This is a companion article to Heike Schotten’s “When ‘J’ means ‘Jewish’ Rather than ‘Justice’: On Zionism, Jewish Exceptionalism, and Jewish Supremacy in U.S. Palestine Solidarity Organizing.” The articles are part of an ongoing conversation in activist spaces about “Jews identifying as Jews”. We published Elisha Baskin and Donna Nevel on this issue recently. –Ed.
Palestinians have been denied the right to narrate their experience of oppression and to lead their struggle for liberation for too long. The official Palestinian leadership has helped maintain this silencing by participating in sham “peace processes” like the Oslo Accords, which ended in the creation of a Palestinian Authority (PA) that fails to represent Palestinians. It is estimated that between 28 and 32 percent of the PA budget goes to policing and prisons, not to protect Palestinians–but to control them.
Palestinian voices are also silenced in Palestinian liberation organizing in the United States. Whether through accusing Palestinians of bigotry, impatience with Palestinians’ internalized oppression, or as a result of tokenization, racism, Islamophobia or Jewish privilege, Palestine solidarity work in the U.S. all too often contributes to the disempowerment of Palestinians and acts to represent them, rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. I will address some of the ways silencing of Palestinians takes place in Palestine organizing with the aim of encouraging introspection within our movement.
Solidarity means encouraging Palestinian leadership
There is no one Palestinian leadership. Oppression and exile have created divisions in the Palestinian polity and Palestinians have never had truly representative governance. This division serves Israel well and is a major source of concern for many Palestinians, some of whom have called for direct elections to a Palestinian National Council representative of Palestinians across the globe. The division between the PA and Hamas, fomented by the U.S., also serves Israeli interests. Criticizing the lack of Palestinian leadership without this context is disingenuous. The results of Zionist policies of fragmentation are often misunderstood by U.S. allies as political backwardness. It is important for non-Palestinians allies to examine all the ways in which this mostly unspoken and unconscious understanding of Palestinian capabilities shapes our organizing.
In contrast to official Palestinian bodies, the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) are examples of Palestinian grassroots leadership. The 2005 call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it honors the fundamental rights of Palestinians has been endorsed by civil society organizations inside the West Bank and Gaza, inside Israel, and in the diaspora. The BNC and PACBI have outlined in detail the principles that guide BDS work. At a bare minimum, solidarity activists engaged in BDS work should become familiar with these published principles and guidelines. Specifically, the BDS leadership and the wider Palestinian community have been clear that Palestinian liberation work is incompatible with any form of racism or bigotry. However, at times when individuals in the U.S. movement have been called out for their bigotry, they have reacted with defensiveness and have revealed underlying feelings of racism and Islamophobia.
Some “allies” have accused Palestinians of collaboration with Zionist interests when their misrepresentation of Palestinian politics or their anti-Semitism was challenged. One individual involved in Palestine work accused the BNC of giving up the right of return in exchange for funding from George Soros who he characterized as a “soft Zionist”. Another resorted to Islamophobic name-calling to attack a Palestinian who challenged her when she posted an anti-Semitic video. Still another published a photo of a Palestinian who had been critical of racist motivations in organizing next to photos of Abe Foxman and Alan Dershowitz to imply that they were all in cahoots to silence “dissident” voices. These actions demonstrate that some involved in our work have motivations that are incompatible with Palestinian liberation and solidarity.
Solidarity means accepting insight into the Palestinian perspective as an opportunity, not as a personal attack. We are all learning and no Palestinian expects non-Palestinian allies to fully understand their experience. Palestinian activists within solidarity organizations should be given space to discuss issues of oppression apart from the larger group without these discussions being seen as a threat to non-Palestinian allies. It is imperative that Palestinians have space to sort out their priorities and identify the ways that racism may impact their work. When they are ready, these Palestinian caucuses should feel welcome to report back to other allies in the organization. It is also important for non-Palestinian allies to discuss the ways their privilege and power may affect Palestinians in their organizing.
“I wish more Palestinians would get involved”
There is a prevailing lament among U.S. Palestine solidarity organizations that relatively few Palestinians have joined their work. This is worth examining.
No doubt, Islamophobia and anti-Arab xenophobia in the United States have played a role in keeping Palestinians out of political organizing. In addition, Palestinians often suffer from internalized oppression and thus subject themselves to self-censorship. The constant bashing of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in our society takes an emotional and psychological toll on people within those communities. There are times when I encounter a strange loop in my own head when facing discrimination that somehow I may deserve the ill-treatment. I quickly come to my senses, but the fact that it is present in someone like me with a great deal of political awareness is telling.
Palestinians in the United States along with other Arab-Americans and Muslims face real consequences for their political activism including physical and verbal attacks, business losses, denial of promotion or tenure, employment termination, government surveillance, and even imprisonment. In 1985, Palestinian-American Alex Odeh was assassinated in Santa Ana, California for his activism. More recently, Palestinian-American Hatem Abudayyeh remains the target of an aggressive FBI investigation because of his political organizing. In 2010, his Chicago home was raided by the FBI and then his personal bank accounts were frozen.
There are many hurdles to engaging Palestinians in the work. However, if we seek to create new communities and systems that reflect our anti-racist and anti-oppression principles, it is incumbent upon Palestine solidarity organizations to thoughtfully seek ways to involve Palestinians in their leadership. Creating anti-oppression organizations means more than diversity and integration. It often means slowing down our agenda to make sure Palestinians are involved in the work from the first step, rather than being expected to follow.
Solidarity means stepping back and listening to those most impacted by Israel’s oppression. This takes time and patience, resources that are often missing among goal-oriented political activists. Sometimes it means that allies should encourage Palestinians who may not have prior experience in organizing or public speaking to trust in themselves. This means yielding the floor and allowing Palestinians to learn and make mistakes. It also means refraining from making judgments about or excluding Palestinians who are not as “progressive” or don’t meet some arbitrary litmus test regarding their political analysis.
Are we prepared to help provide organizing frameworks for Palestinians that foster their leadership? Many Jewish allies and other seasoned white activists have a long history of social justice organizing in this country and have had mentors and role models on which to shape their anti-oppression work. Being a more recent immigrant population in the United States, Palestinians may have fewer models to draw on. It has been easy for some allies to fall victim to internalized feelings of superiority when working with Palestinians.
In the church divestment work that took place last year, I was invited to attend meetings of the assemblies considering resolutions on the issue because I am a Palestinian Christian. I am uncomfortable with the identity of Palestinian Christian because–thankfully–Palestinians have not fallen into sectarian traps that divide along religious lines. I challenge church allies working on Palestine to invite Palestinian Muslims to their meetings in the coming years as divestment is considered. We must create spaces for listening to the broad spectrum of Palestinian stories. We cannot do that by excluding the majority of Palestinians who happen to be Muslims. When will we be comfortable with men with beards and women in veils addressing Christian congregations? Some in the churches would argue that it is strategic to use Palestinian Christians to address American Christian groups, but this is not an acceptable excuse for excluding Palestinian Muslims. This approach accommodates racism and Islamophobia and purports to “help” Palestinians by disempowering them.
The role of Jewish allies in the Palestine movement
In my view, the main role of Jewish allies in Palestine work is to strive to open spaces for Palestinians to narrate their history for themselves and to create ways for Palestinians to lead the process of their own liberation. Jewish allies should challenge the common wisdom around discourse on Palestine/Israel that affords greater credibility to Jewish commentary on Israel. Jewish Voice for Peace has made great strides creating space for Palestinians to be heard. There remains much work to do. In the last several years, I have attended panel discussions where only Jews were invited to speak at local universities about Palestine/Israel. I wonder if these institutions would organize a panel on racism in the United States without any African American participants.
Another way Jewish identity plays a role in Palestine activism is in efforts to engage Jewish establishment organizations. I have been approached by well-meaning Jewish allies to speak within Jewish establishment venues or with “liberal” Zionists. Once the rabbi or Hillel leader meets me, these Jewish allies assure me, their opinions on the issue of Palestine will change. It has been delicate and difficult to navigate these wishes as I consider those making the requests friends and I believe it is important to meet people where they are in their political journey. However, I cannot help but feel tokenized and used as an example of a “civilized” Palestinian. It is as if they want to say, “Look, she’s a modern and educated Palestinian. Isn’t she deserving of rights?” In the end, it’s not personal, it’s political.
Convincing Zionists of the human dignity and worth of Palestinians is not my priority. Dismantling Zionism within the Jewish establishment is essential. I wonder if some Jewish allies invite me in as part of an effort to address collective guilt for Jewish responsibility for the oppression of Palestinians. But is it the job of Palestinians to make Jews feel less culpable or guilty for Zionism? It is not productive for Palestinians to engage in interpersonal relationship-building that fails to acknowledge or bring about political solutions to structural inequalities and violence.
I understand that there are enormous issues facing American Jews who support Palestinian liberation. Creating spaces within Jewish communities and families, reclaiming Judaism from Zionism, and discovering one’s identity within Judaism are vital endeavors. However, it is important to remember that these individual and communal struggles are not necessarily Palestine liberation work. I encourage Jewish allies committed to Palestinian liberation to examine how much priority should be given to influencing Jewish organizations that support Zionism. Palestinians will always be on the periphery of this focus. In contrast, organizing sustainable and movement-building BDS campaigns that create a mainstream constituency for Palestinian rights, together in solidarity, will produce meaningful and effective dialogue on how to end Israel’s crimes and will model the future we hope to create.
In conclusion, the challenge for Palestine organizers in the United States is one of reflection on who has power and agency in our movement. This reflection requires organizations to think about who is at the table and who is missing. The first step may be establishing ways for white, Christian, and Jewish allies to hold themselves accountable for the privilege and power they possess by calling out racism, Islamophobia, and oppression where it occurs. When these mechanisms are in place, Palestinians may be encouraged to take a seat at the table.
(Special thanks to Colleen Kelly for providing me with a framework that helped me articulate what I didn’t know I already knew. The St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee is committed to fostering Palestinian leadership in its BDS work. To this end, we are funding delegation visits for two of our Palestinian members to Palestine this summer with the Health and Human Rights Project. You can help us reach our funding goals by donating here. )