Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander ignited a controversy by stating her support for Palestinian rights. In her piece, “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine,” Alexander used the act of confronting her own silence on this issue to encourage others to break theirs. She made the case that “criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli government is not, in itself, anti-Semitic,” while also affirming that
Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose 57 percent in 2017, and many of us are still mourning what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history… We must be mindful in this climate that, while criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, it can slide there.
That statement was not nearly enough for the “pro-Israel” community in the United States. The Israeli-American former ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, called Alexander’s column a “strategic threat.” The American Jewish Committee had the audacity to accuse Alexander—a prominent African-American civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness—of “appropriating” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. Numerous other voices, conservative and liberal, defended Israel from Alexander’s “attacks.”
Alexander became the latest in a growing list—including Angela Davis, Rashida Tlaib, Marc Lamont Hill, Ilhan Omar, and Linda Sarsour—targeted by Israel advocates in the United States. All of them are people of color, and all have faced new or renewed attacks over their defense of Palestinian rights since the since the horrific shooting incident at a Pittsburgh synagogue carried out by a white, anti-immigrant fanatic in late October.
Blaming the Left for the Anti-Semitism of the Right
There is a growing awareness of radical, white supremacist anti-Semitism, but defenders of Israeli policy and even some of its milder critics have gone to great lengths to repeatedly blame progressives and supporters of Palestinian rights. These critics have stepped up their efforts at the same time that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Trump administration have gone to equally great lengths to extract Israel from the bipartisan cocoon it has been in for decades and turn it into a right-wing cause and a tool to batter and split liberals and progressives.
In his recent piece reacting to Alexander’s op-ed, Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a prominent progressive Democrat, writes that the shift in grassroots opinion on Israeli policy and Palestinian rights is because of two reasons: people are better informed about the situation via alternative media and the “virtual marriage of President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
The seeds were actually planted well before Trump, in Netanyahu’s support for Mitt Romney in 2012 and his insulting treatment of Barack Obama for years, culminating in his bypassing the Obama White House to give a speech to Congress opposing the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. It can be traced back even further, to Netanyahu’s not-so-subtle snub of Bill Clinton in 1998, when he visited Jerry Falwell—who at that time was on the warpath against Clinton—before going to the White House. Falwell later told Vanity Fair, “I put together 1,000 people or so to meet with Bibi and he spoke to us that night. It was all planned by Netanyahu as an affront to Mr. Clinton.”
The repeated attacks on progressive leaders of color serve a purpose that the battle against the anti-Semitism of angry white males cannot. Even if the right uses the language of anti-Zionism, few people believe that it has any real interest in Palestinian rights. That sort of pseudo-solidarity has been repeatedly called out by Palestinians and the groups and leaders in the Palestine solidarity movement.
Connecting Civil Rights Movements
The most powerful factor behind American indifference to the plight of the Palestinians is that people tend not to mobilize in large numbers on issues that don’t directly involve them. There are no U.S. boots on the ground in Israel or the West Bank and Gaza. The conflict—even if it is a concern to many—is between “them and them” not “us and them.” Most of the sectors in the United States that have a specific interest in the conflict—the Jewish and evangelical Christian communities, the tech and weapons industries, neoconservatives, and other cheerleaders for U.S. hegemony in the Middle East—tend to side with Israel. They either support the dispossession of the Palestinians or don’t see their situation as important enough to rock the Israeli boat.
Advocates for Palestinian rights tend to be from marginalized communities, have fewer resources, and see the Palestinian cause as one of many issues that draw their attention. The one thing that can change that equation is a grassroots movement that connects the Palestinian cause to domestic American issues, just as Israel has done. Perhaps that is why, as Angela Davis recently observed, “It seems as if we are witnessing a consistent attack on particularly radical black activists who are encouraging international solidarity with many struggles in other places, but especially with the Palestinians.”
Another shift is taking place in the Jewish community: the increased visibility of Jews of Color. Those Jews of Color who have been critical of Israel have found their Jewish identity attacked, as journalist Rebecca Pierce observed in response to a particularly racist piece that appeared in the Times of Israel:
Abusive and defamatory attacks on our Jewishness send a message to every Jew of Color that if you participate in Jewish conversations on racial justice or if you criticize Israel, your faith and identity can be publicly torn apart in the pages of a major Jewish publication, with little regard for the truth.
The conversations within the Jewish community about our racism and whiteness (for the majority of American Jews) are often as difficult as the ones about Israel. They both have a way of tweaking the sensibilities of Jews of all backgrounds, particularly the large chunk of the community that identifies as progressive, where the split on Israel is particularly profound and sensitive.
As Israel moves ever further in a nationalistic direction, the majority of U.S. Jews will grow increasingly uncomfortable. As that discomfort increases, more and more Jews will find themselves unable to rationalize defending Israel’s actions together with their other politics. Some will choose Israel over progressivism. Others will make a different choice.
But as the Palestinian cause continues its transformation from an independence movement to a civil rights movement, it is going to resonate with more and more progressives and liberals in the United States. More and more Americans of all skin colors, faiths, and ethnic backgrounds will feel a resonance with the Palestinian cause, just as many Americans felt a kinship with the Israeli cause in the early days of the state, when they saw a new generation of Jews emerging from genocide and trying to build an egalitarian country in an inhospitable, but holy, land. That was an important piece of the foundation of the “special relationship” between the people of the United States and Israel.
That’s why there has been so much more energy put into attacks on leaders of black and brown communities. And it explains why those attacks have been so bizarrely self-defeating. Massive public outrage forced the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to reverse course and not rescind its award to Angela Davis. Marc Lamont Hill may be out of his CNN job, but his voice on Palestinian rights has been greatly amplified by the attacks on him. Alexander, Omar, Tlaib, and Sarsour are going strong in their respective positions, and the attacks on them have provoked more backlash than results.
A white supremacist murdered Jews in a synagogue in an unprecedented attack. The White House is run by a man who himself has repeatedly shown his disdain for Jews and his tolerance, if not agreement, with white supremacy. As the Jewish state of Israel drifts further and further into a nationalist and anti-democratic reality, and report after report confirms the danger white supremacy represents, the Senate is attacking the First Amendment in order to undermine a non-violent boycott movement. Men and women of color stand accused of anti-Semitism for defending a people who have had no rights under Israeli rule for over half a century.
That isn’t sustainable. The times are changing for liberals and progressives in the United States. Support for the rights and protection of Jews will need to be reconciled with the inalienable rights of Palestinians. And if the Palestinian cause can be connected to the cause of civil rights in the United States, there might finally be enough pressure to change U.S. policy—and ultimately Israeli policy as well.