Three weeks ago the New York Times ran a bombshell opinion piece off the front page of its Week in Review. Michelle Alexander, the professor and social activist who changed the paradigm on the wholesale incarceration of black men (the new Jim Crow), wrote that she was at last breaking her silence on Israel and Palestine, and risking the career consequences that have stopped many progressives from calling apartheid apartheid. The piece did more to animate the progressive discussion of Palestine than any other intervention in memory. It drew fiery attacks from the Israel lobby.
That piece followed Michelle Goldberg’s strong opinion piece of two months back saying that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, acknowledging that the two-state solution is over, and all but calling for equal rights for all in one state. Goldberg has since joined Alexander in describing a progressive “taboo” on documenting Palestinian persecution in the U.S. mainstream: “I feel like it’s very difficult to speak kind of rationally and forthrightly about real human rights abuses in the West Bank.”
Perhaps the Times hierarchy got scared by the huge response to Alexander and Goldberg. The editors surely feel that they have to give equal space to a rebuttal; and today Bret Stephens counters the two columnists in a long piece that aims to prevent mainstream progressives, the “not-so-far-left,” from adopting anti-Zionism because it is, he says, anti-Semitism.
Stephens’s article is an earnest attempt to diminish Palestinian demands and paint anyone who stands up for them as an anti-Semite. It is titled, “The Progressive Assault on Israel: A movement that can detect a racist dog-whistle from miles away is strangely deaf when it comes to some of the barking on its own side of the fence,” and it is riddled with erroneous framings. But while at first blush it looks like more pro-Israel propaganda, Stephens’s article is actually very good, because it will get more people talking about important issues.
As for its errors, first, Stephens purports to speak for the Democratic Party mainstream — for instance, when he reviles rising Democratic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for having a phone call with Jeremy Corbyn, whom Stephens describes as a deep-seated anti-Semite.
Now is the time for party leaders to make sure [an alliance of US progressives and Corybnites] doesn’t happen by insisting that anti-Zionism has no more a place in the Democratic fold than any form of prejudice.
But what standing does Stephens have among Democrats and progressives? He’s a hack for Israel. This is the man who repeatedly bashed Barack Obama for “betraying” Israel and said he didn’t hold a candle as a leader to Benjamin Netanyahu. He has labeled Trump a fascist, but defended Netanyahu from the same charge.
Next, Stephens is earnest in his identification of “the politics of the American Jewish community” as Zionist politics. He equates Zionism and Judaism throughout the article. Anti-Zionism, he writes, is
profoundly unsettling to a Jewish community that has generally seen the Democratic Party as its political home. That’s not because American Jews are unfamiliar with the radical left’s militant hostility toward the Jewish state. That’s been true for decades. Nor is it because American Jews are suddenly tilting right: Some 76 percent voted for Democrats in the midterms.
What’s unsettling is that the far-left’s hostility is now being mainstreamed by the not-so-far left. Anti-Zionism — that is, rejection not just of this or that Israeli policy, but also of the idea of a Jewish state itself — is becoming a respectable position among people who would never support the elimination of any other country in any other circumstance. And it is churning up a new wave of nakedly anti-Jewish bigotry.
But what to make of the hordes of Jews, including Michelle Goldberg and IfNotNow, who defend the long tradition of anti-Zionism in the Jewish community, or who are heirs to that tradition themselves: notably Jewish Voice for Peace, the fastest-growing Jewish organization in the country, which Stephens simply whites-out of the picture.
Next, it is impossible to offer yourself as a model to progressives if you are completely indifferent to human rights. The piece relates how many Israeli civilians have died from Palestinian violence, for instance, but says not a word about Palestinian casualties. This indifference is not a surprise. Stephens has defended the Israeli slaughter of hundreds of non-violent Palestinian protesters at the Gaza fence, saying it’s the Palestinians’ fault, one of four NYT columnists who have justified the slaughter. The Times would never run a piece defending Palestinian terrorism against civilians. The roof would cave in; and if somehow something like that did run, the editors would apologize profusely. That standard goes out the window when Palestinians are murdered by Israelis and Stephens is treated as a moral authority over Jeremy Corbyn . . .
In the same vein, Stephens says flatly that the following statements are not true.
More than a half-century of occupation of Palestinian territories is a massive injustice that fair-minded people can no longer ignore, especially given America’s financial support for Israel. Continued settlement expansion in the West Bank proves Israel has no interest in making peace on equitable terms. And endless occupation makes Israel’s vaunted democracy less about Jewish self-determination than it is about ethnic subjugation.
Not “even half true,” Stephens argues, because Israel has tried again and again to make peace, and Arabs have never accepted its existence.
Stephens has chosen an excellent ground for debate. It is because of those 50 years of occupation, a massive injustice, and Israel’s new nation state law that says Jews have the “exclusive” right to self-determination in the land, that young American progressives and women and people of color are showing more sympathy to the Palestinians than Israel and are willing to support one democratic state in Israel and Palestine.
An unintended achievement of the article is that in attacking BDS, boycott, divestment and sanctions, a program we always spell out to readers, Stephens does not spell out what B.D.S. means. No: BDS has now become a household word.
Progressives — including presidential hopefuls Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren — also united behind Vermont’s Bernie Sanders in a failed bid to block a Senate bill, passed on Tuesday, that includes an anti-B.D.S. measure prohibiting federal contracts with businesses that boycott Israel, ostensibly on free-speech grounds.
Finally, there are Stephens’s core assertions: That it is anti-Semitic bigotry 1), to believe that Israel’s failure to end the occupation is evidence of “its boundless greed for Palestinian land and wicked indifference to their plight” and 2), to believe that Israel is “an illegitimate state.”
Again, we are glad this is the ground that Stephens has chosen for debate. It seems to us perfectly acceptable in an open discourse to argue that Israel’s endless colonization of Palestinian land with as few Palestinians on it as possible is “wicked” and “boundless greed.” This site provides evidence of that cruelty every day.
It also seems to us perfectly acceptable to argue that a self-described Jewish state that fails to separate church and state and that holds that Jews have an exclusive right to self-determination when 20 percent of the population is not Jewish is “illegitimate.” Many states have lost legitimacy. That doesn’t mean they have to dissolve into violence, as Stephen implies.
In short, we should all be grateful to Bret Stephens for “making anti-Zionism the talk of the dinner table,” as the human-and-civil rights leader Abdeen Jabara states. “I salute Stephens.”
Keep it up, Bret Stephens. Tell us more!
H/t Donald Johnson.