Last night I went to a Gaza fundraiser in New York City (hosted by Helen Schiff in the Village) and came away with the impression that the Gaza war has brought the Israel/Palestine issue deeply into progressive American political life as never before. Gaza is destroying the old orthodoxy we call PEP: Progressive Except for Palestine.
PEP was based largely on a Jewish cultural resistance to discussing the treatment of the Palestinians, out of generational Holocaust fear or the fear of stoking anti-Semitism. And of course Jews were central to American liberal activity.
That resistance is what I say is breaking down. Dorothy Zellner, of Jews Say No, a post-Gaza group, urged others in the room to join her group's activities, saying boldly, "This is Jewish resistance to the state of Israel's policies." In the bedroom of the apartment, a video played of Code Pink's recent trip to Gaza, featuring Iraq war activist Medea Benjamin, who is Jewish woman and who has, I am told, largely stayed away from the Israel/Palestine issue until recently. Yesterday I spoke with both a Jew and a Palestinian-American who told me that Gaza had politicized them. And Alissa Wise, the rabbi who led the Nakba remembrance in Union Square, told me that Gaza had "radicalized" another of the rabbis in her Nakba group.
This is important because in previous years the organized Jewish community was successful in labelling harsh criticism of Israel as being anti-Semitic. The American Jewish Committee did it in a famous report 3 years back; Larry Summers, then of Harvard, did it; and left leaders like Mark Green of Air America enforced a Dershowitzian line among their adherents; and such warnings scared people off the issue. The Palestinian-American I met last night is a Manhattan professional; and he said that he was loath to speak about Palestine because Americans saw Palestinians as suicide bombers, nothing more. That's changed; now he's reading Norman Finkelstein.
What struck me last night was the fact that the Palestinian experience has at last fully entered the progressive movement's space. A young man played the oud, beautifully. The Palestinian-American poet Fareed Bitar read poetry. "One day Goliath will end. Long live Palestine!" Vinie Burrows read the play "Seven Jewish Children," with its specific condemnation of Jewish attitudes towards Palestinians; and no one flinched. On the video, a Palestinian boy described the murder of his mother and siblings in the Samouni family massacre in Gaza City, and then the Martin Luther King "I had a dream speech" played over the Gaza imagery.
Two questions: how powerful is this movement? Well, we are part of Obama's base, by and large. And what is the agenda? Rage at the occupation and America's involvement in it, and fairness to the Palestinians, no matter the terms, one state or two.