“It’s like sleeping with a corpse,” Ilan Pappe said of the two-state solution, at the Israel Lobby and American Policy Conference this past Friday. “We should all attend the funeral and we can put this past us already.” Pappe’s remarks–which reflected the theme threaded throughout the day of looking directly into the dark times we are in–were in response to John Kerry’s 2014 statement that Israel must adopt the two-state solution or risk becoming an apartheid state. “It’s already dead,” Pappe said at his keynote address, given at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. For this former Zionist turned anti-Zionist, the day was a refreshing batch of unapologetic anti-Israel lobby and anti-occupation speakers.
John Mearsheimer’s keynote warned of grim times ahead, as he focused on what’s happened in the last ten years–and what he expects to happen now–since the publication of his book, The Israel Lobby, co-authored with Stephen Walt. He talked about the perpetual special connection maintained between Israel and the U.S. “Israel’s relationship with the U.S., which is unparalleled in history,” Mearsheimer said, “is almost all due to the Israel lobby.”
When I heard Mearsheimer speak many years ago at the University of Chicago, where he teaches, it was as a Zionist, enraged at what I thought was his Israel-bashing. I had my own special relationship with Israel–a love affair, really, that took precedence over other human lovers–for the first half of my life. Back then, I had gone to bear witness to this “Israel-hating-lefty,” as my family members called Mearsheimer. I yelled the whole drive home with the friend I had gone with, flabbergasted that he had the gall to criticize Israel. The change in me has been confusing for my mother. Just last week, when I told her I was going to the conference and was looking forward to hearing Mearsheimer speak, she reminded me of when I complained about his talk years ago. She also asked, “Isn’t Mearsheimer the Holocaust denier?”
At the one-day conference last Friday, when I listened to Mearsheimer speak, I remembered my inability to listen when I was a Zionist. Now my head feels more clear and open to the multiple narratives instead of the dominant Zionist one. Zionists spend so much energy refuting and defending that they have very little energy left to listen. That, plus the marriage of privilege and victimhood, makes for a toxic combination. Mearsheimer was just as unapologetic when I heard him speak years ago, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
On Friday, Mearsheimer said that hope lies in BDS. “It’s a global movement,” he said. BDS is viewed as an existential threat, he suggested, and the lobby will have a harder time fighting against BDS as apartheid becomes more obvious. “Dark times are ahead for Israel and the lobby,” he concluded. The “decades ahead promise abundant trouble for Israel and especially for the Palestinians,” he said. The Israel lobby will be working overtime, he warned, “to preserve the special relationship.”
Special relationships, if they last–and even if they don’t–are terribly unhealthy at their core. Under the guise of unconditional love, they play by their own rules and place themselves above everyone else. I’ve seen this dynamic on an interpersonal level among teachers and students, in enmeshed families between parents and children, and on this devastating global level among these two deeply destructive countries. Israel is the child who has never been held accountable and yet still receives the trust fund from its parent, the U.S. And like the child who is raised without healthy boundaries, it plays the victim when not given what it wants.
In her keynote, Hanan Ashrawi, too, talked about this “culture of enabling” perpetuated in Israel. “A soldier in uniform is considered the victim,” she said. “We are being held responsible for the safety of our occupiers.” To maintain its military control, Israel must maintain Palestinian weakness, and if a Palestinian stands up, she said, “then he or she is a terrorist.” Though I hadn’t met Ashrawi before, I was sent her book, This Side of Peace: A Personal Account, when it came out in 1996, by my ex-boyfriend Tavit, an Armenian Christian I had dated while living in Jerusalem in the 1990s. His mother is good friends with Ashrawi and asked her to sign the copy he sent me. “For Liz,” she wrote. “For a true and just peace.” At that time I was just beginning to understand the myth of Israel I was fed by those closest to me. I remember the first time when Tavit drove me past Ashrawi’s home in Ramallah. Even then, as we drove through the West Bank, dropping our cigarette butts out the window, Palestinian homes dotting the landscape, I still didn’t fully understand that it was all indigenous Palestinian land occupied by Israel. Now, years later, I can hardly imagine I didn’t know. It’s getting harder to remember that I believed the Zionist rhetoric.
There is a shame in moving from Zionism to anti-Zionism, a sense of privilege to have an epiphany while the occupation grows, one that requires a sense of urgency–playing catch-up–and, for me, it means acknowledging one’s ghosts while sitting in solidarity with others at the conference of the Israel Lobby and American Policy. My brother texted me in the middle of Ashrawi’s keynote. “Are you actually believing all that anti-Israel rhetoric?” he asked, as though I’m naive to see Palestinians, and not Israelis, as the true victims in this occupation of Palestine. “We Palestinians are guilty for existing, for surviving,” Ashrawi said in her keynote, noting the true victims in this power dynamic. “Please do not accept that we are a demographic threat,” she concluded. “Unlike Israel,” she said, “We abide by international law.”
I saw Ashrawi later that day in the hallway, and I wanted to approach her and tell her how moved I was by her talk, and by her book so many years ago. There were several others going towards her as well and then there was a microphone and a light and I saw she was being interviewed. I didn’t get a chance to speak to her, and then I thought it was appropriate not to. I’m sure she didn’t need to hear how a Jew has changed.
I remembered Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb talking many years ago about this sort of thing at a Jewish congregation in Chicago. “Stop talking to Palestinians about your journey,” she said. “They’re the ones living under occupation. Save it for other Jews.” This plea is similar to the anti-racism workshops I’ve done with other white people. The deep racial identity work that whites are required to do doesn’t need to be a burden on people of color, who are already living racialized lives. There’s a time and place for interracial work, too, which I’ve facilitated, but white people having epiphanies about their power and privilege isn’t necessarily one of them.
Similar to Ashrawi’s statement that “Israel silences all criticism,” filmmaker Tom Hayes, who spoke after Ashrawi, also talked about the efforts to silence his criticism of Israel in the making of his film, Two Blue Lines. The film consists of interviews he conducted over the last 25 years, primarily of Israelis whose political views on Zionism differ from Israeli policy. “If the only voices who are considered credible are Jews,” he claimed, “then I would make a film using Jewish voices.” When it comes to Israel, Hayes suggested, “we’re supposed to keep our mouths shut and our wallets open.” Hayes recounted the threats he received for opening his mouth about Israel’s atrocities, which included bomb threats on his home. Grants he had been awarded were taken away, forcing him to take a second mortgage on his home so he could finish the film. On the eve of the premier night, he said, the theater had to be evacuated due to a bomb threat.
Hayes wasn’t telling us these stories to claim victim space about making his film. Instead, he was trying to make clear that his being threatened was all due to his criticism of Israel. He noted that when he made a film about Cambodian refugees, no one complained. Parts of his new film were shown during the conference, and I was struck by comments made by Machsom Watch activist Hannah Berg in the film, who said pointedly, “History will make us pay for this.” Hayes ended his talk on another dark note. “Israel’s abuse is a disgusting thing to witness,” he said emphatically. “The Israeli occupation couldn’t last for one month without the support of the U.S.”
Ilan Pappe argued, in the last keynote of the day, that as much as the lobbies are important in influencing U.S. policy, there’s a “fundamental misunderstanding of what the conflict is really about.” The peace process was not “born in Washington, DC, but in Tel-Aviv, as a means of creating a charade of peace, he said. Part of the problem, Pappe claimed, is that America deals with conflict in a way that implies that both sides want peace. His talk focused on the need to see Zionism as a settler-colonial structure instead of as a movement. Pappe argued that having “two-states will never appease the settler-colonial project,” and said this idea has “not been digested by the American policy makers.” Pappe noted his frustration with two-state solution rhetoric, “when it’s so far away from the reality.” He referred to John Kerry’s 2014 remarks about the need for a two-state solution or Israel will become an apartheid state, saying, guess what Kerry, it’s already apartheid! Pappe then exclaimed, “Having one state, settlers and natives living in one state–why does this have to be a doomsday scenario? Only Zionists say this!”
While Pappe was talking, I remembered a conversation I had with my mother who said she didn’t see a distinction between Judaism and Zionism. They’re completely the same thing for her. She pulled rank with me that day we argued, saying, “It’s a generational thing that you can’t understand.” Zionism is not just a thing we did when we were young: waving flags of Israel on the Walk with Israel walk-a-thons, exploring our sexuality at Zionist socialist camps, dreaming at night of the hills and valleys of each other and of Judea and Samaria. It’s a settler-colonial structure. “And it’s racist,” Pappe said, referring to the fact that Palestinians cannot live as a majority in Palestine alongside settlers and natives.
Speaking further about settler colonialism, Pappe mentioned Patrick Wolfe’s essay, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” I read it on the flight home to Chicago. It begins, “The question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler colonialism.” Pappe used the concept of “elimination” in Wolfe’s paper to explain what Israel has done with the Palestinians. There’s no need to expel them, he said: you just prevent them from leaving and Israel has the manpower to monitor them. “Liberals around the world speak as though Israel has the right to do this,” he exclaimed. “If the world believes that you will stop the oppression, you can still convince the world that you are a democracy,” Pappe concluded. “This is why we need to look at Israel as settler colonialism.”
One of my personal goals in attending the conference was to ask Ilan Pappe to sign my coffee-stained weathered copy of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, for it is his book–and Ashrawi’s–that helped undo my Zionism. Hours before his keynote, I saw Pappe walking out towards the lobby area and I followed him and when he sat down on the brown leather chair, I sat next to him, pretending that I just happened to sit in the empty seat. “Oh, you’re Professor Pappe,” I said nonchalantly, and I told him in one minute–I had practiced this at home with my husband, hoping for the opportunity–how his book was instrumental in changing the deep mythology I held about Israel and Zionism. “It took me a year to get through it,” I told him. “It painfully explained everything that was missing in my Zionist upbringing.” Pappe signed my book (Dear Liz, in solidarity and friendship.), and empathized with being raised a Zionist. My minute was over; his graduate student approached him and Pappe motioned for him to sit where I had sat. I noted the coincidence of running into him (wink, wink), thanked him, and went back to my seat in the ballroom.
Throughout the day, each speaker looked directly into the darkness of the situation. Lessons have not been learned. The occupation persists. Some might say there should have been more optimism, but I’d argue against it. Why should the conference have presented a semblance of hope, when the situation in Palestine remains so dire? It’s not the job of the left to provide a rainbow for us to sit under so we can feel good. But what made me feel hopeful was the way in which every speaker gave a hauntingly truthful and dark account of what’s really happening.
In his talk, Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC, recounted the absurdity of the peace process. “Every administration since 1948 has made an attempt at the peace process,” he said. “The last one was the 76th attempt.” When Jahshan said this–it just sounded so insane–it hit hard how much power the Israel lobby continues to have on the hearts and minds of Zionists everywhere. “Lessons have not been learned,” he said. It was a refreshing amount of truth-telling, just a fifteen-minute walk from the White House. When I left the National Press Club and walked up 14th Street, I didn’t call my family to chat. Instead, I let Jahshan’s concluding words reverberte in my head. “Don’t blame me for not being optimistic,” he said.