Zionism is the Issue:
Building a Strong Pro-Palestinian Movement In the US

By Lana Habash and Noah Cohen
January 2005

"...[W]e are losing the media war," said Colonel Daniel Reisner, head of the international law branch of the IDF Legal Division, in an interview in the Fall 2002 Harvard Israel Review. "...It takes a long time to explain Israeli settlements to the uninitiated..."

In fact, Israel would have definitively lost the propaganda war a long time ago if the matter had been left entirely to its right-wing supporters within the US and Israeli political establishments. Faced with images of refugee camps buried in rubble from Israeli missiles, children attempting to hold off tanks with stones, and Palestinian cities surrounded by prison walls, our political leaders can think of nothing to say but the empty formula, "Israel has a right to defend itself." Such phrases do not even emanate from the brain; they are a reflex reaction to any criticism of Israel. Since thought is no longer involved in framing this mainstream discourse, such leaders are incapable of adapting to the more and more widespread recognition of Israel's racism and its genocidal policies against the Palestinian people.

This is why Zionist critics of Israel have become so crucial in the effort to maintain support for the colonial regime. In a speech before the Jewish Federation in New Orleans in March of 2004, Alan Dershowitz acknowledged the seriousness of the current climate of opposition: "On 50 percent of American campuses there is not a single, not one, professor who is prepared publicly to speak on behalf of Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish, Zionist state. It is not cool to be a Zionist on campuses today in America." He thus recommended to university students attempting to build support for Israel on US campuses that they must gain control of both sides of the discourse, and thus "assert the label pro-Palestinian." At this point, the primary work of ensuring that no serious opposition emerges within the US against an untenable apartheid regime is performed by these self-appointed "pro-Palestinians," who criticize Israel's most extreme actions while simultaneously asserting its "right to exist," and--more importantly--denying any action to Palestinians that effectively exacts a significant cost upon Israel.

This crucial work of support shows itself most dramatically in the anti-war movement, where it is primarily carried out by "Middle East" or "Palestine/Israel" peace groups and task forces. These groups have succeeded largely in keeping the discussion away from clear positions of support for the Palestinian struggle as an anti-colonial liberation struggle against racism and apartheid, in favor of one with positions like the following:

In general, the most important function of the Zionist pro-Palestiniansis to enforce two boundaries in the discourse:

  1. the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state;
  2. the illegitimacy of violence against Israelis.

These two positions form a litmus test for inclusion in the forums of the "peace movement." One is regularly asked to demonstrate a commitment to these two points before one is allowed to give a speech at a rally or a talk in an educational community event.

To talk about the inherent racism evident in Israel's foundation and formation (which necessarily brings into question its international legitimacy) or the necessity and legitimacy of an armed anti-colonialist Palestinian resistance goes outside the bounds of this discourse. When these boundaries are broken, the limits are reinforced through a series of accusations ranging from "anti-Semitism," on the one hand, to "ideological purism," "sectarianism," and "divisiveness," or, at best, being "impractical" or "not strategic" on the other. The first of these accusations tends to be made by ideologically committed Zionists; the last, by well-intentioned people who consider themselves representatives of the "tactical left," persuaded that they must maintain an alliance with left-Zionists for the sake of credibility or other strategic gains. In this case, the left-Zionist position maintains its dominance precisely through such an alliance: without the tacit support of non-Zionists or anti-Zionists (in some cases cowed by the threat of the accusation of anti-Semitism, in some cases kept in line by an argument about the limits of "realism") this dominance would be broken by those who reject Zionism as a form of racism.

As a result of the ascendancy of this alliance between left-Zionists and the "tactical left," Palestinians and other anti-Zionists and non-Zionists are faced with poor options for participation in movements for Palestine solidarity. For a Palestinian, there is always political space for participation as a victim, as long as one offers only stories of human rights abuses, but steers clear of any analysis. When Palestinians question Israel's legitimacy or advocate for resistance that exacts a serious cost on Israel, they are accused of not supporting the peace agenda. "Peace" in this case is understood as maintaining the safety and security of Israeli citizens while Palestinians are subjected to racist domination and control. This leads many Palestinians and anti-Zionists to withdraw their support and consequently their voices from a broader movement that they find deeply racist and lacking in a strategy for liberation.

The tactical left's understanding of strategy bears some scrutiny. Palestinians bring a knowledge of nearly seventy-five years of direct experience with the failure of "strategic concessions." From the Palestinian strikes of the 1930's to the first and second Intifadas, the practical concessions that Palestinians were told would help liberate what was left of Palestine have consistently and systematically been transformed into mechanisms for crushing resistance and facilitating colonization. The case of Oslo is a good example. As the popular civilian uprising of the first Intifada gained momentum and international solidarity, the practical effect of Oslo was to accomplish what Rabin's "Iron Fist" policy could not--crushing a popular civilian resistance. At the same time, the only long-term effect on the ground was the effective imprisonment of the entire Palestinian population through the creation of Israel's infrastructure of military bypass roads and checkpoints, paving the way for further colonial expansion in the form of settlements. The situation has grown steadily worse for Palestinians through this "peace process" no matter who has been in office, be it Labor or Likud in Israel or Republican or Democrat here, or whether the movement's call was to "support the Roadmap," "end the occupation," or "support a two state solution."

A Palestinian friend in the West Bank said at the time of the Aqaba summit in 2003, "When Israeli political leaders start talking about peace, we start storing food and water." While Israel escalates its military offensive in the West Bank and Gaza, and reaches new levels of horror in the technological refinement of its system of collective punishment through closure, the "peace" discourse grows ascendant throughout the entire ideological spectrum of Zionism. And yet this peace discourse is not merely a way of concealing the reality of policy, it must be seen as a strategic retreat in the propaganda war--a retreat to a line of defense in the face of historical circumstances that challenge the nature of the Israeli state. The simultaneous increase in militarism and ethnic cleansing, and the ascendancy of the rhetoric of peace, are both expressions of a fundamental crisis. It might therefore be useful to examine the significance of the two basic tenets of the discourse--the legitimacy of the state of Israel and the illegitimacy of violence against Israelis--within current history.

On the legitimacy of the state of Israel

Half a century of victorious anti-colonial struggles offering immediate parallels to the liberation struggle in Palestine have changed the nature of the international debate about colonialism, settlement and racism. It is no longer possible for Zionists to speak openly in the language of "manifest destiny," as Jabotinsky could do in the 1920s--both acknowledging the resistance of native people to settlement, and justifying the need to crush that resistance by violent means in the name of expanding a white civilization. In the aftermath of Algeria and South Africa, white settlement is no longer acceptable as destiny--neither morally nor in terms of force. Even some in Europe and the United States came to see the Algerian resistance against a settler community--one of much longer standing than the one in Israel--as justifiable "by any means necessary." The campaign of international solidarity that worked to isolate South Africa as a pariah state--and ultimately to make Apartheid a crime against humanity--stands as an obvious threat to Israel, the last colonial state that practices racism by law.

On the level of propaganda, defending a colonial-settler state that defines itself in ethnic/religious terms is ultimately a losing battle. The majority of the world's people reject colonialism; their global consensus has been to oppose Zionism as a form of racism--the position that reemerged as recently as 2001 at the UN Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa. Those within the imperial nations who have allied themselves with anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles will adopt this same consensus when the question is framed in terms of colonial history.

For Israel's defenders, it is thus crucial to shift the debate away from this terrain. The question must instead be about a timetable for the implementation of UN resolution 242; or about the application of the Geneva Conventions to the West Bank and Gaza; or about the limits of civil liberties for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship; or about the feasibility of a limited recognition of the right of return, possibly through a form of compensation etc. etc. Criticism of Israeli policy is not only admissible, but necessary: a line of battle must be drawn around issues like these, and must be hotly contested by passionate adherents pro and contra, in order to ensure that it does not move onto the terrain on which Israel is destined to lose the battle--its illegitimacy as a state built on racism and land-theft.

On the illegitimacy of violence against Israelis

The second Intifada marks a point of departure for the tactics of the Palestinian resistance. Although the great bulk of popular action still follows many of the forms that characterized the first Intifada and the long history of resistance before that--from non-compliance with unjust authority to armed resistance against military targets--military operations inside the Green Line have assumed a significant role. For the first time, Israelis living in such places as Tel Aviv or West Jerusalem have become objects of retaliation for the violence of settlement and occupation. The logic is clear: Israel has used a spurious claim of the need to maintain a "security" zone in order to justify its ongoing hold on the West Bank and Gaza; meanwhile, it has moved forward with a program of land confiscation, settlement and territorial expansion. Armed settlers have been given free rein to commit atrocities against Palestinian civilians; the army moves in to clear territory in the name of "security" whenever the process of violent settlement meets opposition. The resistance has turned this framework of justification back upon Israel: so long as the occupation continues, formerly "secure" territories will now be at risk; the expansion of the Zionist state will bring violence and insecurity into its own center.

The current praise of the first Intifada as "non-violent" is a striking departure from its description at the time: every form of resistance that is effective is called illegitimate and "violent." When Palestinians were able to exact a cost upon Israel through mass demonstrations and work strikes, Israel responded with devastating violence--a shoot-to-kill policy against the leaders of non-violent demonstrations, mass arrests, the "iron fist" policy of crushing the bones of young men and boys suspected of throwing stones at tanks. It then moved to eliminate Palestinians from the labor force, replacing them with settlers from Eastern Europe. Today the chorus of praise for the tactics of the first Intifada grows deafening, but only as a foil for the tactics of the second Intifada--tactics developed in the face of current necessity.

The second Intifada must be demonized precisely because it has been effective. In a recent interview on al-Jazeera--marking the fourth anniversary of the second Intifada--Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered the following comments: "What is the Intifada in its five years of existence? What has it accomplished to [sic] the Palestinian people? Has it produced progress toward a Palestinian state? Has it defeated Israel on the battlefield?...the Intifada has spawned terrorism and it has not achieved anything in these years, except the economy of the Palestinian communities has deteriorated, life in general has deteriorated, the Israelis have built fences to deal with this question, it has stopped us from being able to move forward with the many peace plans that we have put forward."

Powell's need to minimize the significance of the second Intifada on the international stage is a clear sign of its achievements; his very use of the word Intifada, almost never uttered by members of the US political establishment, reveals the success of the resistance in setting its own agenda. In light of the U.S. and Israeli concept of "peace" demonstrated by Oslo--a peace which meant expansion of the area under Israeli control with a minimum of Israeli casualties and a minimum of international attention--Powell's statement is a very high, if inadvertent, tribute: The second Intifada has succeeded in stopping the US from "moving forward" with such a "peace plan."

Powell's comments also reflect a growing desperation among US and Israeli officials facing resistance movements now in both Palestine and Iraq that will not yield to any amount of force, and that are deaf to the seduction of negotiations and "peace processes" aimed at co-opting their leadership and undermining popular momentum. None of the age-old colonial tricks have worked in stopping either the second Intifada or the Iraqi resistance--neither the carrot nor the stick. Israel goes on demolishing villages or walling in cities; the US proposes its "Road Map to Peace," or sham elections for an occupation government; the Israeli Labor opposition proposes its Geneva Accord plan for Palestinian Bantustans; the resistance moves forward with a single purpose: strike the occupying force until the cost is more than it can bear.

The fact that the second Intifada has not crystallized its gains in the form of "diplomatic" or "political" achievements, as referred to by Powell, is a mark of its strength. Colonial regimes do not negotiate themselves out of existence in the interest of peace; they yield land when the cost of holding it--measured in lives and in privileges--is too high for their foot soldiers and their ordinary citizens to bear.

At the start of the second Intifada, Sharon promised to crush the uprising within "one hundred days." Four years later, the most salient features of the current political reality are as follows:

Under these pressures, Israel now routinely engages in spasms of genocidal aggression--destroying whole villages, burying refugee camps in rubble--but for the first time, it has suffered significant losses. This has spawned a "peace movement" within Israel, concerned, like the peace movement in the US, primarily with minimizing the colonizer's own casualties.

A man in a village in the south of the West Bank near Khalil (Hebron), one of the areas hit hardest by settlement and by closure, put the matter succinctly in a recent conversation. Asked how people in his village were coping with the economic devastation wrought by the more than four years of closure imposed since the beginning of the Second Intifada, he said:

"It gets worse and worse; it's very hard. But this isn't the first time we've had to deal with occupation. We have been living with colonialism and resisting it for a long time now. We had checkpoints under the British. We know how to live from the land; we know how to share what we have; we know how to survive. But for the first time, they too are suffering. I don't think they know how to cope with this."

In the face of this reality, solidarity activists must carefully assess their role. The primary tactic of repression is collective punishment aimed at isolating the resistance from popular support. If the international peace community offers its solidarity only on the condition of the Palestinian renunciation of armed struggle by condemning both sides equally, then its "solidarity" easily becomes a part of the counterrevolution. When non-violent peace activists stand with Palestinians at checkpoints or during the olive harvest--both to be a shield against violence and to bear international witness--the value of their solidarity is compromised if it is tied to a call for Palestinians to lay down their arms. Ultimately, land will only be reclaimed by raising the cost of holding it; there is no long-term protection from settlement and the violence of settlement as long as Zionists maintain their hold on land in Palestine.

Building Palestine solidarity

One can draw divergent lessons from the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. On the one hand, the international anti-Apartheid movement demonstrated the possibility of building a successful international movement on broad anti-racist principles aimed at materially and politically isolating a racist regime. When the movement in the US against the South African Apartheid system started to gain momentum, American activists did not denounce isolated acts of repression but legitimize the white South African system as "democratic."They did not support partition of South African indigenous land as a practical solution even if South African indigenous people rejected Bantustans.

On the other hand, the solidarity movement--with its overwhelming emphasis on pacifism and its attempt to frame the struggle against colonialism within the boundaries of a non-violent struggle for civil liberties--contributed to an international climate in which the ANC was pressured to negotiate peacefully with colonial landholders. Such negotiations have led to a situation in which Apartheid laws were defeated, but economic and resource Apartheid not only remained intact, but appear to be growing. Such recent developments as the privatization of water resources--with disastrous consequences for the native majority--illustrate the crucial failure of an anti-colonial struggle that fails to liberate land from settlement.

Palestine solidarity activists who wish to support a struggle for liberation can learn from both the successes and failures of past movements.

The task that lies before us in the United States is to build a movement that is genuinely pro-Palestinian. This means at least two things: opposing Zionism and supporting Palestinian resistance.

1) Building broadly on anti-racist principles

The discourse on colonialism and racism developed through the anti-Apartheid movement, and shared by anti-globalization activists who oppose neo-colonial economic conquest, offers an existing framework in which to build on anti-colonial and anti-racist principles. Such a framework can provide the means of supporting the full spectrum of Palestinian rights within the existing Palestinian communities: the rights of refugees evicted from their land in 1948 and in 1967; the rights of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who live in unrecognized villages, who pay taxes and receive no resources, whose homes are razed for the expansion of neighboring Jewish settlements, who are not allowed to organize themselves politically to oppose the definition of the state as one that fundamentally excludes them, and who are subject to military occupation whenever they rebel physically against racism; and the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who live under constant military occupation. The attempt to build a movement that focuses exclusively on the last--the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza--plays directly into the hands of those who wish to split various Palestinian communities from one another and who have no strategy for winning significant rights for any of these communities. It lends itself to co-option by left-Zionists whose fundamental interest is in bolstering the state that they also criticize. Building a broad movement means building with those who share a common opposition to racism, and thus breaking the alliance with left-Zionists, since this alliance ultimately serves a racist agenda.

Israel's Law of Return and the Absentee Property Law of the 1950's codified the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in the state of Israel. Palestine solidarity activists should educate people about this legal framework as a form of Apartheid. The solidarity movement should assert the idea that racist states do not have a "right to security" or a "right to defend themselves." The role of the Palestine solidarity activist should include working to create insecurity in states committed to racism and genocide.

Inevitably, any attack on the legitimacy of the state of Israel results in spurious accusations of anti-Semitism. Our movement must have a strategy for dealing with such attacks that exposes rather than propagates racism. Unfortunately most Palestine solidarity groups deal with spurious charges of anti-Semitism by doing exactly what Israel expects and needs them to do--they engage left-Zionists to support Palestinian rights by promising support for the legitimacy and security of Israel. Instead, Palestine solidarity should be exposing the history of Zionism as a political movement that is deeply rooted not only in racism towards indigenous Palestinians, but in anti-Semitism and fascism in Western Europe. Instead of promoting an alliance with left-Zionists, Palestine solidarity should be building alliances with anti-racist groups and with others who are fighting against colonialism and for indigenous rights. For this reason, it's important to point out the history of Israel in propping up other racist colonial projects--for example, supporting the white regime in South Africa and channeling arms to pro-US dictatorships in Central America. Similarly, the role of Zionist organizations in the United States in opposing progressive movements should be exposed--for example, ADL's infiltration of leftist groups and collaboration with police and federal agents in the 1980's in San Francisco.

2) Supporting the resistance struggle of the indigenous people, as defined by the indigenous people

Palestine solidarity must build solidarity with Palestinian resistance. Not a dunum of Palestinian land will be freed without a cost to those who now occupy it; no rights worth mentioning will be won without liberating land. In the famous phrase of Malcolm X "by any means necessary," the operative word is "necessary." A solidarity movement that demands of the Palestinian people that they choose tactics of resistance that result in devastating costs for the Palestinian community, without significant cost to Israeli occupiers, can't be considered solidarity.

The US anti-war movement has repeatedly fallen into this trap: it has either explicitly denounced both the Palestinian and Iraqi resistance or has made its support for the self-determination of Arab people contingent on how they resist colonial oppression. By making itself the arbiter of appropriate tactics, it has denied the right of people facing genocide to determine the best methods at their disposal to inflict upon their oppressor a cost the oppressor is incapable of paying. The anti-war movement has not yet proven its ability to stay the hand of oppression, yet it has arrogated to itself a right to intervene in the tactical debate about opposing this oppression.

As part of the movement builds broadly on anti-racist principles, so should a sector of the movement play a strategic role in building support for the Palestinian resistance. These two areas of work must function in parallel. Participation in a broader movement should not be contingent on one's willingness to denounce the resistance in Palestine. To ask Palestinians and other Palestine solidarity activists to silence their support of resistance only furthers the agenda of people who have an interest in keeping the resistance isolated.

Freedom for Palestine will not come as a result of a solution imposed by the U.S., Europe, or any other power: it will come from a struggle for liberation waged on the ground--both in Palestine, and in the region surrounding it--or it will not come at all. A solidarity movement that is genuine must find effective ways to support that struggle.

Lana Habash and Noah Cohen are activists with the New England Committee to Defend Palestine.