The moment for this conversation has really finally arrived. We American Jews must embrace it, as we’re now an inseparable part of this issue. The defining moment occurred recently on Real Time With Bill Maher. The show’s panel discussed, among other things, Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweets suggesting that fellow members of Congress are bribed by pro-Israel lobbyists.
Panelist, singer-songwriter John Legend said “for too long, it’s been out of bounds for progressives to speak up for the rights of Palestinians”. The audience applauded. Yet it’s important to note that Omar never referred directly to “Palestinian rights”. Her point was about the power of the Israel lobby. Legend extrapolated that this was ultimately about her advocating for “Palestinian rights,” which has increasingly been used as a catchall term to define any and all critique of Israel, including rejection of its legitimacy.
The term “Palestinian rights” sets up a dangerously simplistic framing where you’re either for or against Palestinian rights. This handicaps a more nuanced discourse on this issue. If all accusations against Israel are framed as “support for rights,” any critique of those accusations comes across to well-meaning people as immoral, or “out of bounds”.
Just as “Palestinian rights” activists routinely lament that charges of anti-Semitism are incessantly used to stifle debate on Israel (which is nonsense), they are setting up that very framework. Just as most people would dread being accused of anti-Semitism, most people would dread being accused of rejecting, or even criticizing, a “movement for rights”. Indeed, the goal of Palestinian solidarity activists is to make their positions unquestioned.
This compels us to have a deeper conversation that goes beyond slogans. To be productive, public discourse on Palestinian rights must change in two important ways:
First, we must also talk about Palestinian rights, not just “speak up for” them. This is the time for real dialogue. We American Jews must demand it, because we’ve been implicated in a very public double indictment that Israel denies the Palestinians their rights, while its American Jewish supporters are paying off American politicians and silencing critics. Of course, Omar and other anti-Israel people didn’t use the word “Jewish,” but they know quite well the obvious conclusion most Americans would draw.
Second, when we talk about Palestinian rights, we cannot merely talk about them generically. Having an informed conversation about this subject should spark specific questions. For example, if I was on the Real Time panel, I would’ve asked “who tells progressives it’s out of bounds to speak up for Palestinian rights? Haven’t progressive politicians like Kucinich, Sanders, Warren, Feinstein and Obama (among others) criticized Israel and expressed support for the Palestinians, without censure?” More importantly, “what specific Palestinian rights are you referring to? Who is actually controlling the day-to-day rights of the Palestinians?” In actuality, it’s not the Israelis.
Palestinian Rights Must Be De-Coupled from Anti-Zionism
I am a Zionist, and I support Palestinian rights, but not the politicized version being pushed by today’s Palestine solidarity movement. It must be stated clearly that those pushing the Palestinian rights cause, as best embodied in the BDS “movement for Palestinian rights”, are thoroughly anti-Zionist. They believe that Zionism is a form of racism and colonialism, and its dismantling (through the obliteration of the State of Israel) is required for the fulfillment of Palestinian rights – whether they be human, civil or political.
In reality, Zionism is simply the belief that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state in at least part of the historic land of Israel. The problem that anti-Zionists face is that over 90% of Jews identify as Zionist. This is why BDS and other anti-Zionist groups reject dialogue with “Zionists,” but not necessarily with “Jews”. Adding to the confusion, a small but vocal minority of anti-Zionist Jews stand shoulder to shoulder with this rejection of mainstream Jewish identity.
So what we have here is much worse than accusations leveled against Israel. We have a self-declared rights movement implicitly accusing Jews of obstructing the fulfillment of the rights of others. By keeping mainstream Jewish voices out of this very public discussion, American Jews are being turned into social pariahs. This is by design.
Most Jews agree that efforts to destroy Israel (the world’s largest Jewish community) and label its supporters “racist,” are indeed anti-Semitic, or to put it in plainer English: bad for Jewish people. Yet if Israel’s existence, as it is falsely framed by anti-Zionists, is predicated on denying rights to the Palestinians, then it inevitably leads people to conclude that Israel’s very existence is the problem. That’s precisely their nefarious goal.
Anti-Israel Hypocrisy Over Palestinian Rights
One doesn’t need to identify as a Zionist to believe that the Jewish state is not only compatible with actual Palestinian rights, but is the only guarantor of them. Indeed, justice for Palestinians and justice for Israelis are not mutually exclusive goals. Most reasonable people understand there are two distinct societies (Jewish, and Arab-Muslim) in that land wishing to remain separate. Neither are going anywhere, and it’s only a giant waste of time, resources and lives to pretend otherwise. Continued struggle against the Jewish society (Israel) bodes poorly for Palestinian society, which will never be able to reach its full human potential if its political elites and their enablers like BDS keep them on a perpetual war footing against Israel.
The fact is that the rights of the Palestinian people are controlled by their authoritarian leadership, from human rights to civil rights to political rights:
— Human Rights
It’s quite out in the open that both Hamas (Gaza) and Fatah (West Bank) promote, glorify and financially incentivize individual martyrdom (through rockets, bombings, shootings, car-rammings and stabbings) as a religious duty against Israelis. They know that this forces average Palestinians to endure the resulting and justified Israeli defensive responses, such as arrest operations and security restrictions. This raises the casualty count and makes for effective imagery for the anti-Israel cause. Under Hamas and Fatah, the human rights of Palestinians are thus completely expendable, given value only so far as their PR worth on TV and social media.
Furthermore, for 70 years, Palestinian descendants of refugees from the 1948 war have been kept by Palestinian leaders (not Israelis) in refugee status, living in squalid camps…in Palestine. Think about that: refugees already living in their own homeland are dependent on foreign aid because of their “refugee” status. Palestinian “rights” advocates condone this misery for Palestinians until they’re provided with a “right of return” to towns inside Israel from where their grandparents fled. Clearly, politics and not human rights, are the driving force.
— Civil Rights
While civil rights for Palestinians is the responsibility of Hamas and Fatah, these governments deny average Palestinians basic liberties and opportunities we take for granted (freedoms of speech, press, assembly, etc.). It’s much worse for Palestinians living in surrounding nations like Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, where they’re kept in squalid refugee camps, denied citizenship, and denied employment in most industries.
— Political Rights
With both Hamas and Fatah rejecting “normalization” with Israel, they also reject the economic, health and infrastructure cooperation offered by Israel, which would vastly improve Palestinian lives. These political leaders aren’t hurt. They take the billions in foreign aid, pocket it or spend it on terrorism. But the bigger picture is that with the continual rejection of peace with Israel, the occupation cannot end and Palestinian statehood cannot be realized. Moderate Palestinians are silenced and left out in the cold.
When even well meaning Israel critics speak of Palestinians rights, they are either clueless about these facts, or mock them as pro-Israel talking points unworthy of discussion. For this zombie-like mindset, we have BDS to thank.
Engaging with BDS
As BDS is the contemporary iteration of anti-Zionism, we American Jews need to understand BDS, and have conversations about its stated demands; to publicly question whether these demands affirm Palestinian rights, or deny them; whether they’re based on international law, or a cynical misreading of it. No doubt, the stewards of BDS are serving other long-range goals, such as the destruction of the State of Israel.
We must continually reassert the truth, and call out BDS’s deceptive language. For instance, Marc Lamont Hill recently at the UN demanded a “free Palestine, from the river to the sea,” (meaning: Israel disappears) and then a few days later declared his frustration at being labeled “anti-Israel”. This reflected the dangerous newspeak used by so-called progressives in service of a regressive and destructive movement. Anti-Zionists needn’t self-identify that way anymore. Now they merely identify as “pro-rights”. They attempt to spin their advocacy as an attempt to “reform” Israel, or to ludicrously “de-colonize” it, not to destroy it. This is an obvious smokescreen.
We need to hold them accountable, not by relying on labels like “anti-Semite” or “Hamas supporter”, but by asking the right questions. For example, “How would BDS’ policy demands play out? How would they affect the lives of Israelis and Palestinians? Are these demands based on international law? Is there Palestinian consensus on BDS?” These don’t make for good protest slogans, but this is a conversation not a shouting match.
As BDS has moved into mainstream spaces, it is vital that the mainstream Jewish community meet it there and engage with those questions. The Jewish community should anticipate rejection of this engagement, and must be prepared to talk to anyone who will listen, and to make the strong and valid case to the community at large that Palestinian rights – whether human, civil or political – are best served through compromise, not continued war.
These are hard conversations. But we have no choice. These false narratives against Israel, and by extension its millions of Jewish supporters, are so gravely serious that mantras, slogans or pro/con op-eds fall short of the honest public conversation urgently required.
We American Jews must not only embrace this conversation, we must actively lead it.