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NOURA ERAKAT: Solidarity Beyond Rhetoric

3 0 nouraface3Interviewed by Joseph Phelan and Sushma Sheth

What is new about the current political context, especially as part of the Obama era?

Since January 20, 2009, we have experienced what feels like an unprecedented shift and have [probably] assumed that it is a function of a refreshing Obama Administration. However, the major shift that we feel is the absence of a revolutionary Bush Administration. Bush’s tenure as President marked the most revolutionary era because for the first time in modern history, our head of state supplanted secular language, otherwise mandated by the Establishment Clause, with religious language in discussing matters of foreign and domestic policy.


True, all elected officials are expected to accept a religious framework, imagine a President ending his talk with “May humanity bless America!” But that invocation is meant to be personal—an individual moral compass—no one is obligated to mention God, Christ, the Bible or its counterparts during their political leadership except during moments of national crisis or grief. This was not the case with George W.

His religio-political lexicon initiated a domestic polarization among American society that freshly crystallized and emboldened a long-standing identity: Whiteness in its nativist form.

We basically saw a White American identity emerge in a vacuum—absent the context of other salient socio-political issues like economic systems and the maldistribution of wealth and resources.  It rose as an identity based primarily on cultural values. The emergence of such a reductionist identity influenced a shift in political discourse in the United States wherein culture, as opposed to other distinguishing markers, came to dominate political analysis.

Here we have neither an attribution to race or class, but instead to a white identity that it is not about whiteness as a construct but about a white nativist culture, and particular cultural markers being attributed to whiteness. This is a scary shift that unfortunately has not waned with Obama’s assumption of the Presidential office. To the contrary, his Presidency makes this shift starker, precisely because of the racial and cultural implications of his Presidency.

Consider the predominance of cultural paradigms in the discussion of the “war on terror.” The rise of terrorist attacks was described by pundits as a “clash of civilizations,” which attributes terrorism to a certain people and not to the act of inflicting politically motivated violence against civilians. So it is “terrorism” if x, y, or z performs the violent act and/or it is terrorism if a, b, or c suffered from these violent acts. Especially in Bush’s cultural framework, but certainly preceding it as well, terrorism in the Middle East has not referred to the categorization of unacceptable forms of violence but instead to cultural groupings; there are those people who have the privilege to point at what terrorism is and those who could only be its perpetrators and never its victims.

This permeates the work that I do in the Arab and Muslim world.  Discussions concerning conflicts throughout North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf, and even into Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Bush included in the “New Middle East,” were no longer attributed to political conditions, as they would be in any other nation.  So whether the issue was war, the economy, jobs, refugee status, stress on limited resources, the discussions around conflicts in the Arab and Muslim world became explicitly attributed to culture.  For example, commentary about violent intra-national struggle over limited resources, did not emphasize a global food shortage. Instead, under Bush-speak, such violence was attributed to barbarism. I think that this was in fact the trend that defines our current era, more than the Obama Administration.

In fact, the Obama Administration has the unintended potential to make it worse. I think the polarization within the U.S. will become more stark and will be led by those who have a lot to gain from an inflammatory cultural discourse and who see that, under the leadership of a Black son of an African immigrant, they are steadily losing what they had gained. Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, and others calling for the failure of Obama are leading that trend.  This call for failure is not driven by partisan loyalties, but by cultural ones and it concerns what it means to be “American.”

That makes our work much more difficult. We clearly never organize along reductionist terms. To the contrary, we’ve developed a complex social justice lexicon that sees privilege operate on several axes with multiple intersections. While I am not advocating that we alter our discourse, the fact that we may be speaking to an audience that cannot hear us presents a clear challenge.

Bush’s other outstanding legacy was his supplanting of diplomacy with militarism.  Militarism has historically constituted the U.S.’s primary form of global engagement, however it became more pronounced during Bush’s two-term Administration. As an aside,  Obama has reverted the U.S,  back to the status quo of “reasonable militarism,” wherein we can fight a ‘just’ war in Afghanistan but not Iraq.

In Palestine, Bush’s “might makes right” approach did little to alter the realities on the ground. Palestinians have been enduring colonialism since 1948 and military occupation since 1967—structural violence shaped by race and culture (i.e., apartheid) has defined Palestinian existence.  So while Bush’s era accelerated the swift acceptance of Israel’s elastic security discourse, the difference was a matter of degree and not of kind.

Our challenges have to do more with a critical coming of age in the aftermath of Yasser Arafat’s death.  Despite his questionable leadership in a post-Oslo era, Arafat was a charismatic leader with the ability to both unite Palestinian identities despite our fragmentation as well as balance calls statehood and self-determination, which are not one in the same.  Without forgiving him of his deleterious impact on the Palestinian liberation movement, Arafat’s death and the consequent absence of a national liberation program has represented our primary challenge.

The grassroots work that I do seeks to create a united Palestinian identity that is transcendent of political factionalism. My work is also aimed at empowering our Palestinian diaspora to represent itself and effectively resuscitate an international leadership in the form of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

In the work that I do aimed at a broader American audience, and not just a Palestinian one, we are trying to encourage taxpayers to challenge U.S. Middle East policy in an era when  the two state solution has achieved political consensus.  It is now controversial to negate Palestinian statehood, when for most Palesinians, two states is not necessarily what we want at all.  The bantustinization of the West Bank, the Judeazation of Jerusalem, and the ghettoization of Gaza renders the two state solution unrealistic as opposed to what some commentators may deem “pragmatic.” We seek to be self-determined, afforded with the ability to govern ourselves and determine our own fates rather than be subject to Israeli prerogatives.

While Obama has made finding a resolution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict a priority—evidenced by his grappling with the issue in his first term in office—he has not challenged long-standing U.S. foreign policy towards Israel. The U.S. has been opposed to Israeli settlement expansion officially since 1993 when the Bush Senior Administration oversaw the enactment of a public law that reduces loan guarantees to Israel by the amount spent on settlements. It would be refreshing and beneficial if Obama used his Presidential tenure to add texture to the discussion of the Palestinian-Israel conflict by addressing its colonial roots and racist and exclusionary dimensions. Still how far Obama can push is also contingent on how much a U.S.-based movement can push him.

Sadly, political mobilization of our communities has not been an option.  We haven’t had the privilege to push Congress to support Obama in meaningful ways because we’ve been overwhelmed by other concerns namely the fact that we are being starved, with near global unanimity, in Gaza,  strangled in the West Bank because of the expanding colonization project,  and within Israel, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are facing a right-wing rise that some may describe as fascist.

You mention the right-wing political movement within Israel. I met anti-occupation Israelis and heard that that movement is at a low level.  Bill Fletcher spoke about how one of reaction to Obama domestically is an opportunity for the left but also a huge opportunity for the right to consolidate power and move that agenda.  The situation in Israel and Palestine are different but I am wondering why we are seeing the rise of the right-wing and fascist element?

I agree with Bill about the rise in the US.  It is fear for the loss of privilege as a function of a redefinition of an exclusionary American identity. The Republican Party is consolidating its power and purging its own ranks of those that do not fit into that identity.  What it will mean to be a Republican within a short time frame, two to four years, will be much different than what has meant in the past.  It will not just be about small government and fiscal conservatism anymore.

In Israel, the rise of fascism is a sign of weakness. A last ditch resort to maintain power when hegemony begins to crumble. For decades Israel has used a security paradigm to justify even its most horrific military operations, including its involvement in the 1982 massacre of nearly 3,000 Palestinians in Sabra/Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. However, Israel has normalized its relationships either politically and/or economically with the Arab world thereby diluting its security argument and exposing its military operations as brute force meant to pound dissenters into submission; this policy, more formally known as the “Iron Fist” policy is the legacy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a 20th century Revisionist Zionist leader.  Therefore, as Israel’s image of a weak David in the face of a menacing Arab Goliath fades so too does its moral authority in the region.

In addition to economic and political normalization with the Arab world, Israel has come to share similar interests with other Arab states as a result of aggressive US interventionist policies in the past decade.

Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the March 14th forces of Lebanon, and Fatah of the Palestinian leadership together constitute what the Bush Administration configured into a “New Middle East.” These compose the “American bloc.” They believe their futures are intertwined with US interests.

The counterpart to this American bloc is represented by political Islamic movements and their supporters, namely Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.  Traditionally, Leftist movements would have constituted the political opposition, however in the Cold War’s aftermath and the fall of the Soviet Union, we saw a quick decline and fading political, as opposed to social, relevance of the Left. There no longer exists financial support to support an Arab socialist movement, a communist movement or any type of leftist movement. Their own agenda seemed to have failed with the fall of the Soviet Union leaving very few alternatives. They are weak and prey to authoritarian regimes.

The only segment of society that could counter that authoritarian drumbeat has been the political Islamic movement. This is because the religious movement cannot be killed. It is based on god, worship, and piety.  Moreover, many of these Muslim movements have focused on building a constituent base as opposed to strictly engaging the existing political establishment. In effect, they’ve implemented a grassroots indoctrination approach that marries politics and religious morals; a process, which makes politics both very personal and accessible. Political Islamic movements have a significant presence in Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan and Palestinian politics.

The Left in the Arab world, which is staunchly secular, has allied itself with these political Islamic movements based on its opposition to US imperialistic/interventionist policies. In effect, the two most significant political formations in the Arab world are political Islam and authoritarian regimes.

The “Anti-American” front or, opposition, are not necessarily the pro-Iranian front,. They do not necessarily agree with Iranian dominance in the region or the augmentation of Shia governance.  But they do form the opposition to US imperialism in the Middle East and by extension the dominance of authoritarian regimes whom the US supports politically and financially.

This development has led to a convergence of interests between Israel and the Arab members of the “American Front,” namely an opposition to the influence of Iran and political Islamic movements.

This reorganization of the Arab world and its convergence with Israeli interests, was most clearly evident, first in 2006 and then again in late 2008.  In 2006, when Israel first attacked the south of Lebanon under the proxy of attacking Hezbollah, all of the regimes, including the March 14th forces in Lebanon supported the Israeli attack on the South. It was beyond normalization. Now, they shared the common threat of a political Islam, which Hezbollah represents, which Hamas represents, which Iran represents, and so they allied themselves with Israel. Similarly, in late 2008 when Israel first launched Operation Cast Led, those regimes, including the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Authority, immediately came out to condemn Hamas for the violence.

In effect, far from demonizing all Arabs as a threat to Israel’s security, today Israel officials proclaim that they share common enemies with its Arab counterparts. Dory Gold, the US’s former Ambassador to Israel has towed this line explicitly when he says that “Israel and her neighbors are all opposed to the same Islamic threat.”

This convergence has diminished the image of the “Arab menace” (circa 1967 War) making Israel’s security paradigm less compelling.  Also, I think because of the lack of a common enemy that has previously united Israel on the one hand, and the realization that Israel has diplomatic options available to it on the other,   has left Israel in a bit of an identity crisis i.e., if its not the righteous pioneer with a big [militarized] fist, than who is it. To Palestinians, it’s quite obvious: Israel is herself exposed, a colonial project that seeks to acquire land without its indigenous population.

If Israel indeed shares the same threat as its Arab counterparts, and if its clear that the threat to Israel is not a function of cultural dysfunction among Arabs i.e., to hate Jews, but rather a function of tangible political grievances, than one would expect it to reflect on a diplomatic rapprochement with the Arab world made possible by the dismantlement of institutional apartheid and colonial policies,  Instead, Israel decided to amplify its militant identity in its relentless pummeling of Gaza.

Little explains Israel’s provocative November 4th raid into Gaza that broke the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between it and Hamas besides a decision to exercise its Iron Fist policy in order to eschew submission by force. During the four months of the ceasefire, Hamas rocket fire into Israel fell to single digits and Israel effectively brought more security to its citizens than it had been able to in all the months preceding the ceasefire and all the months since its deterioration in early November. Israel’s attack on Gaza was a response to a moral threat to Israel’s hegemony as opposed to a military one.

Consider that Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip at best total 15,000 operatives. That’s 15, 000 men out of a total population of 1.5 million. And yet the attack on Gaza was devastating—no one was spared: 1, 400 dead in 22 days, including 300 children, 14000 homes destroyed in whole or in part, 290 schools, 21 commercial factories in the context of a 2-year and counting debilitating blockade. How can Israel justify that in military means—without even going into the details of the attack and the relevant international law, how can Israel even explain the military necessity for such destruction?

What’s obvious to Palestinians is that we are not accepting colonial occupation and apartheid, so Israel’s response has become increasingly militant. Every year we think it can’t get worse, and yet it worsens in ways we didn’t think possible. All the while Israel has proclaimed “security” as its primary concern, yet this is more of a proxy for a colonial agenda than it is a genuine concern for a state desperately seeking peace (which is how Israel has historically presented itself).

Since its creation, Israel has envisioned expanding its borders—for some it’s a Greater Israel  whose borders stretch into Jordan, into the Sinai, and as far as historic Mesopatamia or Iraq. For those who are more “pragmatic” the borders constitute historic Palestine, and for the most liberal Israelis the borders don’t expand beyond the 1948 armistice line, also known as the “green line.”  But these expansionist aspirations have always been shrouded in rhetoric about security.

Since 1967, Israel has occupied the Syrian Golan Heights in the name of security and yet has not left the Golan Heights as a buffer zone but settled its own population into it and has made a consistent profit from the agricultural industry inherent to the Golan. Most recently, Gaza has shrunk by one kilometer along its entire perimerter. The apartheid wall has confiscated 13% of the West Bank and now new settlements in the Jordan valley, which are just west of the Jordan River, are also being built. The rhetoric for this kind of expansion has always been “we need to secure our borders.”  But, now it is obvious. There is no need. There is no encroachment onto Israel.  It is in fact the other way around.

I think the rise in fascism within Israel represents this identity crisis: not having a homogeneous enemy that represents a military threat. And Israel has reacted in ways that are increasingly violent. In addition to its violent reaction externally, internally Israel has turned on its own citizens.

Twenty percent of Israel’s population, or 1.2 million citizens, are not Jewish but Palestinian Christians and Muslims who did not become refugees in 1948 but instead remained and accepted Israeli citizenship. They have constituted a fifth column, or at best second-class citizens within Israel since its establishment, According to the State Department, Palestinian-Israelis, also known as Arab Israelis, are afforded separate and unequal educations, housing options, and workforce opportunities. That the Palestinian-Israelis are seen enemies of the state is no secret. In 2001, Israeli police forces responded to a Palestinain-Israeli protest against violence in the West Bank with live ammunition and killed 13 protesters. Israel’s unnecessary and excessive use of force is not equally applied against its Jewish citizens.

In late July, the Knesset [Israeli Government] proposed two laws aimed at testing its citizens’ loyalty to the State and proposed two laws: one criminalized the recognition of the Palestinian Catastrophe, or the Nakba. The other criminalized to the rejection or challenge to Israel’s character as a Jewish state. Both “thought crimes” would subject the violator to a fine and imprisonment. Imagine if the US Congress passed a law outlawing a challenge to the US’s character as a “white state.” Or alternatively, punishing its Native American citizens for mourning the systematic confiscation of their land which has effectively relegated them to 2nd or 3rd or 4th class status in their own homeland. The thought is clearly abominable once applied to any other context. And yet opposition to the bill by liberal Israeli PM’s was that it would hurt Israel’s public image abroad.

Israel’s once firm moral hegemony is beginning to crumble and its anxious response is to thrash around violently in a state of paranoia—seeing its salvation in a firmer fist and greater thought control.

What are the priorities areas of intervention for the movement?  What needs to be happening internationally in strategic areas and what are key strategies within the US?

Previously, and this is often our problem in the Left, we have gotten so used to criticizing what is wrong that we haven’t imagined what could be right. We have imagined it, of course, but in very generic terms: “Israel is a settler, colonial state whose racially exclusivist and discriminatory policies need to be dismantled.”

And while that may be true there are several distinguishing factors.

We have never seen this political movement before.  We have never seen Israel so weak. We have never seen a US Administration take on Israel publicly-even it has been limited to rhetoric. This is the first time that Palestinian statehood has ever become a matter of political consensus, even if the potential for a viable Palestinian state has been diminished.  And so there is a real question that needs to be addressed: do our historic strategies of protest and dissent need to be nuanced?

I think that we have neither answered that question nor prepared ourselves to address it.

This is unfortunate especially because Arab-Americans have a seat at the political  table but without a clear vision of how we should approach this moment, the risk of their/our cooptation increases markedly. Some well-meaning communities want to benefit from a US-alliance because it means overall prosperity for the country but nothing in terms of per capita income, workers rights, women’s rights or the marginalized communities in the Arab World.  However without an overall strategy to consider how to attain these incremental gains, we may be accepting piecemeal offerings at the expense of rectifying broader structural issues. Doing so would further fragment our communities and in effect our collective grievances as well. The fragmentation of our collective grievances has the potential to pit us against one another in the worst case. But we also can’t reasonably suggest that we not engage in order to avoid the risk—how do we engage in ways that doesn’t risk sacrificing the rectification of broader structural issues.

I don’t know the answer to this question—I am trying to think of how we move forward but haven’t found “the” answer, I know that this means we need to invest a lot more effort in discussing these strategic issues as opposed to constantly discussing our suffering with ourselves and others.

I don’t think we can look to Palestine, or the Arab world for that matter, for the answer. The fact that political Islam is the only opposition puts a lot of leftists, especially women in a difficult situation.  Our gut reaction is to support these movements, but their social agenda is far, far from as radical as their political agenda.  It is not clear what is to happen.

It would be great for new movements to form outside of the Islamic framework that represent something we can align with without reservation, but that is not likely to happen. As much as we would like to think that movements flourish because of a compelling political ideology, they are nurtured by funding and resources.  Secular left movements in the Arab world do not have those resources available at present.

In Palestine, funding and resources have been absorbed by non-governmental organizations funded by western foundations that make it a prerequisite to sign away certain rights. The first right being, you cannot be critical of Zionism’s practical manifestation and its apartheid policies.  You have to accept Israel as is but you can fight to improve your living conditions.

This places a lot of onus on US-based Palestinian communities to imagine how to respond from within empire.  I hope that the unique moment we’re in inspires us to transcend our default i.e., embracing an over-simplifying discourse that proclaims “its about anti-imperialism and it all looks the same”.  It does not look the same anymore. For example, and most obviously,  our community’s elite has a class-based approach that aligns them with global elite interests, as opposed to nationalist ones in many instances. I have hope that we can marry different aspects of our movements and create different lexicons.

I have not figured it out, but it will start in the US by creating new discourses in our approach to Palestine so that we can reach more people and become more relevant and build on this political moment without losing and compromising more than we have already.

What are the old strategies are you veering away from?  What is outdated?

That’s a great question. Because we are always good at pointing out what is wrong, I don’t know that we’ve invested in identifying what can be right both politicallyand strategically. As a relatively new immigrant community in the US, we carry a lot of baggage. The Marxist-Leninist movements born in the Arab world have defined most of our activism.  Pan-Arab socialists came to the US to escape persecution, or have been forcibly exiled, and have continued their activism in exile.  This is where I was nurtured and where our radical left is located in the US.

The problem with that approach is that that radical left comes from a context where they were dealing with very limited resources and a limited means to confront conflict.  So our tactics have been very much rooted in protests, demonstrations, flyers, and propaganda. Its very much about creating ideas and getting the ideas out as opposed to ever thinking about achieving victories in quiet ways. This necessitates envisioning what a shift in US foreign policy would look like, and working backwards to map out incremental goals, and then developing a strategy of how to get there. I do not know that anybody will honestly tell you that all the protests being organized, with thousands of people, are actually going to lead to a political shift in the US. I do not think that anyone can honestly answer that they will.

Its important to note that these tactics were once the most relevant when Palestine represented something dirty in the U.S. When saying “Palestine” or the “PLO” was equivalent to screaming “terrorist.” Therefore,  loud tactics were necessary to assert one’s presence, one’s identity, making that unequivocal and making that accepted. I have been very much a part of that.

But, there are two major things that we need to grapple with now. One, the context is different.  Beyond being able to talk and share ideas, which is still quite revolutionary in the Arab world, it is not very revolutionary here in the US and anyone can do it. So beyond just those tactics of actually sharing ideas (i.e., education and awareness), how do we actually cash those ideas in, for a lack of a better metaphor?

Second, there are recent events that not only continue the Palestinian narrative of displacement and dispossession but which also represent organizing opportunities that can help us expand our political leverage.

For example, lifting the siege of Gaza. Since June 2007, Israel has imposed a debilitating blockade on Gaza—limiting even basic goods into the 365 kilometer-squared entity which has increased unemployment to 50% and the dependency on food aid for survival to 80% of Gaza’s Palestinian population of 1.5 million, ¾ of whom are refugees. No Palestinian or person in solidarity with Palestinians objects to lifting the blockade. Still, we have failed to organize nationally and collectively on a tangible foreign policy issue that requires not only grassroots activism but direct engagement with the U.S. political establishment.

The same is true in regard to the apartheid wall.  The Internal Court of Justice in 2004 issued an Advisory opinion condemning the wall and that international condemnation by the highest multilateral court on international law should have been our rallying cry.  But we could not agree on even this point. One of the reasons may have been because those that believe in a two-state solution thought that it meant a more contiguous Palestinian state and those believing in a one-state solution felt that focusing on the wall would legitimate the call for a two state solution.  In any case, we have not been able to develop either of these strategies.

We should incorporate new tactics that can result in incremental gains that clearly don’t sacrifice addressing our structural grievances.  For me,  that means marrying that grassroots energy and political education to actual shifts in foreign policy.  But to get from A to D (D being the policy shift), we need to engage those who are responsible for foreign policy in some way.

This does not mean politely asking for what we deserve is right, but it means we have to engage federal lawmakers responsible for foreign policy. They have to be made to know that they cannot afford to blindly support a deleterious policy in the Middle East. Of course raising the stakes for voting on Palestine is an incredibly difficult battle because in essence we’d be going head to head against one of the most powerful and effective lobbies in the US. I think we have to—going around them can only get us so far.

But taking on elected officials is not enough on its own either—it’s necessary but by no means sufficient. Other elements include the grassroots work, which is where we build generations of activists, movement leaders organizers-focusing solely on the top of the pyramid could bring us change but it will not be sustainable. That change is only as long-lasting as your opposition’s ability to build more beneficial relationships with the federal lawmaker. It’s essential to build a strong base as well in congressional districts so that they always represent a relevant interest group to the elected official. So in essence we’re still doing the basic base-building but doing it in congressional districts so that energy is translated into power-as a voting base that can either extend or end a politician’s career.

For the past few years-we’ve focused on organizing a Palestinian base across the U.S. I was one of the organizers of the National Popular Palestinian Conference, where we organized the Palestinian movement in North America to come together in Chicago. We spent two years in local and regional meetings across the US to meet with Palestinian communities and asking them not just to come to the conference but to partake in shaping it.  The purpose behind this was to bring folks together to start rethinking our movement and representing ourselves instead of being in solidarity with Palestinians back home, but rather to represent ourselves as an integral part of the global Palestinian diaspora. The vision is that this coordinating body will ultimately be able to challenge U.S. foreign policy as well as hold their own Palestinian leadership to account.

One of the things I have been grappling with recently is how should this base—a Palestinian diaspora base in the US, respond to the forthcoming peace plan to be formulated by Mitchell and Obama?  And the reason I have been thinking about that is not because I believe that this proposal will represent a comprehensive solution—it may include piecemeal reforms which we should not forgo, but the proposal itself will not address the structural issues in Israel—namely its apartheid nature. Instead, I see this as our opportunity to expose Israel’s expansionist project.  I strongly believe that they will reject whatever it is that Obama is about to offer .  It would be phenomenal if our communities can accept it with enough faith and confidence that Israel is going to reject it. We should let Israel expose itself and its agenda.

But I doubt our community would do that.  It would be strategic, but out community will not do that.  It would be difficult for anyone to suggest it as well given the flags that it would raise. Far from appearing strategic, it would appear as an opportunistic gesture. I don’t think the Palestinian community is unique in this regard i.e., attacking one another within a movement.

The second concept I am grappling with is moving away from the nationalist discourse to a rights-based discourse. I contemplate adopting a liberal discourse, which is of course very problematic but nevertheless relevant to a mainstream US audience, to a discourse that emphasizes  rights, equality, and freedom as a strategy.  I know this could rub folks the wrong way because liberal ideology regarding human rights and democracy in the global south is manipulated openly by the U.S., so we risk legitimating it. But if this ideology defines the U.S.’s political makeup than why cant we use that language to give voice to our struggle while continuing to build a radical base? So there is a question, do we legitimate this ideology or discourse by tapping into it?  Are we being more strategic because we are moving our cause forward? There really is no space to discuss this because we are held hostage by our own on-the-brink-of-extinction mentality that makes anything less than a virtuous proclamation seem like treason.

You are saying this about the Palestinian movement, but I think this dynamic pervades the entire Left in the US.  Can you put this in the context of a larger left?  This project is serving as a brain trust of radicals but also to breakdown the walls of different issues.  Can you talk about the fight for Palestine within the US Left?

Let me answer the second. Sushma witnessed my elation when at the New Voices Retreat, folks pulled me aside and asked for a 101 on Palestine. I literally shed tears because I know for a fact that most folks in the left have no clue.  People will say “free Palestine” and talk of a crazy Zionist conspiracy once in a while but they do not engage or support that position in compelling ways. It’s odd as a Palestinian engaged in this movement to constantly feel somewhat tokenized by Leftist counterparts who are in solidarity with me but can’t explain why.  “Palestine” as a concept evokes emotional solidarity.  The New Voices retreat was the first time, ever, that radical folks asked me. It was quite touching.

In terms of Palestine and the leftist movement, the left movement in the US advocates for certain rights (immigrant rights, HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ right) but that conviction is not always couched in a class-based analysis. Under a class-based analysis, it’s obvious how Palestine fits into the struggle because the US as empire seeks control of resources in the Middle East thereby supporting Israel as its watchdog in the Middle East and the cornerstone to its military-industrial complex. Historically, the opposition to the MIC immediately placed you in opposition to Israel.  Yet today, it is not as clear.

Take the United For Peace and Justice movement. They were explicit that their opposition to the war and occupation of Iraq has nothing to do with the occupation of Palestine. UFPJ is clearly liberal, but to the rest of our country, they represent our Left. So here is a Left that can bifurcate occupation in the middle east by a western presence and say that that bifurcation is legitimate because Iraq represents a quests for oil, but Israel represent a quest for the existential viability of a Jewish identity. It is a ridiculous suggestion to anyone who has a basic understanding of imperialism and empire. Because of the waning of a class-based framework  from our analysis, I think that it has become more difficult to centralize Palestine in current Left discussions.

This is coupled with a project led by right-wing Zionist groups i.e., the Anti-Defamation League, the David Project to collapse anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. This has made discussing Palestine a taboo because it has the inherent risk of being labeled anti-Semitic. This taboo also has significant financial ramifications, namely risking foundation and donor funding.  So people who might have an analysis around Palestine will not share it.

I’ll give you two examples.  The predominantly female board of the San Francisco Women Against Rape (SFWAR), who support other women who are victims of rape, articulated in their mission statement that they opposed all forms of xenophobia and chauvinism, including heterosexism, classism, and Zionism.  For taking that stand, the Jewish Zionist community in San Francisco protested loudly and did enough work that the city of San Francisco pulled its funding from SFWAR – stating that they cannot fund an organization that espouses a racist ideology.

There is a predictable and material ramification for taking these stances. And I think the Left in the US has decided to survive instead of taking a principled stand.  SFWAR is just one example.

Angela, a Native American and New Voices Fellow, tells me that UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine asked the Native American Law Students Association to co-sponsor an event on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. NALSA refused, despite the similar struggles and obvious parallels, stating that doing so would threaten funding for the organization.

There are too many of these instances to actually count. No one can be shielded from these attacks. Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University and Joel Kovel at Bard University are Jewish professors that lost their tenure for espousing a critical view of Zionism. Some people are subject to years of prosecution for the mere ‘accusation’ of being a terrorist—making it very similar to a witch hunt. Sami al-Arian is now under house arrest after five years in federal prison, including two years in solitary confinement because he supported Palestine publicly and forcefully. The Government’s endless efforts to find Al-Arian have failed to demonstrate any terrorist affiliations or violations of federal criminal laws and yet now they are trying to incarcerate him for criminal contempt on trumped on charges. There are real ramifications that suggest that when you speak about Palestine you are not just speaking truth to power, but speaking truth to a brutal power that can hurt you.  This excludes Palestine from Leftist politics in very dangerous ways.

On your question about the lack of strategy in the Left, I agree. It seems like from what I have seen, there is this knee-jerk reaction to survive and that means asserting a community’s distance from the political establishment as opposed to devising a strategy to ensure your viability.

I don’t know what that means for us. Can we preserve our Leftist ideology? Can we preserve our speaking events, our writing, our projects together while also being strategic? I think we can. I do not know we have tried. The only ones that have tried have been liberals and right-wingers and so it makes it really difficult for us to adopt approaches similar to those whose tactics and ideologies we disdain.

Any last thoughts?

Lastly, I really hope that whatever we are thinking about within our respective movements, find a way to share our reflections with one another and have one another’s back. If we are treading on a risk-taking approach (which I think is great) and if we do not work in the same communities, then how can we support one another in tangible ways? How do we align ourselves in a Leftist front, a Leftist Innovative Front, where we represent different interests and represent one another’s interests even if we are not doing this work together? How do we play out our solidarity beyond our rhetoric?  If we are ready to take risks as a movement, how can we do that in collaboration, in mutually beneficial ways? My last thoughts are always questions. Hopefully the next time we share we can address these questions and ask new ones.

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