Exile and the Prophetic: The ‘Free Gaza’ tweets and the challenge for those seeking justice for Israel/Palestine

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

The Free Gaza movement is fracturing. A number of Jewish and non-Jewish former Board members and supporters of the Free Gaza movement are distancing themselves over issues of anti-Semitism.

I’ve had experience in resigning Board membership. Years ago I and other Jews resigned from a Board sponsoring a memorial on Deir Yassin on similar grounds.

The issue in the Free Gaza movement is comparable to the one I experienced in the Deir Yassin memorialization organization. Over time, both developed various takes on Jewish participation in the Holocaust and Holocaust denial. My experience is that those who attempt to dilute the horror of the Holocaust for political or other reasons are practicing a form of anti-Semitism. They are hitting at Jews as Jews.

Don’t get me wrong. With regard to anti-Semitism, I believe that much has changed for the better. I know as well that residuals of anti-Semitism exist. What hasn’t changed on anti-Semitism won’t change unless we deal with some politically incorrect issues.

From what I gather, the leadership of the Free Gaza movement circulated a video and statements that charged “Zionists” with overseeing the Holocaust and concentration camps. Whatever the details of this twisted affair, the whole thing is ridiculous and insidious. Let the protesting former Board members explanation set the discussion:

As former board members of the Free Gaza movement (our terms ended in August, as outlined in a 22 September statement released by Free Gaza, though this was not immediately reflected in parts of the Free Gaza website), we are disappointed and frustrated by the message and video posted on the Free Gaza Twitter account entitled: “Zionists Ran the Holocaust and the Concentration Camps” and by the subsequent messaging posted by Greta Berlin on behalf of the new board of Free Gaza II. Although the tweet was deleted and Free Gaza II clarified that the posting was a mistake and pertinent context overlooked, we believe that the responses posted by Greta on behalf of Free Gaza II have been inadequate. Consultations and efforts made by some of the former members of the board with the current board members were either rejected or set aside, which has added to our disappointment. We had hoped that Greta would provide evidence of the context in which she says she posted the video, but her failure to do so has led us to now publicly voice our deep concern.

Disappointed? Frustrated? Inadequate? Clarified? These are interesting terms to be used at this point in history. The entire episode is sickening.

Indeed, we don’t seem to learn much in our dealings with anti-Semitism. Trying to counter anti-Semitism by labeling it racism or prejudice as the resigning former Board members do, or referring to Jews simply as an ethnic group as Norman Finkelstein did at the American Jewish relationship with Israel forum at the New School a few days ago, is to tread a politically correct line that goes nowhere. This is true as well with Anna Baltzer’s forum presentation emphasizing the need to stop privileging Jewish voices on the issue of Israel/Palestine.

True, anti-Semitism is a form of racism. Anti-Semitism is prejudice. A major theme of Jewish history is ethnicity. Jewish voices have been privileged on the issue of Israel/Palestine. Have you noticed, though, how those Jews who resign from Boards, disassociate themselves from movements to oppose anti-Jewish racism and prejudice or discuss Jewish ethnicity and the privileging of Jewish voices at forums, are relentless advocates on these issues and speak with a distinctive voice?

In the West at least, though no doubt beyond the West as well, I state it boldly: Jews are not simply an ethnic group that has experienced racism and prejudice. Nor are Jews perceived as such. No matter how irritating the thought is to those who espouse the universal values of freedom and equality, anti-Semitism will not be dealt with effectively in this framework. Otherwise, after all these years, why would anti-Semitism persist so blatantly in anti-racism movements on the Left?

In the Free Gaza movement what was circulated widely was evidently supposed to be reserved for a smaller group. The significant story is that such claims could be considered by anyone for any group, large or small. I doubt that such claims would have been considered about African-Americans, Muslims of any stripe, or any other ethnic group that has experienced racism or prejudice. Would video tweets about these groups been sent to even the smaller group? Then why could this be tolerated, indeed promoted, about Jews?

The larger question isn’t about tweeting. The real issue is thinking in these terms. At this point in history, how can such a movement or parts thereof even consider such thoughts?

As well, the claim that Zionism is about a specific movement rather than Jews, therefore narratives such as was circulated are not anti-Semitic, is ridiculous. True, there are Zionists other than Jews and not all Jews are Zionists. However, used in this way, Zionists is code – for Jews. Simply put, what was circulated by the leadership of the Free Gaza movement wasn’t an attempt to deconstruct Zionism in a fair and political way.

I return to the use the word “tolerated” on purpose. Read the following in the former Board members statement:

We unequivocally reject and distance ourselves from the tweeted video. Such anti-Semitism was never tolerated by Free Gaza or any of the people or groups with which we have worked. We condemn all forms of racism and prejudice, including anti-Semitism.

While I don’t want attach too much weight to words in relation to a statement of purpose, nonetheless, “tolerated” is crucial here I wonder if the former Board members are primarily dismayed that anti-Semitism hasn’t been disciplined or censored by the movement. Or are they incredulous that such thoughts about Jews continue to exist at all. The prior question is where these thoughts come from. Why do such thoughts about Jews continue to exist within movements that are intentionally anti-racist?

Jews who argue “toleration” are fooling themselves. Jews who argue against racism and prejudice don’t appear to others only within the categories of race and ethnicity. Though anti-Semitic adversaries are wrong in their conclusions about Jews, Jewish power and the conspiracy theories that come along with them, they are correct that Jews represent something more than race, prejudice and ethnicity.

What do Jews represent? Jews represent the prophetic in its various forms, a distinctive line in history that is ancient and contemporary. Jews represent a type of prophetic engagement that is not completely assimilated. Jews are not explainable solely within the usual sociological classifications.

Jews also represent empire, assimilate and seek to normalize their condition. My point here is less Jewish exceptionalism or the creation of a privileged ontological status for Jews. What Jews and non-Jews think about these classifications is beside the point politically. The fact that for millennia, Jews have seen themselves as different and have been seen by others as different is enough for my purposes here.

In history, the combination of seeing oneself and being seen in certain ways is decisive. The politics of this combination is well known historically. The politics of this combination today is likewise well known.

It could be that a just political settlement of the Israel/Palestine divide will bring an end to the understanding that Jews are distinctive. This would be a novum in history. Whether Jews and others would benefit from the diminution of Jewish distinctiveness is an interesting point to discuss. I, for one, doubt this will happen and doubt it would good for Jews or for humanity. Regardless it hasn’t happened yet. It won’t happen in our lifetimes.

Jews are the same as others. Jews aren’t the same as others. Since this is historically the case and today the case, why not let it be?

In the former Board members’ statement the theme of toleration is coupled with a universal appeal for freedom. Though I support such an appeal, this is yet another mistake about Israel/Palestine:

We continue to support initiatives to end Israel’s illegal blockade on the Gaza Strip and its occupation and colonial apartheid practices in Palestine as a whole. It is imperative to be vigilant against racism in all its forms. It is also vital to work for the freedom of all people, and in our efforts to support Palestinians, it is the universal struggle for freedom that has motivated, sustained and guided the efforts of Free Gaza.

Though the universal appeal contains a truth, in the case of Israel/Palestine it has limited value. Freeing Gaza is not, first and foremost, a universal struggle. Freeing Gaza is a particular Palestinian struggle that has garnered support around the world. For Palestinians to mistake their struggle as universal rather than particular is to make a similar mistake that Jews on the Left make about anti-Semitism. It assumes that Jews and Palestinians are subsumed within the larger category of struggles for justice and that others have the same claim on the future of Israel/Palestine that Jews and Palestinians do.

Once you go universal, Jews and Palestinians become iconic figures. In Jean-Francois Lyotard’s language, Jews and Palestinians become “jews” and “palestinians.” As with anti-Semitism as a political force, the iconic nature of Jews and Palestinians has to be negotiated. However, for Jews and Palestinians to cede their struggle to others is an error. This is different than using others as a tool of political leverage.

That Jews – and Palestinians – have a distinctive voice should be more than tolerated. It should be accentuated. It should be celebrated.

Claiming that Jews – and Palestinians – are universal types is the mistake of mistakes. In that light, we become a positive and negative cause for others who discipline and censor – even tweet – our voice as their own.

What does this mean for activists seeking justice for Israel/Palestine? It means, first and foremost, what we know already about the many sharp angles confronting that hope. Whether we like it or not, the Israel/Palestine situation is unlike any other on the world scene. Likewise it means that attempts to shortcut this difference will only enhance the voice of those who seek that justice for reasons that reside outside the ordinary lives of Jews and Palestinians. Moreover, the natural frustration at the years of negative movement in Israel/Palestine brings out the worse aspects of a struggle that is so particular it irritates the inner workings of movements that demand justice in a universal setting they claim as humanity’s birthright.

On the positive side, activists should welcome the testing that comes with this “intractable” conflict that we “know” can be resolved. Since everyone and their brother/sister are involved and self-interested in the Israel/Palestine conflict, the political, economic, military, cultural and religious intelligence we need to apply is enormous.

One day that intelligence will win out. What we don’t know is how many people will suffer and die in the meantime.

The “meantime” is crucial. It is a learning time that can be applied over the long haul. Our first learning is that treating Jews and Palestinians as if they’re universal types is a mistake. Unfortunately – and in this case, logically – it leads to tweets that prove just the opposite.

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What you say, Marc, is always very deep but sometimes shallow has its uses. So here are some shallow waters for you – Jewish people are in the forefront of the struggle for palestinian rights. That this should be so is indeed part of the prophetic tradition from whence they came -as you often say. However, Jews cannot apparently divorce themselves from their own privileged status of “eternal victims”, even when they are part of… Read more »

“Trying to counter anti-Semitism by labeling it racism or prejudice as the resigning former Board members do, or referring to Jews simply as an ethnic group as Norman Finkelstein did at the American Jewish relationship with Israel forum at the New School a few days ago, is to tread a politically correct line that goes nowhere.”

Oh, brother…

Ellis writes: “Otherwise, after all these years, why would anti-Semitism persist so blatantly in anti-racism movements on the Left?” but doesn’t really address his own question properly. There are many explanations for today’s version of anti-Semitism, not the least of which is that much of the world is uneducated and/or deeply attached to conspiracy theories. WorldNet Daily, FOX, etc. in the West certainly flog right-wing conspiracies among “low-information” voters. Similarly and unfortunately, one finds plenty… Read more »

Thank you for explaining why the twitter was antisemitic. My instinct said it was, logic said it wasn’t. Logic says it isn’t antisemitic to accuse one group of Jews (zionists) with assisting in mass murder of millions, however false the charge. It isn’t, after all, anti-Palestinian to say that Palestinians are running Gaza or the West Bank bantustans (internally at least). It isn’t anti-Palestinian to say that some of them collaborate with Israel. But, as… Read more »

“Jews are the same as others. Jews aren’t the same as others. Since this is historically the case and today the case, why not let it be?”

I would appreciate some elboration on these points which you have expressed before on previous posts. Also on the idea of what you refered to as the Jewish quest for normalization.