I’m going to be traveling in days to come but wanted to convey some telegraphic thoughts from the Penn BDS conference of last weekend. A friend said that thankfully identity politics were kept to a minimum, that in the diverse crowd no one held up their identity as a badge, and the conversation was about human rights. While this is true and an achievement, I was as usual attuned to shifts in Jewish life evident at the conference, and here are a few observations.
At Sunday afternoon’s talk by Max Blumenthal and Sarah Schulman, Schulman spoke of the pattern of “Jewish substitution”– the need on the Establishment’s part to seek Jewish voices about the issue. Well, I felt a twinge, because Schulman and Blumenthal were in front of us, both Jewish, and I was about to be on a panel about the media with Blumenthal and Helena Cobban. (And Penn chairman David Cohen and president Amy Gutmann had come out against the conference days before; and the Super Bowl taking place later that day had two teams with Jewish owners; as I insisted at my panel, we make up a significant part of the establishment.)
At my media panel, Amy Kaplan, the great English prof at Penn who participated in the conference despite a storm of contumely and smear, asked the journalists whether the Nakba was ever going to be covered by the mainstream press. “How important is history to reporting events in the present, in the context of trying to get out an alternative view which is suppressed by the mainstream?” she asked.
I said that it was essential that Americans learn about the Nakba, it was great old/new news essential to an understanding of the refugees, and that inevitably the New York Times Magazine would run a Nakba piece but in the form of the emotional water-slide that Blumenthal and I had shot down some years before– the Times would have a young Jew waking up to the crimes committed by the Zionists 64 or 74 years ago, whenever the Times gets round to it. This is not news. Palestinians have known about it for a long time. But that’s the way the media will deal with it. Another Jew in recovery from suppressed memories will discover ethnic cleansing and the early Zionists’ program for a “strong” Jewish majority in the land.
Subsequently a black woman in the audience rose to observe that the same thing had taken place during the civil rights struggle. “We call that the white gaze,” she said, poetically.
I was then aware that my need to fix my own community, to push them toward recognitions, to undo the Israel lobby, to get them out of selfish nationalism, will limit my effectiveness in the Palestinian solidarity movement. That’s OK; I will support that movement and put my shoulder to the wheel. But I took some pleasure– watching a panel on the Jewish response featuring members of Jewish Voice for Peace– hearing Liza Behrendt, a Brandeis graduate, saying that she wants to get Zionists on board with boycotting Israel. Later a friend said that Behrendt was naive, but I saw value in Behrendt’s idea. At AIPAC I have often been struck that here are 5000 or 7000 people in a room acting in some measure out of charity: they are working for people they don’t know on the other side of the world. Now it happens that they are ethnocentric, nationalist and are clapping at racist statements– still they are pouring out energy and money for people they don’t know. And I believe that energy can be shifted.
The mood of the BDS conference was so relentlessly positive, so hopeful, so alive with the concern for human rights, that I see it as inevitable that young Jews will want to align themselves with this program. Some of them may want to come as Zionists, and undo Zionism from inside. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing. The Palestinian condition was created chiefly by Jews. And just as Holocaust evasion ended in a great cultural moment in the 1970s, Nakba denial will also end in a great cultural moment that is coming soon. Young Jews will be thirsting for knowledge of those events, and thirsting to try to repair the damage.
During the conference, I stayed at my mother’s house, and she pressed on me a Soda Stream seltzer-maker she’d bought for my wife. I told her I couldn’t take it; and I thought she was for the two-state solution, Soda Stream is occupying the land the Palestinians were supposed to get. Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb suggested I take it and bury it. But the incident shows how backward my community is, how sunk. I love my mother. I want to help that community redeem itself.
Ali Abunimah said the highlight of Alan Dershowitz’s talk before the conference at the Jewish Federations came when a young Jew said, Yes Israel is a great democracy, etc, etc, but didn’t we throw those people off their land? The right question, Abunimah said; and Dershowitz answered with lies, that there were hardly any Palestinians there, etc. The young man’s question is not going away.