The Palestine solidarity movement in the United States has lost much of its revolutionary attitude. Is it ever coming back?
It’s difficult to reflect on the history of radical social movements without the curse of nostalgia. Partly this is because time mitigates bygone frustrations, leaving us with exaggerated memories of idealism and youthful energy. But partly it’s also because radical social movements in the USA all seem to follow the same negative trajectory. (It doesn’t help that the climate apocalypse is palpable with no possibility of relief in sight.)
Those movements begin with vim and grand ambitions, with visions of salvation and victory, with contempt for orthodoxy and structures of power. If effective, they force some kind of confrontation, at which point the state mobilizes incomprehensibly vast resources to contain the threat. Feds and snitches get involved. Social climbers and influencers take center stage. U.S. exceptionalism reemerges as common wisdom. A new generation, emboldened by the rewards of compliance, dismisses radical holdouts as maladjusted wreckers. The movements end up toothless and conventional, begging for inclusion in the very system they once deplored. Obsessive focus on electoral politics and cosmetic reform is usually the material expression of this transformation.
And so it’s been with the Palestine solidarity movement in the United States. I follow the debates on social media and read the opinion pieces. If Palestine still exists as a radical devotion in this corner of the diaspora, as a prelude to old-fashioned leftist internationalism, then it’s only among a smattering of unapologetic rejectionists—a subculture of the solidarity movement, really—disavowed by more tasteful voices as irrationally recalcitrant (or aggressively ignored altogether).
Withhold praise from a nominally pro-Palestine movie star and watch the ensuing histrionics. Why do you have to be so harsh? Why do you have to be so ungrateful? Why do you have to be so…uncivilized? The same holds true of big-name activists: criticizing their dissimulation is an invitation to sanctimonious outcry. We can’t be so uncompromising. We can’t be so divisive. We can’t be so…Palestinian. Indeed, the most consistent semblance of radicalism in the community exists in the form of digital nostalgia: images of Said, Habash, and Kanafani, often in black and white, stately and handsome, disembodied emblems of national pride. All memes, no material politics.
Today’s pundits, hip to the importance of personal branding, rarely transcend the insipid vocabulary of good citizenship. They speak of rights and democracy and civil liberties and then superimpose those categories onto Palestine. It doesn’t occur to them that Palestine has its own vocabularies of freedom worth forcing into the American conversation. They imagine that institutions of the American state can be made to facilitate decolonization. Vote, they implore. Canvass for the superior class of Democrat. Educate our rulers. Celebrate representation in the very institutions that abet the Zionist entity. What comes of this cynicism dressed as piety? Not much of anything beyond greater access to boutique publications selling attenuated visions of socialism.
Watch how your favorite pundit reacts when Palestinians take up armed struggle or consort with actors beyond the U.S. sphere of influence. Does the pundit drop the crowd-pleasing slogans and start yammering about strategic errors and moral failures among the resistance? Does the pundit exhibit a sudden compulsion to nuance? Does the pundit begin ruminating about how this-or-that U.S. enemy is actually worse than Israel? Those are your tells. Those are the habits that earn fancy credentials.
A once-radical movement has become deeply American. But watch for those solemn images of Bassel al-Araj to show up in the cover photos of bluecheck Twitter.
Thought-leaders conceptualize apparent gains within the Democratic Party as progress, or, worse, as some kind of hard-fought victory. Apart from its dubious judgment, this approach speaks to a sensibility oriented not in the soil of Palestine, but in the marrow of the U.S. colony. What happens if we acknowledge that the U.S. colony is anathema to Palestinian liberation? We consign ourselves to economic insecurity and professional disrepute, to the remarkably difficult task of upending the world as we know it, exactly what liberation requires. There are no easy solutions to Zionism. It won’t be defeated with smarmy optimism and a rah-rah spirit.
Anyway, what evidence shows that working within, or alongside, the Democratic Party has aided the project of Palestinian liberation? What evidence suggests that celebrity endorsements and upward mobility within hostile institutions will improve material conditions in Palestine? Reality tells a different story. Take away the glossy PR and the online bluster, and “the squad” has done basically nothing for Palestine. (Centrist Betty McCollum has been the most steadfast advocate of Palestine in the U.S. Congress, according to the moribund standards of that reliably Zionist institution, anyway.) Celebrity support for Palestine often proves fleeting, given the class interests at play; deleting “#freepalestine” is now a bona fide Hollywood tradition. And far from having energized the Palestine solidarity movement, as those who call him “Amo” like to proclaim, Bernie Sanders helped deplete it of revolutionary potential.
Other problems are more entrenched.
Educated professionals dominate the Palestine solidarity movement. There is little outreach to working-class Palestinian Americans, whose concerns and sensibilities are rarely found in movement literature. Too many self-appointed leaders thus misapprehend or ignore the complexity of thought in the Palestinian American community. It’s easy to conscript business owners and middle managers into defense of police and private property, an attitude that’s necessarily averse to Black and Native peoples.
Various community organizations have paymasters in Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, not to mention formal and informal ties to a vast Democratic Party apparatus. Anti-Zionism with CEOs and advisory boards. Aspirations to CNN and The Washington Post. Palestine is always the pretext, but rarely the priority.
We’re wise to remember that the homeland offers abundant love. We needn’t ingratiate ourselves to the U.S. professional class. It’s a losing strategy. And it can’t be done without abandoning our Palestinian brethren.
We should aspire to something better than being merely tolerated. We needn’t be grateful just to be seen; we can articulate compassion through obstinance and reproach. Anti-Zionism isn’t simply a politic; it is a sensibility, an attitude, a worldview. It is a refusal to accept any society predicated on suffering and displacement. It detests the ruling class. It rejects the misery presented as natural under capitalism. It honors those old revolutionary devotions: fuck Israel; fuck landlords; fuck civility; fuck the police.
The solidarity movement of the United States is no closer to effecting Palestine’s liberation than it was fifty years ago. In some ways, our position is worse, for fifty years ago our marginality indemnified us from easy cooptation or infiltration. Palestine has largely been appended to a social democratic left with a nagging habit of abandoning the nation and its people in service to electoral success. This legibility in leftist spaces has diminished rather than solidified the revolutionary properties of Palestinian resistance. Being nothing in this country wasn’t so bad, after all.
I stay certain of Palestine’s liberation, but have come to understand where the certainty is misplaced. With a seemingly magnetic attraction to (and glorification of) electoralism; a yearning for representation within a fundamentally hostile system (no matter how frequently, and harshly, unrequited); inattention to ongoing settler colonization in North America (and in the Pacific); a perverted and self-defeating understanding of imperialism (wherein activists reproduce State Department talking points); standard immigrant contempt for homegrown poverty; the astroturfing that dominates civic and religious organizations; an inbuilt culture of anti-Black and other forms of racism; relentless left-punching; the effectiveness of Zionist recrimination in spooking would-be dissidents; the emergence of social media influencers who capitulate to respectability politics and cultivate antipathy to armed Palestinian resistance (or really to any resistance unauthorized by large foundations with CIA ties); and a preponderance of petite bourgeois social climbers—all of it abruptly unleashed last week in shameless celebration of American policing—it’s pretty clear that maintaining a proper anti-Zionism in the U.S. metropole has become all but impossible.