Steven Salaita wrote recently that we must exclude Zionists from left-oriented protests. I don’t agree with him. I think any movement that has no room for Noam Chomsky, Uri Avnery, Lisa Goldman and IfNotNow because they are or have been Zionists is not a broad one nor one that will be successful.
I came to the movement for Palestinian solidarity as a liberal. I’d been blacklisted by my former elite media employers for my anti-Zionist convictions in the wake of the Iraq war, and gained support from two communities, the conservative national interest crowd and the radical left crowd. I developed respect and affection for members of both those communities, though neither completely reflected my views. And let me emphasize that I speak here as one writer; this site reflects a diversity of opinion.
Over time the left community became dominant at this website and in the Palestinian solidarity movement, while the national interest group moved on to other questions and is today split by Trumpism. That’s just how things fell out. As someone whose goals were primarily to extricate American foreign policy and Jewish politics from the Zionist agenda, I joined the radical left community because its human rights values are so compelling and because it leads the anti-Zionist movement.
And yet the ultimate political question remains, how we convince other Americans, most of whom are sympathetic to Zionism if not Zionists themselves, of the rightness of our stance.
Salaita worries that the presence of Zionists will be a hindrance to creating a “sense of community,” and more must be said about that word, Community. Today it is a truism in the mainstream media that U.S. politics are “tribal,” and certainly that holds for political communities, right, left and center too. Everyone agrees. They have shibboleths that they repeat to make sure that no one who isn’t of like mind doesn’t join up—if you don’t believe the Russia story or you support BDS, you can’t be in the mainstream tribe, for instance. The internet has accelerated this trend, because birds of a feather can now find one another across huge distances. These new communities have wielded power. They helped to elect Trump. They are driving the Metoo movement and BLM and the immigrant rights movement and Palestinian solidarity too: such is the intersectional spirit of progressive politics today.
These communities differ from traditional geographical groupings, religious-communal ones, and intellectual and political ones too. Intellectual life was neither as hived nor as democratic when I was young as it is now. There used to be liberal generalist magazines. They reflected privilege and the barriers that a guild erected to preserve an elite, but they told people what to think, and helped create consensus in the Democratic establishment. That liberal consensus gave us the Iraq war and the Israel lobby.
Today the center cannot hold, and I don’t want it back; but it’s not as if the communities that we have on the left are all that broad. They’re grassroot communities, which thrive through social media and radical intensity. They are not very interested in convincing people who disagree; that’s not the “conversation” they’re having. They rally their forces and aim to win by sweeping mainstream media opinion along with them. This has been the pattern of the Metoo movement. It has succeeded by a wave of cultural and generational intensity aided by the shock of a groper being in the White House instead of the woman who won a majority of the votes.
Palestinian solidarity will not sweep to victory in this fashion. There are too many stops on it inside mainstream culture. Maybe the Ahed Tamimi case is what Ferguson was for Black Lives Matter, vaulting the movement to a wider following inside the Democratic left. I hope so. But we are not going to win the battle over Israel and Palestine in the U.S. without Zionists shedding their Zionism. As Sarah Schulman advised the BDS conference at Penn a few years ago: You’re a vanguard movement, like queer rights once was; and you will have to put aside ideological purity tests to grow your following.
However much Zionism is a settler colonial project, as leftwing intellectuals contend, it is not a traditional colonial project. It arose after the colonial era was declared finished, it battled a colonial power for a time with terrorism, and its root is not a colonial power’s interests but the religious nationalism of a formerly-persecuted people, Jews, who have great prestige in the west and huge influence inside the Democratic Party. Most American Jews are supportive of Zionism, older Jews often vehemently. Many have sincere reason to be Zionists, as black people had good reason to be black nationalists: Their experience taught them that they were not safe in the west. I reject this understanding and spend my working hours trying to discredit these views for the next generation because they strike me as selfish and racist. But there it is: Many Zionists genuinely regard Zionism as a liberation movement.
They need to be unpersuaded of their Zionism through argument/discussion. As Lisa Goldman said of the Ahed Tamimi case, brutalized Nabi Saleh was where her Zionism died. What a brave statement, by a thoughtful progressive. We need more Lisa Goldman’s to have that revelation. I see my work as pointing out Palestinian conditions to Jews and liberal Zionists and American Zionists in an earnest and angry but also respectful way. These people bar the gate to the Democratic Party. I want them to agonize about stuff we write here; but I never wish to exclude them; because the battle happens in the United States. Steven Salaita himself recently wrote for a Zionist publication, the Forward, surely out of the same impulse; that is where the power is. (As it was at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in 2014, when the board and chancellor held secret discussions to fire him). I batten on to Roger Cohen of The New York Times because I am hopeful he will be on our side one day, as I am hopeful of the New Israel Fund (which will host the non-Zionist Avraham Burg’s tour). And look: Tablet is now running Yakov Hirsch.
Salaita rightly deplores all the energy that goes to catering to Zionist anxieties—“to assuage Zionist fragility,” as he puts it so well. He’s right, it is maddening. But that is the game board in the U.S. This is a country devoted to Zionism. Throwing the Zionists out of the Chicago dyke march struck me as a mistake. It armed the Bari Weisses of the world to state that the left is rigidly orthodox. Such approaches allow middle-of-the-roaders to write the movement off as intolerant and doctrinaire. And they leave me as someone who prizes open-mindedness, who is not entirely sure how things will end over there, and who is duly apprehensive about the many proposed paths, uncomfortable with the righteousness. I have enormous respect for the radical left as the leaders on this question, the ones who drive the train; but I often think of the early feminist Margaret Fuller’s critique of the abolitionists, they were dedicated to a high cause, but as company, they were tedious, narrow and rabid.
Today Palestinian solidarity is as righteous a cause as abolition, and engaged in similar work: bringing freedom to a group of people far away. But abolition succeeded in the end because of a terrible bloodletting and because a great number of people in the middle came over to its point of view. (Abraham Lincoln was a colonizer at one point: his answer was to ship blacks back to Africa. He wanted nothing to do with abolitionists.) It is my fear of a massive bloodletting in Israel and Palestine that leads me to support BDS and to try and build a broad coalition to pressure Israel toward democracy. I have no doubt that many Palestinians would prefer the peaceful path. As Salaita says, Arab “sensibilities” have been left out of the American discussion of this issue. But there are also conservative Arabs; as the support for dictators in Egypt and Syria (and the Saudi flirtation with Israel) reminds us. For us to write off all Zionists is like the Democratic Party ignoring Obama-turned-Trump voters in Michigan and Wisconsin.
The biggest reason for inviting anyone into our rooms is that our side has the winning hand, and we should have great confidence in our beliefs. Conditions in Palestine are awful, but almost every event of the last year has increased Palestinian prestige in the eyes of the world. The 50th anniversary of the occupation with more settlements, the identification of Trump and Netanyahu, the medic-turned-killer case and its revelations about Israeli intolerance; the Jerusalem embassy decision and the Ahed Tamimi case that flowed from it; the savagely-stupid responses of Zionist leaders from Shaked to Oren– all these events show reasonable people that the Palestinians have been screwed again and again, and Israel is a Goliath. The crashing favorability numbers in the Democratic Party are a demonstration of the fact that we are winning; and if South Africa is a model, the battle ultimately is for liberal Democrats who are committed to equal rights and separation of church and state. Like my Congressman who has a safe seat but says he is with Israel till the death, and BDS is anti-semitic.
For years the Zionists have maintained their control by shutting out our views. I have been blacklisted, Steven Salaita lost his tenure-track job. The 92d Street Y can’t have a Palestinian alone on its stage, our leading outlets fall over one another to promote Israeli propaganda about its wonderful assassins; the New Yorker publishes a provincial Zionist’s account of the Lydda expulsion— and ignores a masterpiece account by Raja-e Busailah who lived through it. Some day this racist exclusion will be the subject of museum exhibits and scholarly conferences. Why when we have the moral high ground should we imitate that censorship?