The irreconcilable differences of liberal Zionism – Nada Elia/Mondoweiss

by Newsstand

As Israeli Apartheid Week approaches, various student groups across the US, Canada, and England are planning their educational events with trepidation.  This is the time when they get to screen documentaries, put on workshops, build mock walls and checkpoints, and bring eloquent speakers to campus.  It is also when they brace for full assault from Zionist groups who want to shut down their events.  The reasons given by these Zionists include claims that the events incite violence against Jews, aggravate anti-Semitism, and make Jewish students and faculty on campus feel unsafe.

At my former place of employment, a small private liberal arts school, the chair of a program in the School of Psychology is the faculty member who led the attack against our SJP chapter’s events. One of our activities was a mock checkpoint into the library.  Students entering the library were asked if they were Palestinian, because Palestinians would not be allowed in that day.  Only Palestinian students would be denied access.  We had cleared this with the librarian, who happens to be a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, along with the handful of Palestinian students on campus.  Nobody was going to be turned away, as the Palestinian students were actually staffing the checkpoint.  Nevertheless, the psychology program chair claimed that the Jewish students’ safety was endangered by our mock checkpoint.  He did not complain about a possible disruption of the learning experience of the general student population, he most definitely did not express any concern for any Palestinian students, but was vehement about the “safety” of the Jewish students.

When even psychologists cannot distinguish between “safety” and “comfort,” one needs to ask some unconventional, if not outright irrational, questions:

  • How do you embrace multiculturalism, and racial supremacy?
  • How do you support de-colonial struggle, and settler-colonialism?
  • How do you advocate for equal rights for all, and a system of legal apartheid?

I mean, at the same time.  Not as an either/or, but a both/and.

Like so many Zionists on campuses everywhere, this professor complained bitterly about the checkpoint, and sought to have the rest of our events cancelled.

Idiots and bigots do not shut down debate.  Many thrive on it.  They can debate to no end, because there is no discrepancy in their own minds and arguments. They are buoyed by ignorance, assuaged by a racism unchallenged by critical thought. They demand “dialogue.”  When an SJP chapter puts on an event, they ask the university administration to allow them to be a part of it. Pro-Palestine students and speakers refuse to engage in such “conversations” because they reject attempts at normalization.  They will not enable the suggestion that dialogue is currently possible, because dialogue assumes equal partners, and there is no equality between oppressor and oppressed, occupier and occupied, settler and refugee.  Power dynamics must be recognized for what they are.

It is precisely the more knowledgeable Zionists who run away from displays and conversations they know will be extremely challenging.  They shut down educational events, because they know these will expose the irreconcilable differences, the fault lines in their own reasoning.  They expose the maddening reality that “liberal Zionism,” let alone “progressive Zionism,” are untenable.

I believe that the impulse to shut down educational events and conversations amongst otherwise rational people stems from the fact that there is an essential dissonance at play when liberals embrace Zionism.  The PEP syndrome (Progressives Except for Palestine) rears its ugly head. Whichever way one looks at it, there are irreconcilable differences between the professed beliefs of liberals, and the quotidian acceptance of supremacy which Zionism hinges upon.  The very term “democracy” is voided when one qualifies it, yet Zionists aspire to establish a “Jewish” democracy. No wonder they so frequently begin their attempts at rationalization with “It’s complicated.”  Indeed, there is no graceful finessing the contradiction between supporting indigenous sovereignty, self-determination for natives, and Zionism.

The breach, the essential dissonance, the discrepancy between one what generally espouses, and what one makes exceptions for, become unbearable.   An intelligent “liberal” person detects, reluctantly, the bad faith behind their Zionism, and their abstract desire for equality.  When they are confronted with the reality of checkpoints that restrict Palestinian freedom of movement, with the long list of Israeli laws that privilege Jews over non-Jews, with maps that clearly delineate Jewish-only settlements within the parts of occupied Palestine that are designated for a future Palestinian state, they can sense that it is intellectual dishonesty to espouse Zionism, alongside their cherished values of inclusivity, diversity, equality.

The shrill accusations, the explosive angry outbursts that accompany attempts to censor events about Palestine are irrational.  They cannot be explained through logic, because logic would necessitate looking at facts, connecting cause and effect, reconciling concepts, or, in the case of irreconcilable differences, eliminating the beliefs that do not fit.

The tension is building up.  The attempts at intimidation, censorship, and criminalization of pro-justice organizing are increasing at an alarming rate, as detailed in Palestine Legal’s recent report. Nevertheless, those of us who advocate for justice for the Palestinian people are not cowering down.  And in a very hopeful development, more and more Jews are writing about the disconnect:  JVP deputy director Stefanie Fox’s powerful essay  and Dan Fishback’s recent post on pinkwashing at the Creating Change conference are excellent examples of reconciling Jewishness with organizing for justice in a wholesome, non-fragmented manner.

It may be uncomfortable, but it’s not complicated.   The bottom line is indeed very simple: “liberal Zionism” is untenable, because justice is indivisible.

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

The irreconcilable differences of liberal Zionism – Mondoweiss