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No Place to Stand
How pro-Palestinian, "anti-colonial" progressives are painting themselves into a corner, and damaging the prospects for a left that matters in American politics.
During a week where the far-right has gotten inches away from elevating Rep. Jim Jordan to the position of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the broad center-left in America ought to be up in arms about an unindicted insurrectionist being two steps away in the line of succession from the presidency, and about MAGA madness preventing the government from doing any of the people’s business. Instead, in the wake of Hamas’s brutal October 7 attack on Israel, we are mainly dealing with people with tiny or no constituencies claiming to speak for the “left” and getting far too much attention for ideas that have very little credibility in American politics.
Any left that condones or excuses or lionizes the massacre of civilians as “resistance” is not a left worth supporting. It shouldn’t be hard to say that you condemn what Hamas did. And yet, it’s also not hard to find people and groups avoiding that simple statement, or invoking convoluted reasons for refusing to say it, or, in a few cases, celebrating the attacks. Expressing solidarity with Palestinians is one thing, but if you combine that with silence or, worse, overbroad and uninformed generalizations about Israel, well, as Emma Goldman said, I don’t want any part of your revolution.
The thing is, as Meir Pa’il, a leader of the Israel left for many years, once said, "It is not enough to be right. You also have to be smart." But he was a politician for most of his active life, and so he had to get votes and build coalitions if he wanted to get anything done. The people pushing progressive Jews to silence their own legitimate identification with Israel as the Jewish homeland, or to stifle their doubts about the intentions of Hamas and to only center Palestinian aspirations, have no such concerns. They can be as pure as the driven snow, and all they are managing to do is make it exponentially harder for us to have a decent left in America.
I’ll just give one fresh example that landed in my in-box yesterday, an email from the “team” at BeautifulTrouble.org, which curates an amazing toolbox of resources for social change organizing that started out as a book with the same title and is now a multilayered website. The email was titled, “Collective Liberation Means Ending Apartheid, Settler Colonialism, and the Occupation of Palestine.” Here’s an excerpt:
We are writing today with heavy hearts.
We begin by acknowledging that the ancestral pain, sorrow, and grief brought by the violence in the region today is a continuation of a harsh historical reality. For over 75 years, the Palestinian people have been resisting relentless Zionist dehumanization, ethnic cleansing, forced displacement, land theft, and colonization. The only way to achieve a lasting, just peace is to address the root causes of the struggle.
We stand in solidarity with the millions of voices calling for collective liberation through an end to Israeli apartheid. The struggle of Palestinians is connected to the struggles of Indigenous and oppressed people around the world, which demands of us, as people of conscience and creative social justice fighters worldwide, to take an intersectional approach while committing to decolonization to stop the bloodshed.
Appalled by what’s happening and unsure what to do? We can follow the leadership of Palestinian activists and answer their urgent cries to immediately stop war crimes and collective punishment by mobilizing where we are. We have curated a set of theories, principles, methodologies, and actions that might help you bring beautiful trouble into solidarity actions.
No mention is made of how this latest chapter in the cycle of violence began, though the email includes the image of a bulldozer demolishing the “apartheid fence” as an example of “the future we wish to see.” Silence is consent, one must assume.
What’s truly bizarre about this email from Beautiful Trouble is how much, in its posturing and sloganizing about decolonization, apartheid and the like, it ignores hard lessons about self-marginalization and self-righteousness that the book’s original authors sought to impart. Those include:
Maintain nonviolent discipline: “Non-violent methods put the oppressor in a decision dilemma: either rain pain on a bunch of unarmed resisters or capitulate. The former can turn public opinion toward the protesters and undermine the legitimacy on which the oppressor’s power rests. If the resistance persists, escalating crackdowns can start to backfire, even to the point that the police or military refused to participate. Eventually the sovereign has no choice but to capitulate. This basic logic frays, however, as soon as the resisters start meeting violence with violence. If the opponent succeeds in portraying resisters as a threat to peace and order, it escapes the decision dilemma, reasserting its legitimacy by playing the part of protector, of securer, of stabilizer. Unless you can scrounge up enough guns to match the military’s firepower, your movement is toast.”
Beware of the political identity paradox: “Any serious social movement needs a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages its members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment and sacrifice over the course of prolonged struggle. Strong group identity, however, is a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from society. This is the political identity paradox….The tendency toward isolation can escalate very quickly in political groups, as oppositional struggle…can foster an oppositional psychology. On the one hand, participants need to turn to each other more than ever for strength and support. They feel a compelling cohesiveness to their group identity in these moments of escalated conflict. On the other hand, they need to keep outwardly oriented, to stay connected to a broad and growing base.”
Spectrum of allies: “Movements seldom win by overpowering the opposition; they win by shifting support out from under it….Evaluating your spectrum of allies can help you avoid some common pitfalls. Some activist groups, for instance, only concern themselves with their active allies, which runs the risk of ‘preaching to the choir’ — building marginal subcultures that are incomprehensible to everyone else, while ignoring the people you actually need to convince. Others behave as if everyone who disagrees with their position is an active opponent, playing out the ‘story of the righteous few,’ acting as if the whole world is against them. Yet others take a “speak truth to power” approach, figuring that through moral appeal or force of logical argument, they can somehow win over their most entrenched active opponents. All three of these extreme approaches virtually guarantee failure. Movements and campaigns are won not by overpowering one’s active opposition, but by shifting each group one notch around the spectrum (passive allies into active allies, neutrals into passive allies, and passive opponents into neutrals), thereby increasing people power in favor of change and weakening your opposition.”
Anger works best when you have the moral high ground: “Anger is a double-edged sword. Or perhaps it’s more like a water hose: It’s full of force, it’s hard to control, and it’s important where you aim it. There is a crucial difference between moral indignation and self-righteousness. Moral indignation channels anger into resolve, courage, and powerful assertions of dignity. Think: the civil rights movement. Self-righteousness, on the other hand, is predictable and easily dismissed. Think: masked 16-year-olds holding a banner that says ‘SMASH CAPITALISM AND EAT THE RICH.’”
And finally, If you are not uncomfortable, your coalition is too small: “In search of allies and pragmatic points of agreement, we must learn to engage with people whose values differ from ours.”
I see none of these lessons being applied by the various groups and individuals who have taken to the streets and the tweets to declare their opposition to genocide, ethnic cleansing and settler colonialism. It is all moral posturing, not strategic organizing.
And it’s worth noting that very few organizations that do serious electoral or community organizing in America have joined the rush to protest and judgment. Indivisible, for example, has kept its focus on domestic issues like the threat to democracy, Senator Bob Menendez’s need to resign, the ongoing fight over the Wisconsin judiciary, the Ohio abortion rights referendum coming up in November, and the like. Yes, they’ve tweeted about the civilian crisis in Gaza and in support of a timely letter from 55 House progressives led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal calling on the Biden Administration to do more to save innocent lives. And they condemned the initial Hamas attack and the toll Palestinians have paid from the occupation and Gaza blockade. But not a word about Israeli apartheid or decolonization.
People’s Action, the national grassroots organizing network, has stayed focused on the massive investments in jobs and infrastructure promised by the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS Act and other key legislation passed while the Democrats controlled the House, while pushing their “organizing revival” effort and targeting greedy health insurance companies. Like Indivisible, they have signaled their support for the Jayapal letter, but they’ve avoided diving into any of the charged discussion over Israel’s policies or nature. Way to Win, the progressive donor network, has offered a few similar comments about the Gaza crisis and Hamas attack, but they too have tried to keep a focus on the MAGA chaos in the House. VotoLatino hasn’t tweeted a word about the Middle East, just about bad Republican decisions in the Middle West. The NAACP has just focused on domestic issues. Other than the United Electrical workers and a few tiny Starbucks union locals, no labor union has waded into the conflict.
The Working Families Party, which to some degree is in competition with the Democratic Socialists of America in terms of who has more pull with local elected officials in various urban centers, tweeted out a longish statement on the crisis Friday, balancing outrage at the Hamas slaughter with the worrying signs of collective punishment being inflicted on millions of Gazans. But they too did not describe the Israeli government as genocidal or illegitimate. Instead, it concluded with a call for “de-escalation, a cease-fire & adherence to international law.” In the current context for some Democrats, any call for such things is seen as akin to abandoning Israel. So the WFP is being brave and true to its progressive values. But it’s not worrying only about “being right.” Its need for electoral success also makes it want to “be smart.”
To conclude, I highly recommend two statements that were published yesterday, the first by a group of Israeli academics, thought leaders and progressive activists, and the second by a group of American and international academics, many of them Jewish. Together both statements show that one can easily both condemn Hamas’s brutality and oppose the collective punishment of Gazans now and the ongoing oppression of Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza. But what differentiates these statements from the tide of decolonial posturing coming from the far-left is their insistence that, like any sovereign nation, Israel has every right to defend itself from Hamas.
As the signers of the Israeli statement sum up, “The seventh of October is a dark day in the history of Israel-Palestine and the lives of the peoples of this region. Those who refuse to condemn Hamas's actions do immense damage to the prospects of peace becoming a viable, relevant political option. They weaken the left’s ability to present a positive social and political horizon, turning it into an extreme, narrow, and alienating political force. We call on our peers on the left to return to a politics based on humanistic and universal principles, to take a clear stance against human rights abuse of any form, and to assist us in the struggle to break the cycle of violence and destruction.”
—Related: One of the ways this conflict resists being boiled down to the simplicity of an anti-colonial resistance struggle: Palestinian Arabs who identify as “Palestinian-Israeli,” like Nusair Yassin, aka Nas Daily, a video maker and marketer with 65 million followers. After the October 7 attack, he shared that he had realized that “if Israel were to be ‘invaded’ like that again, we would not be safe. To a terrorist invading Israel, all citizens are targets. 900 Israelis died so far. More than 40 of them are Arabs. Killed by other Arabs.” He added, “And I don’t want to live under a Palestinian government.” He still supports Palestine and wants an independent state, but his home is Israel, and now he identifies as Israeli first, Palestinian second.
—Worth re-reading if you missed it the first time: David Schraub on “Why Left Anti-Semitism.” A snippet: “The paradox of left anti-Semitism is that it indicts Jews for allegedly not showing up, and then pulls out all the stops in order to prevent Jews from showing up. It condemns Jews for not joining the struggle, and then it condemns Jews for asserting that the struggle is ours.”
Odds and Ends
—Congrats to Marci Harris and her PopVox Foundation, which is welcoming Demand Progress’s “First Branch” team: Daniel Schuman, Taylor Swift, Chris Nehls and Gabriela Schneider. As they note, “Our new alliance is a natural progression from coalitions and work we’ve collaborated on dating back nearly 15 years. Daniel and Gab from Demand Progress Education Fund first found common cause with POPVOX Foundation CEO Marci Harris when she was a congressional staffer with a plan to revamp constituent engagement systems and Daniel and Gab helped usher in a new era of civic tech and open data while at the Sunlight Foundation.”
—The recent national election in Poland shows that democracy can make a comeback against authoritarianism, Anne Applebaum explains in The Atlantic (gift link).