Are we all potentially Israelis?
If there can be one lesson that the creation of the State of Israel should teach us, it must be on the danger of accepting any and all political proposals from oppressed peoples by virtue that they have been oppressed. For no matter how well-meaning unconditional support for Europe’s Jews has been in light of the Nazi Holocaust’s crimes, such carte blanche solidarity is precisely what has helped legitimize the Zionist colonization of Palestinian land, without objection to the death and destruction a Jewish state would inflict upon the region’s non-Jews, or upon conquered peoples on other parts of the globe (see “Israel and Mexico swap notes on abusing rights,” Electronic Intifada, 2013).
Unconditional solidarity for Jewish self-determination is particularly strong in a West still reeling from having turned its colonial practices onto itself during World War II. For many Westerners, support of Israel has offered them a twisted form of self-redemption, where rather than having undergone a radical transformation of themselves, the preferred solution has been to export their internal contradictions back onto non-Europeans, where they have traditionally belonged.
But the anti-colonial movements of the twentieth century made the colonial project more difficult in their demands for independence. Yet from within the contradictions of the movements themselves, who sought to self-determine by seeking recognition from the West itself, a situation arose where empire and the wretched could now stand together as one. It is a feat that does not alarm us as it should, for having the oppressed enter into the rules of hierarchy has done nothing to alleviate oppression writ large. On the contrary, it has helped perpetuate it.
The State of Israel presents us with an example. Zionism sought to become an arm of the dominant class by delivering evidence that European Jews could be deserving subjects of freedom—the judge being none other than empire itself. Key to making this case was the geopolitical benefit Israel could offer. As the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, put it, a Jewish state in the Middle East could serve as “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism” (The Jewish State, 1896). While Israel was created and maintained by old-fashioned colonial barbarity, what has become novel is that it can now do so in the name of the oppressed. Israel’s great benefit to empire is that it can disarm resistance with the argument that it is racist to resist. Specifically, any objection to Israel’s ethnic cleansing campaign of Palestine is rendered vulnerable to the “anti-Semitism” charge.
The tactic has been effective. As Diego Siragusa illustrates for us in his report from Italy, while the Palestine solidarity movement takes seriously the principle that there is no place for anti-Semitism within its program, the movement’s work is nevertheless derailed by Israel’s supporters who deploy the anti-Semitism charge against any and all critique of the State.
The tactic is so commonplace that Diego could well be reporting from other parts of West, where anyone who has organized a panel or teach-in on Palestine has gone in hoping that the featured Israeli and Jewish voices of conscience might serve to pre-emptively strike against the smear. The concern has, in fact, overwhelmed the structure of Palestine awareness campaigns that they now largely promote speakers who are Jewish, Israelis, or are Western scholars and advocates who have spent time in Palestine, and are understood as credible witnesses by virtue of their being Western.
In many ways, the Palestine solidarity movement holds itself hostage to the anti-Semitism charge because its strategy is to garner sympathy from a traumatized society that copes by providing Israel unconditional support. Nevertheless, the movement’s energies remain engulfed in proving to it that it is Palestine that is worthy of support, and Israel, in turn, unworthy. Discussions on Palestine thus adopt the West’s own discourses of rights and law (along with its anemic understandings of racialization) to serve as the lingua franca among an audience that is understood as Palestine’s would-be saviors.
The fact that the aspiring solidarity audience’s own states share violently racist histories and colonial affinities with Israel is often elided. Each time their governments register support of Israel’s massacres of Palestinians in Gaza, this support is readily dismissed as a case of disproportionate Zionist influence blighting otherwise benevolent regimes. If there actually exist benevolent regimes to be found in Europe or the United States is an unaskable question for, insofar as the goal is to get the West on Palestine’s side, it will not be accomplished by insulting the West with the truth of itself.
The guiding framework thus maintains that the conflict is essentially one between Jews and Palestinians that can be subject to Western mediation. As the movement against normalizing Israel grows and grows (with the help of audiences that like to consider their own regimes “normal” by contrast), the victories are uncritically celebrated as the “mainstreaming of Palestine.” Little consideration, however, is provided to how these victories are a broadening of the “Palestinian Zionism” we were warned about decades ago (Sadik Al-Azm, Die Welt des Islams, 1988).
Writing from Damascus, Sadik Al-Azm reflected that, when a Palestinian state became the official aim of the Palestinian people and revolution, the leadership adopted a strategy that mirrored Zionism point by point:
At the level of tactics, this kind of argument points out that since the Zionist Movement was greatly helped in achieving its aims by a whole range of shifting (and often unprincipled) ties and alliances with major and regional powers, reactionary and progressive social forces, paramount and dependent ruling classes, it is natural to think that the Palestinian Liberation Movement also will be similarly helped in achieving its aim (the mini-Palestinian state) by a whole range of shifting and unprincipled alliances and ties with Western Europe and the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Euro-Communism, the US oil establishment and the prince of Qatar, the State Department’s proverbial Arabists and the American congressional lobbies.
Palestinian scholarship followed suit. In Walid Khalidi, for example, the Palestinian Liberation Movement had found its own Theodor Herzl.
In much the same way as the classical Zionist ideologues tried to convince those European (and later on American) elites that the most rational, realistic, and profitable solution of the Jewish Question is instituting a Jewish state in Palestine, Khalidi argues, also, that the most rational, realistic and profitable solution to the Palestinian Question, from the point of view of preserving and defending the vital interests of the West in the Middle East, is the creation of a Palestinian state.
That the movement’s tendencies continue to head in this direction with greater force should raise critical questions for all of us in solidarity with Palestine. When we have insisted in the past that “We are all Palestinians,” it was to suggest that, so long as there are any conquered people, we are all conquered peoples and have the right to resist. But is mirroring Zionism what we mean when we work toward making Palestine mainstream? If this is the case, then should the new slogan of Palestine solidarity be, “We are all the Zionist lobby?”
I put forward these critiques hoping not to be understood as taking aim solely at Palestinian or Jewish self-determination. I hope that my effort is understood instead as a call against any form of unconditional solidarity, for any movement, in any place. It is a plea that with every one of our struggles, with every one of our moves, we are vigilant with ourselves and with each other to ensure that we do not become someone else’s Israelis. Finally, it is an argument that as long as our concern is with lobbying the powerful to one day award us with the qualities of being human, we will fail. The privilege may one day be granted for some, but it will always come at the expense of others.
I know that it is possible, if not probable, that modeling the Zionist movement is precisely the strategy that some of us will continue to subscribe to. If that is the case, then it is a discussion we openly need to have.
Many thanks to Nura Alkhalili, Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, Rachelle Friesen, Ilaria Giglioli, Budour Hassan, Jimmy Johnson, Matthew Quest, Mayssoun Sukarieh , and Nimer Sultany for their engagements with with me on the issues presented here.