Palestine Isn’t Ferguson

Any useful analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires engaging with an unresolved, frustratingly complex struggle between two national movements, each with a justified claim to the land.

Protest signs reading "Palestinian lives matter" and "Black lives matter."
Mati Milstein / NurPhoto / Getty

About the author: Susie Linfield is the author of The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left From Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky and The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence.

In the imagination of the Christian West, Jews have been forced to fill every role. For 2,000 years, they have been seen as the ultimate shape-shifters: craven, feeble, abject, weak, and humiliated, but also powerful, conspiratorial, and demonic. They are the prime, indeed fatal, danger to the societies in which they live: arch-capitalists and arch-revolutionaries. Jews are a symbol, a metaphor, an essence. So it should come as no surprise that the state of the Jewish people, where almost half of the world’s Jews live, is also viewed in this way. Israel is both an obsession and an abstraction—as the Jewish people have been for much of Western history.

Israel is unusual in that it existed as an idea before it existed as a nation-state. Today, it is also unusual, even remarkable, for lacking internationally recognized borders—an indispensable marker of sovereignty—and for decades it has been depriving Palestinians in the occupied territories of political rights and freedom. “After 1967, Israel stopped becoming a normal nation-state,” Arnon Degani, a Hebrew University history professor who is a member of the anti-occupation veterans’ group Breaking the Silence, told me recently. “Time passed on, and Israel becomes more and more abnormal.” Leftist Israelis—many of whom define themselves as Zionists—call the occupation criminal, atrocious, unbearable; their critique is broader, and deeper, than most of what you read or hear in the United States. As a result of the occupation, the literary critic Nissim Calderon told me, “Wider and wider circles of life, both for Israelis and Palestinians, become infected with cruelty.”

But the peculiar ways in which Israel has been historically viewed—and the ways in which, in the most recent Israel-Hamas war, it was depicted as an almost metaphysical evil—have deeper, and other, roots. “The reality of Israel is, in large measure, a projection of fantasies, both by those who want to love the place and those who are consumed by hatred for it,” wrote the Israeli American writer Joel Schalit. Or, as Etan Nechin, an Israeli journalist who edits The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature, argues, “The left thinks that Israel exists only on a highly ideological-political level. There are no people in it. It’s only a tabula rasa.”

Any useful analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires engaging with an unresolved, frustratingly complex, grievously resilient struggle between two national movements, each with a justified claim to the land. Once that effort is abandoned, a vacuum ensues. It is filled by the transformation of a country into a metaphor; by the rewriting (or ignoring) of history; by Manichean thinking; and by the conversion of language into a means of performance rather than a description of reality.

Leftist theorists have a long tradition of turning the Jewish people into an abstraction. In his 1843 essay “On the Jewish Question,” a very young Karl Marx wrote that, because Judaism’s essence was “practical need, selfishness … haggling and money,” a truly free world would entail “the emancipation of humanity from Judaism.” Some—including the Marxist philosopher with whom I live—argue that this essay isn’t anti-Semitic, because Marx wasn’t addressing actual Jews but rather Jews as the symbolic essence of capitalism. But this is precisely the point, and the problem: As many racial-justice theorists have pointed out, transforming a people into a concept is an act of dehumanization.

Since Zionism’s inception, the left—following Marx—has often projected its fixations onto Israel and the state’s political conflicts, and thereby sorely misunderstood them.

Hannah Arendt and Arthur Koestler were each, in their different ways, exemplars of this propensity. Both traveled to the pre-state Yishuv (and then to Israel), both had extremely conflicted attitudes toward Zionism and Israel, both can be categorized as having been, at various times, Zionists and anti-Zionists. Arendt was a rhapsodic supporter of the Yishuv, though she opposed partition, hated David Ben-Gurion, and was a fierce critic of the Zionist movement. Her fears that Israel would devolve into ethnic nationalism, and would find itself in constant conflict with its Arab neighbors, proved astute—painfully so. But she rejected the prism of either colonialism or imperialism. Instead, she perceived that the early Zionists had created something new: History is not merely a series of repetitions. “The building of a Jewish national home was not a colonial enterprise in which Europeans came to exploit foreign riches … at the expense of native labor,” she wrote. The Yishuv “could not possibly fit into the political scheme of imperialism because it was neither a master nor a subject nation.”

Yet Arendt also tended to view the new state through the catastrophic lens of German history. Visiting Israel for Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961, she wrote, “The parallels are fatal, particularly in the details.” Actually, it’s hard to think of two nations that were—and are—less parallel than Germany and Israel. This mistaken identification led her to prophesize a series of disasters for Israel that were wide of the mark. Statehood, she insisted in 1948, would lead to the Yishuv’s collapse, though the opposite proved true; later she warned of a possible military dictatorship, isolation, cultural sterility, and domination by the Soviet Union. And her understanding of Palestinian politics—an essential part of the equation—was virtually nil.

Arthur Koestler—fervent Communist, fervent anti-Communist—became enamored of militaristic Revisionist Zionism as a university student, and in 1926 he had a brief, unhappy stint at a Zionist commune in Palestine. (In fact, his comrades expelled him.) Like Arendt, Koestler transferred the traumatic European politics of the interwar period—especially its leftist politics—onto Israel. This meant that he misunderstood quite a lot. He viewed the strife between Labor Zionists and Revisionists as a replay of the deadly Stalinist-Trotskyist antagonism of the Spanish Civil War. He believed that Hebrew (which he failed to master) would separate Israelis from European culture and prove intellectually sterile. He charged Ben-Gurion with establishing a “totalitarian” regime, and compared what he called “Haganahism” to Nazism and Stalinism. In his view, interest in Israel would wane: He predicted that 50 years after its founding, “few will take an interest” in Israel’s birth or would dispute partition, and that Israel would ultimately “become an entirely ‘un-Jewish’ country”—a prospect of which he highly approved. He turned out to be far less prescient than Arendt.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new theory emerged among leftist anti-Zionists: Jews who had fled their homes in the Arab world—Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, and elsewhere—would unite with Palestinians to overthrow the presumably oppressive Zionist state and establish … well, something else. These leftist activists assumed a natural—that is, ethnic—affinity between Palestinians and Jews from the Arab world. After all, both were apparently non-European (or, in today’s parlance, “people of color”). The theory proved catastrophically wrong, because it ignored the discrimination—and, sometimes, violence—that Jews had experienced in Arab countries, and the enmities that led many of their Muslim Arab neighbors to drive them out. Today, Arab countries have virtually no Jewish citizens, and Mizrahi Israelis constitute a key part of the Israeli right’s base.

When a country—or a people—is treated as a blank canvas, almost anything can be painted onto it. Israel’s victory in the 1967 War—which birthed the occupation—transformed the country, in the eyes of the global left, into the colonialist, imperialist, racist, even fascist monster of the Middle East: “the new Shylock of the non-aligned world,” as the socialist-Zionist Simha Flapan wrote at the time. This was true in both Europe and America. Just two months after the war—when there was still free movement between the conquered territories and Israel, when there were virtually no settlements, and when the occupation was far from certain—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee accused Israelis of “imitating their Nazi oppressors.”

This tendency to veer from vehement but rational political criticism to grotesquely engorged vilification was most extreme in the theory and practice of the West German New Left. The tormented descendants of the Auschwitz generation aligned with Palestinian terror groups, and—irony of ironies—designated Israel as the fascist, genocidal successor to the Third Reich. The Israeli German historian Dan Diner has termed this bizarre equation of Germans and Jews an “exonerating projection”: an attempt to normalize Nazism by transposing it onto its victims.

Something similar is happening with the delegitimizing charges of “imperialism” and “settler colonialism” that some members of today’s left in Europe and the U.S. hurl against Israel, the historian Benny Morris told me. “The liberal left feels guilty about its past crimes,” said Morris, whose book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 is a canonical work in revisionist Israeli history. “And this is projected onto current conflicts, especially the Israeli-Arab conflict.” He added, “There’s a basic anti-Semitism in the West and a basic obsession with the Holy Land in the Christian West. And these two things make it impossible for anybody to look at Israel in a neutral way.” Seventy years after its founding, Israel is regarded (by Jews and non-Jews, right and left, West and East) as a cause, a tragedy, a miracle, a nightmare, a project—one that is highly provisional and should perhaps be canceled. Is there any other sovereign nation, from the most miserable failed states to those that are flourishing, of which the same can be said?

Once specificity vanishes, metaphors bloom. One of the left’s favorites is Israel–as–South Africa. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, for instance, is built on the insistence that Israel is a replica (or, in Arendtian terms, a “parallel”) of South Africa pre-1994. In this view, because an international boycott isolated South Africa and helped end apartheid, an international boycott will isolate Israel and help end the occupation (or, perhaps, end Israel itself, as many BDS supporters seem to hope). But the two countries aren’t really the same, and a strange thing has happened: In the years since the BDS movement was founded, Israel has become less isolated from other nations, its economy has flourished, and Arab Israelis have made impressive gains in education and employment—even as the occupation has become more entrenched. Something is wrong with the metaphor. Still, BDS soldiers on, routinely proclaiming its victories. It is doubtful, though, that a boycott of Israel—even by Sally Rooney!—will persuade most Israelis that the occupation should end, any more than a boycott of the United States would have convinced many Americans to dump President Donald Trump.

Accompanying obfuscating metaphors are profound distortions of history—or, rather, anachronistic readings of it. The socialist magazine Jacobin, for instance, confidently states that Israel was “born out of nineteenth-century European imperialism.” The inhabitants of the Yishuv were a varied lot, but many, indeed most, were immiserated refugees fleeing oppression and then extermination: “Israel is the State of the displaced person,” the decidedly non-Zionist Isaac Deutscher, a Marxist historian, noted. The contemporary left has somehow transformed these refugees into wily, powerful, “non-indigenous” imperialists who sat in Kyiv and Vilnius, scheming to steal land from Arab peasants. (It is baffling to hear leftists, the great defenders of refugees and immigrants, divide the inhabitants of Israel and Palestine into those who deserve to build a life there—the “indigenous”—and those who don’t.)

Rather than imperialism, modern Zionism was rooted in the national-liberation and socialist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, the kibbutzim were hailed by leftists as the purest form of anti-authoritarian communism—built, as a delighted Deutscher wrote, “by the self-sacrifice and courage of idealistic intellectuals and workers.” But apparently Deutscher was wrong; another Jacobin writer now informs us that the kibbutz movement embodied the “negation of socialism” and the sin of “ethnic separatism.”

The ethnic-racial lens is a particularly inapt frame through which to view the unique circumstances in which Zionism developed. The Hebrew Labor movement—the spine of the state—was based on the principle that Jews must earn the right to the land through their own self-sufficient labor and that they could not exploit Arab workers; they refused to become bosses of Arab workers or peasants. Yet for Jacobin, this epitomized contempt for Arab labor as “a primitive mode of production unfit for the proletarian revolution” and “the total racialization of the class struggle,” an almost comic misreading. As the journalist and historian Bernard Avishai pointed out to me, Hebrew Labor was “in many ways the opposite of classical colonialism … The left never understood that the ‘colonial project’ [of Israel] was basically a desperate effort to create a Jewish cultural life that would be resilient enough to survive the modern world.” He adds that the Zionists “were afraid to become Arabic-speaking overseers of Arab labor. So by the time of the second Aliyah, there were collective institutions that excluded Arabs … That looked like a racist thing, but so does affirmative action look like a racist thing, if you don’t understand its purpose.”

Along with the misreading of history is its essentialization: Zionism is a project “of systemic, massive violence,” one recent BDS petition contends. The extraordinarily tangled history of the Zionist movement—which includes Marxists and capitalists, peacemakers and militarists, secularists and believers, humanists and racists—is actually a consistent record of being “inherently violent,” according to a student group called Michigan in Color. (Whether the Palestinian movement has an “inherent” character remains unexplored.) Zionism is depicted as a kind of iron cage—stamped from the beginning, so to speak—instead of a fluid political movement that developed in dialectical relation to world events. Such essentialist views have traditionally been expressed by historians who believed in the German concept (later embraced by the Nazis) of the Volksgeist; it is startling to hear them propounded by progressives.

And Zionism developed, especially, in relation to the national movement of its neighbors, the Palestinians. Their agency, too, has been erased; instead, they are depicted in cartoonlike form as either mighty, unbowed anti-imperialist warriors or innocent, reactive victims. In fact, leftists seem as uninterested in the rich texture of Palestinian politics as they are in Israeli politics. A wide range of views exists among Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories; the American left might at least notice that Arab Israeli leaders such as Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List, and Palestinian leaders such as Marwan Barghouti, now imprisoned on multiple terrorism charges, both support a two-state solution.

In the Israel-Hamas war last May, the “racialization” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the latest use of unilluminating metaphors and false symmetries—became widespread. “From Ferguson to Palestine!” appeared on posters and petitions and rang out at demonstrations. The Black Lives Matter movement—and African American oppression in general—was repeatedly likened to, or even conflated with, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, residents of Ferguson, Missouri, and those in Palestine both face “an occupying force.” An activist with the progressive American Jewish group IfNotNow confidently explained to The New York Times that racism in America and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians amount to “the exact same system.” Zellie Thomas, a Black Lives Matter organizer in New Jersey, asserted at a pro-Palestinian demonstration, “We know occupation; we know colonization.” The contemporary American obsession with race and skin color, in which politics reduces to stark racial categories and racial categories reduce to even starker moral ones, was transposed to a country and a conflict in the midst of the Arab world.

But is the situation of a stateless Palestinian living under the corruption and ineptitude of the disempowered Palestinian Authority, or ruled by the jihadist authoritarians of Hamas in isolated, besieged Gaza, meaningfully analogous to that of a Black citizen in 21st-century America? If not, what do the words occupation and colonization signify, other than linguistic bravado? This is a form not of solidarity but of self-regard. And surely the Palestinians deserve far more than this—deserve, that is, to be seen within the political and moral context of their own society, movement, and history rather than as a projection or pawn of American preoccupations.

This transposition of a national conflict between two peoples into a racial one strikes many Israelis as, in the words of the historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg, “insanely absurd” and “embarrassing.” In reality, Israel is one of the most multicultural societies on Earth, composed of immigrants from around the world; anyone standing on a Jerusalem street for half an hour will see Jewish Israelis, born in countries from Scandinavia to the Horn of Africa, who, naturally, range widely in appearance. It is estimated that a majority of Jewish Israelis are descendants of those who fled, or were kicked out of, the Arab or Muslim countries in which they had lived for centuries; they are more likely to hail from Morocco than from Germany. Arab Israelis and Palestinians also vary widely in appearance, which is why so many Jewish Israelis are indistinguishable from so many Palestinians.

The Ferguson metaphor is no more useful than the South African one, and it illustrates the great weakness—and the great temptation—of metaphorical thinking in general: It offers ready-made analyses and ready-made solutions. “The problem with analogies,” Gorenberg told me, “is that they take something you don’t understand, equate it with something you do understand, and make you think you understand it.”

Once language is unmoored from reality, it can become unhinged, which may be why the old, ugliest eliminationist rhetoric that the Palestinian Liberation Organization used before the Oslo Accords circulated widely among purported progressives during the last war. An organizer for Students for Justice in Palestine pithily explained at a rally, “Zionism is genocide. Zionism is racism. Zionism is violence.” In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives accused Israel not only of exploiting and oppressing the Palestinians, which it is, but also of committing “genocide.” The union of New Yorker workers tweeted its solidarity with Palestinians “from the river to the sea” without, apparently, understanding that the phrase has traditionally implied the elimination of Israel. (The union later deleted the tweet and apologized.)

In statements and petitions, the words racism, imperialism, colonialism, settler-colonialism, apartheid, capitalism, and genocide were clotted together into a smorgasbord of evil, as if the writers couldn’t decide which to choose. I received many of these petitions. They reminded me of George Orwell’s warning, in “Politics and the English Language,” about the intimate connection between debased political language and debased political thought: “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” The intent is not to make a political argument—to explain, to convince—but to elicit Pavlovian reactions of disgust, thereby bypassing actual thought.

The recent equation of African American oppression and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been hailed as a triumph of intersectionality, whose proponents aim to build international solidarity across barriers of class, race, gender, and nation. And sometimes, they do. But in the current case, the theory has been used (or, I would argue, misused) to occlude complex realities, negate history, prevent critical thinking, and foster juvenile simplifications.

Intersectionality’s original theorists were Black women who developed nuanced arguments about the tangled political, legal, social, historic, and structural factors that undergird inequalities. Thus, a truly intersectional approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would, of necessity, incorporate the Jewish people’s torturous history of expulsion, pariahdom, statelessness, and genocide. A truly intersectional approach would incorporate the realization that, while Israel is far more powerful than the Palestinians, it is an often besieged minority within the larger Arab and Muslim worlds—something of which even the most left-wing Israelis are acutely aware. (As Nissim Calderon, who has been an anti-occupation activist for 50 years, explained to me, “In the reality of the Middle East, without a state, we will be murdered. By Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas—everyone.”)

A truly intersectional approach would recognize Israelis’ need for, and right to, security. An intersectional left—or a simply honest one—would not delicately turn away from the religious sectarianism, violent repression, and anti-feminism of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It certainly could not dismiss discussion of Hamas’s rockets as, in the words of Scholars for Palestinian Freedom, “stale talking points.” A truly intersectional left might notice that the recent Arab Lives Matter movement, organized by Israel’s Arab citizens, is angrily demanding more police protection in response to the alarming surge in crime, including murder, in Israel’s Arab-majority towns. Apparently, Taibeh and Minneapolis aren’t quite the same.

Instead, what we now have is a kind of deformed intersectionality—intersectionality lite—in which the theory has been robbed of its challenging nuances and flattened into a starkly reductionist insistence that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is Manichean. Or even, by a sleight of hand, that it doesn’t exist at all; as a Canadian Green Party lawmaker recently tweeted, “There are no two sides to this conflict, only human rights abuses! #EndApartheid.” Of course, the right is no different from the left in finding something comforting, or at least comfortable, about this sort of dichotomous vision. Right-wing American supporters of Israel—including many members of AIPAC, for which the Jewish state is a perpetually innocent dream palace—are equally facile, and willfully blinkered, in their views.

There is another problem with intersectionality, at least in the way it is now being used. It, too, is a kind of conceit—an updated version of “We Are the World.” As the political theorist Michael Walzer told me, “Intersectionality is a genuinely useful idea. But there is no intersection between American Blacks and Palestinians. The moral significance of solidarity is that it extends solidarity to people with whom you have no intersection. Intersectionality is an entirely different idea from internationalism.” The Israeli journalist Etan Nechin observed to me that the American left’s discourse on Israel is “an offshoot of identity politics, with emphasis on ‘me.’ But internationalism was never about that.” To support other peoples or movements because they are somehow “like” you—or because they “look like you”—betrays the traditional ethos of internationalism.

And in the Manichean imagination—and this, I think, is its greatest sin, if I can use that word—the democratic forces within Israel, both Jewish and Arab, are rendered literally invisible, as if by a perverse magic trick. In Haaretz, Nechin recently charged that those on the American left—and particularly the Jewish American left—“dismiss realities on the ground in Israel and Palestine entirely, and instead offer high-minded ideological critiques.” As for ending the occupation, American leftists “expect … if that day comes, [that] it won’t be because of the work of decades by the Israeli left, but because Americans boycotted SodaStream.” Gone missing are “the hundreds of thousands of union workers, writers, doctors, teachers, activists, and everyday people within the Green Line who protested the Jewish Nation State Bill, or go out on a Friday afternoon to stand in solidarity next to their Palestinian neighbors.”

***

Today’s left, and today’s liberals, are in a bit of a pickle—or at least in a state of moral and theoretical disarray. I don’t exempt myself from that. It is extremely hard to figure out how to extend solidarity—in real, not rhetorically grandiose terms—to Syrians and Afghans; to democracy activists in China, Nicaragua, and Hong Kong; to horrifically endangered peoples such as the Uyghurs and Yazidis and Rohingya. Ending the occupation, and strengthening endangered democratic institutions in Israel, are goals that rank high on the list of political urgencies for some of us.

In the current, often bewildering international context, the venomous attacks on Israel qua Israel offer a seductively easy, morally antiseptic—and, I would add, appallingly self-absorbed—way to intervene in foreign affairs. The hysterical hyperbole, the self-referential projections, the lazy conflations, the warped histories that abound today: All substitute for solidarity. What is needed, I believe, is an entry into the world of political thought, whose foundation is the ability to make distinctions within the context of history rather than to crush them.

So no, Palestine isn’t Ferguson, Israel isn’t South Africa, and Zionism isn’t white supremacy. As Arendt wrote, the activity of thinking—the very basis of politics—begins with the knowledge that “A and B are not the same.”