CNN’s firing of professor/commentator Marc Lamont Hill for giving a UN speech last week saying that Palestinians have a right to resist Israeli occupation to achieve the goal of a “free Palestine, from the river to the sea” is a deeply dispiriting moment for anyone who cares about human rights and an open American press. The firing followed by Hill’s apology for some of his comments illuminates dismal trends in American political culture: the triumph of Zionism, the press’s steadfast refusal to take on the Israel lobby’s influence in our politics, and the politicization of the Pittsburgh massacre to equate any harsh criticism of Israel with violent anti-Semitism.
These trends are all influential for the same reason that Hill’s words were influential: because the two state solution is over and everyone knows it even if they are denying it; and Zionism, a successful ideology for 100 years in answering the Jewish question in Europe and then cementing American support for Israel, is now in crisis. That’s the hopeful but also terrifying part of the Hill story. The two-state farce is coming to an end, and Zionism is in an intellectual shambles. The establishment and, yes, too, other sentient people are afraid of what will follow; and Marc Lamont Hill’s voice was snuffed like a candle for stating a perfectly desirable outcome, one state with equal rights for all.
We on the left tend to underestimate the triumph of Zionism, because it’s an ideology we have so little regard for (much as the media dismiss Trump voters as idiots) and because in reviewing the history these days, the left reduces Zionism to settler colonialism, an anachronism. What we miss is the enormous intellectual/political/moral commitment the west made to Zionism in the wake of the Holocaust. There was an excellent piece by Adam Shatz at the LRB lately about the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre’s neutrality on the Israel Palestine conflict, which justly maddened Palestinians in the 60s and 70s. “Neutrality in one of the last struggles of national liberation was a peculiar stance for the philosopher of commitment,” Shatz marvels. But “Sartre continued to see Israel through the prism of the Holocaust and European responsibility.”
“[N]o one in Sartre’s circle was looking after Palestinian interests,” Sartre biographer Yoav Di-Capua explains. Sartre’s partner Simone de Beauvoir was the lover of Claude Lanzmann, the filmmaker and committed Zionist.
Those social currents continue to be the dominant ones in the west. Zionism is regarded as the flawed but necessary answer to the extermination of European Jewry. And: the social construction of the elite is Zionist; no one is looking after Palestinian interests. There may be a day when Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace, supporters of nonviolent resistance in the form of BDS, are members in good standing of the ruling class, but that day is still far off. If Marc Lamont Hill wants any future in mainstream media, he has to apologize; and he did.
The pressure on Hill is part of a long history of black/progressive leaders who aspire to the mainstream being crushed for their espousal of pro-Palestinian views. Look what happened to Andrew Young or Keith Ellison, or to Jimmy Carter; and look what is happening to Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now. People of color who have a natural affinity for the Palestinian liberation struggle are told that they must check those sentiments at the door of the Democratic National Committee.
The likely chair of House Foreign Affairs Eliot Engel promises an off-the-record AIPAC audience that he will “educate” the new progressive politicians about Israel. Jewish leaders and Democratic Party stalwarts openly crossed Obama on the Iran deal and paid no price for it; and the Democratic Party’s thinktank hosted Netanyahu in defiance of Obama so that it could land a major (Jewish Zionist) donor and so that “we’ll never be called anti-Semitic again.”
I thought that the discussion of the Israel lobby was opening 12 years ago when Walt and Mearsheimer published their revolutionary paper. And any reader of this site knows we’re optimistic and seize on positive trends. But the Hill firing reminds us of the power of the lobby in the media and the limited place for discussion of that power. The story has gotten precious little attention in the mainstream press, and CNN has gotten away with a no comment on its reasons. And it’s left to our site to remind readers that Wolf Blitzer once worked for AIPAC (and helped destroy an early effort by Jewish progressives to speak to the PLO) and that an executive at CNN’s parent company wrote frikkin speeches for Netanyahu against the Iran deal, and no one cared when we reported it. And meantime Comcast’s executive vice president runs fundraisers for the Israeli Defense Forces.
If you focus too much on the lobby, you’re an anti-Semite, and that is true more than ever in the wake of Pittsburgh. To even speak of the Zionist presence in the mainstream media is to arm white nationalists, it’s thought. CNN did a poll this week showing that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, citing support for the claims that Jews have too much power in the media and business and in foreign policymaking too; and a New York Times editor promptly echoed the warning, and said that every Jew who can get out of France is getting out now (which is simply not true).
I always thought that thinkers would have to accept the anti-Semite label as the price of expressing certain ideas. The amazing Gideon Levy does that today in his column on Marc Lamont Hill. He challenges the CNN poll and says that smart people have a perfect right to conclude that: “The Jews and Israel have an incredible degree of influence in Western media. Now you can call me an anti-Semite, as well.”
But Levy lives in Israel, in the heart of the crisis of the end of the two-state solution. This is an existential question for him, and millions of others there, not a dinner table conversation; he has already put his body on the line by virtually supporting BDS, the only positive force in the politics of Israel and Palestine, in his recognition that we face huge choices in Palestine and the best answer is equal rights. American intellectuals are not willing to wear that badge to express their criticisms of Israel. It’s career death, there’s no upside. Again, the Democratic Party thinktank hosted Netanyahu, so “we will never be called anti-Semitic again.”
And Obama himself was given that label during the Iran deal negotiations, and was anguished by it, as his former aide Ben Rhodes tells us:
Even to acknowledge the fact that AIPAC was spending tens of millions to defeat the Iran deal was anti-Semitic. To observe that the same people who supported the war in Iraq also opposed the Iran deal was similarly off limits.
I have news. The Palestine question of our time has replaced the Jewish question of the early 20th century. That’s why we run this site; and that’s also the tragic element of the Hill debacle. The courageous professor was trying to move the discourse forward to the morally urgent question of Palestine. He was bearing witness to conditions he has seen for himself and providing an idealistic American answer to Netanyahu’s existing one state solution in Israel/Palestine, in which Jim Crow is the law of the land for half the population, and people of the wrong ethnicity living in a ghetto are slaughtered en masse at the fence for protesting their starvation, and the New York Times cheers on the shooters.
Few voices in the west care about Palestinian rights, and though that number is growing, Hill’s firing shows that the Jewish question is still foremost. There is only one context for this issue, the lack of safety for Jews in the west. Western governments and institutions made a historical commitment to that principle, not just through the force of the lobby, or of colonialism. Ending that commitment is going to be a long struggle.
Thanks to Scott Roth, Donald Johnson, Annie Robbins, Terry Weber, Allison Deger and Adam Horowitz.