Palestine: Imperative for Action

Bill V. Mullen

THIS TALK WAS given at the Socialism 2019 conference held in Chicago, July 2019.

Welcome, comrades. At the Demo­cratic Socialists of America (DSA) 2017 National Convention, delegates voted to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement for Palestinian rights.

BDS, as it is commonly known, is an international human-rights-based campaign calling for the return of stolen Arab lands, refugees’ right of return to their homeland (specified under United Nations Resolution 194), for equal rights for Arab Palestinians living in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and the removal of the Apartheid Wall that runs across the West Bank.

The BDS vote represented a significant step forward for DSA in its support for Palestinian human rights. It also represented a significant step forward for the growing socialist movement in the United States.

Since the 2017 vote, Palestinian politics have further entered the political mainstream, with the elections of Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress; Representative Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, a vocal advocate for Palestinian rights; and Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, who has said that reduction of U.S. aid to Israel should be “on the table” for Congress.

At the same time, U.S. support for Israel has deepened as a means of maintaining state stranglehold on regional power. President Donald Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has emboldened Israel and its supporters to dismiss past and present Palestinian claims to indigenous homeland.

Jared Kushner, meanwhile, has offered a $50 billion real estate package to the Palestinians, an offer Palestinian novelist Susan Abulhawa has compared to North American colonists’ gifting of smallpox-laden blankets to American Indians.

Meanwhile in Palestine itself, a moribund Palestinian Authority continues to lose power and authority, ceding its dormant will to popular resistance, like the recent Great Return March, which concluded with thousands of Palestinians marching from Gaza to the Israeli border, nearly 100 murdered in cold blood by the Israeli military.

The massacres have brought fresh attention both to the ruthless nature of Israel’s settler-colonial state, and the indomitable will of Palestinians to resist, resist, resist.

Contested Hegemony

Clear from this opening sketch is that what might be called the popular “hegemony” on Palestine is up for grabs. Even a stalwart Zionist mouthpiece like The New York Times has had to admit into its pages writers like Michelle Alexander who have used their op-ed voice to advocate for Palestinian rights. (“Time to Break the Silence on Palestine,” January 19, 2019)

Yet what must be said about this moment of contested hegemony is this: it exists BECAUSE of the long work the international Left, the Palestinian Left, and the U.S. Left have done to create it.

Indeed, recent events like the rise and success of the BDS movement are tribute to the historical fact that the international Left has ALWAYS been the strongest critics of Zionism, most stalwart advocates for Palestinian national self-determination, and general proponents of the Palestinian cause.

From the Black Panther Party of the 1960s, to the Black for Palestine Movement of 2015 (www.blackforpalestine.com), the Left project, broadly imagined, and the project for Palestinian self-determination have been co-constitutive.

In this context, I want to offer something like a 10-point program for how the U.S. Left, broadly conceived, might use its organizational and political capacities in this moment to advance Palestinian freedom, as well as its own role and influence in U.S. politics.

There are two mutually constituting goals of this presentation. One is to open discussion about specific tactics and strategies that have been used, or yet might be used, to build stronger Left support for the Palestinian freedom struggle.

The second, equally important, is to preserve, define and differentiate the role and responsibility of the Left from what might be called a liberal approach to the question of Palestine. Indeed, one of my arguments is that a creative, imaginative and politically principled approach to Palestine is critical to the continued definition, and success, of Socialism as a project in the United States, as well a key source for articulating a Socialist politics from below.

An Alternative to Liberalism

1) Palestine provides an important opportunity to break liberals from the Democratic Party and win them to Socialism. If we look at the Socialist renaissance in the United States, we can see how clearly it conforms to the rise of Palestinian human right politics. The first Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters in the United States were formed in the early 2000s; there are now more than 250 nationally, which include many self-described Socialists.

The International Socialist Organization, the largest revolutionary socialist group in the U.S. until its collapse earlier this year, was in the period of the early 2000s the strongest advocate on the Left for Palestinian self-determination, publishing important articles in both its newspaper, Socialist Worker, and in books like the 2002 Haymarket books title The Struggle for Palestine.

After the 2005 BDS call from Palestinian Civil Society, college-age activists especially began to include support for BDS in their repertoire of radical activism. Many of those people are those “under 30s” who now say in polls both that more support should be given to Palestinian self-determination and less to Israel’s Occupation, and who prefer socialism to capitalism.

This is no accident. Along with an education in Palestinian self-emancipation has come for this new socialist generation exceptionally critical insight into the dark marriage of the Democratic and Republican parties in providing aid, and political support, to Israel.

Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Presidential campaign began, tentatively, to open a window in the Democratic Party for a critical perspective on Palestine, for example, in his appointment of Cornel West to the Democratic National Committee platform committee. But he has not gone anywhere near far enough to differentiate himself from the Democratic Party on Palestine.

Sanders has not yet endorsed BDS, has repeatedly voted for U.S. military aid to Israel, and continues to insist he is “100 percent pro-Israel” even while offering tepid criticism of Israeli state violence.

Socialists must offer a clear alternative to both Sanders and the Democratic Party on Palestine. That alternative should include a demand for an end for all U.S. aid to Israel, unequivocal support for the BDS movement, the complete decolonization of historic Palestine, and a requirement that any candidates running for public office reject any funding from pro-Zionist groups like AIPAC.

Platforms like these will draw people out of the orbit especially of the Democratic Party. Interestingly, it is shades of these positions that candidates like Ilhan Omar (who supports BDS) and AOC (who has said aid to Israel should be “on the table”) have begun to endorse, all the more reason for the Left to differentiate its stances while pulling voters (and non-voters) further in our direction. If we wait for the Democratic Party to lead us out of the Occupation, we will wait forever, and Palestinians will continue to die.

2) Palestine offers a critical building block for a Left analysis of U.S. imperialism. Liberal analysis of Palestine repeatedly occludes the centrality of U.S. support for Israel as a “watchdog” in the Middle East and its wider status as a western imperial hegemon. In this context, it is critically important that the Left approach the question of Palestine via historical analysis of Israel’s formation as a proxy for western interests.

This includes U.S. military, economic and political aid since 1947, especially in the wake of the “Six-Day War” of 1967; Israel’s own military history of imperialism (the 1956 Suez invasion, support for South African apartheid); and finally, Israel’s occupation as placeholder for U.S. oil and strategic interests.

Indeed, any renaissance of a robust anti-imperialist politics in the United States can only be led by a strong Left that makes explicit how the liberation of Palestine would be a major blow against 70 years of post-World War II western empire. This is certainly the framework Leftists have available for study in the histories of the First and Second Intifadas, and the work of Palestinian Marxist groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Popular education classes using Palestinian writing on anti-imperialism — see for example the work of Gassan Kanafani (e.g. at Marxists.org, report on 1936-1939 popular revolt) — would also help bolster the Left’s capacity to articulate a forceful anti-imperialism with Palestine at the center.

Such an analysis would also help differentiate the Socialist Left from the Democratic Party, which continues to administer the world’s largest military empire in its role as history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.

Against War and Building Solidarity

3) Palestine is crucial to building a newer, stronger antiwar movement. U.S. threats against Iran, Israel’s primary official enemy today outside of Palestinians themselves, must be linked by the Left to the monstruous pro-war machine which underpins the U.S.-Israel political alliance. U.S.-Israel’s heavily financed suppression of Palestinians provides weight and ballast for military-style attacks by states on internal Muslim populations (see China and the Uighurs) as well as for aggressive state violence, like the Saudi bombing of Yemen.

Then, too, there is Israel’s own Dr. Strangelove status as a nuclear power, the fifth largest military in the world occupying stolen land and oppressed people, all while functioning as one of the largest manufacturers and distributord of military weapons in the world (both the United States and Israel are in the top ten in this category).

As I speak, Israel is dropping bombs within Syria. Israel’s last two wars against Gaza in 2008-09 and 2013 claimed more than 3300 Palestinians lives, most of them civilians, more than 700 of them children. Israel also encouraged the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Indeed, Israel’s heavily militarized state has become a model for new ethnonationalist regimes armed to the teeth — like Modi’s India — which in 2017 was the largest purchaser of arms from Israel.

A new antiwar movement can be built, must be built, by the Left, but should be articulated in part in relationship to the planetary military muscle exercised both in the name of Israel’s international standing and its domestic war against Palestinians.

4) Palestine offers a chance to form new broad Left solidarities with native, indigenous groups. In mid-September 201, the Palestinian Youth Movement, a self-described transnational, independent grassroots movement, sent a delegation of Palestinian young people to North Dakota to participate in Standing Rock protests. In a statement about the decision, PYM wrote:

“We found that it was necessary to show support and true joint-struggle solidarity in this time of native resilience. As indigenous people, we know what it is like to face settler colonialism, genocide, displacement, relocation, and environmental destruction to our own homeland. In addition, violence against both Native people and the environment is something that affects us all; water is a source of life, we all depend on water for our survival. Therefore, we must continue to stand together with our Indigenous siblings in the fight against corporate greed and the settler colonial state. This matter affects us all, after all, water is life.”

PYM’s allusion to indigenous land and water rights implicitly referenced the seizure and dispossession of Palestinian land by Israel, and the siphoning of precious irrigation waters by construction projects like the Apartheid Wall. Red Nation, a U.S-based indigenous collective, has repeatedly pronounced support for the BDS movement against Israel, and at its 2018 Native Liberation Conference featured a large banner commemorating the Nakba (the 1947-49 Palestinian catastrophe).

The Left’s support for indigenous land rights, water rights, and right to self-determination is essential. Indigenous self-determination movements like Red Nation are also an essential, critical part of the building of a broad U.S. Left. Palestinian liberation demands an inclusive, pro-indigneous, anti-colonial movement that respects and centers native lives, from the U.S.-Mexico border to the apartheid wall.

Such a politics can also lead to an anti-apartheid socialist-ecology of Israel’s occupation, underscoring that the most imperiled indigenous occupied place on earth today is Gaza, which because of restricted clean water access, according to the United Nations, will be potentially uninhabitable by next year.

5) Palestine can build and rebuild coalition with Black Lives Matter. If the health of Black radicalism is an index to the health of the broader U.S. Left, as my comrade Shaun Harkin once convinced me, then Black-Palestinian solidarity might be considered its own index. At least twice in the post 1967-period, immediately after the Six Day War, and after the 2014 invasion of Gaza and occupation of Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting, Black-Palestinian solidarity emerged as a critical theme for Left organizing and orientation.

In the first instance it was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Panther Party that called for joint solidarity with Palestinian self-determination movements as part of a wider Third World coalition-building.

After the Ferguson uprising of 2014, attended by Palestinian activists and watched by others from home, more than 1000 leading African-American activists and intellectuals signed their names to “Black for Palestine,” a scathing statement of solidarity co-authored by Kristian Davis Bailey (now employed at Palestine Legal here in Chicago) and Khoury Peterson-Smith, a long-time Palestine solidarity activist.

Support for the BBD Movement against soon, in turn, became part of the Movement for Black Lives Platform. We must not underestimate the importance of this solidarity to the Left. For example, the synergy of Black and Palestinian activism in 2015 informed the resolution brought to the DSA in 2017 to support BDS, the resolution itself citing the DSA’s endorsement of the Movement for Black Lives Matter platform and BDS’s own status as an “inclusive, anti-racist” movement as arguments for endorsement.

DSA itself is an example of an organization which can and should continue to concentrate efforts on advancing understanding of Black-Palestine solidarity through workshops, reading groups and public advocacy.

Gender and Ecology Struggles

6) A healthy socialist Left must stand against Israeli pinkwashing. The term pinkwashing, denoting what scholar Jasbir Puar called in 2010 Israel’s “Gay Propaganda War,” refers to Israel’s efforts to promote itself as the “only” gay-friendly state in an Arab Middle East atavistically opposed to queer modernity. Israel’s “war” fronts have included hosting the 2006 “World Pride” and sponsoring “Out in Israel” events in the United States.

Israeli pinkwashing provides the Left an opportunity to support a queer politics of liberation as part of Palestinian national self-determination struggle. Again it is significant, and not accidental, to note the triangulated growth in the United States of queer, Palestinian and socialist politics especially since the second intifada.

Where the LGBTQ movement has gone Left it has gone to Palestine — see Sarah Schulman’s book Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, or read trans Communist activist Leslie Feinberg’s writing on the subject. The Left also has a responsibility to speak truth about the actual conditions of gay and lesbian life in occupied Palestine to dispel western discourse both homophobic and Islamophobic.

Same-sex acts were decriminalized in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank in the 1950s and remain so today. The criminalization of homosexuality in Gaza, often pointed to by western and Israel sources to demonize ‘backward’ Arab states, derives from the British Mandate Criminal Code Ordinance, No. 74 set in 1936 during British colonial rule. The Palestinian Authority has not legislated either for or against homosexuality.

The task for the Left is to set out a pro-queer anti-apartheid politics that links the decolonization of Palestine to a wider imperative for gay modernization and human rights. Neither is possible under Israel’s settler-colonial occupation.

7) Palestine is a key to understanding revolution and counterrevolution in the Middle East. It is possible to understand the Arab Spring of 2011 as a regional intifada. In each of the main revolutionary countries — Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt — support for Palestinian liberation was a concurrent political demand within broader claims for expansion of democratic rights.

Similarly, the crushing of the Egyptian revolution in particular brought a thunderous retrenchment, near impossibility of public political criticism of Israel — Netanyahu and Egyptian presidentialist-dictator Al-Sisi are not only allies but authoritarians of the same feather) or support for Palestinian autonomy.

This Gordian knot is important for the Left to understand, explicate and untangle. Palestinians among populations across the Middle East have arguably paid one of the heaviest costs for the collapse of Arab nationalism and rise of authoritarian regimes, including Assad in Syria. Stateless, and largely without international representation, every repression of democratic uprising in the Middle East is a setback for the possiblity of Palestinian self-determination.

This explains the avid entanglements of the U.S., Saudi Egyptian and Israeli states as “brokers” of power in the region. Arguments for the return of revolutionary democracy in the Middle East — as witnessed by recent widespread protests in Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan — should be articulated by the Left as efforts to undo the entire 20th century history that created Mandate Palestine, Israel, and U.S. wars in the region from the Persian Gulf to Iraq.

Put another way, Palestine remains a symbol and totem of another historical possiblity for the outcome of popular democratic struggles itself unrealizable without the end of U.S.-backed Israeli settler colonial rule.

Palestine and International Socialism

8) Next to the fight against environmental catastrophe, the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment Sanctions Movement is the most important and significant global social movement of our time. The Left must be front and center in the movement.

Since 2013 in the United States alone, there have been more than 250 successful BDS initiatives. Internationally, BDS victory has taken the form of successful campaigns against the security behemoth G4S, support for BDS from the African National Congress, the National Union of Teachers in the U.K., the union of students in Ireland, and the Ontario division of Canada’s largest teachers’ unions.

There are two arenas where the Socialist Left can and should attempt to help lead BDS work. The first is university campuses. Since 2013, dozens of campus government bodies have voted for their university administrations to divest from corporations complicit in the Israeli occupation and military.

Campus BDS movements now often align queer, African-American, Latinx, Muslim, indigeneous and Jewish radicals in alliance. Palestine has become for today’s college generation what the Vietnam War was to a 1960s generation, a platform for explaining and protesting U.S. imperialism and defending national liberation struggles. A first step for Socialists looking to organize on campus is to join or help form an SJP chapter.

The second arena is the workplace. During the South African anti-apartheid movement which provided the model for the Palestinian BDS movement, the role of trade unions (especially COSATU, the Coalition of South African Trade Unions) was paramount. We need a full-throated campaign led by the Left to bring BDS politics into every trade union contract discussion, every union campaign for social justice, every fight for workers internationalism.

One important potential site for this organizing is teacher unions. As noted above, teachers’ unions internationally have helped lead workplace support for BDS. The General Union of Palestinian Teachers is one of the original signatories to the 2004 call for BDS from Palestinian civil society. We need to imagine the next American teachers’ strike as flying a BDS flag.

The U.N.-protected right to education for Palestinians should be placed beside the right of U.S. students, in much the way the Black Lives Matter movement set violent policing and racial profiling as common targets for Black-Palestinian solidarity. Teacher union campaigns for BDS can also lead to the necessary next step of developing Palestinian-centered curricula and lesson-plans for K-12 education.
9) Palestine is a gateway to a Socialist campaign for abolishing borders. Donald Trump famously modeled his dystopic border wall on the Apartheid Wall in Israel.

Israel’s hypersecurity state, its enclosure of Palestinians in Gaza’s open-air prison, and its vanguard experiments in policing and surveillance have made it a global model and touchstone for efforts in the United States and Europe especially to segregate, quarantine, refuse to admit and to deport Muslim and other dissident populations: see the Gaza-like concentration camps now operating along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Israel’s obsession with border-protection, boundaries and impenetrability has indeed become a template for a variety of ethnonationalist states rapidly throwing up barbed wire, and other border fences formerly unmarked, to deter arrival of new migrants and immigrants. According to USA Today, since the start of Europe’s migrant “crisis”in 2015 at least 800 miles of fence have been erected by Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia and Slovenia. (USA Today, May 24, 2018)

In this respect, the diaspora of five million Palestinians into the world after the Nakba and creation of Israel, the swollen plight of Palestinian refugees in camps both within and outside the 1948 borders, are tragic anticipations of the massive exodus of Syrian, North African, Central American and other Middle East refugees displaced by western imperialism, violence and neoliberalism.

10) Palestine and Israel’s Occupation can help us explain and fight the new far right. After his election in Brazil, neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro was quick to praise Israel and its Prime Minster Benjamin Netanhayu. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has deemed Israel a true friend, and neo-fascist Rodrigo Duterte was the first Philippines Prime Minister ever to visit Israel after his election. In each instance, Israel’s ethnonationalist state received sanction for what Dave Renton has called “new authoritarian” forms of government.

At the grassroots level, where fascism is also trying to make a comeback, support for Israel’s repressive regime often conjoins antisemitic Christian Zionism to Islamophobia. Neo-Nazi white nationalist and antisemite Richard Spencer openly praised Israel’s 2018 “nation-state” law declaring Israel a Jewish state and its Arab inhabitants second-class citizens. Israel, Spencer noted, was “showing a path forward for Europeans.”

Spencer has also pointed to Israel’s ethnonationalist state as the model for a state he would like to build, a fascist state. The Left has abundant responsibility in this moment to lead the fight against fascism by both denouncing antisemitism and supporting Palestinian liberation, while calling for the dismantling of Israeli apartheid.

In other words critiques of Israel’s ethnonationalist Occupation must be one part of our explanatory framework for denouncing the sweep of far-right movements across the world, including in the U.S. Or, as Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada puts it, if you are for the fight against fascism you cannot ignore the battle for justice in Palestine.

Fredric Jameson once quipped that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Israel’s capitalist setter-colonial regime in Palestine is an argument to imagine the end of both. As Adam Hanieh has documented, Israel’s Occupation is a paragon of neoliberal extraction, heavily financed by European, U.S. and Gulf capital.

Effects of Israel’s capitalization and monetization of the Occupation, especially since the 1993 Oslo accord, include increased exploitation of itinerant migrant labor (especially from South Asia); increased precarity and unemployment for Palestinian workers; and ramped up discipline against part-time Palestinian laborers who must cross through a heavy security apparatus in order to work.

Occupation neoliberalism has indeed become another model for hypercapitalist development tethered to massive exploitation of internal populations (see China, Brazil, India et al.) It is for this reason that the Socialist Left must point to the Arab working classes of the Middle East as a critical lever for change.

To return to the Arab Spring, worker protests against bread prices and austerity in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt then, and Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan now, carry with them the hopes of a Palestinian working class that’s now being choked to death by capitalist and colonial Occupation. Our call for a workers’ international to resist capitalism must include the often forgotten toilers of Palestine.

Left solidarity with the end of capitalist settler-colonialism in Palestine is a critical link in our fight for working-class emancipation everywhere. To repeat an old saying, as relevant to Palestine as anywhere else, an injury to one is an injury to all.

September-October 2019, ATC 202