A challenge facing pro-Palestinian politics in the USA
A national march and rally sponsored by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is scheduled to be held in Washington, DC June 10th. Commemorating the 40th anniversary of the "6 Day War" between Israel and several Arab states, and the resulting Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, the march seeks to bring attention to the on-going plight of the Palestinian people and US complicity in their prolonged suffering.
Pro-Palestinian politics in the USA has faced a series of difficult challenges. Virtually every criticism of Israeli intransigence and US collusion is met with charges of alleged anti-Semitism. Consider, for example, the outcry that accompanied the publication of former President Jimmy Carter's provocatively-though correctly-entitled book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Leaving aside that scholars and human rights activists around the globe-including from within Israel-have drawn appropriate comparisons between the Israeli occupation and South African apartheid, the more important fact was that anti-Palestinian forces wished to frustrate any broad dialogue on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. One means of undermining such discussions, to which I would like to call attention, was a shrewd tactical ploy: accusing President Carter of supposedly not giving greater attention to the Holocaust in his book.
It is worth pausing here for a risky moment to consider this attack because it has been used-and not just with President Carter-as an ideological trump card in many discussions of the on-going Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The Holocaust, though not unprecedented in modern world history, was unique to pre-World War II Europe in one critical sense. As the noted writer Aime Cesaire put it so brilliantly, speaking of the European: "â€¦what he [the European-my note] cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the 'coolies' of India, and the 'niggers' of Africa." [Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000, p.36. Emphasis in original.]
Cesaire's statement helps one grasp why it was that there was silence in Europe and North America at the annihilation of 10 million Congolese under the whip of Belgium's King Leopold; the genocide against the First Nations/Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere; and the Turkish genocide against the Armenians. Simply put, these groups did not count; they and their experiences were irrelevant precisely because these groups were either not European or allegedly not 'civilized' Europeans (depending on how one understands the ethnicity of Armenians).
The terror of the Holocaust has been used since World War II to justify the colonial creation of the Israeli settler state. Did the Jews deserve a state as compensation for the crimes committed against them by the Nazis, compounded by the global silence? Absolutely! But the choice of Palestine and the construction of a state on top of a pre-existing social formation reflected the sort of settler mentality found in other settler states, e.g., the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. From the settler framework, history begins and ends with the experiences of the settlers. Even the Irish, oppressed by Britain for hundreds of years in what the Irish aptly describe as "racial oppression" (the proto-type, according to the late US Marxist scholar and activist Theodore Allen, for the system of white supremacist rule imposed on colonial North America), allowed too many of themselves to become foot-soldiers for settler states when they fled the horrors of their own persecution, ignoring the similarity between the oppression that they had suffered and that which they helped to perpetuate.
President Carter's book on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict did not address the Holocaust for a very good reason: the Holocaust cannot and never will justify the destruction of the Palestinian people being carried out by the Israeli state. Yet this fact remains highly controversial in the USA in large part because the settler mentality that would ignore the pre-existing social formation of the Palestinians and, therefore, proceed to divide up their land without a modicum of consultation with their people, is the same settler mentality that justified bacteriological warfare (under the auspices of 18th century British general Lord Amherst); the Trail of Tears; Wounded Knee; the seizing of Oklahoma after it had originally been granted as a homeland, against the First Nations/Native Americans here in the USA.
Thus, elaborating pro-Palestinian politics in the USA runs smack against the construction and reality of the racial-settler state mentality that both the USA and Israel share in common. This, in addition to the lack of a firm, pro-Palestinian constituency in the USA, helps to account for the monumental challenge for pro-Palestinian forces here at home. The expansion of a pro-Palestinian movement, particularly in a post-9/11 environment, therefore necessitates a strategy analogous to the anti-apartheid solidarity movement, but with very important qualifiers. For the purposes of this commentary, I will reserve my suggestions to this one area, i.e., the active deconstruction of the settler myth.
In the case of supporting the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, there was no constituency in the USA that had significant ethnic linkages with the Afrikaaners in South Africa. Even though the Afrikaaners, as part of their settler myth, liked to present themselves as victims of history, this simply did not pass the straight face test in any portion of the world. People came to understand the realities of the apartheid settler state without truly understanding the system of settler states. Thus, the blatant oppression of the Black majority by the white minority became more and more difficult to explain, even when attempts were offered to introduce Cold War politics.
In the case of the Palestinians, the situation is markedly different. The Nazi genocide against the Jews will never be forgotten. The combination of the existence of a Jewish population in the USA with ties to both the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, along with the reality that Europe and North America largely ignored the pleas for help against the Nazis, thus joins with a settler framework that is completely blind to the Palestinians because their-the Palestinians'-reality is considered irrelevant, or at best, secondary, to the reality of those who suffered under Nazism. The work of progressive and Left forces in the USA who are pro-Palestinian must emphasize that the past (and in some cases, present) persecution of one group does not justify displacing an uninvolved third party from their land. The settler's reality is not the reality, but is only a portion of a total equation. Restricting one's vantage point to the problems of the settler condemns one to supporting the 'right' of the settler to preserve their existence irrespective of the methods and consequences. Not only is this morally bankrupt but it is also politically insane since the final result will be interminable war, and quite possibly, mutual destruction.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time labor and international activist and writer. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.