Palestine and the Left

The Left has a checkered history when it comes to Palestine.

Illustration by Erin Schell

The Left has a checkered history when it comes to Palestine. For at least the first two decades of Israel’s existence, due in part to the attempted extermination of European Jewry, in part to the distorting effects of Soviet foreign policy, and in part to sympathy for a purportedly socialist movement, almost the entire Western left lived with illusions about Zionism.

Ideologically, Zionism was a broad and heterogeneous nationalist movement, with many competing currents of the Right and Left, each with different degrees of moral awareness vis-à-vis the non-Jewish world. But as it manifested itself concretely, Zionism meant the creation of a colonial sovereignty in historic Palestine, and all that went with it: the calamitous replacement of a complex Palestinian society with vibrant urban and agricultural communities, deeply embedded within the surrounding Arab world, with a European nation-state.

Building a European state outside of Europe meant the destruction, expulsion, or assimilation of indigenous people, what the historian Patrick Wolfe has called the “logic of elimination.” That logic was then rationalized as a reparation for the horrors inflicted on European Jews — even as it was brought to bear against Palestinians who were not responsible for those horrors.

That’s why the shotgun marriage of Zionism and the Left has been so troubled. Socialist Zionism, even in theory, meant socialism for Zionists. Ultimately, it meant socialism for no one: Israel today is the second most unequal developed economy in the world.

Meanwhile, some recurring tropes within the pro-Palestine community have also blurred the issue. What is essentially a classic struggle for national liberation has been obscured by a tendency to exceptionalize Israeli crimes, distracted by a barren fixation on international law, and lost in a hopelessly abstract analytical idealism. A corollary of these analytical faults has been the so-called Israel lobby thesis, which argues that were it not for a handful of pro-Israel lobbying institutions, America might not support the occupation or continue its “special relationship” with Israel.

This special section of Jacobin takes on these themes. It lays out materialist analyses of the links between Israel and the United States, and the role of the Israel lobby. It delineates the contemporary social bases of the two-state solution and the Palestinian Authority. It analyzes the waxing power of Palestinian capitalists in the West Bank, and also discusses the solidarity movement itself.

Why now? Because almost without anyone noticing, the movement in solidarity with Palestinian rights — with all its solipsisms and ultra-leftist foibles, its quarrels and magnetic attraction for eccentrics, opportunists, and, yes, the occasional antisemite — has grown to become one of the most important, inspiring, and fast-growing social movements in the country.

Palestine is no longer a dirty word on college campuses. The last Students for Justice in Palestine national conference attracted well over 300 delegates from more than 140 colleges and universities across the country, converging on Ann Arbor to discuss capitalist state formation in Israel, solidarity among prisoners, colonialism, the persistence of the occupation, refugee rights, and remarkably, with a minimum of rancor and sectarianism, the Syrian conflict.

Much of the energy that in the past would have found its home in student antiwar movements has migrated to the cause of Palestine. That is not without its problems: after all, children are gunned down by helicopter gunships in Afghanistan as surely as they are gunned down by snipers in the Gaza Strip. But the bloom of student interest in this old and bloody colonial conflict is something the Left ought to take interest in, because the Left is not just an idea but also the masses in motion, and scarcely anywhere — except for the environmental movement — are young people in motion with such a mix of revolutionary élan and disciplined militancy as they are in the case of Palestine.

But radical action has outpaced radical understanding. In part, that is because young people have gotten involved just at the moment when the Palestine question is in unprecedented political and ideological flux. Some activists are unaware, for example, that support for a two-state solution was not always the hollow alibi it now represents. It was the pragmatic position of the Palestinian capital­ist class and its cadres, along with a large portion of the Palestinian people, and many communists. That position therefore often became the default position of the American solidarity movement in the defeated days of Oslo and then the brutal destruction of the Second Intifada, even as it receded beyond the horizon of possibility. The number of settlers rose to surpass four hundred thousand, each settler a “fact on the ground,” in the argot of Israeli planners; each one making it more difficult for Palestinians to gain sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

In those days, simply telling the truth acquired a radical edge. To denounce Israeli war crimes and to call unambiguously for the end of the occupation was to expose oneself to death threats. All the more so when figures like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, who defended Palestine in the American public sphere, still traced their ideas for resolution of the conflict to the old Matzpen position of the 1960s and 1970s: a regional revolution, the evaporation of state borders, and socialism in the Middle East.

But times changed sometime between the brutal Israeli assault on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the siege of the Gaza Strip from 2007 to 2010, and the 2008–2009 Cast Lead massacre — when one of the world’s most powerful armies, desperate to destroy a subject people’s capacity to resist, laid waste to a tiny strip of land filled with refugee camps and children on live television.

In Europe, consistently ahead of the American left in mobilizational capacity, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest. The US reaction was more subdued, but even here the shockwave of Israeli bombs broke the Zionist hegemony over the American psyche. Watching white phosphorus fall on children will do that.

And so the level of struggle in solidarity work took massive leaps — but not without problems and misunderstandings. The essays we present in this section aim to illuminate some of the critical issues with which the movement is grappling.

As Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie, along with Sobhi Samour and Omar Jabary Salamanca, have pointed out, “scholarly production accurately mirrors the dynamics of incoherent contemporary Palestinian politics.” Indeed, it takes its cue from them. The result is that a rights-based campaign has fundamentally accommodated an often far too liberal Palestine solidarity discourse. As Qato and Rabie discuss in this section, such liberalism is manifest everywhere: a centering of the American state as the key leverage point for all American activists, Palestinian or otherwise; a palsied internationalism, repeating the same old slogans but without the links to struggling communities in Palestine and the Arab world which gave them meaning; and a focus on individuals as opposed to collective organizing, and in turn a diminished focus on substantive and self-critical political practice.

Using a different lens, Chris Toensing reviews Rashid Khalidi’s new book on the peace process and uses it as an occasion to analyze the basis of this liberal and lobby-centric turn, one which both miscasts the American structure that gives succor to Israeli colonialism and that also displaces the struggle from a global North-South arena to one between various varieties of American imperialism, some more melioristic and aggressive than others.

Finally, Adam Hanieh offers a class analysis of the turn to the “peace process.” Hanieh explains exactly who composes the peace-process bloc in Ramallah, and how that Palestinian elite has created a vested interest not in freedom but in endless wrangling about freedom. What he shows is that this elite has in effect dominated discussion of the “national” question, and that this domination has been bound to a deflection of the internal class question among Palestinians. The result is the division of struggles and the weakening and oppression of Palestinians on the planes of both class and nation. He argues that this must be reversed and in turn linked to a regional perspective, focused on freedom for all Arab peoples not merely from the dictators who oppress them but the economic shackles that those dictators play a crucial part in producing.

Finally, our own perspective. Taking our cue from the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, we believe the fundamental demand that guides our action must be that Jews and Arabs live as equals, even though we know of no easy way to reach that goal. That is why we support Palestinian self-determination and decolonization without reservations, and believe the movement’s job is to support those goals, and not to impose its own standards on the means by which Palestinians free themselves. Thus, far more important than meaningless efforts to draw red lines about “one state” or “two states” — both now empty chimeras, so far from substantive realization as to make the entire debate unreal — is to recognize that the precondition for progressive social change is self-determination.

At the same time, we understand that Israeli Jews — especially those from North Africa and the Middle East — can also be an oppressed class in historical Palestine. We ignore them at our peril, for any change that doesn’t also pass through the prism of the minds of the Jewish working class would be a revolution from above: an imposed decolonization, which, along with continued economic stratification, would remain politically fragile and ripe for further injustice. But this gets very complicated in today’s Israel, where today only a tiny fragment of the Jewish population supports ending the occupation. Many prefer to deny this bleak fact, or to simply shrug and say that Israel has no constituency for peace — as though this settles the question of how exactly the colonization of Palestine will stop.

This does not leave us in a very clear place. The political force that can forge a clear national liberation strategy does not exist, and it is Palestinians and Palestinians alone who can forge such a force. Rather than issuing useless and inappropriate manifestos about how that project ought to progress, our touchstone should be clear solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

But not as an idiosyncratic fetish divorced from the broader politics of the Left. Rather, we should return it to what it has always been: a focal point of anti-imperialist struggle, where peasants and slum-dwellers are now fighting a desperate struggle against tanks and F-16s, and where their best weapon at the moment may be to starve themselves to death in the hope of fracturing ideological support for Israeli militarism.

The question of Palestine is a question of justice. That is why we do not hesitate to take sides.