On November 14, 2019, The New York Times published an opinion piece titled, “On the Frontlines of Progressive Anti-Semitism.” The first thing that caught my eye is that the author is a Mr. Blake Flayton, a sophomore at George Washington University who describes himself as a Jewish progressive and an advocate for gay rights, abortion and the environment. As a writer and social commentator, I am painfully aware of how difficult it is for a not-so-famous person to get an opinion piece published anywhere, particularly at the very high falutin NYT.
As a liberal minded person, Mr. Flayton is apparently very tired of being called “an ‘apartheid-enabler,’ a ‘baby killer’ and a ‘colonial apologist.’” Okay, so maybe he actually wrote the technically very well composed piece or maybe he was fed the talking points. Interestingly, a quick review of his social media reveals that he is a student, (reassuring) writer, lover of Mexican food, a musical theatre enthusiast, and a “courageous Zioness and student activist, involved at GW Hillel.” Now Zioness is a very slick organization that vigorously defends the idea that one can be progressive and Zionist at the same time. It is registered as a 501C3 and interestingly shares the same address as The Lawfare Project. Zioness’ founder and CEO Amanda Berman was an employee of The Lawfare Project which is now ironically complaining that Zioness is not unabashedly Zionist enough. The Lawfare Project describes itself as “the legal arm of the pro-Israel community.” It functions as a kind of legal pitbull on all things Palestine and its main attack strategy is that universities that do not suppress Palestinian solidarity work are failing to protect Jewish students. Hillel is an international Jewish campus organization that provides a home for Jewish students (from kosher food to a large collection of nice Jewish boys), and also espouses a clear stand-with-Israel against boycott, divestment, and sanction and other criticisms policy.
I have a number of issues with this oped, beyond the fact that the NYT thought it was a good idea to publish it. Some of the problems are factual. The author claims: “I, like 95 percent of American Jews, support Israel.” Supporting Israel is a rather undefined phrase. Are we talking the rightwing policies of Netanyahu or his challenger Gantz? The post-Nazi Holocaust rising from the ashes Israel? The Jews in Israel as distinguished from their government? The mythos of kibbutz life or the “only democracy in the Middle East” or the sanctuary against antisemitism? The article he cites actually states “95% of Jews have favorable views of Israel” but notes other research showing only 76 percent of Jews were “somewhat emotionally attached to Israel,” more than half felt that caring about Israel was not part of being Jewish, 42 percent said “Trump favors Israel too much.”
There are also mountains of articles and more reliable polls that reveal an enormous dissatisfaction with Netanyahu and his policies, major concerns over the continued occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, and a major shift in allegiances in younger Jewish populations who are concerned with racism, colonization, and the human rights of Palestinians. In other words, these Jews actually care about justice for everyone.
The author is upset that a student government meeting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign supported a resolution that condemned the “conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.” Guess what? The US state department has blessed that conflation as well as a host of mainstream Jewish organizations and the State of Israel as well. And it’s wrong. Anti-Zionism is a belief that is critical of the political movement that privileges Jewish history, trauma, and aspirations over the indigenous Palestinians in historic Palestine. Antisemitism is a hatred of all things Jewish solely because they are Jewish. Thank you student government for a moment of clarity that seems to have escaped your parents.
Mr. Flayton sees the establishment of Israel as “a fundamentally just cause,” but he is unable to see the ethnic cleansing, dispossession, and trauma that is the other side of that history. He is still hoping for a two-state solution despite the fact that Israel controls all of historic Palestine, has annexed the Jordan River valley, and created a massive Jewish settlement project with bypass roads and military installations that continue to dispossess and fracture Palestinians. Even Israeli leaders no longer espouse the two-state fantasy.
Despite Mr. Flayton’s so-called liberal ideology he has not grappled with the painful history of Zionism, the settler-colonial roots of the State of Israel, and the obvious apartheid in the territories and racism within the 1948 armistice borders. Ironically he worries, “We also believe that any politics that excludes, ignores or dehumanizes the voices of minorities is a politics that is dangerous for all of us.” It is clear to me that this philosophy of his does not apply to Palestinians in Israel or the US.
My most serious concern with this student is his inability to see the history of Israel/Palestine through a lens that goes beyond Jewish exceptionalism, his unwillingness to not only be anchored in centuries of antisemitism and Jewish persecution, but to understand the forces of colonialism, racism, and apartheid that characterize the struggle today. Zionists are going to have to face the painful truth. It is not possible to be a progressive, to celebrate human rights, gay rights, democracy, etc., etc., and then to have a different set of rules for Israel. This stance is both deeply corruptive to the diaspora Jewish community as well as the State and it trivializes the fact that Palestinians are engaged in a liberation struggle against one of the strongest military powers in the world. Refusing to distinguish between antisemitism and criticism of Israel also minimizes the antisemitic threats from white nationalists, skinheads, and neo-Nazis that have reared their ugly heads in the Trump universe and beyond.
Maybe Mr. Flayton needs to step out of his bubble and spend a few nights in Hebron with some very principled soldiers from Breaking the Silence.