Reboot the Left on Palestine

What is to be done?

Worldwide, it is Israel Apartheid Week, 2013, a worthy expression of solidarity with the Palestinians suffering under Israel’s occupation of the territories it conquered in the June, 1967 war. However, the leading lights of the anti-apartheid struggle said a decade and more ago that Israel’s regime is much worse than South African apartheid. After 46 years, “the occupation” is clearly not temporary as the word implies. It is wrong to use this language, which privileges the oppressors and further oppresses the victims. This language is universal and long-standing, reflecting habits of thought and action long overdue for replacement. The following was written as notes for a discussion, about 2100 words.

entire article on Dissident Voice or keep reading here

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Posted in 2013

Noam Chomsky and BDS: the ‘responsibility of intellectuals?’

Noam Chomsky’s critique of the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement against Israel, in solidarity with the Palestinian people, attracted wide attention. The Nation, where his article appeared, published five responses, to which Chomsky responded, and at least five appeared independently. Chomsky’s views were not new, but were first expressed during a BDS initiative in 2002, at Harvard and MIT. The wide attention his recent remarks earned was due to the growth of the BDS movement since.

Harvard/MIT 2002

The Harvard-MIT initiative was a response to Israeli suppression of the al-Aqsa intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in September, 2000. It was provoked by the swaggering entrance to the Islamic shrines in Jerusalem of then-defense minister Ariel Sharon, accompanied by a thousand Israeli police. There was a demonstration, an Israeli massacre, and resistance across the West Bank that Israel attacked with utmost ferocity. The uprising expressed seven lean years of frustration with Israel’s exploitation of the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization to further engorge the occupied territories and suffocate Palestinian life. As prime minister, Sharon ordered Operation Field of Thorns, the lavishly violent reconquista of Palestinian areas of the West Bank, including the drunken bulldozing of the center of Jenin refugee camp, and its inhabitants.

Against this sanguinary backdrop, a Harvard-MIT petition called for “the US government to make military aid and arms sales to Israel conditional on immediate initiation and rapid progress in implementing the conditions listed below. We also call on MIT and Harvard to divest from Israel, and from US companies that sell arms to Israel.” The petition called for Israel to comply with UN Resolution 242 and withdraw from the territories conquered in the June, 1967 war; stop torturing, as called for by the United Nations Committee Against Torture Report of 2001; comply with the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting settlement and other practices in the occupied territories; and acknowledge in principle the Palestinian right of return as expressed in UN Resolution 194 (and related international law).

The petition garnered 443 signatures from Harvard and MIT faculty, staff, students and alumni, while a counter-petition garnered more than 3,200 signatures, amidst animated discussion. Then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers opined that “Harvard should not be an organ for advocacy on an issue as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” He did exactly that by stating: “The suggestion that [Israel’s] defense against terrorist attacks is inherently immoral seems to me to be an unsupportable one.” At a prayer meeting on campus at the start of fall term, Summers stated: “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent…. Where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities.”

Chomsky could have defended divestment as amply justified by Israel’s conduct and denounced Summers as unfit to lead an institution of higher education. He would have been vindicated resoundingly by Israel’s ongoing atrocities, and by Summers’ later claims about women’s inability in science, faculty no-confidence votes, and his resignation in 2006 after the shortest presidential term at Harvard in 144 years. Instead Chomsky was as upset as Summers that Israel could be sanctioned. In November, Chomsky told a Harvard audience: “I am opposed and have been opposed for many years, in fact, I’ve probably been the leading opponent for years of the campaign for divestment from Israel and of the campaign about academic boycotts.” One witness told this writer that the audience was “astonished.”

Full article at Noam Chomsky and BDS: the ‘responsibility of intellectuals’? See also a partial transcript of a November, 2014 panel on BDS at Harvard at which Chomsky spoke.

In his memoir, The Lost Traveller’s Dream, the late Joel Kovel cited this article as an example of how “active critics have intervened to hold Chomsky to account before a higher tribunal.” (333, n 12). Thank you Joel, of blessed memory, for that and other encouragement, and for your clarity over Palestine. See Joel’s Overcoming Zionism, reviewed here.

Posted in 2015 | Tagged , ,

The End of Modern Jewish History

The Jewish state of Israel and the organized Jewish communities abroad have constituted the Zionist Jewish people, whose aggrandizement has replaced liberalism as the Jewish social principle. This outlook has also deeply affected the Jewish left, who have abandoned the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment and emancipation, which rejected Zionism categorically, for a minimal critique of Israel’s “occupation” of the territories conquered in 1967, etc.

The article has three sections, “The Establishment,” “The Jewish Left,” and “Noam Chomsky.”  It is 17,000 words plus notes, the merest introduction to the subject. It is in the final issue (#38) of Left Curve. The article is online, in PDF form, at The End of Modern Jewish History. A summary of EMJH was read at a publication party held at the Emerald Tablet Gallery in San Francisco on July 9.

“The End of Modern Jewish History” is an emerging theme. See Enzo Traverso, La fin de la modernite juive (Paris, 2013). An English edition was published by Pluto Press in 2016:

The End of Jewish Modernity

An English review of the French edition is at

The end of Jewish modernity?

Judaic Studies at Brown offers a course, “The End of Modern Jewish History”. See JUDS 1716, 2/3 of the way down this page

JUDS 1716. The End of Modern Jewish History

Publication of Left Curve #38 was delayed by the passing of the editor, Csaba Polony, on March 9, 2014.

“A memorial to Csaba last night at an SF art gallery was SRO … The audience was a who’s who of who remains ambulatory in the North Beach culture scene,” wrote a friend in an email. RIP Csaba, you have gone to your reward.  Alas, #38 proved to be the last issue

LC38-cover

Number 38 also contains an article by Rahela Mizrahi: “Usurping Art: Patterns of Expropriation, Conversion & Appropriation of Palestinian Heritage by Israeli Fine Arts.”

LC #37 contained a fine poem on the 30th anniversary of the Sabra/Shatila massacre by James Scully.

Posted in 2014 | Tagged ,

No Cockburn, No Voice

Alexander Cockburn was probably the most distinguished left journalist in his adopted land. He was fortified by his father Claud’s career in British journalism and the Communist Party, above all in the crucible of the late 1930s, when the British government abandoned the Spanish Republic to Franco’s Nationalists, and appeased Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

I knew Alex only as an editor, one with a light but sure touch. He ran one piece of mine in the CounterPunch newsletter, titled “Suez 1956, Iran 2007?” It described how Israel, in invading the Sinai peninsula, provided the excuse for Britain and France to invade the Suez Canal Zone. It was intended to draw parallels with Israel’s role in fomenting the crisis with Iran. Today, alas, only the title would need updating, as Alex would have agreed.

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Posted in 2012 | Tagged , , ,

Liberal Citizenship, not ‘Jewish Identity’

An abiding feature of the Palestine question in the United States since 1967 has been a “Jewish left,” which combines Jewish affirmation with criticism of Israel’s occupation of the territories it conquered in that war. A 1973 anthology of writings from the “Jewish radicalism” movement stated: “in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967, an upsurge of Jewish consciousness hit the campuses, and a new voice—what we call the ‘Jewish Left’—appeared. Young Jews began to make demands for ‘Jewish studies’ programs, to publish Jewish underground newspapers, to criticize Israeli policies while defending Zionism against Arab and pro-Arab attacks, and to confront the Jewish Establishment for ‘selling out’ to the ‘American dream’ while ignoring the needs of the Jewish community.”

Thirty years later, journalist Esther Kaplan described “the old school of Jewish activism on Palestine…organizations from Breira in the 1970s to New Jewish Agenda, International Jewish Peace Union, the Road to Peace and Women in Black in the 1980s and early ’90s.” These activists followed “the star of identity politics;” they felt personally implicated by Israel’s deeds, saw a strategic role for themselves, and felt that changing the views of the US Jewish community was possible and necessary. After the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising) began in 2000, Kaplan found all this “anachronistic.” She described new organizations such as the International Solidarity Movement, and the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement (BDS). and concluded: “We Jews can join in—many of us will—but we don’t own this movement any more.”

Yet the Jewish left has thrived. It is not uniform, and exists in more and less sophisticated forms, but it is noticeable. It is the subject of a new book by David Landy, Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights. Landy is the former head of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and earned his PhD at Trinity College, Dublin. Landy’s main focus is the British “Israel-critical diaspora Jewish movement,” in his careful phrase. He notes that the UK movement became important only after the second Intifada, while elsewhere in Europe and Australia, movements arose only after Israel’s assaults on Lebanon in 2006, and especially on Gaza in 2008-9. Obviously that is not true in the US, whose movements’ “size and dynamism” make them the most important case.

In his introduction, Landy states that this movement seeks “to challenge Zionist hegemony among fellow Jews and to challenge Israel, speaking as Jews…who oppose Israel” so that we “do not conflate the two.” This formulation at once raises questions, beginning with the meaning of “Jew.” A religious definition is clear, as one who practices Judaism, but a secular definition is not, in fact, secular Jewish nationality is precisely what Zionism claims, and what many in Landy’s movement claim.

Landy’s background is Jewish, but he states that being a “movement activist is more important than shared Jewishness.” He also notes that many people of Jewish background are “active in society-wide groups…rather than specifically Jewish ones,” so that his study understates diaspora Jewish opposition to Israel. More important, the choice to work in “society-wide groups” sets a universalist benchmark to judge the choice to work in Jewish groups. The book is a sustained critique of identity politics, yet Landy does not fully comprehend his subject, in part because the UK movement, his main focus, is not the most illustrative example, which is in the US. Still, Landy’s rigor and honesty inevitably raise wider questions, and his book is a welcome contribution.

Entire article (PDF, 21 p + notes) at
Liberal Citizenship, not ‘Jewish Identity’

The entire piece appeared on DissidentVoice on February 14, 2012.
Liberal Citizenship, not ‘Jewish Identity’

Posted in 2012

Move Over, AIPAC

The annual conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee took place in Washington the weekend of May 21-22 and the following week. As usual, the top of the federal government paid tribute. President Obama addressed the 7,000 strong delegates, and over 350 senators and representatives attended. The Rapture may have failed to appear that weekend as scheduled by evangelist Harold Camping, but it descended on Capitol Hill Tuesday, when Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu addressed a joint
session of Congress. Congress applauded almost every paragraph of Netanyahu’s speech.

For the first time ever, elements of the left, namely, Code Pink, organized a conference and a national demonstration against AIPAC, Move Over AIPAC; see http://www.moveoveraipac.org/. The conference featured Professors John
Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which mainstreamed the idea, as well as perennial critics such as journalist Jeffrey Blankfort, Janet McMahon, of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and Grant Smith, author of several books on AIPAC based on documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Several hundreds of demonstrators greeted the AIPAC delegates as they entered and exited the Washington convention center; some groups gained admittance and staged impromptu demos, to be muscled out like Communists from a Nazi rally. Rae Abileah, one of the chief organizers of the weekend, who emceed much of it, was admitted to the visitors’ gallery in Congress. Upon unfurling a banner and denouncing Israel’s war crimes, she was assaulted by AIPAC minions before being hustled out by police. She was hospitalized with neck and shoulder injuries and arrested on her sickbed.

Apart from such heroism and the prodigious work to organize it, the MoveOver conference was weak in my jaded view, basically because the left has been running from the “Israel lobby” issue for 40 years. The first false step was buckling to liberal Jewish pressure and letting Helen Thomas bow out. The 90-yr old dean of the White House press corps lost her journalistic career after criticizing the colonial nature of Zionism; more recently she compounded the offense by blunt talk about the power of the Jewish community. One would think Thomas an ideal figure to speak at a rally opposing AIPAC. Her absence
sacrificed media attention and weakened the protest.

There was an “upstairs, downstairs” feel to the discussion of AIPAC. Upstairs, at the plenary session, Professors Mearsheimer and Walt gave their familiar talk. Their book was important, and they mainstreamed the question of the “Israel lobby,” but in the most narrow terms, which they reinforce with each appearance, the price they feel they have to pay to retain mainstream credibility. The left bears a large share of responsibility for this defensiveness, by not making the argument itself.

The full text, a PDF with notes, is at Move Over, AIPAC

On CounterPunch, May 30, 2011 Move Over, AIPAC

Posted in 2011

When Palestine Was at Stake

The future of Palestine was at stake in the 1940s, and the fundamental clash of interests, between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs, was also a fundamental clash of principles. The differences are shown by a comparison of the liberal Arab nationalist, the Zionist binationalist, and the Reform Judaism anti-Zionist views.

The Arabs sought independence for Palestine, as Britain had promised for the Arab role in Britain’s campaign against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Instead Britain had concluded the secret Sykes-Picot agreement with France to divide the Arab heartland conquered from the Ottomans, and then issued the Balfour Declaration in support of Zionism in Palestine. The term Nakba, a byword for the destruction of Arab Palestine in 1948, was first applied to the 1920 dismemberment of historic Syria into enlarged Lebanon, Palestine, and rump Syria, ruled by Britain and France. In the 1940s, the Arabs were willing to grant Jews full rights of citizenship in a democratic Palestine, but emphatically not national rights, and opposed further Jewish immigration.

The Zionist movement publicly proclaimed its long-standing goal of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1942, and accepted partition when proposed by the UN in 1947. The “binationalists” among the Zionists opposed partition, and proposed that Arabs and Jews share power equally, when Jews were around 33% of the population. The binationalists also insisted on Jewish immigration to achieve demographic parity, and even majority. Binationalism was another form of Zionism, despite its enlightened reputation, and is discussed as such here.

Alone among US Jewish groups, the American Council for Judaism supported democracy in Palestine. The ACJ opposed the 1939 British White Paper limiting Jewish immigration, and advocated immigration for postwar refugees, on liberal, non-discriminatory grounds, as it did to destinations other than Palestine. At the same time it opposed binationalism, deriding its demographic engineering schemes, and did not envision the demographic transformation sought by the binationalists. The ACJ argued that the future of Palestine should be determined by all its residents.

Entire article (PDF with notes) is at When Palestine Was At Stake

On CounterPunch January 28, 2011, When Palestine was at Stake

Posted in 2011

The Fever Chart

Naomi Wallace’s The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East, is three one-act plays, set in the Gaza Strip, West Jerusalem, and Baghdad. The pieces were separately written and performed over five years and first combined in 2008; the play runs at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge through December 19.

The first piece, “A State of Innocence,” is the most ambitious. Yuval, an Israeli soldier, is a Zionist Beetle Bailey, who fell asleep on duty and was made keeper in the zoo in Rafah, southern Gaza. There he meets Um Hisham, a Rafah woman, who knows his name. He challenges her as a terrorist, and she mocks him. She has something that belongs to his mother, she tells him. They are joined by Shlomo, an Israeli architect who designs for power and thrives on ruins, who is surveying. He and Yuval place Um Hisham on Shlomo’s tool chest and circle gaily around her, enacting the “wall and tower housing model,” the “cradle of the nation” that “made the desert bloom,” crows Shlomo. From the tower, Um Hisham mocks them, seeing “only Palestinians.”

The behavior of the zoo animals, who lose parts at night, but regrow them in the day, gives Shlomo and Yuval pause. “Where are we?” they ask. They recount past Zionist and other heroics to reassure themselves, which Um Hisham criticizes knowingly. She tells Shlomo the location of some fresh ruins, which she knows intimately. He dashes off eagerly to inspect them. Um Hisham knows Yuval’s life in detail, including his tank, his unit’s destruction of the zoo, songs familiar to him, and details of his home. She reminds him of his mother’s belonging which she has. Yuval is perplexed and wary.

Shlomo returns, frustrated at not being allowed to see the ruins. An Israeli soldier was killed there, and inspection is prohibited. Yuval tells Um Hisham that Palestinians are murderers. Um Hisham tells them of the killing of her daughter by an Israeli sniper. Shlomo laments noble past causes, now lacking. Yuval discovers that he didn’t want to be a soldier. It is dusk; the animals will begin their diurnal cycle. Yuval is nervous, and wants them both to leave; Shlomo does, but promises to return tomorrow, as Um Hisham knows he will. She finishes telling Yuval of his life and fate and his mother’s possession.

Um Hisham is the only innocent, and the only one with knowledge. Shlomo and Yuval are guilty as can be, and innocent only of knowledge, for which they pay, forever, in a Dantean circle whose inmates dismember themselves nightly, and remember themselves daily.

Entire article (PDF) is at The Fever Chart

on CounterPunch, December 3-5, 2010 The Fever Chart

Posted in 2010

The Invention of the Jewish People

The fundamental myth of Zionism is the return of the Jewish people to its land. The sovereign people was conquered, and exiled far and wide, but remained aloof and united, inspired by the memory of its ancient sovereignty. In the late 19th century the people began its return, which culminated in the dramatic establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, fulfilling two millenia of longing. Tel Aviv University historian Shlomo Sand, in his remarkable book The Invention of the Jewish People, marshals past and present academic work to refute the Zionist historiography underlying this myth, and tells instead a story
of a religious minority and its creed, waxing and waning through proselytizing and conversion, subject to the same social forces as any other religious minority.

Entire article (PDF with notes) is at The Invention of the Jewish People

On CounterPunch, February 4, 2010, The Invention of the Jewish People

Posted in 2010

Justice Goldstone at Brandeis

Justice Richard Goldstone spoke at Brandeis University on November 5, with former Israeli UN ambassador Dore Gold, on a program entitled “The Challenge of the UN Gaza Report.” Goldstone, a South African jurist and former prosecutor of International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, headed the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, established by the UN Human Rights Council in April. The Mission’s charge was to ” ‘to investigate all violations of international human rights law and
international humanitarian law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period from 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, whether before, during or after.’ ” The Mission “interpreted the mandate as requiring it to place the civilian population of the region at the centre of its concerns,” and defined the “context” as the period 19 June
2008 to 31 July 2009.

The report notes that the “Mission repeatedly sought to obtain the cooperation of the Government of Israel,” unsuccessfully, which \prevented it from meeting Israeli Government officials” and also “from travelling to Israel to meet Israeli victims and to the West Bank to meet Palestinian Authority representatives and Palestinian victims.” “The Mission has enjoyed the support and cooperation of the Palestinian Authority” and “[d]uring its visits to the Gaza Strip [through Rafah] the Mission held meetings with senior
members of the Gaza authorities and they extended their full cooperation and support to the Mission.” The Mission received evidence from West Bank residents in Amman and from West Bankers and Israelis in Geneva also.2 The Mission released the the final version of its report on September 25. Inevitably, the report’s most severe findings concerned Israel, as best conveyed by excerpts from the Conclusions and Recommendations:

Entire article (PDF with notes) is at Justice Goldstone at Brandeis

CounterPunch, November 16, 2009, Justice Goldstone at Brandeis

Posted in 2009