We are delighted here at the site that Michelle Alexander’s excellent long New York Times column is getting huge attention — and we are also a little puzzled. The Times has previously run occasional opinion articles critical of Israel and sympathetic to Palestinians, but none of them has had the reverberating impact of Professor Alexander’s January 20 piece. Her article is already clearly a watershed moment, with arguably even more impact on mainstream U.S. opinion than Israel’s onslaught last spring against Gaza’s Great March of Return, which left more than 150 Palestinians dead and another 5800 wounded by live ammunition.
Israel’s Hasbara Central has already recognized the danger. The Israel lobby’s usual suspects struck back immediately, calling Alexander’s measured article “a rant,” with “countless outrages,” that even amounts to “a strategic threat” to Israel.
Why has Alexander prompted such a huge reaction? I have some tentative explanations.
* First, Alexander reveals an open secret — that many mainstream American progressives have been afraid to speak out against Israel because they fear losing funding for their other important causes, or they fear being smeared by the pro-Israel forces. Alexander bravely includes herself in this category, hinting that she worried that her pathbreaking research and writing into systemic racial discrimination in America could be jeopardized if she came out decisively for Palestine. Her headline told the story: “Time to Break the Silence About Palestine.”
* The U.S. political climate is changing, to be steadily more sympathetic to Palestinians. Young people, Jews and others, no longer uncritically accept the Israel lobby’s propaganda. For the first time, two members of the U.S. Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, outspokenly favor the nonviolent program of Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS).
* Michelle Alexander is a respected and experienced scholar, who won sufficient renown in her field to be offered a regular New York Times column. (Hasbara Central must be panicking that she will continue to speak out regularly, now that she has broken the ice.)
* We in the alternative press forget how successfully the Times and other mainstream media have protected themselves inside a pro-Israel propaganda fortress. You have to set the occasional pro-Palestine opinion article in the Times alongside the paper’s chronically biased news coverage, day after day, year after year. So when Michelle Alexander says straightforwardly that Israel has “adopted some practices reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States,” her view will come as no surprise to regular visitors to Mondoweiss, but those who read the Times on the 7:17 train down from Westchester into New York City may jump out of their seats.
* That Michelle Alexander is a distinguished African-American academic may also be a factor. Many black Americans have for decades seen certain parallels between their situation and the oppression that Palestinians face, a comparison that is surely giving the Israel lobby nightmares.
* Finally, Alexander’s article is extraordinarily eloquent and moving. You expect well-crafted pieces in the Times, but she has written a masterpiece. Here is how she ended: “In this new year, I aim to speak with greater courage and conviction about injustices beyond our borders, particularly those that are funded by our government, and stand in solidarity with struggles for democracy and freedom. My conscience leaves me with no other choice.”
Her article will surely appear in eventual histories about the liberation of Palestine, marking a turning point in history.