By Benay Blend*
In the months leading up to the 2020 elections, some frontrunners are placing the mention of Palestine on the table. This has been partly because groups like IfNotNow have entered the political arena in order to push candidates closer to their point of view.
As Alex Kane has written, IfNotNow’s national coordinator Emily Mayer believes that there is space within the Democratic Party to pursue a policy different than AIPAC’s Zionist stance. That shift, Mayer adds, might “push the Israeli government to actively pursue freedom and dignity instead of a politics of endless occupation.”
What questions should be asked? What answers should be given? More importantly, perhaps, what answers truly constitute a progressive political position on the future of Palestine?
According to Kane, for example, Mayer says that IfNotNow plans to publicly question presidential candidates about such issues as Israel’s “52-year” (not 71?) occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, as well as issues surrounding “Arabs” (not Palestinians?) living in the ’48. Their questions skirt, however, such topics as Palestinian refugees’ legal right of return as well as military aid to Israel. These omissions, Kane explains, are in line with the group’s broader mission of targeting the American Jewish establishment’s support for Israel’s occupation.
This stance also seems to fall within IfNotNow’s concern with the future of Judaism which they understand will be in jeopardy if the Occupation continues. As Max Zahn explains, their position derives, too, from “the contradictory demands of allyship and movement building.”
On the one hand, the group serves a valuable need through its recruitment of Jewish youth. On the other, Zahn continues, by refusing to form coalitions with Palestinians, ostensibly to attract a population not ready to support causes like Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), they risk “misalignment between [their own] priorities and those of the Palestinians themselves.”
These pitfalls accrue across the board of frontrunning candidates, particularly those that have been tagged with the “best positions” on Palestine. For example, Leila Ettachfini reports that several candidates are trying to break out of the Progressive Except Palestine (PEP) mold by “replacing their unconditional support for Israel” with a more “critical, progressive perspective” that, Ettachfini continues, “at least somewhat takes Palestinians into account.”
In Ettachfini’s view, when Palestinians are mentioned at all that absolves the candidate of the acronym PEP. For example, she explains, in 2016, when Sanders called out Israel’s “disproportionate attack” on Gaza, and suggested that politicians should treat Palestinians with “respect and dignity,” he somehow broke the Democratic party mold. Several years later, Sanders has gone further by saying that as President he might leverage aid to Israel in order to force its government to “end some of the racism that we have seen recently in Israel.”
Others have followed suit. Elizabeth Warren recently said that she would make aid to Israel conditional on whether the government ceases settlement building on the West Bank. She went on to say, however, that “it is the official policy of the United States of America to support a two-state solution,” so if Israel is no longer willing to do that, then “everything is on the table.
As for Joe Biden, Kathryn Shihadah declares that the former Vice President best summed up his position while speaking to the Senate in 1986 regarding arms sales in the Middle East:
“It’s about time we stop apologizing for our support for Israel, there’s no apology to be made. It is the best $3 billion investment we make. If there weren’t an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.”
Not much “progressive,” Palestine or otherwise, to be seen there. What is to be done, and in the words of Hillel the Elder, if not now, when? As a start, politicians need to move beyond their current talking points in order to expose the truth beyond these myths.
For example, as Maureen Clare Murphy notes, focusing on settler vigilantism implies that it “undermines” rather than “directly serv[es] Israel’s interests,” when, in fact, they play a “frontline role” in the “conquest of the land.” Therefore, Warren would be better served to state that she would cut Israel’s aid altogether, regardless of the settlements.
Sanders’ criticism has been mostly of the Israeli government, which runs into the same problem as Warren calling out the settlers. In April 2019 he recalled spending several months in Israel, while as a young man he volunteered on a kibbutz. By mentioning his family who lives in Israel, he further cements his allegiance to the state. But he then calls out Netanyahu, a “right-wing politician” who, he says, is “treating the Palestinian people unfairly.”
As Siddiq Bazarwala observes, racism is the norm for Israeli governments, so Sanders was quite right to call out its leaders. The missing piece, however, is that this racism goes back to the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 when the state of Israel was founded. Indeed, the Nakba is ongoing, not just because its leaders are unusually racist, though that much is true, but because people vote for them.
According to Bazarwala, Israelis have a record of voting for “those with the most vile, intolerant and yet variedly repeated anti-Palestinian tropes.” Moreover, she continues, racism is embedded in all areas of Israeli life—in its “institutional policies, the media, immigration rights, housing and legal policies.” All of this too, goes back to the founding.
IfNotNow stops short of calling out Zionism because they want to recruit the Jewish youth. Progressive candidates like Sanders and Warren stop short of calling out Israeli society because they are interested in recruiting funds and voters. Sanders, for his part, is a Zionist.
Warren seems to take her cues from his campaign. As such, neither are likely to touch the root of the problem, that as long as Israel remains a settler-colonial state it will carry out violence towards the Palestinians because no people readily submit to Occupation. Moreover, if either candidate should call out this point, they would have to look more carefully at settler-colonial policies closer to their home.
Nadine Saliba asks in “Articulating ‘homeland’: A Sensuous and Political Journey”: “How closely does today’s bleeding border resemble yesterday’s” source of pain. Child of a Syrian mother who crossed the border into Lebanon to marry her father, Saliba quotes the late Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa when the calls the US-Mexico border “an open wound.”
As such, she says, it is very much akin to sectarian borders that she grew up with at home. “My story did not begin with the Lebanese war,” she says, or in 1967 when her mother was displaced in the Syrian Golan Heights, or in 1948 with the Palestinian Nakba, but rather in 1492.
Because she calls Palestine a metaphor for the “post-192 settler-colonial world,” Saliba sees all borders located within a “global narrative of colonial conquest,” but also united by “resistance and struggle for justice”.
Seen in this way, all settler-colonial struggles are connected. If Sanders and Warren stepped out of their pre-written scripts to listen to Indigenous people both here and abroad, their campaigns might take a different turn, that of truly confronting the many challenges that they are only touching on today.
Climate change, the economy, popular uprisings around the world, Palestinian liberation—most are related to settler-colonial regimes which for hundreds of years, in some cases, in others, less, have reigned, but now perhaps are falling in the face of long-term Indigenous resistance and resilience.
Most importantly, Palestinian voices should be centered in the media, in advocacy groups, and in the presidential campaigns, because they are the only voices qualified to speak about issues that affect them.
This article, then, ends open-ended. In the long run, decolonization most likely will not occur in the White House or the Knesset, but in the houses of the colonized who are charged with developing solutions.
*Benay Blend received her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.