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Israel and Palestine is not about Jews vs. Palestinians

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Last night an event called “Zionism & The New McCarthyism: A Conversation with Bruce Robbins” took place in Champaign-Urbana. It was a canceled University of Illinois event that was rescheduled as an independent event, without university support. Bruce Robbins’s short documentary, Some of My Best Friends are Zionists, interviews influential Jews such as Judith Butler and Tony Kushner who discuss the repression of anti-Zionist viewpoints. His talk addressed the rise of a “new McCarthyism” on college campuses which threatens to shut down criticism of Israel under the guise of “civility.” Respondents included myself, Jodi Byrd (Professor in American Indian Studies) and Bruce Levine (Professor of History). My comments were as follows:

My personal experience was very similar to those of the other American Jews in the film: A childhood in a reform Jewish community and a passive acceptance of all things Israeli as part and parcel to my Jewish identity. This came, I should add, from my community institutions, not from my family. Nonetheless, the connection I thought I felt to Israel as a young person was powerful, albeit unexamined. In college, I was confronted with confusing contradictions, then participated in a Birthright trip during the 2006 Lebanon war that catapulted me into a serious examination of my long-held ideas about the Middle East. I began to face criticism from my Jewish colleagues and peers. But I had to keep in mind that this difficult experience of “political awakening,” so to speak – while it was profound for me in many ways – was minor when compared to the kinds of difficulties that Palestinians must face as they struggle to negotiate their places in academic, professional and other realms. I want to be careful to avoid what Steve Biko, writing on the white liberals in Apartheid South Africa, called “claiming a monopoly on intelligence and moral judgment and setting the pattern and pace for the realization of [in this case, Palestinian] aspirations.” So, I am aware that if there is ever to be a just solution in Palestine, it will be, first and foremost, the result of Palestinian efforts. Palestinian voices – not Jewish ones – really do need to be front and center. But this is one reason why this film and the stories in it are so critical: in order to help create more space with Palestinians for Palestinian voices, American Jews need to work diligently at dismantling this notion that any serious critique of Israel is a critique of Jews or Judaism. As a Jew, I am uniquely suited to this role, and it is a role I am still trying to figure out how best to fill.

Bearing this in mind, I have approached with cautious determination questions about Zionism as a movement, about American political support for the state of Israel, and about my role as an American Jew in this discussion. My questions have led me, for the most part, to more questions. But one thing is very clear: This is not about Jews vs. Palestinians. Looking at it as such distracts from some very important realities.

One important question I have tried to understand is: what historical processes went into and continue to shape the current discourse on Zionism? I have tried to look at what was at stake in this effort to couple Judaism and Zionism and who stood to gain from such efforts. These questions led me throughout graduate school to research the history and current manifestations of Christian Zionism, a movement that actually pre-dates Theodor Herzl – widely considered to be the father of Jewish Zionism – by hundreds of years. The relationship of the American Christian Zionist movement to Jews and to Palestinians – both Muslim and Christian – can be an odd one, at once intertwined with broader political philosophies of the American right, American exceptionalism, notions of philanthropy, and, I would argue, racist and reductive views of Jews, Palestinians and “The Holy Land”. Today, Christians United for Israel is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States and boasts of strong connections at the highest levels of American politics.

I introduce this topic here to illustrate my point that the discussion surrounding Israel and Palestine is not about Jews vs. Palestinians. Zionism is not even strictly a Jewish ideology. Yet, so many Jews see Israel’s relative success over the past 70 years as a result of a Jewish moral righteousness. They see an Israeli David vs. the Goliath of the rest of the world. So many believe that Israel needs to exist first and foremost to ensure Jewish survival. All of these ideas serve to silence critical Jewish voices and all of these ideas share the same blind spot: they fail to recognize that so many others out there have something at stake in Israel’s success that has little or nothing to do with protecting Jews from another Nazi Holocaust, nothing to do with ensuring human rights for Palestinians, and that these people are very powerful.

So, as Jews, if we choose to throw our hat into the ring when it comes to the conversation on Palestinian rights, we need to be prepared to account for who else is out there claiming to speak in our names. We need to remain firm in our commitment to continually opening up space with and for Palestinians to speak on their own behalves. We can do this by chipping away at the tired Zionist tropes so often used to silence them. This film is an important step in that direction. I hope it serves as a catalyst to action for others who may identify with the experiences recounted within it. For me, watching the film was cathartic and has certainly inspired me to work harder to establish a Jewish community here in Champaign-Urbana where anti- and non-Zionist views are accepted and even championed.

I am very flattered to have been invited to speak alongside the others here. And I would like to extend a special thank you to Dr. Bruce Robbins for his work on this very important topic.

Samantha Brotman

Samantha Brotman is a Visiting Lecturer & Arabic Specialist at the UIUC's Intensive English Institute. She also works as a project coordinator with The Arab Studies Institute. She is an alumna of University of Oregon and of Georgetown University's MA in Arab Studies, where she researched Christian and Jewish Zionism. She drafted the Jewish Community Letter in Support of Professor Salaita in September 2014. Samantha has also helped to establish a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace in Champaign, IL.

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17 Responses

  1. seafoid on October 24, 2014, 12:19 pm

    It shouldn’t be about Jews vs Palestinians but if you look at it from a political economy lens, it is.
    Jews have a standard of living 10–15 times that of Palestinians in Erez Israel. and Jews in the Diaspora are used to protect and defend that.

    There aren’t enough Jews who oppose the status quo, worthy and all as those who do take a stand are. The system proceeds serenely because it has no effective opposition.

    This is about money and power, not how sensitive people see things.

    • pabelmont on October 24, 2014, 12:36 pm

      Are the Israeli-Jews who are moving out of Israel and into EU, into Germany, into the very teeth of virulent antisemitism (as some say) — are they not in many cases voting pocketbook issues? And if so, does this not suggest that money and power are making changes in Israel — if not peace, justice, mom, and apple matza-ball soup?

      This verdammt Zionism is kept alive by the continued pumping in of propaganda and the continuing refreshing of ideology, to say nothing of sclerotic brains among the older (and sadly, among the very wealthy) Jews who believe nothing ever happened after the holocaust except the creation and progressive triumph of Israel. The commodification of world-politics doesn’t hurt either, what with the Zionist best-money-can-buy control of the world’s ruling classes (oligarchies).

  2. W.Jones on October 24, 2014, 1:37 pm

    So how was it canceled at the university?

    • David Green on October 26, 2014, 4:52 pm

      The event was cancelled (boycotted) by Robbins; he then scheduled an event off campus as a protest re the Salaita scandal.

      • Mooser on October 27, 2014, 12:42 pm

        “The event was cancelled (boycotted) by Robbins; he then scheduled an event off campus as a protest re the Salaita scandal. “

        Thanks, for the explanation. I was wondering about that, too.

  3. JLewisDickerson on October 24, 2014, 3:33 pm

    RE: “The relationship of the American Christian Zionist movement to Jews and to Palestinians – both Muslim and Christian – can be an odd one, at once intertwined with broader political philosophies of the American right, American exceptionalism, notions of philanthropy, and, I would argue, racist and reductive views of Jews, Palestinians and ‘The Holy Land’. . .” ~ Samantha Brotman

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  4. American on October 24, 2014, 3:36 pm

    ” Today, Christians United for Israel is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States and boasts of strong connections at the highest levels of American politics. – “”

    CZs are retarded lunatics —but I’ve never been able to find any evidence of their influence in the ‘highest levels’ of American politics….as in being able to dictate policy and write bills for congress to pass like AIPAC does.

    All my research into this has turned up is the CZ pockets in various states success in electing a CZ or Old Testament bible thumper to congress or the senate from their district.
    And the amount of money they raise primarily for Israeli settlements.
    So you’d have to prove this to me……by naming names and their connections and citing examples.

    • Citizen on October 24, 2014, 6:26 pm

      I agree with your drift, but go to this page, and scroll down near the bottom and there’s some specific political activity examples of how CZ has impacted US foreign policy–from Reagan to Bush:

      Nevertheless, CZ is not influential significantly when compared to the power of AIPAC matrix donor dollars.

      • American on October 25, 2014, 1:36 pm

        @ citizen

        I hardy know where to start with that article and wonder why I bother since I’ve done this before.
        When I read something that doesn’t really prove what it is saying and find some outright lies or ignorance in it then I have to label it one of several things:

        1) A professor like this author who wants to ‘publish’ and establish some kind of ‘position’ for himself within some current issue and so churns out this stuff—-the CZ critic field not being quite as full up as the I-Lobby critic field.
        2) Hasbara to take the heat off zionist or Jews or the Lobby.
        3) A religious or other ‘professional’ who wants to make a buck writing about the religious angle or whatever his specialty may be by writing abut its role in politics or veggie diets or what the hell ever.

        I am only going to pick out two examples in this article

        First—Reagan as a true believer CZ:…….if so he certainly didn’t act or talk by the God gave the Jews all of Israel CZ credo.

        Ronald Reagan never visited Israel

        Reagan never attended a AIPAC conference.

        Ronald Reagan identified himself as a Presbyterian during most of his adult life.
        Reagan was a Presbyterian although his father was Catholic and he took after his mother’s religious views.
        Reagan described himself as a ‘practical christian’
        Books that influenced him were ones, he said, contained “heroes who lived by standards of morality and fair play.”

        From: “Ronald Reagan Facts” page on the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library website (

        Reagan ‘s support of Israel was based of his two biggest hates yu could say—-communism which he said was ‘ungodly’ and the Evil Empire of the USSR. So Reagan strategy in fortifying Israel as a bulwark against Soviet client states in the Middle East.

        Ronald Reagan halted shipments of cluster bombs to Israel during its attack on Lebanon.

        It was Reagan who told the FBI to open up a investigation into AIPAC when his administration’s position and confidential business information on a bilateral trade deal was stolen from the Commerce Dept and passed to AIPAC

        The first crisis of Israel ties during Reagan’s presidency was occasioned by Israel’s attack in June 1981 on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.

        Reagan, a proponent of nuclear power in the United States, was upset that an ally ostensibly was reinforcing perceptions that all nuclear power posed dangers, and he suspended arms shipments to Israel in response. Reagan said Iraq, which the United States then supported, may have been persuaded to use the nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes.

        Reagan also resented the lobbying by Israel and its supporters against the sale of AWACS spy planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, outraged that Reagan was reneging on a campaign promise so soon after his election, got the House of Representatives to oppose the sale.

        When the battle went to the Senate, Reagan, eager for a triumph with an irascible Congress, played hardball. He and his aides raised the specter of dual loyalty charges.

        “The administration was out there saying ‘Reagan or Begin,'” recalled Ira Forman, then a political director for AIPAC and now the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

        Begin’s opposition to the sale especially peeved Reagan, and on Oct. 1 of that year, Reagan famously said “It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.”

        That set off a wave of anti-Semitic hate mail to senators. The AWACS sale triumphed in the Senate, and the apparent succumbing to warnings about excessive Jewish influence was a shock for a pro-Israel community that had been confident in its influence since the Yom Kipper war.

        Reagan attempted to make amends after the vote by proposing a strategic relationship with Israel in November 1981. Begin and the Knesset surprised Reagan a month later by annexing the Golan Heights, territory claimed by Syria.

        Reagan withdrew his offer, and two months after Reagan’s October remark Begin got his own back at Reagan: Israel was nobody’s “banana republic,” the Israeli prime minister said, a defiant statement that undermined Reagan’s desire to appear in control of events.

        Less than a year later, in June 1982, tempers flared again when Israel invaded Lebanon in order to oust the PLO from its stronghold there. Israel said it got a “yellow light” from Secretary of State Haig — a fact that helped accelerate Haig’s departure from office.

        More substantially, Reagan secretly formulated a plan not only to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon, but to force Israel into withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza. He ultimately envisioned Palestinian autonomy in a federal system with Jordan.”

        The United States supported the applicability of the Geneva Convention and the unlawful character of settlements until February 1981 when President Ronald Reagan disavowed this policy by asserting that settlements are “not illegal.” President Reagan’s policy has been sustained, implicitly, by subsequent U.S. administrations, all of whom have declined to address the legal issue, although they have all opposed, with varying emphasis, settlements or settlement expansion.

        The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transitional period. Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated.

        I want to make the American position well understood. The purpose of this transitional period is the peaceful and orderly transfer of authority from Israel to the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, such a transfer must not interfere with Israel’s security requirements.”

        AND this from his article..?:

        ‘’ Littell was one of the original founders of the contemporary Israel-first ideology that Falwell came to embrace. In the 1950s and early 1960s when France was Israel’s strongest ally and chief weapons provider, Littell became concerned for the State.
        Littell’s mobilisations proved to be successful on two issues that were critical for Israel. In both efforts Littell was a major player in creating a verdict in Israel’s favour. The first came in 1978 when the US was considering the sale of F-15s and other reconnaissance equipment to its Middle East ally, Saudi Arabia. Israel and the Israeli lobby in the US applied heavy [End Page 78] pressure on Congress and President Jimmy Carter’s administration to withdraw the sale commitment. Israel’s persistent efforts, however, did not pay off until Littell helped organise a considerable number of Christians to head to Washington D.C. and call on the Carter Administration to block the sale. Their efforts were successful and the US withdrew its offer to sell the reconnaissance planes and equipment.

        The second issue came about during the mobilisation in Washington against the sale of AWACS to the Saudis.””

        AND note please that the author then skips over saying whether the CZs were successful in the ‘second issue’ against the sale of AWACS to Saudi…he just lets the ‘implication’ that they were hang there.

        NONE of it is true:

        ” In February 1978 Carter authorized the transfer of two hundred advanced combat aircraft and surveillance equipment to three countries in the Middle East—-supplying sixty F-15s to Saudi Arabia, fifty F-5Es to Egypt, and a combination of ninety F-15s and F-16s to Israel. Six months later he gave preliminary approval to the sale of another $12 billion worth of high-tech weaponry to Iran.
        Other major sales of this sort were announced in the final months of his administration.

        The AWACS Sale: Prospects for U.S, Policy”…/the-awacs-sale-prospects-f...
        The Heritage Foundation
        Oct 16, 1981 – Good for US Washington Post September 20, 1981
        Reagan letter to congress chiefs REAFFIRMS sale of awacs to Saudi…

        SAUDI AWACS DEAL PASSES $8 BILLION –…/saudi-awacs-deal-passes-8-billio...

        I never read anything by anyone even critics of the Lobby or Israel without checking them out and checking our what they claim in their statements—–I want ‘to verify their claims’ before I incorporate them into my arguments against Israel and the Lobby and open myself to being accused of the same inane ‘factless’ hasbara as the zio trolls and I-mouthpieces. I suggest others should do the same on everything to the best of their ability.
        W&M had 400 pages of evidenced foot notes for their claims in The Israel Lobby—-When someone can do the same on the CZ Lobby and offer more than LeHay and his ‘Left Behind’ and second hand hearsay from the President of AIPAC claiming he knew Reagan had a conversation with one of his staff about how he wanted ‘doomsday’ to happen during his administration as footnotes — let me know.

    • Sycamores on October 24, 2014, 7:36 pm

      @ American,

      maybe the politician doesn’t need to be a CZ, so long as there is a strong representation of CZ’s in his/her electorate. the CZ’s would then have influence in the politician decision making.

      • American on October 24, 2014, 8:41 pm

        I am willing to be convinced.
        Tell me what you’ve got.
        Find out how many CZs there are in congress–(real ones as opposed to bought ones pretending religious motivation.)
        As said I’ve searched and searched and cant find any CZ power ‘at the highest levels” , only a few congressmen who actually spout real CZ-ism like the 2 nuts from Texas and the phony Graham.
        I don’t see half of congress attending any CZ mega conferences like they do for AIPAC.
        I cant find any report of CZs leaders like Hagee or Pat Roberson being invited to the WH by Obama to discuss Israel policy like the Z-org leaders are.
        If the CZs are at the highest levels of influence in government they must be the best covert operators in the universe cause in the I-influence games no one has named them or exposed them.

  5. W.Jones on October 25, 2014, 7:17 pm

    Ms. Brotman,

    This was an interesting essay. In case you didn’t already notice, strong PEPs have an “anything goes” attitude when it comes to evaluating the state’s policies toward Palestinians. That’s because in their mindset, Palestinians are associated with Islamic terrorism, anti-semitism, attempts to destroy the Israelis, the Mufti in WWII, etc. It’s unfortunate, but there is not that much that the state could realistically do that would discredit the state in their eyes.

    If you think otherwise, talk to some of those strong PEPs. They have a siege mentality, their discussions of Palestinians are extremely hostile, and their defense of what human rights activists see as Israeli abuses in Gaza and elsewhere are very intense too.

    I don’t know that it’s easy to change their views either then, as I discussed with Annie.

    What might be helpful is to understand their underlying motivations. Namely, why are PEPs militantly nationalistic, but everyday American liberals aren’t? What is it that makes nationalism appeal to PEPs that doesn’t to most American liberals?

    In my opinion, this is an important area for critical progressive discussions on the topic to explore, and it sounds like you are to some extent doing this, as you describe your “conversion” experience.

    • Citizen on October 26, 2014, 5:09 am

      @ W.Jones

      Haven’t you answered your own question when you described the attributes of the questioned mindset? All that’s left is to find the common underlying theme of all said attributes. I submit it’s the tunnel-visioned rational/conviction that, “in the end,” you can’t ever trust the Gentiles to do what you think will best assure Jewish continuity, no matter the cost to the balance of humanity.

      • Mooser on October 26, 2014, 4:09 pm

        ” you can’t ever trust the Gentiles to do what you think will best assure Jewish continuity”

        They just won’t stop saying “I do”, the schmucks!

    • Mooser on October 26, 2014, 4:11 pm

      “What is it that makes nationalism appeal to PEPs that doesn’t to most American liberals?”

      They eat a lot of chicken-hawk soup.

  6. Cliff on October 27, 2014, 5:14 am

    Good documentary. Very interesting experiences among these different speakers.

    The ‘net story’ is infuriating. The imagery of settlers living ‘above’ the Palestinians and throwing their trash down upon them is just so disgusting and vile.

  7. SQ Debris on November 1, 2014, 10:15 am

    “The net” in the Khalil/Hebron market is not a net. It is a Huxleyan horror. Purported to be there for the protection of Palestinians from the settlers Israel itself has planted there, it is a statement that Israeli walls envelope even the sky.

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