The most recent spasm of Israeli violence against the Palestinians has produced some remarkable responses. One is the rebirth of the solidarity movement in the United States, which had been all but dead for the past few years.
Unfortunately, this has led to a proliferation of utterly ahistorical nonsense emanating from the solidarity camp. The Palestinians don’t need lies told on their behalf because it poisons solidarity efforts. Given how meticulous the Israeli hasbara propaganda industry is, dishonesty ultimately helps the opposition. It is absolutely insane to gift talking points to the Israeli foreign ministry to only win rhetorical slam dunks in the hermetically-sealed ideological circle jerk of social media accounts that passes for much of the American Left.
I came across the headline “Anti-Zionism is a Rejection of Racism and Imperialism, Not Just Criticism of Israel,” a decent statement about the shortcomings of Jewish Voices for Peace, an organization that I am likewise pretty wary of. But that headline is simultaneously dishonest and ahistorical, as are some of the claims made by the writers, because there are plenty of instances where Middle Eastern political leaders have spouted racist garbage.
In 1982, Mahmoud Abbas, then a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization and now president of the quisling Palestinian Authority, wrote a Doctoral thesis in the Soviet Union that denied the Nazi holocaust had occurred. In December 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosted a Holocaust denial conference in Tehran and invited David Duke to the proceedings.
During the past decade, there’s been a minor civil war within the US solidarity movement. Fortunately, it had the good sense to excommunicate from the fold various white nationalist crackpots and opportunistic grifters who use the movement as part of their grand crusade against the “Zionist Occupied Government” and other nutty conspiracy theories.
For understandable but unethical reasons, many mistakes have been made by people in solidarity with the Palestinians. Those mistakes offer important lessons that Western radicals need to learn. I personally have made my own mistakes in this regard so I say this from experience.
Anti-imperialism and anti-colonial nationalism are regrettably not anti-racist by default. Recall as a counterexample that, in the 1930s and 1940s, a significant number of Irish Catholic nationalists both at home and abroad (and including the Kennedy family) fell madly in love with Hitler’s antagonism towards the British Empire alongside his rantings about a “Judeo-Bolshevik world conspiracy.” This pattern of behavior was repeated across the old British Empire and incubated fascist groups like India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological formation that birthed current Indian PM Narendra Modi.
Papering over these failures and gaps is tantamount to erasing teaching tools at a moment when so many newcomers are being mobilized to support the cause. Even though anti-Semitism has ceased to be a major force causing immiseration of American Jews, the religious minority with the highest accomplishment and social privilege in the US, that doesn’t preclude people from harboring race-based prejudices.
The only hope lies in putting your faith in the power of truth and honesty. As Norman Finkelstein has said:
The Bigger Truth can only grow out of little truths. Lies cannot contribute to a Bigger Truth, they contaminate it. If one starts tolerating little lies, they quickly multiply and the Bigger Truth metamorphoses into a Big Lie. The inevitable exposure of the little lie throws into question the Bigger Truth… A movement comprised of the dispossessed must husband its scant resources. It can ill afford the wastefulness of lies. A state compensates for errors and delusions with the superabundant resources at its disposal. In a radical movement clarity of mind must compensate for lack of resources. The crucial prerequisite for being grounded in reality is truthfulness. Once leaders start resorting to lies, so do their followers. The resulting disorientation leads to material squandering and often prefigures defeat.
To take one example, Danny Haiphong, whose work I find interesting on occasion, wrote a column making the argument that the refusal of the Palestinian solidarity movement to make common cause with the Syrian Ba’ath Party is wrong, if not a CIA COINTELPRO op. [Editor’s note, Ken Silverstein: Andrew respects Haiphong’s work. I do not. I detest his conspiratorial, utterly loony politics, in particular his pathetic apologias for any anti-US government.]
I don’t have the time or space to grapple with everything that is mistaken in Haiphong’s polemic but, boiled down, it goes like this: Palestinians know their own experience better than Haiphong and other pro-solidarity naifs who claim to advocate for them. The Syrian Ba’ath Party has done the Palestinians dirty — including executing and torturing them in large numbers — multiple times over the past 75 years. These instances of terrible behavior continue up until the present day.
The Ba’ath Party openly despises the Muslim Brotherhood, an international political project whose Palestinian affiliate, Hamas, has many flaws but governs the Gaza Strip in the face of one of the most vile, criminal, and sadistic blockades of recent history. When President Bashar al-Assad recently hosted a summit of Palestinian leaders in Damascus, he conspicuously did not invite a single member of Hamas, which isn’t exactly role-modeling international solidarity. It appears that Assad can’t bring himself to express any genuine solidarity with Gaza due to his own domestic repression of the anti-Ba’athist Syrian Muslim Brotherhood over the last several decades. So why should the US Left demand that Palestinians side with their own executioner, as Haiphong insists?
This sort of moralizing, naive posture is both paternalistic and divorced from the realities of regional politics. Since the Nakba began in 1948, there have been secular and Islamist governments that have done great but mostly horrible things to the Palestinians.
Lebanese Hezbollah, an Islamist party, has been far better than the Lebanese Phlangist Party, the ostensibly-secular Christian party responsible for the vicious 1982 massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila. (Despite this, many Palestinians are highly critical of Hezbollah, which they believe hasn’t done enough.)
The theocratic Iranian government has been pretty reliable in its solidarity with the Palestinians while the Syrian Ba’ath Party has not. The Wahhabist Saudi Arabian monarchy has stopped hiding its military alliance with Israel after decades of having feigned solidarity with Palestinians. The Palestine Liberation Organization was transformed almost overnight from a secular liberation movement into a den of secular collaborators after the 1993 Oslo Accords. (So disastrously, in fact, that the late, great Edward Said publicly distanced himself from the garbage dump the PLO became.) The whole reason that Gaza is under a blockade in the first place is that in a 2006 election its citizens rejected secular Fatah in favor of Islamist Hamas.
The American Left tries to impose its 20th century Cold War Washington-Moscow binary reference points onto these matters in a very mechanical manner. However, regional geopolitical developments are steered by the complexities of an ongoing Cold War between Tehran and Riyadh. This dispute will not end with some glorious proletarian revolution, despite the fondest, dumbest dreams of some claiming membership in the solidarity movement, because that’s not what history — as well as cultural, religious or political realities — foretells for either country. The Iranian government would be very happy to be reintegrated into the global financial system while the Saudi royal family continues to be a disgrace to the human species. Self-determination includes respecting the right of groups to not affiliate with other people and organizations. Respecting those nuances and divisions makes things more complicated but far more ethical and responsible.
If anything, developments in the region are headed for even more chaos as catastrophic climate change makes it impossible for people to survive in increasingly volcanic temperatures. The Syrian civil war and resulting refugee migration crisis in the European Union began in part because of droughts caused by climate change. That’s a mild preview of the humanitarian crisis that awaits us in the next few short years.
Solidarity advocates should be preparing for climate refugees to emigrate to parts of the Global North that will remain habitable as the climate crisis intensifies. That kind of internationalism is far more valuable and useful for the people of the Global South than the shallow rhetoric of Haiphong and kindred “allies” of the Palestinians, especially as we know that capitalism is already drawing up its own nightmarish plans.
Dismantling imperialism, of which Zionism is a garrison, is a primary obligation, there’s no denying that. However, simultaneously we need to be smarter and more sophisticated than what a good chunk of the solidarity movement has ever contemplated.