‘The Nation’ and the privileging of Jewish voices on Israel/Palestine

Israel/PalestineUS Politics

An important argument has broken out between the Electronic Intifada and The Nation over the issue of the left privileging Jewish voices on the conflict and not being hospitable to Palestinians.

Screenshot: Electronic Intifada

Screenshot: Electronic Intifada

Three days back, Electronic Intifada published Rania Khalek’s piece, “Does The Nation have a problem with Palestinians?”, saying that the magazine gives Jews and Zionists assignments in disproportion to others and that it is pulling up the rear on Palestinian solidarity, which should be front and center for progressives.

The Nation then responded with a piece by its executive editor, Richard Kim, titled “On The Nation and Palestinians,” saying that The Nation has published many Palestinian voices and that if it performs a balancing act, it is only reflecting the American liberal scene, which includes people who oppose the boycott movement, BDS.

Khalek began her piece by noting that the American Studies Association vote in favor of academic boycott of Israel is forcing the left to get its act together at last on the Israel/Palestine issue.

progressive media outlets are being forced to acknowledge Israeli apartheid like never before.

While it’s certainly an improvement from just five years ago, when pro-Palestine views were relegated to the most marginal corners of the left, the coverage has still been problematic, most notably for its near-blanket exclusion of Palestinian and Arab voices.

Khalek cites The Nation‘s imbalance in its forum on BDS (which we noted last week) and levels this charge:

The Nation habitually reinforces Israeli apartheid by privileging Jewish voices over Palestinian ones.

Kim responds that if Khalek had asked him, he

would have directed her to at least fourteen articles on Palestine by ten different Palestinian or Palestinian-American writers that we have published since the beginning of 2008 alone.

our archive in this regard is a rich and varied one. It includes contributions by some of the most prominent Palestinian activists, scholars and journalists in the world, including the founders of ISM and BDS.

Kim points out that The Nation has done a lot to expose the occupation (including a piece we often link, by a liberal Zionist describing the West Bank as “apartheid on steroids”).

Of course, the lib-left media broadly suffer from the racism that Khalek identifies. How many Palestinians appear on MSNBC? The Nation is a lightning rod for Khalek’s criticism because of the presence there of an ardent Zionist, Eric Alterman, who obviously has a constituency inside The Nation‘s liberal Jewish New York community. Khalek is withering on this point:

Worse still is the continued employment of The Nation columnist Eric Alterman, whose well-documented racist hostility toward Palestinians is regularly praised by right-wing outlets like Commentary and the Washington Free Beacon.

Kim never refers to Alterman, but he acknowledges the presence of Zionists inside the left. American liberals now need “to wrestle” with the Palestinian call for solidarity, he says diplomatically, and points out that the Park Slope coop voted against boycott. The Nation‘s forums

were weighted towards an American audience—because those were the moral agents being asked to make a choice. Should they have included more Palestinian voices? That is a perfectly fair—and quite interesting—subject for discussion.

Khalek is particularly biting when she compares the Nation’s support for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to its dithering re the BDS movement.

There is no shortage of Jewish American writers at The Nation lecturing Palestinians about what constitutes acceptable resistance to Israeli apartheid. The Nation justifies publishing these opinions in the name of diversity. But that certainly wasn’t the case at in the days of South African apartheid.

A search through The Nation’s archives reveals unflinching condemnation of South Africa’s apartheid regime and editorial support for the divestment movement in its earliest days.

In the 16 August 1965 issue, Stanley Meisler (who would later become an LA Times foreign and diplomatic correspondent) refers to South Africa as an “evil” and “neo-Fascist state” (“Our Stake in Apartheid”). Fast forward to 2013, and the magazine is printing Eric Alterman’s tantrum-induced smears of Max Blumenthal for having the audacity to write a book about Israel’s descent into fascism….

An article in the 24 January 1987 issue opens with: “The appalling intransigence of the South African government in the face of worldwide pressure to abandon its apartheid laws, its brutality and violence, its censorship of the press, have combined to elicit a dramatic resurgence of corporate-action campaigns in mainstream America” (“Corporate Accounting: Give Your Dollars a Political Spin”).

That The Nation feels compelled to continue hosting debates on the merits of BDS is troubling given that no such debate existed at the magazine during South Africa’s apartheid regime. The existence of apartheid was not subject to debate then, and it shouldn’t be now.

This is an important battle. That Khalek drew Kim’s response is a positive reflection on The Nation‘s sense of responsibility on this urgent question, a sign that The Nation understands it can’t be AWOL on Palestine. (Phil thinks Alterman is going the way of Chris Hitchens, out of the left community over a central issue).

It is bracing it is to read Khalek counting the Jewish writers. Any reader of this site knows we think this is difficult but necessary work, scrutinizing Jewish privilege. This tweet from Ali Abunimah tells the story:

.@Ali_Gharib @thenation has published 14 articles by all Palestinians in 6 years. It’s published 25 just by Neve Gordon and Bernard Avishai

— Ali Abunimah (@AliAbunimah) December 22, 2013

At times we have done the same sort of counting vis-a-vis the Council on Foreign Relations, the State Department, NPR and so on. This issue isn’t unique to The Nation, if anything the numbers reflect the broader cultural bias against Palestinians and Arabs more generally. Pointing this out doesn’t make us anti-Semites; it means we believe in diversity, and broadening the perspectives through which this issue and the region is understood. More and more media seem to understand the need for diversity here, including Huffington Post.

We are somewhat enmeshed in this controversy. We have been privileged as Jewish voices at The Nation–and also casualties of the organization’s timidity on the issue. We were invited to write cover articles for the magazine on the BDS movement and shifting American Jewish views on the conflict and we were also shown the door at the Nation Institute (our past fiscal sponsor) because our stance against Israeli apartheid made some uncomfortable. Still we maintain active friendships with the magazine, and our publisher Scott Roth is a Nation partner. As an institution, The Nation still struggles over these issues and Electronic Intifada is right to force the question. As Naomi Klein, another Nation friend, points out:


The Nation should view Khalek’s critique as an opportunity to lead by introducing the left-liberal community to the Palestinians who are charting the way towards freedom, equality and justice in Israel/Palestine. Rather than reflecting American cultural bias against Palestinians, The Nation should challenge it. This is their chance.

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