Should Zionists be excluded from left-oriented protests? The short answer is yes. But given the complexity of terms like “Zionism” and “exclusion” (and even “protest”), any answer requires solid reasoning.
Last week I provided a response on Twitter without having posed the question.
Basic rules for useful protest:
–no corporate sponsors
It's okay to demand these exclusions, even at the risk of being called "sectarian" or "anti-Semitic."
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) January 23, 2018
As expected, some users took me to task for being harshly selective. I cannot deny that the position I put forward is exclusionary, but in itself this shouldn’t be seen as a problem. All political formations are necessarily exclusive. The question is whether exclusions are justified, and, if so, what rationale can justify them. Analyzing those questions can put our commitments into better focus.
I submit that it’s both smart and reasonable to exclude Zionists from participating in protest that bills itself as leftist (which can include local organizing, party building, and mass action) for three main reasons:
- Even in its progressive manifestations, Zionism is in essence reactionary. Nearly all of its variations accept (or promote) structural iniquity mediated by state power. It therefore contravenes the fundamental aspirations of leftist protestors, who, whatever their disagreements, purport to share a desire for access and equality.
- Palestine is a central feature of the global left, both imaginatively and materially. Israel can be found in systems of colonization, imperialism, police violence, capitalism, militarization, border control, racialized citizenship, and incarceration.
- Liberal Zionists have a remarkable ability to dominate conversation. In their presence, we always seem fixated on their needs, their feelings, their anxieties, and their limitations. The Holy Land, if only by implication, ends up being the exclusive concern of American Jews, with Palestine serving as an occasional interruption. We intensely debate what is or isn’t anti-Semitism; how various Jewish demographics relate to Israel; why certain outcomes are unacceptable to Israelis; and where Israelis may be willing to compromise. Meanwhile, Palestinian sensibilities disappear into a bottomless void of settler anguish. I know this point will generate indignation and anger. I also know that the pattern I describe is pervasive and can be exhausting for Palestinians.
“No Zionists” isn’t necessarily an individual litmus test. Protest leaders cannot vet the opinions of each participant, nor should they desire that kind of power, but they do influence messaging and sense of community. And in these areas Zionism is a hindrance.
For instance, at the recent Women’s March, a multicity effort drawing large crowds, instigators calling themselves “Zionesses” showed up. Displaying a logo that featured a whitewashed South African hip hop artist, Dope Saint Jude (who later disavowed them), the Zionesses promoted Israel as a feminist interest. A similar contretemps occurred at last year’s Chicago Dyke March, though organizers of that event asked the Zionist contingent to leave, stirring a round of Facebook bickering and accusations of anti-Semitism.
When Palestinian journalist Ali Abunimah criticized the Zionesses, they called him a “bigot” and claimed he supports inequality, a curious accusation from a group whose main platform is upholding ethnocracy. The accusation is empirically false, which a quick review of Abunimah’s work over three decades would show. Dyke March organizers likewise experienced harsh (and defamatory) criticism.
Herein lies the problem with Zionist participation in supposedly egalitarian spaces. When they insist on announcing support for Israel, those pursuing justice, not the sources of injustice, become subject to acrimony and pressure. Zionists occupy a normative position and repeatedly prove willing, or eager, to strengthen the hierarchies that protest seeks to diminish. Moreover, they frequently wave Israeli flags (or pinkwashed facsimiles). Nobody clamoring for equality wants to see emblems of settler colonization.
“No Zionists” complements acceptable demands like “no cops” or “no corporate sponsors.” Allowing homophobes into left-oriented protests is a nonstarter. (Homophobes certainly attend left-oriented protests, but they generally don’t out themselves as homophobic.) This exclusion is possible because we understand that homophobes harm queer comrades and hold beliefs anathema to a just society. “No Zionists” isn’t controversial because it is exclusionary; every political gathering has dozens of limitations, explicit and implicit. Controversy exists in the idea that Zionism is harmful. The entire conceit of Zionist participation is premised on a misconception.
Plenty of people are opposed to the Israeli occupation but still consider themselves Zionist. Views change all the time, often when we engage new communities. Protest doesn’t exist simply to make a point. It creates an environment in which people can search, debate, and, ideally, grow. I have no problem sharing a picket line with folks whose views on Palestine differ from mine. The problem arises when those with a messianic attachment to the fantasy that Israel and justice are compatible perform displays of Zionism in order to aggravate or proselytize. Lest we forget, Zionism is an expansionist ideology that endeavors to dominate its opponents, so it is difficult to accept the presence of its advocates in good faith.
The following question can be helpful: to which class are our peers devoted? There is only one reassuring answer to this question. The onus is on anybody with socio-political advantages to de-escalate rather than reinforce disparities of power, which means knowing when to stand down and how to earn the benefits of solidarity. This ethic applies to those limited by filial identities. Men can disinvest themselves of masculinist ideologies, just as white people, with requisite self-reflection, can repudiate the racism into which they were socialized (and from which they benefit).
Given the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Trump’s America, it’s important to note that “no Zionists” should never be predicated on ethnic or religious identity. Some would argue that it’s easy to draw a line from “no Zionists” to “no Jews,” and that in fact “no Zionists” is just a sneaky way to banish Jewish people. There are a few problems with this argument.
First, it reinforces the conflation of Jewishness and Zionism. Next, it uses concern about inclusion to normalize ethnic cleansing. It also elides the inconvenient fact that alt-right luminaries admire Israel. And finally, “no Zionists” would only exclude Jews according to the very logic anti-Zionists seek to undermine. In actuality, it helps exclude Christian fundamentalists, liberal celebrities, state technocrats, Congress people, and corporate pundits—i.e., our supposed opponents. (Laugh if you want, but this sort regularly gets invited onto speaker platforms.) The demonstrable reality is that “no Zionists” is code for “no Jews” among racists, not the Palestine solidarity community.
The most important reason why “no Zionists” is justified has less to do with strategy than with comradely spirit: is the US left finally willing to respect Palestinian (and more broadly Arab) sensibilities? Or will it continue to demand that Palestinians defer their liberation in order to assuage Zionist fragility?
Fighting for justice in an environment that attracts police and alt-right violence requires a high level of trust among protesters. Many Palestinians already suffer military occupation; others exist as intergenerational exiles; yet more have been arrested, fired, and deported for taking up the struggle. It doesn’t seem unreasonable, then, to request just one space free of Zionist supervision.