Nearly 70 people crowded a room at Columbia University yesterday to hear a talk on historical divisions on the left over Palestine, and the news of the day was celebrated. Rashid Khalidi enthused over Bernie Sanders’s unprompted embrace of Palestinian rights to the Democratic debate the night before as a sign of progress. And Dorothy Zellner celebrated Benjamin Netanyahu’s indictment that morning as a “happy day,” and teachable moment about Israel in the United States.
The gathering at the Center for Palestine Studies was for an important new book by Michael Fischbach,“The Movement and the Middle East,” about how the Israeli Arab conflict divided the American left in the 1960s and 1970s.
Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, introduced Fischbach by telling of protesting when Golda Meir spoke at Yale University Law School in the 1960s. “There were four of us,” he said. Fischbach’s book reports that American public opinion was then 95 percent in favor of Israel. “I think that exaggerated support for the Palestinians in the 60s,” Khalidi quipped. He went on:
Things are obviously very different today. You heard a presidential candidate last night on network television talking about things that could not have been spoken anywhere in the Democratic Party, ever, under any circumstances in the 60s. And things are happening on college campuses. Things are happening in churches. Things are happening in the Jewish community, which paint a very different picture than the United States in the 60s and 70s.
Today we can talk about matters on campus that were “completely off limits 20 years ago,” Khalidi said.
In his talk, Fischbach also emphasized the importance of Bernie Sanders’s comments on Palestine in opening the floodgates on a progressive discussion of Palestine inside the Democratic Party. The number of Democrats who sympathize more with Israel than Palestine has been falling, to about 27 percent in recent polling. Liberal Democrats in surveys are twice as sympathetic to Palestinians as they are to Israelis.
Fischbach warned against allowing this divide to weaken the party’s battle against Trump. The strongly pro-Israeli party bosses are not listening to the very constituencies it needs to win, constituencies that are solidly pro-Palestinian, women, youth, and people of color. And those three are pretty clear about their sympathies, with Palestine.
Progressives fighting back against the agenda of Donald Trump and his ally, the now-indicted prime minister, would do well to consider the weakening of the left five decades ago due to its infighting over Israel Palestine as a cautionary tale, if they seek to create a united front among progressives against 21st century reactionaries in America. With Trump so deeply connected with Netanyahu and his policies, and with the left both within and outside the United States virtually unanimous in support of Palestinians, strongly pro-Israel progressives’ ability to make common cause here in America with Palestinian activists as part of a wider anti-Trump coalition appears to be a major stumbling block. Like American politics, Middle Eastern politics are internal, and they present American progressives with the same kind of challenges they did five decades ago, particularly related to the Arab Israeli conflict.
Dorothy Zellner, the activist with Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Say No, and formerly with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s (SNCC), said the divide may not be resolvable.
This division does not surprise me. This is an ethical division. It didn’t start in 1967, it started in 1948 and it’s connected with the Nakba…. What we are looking at is the result of the Nakba. There is no way we can be united on this, friends. This is an ethical political division. It’s foolish to think there’s a united front. Either you are going to support the right of the Palestinains to be human beings or you’re not. I don’t see any kind of unity on that. I think the way forward is to work like we’re working, like JVP is working, to convince people that there is an ethical dilemma. I think that’s where that 27 percent [figure in the Democratic Party] comes from…
Now we have a happy day when their prime minister is indicted for bribery!