Writing in 2000 about the American media’s reporting on the Second Intifada, the late Edward Said spoke of “America’s last taboo,” lamenting the fact that Americans can criticize anything at all, and can even get away with burning the American flag, more than they can with criticizing anything Israeli.
“American Zionism has made any serious public discussion of the past or future of Israel—by far the largest recipient ever of US foreign aid—a taboo. To call this quite literally the last taboo in American public life would not be an exaggeration. Abortion, homosexuality, the death penalty, even the sacrosanct military budget can be discussed with some freedom. The extermination of native Americans can be admitted, the morality of Hiroshima attacked, the national flag publicly committed to the flames. But the systematic continuity of Israel’s 52-year-old oppression and maltreatment of the Palestinians is virtually unmentionable, a narrative that has no permission to appear.”
That taboo has finally been broken. Shattered to smithereens. Today, with national attention focused on the two US congresswomen who have been denied entry into Israel, members of Congress and even presidential candidates are not only openly criticizing Israel, they are considering ways to hold it accountable, by withholding financial aid until all US politicians are allowed in. “You can’t have a respectful relationship, and give the amount of billions of dollars that we give to a country like Israel, but at the same time have them denying members of Congress — I don’t care where their political persuasion comes from — access into the country,” Representative Mark Pocan said, before suggesting that “this highly political move by Netanyahu could have a very serious impact, and could [lead to] far more scrutiny on what we’re doing financially.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested no US politician should go on a delegation to Israel until all politicians can go, and even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders suggested cutting off aid to Israel—a statement he would only have made on the campaign trail because he knew this is what his potential voters want to hear.
At what is clearly a watershed moment, activists and organizers must be extremely cautious about steering the conversation in the right direction.
First, just as there is a risk of the BDS movement being defended only because criminalizing it impinges on American freedoms, rather than because it is the Palestinian people’s choice of strategy to bring about their liberation, so we must be careful not to turn this global opportunity into a defense of American rights and prerogatives. Congresswoman Tlaib made that clear when she pointed out that while she is getting much national attention, as an American politician, her story is not exceptional, it is that of every Diaspora Palestinian.
Second, we must make sure Americans understand it is not Donald Trump’s unfortunate tweet which allowed matters to reach this critical point. Just as one example, Barbara Streisand tweeted that “it should alarm all Americans when a US ally denies entry to members of Congress because our autocratic president seeks to punish his political rivals.” Like many Democrats, Streisand is blaming “our autocratic president” for Israel not allowing Tlaib and Omar in, even though Israel had announced over two years ago, before Trump said anything about Tlaib and Omar’s visit, that it would deny entry to BDS activists.
And we must explain that Anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, two tenets of Zionism that are sadly not restricted to Republicans. They may have buoyed Trump into the presidency, but they are not in any way Trump’s innovation, as any Arab, any Muslim, who lived in the US before 2016 can attest to. The 3.8 billion dollars per year that the US gives to Israel, as well as the political immunity Israel has enjoyed so far, with US vetoes blocking all resolutions criticizing it, are a legacy of Trump’s predecessors, both Democrats and Republicans.
We must also make sure outraged Americans understand it is not Benjamin Netanyahu who blocks Palestinian entry into Israel, it is Zionism, an ideology many still defend, as if it were not the very reason Palestinian refugees have been denied the right of return since 1948. Netanyahu is facing elections in a few weeks, and may not be re-elected, yet a Netanyahu loss in the September 2019 Israeli elections would not mean Diaspora Palestinians will be able to freely visit their ancestral homes. Israel is founded on the historic and ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland.
And as Americans wake up to the outrage of family separation, we must make sure they also understand it is not just Congresswoman Tlaib who cannot see her grandmother, it is all diaspora Palestinians—the majority of Palestinians. The heartbreaking tweets by Palestinians, about the pain of fragmentation, attest to this widespread phenomenon in our global communities.
This is a watershed moment, and a hopeful one. Phil Weiss wrote that “BDS brought this about.” And he is right.
Even though boycotts are perceived primarily as a form of economic activism, we do not calculate the success of BDS by its economic impact–if or how it has made a dent in Israel’s economy. Indeed, we could boycott every single Israeli product in every single US grocery store, we would not be able to make a dent in Israel’s economy that some donor, or the US government, would not promptly compensate for. And we certainly cannot, yet, calculate the success of BDS by measuring improvements on the ground, in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, or within the 48 borders, where the siege, military occupation and ongoing ethnic cleansing, plus a bevy of apartheid laws, continue to suffocate the Palestinian people.
Instead, we measure the success of BDS through an evaluation of discursive shifts. And with the shattering of America’s last taboo at the highest political level, thanks to Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mark Pocan, an Betty McCollom, as well as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who are not only criticizing Israel, but seeking practical ways to hold it accountable, we can say we have finally turned the corner.
And let us keep in mind that those politicians would not have achieved their position were it not for the grassroots, where we must continue to organize, and push for more public denunciations. After all, Sanders would not have made his statement about “absolutely” cutting off aid to Israel if he didn’t grasp that this is what his potential voters want to hear.