The list of BDS successes seems to grow longer every day. More professional associations are endorsing the academic boycott of Israel, cultural workers continue to denounce Israeli abuses, and labor unions, churches, even cities are divesting from companies that benefit from Israel’s illegal practices. These are all wonderful manifestations of the advances we are making. Ultimately, however, BDS is not economic warfare. If it were, we would be doomed to fail, because we can successfully boycott every Israeli item in every grocery store in the entire country, we would still not be making a dent in the US funding of Israel’s war crimes. Indeed, the Obama Administration has just announced that it would give Israel the largest aid package yet. Our biggest BDS victory achieved so far by activists for Palestinian rights may well be the discourse change that BDS has produced in the West.
Judged by that criterion, it is absolutely clear that we are winning. We have not yet achieved our goals, namely justice for Palestine, and indeed the situation on the ground in Palestine seems to have worsened as home demolitions and extra-judicial executions are daily occurrences, even as the siege on Gaza continues to choke that part of the country, reminding us of the urgency of our activism here. But the change on the ground cannot happen without a change in the global narrative that misrepresented Palestine. And that change, the shattering of the once iron-clad Zionist narrative, is happening, as we regularly hear and read denunciations of Israel’s abuses in various forums. This was most obvious when US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke at a nationally televised electoral debate about Palestinian rights, and Israel’s “disproportionate response.” Only days later, Pulitzer Prize laureate Michael Chabon gave a powerful interview in which he describes the horrors he witnessed while on a tour of Hebron.
Chabon’s interview circulated amongst Palestinian-rights activists like brush fire on a scorching day, most often prefaced with an explanation that he is a “Jewish-American writer.” This information, certainly offered with the best intentions, is nevertheless treacherous, in that it can uphold an oppressive dynamic.
Jewish voices are welcome, of course, in the global denunciation of Zionism as a racist ideology. Identifying oneself as Jewish when one speaks out against Israel’s policies also helps dismantle the accusation that seeking justice for Palestinians is anti-Semitic. Yet there is an inevitable risk associated with the ongoing privileging of Jewish voices denouncing Israel. This is because by privileging their voices, we are implicitly accepting the Zionist narrative of Israel representing all Jews, with very few exceptions. It is these “exceptions,” then, that Palestinian rights activists place on a pedestal.
The privileging of Jewish voices is more serious than whites denouncing anti-Black racism. Because when whites denounce racism, there is no suggestion that they too are victimized by the structural system. White allies generally acknowledge the privilege they are born into. Those whites who claim “All Lives Matter” are not considered allies.
The dynamics between Jewish and Palestinian voices around the Question of Palestine, however, are different precisely because of the attempt at normalization that have plagued this issue for decades. The Zionist discourse had started out as one of exclusive Jewish victimhood, as if the Palestinians did not exist, were not wronged. This is different from the black-white dynamics, where there was never a credible, widely-accepted narrative of white victimhood. Similarly, there is no credible, widely-accepted narrative of male victimhood when it comes to a discussion of sexism. Even when one acknowledges the oppressive aspects of the gendering of masculinity, there is general recognition that while men are denied some emotional outlets, they are nevertheless the undisputed beneficiaries of social gendering.
But when it comes to the Question of Palestine, we have been plagued for decades with a narrative of Jewish victimhood that completely erased any mention of Palestinian loss, the ongoing Nakba. When Palestinian voices finally broke through the censorship, the dynamics changed. Because Palestinian voices were no longer contained, a new development took place, namely the concerted Zionist effort to make this into a “two sides” issue—yes, the Palestinians have been wronged, but let us not forget the centuries of anti-Semitism. Let us have “dialogue” about it, because there are two valid perspectives that must be heard…
Except that the pain of the Israelis, born or choosing to emigrate into institutionalized privilege, does not in anyway compare with that of the Palestinians. There is no equivalency, no equal footing, no “we need to hear from both sides.”
Because of this background, every time we continue to privilege Jewish voices, we are empowering the Zionist narrative. Even those Jewish allies who are doing stellar and effective work can unwittingly contribute to this “normalizing,” when their narrative, their statements, their witnessing, is given greater validity because they are Jewish.
BDS is a call for solidarity, and solidarity, by definition, hinges on the participation of allies, rather than those whose bodies are on the line. It is absolutely normal, then, that there would be more non-Palestinians than Palestinians participating in BDS, in solidarity work, in organizing and even leading campaigns. But the work must center Palestinian concerns, Palestinian voices, Palestinian experiences. And because these have been silenced, censored, dismissed as biased or even hateful for too long, Palestinians absolutely must be given center stage now. When conferences have an equal number of Jewish and Palestinian speakers (or, as is sometimes the case, more Jewish speakers than Palestinians), something is wrong. When criticism of Israel is given more weight because it is expressed by a Jew than a Palestinian, something is wrong. As we privilege Jewish voices, we are allowing them to eclipse the Palestinian ones.
We need a multiplicity of voices, a multiplicity of narratives. Jewish voices play an extremely important role within that chorus. But if we agree that the discourse has changed, that the Zionist narrative has been punctured, then statements by our Jewish allies should not necessarily begin with “As a Jew,” and the solidarity Jews offer us should not be valued differently from the solidarity offered us by other communities.
Israel does not now, and indeed never did, speak for all Jews. It is time we put an end to that myth by putting an end to the celebration of Jewish voices denouncing Zionism as “exceptional,” or “heroic.” They belong with all other such voices, and must magnify, rather than occupy, the Palestinian narrative.