Post-Gaza, Palestinian issue has finally entered the American progressive bloodstream

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 15 Comments

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.

15 Responses

  1. Donald
    May 15, 2009, 4:35 pm

    Off topic (slightly), but the PCHR has put out a report on the children killed in Gaza during the recent war. (Maybe Phil has mentioned this already–I haven't looked very carefully.) link My link is to a news release–if you go there you'll find a link to the report itself, in pdf format.

  2. thedhimmi
    May 15, 2009, 4:43 pm

    How powerful is this movement? Not very. The whole "progressive" movement doesn't amount to much. Your candidates, when you have candidates, never get elected and mostly draw a small fraction of the electorate. People do laugh, shake their heads and cross the street when they see the pro Palestinian demonstrations at Union Square. Only a small percentage of New York Jews buy into Alissa Wise as being a Rabbi, far fewer care much about her opinions.

  3. theprotectedone
    May 15, 2009, 4:50 pm

    All movements begin very small. Tomorrow belongs too.

  4. Saleema
    May 15, 2009, 4:59 pm

    there was a time when people used to laugh at the Jews, and used to put up signs at their resturaunt doors, "No dogs or Jews allowed." Look where Jews are today. Times change, don't they? There was a time when people stood silently by as the Nazis killed Jews. No one cared. Look where Jews are today. Times change.

  5. RowanBerkeley
    May 15, 2009, 5:00 pm

    Who's Helen Schiff? Is she a wealthy progressive lady? We've seen a few of those before.

  6. rykart
    May 15, 2009, 5:18 pm

    In a few years, we'll (hopefully) see signs saying "no dogs or Israelis allowed." But we must bear in mind that the horrors of Gaza are not new. The Israelis have been committing ghastly massacres on a regular basis for 60 years. People like Einstein were thoroughly repulsed by them decades ago, and said as much. Things have only gotten worse.

  7. dalybean
    May 15, 2009, 5:42 pm

    I think that if you try to broaden your scope to include progressive Catholics, who are opinion leaders in America along with Jews, it would be helpful.

  8. jon
    May 15, 2009, 5:58 pm

    The Palestinians will deserve a state when they and their Arab- Muslim supporters prove by their actions that they are prepared to allow Israel to exist in peace and have no intention of flooding a Palestinian state with "refugees" who might very well be used to finish the job so many of them wish Adolf Hitler had completed. The question Netanyahu should ask President Obama is whether the U.S. wants to sustain the first democracy in the Middle East or whether it wishes to create another terrorist state.

  9. RowanBerkeley
    May 15, 2009, 6:36 pm

    terrorists nazis islamofascists bla bla bla.

  10. Jim Haygood
    May 15, 2009, 6:52 pm

    Why is Rowan reciting his resume?

  11. DICKERSON3870
    May 15, 2009, 9:41 pm

    RE: "The question Netanyahu should ask President Obama is whether the U.S. wants to sustain the first democracy in the Middle East or whether it wishes to create another terrorist state." MY COMMENT: Whether the U.S. wants to…create ANOTHER terrorist state? So you are admitting that Israel is a terrorist state created by the U.S. Excellent! This is a major 'break through'. We're making progress!

  12. American
    May 16, 2009, 2:36 am

    Boy are you clueless in New York……90% of America doesn't live in Jewish enclaves or around Jewish culture or care about Israel one way or another. What they do pay attention to is their own local hometown newspapers and during Gaza mine front paged pictures of dead Gaza children and blistered israel and the US congress in it's editoral….and this paper is your typical Southern conservative mouthpiece down here in religous land. Checking local papers across the state the coverage was same……disgust, shock and outrage. The jig is up for Israel. Americans always champion the underdogs and Palestine is the now the favored underdog of the American street. .

  13. ellen
    May 16, 2009, 10:45 am

    Phil said: "Two questions: how powerful is this movement? Well, we are part of Obama's base, by and large." I would like to know your evidence for saying this. The movement that I am part of – progressive Jews who are critical of Israel – VERY critical – is NOT part of "Obama's base". All this fascination with Obama is irrelevant, we are about educating the American public to what Israel is doing [has done] to the Palestinians. We are neither pro nor anti Obama. It is insulting and inaccurate to link all of us up with Obama and his "base". [whatever that is]. It's wonderful that the use of white phosphorous and the use of new war weapons which leave its weapons with cancer when it doesn't kill them has turned some of these progressive Jews like Medea into critics of Israel. Where were they ten years ago…five years ago…five months ago? Things weren't bad enough then? Yeah, Medea, join the rest of us. About time you caught up.

  14. LeaNder22
    May 16, 2009, 1:53 pm

    "Is she a wealthy progressive lady?" I've met impressive wealthy people, as I have met self-righteous imposters among the poor. There's no rule to ethics along class or camp lines. What triggered this response? The name Schiff? (the German term for "ship" by the way)

  15. Laria
    May 16, 2009, 7:29 pm

    Like Phil says, antizionsim is the new zionism. Separatism, ethnic cleansing, segregation, and depriving people of their rights and homes by declaring them the wrong religion — these things belong to the past. Americans know a civil rights struggle when they see one. Yes, Olmert was right — South Africa's fate has come to Israel. Tear down that wall. Those who want to live in equality will stay, those that don't can leave.

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