Anti-Zionists challenge Israel’s occupation
This article was originally published August 2016 in Palestine in America’s second annual print issue.
When we take action against some of the symptoms of Zionism without naming and acknowledging the root cause—Jewish Nationalism and the set of beliefs that both drove the founding of the state of Israel in Palestine and continues to drive its settler-colonial expansion to this day—who are we leaving out of our analysis? One of the foundational tenets of anti-Zionism, as well as any movement that challenges structural oppression, is that the people most affected by that oppression lead it. It seems almost silly to have say this, but Palestinians, who have endured and continue to endure ethnic cleansing, colonization, massacres, and Apartheid, are the people most affected by Zionism.
As more and more of the world comes to understand the injustice done by the Israeli state, we need to take note that liberal Zionist and non-Zionist initiatives do not address the structural problem and therefore fail to advance the cause of justice and equality. In some cases, these initiatives in fact claim to work for egalitarian causes but undermine their putative aims. The more closely we look, the clearer it becomes that we must acknowledge that Zionism is racism. We must not be liberal racists or even non-racist, but rather anti-racists. What does that look like? Jewish organizations that seek to open conversation about or end the occupation should take leadership from Palestinians. They should bring to the fore the voices of, and remain accountable to, the most affected parties.
Examples of the limitations of liberal Zionism and the political shortcomings of Jews who confine their activism to non-Zionist frameworks are widespread. Women of the Wall (WOW), an international feminist Jewish organization, seeks to challenge the practice of banning Jewish women from carrying the Torah and wearing religious garb at the Wailing Wall in East Jerusalem. The mission statement of WOW seems, at first glance, admirably progressive: the organization promotes egalitarian prayer in the holy city of Jerusalem. But WOW’s silence on the topic of occupied Palestinians, who are systematically barred from praying in Jerusalem, is deafening. A feminist critique of patriarchal Israeli policies that fails to consider the impact of these policies on Palestinian women is incomplete. WOW’s work isolates and ignores a significant slice of the very population—that is, the sector of women who want to enjoy the right to worship as they wish—for which it claims to militate.
Open Hillel seeks to remove restrictions placed by Hillel International’s Standards of Participation: no group may participate in a Hillel International-sanctioned event if it questions the existence of Israel as a Jewish-supremacist state. By contrast, Open Hillel seeks to open spaces for all viewpoints on Israel and the occupation to be heard. But guaranteeing all groups the right to speak does not address the systemic silencing of particular groups. Structural racism prevents Palestinians from stepping forward in any number of contexts; the same is true of Open Hillel. Perhaps the only effective path for Open Hillel to take—were it serious in opening up conversation for all viewpoints on Israel and Palestine—would be to bring Palestinian voices to the center of that conversation. Open Hillel, then, should focus on elevating the voices of Jews who are orienting themselves to an anti-racist framework by heeded Palestinian calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
If Not Now works to end Jewish-American support for the occupation, and has shown a welcome willingness to take arrest in civil disobedience actions that confront U.S. Jewish institutional support for the occupation. It is heartening and exciting to see Jews willing to be arrested over their anti-occupation stance. However, they take no position on two of the three central tenets of the BDS call: the UN-sanctioned Right of Return for all refugees and an end to the Apartheid system within Israel. In other words, at the same time as it represents a strong step forward, If Not Now still evidences that the most progressive Jewish-led organizations ignore Palestinian leadership. They do not take account of Palestinian voices and re-inscribe the same silencing of those voices. If Not Know ought to acknowledge that perhaps Palestinians know how to best realize their own self-determination.
The movement for Palestinian self-determination is an anti-racist movement against the racist practices of Zionists. Therefore we must actively center and be accountable to those who suffer most under the racism inherent to the Israeli state and its occupation of Palestinian land. We cannot reassemble the same structures we intend to subvert. We must be anti-racist, just as we must equally be feminist. We must listen to Palestinians—to each oppressed voice—or we will not achieve the justice we seek.