned essays published in some of the leading newspapers and journals of the region. These actions, coupled with ongoing efforts by Palestinian citizens of Israel to reach out to their fellow Arabs, ushered in a new vocabulary of political solidarity that began to include this previously excluded group of Palestinians.
By examining the intersection of what Rebecca Stein and Ted Swedenburg term intranational and transnational relationality, this paper sheds light on the discursive genealogy of a political vocabulary that came to include more fully the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and how this vocabulary impacted efforts by Palestinians to overcome their own political and geographic isolation. More broadly, it illustrates the possibilities and limitations of cultural production as a means of traversing national boundaries, especially across enemy lines. In terms of political mobilization, this episode challenges us to consider the potential impact of boycotts on efforts to build solidarity with those Palestinians who were fated to hold an Israeli ID.