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What Israel/Palestine 'Hot Takes' Have Revealed
From the center, to liberals and the left, blind spots and callous calls. And a deep schism inside the progressive movement.
A note to readers: Given the cataclysmic events of the last few days in Israel/Palestine, I’m probably going to be writing a bit more than usual about that topic than some of the other issues that usually animate The Connector. I promise I will return soon enough to longstanding concerns like the state of Democratic organizing, tech’s role in society, and movement-building. That said, even if you aren’t much interested in the Middle East, here are three reasons why any progressive, grassroots, pro-democracy person should pay attention.
First, because the US plays a huge role in the region. Second, because the region is a tinder box, and any Middle East war can escalate dangerously. And third, as I will touch on today, there’s a real fault line inside the American progressive ecosystem over how activists and organizations handle the hot potato of Israel/Palestine. Right now, that tension is turning into a schism, as many American Jewish progressives are discovering, to their dismay, that some of their allies think that Saturday’s attacks by Hamas militants on Israeli civilians are somehow justified. The American progressive ecosystem is already struggling with internal turmoil and funding gaps; now, just when we need to keep building a united front against the rise of fascism in America, we are discovering that some of the ground we stand on is as shaky as sand.
A personal note: My wife and I have close family and friends in Israel. All of them were safe on Saturday, but all of them are also deeply traumatized and many have lost people close to them. Emotionally, I haven’t felt this close to the proverbial Angel of Death since April 2020 when more than a dozen people close to us died of Covid and we heard of many others one degree removed. This is a very hard time to be a human being paying attention to the world, let alone a Jew. If you haven’t already, check on your Jewish friends, and your Arab friends too.
I have also visited and reported from the West Bank and Gaza. I think I understand a little of what the great Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh calls “sumud,” or steadfastness in the face of occupation, and why Palestinians are so rooted to the land. What Hamas did on Saturday was something different: very dark, and, as more facts come out, very deliberate. And not just the sophisticated planning and training that enabled its militia to breach Israel’s fortified high-tech border fence; also the extreme barbarism it inflicted on thousands of Israeli civilian targets. Such actions, when conducted at scale, can’t just be explained as hot-heads or fanatics taking matters into their own hands. By summoning up memories of the pogroms that drove Jews out of Eastern Europe (and helped make the case for Zionism), I think Hamas wanted to not only cause Israelis maximal psychological pain, it wanted to drive them mad. The way weaker powers defeat greater ones is by getting them to overreach and get caught in quagmires. Gaza was a quagmire for Israel until 2005 when it withdrew; now with Israel bent on vengeance and the impossible task of destroying Hamas, it could turn into something much worse.
On the Rush to Judgment
Over the years, I’ve written more than my share of manifestos as well as editorials and group statements on current events. So I know how hard it is to think and write clearly in the heat of breaking news, especially on controversial topics. People sometimes say dumb things that they have to walk back or clarify, and we’re all human and make mistakes. But the first wave of statements that poured out from a range of organizations and political leaders in response to Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel Saturday morning was revealing in a number of ways.
From the center out to both sides of the political spectrum, the great majority of statements offered nothing but blank check support for Israel as the injured party. President Biden’s national security adviser, Adrienne Watson, set the tone by declaring, “The United States unequivocally condemns the unprovoked attacks by Hamas terrorists against Israeli civilians. There is never any justification for terrorism.” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a top contender to be the next Republican House Speaker, mirrored that, stating “The unprovoked terror attack today and the murders of innocent Israeli citizens are a stark reminder of the brutality of Hamas and Iran-backed extremists. The indiscriminate killings of men, women and children are sickening." Biden himself said the events were “unconscionable,” “heartbreaking” and with “no justification.”
Indeed, there is no justification for the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of Israeli civilians, as well as the kidnapping of dozens more. But statements like these were missing something: any recognition of Palestinian rights or Palestinian pain. So, quite understandably, people and organizations concerned with human rights and the principles and values of international law issued statements referring not just to the Israeli victims but also affirming the longstanding grievances of the Palestinian people.
But here’s one place where problems arose, and not just among far-left groupings that have long written off Israel as having any kind of legitimacy as a homeland for the Jewish people, like the ANSWER network that was at the heart of organizing a rally in New York City that the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter stupidly chose to promote.
Jewish Voice for Peace, which is probably the largest anti-Zionist Jewish organization, offered a statement about the attacks that made passing mention of the grief of Palestinians and Israelis (in that order), and then zeroed in on Israel as the sole party to blame: “The Israeli government may have just declared war, but its war on Palestinians started over 75 years ago. Israeli apartheid and occupation — and United States complicity in that oppression — are the source of all this violence.” [Emphasis added by me.] Talking about “75 years of occupation” as the sole source of all the conflict is way too simplistic, and it elides many things, including a 1947 vote of the United Nations authorizing the partition of the British-occupied Palestine into two countries which the Arab nations rejected. Yes, the Palestinian inhabitants suffered a catastrophe of dispossession that turned many into refugees, the ‘Nakba,’ but if you talk about 75 years of occupation without any reference to the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination too in the wake of the Holocaust, you marginalize yourself.
The Jewish Voice for Peace statement noted, correctly, that for the past 16 years, after withdrawing from Gaza, Israel has kept the two million Palestinians there “under a draconian air, sea and land military blockade.” What the statement didn’t mention is that in 2006, after Gazans held elections that brought the Islamic fundamentalist party Hamas to power, the UN, the US, the European Union and Russia, acting as a diplomatic body known then as “The Quartet,” said they would only continue aiding the Palestinian Authority there if it recognized Israel, disavowed violence and accepted previous agreements between Israel and the PA. Hamas rejected those conditions and soon started firing rockets at Israeli civilians. JVP also made no mention of Hamas’s history of taking credit for many suicide bombings against Israeli civilians in the years after the Oslo peace accords were first initialed.
If Not Now, a newer organization of mostly young American progressive Jews, also put out a one-sided statement Saturday that began, “We cannot and will not say today's actions by Palestinian militants are unprovoked. Every day under Israel’s system of apartheid is a provocation. The strangling siege on Gaza is a provocation. Settlers terrorizing entire Palestinian villages, soldiers raiding and demolishing Palestinian homes, murdering Palestinians in the streets, Israeli ministers calling for genocide and expulsion. These are the provocations of the most extremist right wing government in Israel’s history and an emboldened fascist movement escalating this crisis across the land.” All these things may be true, but you see the side-stepping? (Contrast this language with NYC’s Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which stated clearly, “We recognize that attacks on civilians by Hamas are neither justifiable nor unprovoked.”)
If Not Now went even further, somehow avoiding imputing any direct responsibility on Hamas for the actions of its militia. “We absolutely condemn the killing of innocent civilians and mourn the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life, with numbers rising by the minute. Their blood is on the hands of the Israeli government, the US government which funds and excuses their recklessness, and every international leader who continues to turn a blind eye to decades of Palestinian oppression, endangering both Palestinians and Israelis.” Wait, what?
I know from conversations with some of IfNotNow’s leaders that they’ve gotten push-back on their initial statement, and they’ve clearly tried to offer some compensatory balance in their recent posts on Twitter/X. Monday, the group tweeted “We're learning that people on our staff have lost Israeli loved ones, including a friend who was murdered along with her children. We're terrified for loved ones in Gaza with nowhere to hide as leaders weaponize our pain to call for genocide. War crimes do not justify war crimes.” And yesterday afternoon, it finally said something that grappled directly with the enormity of Hamas’s depraved attack: “Our shock and grief grow as more gruesome details of crimes against humanity committed by Hamas against Israelis continue to emerge. We are counting our own loved ones among the victims. These crimes are indefensible and unconscionable.”
You Stand With What?
There’s a different problem with a lot of the positions that liberal politicians and organizations have taken in response to the attacks. While expressing solidarity with Israel AND support for the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians, who after all have suffered more and have the most to lose now, as Israel subjects Gaza to a total siege, heavy bombardment and likely ground invasion, these groups are acting as if there’s no internal division inside Israel now.
“I Stand With Israel” is the simplest expression of this sentiment. I have a young cousin there who asked me to share this video, made by Israelis who just want the world to know what Hamas has subjected them to. But which Israel, I asked her. The Israel of annexationists like Bibi Netanyahu, or the Israel that the massive pro-democracy movement of the last eight months has been standing for, one that guarantees equal rights to all its citizens? She immediately responded that Bibi can “go home or go to jail.” But the “I Stand With Israel” posts you are seeing across social media generally want to paper over that conflict, when it is instead essential to the country’s present and future. (They also tend to smother any sensible dissent about the wisdom or morality of Israel attempting to destroy Hamas in Gaza; last night I watched a solidarity rally for Israel here in Westchester, NY, where every speaker, including several top Democratic party elected officials, insisted that the only thing that mattered now was to eliminate Hamas from the face of the earth.)
Contrast that with statements made by the editorial board of Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading left-wing daily, and by Breaking the Silence, a movement of Israeli military veterans who work to educate the public about the occupation. “Netanyahu Bears Responsibility for This Israel-Gaza War,” Ha’aretz’s editors headlined their post. It offered a catalogue of Bibi’s catastrophically bad decisions, starting with his failure to “identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, when appointing Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir to key positions, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.”
Breaking the Silence also made clear that the issue was political, that decades of prioritizing the needs of the Jewish settlement movement culminated in the government’s failure to protect its own citizens. “The question Israelis are all asking is - where were the soldiers yesterday? Why was the IDF seemingly absent while hundreds of Israelis were slaughtered in their homes and on the streets? The unfortunate truth is that they were “preoccupied”. In the West Bank. We send soldiers to secure settler incursions into the Palestinian city of Nablus, to chase Palestinian children in Hebron, to protect settlers as they carry out pogroms. Settlers demand that Palestinian flags are removed from the streets of Huwara; soldiers are sent to do it. Our country decided - decades ago - that it's willing to forfeit the security of its citizens in our towns and cities, in favor of maintaining control over an occupied civilian population of millions, all for the sake of a settler-messianic agenda.”
Do you see the difference in this approach? It explicitly situates current events inside the ongoing political conflict among Israelis about what their country should be, instead of offering a blanket rejection of “Israeli apartheid and occupation.” Even as Israel now embarks on what can only be a horrific, bloody and quixotic campaign to destroy Hamas in Gaza, the divisions inside the country matter. That is because Netanyahu has been under tremendous pressure to form an emergency “national unity” government, and leaders of the main opposition parties have been demanding he get rid of his far-right coalition partners Smotrich and Ben-Gvir as part of that deal. Keeping them in the government raises the danger of settler vigilante-ism against Palestinians to a much higher level, but if Bibi removes them, his own political future will be weakened, or so he must fear. In that context, it matters if American supporters of Israel simply provide a blank check or remain vocal and vigilant about the make-up of the Israeli government and its policies even now.
And make no mistake—a lot of Israelis are furious at Netanyahu and his entire government. Just watch this short clip; even if you don’t speak Hebrew the translation will give you this essence. The news that Egypt repeatedly warned Netanyahu’s government that Hamas was planning “something big” but was ignored, will not be forgotten there.
As to the Left
I’ve lost track of how many times in these last few days I’ve seen a friend or professional acquaintance from the world of progressive politics expressing shock at what they’ve had to absorb from people they know who are applauding or justifying Hamas’s brutal assault. Most of these comments are being made in passing formats, like private Facebook or Instagram posts.
A social justice activist who is Jewish despairs because a neighborhood racial justice organization posted right after Saturday’s attacks that they hope this “spreads worldwide.” A friend expresses dismay after seeing, on the afternoon of the attacks, a close former colleague post this: “When you hear about Israel this morning and the resistance being launched by Palestinians, remember against all odds Palestinians are fighting for life, dignity and freedom…Let it be known the fight for Palestine, against colonization, is a fight for the imagination that other worlds are possible, that genocide should not be accepted, and that people always have the choice of refusal, and the right to resist.” A wonderful young man I know posting publicly about “chickens come home to roost,” and affirming that he is “more committed to the values and praxises of collective liberation than … to being manipulated into complicity by colonial powers seeking to hold their slipping grasp on the world.”
Getting this conversation out into the open isn’t easy. On BlueSky, Max Berger, an Occupy activist who went on to help start If Not Now, said today, “My heart has really been broken by how many people on the left have celebrated or minimized the murder of over 1000 Jewish people.” He added that he declined to share details since most were in his personal feeds. On Facebook, Sahar Massachi, the co-founder of the Integrity Institute, wrote about his Israeli heritage and conversations he had last Saturday frantically calling his relatives there, and then wrote, “I’m of course furious. And, like I said before, lots of blame energy flying around. The so-called friends who celebrate killing of children as ‘decolonial praxis’. The terrible, ruinous, current government of Israel. The people who made the choices that led us here.”
On Twitter/X, academic Yair Wallach wrote “This is for the Jewish/Israeli anti-Apartheid left…Most of us are devastated by the failure of so many people - progressives, people we know and appreciate - to say anything about the Hamas's 7 Oct atrocity, to acknowledge it for what it was - even with a word. Worse are those who endorse the attack, or even celebrate it. This really hurts. Some of us lost family or friends, and all of us know people who lost loved ones on Saturday. The sense that their lives are collateral damage is not something any of us can accept. This is a real crisis and will cast a long shadow going forward.” My friend Lisa Goldman, one of the founders of Israel’s leftwing 972 Magazine, had a simple reply: “Co-sign.”
There’s always been some antisemitism among self-described leftists. And as the 2018 controversy over the national leaders of the Women’s March showed, avoiding this problem serves no good cause. As Naomi Klein sagely writes in the Guardian, “these callous displays are a gift to militant Zionism, since they neatly shore up and reconfirm its core and governing belief: that the non-Jewish world hates Jews and always will – look, even the bleeding-heart left is making excuses for our killers and thinks that Jewish kids and old ladies deserved death merely by living in Israel.” That’s a political argument for getting people to wise up; in New York magazine Eric Levitz puts it even more cogently: “A Left That Refuses to Condemn Mass Murder is Doomed.”
I endorse these arguments but I’ll add one more. It’s an open secret that in America Jews show up in disproportionate numbers as volunteer supporters and backers of a wide range of liberal and progressive causes. Half the subscribers of the NAACP’s monthly magazine The Crisis were Jewish; a director of MoveOn once told me that their list tilted in a similar direction. Ignoring or misunderstanding the pain that all Jews are feeling right now will reverberate negatively across the whole ecosystem of progressive causes. And yet, here we are.