In the summer of 1969, the ‘Friends of Palestine Camp’ brought young people from across the world to a site nearby Amman, Jordan, for four weeks to live with and learn from Palestinian revolutionaries in their struggle for national liberation. Summer camps for youth and students, in existence since at least the late nineteenth century, grew in number and variety during the twentieth century, when the summer camp became an international phenomenon supported by organisations with varied social, political, religious and pedagogical agendas. The publications and pamphlets of socialist and anticolonial groups from the 1960s and 1970s show numerous opportunities for trips to the Soviet Union, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas for young people to learn about different revolutionary experiences.
This camp took place in the beginning of an era that historians and activists have remembered as the “golden age” of the Palestinian Revolution, which was declared on 1 January 1965. The defeat of the Arab state armies in the June 1967 war – resulting in the Israeli occupation of the remainder of historic Palestine, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula – had sharpened existing criticism of the political models attached to their leaders. A generation of leftist Arab intellectuals and activists sought new directions for the liberation of Palestine and the return of the then at least 1.3 million Palestinian refugees displaced from their homes since the onset of the Nakba in 1948. Palestinian resistance organisations, particularly inspired by the Algerian national liberation movement as well as revolutionary examples from Vietnam, Cuba and China, rose to new prominence and attracted thousands of volunteers from across the region. After these groups asserted control over the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1968, amongst the priorities of the Palestinian movement was an international solidarity-building campaign which included a slew of conferences, art exhibitions, speaking tours and summer camps, to communicate the new direction of the liberation struggle and win support for their cause.
My research into the 1969 Friends of Palestine summer camp began by finding the daily schedule for the visit on a torn piece of paper crumpled inside a Palestinian magazine in the Uri Davis Collection at the University of Exeter. From there, the camp came up several times in my conversations with activists from the period. When the Palestinian archive, as Hana Sleiman shows, has been subject to colonial theft, destruction and scattering across borders, such archival ephemera and activist memories offer insights that might otherwise be lost. In this case, what might the story of a summer camp reveal about the politics of solidarity with the Palestinian Revolution at the outset of its “golden age”?
In Britain, participants for the summer camp assembled at 4 Chesterfield Gardens in Mayfair, the office of the recently formed Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), a small handful of people who coordinated nascent Palestine solidarity activities in Britain. Several of those invited to the camp were part of a new left milieu of Maoists, Trotskyists and socialists of various association. Also chosen to participate were representatives of Liberal and Conservative student groups. Other students without any organisational affiliation applied to take part, excited by the prospect of a summer adventure to a foreign land. The diversity of the group, described by one participant as “the oddest range of people,” gives a sense of the intention behind the summer camp – to educate people, politically opposed or at least from different backgrounds, about the Palestinian Revolution and create networks of organised support.
On arrival in Amman, representatives of Fatah (the largest of the Palestinian resistance organisations and the organisers of the camp) met the group. Formed in the late 1950s, Fatah was ideologically-plural, modelling its national liberation struggle on a framework that drew heavily from the Algerian experience, with the general belief that action should precede theory to unite the people and organise them into conscious revolutionary cadres. The Fatah hosts and their international visitors drove by coach to a campsite in the mountains overlooking the Jordan valley. The total number of students from Europe in the camp was 120, with teams from Britain, France, West Germany, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Switzerland and Scandinavia, included amongst them students from across Asia, Africa and the Americas. Living with the internationals and in charge of the general administration of the camp were several Palestinian students and Fatah cadres.
As part of the daily schedule of the camp, amongst physical training, Arabic instruction, and work activities in medical facilities or in the construction of trenches, plenty of time was dedicated to political discussion between the participants and their Palestinian hosts. In these discussions, Fatah cadres communicated the history of Palestine’s colonisation and the objective of their liberation struggle, with a political program for “a progressive, democratic and non-sectarian Palestine in which Christian, Moslem and Jew will worship, work, live peacefully and enjoy equal rights.” The international visitors were generally impressed by their hosts’ knowledge of contemporary and classical revolutionary theory, yet questions remained regarding Fatah’s strategy, particularly around the lack of a clear Marxist-Leninist line. The cadres of Fatah, including a prominent Maoist theorist administering the camp, welcomed such questions and were eager to expand on the ideology of the pluralistic movement, inspired as it was by the historic example of other guerrilla movements and the specificities of their Palestinian predicament.
Indicative of the pre-existing ideologies and affiliations carried by participants into the camp, during free time, the French, West German, and British Trotskyists would congregate together, and the European Maoists would do the same. Whilst both Trotskyists and Maoists viewed the USSR and its associated communist parties as having diverged from the revolutionary project of Marxism-Leninism, they disagreed on questions of who should lead the world revolutionary struggle and how. The Trotskyists were generally critical of Fatah’s approach towards making revolution, while there was enthusiasm amongst the Maoists for the influence of the concept of ‘people’s war’ within the Fatah movement.
By the third week, during breakfast, tensions between the groups erupted into dissent against camp activities – in particular the gruelling work of trench digging. As described by one camp participant, “A leader of the International Socialists [a Trotskyist group] said: “I’m not coming!” He stretched himself out, took out his Rosa Luxemburg book and started reading.” Others of the Maoist contingent reportedly carried their little red books throughout the camp and would speak loudly about the virtues of the Maoist-line. For some of the other camp participants, these outward behaviours were remembered as displays of ego as much as politics, and a potential distraction from the opportunity to learn about the history and liberation project of the Palestinian people. A group of students interested in the diversity of Palestinian political thought organised a parallel visit to meet with nearby cadres of the PFLP and the PDFLP (Marxist-Leninist Palestinian parties).
Whilst some of the team from Britain declared their “uncritical and unconditional support for Fatah” in a statement published by the newspaper Free Palestine upon their return, disagreements within the left regarding the direction of the solidarity movement continued. At the founding conference of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in November 1969, to turn the existing small coordinating team into a national membership organisation, two Trotskyist groups walked out, leaving behind a leaflet headed “Why has PSC Failed?” Several camp participants continued their involvement in the PSC, until it collapsed a few years later, its executive committee accused of using the solidarity movement as a front for their dogmatic ideological positions. While solidarity with the Palestinian Revolution continued to grow elsewhere, the decline of the PSC was cited as an example by activist contemporaries who observed in it the danger that international solidarity with the ‘anti-imperial struggles of the Third World’ is compromised by divisions of the left in the ‘imperial metropoles’.
Whilst this danger was visible in the summer camp and its aftermath, such diversity of positions was also part of what made solidarity with Palestine so dynamic at the outset of its “golden age.” The range of organisations and ideologies in circulation at the time led to the proliferation of networks that collectively engaged a wide range of people in the questions and politics of Palestinian liberation and self-determination. Several of the camp participants went on to campaign for Palestine as prominent political, academic or activist voices in their home countries. Solidarity initiatives like the summer camp also contributed to a growing awareness of the connections between the Palestinian movement and antiracist and anti-imperial struggles globally, an awareness which forms the bedrock of Palestine solidarity organising today.
The story of the summer camp is a reminder that the solidarity movement with Palestine – like other solidarity movements – has never been homogenous or exempt from internal political debate. The summer camp, then as now, can be a space to bring people together around a common cause, to learn from each other, agree and disagree on principles and strategies, and establish relationships from which new political imaginaries might emerge.
Feature image: ‘Arms That Liberate It,’ Abdel Rahman Al Muzain, Fatah (c1979, Lebanon) from the Palestine Poster Project Archives.