Those who oppose regressive policies on immigration, racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ rights and the crimes of empire, often draw the line when it comes to Israel.
There they remain silent or mouth tepid bromides about the war crimes the Israeli apartheid state carries out against the Palestinians.
These liberals, some of whom, but not all are Jewish, are known as Progressive Except for Palestine or “PEPs”.
But is it actually possible 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?
Isn’t there a deep connection between the militarized police in American cities, many of whom have attended Israeli training courses, which act as internal forces of occupation and Israel’s brutal subjugation of the Palestinian people?
Is it accidental that corporations such as Caterpillar provide the equipment to Israel to demolish Palestinian homes and also provide the barriers between the United States and Mexico?
Is it accidental that Caterpillar equipment, ubiquitous in the Israeli Occupied Territories, destroyed the sacred sites on Standing Rock tribal land while building the Dakota Access Pipeline?
Doesn’t holding fast to one-sided and unwavering pro-Israeli policies foster the truth-bending grip of authoritarianism and the evisceration of the rule of law?
Is it accidental that if civil liberties are revoked in the United States and Israel, against its most vulnerable, each country is plagued by a growing crypto-fascism (with) disdain for democracy and unchecked militarism?
Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick in their book Except For Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics argue that this disconnect is as damaging to our liberal democracy as it is to democratic traditions in Israel.
Once rights become privileges then they are easily revoked, not only for poor Blacks and Palestinians, but eventually for us all.
Joining me to discuss Except For Palestine: The Limit of Progressive Politics is Mitchell Plitnick.
So let’s begin with this disconnect which I think you and Marc quite presciently focus on in your book.
Explain how it works.
Mitchell Plitnick: Well, I think what we’re looking at is, we’re trying to look at it on the sort of political basis, so you know one of the things that we avoid trying to get into is getting into people’s heads and how people individually come to these spaces, and think of it more in terms of politics. So we look at for example at the way when Trump started imprisoning children on the border, really militarising the border, building the wall and particularly the separation of families, how there was a massive outcry; there was protests, there was sets of protests in this country that had not been seen in many years and there was a basic moral outrage over what was happening. Yet, at the same time or at least around the same time, the Trump administration decided to cut off funds for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, which is a tiny, tiny piece of U.S. foreign aid in general and certainly the U.S. budget. But UNRWA provides crucial services to Palestinian refugees, not only in Gaza and the West Bank, but in areas around Lebanon and Jordan and Syria. There was no really good strategic reason to do this. This was a move of spite that hurt innocent people. But this passed without, almost unnoticed
outside of people who are already active on the issue. So we compared – we opened the book by comparing and contrasting those two things intentionally to say look, how do we live in a system where one thing happened and that people get outraged, then something
that – true and we grant, we make sure to grant that, we understand that UNRWA is not happening here, the UNRWA cut is something not happening here; it’s not happening to people here, it’s not happening to our direct neighbours in the way that the border crisis worked, but still there was just nothing, there was not a peep, there was no – virtually no
objection from people who are generally interested in what happens in the Middle East. We felt – we feel that these two things cannot be reconciled in any way except other than trying to find out politically why it is that when we come to discuss Israeli actions, they seem to pass without scrutiny. We’re seeing right now a really good example of this, Betty McCollum just put forth a Bill that simply calls for U.S. law to be obeyed essentially, that military aid to Israel; there be reports by the State Department regularly on how that aid is used. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, argues against it. It says it’s redundant – so if it’s redundant what’s the problem? If you’re going to contend that it already happens – which it doesn’t, then why even bother objecting to it? Again, people do not want to discuss the implications of our policy in Israel/Palestine and that’s where we have a problem. So you know, politically, the dynamic is that Israel can do what it wants and it’s politically – virtually poisonous to even bring it up here in Washington. It’s starting to change a little bit, but for the mainstream liberalism of the United States, it’s okay to speak out about all sorts of other things. But again, not for Palestine.
CH: Well this is what Chomsky calls “worthy and unworthy victims”. So you have these liberal human rights groups calling on China to stop the repression against the Uyghurs, and I just want to give an egregious example of this kind of cognitive dissonance or mindset. So, during Operation Protective Edge in which Israel killed about 550 Gazan children and 1 Israeli child was killed from rockets, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Elie Wiesel, wrote that the crisis in Gaza and Israel, and I’m quoting (is between) “those who celebrate life and those who champion death. Jews rejected child sacrifice 3500 years ago, now it’s Hamas’ turn”. Now first of all as someone who has spent months of my life in Gaza, the notion that Palestinian parents don’t care and love for their children as deeply as we do is not only wrong, but racist. But here you have Elie Wiesel who traveled the world – he was in The Balkans when I was there and quite courageously outspoken about the Kosovo-Albanians who became driven to refugee camps in Macedonia, but this massive disconnect, I think, typifies exactly what it is you’re speaking about – and I think you argue quite correctly that what it does is undermine just the credibility of those of us who do care about the rule of law and do care about human rights because it’s clear that that’s not true in the case of Israel/Palestine.
MP: Yeah I would agree. I think that is one of the points we’re making and I think also – that when we’re talking about Elie Wiesel’s statements – and I have had, over the years, a lot to say about Elie Wiesel; somebody who I read pretty much all of his works as a child and as a young teenager, and then later on saw his complete inability to apply that humanity to the Palestinians, and it really was only the Palestinians who were an exception, although occasionally he would also make some really mind-boggling
statements about other groups if it had something to do with Israel. So, the Armenian genocide was another place that he was a little bit weak on from time to time. But that’s I think, to some extent at least, is an example of NIMBY right? Not In Ny Back Yard, that whole concept of, it’s very easy to stand up for human rights when it’s not your group that is the oppressor. It’s easy to point a finger at China, to point a finger at Russia, to point a finger at, you know we can make a long list of human rights violators around the world. It’s not so easy to do it when it’s your own people and I think that’s really the test of your ethical ability. Having said that, I think for Marc and myself this was less about figures in the Jewish community than it was actually just a much more generalised – Jews certainly included, but a much more generalised message to liberal Americans, Jewish or otherwise, who seem to be ok with policies – I mean again, just to bring up a very current example, we are quick to talk about, you know, in Venezuela, there’s always this big ‘Look how the election was stolen and what a horrible thing is going on there’ so much so that the more radical rightwing was able to martial support from fairly mainstream sources, for the idea of regime-change there. Even though, you know, many liberals did draw the line at that point, but still they were certainly willing to shine a great light on (Nicolás) Maduro’s electoral malfeasance in Venezuela. Now, when the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, tells Israel ‘All you have to do is not allow Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote in our elections and I will have the reason to counter them because you don’t want to see what’ll happen if these elections go forward and neither do I’ the United States and the Biden administration explicitly said ‘That’s okay!’. They literally said ‘We understand that you are going to do this and it’s fine’. And when he went ahead and did it and actually the White House was asked about it, they had no comment about it whatsoever. They said that’s an internal Palestinian matter, which would be great if they applied that to Venezuela as well. But obviously they do not. So again, how do we reconcile this? This is not Trump saying ‘I don’t care what other countries do’. At least – and I don’t want to defend Trump in any way but at least he said ‘I don’t care what anyone does, what any other country does, I’m not going to police the human rights and democracy of other countries’. That wasn’t always consistent but for the most part he kinda stuck to that. Biden on the other hand says ‘Well America is going to engage or we’re going to defend our democratic values’ etcetera etcetera and yet here’s an opportunity to do it and they completely punt the ball. They literally turned their back on it. So again, it’s that same concept. So when we’re looking at, do we apply these values? We don’t and everything about our attitude to Israeli and Palestinians – I think you’re absolutely right, undermines any notion that we are pursuing some sort of value-based foreign policy. Now you know, the cynic in me says why would you expect that? What country really does that when it’s inconvenient for them? And I understand that, but nonetheless, we as voters and as citizens do advocate for values-based policies and yet somehow that advocacy seems to fall apart when it comes to Israel and Palestine.
CH: Well, and we should be clear that the Trump violations, moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem which is under International Law considered Occupied Territory, has bipartisan support. It was supported by (Chuck) Schumer. So –
MP: Well absolutely. Yeah I was just going to say as a matter of fact we go into the issue with the Embassy in depth, we point out to in fact that what Trump did when he moved the Embassy, what he did was simply not waive – not sign a waiver that essentially froze a law that was passed in the Clinton administration. Clinton didn’t sign the law but he also did not veto it, and it has been on the books ever since. Any president could have tried to fight it. Instead they simply continued to sign the waiver. Trump just didn’t sign a waiver; that law was passed with enormous, almost universal at the time, bipartisan support in you know, during the days of the Democrat administrations. So it is absolutely bipartisan and has been for a very long time. As a matter of fact, if we look back since, really the birth of the state of Israel, lately the Republicans have been very fanatically pro-Israel, but the actual questioning of our policies towards Israel back in the sixties and seventies and sometimes even the eighties was actually in the Republican party, not amongst the Democrats; that was where Israel had rock-solid support amongst the Democrats for many decades.
CH: When we come back we will continue our conversation about the limits of progressive politics, the Jewish state and Palestine, with Mitchell Plitnick.
CH: Welcome back to On Contact. I want to talk about this point you raise in the book where Israel posits this question: Thus the question, “Does Israel have a right to exist?” is not a question about the physical safety of Jewish citizens. The relevant political question is: Is the dispossession and ongoing denial of rights at various levels to Palestinians justified? But they’ve really managed to dominate the debate with this kind of rhetorical feign. Explain how that works.
MP: So this, I mean first of all our position in the book is that Israel has as much “right to exist as any other state” which is none. No states exist by right and we do – we absolutely put Israel in the category of settler-colonial states and so there are certain ethical questions – that applied to all of them. In this regard the only real difference between Israel and the United States for example, is the fact that the conflict over the settler colonial policies is still ongoing. So we make that point and I think it’s an important one. But when people are asking does Israel have a right to exist? Not only are they asking a question that is not asked about other countries, but more than that it is a question that Israel only asks of one group, and that is the Palestinians. Egypt and Jordan have had longstanding peace treaties with Israel. The recent Abraham Accords that were signed with a number of Arab states, none of these do anything other than what every country does to another country it has relations with, which is recognise Israel’s sovereignty. That is what they do – and as a matter of fact for a long time, Zionist leaders and Israeli leaders – we cite in the book extensively, Abba Eban, the famed global ambassador, Ambassador to the U.N., and leader of Israel in past decades, and Menachem Begin the former Prime Minister, both said ‘We are not going to ask, it’s actually insulting to us to ask that other states ask about our right to exist, we ask only that they recognise our sovereignty’. That has obviously changed. But why has it changed? It has changed because doing this and asking it specifically of the Palestinians is asking the Palestinians to say ‘Zionism was correct, we had no right to be living in the land that we have lived in for centuries and
centuries and they were right to dispossess us and drive us from our land and isn’t it wonderful they’re being so nice to us now that they’re actually willing to give us little crumbs from their table’. And we point out that the early Zionist leader (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, a very rightwing person, recognised that this was an unreasonable demand and not one that was even a moral one to make. His view was ‘Therefore we need to utterly defeat the Arabs so that they will accept our supremacy and then we can be quite magnanimous and give them citizenship’ and all that. That was Jabotinsky’s point of view. As brutal as that sounds, it sounds better than this concept that Palestinians should grovel essentially and say ‘You were right to do this to us’. That is just unreasonable and it was a way to make sure the issue never gets resolved in any way other than an absolute Israeli victory. That’s –
CH: But Mitchell, Fatah has agreed to Israel’s right to exist as you note in the book, but then explain that it doesn’t make any difference.
MP: Right so once they agreed – because the purpose of this demand is as I said, is to make no reasonable solution ever arises, so once – and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) has agreed a number of times, agreed to recognise Israel’s right to exist. Once that happened, the demand changed and it became a demand that the Palestinians accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. So the idea – and several Israeli scholars have pointed this out, the idea behind that is to preclude any claim of Palestinian refugees and to also preclude any attacks or criticism on the shabby treatment of Palestinian citizens inside Israel. So that was the purpose of that and as we quote Palestinian scholar Yousef Munayyer in our book, he said that to ask Palestinians to accept that is to ask Palestinians not to be, to completely abandon who they are; their identity as Palestinians. And that’s just again, it’s just not a reasonable demand. And Israel will, if Fatah foolishly accedes to this demand as well – which incidentally I just want to throw in there that during Obama’s administration, John Kerry was quite public and very clear in saying ‘I don’t understand’ and I think he meant it. ‘I don’t understand why Palestinians accept this demand’. That’s what he said. And I think he was genuinely baffled by that idea, so hopefully Mr Kerry will read our book and maybe he can glean some understanding. But it’s obviously, the point of this demand is to make sure the conflict cannot be resolved in any way that gives Palestinians any sense of sovereignty or national identity at all.
CH: Let’s talk about the Nation-State Law approved by The Knesset in July 2018.
MP: So this, I mean essentially, codifies apartheid. And I think many people recognise that, including many strong supporters of Israel. This was something that American supporters of Israel, very mainstream ones, very you know, I mean clearly the American Jewish Committee was quite forceful in condemning this law and this is a group that is, I would categorise, as quite racist against the Palestinians. They realised that what this law said essentially is ‘Israel is an apartheid state, it’s who we are, it is only Jews who can exercise national rights in the state of Israel, we will allow other groups to be citizens but only Jews can build new settlements, and in fact we encourage that’. The concept of redeeming the land, making the land Jewish again, that – all that is meant, again, to
solidify Jewish control and make sure that Palestinians remain second class citizens. There may be some room if Palestinians accept that, for better treatment I suppose. It doesn’t make that impossible if you want to look at it that way, but that’s the best case – that’s the kindest light I think anyone can look at it. It’s quite a discriminatory law and the problem with it is it’s a Basic Law; it’s not just a piece of legislation that’s on the books, it’s a Basic Law in Israel. The Basic Law is essentially the same as The Constitution here in the United States. So we’re talking about something that is fundamental. In and of itself it didn’t really change much in the moment. But it becomes a basis to defend really discriminatory laws that can and quite likely will be passed in the coming years. It gives it a constitutional basis and it essentially tells the world ‘Yes we are an apartheid state’. And it’s not a coincidence that since that time we have seen a growing trend among rights groups, including some inside of Israel, blatantly calling Israel an apartheid state.
CH: I want to talk about when you write in the book: As of January 2020, twenty-eight states (in USA) had laws or policies that penalize businesses, organizations or individuals for engaging in or calling for boycotts against Israel. The laws usually penalize businesses or individuals for refusing to sign a document that commits them not participate in any way in boycotts against Israel. Some of the laws have real penalties while others are merely declarations that the state – we’re talking about American states – opposes BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement). I want to ask, you write about Samantha Powers, these kinds of – she was Obama’s Ambassador to the U.N. Isn’t it really about the fact that if they – they will stand up for human rights if there’s no cost? But the Israel Lobby is so powerful and what you’re really getting at, at it’s core, is careerism. All sorts of the people who probably should even know better, I don’t think there’s any other way to read the Israeli state as, other than as an apartheid state, but this is the problem with a liberal or a progressive embrace of human rights and a failure to do so when there is a cost that you can bear. I mean I interviewed Richard Falk who has been, who did have intellectual integrity and of course was turned into a pariah.
MP: Yeah and Richard Falk is another example. Richard Falk is himself Jewish. That made no difference. You know, if we go back to the days of The Goldstone Report, a report on Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008-2009, Richard Goldstone isn’t just a Jew, he’s a Zionist and was very active at The Hebrew University (of Jerusalem) and a number of institutions, was very strongly connected to Israel, it made no difference. I think it’s important and I guess I want to preface my remarks as I’ve written quite a bit about this and it’s important to note that I do not believe for a minute that U.S. policy arises as it does because of the Israel lobby. The Israel – the basic policy the U.S. has towards Israel is one of self-interest and it precedes strategies and strategic interest, and in about 2014 or so I wrote a paper for the Middle East Report that explained the origins of U.S. policy. But once U.S. policy was set in place, that’s where the lobby is very, very effective. What the lobby does is not only – primarily on Capitol Hill, but also in the broader media world and civil discourse, basically precludes debate. And it works hard to stigmatise and criminalise, as we see right now it’s BDS. It used to be more broad anti-Israel activity, (now) they’re laser-focused on BDS because they’ve identified BDS as a threat. And I think the point we try to make is that look, if you don’t agree with boycotting Israel, fine,
don’t boycott Israel, that is everyone’s individual choice. But to criminalise it is literally to attack the First Amendment. I mean there really is no other way – and in fact you know, it’s one of the reasons that whenever this law has been challenged, they’ve lost. Because legally there’s really no defence for them. It’s worth stopping to think about, the fact that nobody would dream of enacting these kinds of laws regarding our own government because it would so explicitly violate the First Amendment. Yet somehow when it comes to Israel we can do that. It makes no sense and part of that –
CH: We’re going to have to stop there Mitchell –
MP: I’m sorry –
CH: That’s alright, thank you. That was Mitchell Plitnick and Marc Lamont Hill on their new book Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics.