Timely lessons about Palestine

March 13, 2014

The Battle for Justice in Palestine is a must-read for every activist, explains Wael Elasady in his review of the newly released book by Ali Abunimah.

APOLOGISTS FOR Israeli apartheid must look at the changing political landscape in the U.S. with apprehension.

Campaigns by students to pressure their universities to end their complicity with violations of Palestinian rights are spreading to more and more campuses. The historic vote by the American Studies Association (ASA) to endorse the Palestinian call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions has begun to break the fear barrier in academia, kept in place by years of McCarthyite attacks on professors who criticize the state of Israel.

And stars like Scarlett Johansen can no longer go around greenwashing the Israeli occupation without having to give up her post as Oxfam ambassador and make a mockery of her consciously groomed image as a humanitarian Good Samaritan.

These developments have resulted in a predictable backlash from defenders of Israel, including university presidents who have tried to portray the ASA resolution as an attack on academic freedom, U.S. politicians who have tried to advance bills to punish those who boycott Israel, and the Israeli government itself, which has pledged to unleash a "media war" and its Mossad to spy on Palestine solidarity activists. But as the ASA recently stated, "We are at a turning point when tactics of bullying and intimidation will no longer work to silence those of us who recognize the injustice of Israel's treatment of Palestinians."

Ali Abunimah
Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's new book The Battle for Justice in Palestine was written for exactly such a moment, and it couldn't have come at a more opportune time.

Abunimah's meticulous research and analytical skills, which he has honed as co-editor of Electronic Intifada, as well as his active involvement and intimate knowledge of Palestinian activism have allowed him to write a book that addresses the burning questions facing the movement in a way no other author could.

He collects and draws out the most important lessons of the struggles waged by Palestinian rights activists on campuses and in communities, exposes the intimidation and harassment directed by the Israeli government and carried out by pro-Israel groups in the U.S., and makes improvements on the arguments begun in his first book One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli Palestinian Impasse about how to conceive of Palestinian self-determination and liberation.

There Is No Right to Be Racist

Israeli officials regularly demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and U.S. leaders like Obama have adopted this claim as part of what Abunimah terms their "unimaginative" and "unlikely" two-state solution. Abunimah examines exactly what the "right to exist as a Jewish state," which is the central pillar of both left- and right-wing variants of Zionism, means for Palestinians in practice.

Since its inception, Israel has used a toxic brew of racist laws and naked violence to create and maintain its "Jewish character" by expelling 750,000 indigenous Palestinians from their homes, confiscating their property and depriving them of their citizenship.

Abunimah argues that today the two-state solution, which liberal Zionists believe will allow them to maintain Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state," would not only leave Palestinians with little more than Bantustans in the form of the West Bank and Gaza deprived of any real sovereignty and economically dependent on Israel, but it would also fail to address the historic rights of the remaining sectors of Palestinian society--the Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian refugees living in camps throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Such a "solution" would also deny the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as enshrined under international law and condemn Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population, to continue living as second-class citizens. Meanwhile, Israel would continue to view Palestinians as a "demographic threat," forcing them to live under the constant threat of expulsion--all to maintain the ethnically exclusivist character of the "Jewish state".

Abunimah's common-sense conclusion is that "there is no right to be racist." Instead, he advances the need for a process of decolonization in order to establish one secular and democratic state for all those living in historic Palestine. To the recurring argument that Israeli Jews would never accede to such a solution and therefore it is not realistic, Abunimah counters that in apartheid South Africa the vast majority of the white population, like Israeli Jews today, continued to oppose a democratic state and clung to their position of dominance over the black population until the very end.

What caused the shift in South Africa was that the internal resistance of black South Africans and the pressure from the international anti-apartheid movement led to "the complete loss of legitimacy of the apartheid regime," thus compelling the white population to capitulate.

This of course is why the Israeli government is spending millions of dollars to attempt to combat the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to bring sufficient pressure to "ensure a change in Zionist strategic calculations" that would make a democratic state an acceptable option.

Beyond Liberal Rights

What is new and perhaps most refreshing in this book is the author's refusal to limit the discussion to formulas that demand formal political rights for Palestinians. Abunimah again uses the South African example to warn of the persistence of an "economic apartheid," which has conferred formal political rights on the majority of South Africa's black population without alleviating the desperate poverty so many live in. Meanwhile, white South Africans--joined now by a small but powerful slice of the black elite--have kept their position of economic dominance.

Abunimah concludes that for Palestinians, having suffered years of Israeli domination, abrogation of their basic rights and the theft of their land and resources, granting formal political rights to Palestinians in the absence of other changes is likewise apt to result in Israeli Jews "retaining and even expanding their economic advantages" over Palestinians much like present-day South Africa.

Abunimah's message is clear: the struggle for Palestinian liberation cannot be fully realized without making economic justice a central part of the discussion. This means not only the need for economic redistribution on the local level to address the losses suffered by Palestinians over several generations, but also that under neoliberal capitalism this must include connecting to "a global struggle to win back economic sovereignty for people and communities from democracy-crushing transnational markets and local economic elites."

Deepening Joint Struggles

For too long, the discourse about Palestine and Israel has been structured as a conflict between two states, but Abunimah's book is one contribution to the propagation of a new discourse: that of a colonial project carried out by a racist and violent settler society against an indigenous population. As this new narrative takes shape, Palestinians and their allies have begun to (re)connect with those suffering from systemic racism and violence here in the U.S.

Michelle Alexander has documented how a system of mass incarceration in the U.S. currently imprisons or places under state supervision more Black men than were enslaved in 1850. The Obama administration has deported nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants, far outpacing the George W. Bush administration and destroying the lives of countless families. Obama has also carried out an unprecedented militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting in even more dangerous border crossings as immigrants are forced into more remote areas.

Israeli and American officials often tout "shared values" of freedom and democracy, but as Abunimah points out, it's more accurate to describe the U.S. and Israel as sharing "racist ideologies" and "systems of physical and social control." The solidarity between these various struggles, however, is not only a matter of similar experiences of oppression occurring in different spaces, which doesn't require much more than a "we'll-support-your-cause-if-you-support-ours" strategy.

Rather, Abunimah explains, the same political forces "that advance racist laws and practices" in the U.S. "are the same ones that support and sponsor Israel." After all, it is Israel that is helping to train police departments across the U.S. who terrorize Black and Latino neighborhoods with "battle-tested" techniques perfected on Palestinians in the Occupied territories. And it is the moral, military, political and economic support of the U.S. government that allows Israel to place and keep its foot on the neck of the Palestinian people.

This solidarity is not optional if the Palestinian struggle for liberation is to succeed. As Abunimah points out:

The United States will turn away from an imperialist and interventionist role around the world, the role that sustains support for Israeli occupation and apartheid, only to the extent that the transformation toward a just and democratic society is also underway at home.

If one complaint is to be made of this book, it is that Abunimah does not give any serious treatment to the nature of the U.S.-Israeli "special" relationship. Is it a result of U.S. economic and military interests? Is it the influence of the Israeli lobby? Is the U.S.-Israel relationship weakening in the wake of U.S. setbacks in the region and the changes the Middle East has undergone in recent years?

The answer to some of these questions can be gleaned from Abunimah's conclusions, and obviously a full historical analysis of this question was beyond the purview of the book. But because U.S. diplomatic and economic support--to the tune of billions of dollars a year--is the essential factor for providing Israel with the means to resist the Palestinian struggle for justice, more clarity as to what precisely underpins the U.S.-Israeli alliance would have been welcomed.

Despite this, the inspiring vision Abunimah lays out reflects the hope stirred by a growing and increasingly successful movement on the ground, which is helping to turn the tide in the struggle for Palestine. For those active in this movement, this book is a must-read, but its lessons are for anyone interested in the fight for a better world. For those hoping to maintain a status quo they see changing before their eyes, it will only add to their trepidation.

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