Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics by Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick (the “Authors”) argues that “progressives” who hold anti-racist and anti-imperialist political outlooks and who champion gender equality, LBGTQ rights and other social justice issues must begin to prioritize Palestinian rights. In their view the Palestine issue is treated as an “exception” to progressive values and this neglect must end.
The book does not actually explore the range of issues important to progressives and how Palestine and Israel are treated in contrast, but instead is a concise and virulent anti-Zionist manifesto, filled with errors, omission and misrepresentations,[i] which outlines the Authors’ vision for the dismantling of the Jewish state. In their view, Israel is a country born of sin since its formation as a Jewish state necessarily required the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, who are described as the indigenous inhabitants of the region – Jews are not ascribed indigeneity to the region by the Authors. Thus, in the interest of Palestinian rights, the only just solution is for Jews to permanently give up control of their sovereign nation and allow the Palestinians, if they so choose, to “return” to their homes and create a new state where Jews will necessarily be a minority. A Palestinian journalist and activist quoted by the Authors assures Jews that “redistributive policies” in this one-state vision will be carried out “fairly” during the transition to Arab majority rule and that “there are few reasons to believe it cannot be a well-managed process.” The Authors certainly did not take a poll of the 6.9 million Jews living in Israel to determine if they agree.
Right to Exist
Of the four chapters in the book the key is the first one, titled “Right to Exist,” where the Authors begin by assessing the discussion around Israel’s “right to exist” and by the end of the analysis determine that Jews do not deserve to have a state of their own. The Authors provide their general take on the discussion of Israel’s “right to exist”:
[The “right to exist” discourse] is cynically used to justify the rejection of a Palestinian state. It is strategically used to distract from criticism about the deprivation of Palestinian rights. And it is disingenuously used to frame the case for Palestinian rights as the denial of Jewish self-determination or, even worse, as a call for anti-Semitic violence.[ii]
The Authors do not explain how affirming Israel’s right to exist necessarily means the rejection of a Palestinian state or deprivation of their rights. The history of two state discussions since the 1930s has always been based on a premise of the right for both Jews and Palestinians to have a sovereign state. The comment reveals the Authors’ zero sum thinking which is evident throughout the book. In their view it is only one or the other; either the Jews have a state, or the Palestinians have a state. But since the Jewish state is inherently immoral and impinges on the rights of the true indigenous people, only a Palestinian state has a right to exist. In their view, even advocating for Jewish rights to a state deprives Palestinians of their rights. The last sentence in the paragraph is laughable, as the rest of the book is genuinely and specifically devoted to the “denial of Jewish self-determination” while making the case for Palestinian rights. The Authors of course do not mention that the concept of Israel’s “right to exist” is often brought up because alone of all countries in the world, only Israel is subject to unending questions about its legitimacy and ways in which it can be dismantled or destroyed – as this very book evidences.
A few paragraphs later the authors carefully play with words to imply that they do in fact support Israel’s “right to exist” but craft their language vaguely so that this “right” does not specifically include Jewish self determination in the Holy Land:
“…the question of whether Israel has a right to exist is often understood to be a question of whether Israelis, or even Jews more broadly, have the right to exist. Of course, our answer to this latter question is clear and unambiguous: The right of Israelis (and Jews throughout the world) to live in peace, safety, dignity, and with self-determination is absolute and unquestionable.”[iii]
Their formulation seems purposely ambiguous so that no one can be quite sure what they mean. Do they believe that Israelis and Jews have the right to exist merely as human beings? Do Jews within Israel have the right to self-determination or only Jews collectively throughout the world? How does it work for “Jews throughout the world” to live “with self-determination”? But clarity here is hardly important. The Authors leave no doubt throughout their text that they absolutely do not support the right of Jews to any form of self-determination anywhere in the Middle East.
The Dismantling of the Jewish State
The Author’s next order of business is to delegitimize Zionism. The Authors allow Noura Erekat, a Palestinian-American scholar and staunch anti-Zionist, to provide her view of Zionism. She explains that Zionism’s ambitions “required not only the dispossession and removal of Palestinians in 1948 but also their forced exile, juridical erasure and denial that they ever existed.”[iv]
Erekat’s view is accepted by the authors as established fact. They do not bother to mention that in 1947 the Arabs rejected the United Nations partition plan that recommended an independent Jewish State and Arab State without necessitating the removal of a single inhabitant; that Jews accepted the partition plan; that Jewish owned homes and land under Ottoman and British controlled Palestine were purchased legally and did not dispossess anyone; that Arabs inside British Palestine launched a war against the Jewish inhabitants in 1947, followed by an invasion of multiple Arab armies in May 1948, all in an effort to permanently end the Jewish state before it could get started; that most Arabs in the region fled due to the fighting, and that there was no pre-planned goal by the Yishuv to expel Arabs (Israel’s detractors of course disagree); that if the Arabs accepted partition from the start and did not start a conflict to end the Jewish state, mass movement of Palestinians would not have occurred.
With the original sin of Zionism proven, the Authors propose their only solution to correct its terrible wrongs: Jews must give up control of Israel and submit to the one-state solution. In order to assure Jews that they have nothing to fear by giving up sovereignty, the Authors turn to Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian journalist described as “the leading American proponent of the one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and whom the Authors introduce as a “fierce anti-Zionist.” So, the reader can be comfortable with this unbiased opinion and all Jews should take relief in Abunimah’s assurances that they will not be harmed as the transition to complete Palestinian control of the region is implemented.
Abunimah claims that Jewish opposition to the one-state solution stems in part from “racist fears of black and brown hordes (in this case, Arab Muslim)” forgetting or willfully ignoring that Israel is already more than 50% “black and brown” as the majority of Jews in Israel originated in Arab lands due mainly to their expulsion from such lands, not to mention that Israel airlifted Black Jews out of Ethiopia that now comprise about 125,000 Israelis. Decades of Arab calls for the annihilation of Jews, denial of Jewish history, glorification of terror, and polls showing that a large majority of Palestinians harbor anti-Semitic views does not come into Abunimah’s (or the Authors’) thinking in why the Jews of Israel may not want to submit to Palestinian rule.[v] Abunimah and the Authors do not demand that the current Palestine Authority establish a liberal democracy prior to the implementation of the one-state solution to assure Jews they will enjoy the same freedoms they enjoy now, like the LBGTQ rights that the Authors list as a key progressive value. Abunimah assures Jews that once they become a minority, a negotiated transition will insure that “redistributive policies are carried out fairly.” He concludes that “there are few reasons to believe it cannot be a well-managed process.”[vi]
Abunimah’s assurances are absurd. He has a long history of inflammatory and grossly inaccurate anti-Israel statements that according to the working definition of Antisemitism by IHRA could potentially be interpreted as anti-Semitic. For example, Abunimah has written that support for Zionism “is not atonement for the Holocaust, but its continuation in Spirit” and that “Zionism is one of the worst forms of anti-Semitism in existence today.”[vii] Abunimah regularly lies about Israeli actions claiming that Israel has “carpet-bombed” neighborhoods in Gaza, attempted “genocide” against the Palestinians, that “in terms of ability to murder and destroy, Israel is unmatched,” that for sixty years Israel has “massacre[d] Palestinians into submission,” and believes that Israel can be fairly compared to the Nazis.[viii]
The Author’s message to the 6.9 million Jews living in Israel, and to millions of other Jews who see Israel as a necessary haven after 2,000 years of anti-Semitism that evidence shows has worsened in the last decades is as follows: don’t worry about submitting to Palestinian rule, Mr. Abunimah, who believes you as a nation have been committing genocide against his people for the last 60 years, assures you it will all work out and the Palestinians will carry out the redistribution of the new nation that they control fairly. To further bolster assurances to Jews about their physical safety and that they can remain in the region, the Authors cite Noura Erekat again who explains that Palestinians “have not demanded Jewish-Israeli removal…only a relinquishment of their desire to rule.”[ix]
The Author’s full denial of Jewish rights to a nation is starkly demonstrated in a concluding sentence where they claim that Jews from Europe emigrated to the Holy Land to create a state “in which Jewish people would be privileged above others, especially the indigenous inhabitants.” (The Authors ignore the fact that the vast majority of Jews who emigrated from Europe were poor and escaping anti-Semitism in their home countries, like the Russian pogroms). In their view, the Jewish people are not indigenous to the Holy Land, only the Palestinians are. This is in line with regularly aired material on Palestinian state television that denies Jewish history and claims that the Jewish temple is called the “greatest crime and forgery in history.”[x] Giving further credence to the idea that only the Palestinians are indigenous the Authors quote Palestinian-American activist Yousef Munayyer who compares Palestinians to indigenous Americans and Jews to the outsiders who created the United States – ignoring that Jews have a historical connection to the land that preceded the invasion by Arabs from Arabia in the seventh century or that Jews have lived in the region uninterrupted for 3,000 years or that a large percentage of Arabs living in British Palestine themselves immigrated from other Arab regions.[xi]
The Gaza Strip
The final chapter of the book is devoted to the situation in the Gaza Strip, intended to portray Israel as uniquely evil and subjecting the people of Gaza to “years of deprivation.” By demonstrating Israel’s treatment of Gaza, the Authors seek to push progressives to take action in what they describe as “one of the most pressing humanitarian crises in the world.” To back up this contention, they claim that Gaza is “uninhabitable” and that “95 percent of water there was unfit for human consumption.”[xii]
The idea that Gaza is “uninhabitable” is a falsehood as on the ground evidence shows. Numerous videos and images from Gaza show that much of Gaza is a bustling urban area. For example a video from April 2021 shows busy streets and markets following the Gaza Ministry of Interior’s announcement of a closure.[xiii] In December 2020 a gleaming new mall opened in Rafah, called the Mall of Arabia, one of several modern malls in the strip.[xiv] Looking at hard data such as infant mortality and maternal mortality rates, which are often used as a proxies for the overall health of a population, Gaza ranks in the middle worldwide, above nearly 100 nations including Egypt, Brazil, Morocco and Turkey.[xv] Life expectancy at birth of 75.1 is also in the midpoint range, ahead of nations like Iran, Indonesia and Russia. While no one denies significant hardships for the people of Gaza, the word “uninhabitable” is hardly applicable.
It is further inaccurate to state that 95% of water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption, which implies that Gazans are virtually dying of thirst. The actual statistic is that due to overuse of the coastal aquifer, 95-97% of the water from this main aquifer is no longer fit for human consumption. The aquifer still provides clean drinking water, but its usage is being drawn at three times the amount it recharges each year, so it is not sustainable.[xvi] Groundwater depletion is a worldwide issue and the situation with Gaza’s aquifer has nothing to do with Israeli actions. Clean water in Gaza comes from other sources. The Authors do not inform the reader that Gaza has 286 desalination plants of various capacities; most are smaller plants from municipal and private providers, but some are large scale plants. For example, in 2017 the EU and UNICEF inaugurated the largest desalination plant in Gaza, which now provides clean water to 75,000 Gazans daily and construction to double the size of the plant is already underway.[xvii] A much larger plant is expected to be completed in 2023 with donors already committed to €460 million of the €580 million project which provide a major sustainable water source.[xviii] The worst countries in the world for access to clean water are Mozambique, Niger, Chad, Republic of Congo, Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Papua New Guinea and Eritrea.[xix] The Authors should suggest that progressives work to improve the water situations in these nations, especially since half a billion dollars has already been pledged to solve Gaza’s water issues.
Incredibly, no blame is ascribed by the Authors to Hamas for the poor conditions in Gaza. While the Authors criticize Hamas’ rocket fire they fail to mention that an estimated $100 million per year is spent by Hamas on rocket production and construction of dozens of tunnels entering Israel, comprising approximately 20% of their entire budget.[xx] Yet the lack of resources and living conditions is always blamed on third parties such as Israel or the U.S. for restricting funding to UNRWA. Amazingly, the word “tunnel” is not mentioned even once in the entire book even though this represents the biggest threat to Israel from Gaza, one which forced Israel to spend over $800 million to construct a specialized protective barrier – far more than the major desalination plants that will go a long way to solve Gaza’s water problems.[xxi] Somehow the construction of tunnels is neither considered by the Authors as an unnecessary drain on resources that could instead be used by Hamas to actually help the people or Gaza, nor part of the reason why Israel feels the need to restrict the delivery of equipment and supplies (such as concrete) into Gaza.
While the authors acknowledge that Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 which may have seemed “to be a step toward independence,” they revert to blaming Israel for the problems in Gaza because it did not “coordinate” the withdrawal with the PA. No detail is given on how this lack of coordination caused so many problems, simply that the PA “was unable to prepare and coordinate its role in post-withdrawal Gaza” – even though the withdrawal was announced over one year prior to its implementation. Even when Israel does what is often asked of them to eliminate what is ostensibly the key barrier to peace – dismantling settlements and withdrawing from lands the Palestinians want for a state – they are still blamed for all ill effects while Palestinian actions or lack of actions are never considered the cause of any of their woes.
Never do the Authors suggest that to alleviate the hardships in Gaza perhaps progressives may want to persuade Hamas (designated as a terrorist organization by the EU, U.S., Canada and others) to end its rocket production and tunnel building program and approach Israel and Egypt to open their borders in return for a permanent pledge to end all of its military actions. Hamas certainly does not meet the standards of many progressive positions, such as LGBTQ rights; this article from 2019 highlights the “hellish life of Gaza’s LGBTQ community” where “pretending to be straight is often a matter of survival.”[xxii] In February 2021 a Hamas-run Islamic court ruled that women required the permission of a male guardian to travel, resembling the guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia.[xxiii] (Have the Authors and Ali Abunimah worked out what permissions women in Israel will have under Palestinian rule?) In April 2021 Palestinian activist Rami Aman was forced by Hamas to divorce his wife after months of torture and interrogations in a Hamas prison. His crime? Speaking to Israeli peace activists on a Zoom call.[xxiv]
Except for Palestine offers nothing new in its anti-Zionist thinking. Mark Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick merely parrot the viewpoints of Palestinian journalists and activists Noura Erekat, Ali Abunimah, and Yousef Munayyer who believe that Israel is an evil colonial state that committed ethnic cleansing and genocide and that the only acceptable solution to achieve justice for Palestinians is to dismantle the Jewish state by ending any Jewish sovereignty in the region and handing over control to a new majority Palestinian state. Jews are assured that this transition will be handled fairly and that they have few reasons to worry.
The historical background offered in the book is haphazard and breaks no new ground, jumping around different eras and events. I cannot blame the Authors for leaving out much of the important history as there is simply too much to cover. But the reader can be sure that the historical narrative never ascribes any blame to the Arabs for decades of rejectionism.
One area where I laud the Authors is in their acknowledgement that the Palestinians have never been willing to give up the “right of return” in its literal meaning where millions of Palestinians could decide to physically move into Israel if they so chose to, thereby “returning” to their “homes.” The authors unknowingly confirm what so many apologists refuse to acknowledge: Yasser Arafat did not reject the Clinton Parameters in January 2001 because he was under too much “pressure” or dozens of other invented excuses, but simply because the proposed solution did not grant the Palestinians the literal “right of return.” The Authors make this evident:
Palestinians had a variety of ideas about how to deal with the question of the return of refugees. But across the spectrum of those views, it was virtually universal that the right of those refugees to return was sacrosanct as both a national right for the Palestinian people collectively, and for each individual Palestinian. They would not tolerate their leaders giving it away at the negotiating table.[xxv]
They further explain that this message was not clear to most Israelis and outsiders who believed that “everybody knows” that the literal right of return would need to be sacrificed as the price of a negotiated solution. They also acknowledge that the BDS movement calls for “full recognition of the right of return” and not just the end of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank as many supporters of BDS claim. In this regard the Authors agree with Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz who outline in their recently published The War of Return that it is typically Westerners who seem to think that the Palestinians do not actually mean “right of return” in the literal sense and prefer to pretend that Palestinians already acknowledge that in final negotiations they will end up with more of a symbolic solution.
The book’s title thesis is that Israel is treated differently by progressives, an exception among those who advocate for progressive goals. The Authors urge progressives and liberals to remain morally consistent and stop treating Israel as the exception in order for Palestinians to gain their rights. However, in this regard the book totally fails since it provides no evidence that Israel is an exception, with absolutely no comparisons on how progressives treat any other conflict, oppressed people, or other situation around the world. A word search for China, Myanmar, Venezuela, and North Korea, found zero mentions. Russia was mentioned only once in passing. The top 10 crises in the world in 2020, according to the International Rescue Committee, were Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Nigeria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Somalia and Central African Republic.[xxvi] The Authors do not provide any discussion of how progressives treat these or any other terrible situations and contrast to Palestine to demonstrate how Palestine is an exception. In fact, the only issue in the world evaluated by the Authors is Israel-Palestine. A more accurate title for the book would therefore be: Only Palestine: The Sole International Issue We Obsess Over and Why You Should Too.
[i] A sample of the numerous errors, omissions and misrepresentations found throughout the book are as follows:
(1) The Authors state that the term hasbara is “technically translated as ‘propaganda.’” This is not accurate, hasbara technically and literally means “explanation.” The Hebrew word for propaganda is ta’amula. Hasbara is meant to describe Israeli efforts to explain the truth about Israel given the massive misinformation and demonization of Israel that is common. Calling it propaganda is a deliberate misrepresentation meant to denigrate the intent of hasbara;
(2) The Authors claim that Israel has not “faced an existential military challenge since at least 1973.” The authors seem to have forgotten about Iran, its quest for nuclear weapons and its specific proclamation that it intends to “wipe Israel off the map” and similar comments. As The New York Times reported: “Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful and aimed at energy development. But Israel sees it as an existential threat, since Iranian leaders have often called for Israel’s destruction.” (Iran Vows Revenge for Alleged Israeli Attack on Nuclear Site,” April 12, 2021);
(3) The Authors claim that Israel’s Nation-State law “explicitly states that Jewish settlement of the ‘Land of Israel’ (a phrase that includes the West Bank) is to be encouraged.” The law actually says: “The State views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value, and shall act to encourage and promote its establishment and strengthening.” It does not refer the “Land of Israel.” In fact, many supporters of the bill were displeased that the bill did not explicitly add the West Bank to this clause. (See “Israel’s hugely controversial “nation-state” law, explained,” Vox, July 31, 2018);
(4) The Authors explain that “…the demand for recognition even of Israel’s sovereignty—its “right to exist” within its defined borders—is problematic, as Israel has long refused to define its borders.” There is no evidence provided, and it is not factual, that Israel has “long refused to define its borders.” In fact it was the Arab nations following the 1948 War of Independence who insisted that the armistice lines not be construed as borders;
(5) The frequent use of exaggeration to describe Israel’s actions is evidenced in this statement: “Starting in September of 2000, the Second Intifada devastated much of the West Bank and Gaza” implying that a large portion of the West Bank was something akin to Dresden after its bombing in World War II. Nothing remotely of this sort occurred;
(6) A stark example of omission is the Authors’ rejection of comparisons of BDS to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in the 1930s. What the Authors don’t reveal is that in 2019 the German Parliament voted in favor of a motion that stated that BDS’s methods are anti-Semitic and specifically reminiscent of the “Judenboykott” or Nazi-era boycotts of Jewish businesses. (See “Germany designates BDS Israel boycott movement as anti-Semitic,” Reuters, May 17, 2019);
(7) A misrepresentation is the suggestion that the U.S. “undermined international law for Israel’s benefit” by using its veto power to shield Israel from 44 U.N. Security Council resolutions criticizing its behavior. What the Authors don’t disclose is the aggressive anti-Israel bias in the UN, evidenced by the fact that these 44 Israel focused resolutions comprise nearly half of all country-specific resolutions issued by the Security Council over the same time period. The U.S. simply exercised rational behavior against the obvious singling out of Israel;
[ii] Except for Palestine, p. 15
[iii] Except for Palestine, p. 16-17
[iv] Except for Palestine, p. 19
[v] Rebecca Shimoni Stoil, “Poll: 93% of Palestinians hold anti-Jewish beliefs,” Times of Israel, May 13, 2014; https://www.timesofisrael.com/poll-93-of-palestinians-hold-anti-jewish-beliefs/
[vi] Except for Palestine, p. 20
[vii] Petra Marquardt-Bigman, “Anti-Israel Activists Thrilled by Abduction of Israel Teens,” The Algemeiner, June 15, 2014, https://www.algemeiner.com/2014/06/15/supporting-terrorism-and-bigotry-at-the-electronic-intifada/
[viii] Ali Abunimah, “Why Israel won’t survive,” The Electronic Intifada, January 19, 2009, https://electronicintifada.net/content/why-israel-wont-survive/7999
[ix] Except for Palestine, p. 21
[xi] Except for Palestine, p. 45
[xii] Except for Palestine, p. 9 & 113
[xiii] YouTube video “A turnout of citizens on the markets and shops after the Interior Ministry’s decision to close markets and the movement of cars,” April 1, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVxNvNncoxo (See other videos from this YouTube channel showing busy Gaza streets); also see this documentary: “Visiting Gaza Strip as a Palestinian,” July 13, 2019, around the 17:50 mark, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJYS6Gf3hgY
[xiv] https://apaimages.photoshelter.com/image/I0000GI5iCnTvOSI and https://www.shutterstock.com/editorial/image-editorial/palestinians-shopping-inside-the-mall-of-arabia-during-the-first-day-of-its-opening-rafah-gaza-strip-palestinian-territory-30-dec-2020-11674187ap and video of mall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaIWMUwAPlw
[xv] The World Factbook, CIA, “Infant mortality rate,” https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/field/infant-mortality-rate/country-comparison
[xvi] United Nations, “Gaza Desalination Project,” https://www.un.org/unispal/document/auto-insert-202217/
[xvii] UNICEF, “EU and UNICEF inaugurate Gaza’s largest seawater desalination plant,” January 19, 2019, https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/eu-and-unicef-inaugurate-gaza-largest-seawater-desalination-plant
[xviii] European Investment Bank, “Bringing Water to Gaza,” May 2019, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwiKm4aj3PvvAhVkkuAKHYxEC0cQFjARegQIGBAD&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.eib.org%2Fattachments%2Fcountry%2Fbringing_water_to_gaza_en.pdf&usg=AOvVaw37bFHusPd5zFL62ofeRJu1
[xix] World Vision, “10 worst countries for access to clean water,” https://www.worldvision.org/clean-water-news-stories/10-worst-countries-access-clean-water
[xx] Avi Issacharoff, “Hamas spends $100 million a year on military infrastructure,” Times of Israel, September 8, 2016, https://www.timesofisrael.com/hamas-spends-100-million-a-year-on-military-infrastructure/
[xxi] Times of Israel Staff, “IDF completes underground anti-tunnel barrier surrounding Gaza, Times of Israel, March 5, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/idf-completes-underground-anti-tunnel-barrier-surrounding-gaza/
[xxii] Mark Lemant, “Pride and Prejudice: The Hellish Life of Gaza’s LGBTQ Community,” Times of Israel, June 25, 2019, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/palestinians/.premium-pride-and-prejudice-the-hellish-life-of-gaza-s-lgbtq-community-1.7403501
[xxiii] Fares Akram, “Hamas court says women need guardian’s approval to travel,” AP, Febraury 15, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/travel-middle-east-womens-rights-israel-gaza-strip-acc6bdb0383b43d5c13af594374ada88
[xxiv] Fares Akram, “Gaza man says Hamas forced him to divorce after torture,” AP, April 1, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/israel-middle-east-coronavirus-pandemic-marriage-gaza-strip-b0a7227afd5cba75173dddc9bbef8620
[xxv] Except for Palestine, p. 63
[xxvi] International Rescue Committee, “The top 10 crises the world should be watching in 2020, January 7, 2020, https://www.rescue.org/article/top-10-crises-world-should-be-watching-2020