For 30 years, the United Nations has held an annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on 29 November. The event rarely merited even a passing nod in the mainstream media. Until last week.
Marc Lamont Hill, a prominent US academic and political commentator for CNN, found himself deluged by a tsunami of outrage over a speech he had made at the UN headquarters in New York. He called for an end to Oslo’s discredited model of interminable and futile negotiations over Palestinian statehood – a strategy that is already officially two decades past its sell-by date.
In its place, he proposed developing a new model of regional peace based on a single state offering equal rights to Israelis and Palestinians. Under a barrage of criticism that his speech had been anti-semitic, CNN summarily fired him.
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Howls of outrage
His dismissal echoes recent, largely confected furores greeting attempts by organisations to take a more practical and ethical stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Airbnb, an accommodation bookings website, and the UK branch of the Quakers, a society of Christian religious movements, have faced howls of indignation in response to their modest initiatives.
Last month, Airbnb announced that it would remove from its site all properties listed in illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Shortly afterwards, the Quakers declared that they would refuse to invest in companies that profit from Israel’s theft of Palestinian resources in the occupied territories.
Both moves fully accord with international law, which views the transfer of an occupying powers’ population into occupied territory – the establishment of settlements – as a war crime. Again, like Hill, the two organisations were battered by adverse reactions, including accusations of malevolence and anti-semitism – especially from prominent and supposedly liberal and representative Jewish leadership groups in the US and UK.
What all three cases illustrate is how the definition of anti-semitism is being rapidly expanded to encompass even extremely limited forms of criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights. This redefinition is occurring at a time when Israel is led by the most intransigent and ultra-nationalist government in its history.
These two trends are not unrelated. The cases in question also reveal the growing weaponisation of an emotive identity politics that has been turned on its head – depoliticised to side with the strong against the weak.
Lesser human beings
Of the three “controversies”, Hill’s speech offered the biggest break with western orthodoxy on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – or at least an orthodoxy established by the Oslo agreements in the mid-1990s. Those accords intimated that, should the Palestinians wait patiently, Israel might one day concede them a state on less than a quarter of their homeland.
Some 25 years later, the Palestinians are still waiting, and most of their proposed state has in the meantime been devoured by Israel’s settlement-colonies.
In his speech, Hill put the Zionist movement’s dispossession of the Palestinians in its proper historical perspective – one increasingly recognised by academics and experts – as a settler-colonial project.
He also correctly noted that the chance for a two-state solution, were it even feasible, has been usurped by Israel’s determination to create a single state over all of historic Palestine – one that privileges Jews. In Greater Israel, Palestinians are doomed to be treated as lesser human beings.
History, Hill observed, suggests there is only one possible ethical resolution of such situations: decolonisation. That recognises the existing reality of a single state, but insists on equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians.
Rather than challenge Hill on the unassailable logic of his argument, critics resorted to inflammatory soundbites. He was accused of using anti-semitic language – employed by Hamas – in referring to international action to secure “a free Palestine from the river to the sea”.
In a double leap of faulty logic, Israel and its apologists claimed that Hamas uses the term to declare its genocidal intent to exterminate Jews, and that Hill had echoed those sentiments. Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul-general in New York, termed Hill “a racist, a bigot, an anti-semite”, and compared his remarks to a “swastika painted in red”.
Ben Shapiro, an analyst on Fox News, echoed him, claiming Hill had called for “killing all the Jews” in the region. Seth Mandel, the executive editor of the Washington Examiner, similarly argued that Hill had urged a “Jewish genocide”.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a prominent and supposedly liberal Jewish organisation that claims to support equal treatment for all US citizens, denounced Hill too, arguing: “Those calling for ‘from the river to the sea’ are calling for an end to the State of Israel.”
Likud’s ‘river to the sea’ slogan
In fact, the expression “from the river to the sea” – referring to the area between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea – has a long pedigree in both Israeli and Palestinian discourse. It is simply a popular way of referring to a region once named historic Palestine.
Far from being a Hamas slogan, it is used by anyone who rejects the partition of Palestine and favours a single state. That includes all the various parties in the current Israeli government.
In fact, the founding charter of the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressly envisions a Greater Israel that denies Palestinians any hope of statehood. It uses exactly the same language: “Between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”
Even after the charter was amended in 1999, in the wake of the Oslo accords, it continued to call for a Greater Israel, declaring that “the Jordan river will be the permanent eastern border of the State of Israel.”
Israel’s model of apartheid
The difference between the position of Hamas and the Israeli government, on the one hand, and Hill’s on the other, is that Hill proposes a single state that would treat all its inhabitants as equals, not provide the framework for domination by one religious or ethnic group over another.
In short, unlike Netanyahu and Israeli officials, Hill rejects a model of permanent occupation and apartheid. That, it seems, is a sackable offence in the view of CNN and the ADL.
By contrast, CNN has long employed former US senator Rick Santorum, even though he has argued that the area between the river and the sea is “all Israeli land” and uses language suggesting he supports a Palestinian genocide.
The preposterousness of the attacks on Hill should be evident the moment we consider that many of the recent leading actors in the peace process – from former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to former US secretary of state John Kerry – have warned that Israel is on the brink of slipping into apartheid rule over Palestinians.
They make this prediction precisely because a succession of Israeli governments have adamantly refused to withdraw from the occupied territories.
Given that under Donald Tump, the US has abandoned any vision of Palestinian statehood – viable or otherwise – Hill simply pointed out that the emperor lacks clothes. He presented a truth no one in a position to change the appalling status quo appears ready to consider.
Right to resist
Hill was also accused of anti-semitism for supporting methods to pressure Israel into ending its intransigence, which has kept Palestinians under occupation for more than half a century.
Hill highlighted the right of an occupied people to resist their oppressor, a right that every single western capital has ignored and now invariably characterises as terrorism, even when Palestinian attacks are against armed Israeli soldiers enforcing a belligerent occupation.
But Hill himself advocated for a different, Gandhian-style resistance, of non-violence and solidarity with Palestinians in the form of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement – precisely the kind of international protest that helped to decolonise apartheid South Africa.
BDS turned into bogeyman
In recent years, and under pressure from the Israeli government, apologists for Israel’s occupation and western states have transformed BDS into a bogeyman. Its merits are no longer debated. It is not presented either as a tactic to end the occupation, or even as a tool to pressure Israel into liberalising an ideology that demands ethnic supremacy for the Jewish majority over the fifth of Israel’s citizenry who are Palestinian.
Instead, it is said to be proof of anti-semitism and increasingly, by implication, of genocidal intent. The fact that the BDS movement is taking hold on western campuses and has been taken up by a significant number of young, anti-Zionist Jews is simply ignored. Instead, the growing trend is to outlaw BDS and treat it as if it is a precursor to terrorism.
So Hill’s speech was a direct assault on the silent borders of public debate vigorously policed by Israel’s apologists and western states to prevent meaningful discussions of how to end Israel’s occupation and re-assert the right of Palestinians to dignity and self-determination.
Elephant in room
Why it is so important for Israel’s apologists to silence someone like Hill is because he alludes to the elephant in the room.
His argument strongly hints at the fact that Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, is incompatible with equal rights for Palestinians in their historic homeland. He implies that the occupation is not an aberration that needs fixing but integral to the Zionist movement’s vision of “Judaising” Palestine, of its erasure of Palestinian presence in line with other colonial-settler projects.
Evidence that shielding Israel’s aggressive territorial ambitions from closer inspection is the true goal of Hill’s critics – rather than concern at a supposed rise in “left-wing anti-semitism” – is confirmed by the similar furores surrounding the very modest actions taken by the UK Quakers and Airbnb.
Quakers and ethical investments
Late last month the Quakers announced that they would no longer invest in any company that profits from the occupation. The move is part of their “ethical investments” policy, similar to their refusal to invest in the arms and fossil fuel industries.
The Quakers represent a small group of Christian movements that have historically led the way in identifying the moral outrages of each era.
They were prominent in their opposition to slavery in the US and to apartheid in South Africa, and won a Nobel peace prize for their work in saving Jews and Christians from the Nazis during the Second World War. That included organising the Kindertransport that brought 10,000 predominantly Jewish children to the UK.
So it is hardly surprising that they should be taking a lead – one other British Churches have been too fearful to contemplate – in penalising those companies that profit from the subjugation and oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
In fact, rather than criticise the UK Quakers for the boycott of these companies, one might fairly wonder why it has taken them so long to act. After all, Israel’s military occupation has been around – and its bastard progeny, the settlements, growing – for more than five decades. Its terrible abuses are well documented.
But even the fact that the Quakers have been repeatedly proved to be on the right side of history has not shaken the confidence of Jewish organisations in the UK in denouncing the group. Most prominent was the Board of Deputies, which grandly claims for itself the status of the representative body for Britain’s Jewish community.
Its relentless attacks on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, accusing him of anti-semitism, have been treated as authoritative by the British media for that very reason.
But the Board revealed its true colours by denouncing the Quakers, suggesting that their stance was motivated not by ethics but by anti-semitism. Ignoring the Quakers’ long history of taking a moral stand, newly elected president Marie van der Zyl argued that Israel was being “singled out”, and that the Quaker leadership had an “obsessive and tunnel-visioned approach”.
Paradoxically, she accused the Quakers of refusing to “tackle prejudice and promote peace in the region”. Instead Quaker leaders had “chosen to import a divisive conflict into our country”.
In fact, it is the Board and other Jewish leadership organisations that have imported that very divisiveness into Britain and the US by expressly tying their Jewish identities to Israel’s ugly colonial-settler actions. The Quakers are pointing out that in a conflict in which one side, Israel, is overwhelmingly stronger, there can be no resolution unless the stronger side faces effective pressure.
The Board, on the other hand, wants to intimidate and silence the Quakers precisely so Israel can continue to be free to oppress the Palestinians and steal their land through settlement expansion. It is not the Quakers who are anti-semitic. It is Jewish leadership organisations like the Board of Deputies that are indifferent – or even cheerleaders – to decades of Israeli brutality towards the Palestinians.
Airbnb’s role aiding settlers
Similarly, Airbnb was bombarded with criticism when it promised the even more limited step of removing some 200 properties on its website located in West Bank settlements that violate international law. Indeed, some of them are built in violation of Israeli law too, even if Israel makes precisely no effort to enforce such laws against the settlers.
Until recently it was widely accepted that the settlements were an insuperable obstacle to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution. Further, the settlements, it was understood, necessitated ever greater violence against the native Palestinian population to guarantee their protection and expansion.
That, after all, is precisely why international law forbids the transfer of an occupying power’s population into the occupied territory.
Airbnb was clearly aiding these illegal settlers by creating a stronger profit-motive for Jews to live on stolen Palestinian land. That economic motive was the tangential basis for a legal suit filed in the US last week by settler families claiming “religious discrimination”.
In reality, the firm’s decision to pull out of the West Bank was the very minimum that could be expected of them. And yet, even so, they managed to exclude Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem from their listing ban, although they constitute the bulk of the Jewish settler population exploiting Airbnb.
Double standards of ADL
Despite Airbnb’s move being feeble and long overdue, it was again cast as anti-semitic by leading Jewish organisations in the US, not least the ADL.
The ADL claims to “secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike”, one of the reasons why it took an active role in fighting for civil rights for American blacks in the Jim Crow era. But like so many Jewish leadership organisations, its actions prove that, when it comes to Israel, it is in truth driven by a tribal, ethnic agenda rather than a universal, human rights-based one.
Rather than welcoming Airbnb’s action, it once again exploited and degraded the meaning of anti-semitism as a way to ringfence Israel from pressure to end its ongoing abuse of Palestinians and the theft of their resources.
It accused the company of “double standards” for not applying the same policy in “Northern Cyprus, Tibet, the Western Saharan region, and other territories where people have been displaced”. As Forward commentator Peter Beinart pointed out, this argument was disingenuous at best: “Was the ADL guilty of a ‘double standard’ when its officials marched for civil rights for African Americans but not for American Indians, whose civil rights were not guaranteed by federal law until 1968?”
Israel under daily scrutiny
What these three cases highlight is that, just as Israel’s ill-intent towards the Palestinians has become ever more overt and transparent, the officially sanctioned space to criticise Israel and support the Palestinian cause is being intentionally and aggressively restricted.
In an era of phone cameras, 24-hour rolling news and social media, Israel stands exposed like never before to intimate and daily scrutiny. Its long-standing dependence on colonial support, its creation based on the sin of ethnic cleansing, the institutional racism faced by its minority of Palestinian citizens, the brazen brutality and structural violence of its 51-year occupation are more widely understood than was possible even a decade ago.
That has happened at the same time as other major historic injustices – against women, people of colour, indigenous peoples and the LGBT community – have emerged into the spotlight with the adoption of a new kind of popular identity politics.
Denying what is self-evident
Israel should clearly be on the wrong side of this story, and yet western governments and Jewish leadership organisations are vigorously helping it deny what should be self-evident, and thereby turning reality on its head.
A few years ago, only the most rabid supporters of Israel openly argued that anti-Zionism equated with anti-semitism. Now anti-Zionism and solidarity movements like BDS are uncritically characterised in mainstream discourse not only as anti-semitic but also implicitly as a form of terrorism against Jews.
The right of Palestinians to dignity and to liberation from Israel’s oppressive rule are again being made subservient to Israel’s right to pursue unchallenged its settler-colonial agenda – to displace and replace the native Palestinian population.
Not only this, but any solidarity with downtrodden Palestinians is characterised as anti-semitism simply because Jewish leaders in the US and UK claim a trump card: their superior right to identify with Israel’s settler-colonial project and to be protected from any criticism for their stance.
In this deeply perverse form of identity politics, the rights of the nuclear-armed state of Israel and its supporters abroad are weaponised to damage the rights of a weak, dispersed, colonised and marginalised community of Palestinians.
For decades, Israel’s supporters have conceded that Israel should be subjected to what they termed “legitimate criticism”.
But the reactions to Hill, the Quakers and Airbnb reveal that in practice there is no criticism of Israel that will be treated as legitimate and that when it comes to the suffering of Palestinians, the only acceptable stance is one of resignation and silence.