‘Progressive’ votes on anti-BDS bill offer a political defense of the indefensible

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If it waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck, paddles like a duck, then probably it’s a duck. Or a good imitation of one. When self-described progressives like Ayanna Pressley and Ro Khanna walk and talk like Netanyahu, it’s fair to ask what kind of politicians they really are. 

Both have defended voting for House Resolution 246, the latest effort to demonize the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, by claiming that it does not deny the right to practice the non-violent strategy of boycott. Ro Khanna goes further, seeking to don the mantle of President Lincoln with the truly incoherent claim that “My role model is Lincoln’s approach to governance. He was not an abolitionist early in his career but he did help end slavery.” What can that mean? That because Lincoln temporized on abolition, and waited for a catastrophic civil war to attain the ends that abolition sought to achieve, Ro is right to temporize on BDS, a non-violent civil society movement which, like abolitionism in its time, is steadily gaining popular support, and certainly the support of all true progressives? Is he, like Lincoln or Netanyahu, more concerned with re-election than justice and rights?

Pressley is no less incoherent, proclaiming that “We can call out and question the tactics of a movement but we should never question or marginalize the lived experiences and voices of those who call out for civil rights & liberties, including the Palestinian people.” But that is precisely what the full text of the resolution does, suggesting that all this self-defensive quackery on the part of “Progressives except on Palestine” is designed to mask what they have really signed on to, an AIPAC-lite screed that perpetrates not only all the self-serving smears that Israel’s supporters have for fifteen years disseminated in order to discredit BDS, but also all the manifest contradictions that any true progressive would find both patently evident and shameful to endorse.

The very first phrase of the resolution is a contradiction that a growing number of Americans are beginning to recognize: “the democratic, Jewish State of Israel”. Of what other state could it be said without exciting ridicule that it is a democracy but not the state of all its people? The lived experience of Palestinians, who face some sixty-five discriminatory laws in Israel, might teach Pressley and Khanna that lesson if they cared to inquire. And if there were any doubt that the State of Israel has never been the state of all Israelis, that was made very clear twelve months ago by the passage of the “nation-state law” in the Knesset by a clear majority. Were any other state to engage in so brazen an act of self-declared discriminatory intent, it would be obvious to any progressive that it was engaging in apartheid. We never shied away from advocating boycott, divestment and sanctions against the “democracy for a white people” that was South Africa, nor did the civil rights movement in the United States shy away from using boycotts to protest the separate and unequal regime of Democratic Jim Crow. George Wallace may have disliked such tactics, but then, he was no progressive.

Pressley proudly claims the legacy of that movement, having grown up “with the concerted protests and sacrifice of generations who fought for civil rights and liberation”, even as she endorses a resolution that very deliberately condemns US citizens for using similar tactics on behalf of a people who manifestly confront not just Israel’s regimes of occupation and devastating siege, but a systematic body of discriminatory laws and practices within the so-called democratic Jewish state itself. According to the resolution, it is a scandal for a Palestinian civil rights leader like Omar Barghouti, singled out for “questioning and marginalization” in HR 246, to ask why Palestinians should ever accept living under the laws of a state founded on discrimination and ethnic cleansing. Should Pressley’s mother have lain down and fallen silent in the face of discrimination so that the United States could remain a white supremacist nation?

Both Khanna and Pressley also reach for the cover the resolution offers of adhering to a two-state solution, while implying that the BDS movement—in a truly ludicrous over-reach—is “undermin[ing] the possibility for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demanding concessions of one party alone”. But non-violence has always been the means deployed by a people faced with an overwhelming imbalance of power. Many have noted the irony that this resolution passed the day after Israel committed one of its more egregious acts of ethnic cleansing, demolishing seventy Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem, evidently in preparation to expand its illegal settlements further. In the face of such destruction of their homes and of such impunity, should Palestinians pretend that Israel does not have overwhelming power over their lives? Should they abandon the only non-violent pathway left to shift that suffocating imbalance of power? The two-state solution seems more and more like a convenient but threadbare fig leaf donned by those who dare not confront the lies and contradictions disseminated by Zionist propagandists. For by such acts Israel itself has destroyed the two-state solution to which it was never truly committed, even as it decries Palestinian resistance to the continuing expropriation and dispossession of their lands. Netanyahu is at least more honest on that score than the US Congress.

One could go on identifying the contradictions and half-truths that, as usual, pepper this supposedly toothless screed through which Congress again declares its ritual obeisance to Israel and its endorsement of state-sanctioned injustice and occupation in violation of human rights and international law. But any genuine progressive who takes the time to read through this absurd nonsense will spot them immediately and recognize this sanctimonious posturing for what it is: another political defense of the indefensible. 

Khanna and Pressley defend their dereliction of political consistency partly by sheltering behind the claim that the resolution has no practical force (making one wonder why they went to the bother of making such empty declarations in the first place). But that too is a half-truth. In perpetrating and endorsing the language that has been Zionism’s smoke screen, dispersed as liberally as tear-gas on Gaza’s Great March of Return, Congress has in practice legitimated exactly the language that introduces every state bill that seeks actually to criminalize or otherwise penalize BDS. With devious immorality, they have morally condemned BDS and joined the time-serving enablers of an apartheid regime.

But in the larger scheme of things, should the increasing efforts of the Zionist lobby to criminalize, marginalize and politically condemn BDS be a matter of great concern to us? Or should we not see this latest, and rather half-hearted, declaration of Congress’s commitment to obscurantism as an index of how far BDS has come and as a manifestation of its fundamental strategic wisdom?

Just over ten years ago, in January 2009 and in the wake of Israel’s devastating assault on Gaza, a number of academics decided to participate in the global movement for BDS by founding the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel [USACBI]. We did so in the face of an even more mendacious and servile Senate Resolution defending Israel’s assault, one which was later found by a thorough UN investigation to have perpetrated the usual war crimes and violations of human rights. At that time, only four very courageous representatives dissented from that litany of falsehood. But what was evident was that the political process was under a blockade that would prevent any genuine movement towards a just peace and an ending of occupation and discrimination. The only possible path to real peace with justice was through the energizing of a civil society movement that would educate the American people about the realities of Israel’s regime that Zionists and their supporters had been so keen to keep from public view. Only through a profound sea-change in the awareness of ordinary people could change come, through the pressure from below that social movements have always exerted.

Ten years later, the very need for the House to posture emptily by singling BDS out for condemnation is a measure of the success of the strategy that has worked globally and within the United States. In 2009, criticism of Israel was the entirely implicit “third rail” of politics. Not even the most serviceable political lackey needed to make a public show of condemning critics of Israel: the vast majority of news outlets, even those to the left of the narrow spectrum of public discourse, automatically performed the service of silencing and occluding the realities of Palestinian life and smearing its legitimate modes of resistance as terrorism. Congress and Zionism had their smoke-screen in the unquestioned nostrums of the daily news. Now no discussion of Palestine/Israel proceeds without the mention of BDS as a tactic that has been effective or of the reasons why Israel deserves to be critiqued and opposed. Hence the suppression of “the lived experiences and voices of … the Palestinian people” has had to become explicit, has now to call upon the force of legal measures and vain efforts at political ostracism, not to mention the constant and daily drumbeat of trolling and smearing with accusations of anti-Semitism that every BDS activist must face. 

When the facts of the case tell against Israel in every sphere, suppression of the movement that has disseminated those facts is the only option left to the Zionist lobby.

But progressive congress-persons have endorsed the logic of suppression at their peril.  BDS is not simply an isolated social movement. It is a social movement that has consistently integrated and worked in solidarity with other social movements, from Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, recognizing that a progressive agenda is one that recognizes the commonality of all struggles against injustice. The Zionist effort to separate anti-Semitism from the other modes of racism that have flourished since Trump’s election, with the insidious intent of using it to smear Palestinian solidarity, risks isolating Jewish communities from the anti-racist movements in which they might find common cause. Likewise progressives who think that they can single out BDS for condemnation risk losing touch with and the support of the social movements without which “being progressive” becomes no more than a party political lapel badge.

BDS is a global movement for a reason: it has consistently foregrounded the indivisible principles of non-discrimination and insisted that the struggle for justice in Palestine is just one front in the struggle for justice everywhere, a struggle that has intensified with the global rise of authoritarianism and ethnic supremacism around the world. BDS has lived and steadily grown on the basis of those indispensible principles. Congressional resolutions that affirm the duplicitous language of Zionist lobbies and apologists for apartheid will have little impact on its continuing growth. But “progressives” who endorse them stand to lose sight of what is crucial to all fundamental political change: the moral force of social movements out of which, from abolitionism to civil rights to BDS, all substantial transformation has come.

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“‘[Lincoln] was not an abolitionist early in his career but he did help end slavery.’ What can that mean?” Maybe she means that while Lincoln was not outwardly an abolitionist, he inwardly despised slavery from early on. He maintained a pragmatic facade in order to engage the top leaders of slavery, and then utterly demolished them as soon as he had a real opportunity. Meanwhile, Lincoln greatly valued the outspoken abolitionist voices like Frederick Douglass… Read more »

I gave to the Squad, including Rep. Pressley, because I believed they supported Palestinian rights, as BDS is trying to promote, and opposed Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. I thought they could stand up in significant part to the Israel Lobby. Here’s what I said to Rep. Pressley in response to her latest fund-raising request: Dear Rep. Pressley, I gave to the squad as a group, including you, but no more donations to you. Very… Read more »