Friday, January 6, 2012

Internationalism or International Solidarity

In the fight for Palestinian national sovereignty, the left has forgotten its commitment to internationalism.

Recent studies, such as those conducted by Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, have demonstrated that young American Jews are defecting in droves from the Zionist movement once supported by the parents and grandparents.  Peter Beinart discussed this phenomenon at length in his now well-known and often - quoted essay, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, writing, “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”  Countless surveys and polls have reaffirmed this, indicating that fewer and fewer young American Jews view the state of Israel as an important part of their Jewish identity.  According to Luntz’s study, American Jews not only “reserve the right to question the Israeli position” and “desperately want peace,” but also “empathize with the plight of the Palestinians. Beinart noted “the only kind of Zionism they [young American Jews] found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs.”  This trend has the potential to be an enormous opportunity for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) , as well as the broader Palestinian solidarity movement, to make significant inroads into the American Jewish community.  However, this potential will never be realized as long as the movement for peace and justice in the Occupied Territories continues to fight against one form of nationalism with another. 

At anti-war and alter-globalization demonstrations around the world, the Palestinian solidarity movement has become a fixture.  Indeed, the struggle of the Palestinians has been taken up by the left as a struggle against tyranny and imperialism, and rightfully so.  However, in entering into solidarity with those suffering in the West Bank and Gaza, many on the left have checked their internationalism at the door.  The keffiyeh, once the trademark garment of Yasser Arafat, has become a symbol of Palestinian solidarity and is ubiquitous at demonstrations.  Once a clearly nationalistic symbol, the keffiyeh has been globalized, with many of its wearers unaware of its historical and political history.  Naturally, the Palestinian flag has also become a mainstay of left-wing protests. Yet, more often than not, it is not the Palestinians who are clad in keffiyehs brandishing the black, white, green and red flag, but leftist students and activists – many of whom have never been to Israel, let alone the Occupied Territories. In fact, it is not uncommon to see at protests around the world, black-clad anarchists marching alongside billowing Palestinian flags. The left, traditionally opposed to all forms of nationalism, has embraced Palestinian nationalism and, consequently, nationalistic rhetoric and imagery.  Even those most opposed to nationalism and the power of state have accepted the language, not of a struggle for liberty and equal rights, but of hard-line and even religious nationalism. 

It appears that many on the left have forgotten that it is possible to oppose the principles of Zionism and the actions of Israel without endorsing the diametrically opposite stance from the Palestinian side of the conflict.  Last year, at the Socialism 2010 Conference, hosted by the International Socialist Organization in Chicago, a discussion to be led by speakers such as Tariq Ali was preceded by chants of “intifada now” by activists and students brandishing large Palestinian flags.  Not a single speaker took the time to remind the activists and students that the use of explicitly nationalistic language and imagery not only contradicted the idea of internationalism but also constituted the use of an equal but opposite evil to the Zionism that they claimed to oppose. 

This inability of the left to separate itself from the Palestinian nationalist camp is indicative of the broader failures of the BDS and solidarity movements. Outside of leftist circles and academia, the BDS movement is essentially non-existent.  This is particularly pronounced in the United States, where college campuses are largely the only bastions of criticism of Israel’s human rights record and its treatment of the Palestinians.   The marginalization and even isolation of the BDS and solidarity movements, evinced by the ease with which the movements are written off in both the Jewish community and the mainstream media, is precisely because it has couched the struggle in the language of nationalism rather than in the language of universal human rights. This has ostracized vast numbers of people who would otherwise be sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, specifically young American Jews, who tend to be liberal and politically aware. 

It is necessary to understand that the same factor that causes young American Jews to oppose Israel’s actions prevents them from engaging with the BDS and solidarity movements: nationalism. Likewise, the increasingly vocal segment of the Jewish community opposed to Israeli policy is not the result of a seismic shift that has rendered these young students anti-Zionists. Rather, these young Jews have been repulsed by the belligerent and morally compromised positions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.  Using the same terminology, albeit from the different side of the conflict, will not lure these disaffected young Jews who are often ideologically opposed to hard line nationalism. That which repulses them about the current state of Zionism is identical to that which makes the BDS and solidarity movements currently untenable.
It is one thing to condemn violence against those in the Occupied Territories, and to oppose Zionism ideologically, but it is entirely another to adopt Palestinian nationalism as a method of political resistance.  The real antidote to the poison of nationalist violence in the Middle East is not more nationalism but a renewed commitment to internationalism.

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