"If it’s not helping, then shut the f--- up."
Palestinian and Israeli leaders of the Jewish-Arab social movement Standing Together are building the basis for a shared future, and they have a message for the US left.
Last night, I had the privilege of spending the evening in a Soho loft listening to Alon-Lee Green and Sally Abed, two of the leaders of Standing Together, the largest Jewish-Palestinian-Arab social movement in Israel, address a group gathered by the New Israel Fund’s vice president of public engagement, Libby Lenkinski. Green and Abed are here in the United States on week-long trip around the country, bringing a very different message than the zero-sum, polarized #IStandWithIsrael vs #IStandWithPalestine debate that is currently tearing apart so many of our communities. And so, though trauma hung in the air throughout the evening and much pain was expressed—the pain of 1,400 loved ones killed or taken hostage on October 7, the pain of 10,000 killed in Gaza since, the pain of the Nakba and the Holocaust—the mood in the room was warm and welcoming. As Lenkinski, an inspiring leader (and personal friend) who has been diligently working to build a humane and effective progressive force in Israel for 20 years, put it in her opening remarks, “We are here for something that feels possible and shared, outside of the polarity we’ve all been experiencing.”
Abed, a resident of Haifa who describes herself as “Palestinian, feminist, socialist” on her Instagram page, started out with a discussion of Standing Together’s theory of change. “We need a new political current in Israel, a new story,” she said. “Our mission is to build a new majority around peace, equality for all, and ending the occupation.” This, she said, could only come about by convincing Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, that it is in their interest to do so. How? By building a distributed movement with thousands of members organized in local chapters across the country and in the universities, one of the few places other than Israel’s so-called “mixed” cities where young Israeli Jews and Palestinians meet as peers.
This, she noted later in the evening, was a different approach from the old left in Israel, which was led largely by prominent Jewish intellectuals who offered their solidarity to their Palestinian lessers, not equals, and who tended to prefer “standing outside the system and giving moral lectures” over building a social movement addressing people’s lived experiences. While the current crisis is front and center in their work, and de-escalating the rising inter-communal tensions inside Israel their main priority, the group has a longer range plan that includes developing new leaders and helping them run for local office, a stepping stone towards national politics. (For more on Standing Together’s theory of change, go here.)
Here's how Standing Together weaves anti-occupation and pro-equality work into a message that can reach beyond the choir:
“The current socio-political reality in Israel is unbearable. Unending occupation feeds violence, fear, and hatred between Israelis and Palestinians. Economic inequality is widening. Poverty is deepening. Israel’s Palestinian minority faces increasing discrimination. Women, Mizrahim [Israelis who trace their roots to Arab countries], immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, the elderly, and people with disabilities are marginalized socially, economically, and politically. Working people must labor for ever longer hours at stagnating wages while the cost of living continues to soar even higher. Rather than seriously address these problems, our political leaders use fear and racism to divide us. Instead of providing genuine security solutions, they deliver never-ending wars. Rather than serve the majority, they look out only for the rich. Our government is increasingly disconnected and corrupt. Israeli society is in a deep crisis.”
Like Abed, Green is not a newcomer to political organizing in Israel. In 2011, he was one of the leaders of the country’s “social protest” movement, an echo of the Occupy and Indignado flowerings that grew to huge proportions there, mobilizing half a million Israelis at its peak. But that movement was effectively neutered after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (yes, he’s been there a long time) appointed a commission of economists to study the problem of growing inequality and people folded up their tents and went home. In 2015, after Netanyahu declared that he planned to forever control “all of the territory” and that “we will forever live by the sword,” Green decided to try to build a vessel that acknowledge the pain of both Israelis and Palestinians, that could grow and absorb people from both communities simultaneously and set them together on a different path. “We are fortunate to be in this catastrophic moment with an organized movement,” he said last night, “one that can keep people in the middle.” (I thought ruefully to myself, if only we had something like that here.)
Green and Abed proceeded to give a very worrisome report on life inside Israel now. “On October 7, Hamas committed a massacre,” Green began. “They had no mercy. Our society is in a very deep state of trauma. People feel unsafe in their own homes.” And since then, on top of the 10,000 killed by Israel’s invasion of Gaza, he added, “Some political forces are losing no time to advance the craziest, messianic ideas imaginable.” While Israel wages war with Hamas, another war is being fought over what kind of society Israel will be, between a “Jewish supremacist government” that wants to undermine the country’s independent judiciary, narrow its democracy and give Jewish settlers free rein to terrorize Palestinians in the West Bank, and the kind of tolerant, open and equal civil society Standing Together is fighting for.
Itamir Ben-Gvir, the far-right minister who oversees the country’s police forces, has handed out 24,000 guns to local “civil defense” groups inside Israel, backed by groups who want to stoke tensions between Jews and Arabs. These same groups are also targeting leaders of Israel’s pro-democracy movement, calling them “traitors who should be hung from the highest tree,” for how they supposedly weakened the country before the Hamas attack, Green added. To respond, Standing Together has been building Arab-Jewish solidarity groups and posting its distinctive purple-colored posters reading “together” in Hebrew and Arabic everywhere it can. In the last week, it has organized four solidarity rallies in mixed cities across the country like the one shown above, giving people a place to mourn together and offer each other mutual support. “What we can do is try to de-escalate the violence and hostilities between the two communities,” Abed noted, “which also humanizes the other in the process.”
This is exceedingly important work, and it is being made more difficult by a growing crackdown on Palestinian free speech inside Israel and a hardening of Jewish Israeli public opinion as the war expands. “If you follow ‘News from Palestine’ on your Instagram account, someone can take a picture of that and report you,” Green said, “and then you can lose your job, or get expelled from university.” This is happening by the thousands, he added. Abed chimed in: “Palestinians in Israel are trying to erase themselves right now,” fearful of having an opinion or expressing solidarity “with our people.” This concerns her greatly, because Israeli Palestinians have a crucial role to play in building a new peace camp.
But as world opinion turns harshly against Israel, Jewish Israelis who feel they have to defend themselves from Hamas’s terrorism are being radicalized in the other direction. “On the evening news, it’s becoming normalized to say that we should wipe out all of Gaza,” Green worried. “The question is whether we can remain human and moral in this moment.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Green and Abed don’t lead with words like “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing” or “apartheid”—I’m not even sure they used them once last night. They are serious people trying to actually get something done.
A World With Just Two Options
“We are in a world with just two options,” Green declared at one point. Either an “endless war, an endless cycle of blood,” or an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement. And to give that second option a chance, he and Abed both are bringing a critical message to progressives in America: The zero-sum game of competing oppressions, of competing unilateral claims to justice, is doomed. Green was vociferous on this point. “The whole of Israeli society is being completely overlooked” in the global debate over the war, he said. “And no one is going anywhere. The only question that needs to be asked is how we can live together.”
People like him in Israel are very aware of how the left here is talking about them, and it’s not helping. “You can call me a colonizer or a settler,” he declared, “but I’m not going anywhere. And neither are the Palestinians.” When people chant, “Palestine will be free,” he said, “we Israelis hear, ‘without you.’ In the same way that a lot of Palestinians hear the ministers in Bibi’s government speak and think they want to do the same thing to them.” The problem as they both see it is that we are caught between two polar opposites. “Hamas believes in Greater Palestine,” Green said. “And on the other side we have people who believe in the idea of Greater Israel.” Indeed, that concept is in the charter of Netanyahu’s Likud Party. “Both sides have very problematic governing bodies,” he added. And the status quo of maintaining the occupation and managing the conflict has been exploded now.
Abed denounced the academic left’s pronouncements on the conflict. “It’s so theorized—colonized and colonizers—without any connection to how you build a change on the ground.” Green cut in, “We are not here to entertain you,” alluding to how performative the pro-Palestinian protest movement appears to him. “We are going to stay here.” I asked them how they, as people on the left, had managed to avoid the simplistic binary that sees the Israelis as the oppressors with more power and the Palestinians as the oppressed with less power, which leads to acting like the oppressor can do nothing right and the oppressed can do no wrong.
“We live together,” Abed said. “I know the conversation here. And I have decided to take responsibility for my society, instead of just saying ‘Free Palestine.’” She paused, and then offered an example of what her lived reality of Jewish-Arab solidarity actually felt like. “One of our leaders in Standing Together, Chaim Katzman, he was at Masafer Yatta [a collection of Palestinian villages in the southern West Bank that the Israeli government is demolishing] every week.” Her voice caught. “And they [Hamas] shot him dead.” Everyone in the room heaved a little. Abed apologized for “triggering” anyone’s trauma and a woman seated near her responded that she needn’t apologize, that we are all “triggered as fuck.”
Abed gathered herself. “Other than proving you are more right, what is your mission?” Abed asked of the Palestine solidarity movement. “If it’s not helping, then shut the fuck up.” She went on, “The damage it is doing to our work; it’s fueling so much hate.” In her view, the more shrill the language deployed against Israeli policies or the country itself, the more hardliners in the government and in public opinion are strengthened. “The global left has to be synced with what we need. Holding a sign with the Israeli flag in a garbage can—how does that help at all? Other than making you feel righteous. It’s heartbreaking to me how distant I feel from Palestinian-Americans here.”
If you are despairing most of the time about the possibility that we can reverse the cycle of violence in Israel/Palestine, and perhaps also tamp down the idiotic, performative holier-than-thou left that seems hell-bent on proving that it can hurt Democrats enough to elect a truly genocidal madman, take the time to learn more about Standing Together. They’re speaking tonight at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City at 7pm, which you can watch live here. And maybe throw them some money too.
How to Talk About the Conflict
Related to all this, consider this messaging guidance from the brilliant Anat Schenker-Osorio. A few key snippets:
-Lead with humanity and the basic value of safety; not a listing of atrocities that cause many to turn away rather than engage.
- Use precise language in calling out villains. This means always specifying the leadership responsible for atrocities and not impugning all Israelis or Palestinians as a people.
-Judge people by their actions, not their identities.
- Do show how specific people made choices that led to the immediate and long-standing problems.
-Don’t attribute responsibility to abstract concepts – for example, “occupation,” “terror,” or “Zionism.” People cannot organize or take action against ideas; but they can take concrete steps to alter the behaviors of decision makers in power.
- Help your audience locate themselves in the story: show how the interests and needs of Israeli and Palestinian people in the region are shared, avoid narrative traps that pit one group against the other, and show how the American government is involved and can be part of a solution.
Odds and Ends
—Three cheers to Indivisible for deciding to get off Twitter/X, which they say “has become a megaphone for a bigoted and conspiratorial billionaire, propped up by a subscription scheme that amplifies the voices of transphobes and white nationalists who agree with him and muzzles his critics.” They say Elon Musk’s decision in September to scapegoat Jews for his platform’s decline was the inflection point leading to their decision. It’s not a complete abandonment—they will continue to use their account to amplify Indivisible groups and partners, but they’re removing its icons from their website and emails, reducing what they post to an absolute minimum, and creating migration guides to help people move elsewhere.
—In case you need a reminder of what’s at stake next year, The Washington Post reports that “Donald Trump and his allies have begun mapping out specific plans for using the federal government to punish critics and opponents should he win a second term, with the former president naming individuals he wants to investigate or prosecute and his associates drafting plans to potentially invoke the Insurrection Act on his first day in office to allow him to deploy the military against civil demonstrations.”