Media Analysis

Michelle Alexander explodes an open secret in the ‘NYT’: progressives keep quiet about Palestine out of fear for their careers

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Everyone is talking about one thing this morning, the outstanding piece by Michelle Alexander in the New York Times, yes, the New York Times, titled, “Time to Break the Silence about Palestine,” in which she says she can’t be quiet about Palestine any longer.  The author of “The New Jim Crow” is a regular columnist now, and she has changed the discourse about Palestine in one explosive swoop, stating that progressives have been silent about Palestine partly because of fear for their careers, but the time has come to end that silence.


The 51-year-old legal scholar and civil rights advocate begins by quoting Martin Luther King’s courageous coming out against the Vietnam War in 1967, when it could do him no good. Just as speaking up for Palestinians can only hurt our careers today thanks to the “well-documented power” of the Israel lobby.

[King’s] was a lonely, moral stance. And it cost him. But it set an example of what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear. It’s what I think about when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.

I have not been alone. Until very recently, the entire Congress has remained mostly silent on the human rights nightmare that has unfolded in the occupied territories. Our elected representatives, who operate in a political environment where Israel’s political lobby holds well-documented power, have consistently minimized and deflected criticism of the State of Israel, even as it has grown more emboldened in its occupation of Palestinian territory and adopted some practices reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States.

Many civil rights activists and organizations have remained silent as well, not because they lack concern or sympathy for the Palestinian people, but because they fear loss of funding from foundations, and false charges of anti-Semitism. They worry, as I once did, that their important social justice work will be compromised or discredited by smear campaigns.

Similarly, many students are fearful of expressing support for Palestinian rights because of the McCarthyite tactics of secret organizations like Canary Mission, which blacklists those who publicly dare to support boycotts against Israel, jeopardizing their employment prospects and future careers.

Alexander all but outs herself as a PEP, Progressive Except Palestine.  Here is a principled person who has done groundbreaking work on human rights and anti-racism, and she is revealing that one of the reasons she keeps quiet is because she wants to protect her ability to participate in the mainstream discussion, to write about racism in the U.S. without being smeared and attacked.

This is an open secret that everyone knows: if you speak up for Palestinian human rights, your character will be assassinated. That is a very fair description of the mainstream landscape, surveilled by the likes of Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss of the New York Times, and Abe Foxman and Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL (Just ask Paul Krugman, who has rationalized his own silence on this issue on that basis).

Alexander also describes the very-productive struggle of the left here. She makes clear that she has broken her own silence thanks to Jewish Voice for Peace and Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in the Congress. And no matter what you think about identity politics, it must be emphasized that just as queer rights organizing fostered the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace as one-time outliers in the Jewish community, the ascendancy of women of color into positions of real power at last has helped break the ice on Palestine.

Alexander summarizes the growth of the boycott movement in the US:

Even in Congress, change is on the horizon. For the first time, two sitting members, Representatives Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, publicly support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. In 2017, Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, introduced a resolution to ensure that no U.S. military aid went to support Israel’s juvenile military detention system. Israel regularly prosecutes Palestinian children detainees in the occupied territories in military court.

That paragraph puts TREMENDOUS pressure on liberal Zionists (including well-meaning people like another New York Times columnist, Roger Cohen, and J Street), to come out for McCollum’s important legislation. If you can’t support removing US aid for the detention of children, what do you stand for?  Alexander’s long, persuasive article will put pressure on all progressives to end their silence about human rights abuses in Palestine backed by the United States.

Rep. Betty McCollum

The piece is getting a huge online response, to judge by Twitter, where Naomi Klein and Glenn Greenwald among others are saluting it. Alexander is telling the truth about the mainstream world. And Hasbara Central is already on top of the article, to judge from some of the readers’ comments at the Times.

Kudos to the New York Times for hiring Alexander as a columnist and letting her say this.

This is a huge step forward. And the most important thing about it is that Alexander uses Martin Luther King as an example of someone who took an unpopular issue that wasn’t his main cause and risked support for his other cause. She’s entirely right about King’s choice. That is why good people have been quiet until now about Israel Palestine. The effect will be . . . continued movement. And pressure on other supporters of human rights to come forward.

Thanks to Dan Walsh and Donald Johnson.

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Thank you for writing this excellent commentary on Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking oped. Between Alexander, Angela Davis, and Briahna Gray who just wrote an outstanding article criticizing Kamala Harris, African American women are at the forefront of courage and leadership as we begin 2019. As a Jewish woman, I feel embarrassed that African Americans are putting themselves on the line while so many Jews stand by in silence. We need more prominent Jewish voices speaking out.… Read more »

Another “huge step forward” would be to stop insisting that Roger ‘they wanna drive the Jews into the sea’ Cohen is “well meaning”. His only interest is to maintain Jewish supremacy in the state of Israel, and any difference between him and the limited color palette rainbow of other Zionists is essentially tactical.

I certainly agree that Michelle Alexander’s column is a very big deal – it’s clear, comprehensive, and above all courageous. Let’s hope it proves to be a turning point. That said, I do have one beef with it: her observation that Israel has “adopted some practices reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States” grievously downplays the problem. It’s not a question of this or that “practice” – the… Read more »

When I happened to read Michelle Alexander’s column last night I thought, “Zionism is finished.” It reminded me of Walter Cronkite’s pronouncement about the Vietnam war. The blanket of lies could no longer be sustained. Alexander’s presentation is brilliant in its simple clarity and thoroughness. I felt like I was reviewing the best of Mondoweiss. And I wondered what battles have been going on behind the scenes at the NYT. Surely there must have been… Read more »

PHIL- “The 51-year-old legal scholar and civil rights advocate begins by quoting Martin Luther King’s courageous coming out against the Vietnam War in 1967, when it could do him no good.” Michelle Alexander narrowly focuses on King’s opposition to the Vietnam war to support her narrow focus on Israel/Palestine. King’s opposition to Vietnam was part of an evolving awakening in regards to US militarism and empire of which Vietnam was but a part. If Alexander… Read more »