For weeks now I’ve been hearing about Ali Abunimah and Max Blumenthal’s joint appearances and though it was one of the rainiest days ever in New York last Wednesday I drove up to Vassar College to hear them talk. Everything about the day was dreary. The hall they were to speak in has the air of a medieval battlement and the room itself was dingy and poorly lit and clotted with humidity. After twenty minutes of us sitting jammed in among coats, someone announced that our speakers were running late because of accidents on the road. I counted seven rows of 14 seats. All the seats were filled, and there were maybe a half dozen non-students in the hall, most of them Hudson Valley socialists. This dismayed me. One of the claims during the recent outburst at Vassar over a school-sponsored trip to Israel and Palestine was that school officials believe in dialogue about Palestinian conditions. Well, here was an evening of Palestinian solidarity and it didn’t look as if anyone was there from the faculty who’d supported that trip, nor from the pro-Israel forces who’d come out to support them. And the sponsors of the event did not include Vassar’s new Open Hillel, the Vassar Jewish Union. Again, a disappointment.
The two speakers got there a half hour late and soggy, and walked in to no cheers or applause. In the wider movement, Abunimah and Blumenthal are rock stars. But there wasn’t a scintilla of entertainment about this gathering. No, a serious mood characterized the night. The two writers were there on serious business, not just to sell books, they were riding the roads to talk about a political movement in which everyone in the room was a participant. That sense of equality and partnership infused the proceedings. And p.s. about half the audience were people of color.
The two men’s styles could not be more different. Blumenthal has a hortatory and biting manner like a blue-eyed union man in a Steinbeck novel. He wore jeans, and he summons people to action with defiant declarations.
The peace process is about bringing a defeated people to the negotiating table, like the Lakota Sioux after Wounded Knee.
Israel was founded to be an apartheid state, that’s what it’s all about.
Jewish life is in moral freefall because of the Zionist captivity.
Abunimah is courtly, continental, ironic, and more indirect than Blumenthal, but just as incisive. He wore khakis and a white oxford shirt under a navy sweater and apologized for keeping us waiting during the frantic drive from New York City. He has soft dark eyes and likes to interact with the audience. How many of you are familiar with the name Peter Beinart? he asked. Ah, only five of you. That is very typical. And another sign, he said, of the fact that the mainstream discourse on the conflict is utterly separated from the people in the room.
That separation was the theme of the evening. Both speakers repeatedly cited Peter Beinart– He refuses to respond to us on twitter, but we don’t need him for our validation, we’re secure in our own skin, Blumenthal declared—because he is the liberal champion of the two-state solution even as he rules out equal rights for Palestinians.
Both men said that the two state solution was a form of apartheid necessitating ethnic cleansing and that while the mainstream discourse refuses to entertain that idea, campuses across the country understand it.
“There never has been a state offered to Palestinians,” Blumenthal said. “They have never been offered a state. I repeat, the Palestinians have never been offered a state ever.” Because a real state means control of borders and water rights and others elements of sovereignty, and the latest plans for a state would turn the West Bank into the “dystopic panopticon that the Gaza Strip currently is” and connect the two territories with a tunnel under Israel so that “the Morlocks” would never come out of the ground and be seen by “the villa in the jungle” (as Ehud Barak once described Israel).
Anti-racism was as much a theme of the evening as anti-Zionism. Blumenthal said it was the height of hypocrisy that Abe Foxman condemned LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks at the same time as he condemned John Kerry for using the word apartheid to describe Israel’s future. Foxman is a leader of the self-appointed Jewish establishment, Blumenthal said, though young Jews are now seeking a release from “the psychological captivity of Zionism,” because they see that Zionism entails “an extremely hardened, rearmed, ethnocratic belligerent Jewish identity,” including indoctrination in the anti-Semitism of Arabs beginning at the age of 4 in the Jewish state.
Abunimah practices greater subtlety but he also took aim at racism:
The analogy I make in my book to this kind of thinking which is so common in the liberal intelligentsia in this country is if the response to the demand for civil rights, if the response to the demands for the end of Jim Crow had been OK, so African Americans want civil rights, and they want the vote. Well, what we’ll do then, is designate half of Mississippi as the state of the Negroes and all African Americans will have their national rights and their dignity and their sense of nationhood in the state of the Negroes. And in the rest of the United States, they will be essentially permanent residents or aliens or tolerated as a minority in a white democratic state. But that’s exactly the reasoning behind the two state solution. It becomes clear when Peter Beinart explains his support [Abunimah then quoted Beinart declaration that he could accept inequality for Palestinians].
I believe that that’s a case you cannot win majority support for in any mainstream forum in the United States or on any campus. That’s my experience.
Confident, and withering.
Here is another setpiece from Abunimah to do with the divide in the discourse and the decolonization model that was even more effective. It closed his speech.
This book [The Battle for Justice in Palestine], I really wanted it to offer hope. Yes it offers analysis and some of it is hard and sobering analysis. But if we break out of the very narrow limits of what we’re allowed to think by the gatekeepers in the liberal thinktanks and elite media– I don’t include the rightwing thinktanks– there is scope for really exciting action.
In the context of Palestine, I talk in the book about the transformations that are taking place right now in South Africa and Northern Ireland. I don’t present them as utopian or trouble free or not problematic. I think we have to grapple with these things as they are.
But the notion that whites in South Africa or Protestants in Northern Ireland can agree to give up power even if they resisted every step of the way and still resist it, but that Israeli Jews are somehow incapable of coming to the same conclusions– that really strikes me as bigotry. What I argue in the book is that Israeli Jews as a settler colonial community are just like every other settler colonial community. When they understand the system is untenable, that the resistance can never be suppressed, that the outrage around the world is not just growing but being being mobilized into more and more effective forms of action, I believe they will come to the conclusion that they have to change course and embrace a future in which equality and restitution are the way forward.
And the importance of the boycott and divestment and sanctions movement [BDS] is that it hastens this day. Because nothing– nothing will prolong the suffering of Palestinians like inaction, like saying ‘let’s just have dialogue without action.’ [Applause.] ‘Let’s send John Kerry back for another round of negotiations.’ ‘Let’s support the peace process.’ These slogans should be buried. No matter where they come from. Whether it’s Martin Indyk, or Barack Obama, or anti-Palestinian organizations like AIPAC and J Street. [Applause]
Palestinians are calling for action. And it’s very logical, it’s very simple When someone feels unassailable, when their power is so great, they don’t have to listen to those who are demanding their rights. The principle of BDS is very simple, you put pressure on the strong, you exact a price for the status quo, and you do it ethically, and then you bring them to real negotiations. Thank you.
The applause for the line about dialogue without action was the strongest spontaneous burst from the audience all night. Generally the students didn’t applaud; they were there for guidance and exchange; and the speakers addressed them as participants in a broad leftwing movement not just against settler colonialism in Palestine but neoliberalism and inequality in the U.S.
Sitting in the dingy drenched hall with a bunch of serious forward-tilting students, I came to think of Abunimah and Blumenthal as circuit-riding preachers, pounding a book of freedom. It must have been like this when the underground railroad was in action, and the southern freedom rides.
Blumenthal closed the evening with a rallying cry about organizing from the “bottom-up.” He’d just been up and down the west coast, he was flying to Chicago in another day or two. He stayed on the road after his book tour ended because of the energy in the chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine. They were transforming the discourse far more rapidly than he had imagined, and he was excited to take part in it.
Israeli society was only going further right. Lieberman and Bennett’s plans involved transfer and more ethnic cleansing and annexation. The question wasn’t whether there was a one-state outcome but whether that one-state will be one of inequality or equality– “what can we do to make it work in the face of imminent dispossession and transfer of Palestinians?”
The ideas are going to come from the bottom up, and as I said, they will make an impact. I’m confident of that. If I weren’t confident of that, I wouldn’t be sitting here and traversing the country participating in these kinds of events.
I don’t consider myself a movement person, but a fellow traveler, I need to keep my distance. Still, I was struck by the power in the room. The participants were thoughtful and even grave and they did not need a lot of education about Palestinian conditions. They are past that point.
And Abunimah and Blumenthal’s theme is an objective fact: There is a complete divide in the discourse of Israel and Palestine. The mainstream is stuck on the two state solution forever so that it can say that it is addressing the problem. But these young people are now driving the conversation (even centrist and liberal Zionists acknowledge the trend). As the old paradigm crumbles before our eyes, they have the most focused logical argument to make about the future, and that gives them not just power, but responsibility.
Max Blumenthal will be speaking tomorrow night in Brooklyn. 7 p.m., the Friends meeting house. Details here.