Sorry, You Can’t Be “Progressive Except Palestine”

American liberalism has long had a curious quirk: that of the liberal who is progressive on every issue except Palestine. But as the brutality of Israel’s occupation becomes impossible to ignore, that position is increasingly impossible to hold.

Israeli soldiers stand behind razor wire near the Palestinian village of Bil'in in the West Bank. (Getty Images)

Israel’s new president, Isaac Herzog, warned last week of a “new kind of terrorism” menacing the Jewish state. Perhaps a new weapon or strategy employed by Hamas? Or some Iranian-backed conspiracy within Israel’s borders?

No. Israel has now stretched the term “terrorism” to include Ben & Jerry’s recent promise that they will stop selling ice cream to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

To be clear, Ben & Jerry’s never said that they would withdraw sales from Israel as a whole, only to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories — settlements that are in violation of international law. It’s a minimal but symbolically meaningful concession. But that hasn’t stopped the hysterical backlash and threats coming from the Israeli state. Or from some US politicians, including, most comically, New York City’s liberal mayor Bill de Blasio, who scolded the company and announced that he won’t be eating Cherry Garcia anymore in protest.

Why is it that a company that has long been a supporter of liberal causes, issuing recent statements in favor of “dismantling white supremacy,” defending transgender people, and speaking up for the rights of refugees, is now suddenly in the crosshairs? The answer can be explained in part by a political approach that has long afflicted the US progressive left, so much so that it has its own term: “progressive except Palestine” (or PEP). It is the politics of those who emphatically support immigrant rights, LGBTQ and gender equality, racial justice, and who oppose the crimes of US empire, but are silent about Israel.

Is it possible, asks Chris Hedges, “to define oneself as a liberal or a progressive while making excuses for Israel’s occupation, religious chauvinism, anti-Arab racism, selective application of human-rights standards, and flagrant disregard for international law?” Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick take up this question and expose the damaging disconnect of “progressive except Palestine” in their recent book, Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics.

Hill and Plitnick paint for us a picture in 2018, when President Donald Trump deployed thousands of troops against an “invasion” of migrants at the southern border, and progressives responded with that familiar American refrain: “This is not who we are.” Yet that same summer, when Trump cut off funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency — which provides emergency food, shelter, and medicine to Palestinian refugees, and prompted a major human rights disaster — the decision was largely greeted with silence from liberal quarters.

The double standard was thrown into even sharper relief when Trump suggested that US troops respond with live fire against anyone from the Central American caravan throwing rocks. Most Americans, and virtually all liberals, were outraged that the president would call for such disproportionate use of force against unarmed people. Yet Israel has responded for many years in this very manner. Recent years in the Gaza Strip have seen hundreds of Palestinian shot with both rubber-coated bullets (which can be lethal) and live ammunition, despite presenting no immediate threat to any Israeli soldier or civilian.

Hill and Plitnick explain that questioning the United States’ lockstep support of Israel “in any but the mildest terms,” has long been a political third rail, greeted by charges of singling out the world’s only Jewish state, and allegations of antisemitism. “Against the backdrop of these realities, the American political left has normalized a world in which it is acceptable, through words and policies, to embrace the ethical and political contradiction of being ‘progressive except for Palestine.’”

While in most parts of the world, solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is a no-brainer for anyone who considers themselves “left,” the American left has been inconsistent at best, conspicuously silent at worst. Within the context of a deeply asymmetrical conflict, silence or “neutrality” in effect lends support to a violent status quo — one in which Israel, a highly militarized state actor, maintains its control over a stateless population, systematically stripped of all social, economic, and physical rights.

A Bipartisan Consensus on Palestine

As Mehdi Hasan put it, progressives’ hearts “bleed for Syrians, Libyans, Afghans, Iraqis, Rwandans, Kosovars . . . but not for Palestinians.” When Israeli forces shot 773 Palestinians during the first Great March of Return on March 30, 2018, Hasan asked: “Where are the righteously angry op-eds from Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, or Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, or David Aaronovitch of the Times of London, demanding concrete action against the human rights abusers of the IDF?”

The failure of American progressivism on the question of Palestine reflects long-standing bipartisan support for the state of Israel, as well as the extent to which liberal politics are constrained by what is deemed acceptable by the Democratic Party.

Thus, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, introduced after Hamas’s 2006 democratic electoral victory, was cosponsored by 294 members of the House of Representatives. The accompanying bill in the Senate was cosponsored by ninety out of one hundred senators.

“Even opponents of the bill were less than forceful,” Hill and Plitnick argue. “Rep. Betty McCollum, for example, who has a well-earned reputation as one of the most principled defenders of Palestinian rights in Congress,” stated that the language contained in the somewhat milder Senate version of the bill accurately reflected her position.

In Except for Palestine, Hill and Plitnick take aim at the weakest links of the liberal ideological chain: (1) That whatever you might say about the worst of Israeli aggression, its “right to exist” must be defended. (2) That the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel is inherently antisemitic. (3) And that insofar as the US government has played a negative role in the oppression of Palestinians, this has to do with Donald Trump’s term, rather than a historic and unconditional commitment to the Israeli state.

Supporters of Israel frequently accuse its critics of “singling out” Israel for its crimes. This is factually untrue. Supporters of Palestinian rights are typically the same people who oppose oppression and imperialism everywhere. Yet there are aspects of Israel’s colonial-settler setup, and its relationship with the United States, that are indeed unique. Among them is the insistence that its occupied people, the Palestinians, must recognize Israel’s “right to exist.”

Hill and Plitnick point out that states do “recognize the territorial integrity of [other] states within internationally recognized borders and acknowledge (or deny) the legitimacy of the current government.” But no other state is recognized for its self-defined characterization of itself. Iran is not recognized as an Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia is not recognized as an absolute monarchy.

But the demand made upon the Palestinians (and upon no one else) to recognize that Israel not only has a right to exist but that it must exist as a Jewish state, permanently maintaining a demographic Jewish majority, is a demand for Palestinians to surrender claims to their own rights of self-determination. It is “in fact a demand that Palestinians legitimize their own dispossession.”

A central demand of the Palestinian movement — the right of return of dispossessed Palestinian refugees to the territory that Israel stole from them — is recognized by international law, but it endangers Israel’s Jewish demographic majority. So too does the natural population growth of Palestinians currently living within Israel. To recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish ethnonationalist state is to effectively give up both the right of return and equal democratic rights for Palestinians living in Israel.

The question “Does Israel have a right to exist?” is therefore not an abstract question of Jewish self-determination. “The issue is not Jews’ right to constitute a nation, or even to pursue a homeland,” but whether that homeland has the “right” to exist on the basis of the dispossession and ongoing denial of democratic rights to Palestinians.

The Roots of PEP

Refusing to surrender these basic demands is what has landed the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) within the crosshairs of Israel’s supporters. In 2005, a large coalition of over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations called for BDS “until Israel meets its obligations to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall [the giant separation barrier built by Israel running through the West Bank].
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.
  3. Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Were Israel not an ethnonationalist state, these demands would be quite basic: Democratic rights of citizens, an end to a decades-long occupation, the internationally recognized right of refugees to return to their homes. What’s more, the call for BDS is an explicitly nonviolent strategy. Whatever squeamishness might exist among liberals about the right of oppressed people to resist by any means necessary, BDS’s nonviolent means for their demands to inalienable rights should add up to a no-brainer for progressives.

But each of BDS’s demands, and particularly the last two, fundamentally undermine Israel’s ability to maintain a Jewish demographic majority. “Raising the issues of the Palestinian refugees and Arab citizens of Israel,” Hill and Plitnick note, “was a deliberate indication that the call [for BDS] was not going to focus only on grievances rooted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, but would speak to the full Palestinian experience.”

Yet progressive politics in the US seem to hit their limit at the “Green Line,” the armistice line demarking Israel’s establishment on Palestinian land before Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights in 1967. It may be fine in some liberal quarters to support the rights of Palestinians living in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza (at least until these rights come up against the rights of Jewish settlers to eat Cherry Garcia) or to call for a two-state solution on the basis of those borders (however ill-fated that solution may be). But to question the foundation of the Israeli state, built upon ethnic cleansing, ongoing colonization, and denial of democratic rights, is certainly off-limits.

Discussion of why exactly that is, and the historical roots of “progressive except for Palestine,” doesn’t feature prominently in the book. PEP’s origins likely lie within the longstanding weakness of the American left on issues of foreign policy, and a slide within the labor movement toward nationalism since the 1940s. Living inside the belly of the imperial beast raises frustrating political challenges, all the more so because the Left’s political vision has so often been circumscribed by what is acceptable to the Democratic Party’s leadership. The United States’ two major parties are in lockstep agreement about the goal of US imperial hegemony around the globe, even if they have at times differed on tactics.

The topic of Israel and Palestine in particular is doubly obfuscated by the paralyzing overhang of the Holocaust and the active manipulation of the Holocaust’s legacy by the propaganda arm of the Israeli state. Back in 1988, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said complained of the general attitude of the American left: “A combination of ignorance, piety toward the cant about Israel and its being a bastion of democracy and being a place for the remnant of the Holocaust has limited the reaction of the American left both politically and intellectually to an astonishing degree.”

Today, the continued escalation of Israel’s brutality, the shifts in US public opinion, and the growing rift within the Democratic Party should be taken, as Hill and Plitnick argue, as signs “that the current political moment is ripe for moving beyond the limits of orthodox political discourse, which has long framed any call for support of Palestinian rights as an exception to progressive values.” It is no longer possible to be “progressive except Palestine.” In fact, it never was.