[News] Sanders and Palestine: a Post Mortem

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Apr 17 11:18:21 EDT 2020

and Palestine: a Post Mortem
by Steven Salaita <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/spere5astasp6fr/> -
April 17, 2020

Let me start with a story about the Democratic primary.  Now, I’m no
operative, so this story has nothing to do with voting choices or
electability.  It’s about how Palestine disappears in US electoral
discourses, even when people who identify as Palestinian purport to make it

Sometime ago, I was added to an online group of Palestinian Americans
organizing for Bernie Sanders’ campaign.  The specific identity of the
group is immaterial.  Many such groups existed and as far as I can see the
outcome of their work fit a standard template:  we’re Palestinian (and thus
purport to speak for all Palestinians from within the United States);
Bernie’s not perfect (but he really is kinda perfect); Bernie’s by far the
best on Palestine (trust us); this isn’t merely about Palestine (Palestine
is merely the pretext); we’ll be sure to hold him accountable (even though
we just finished giving him unqualified support).  I don’t want to put
Palestinians on the spot; all statements supporting presidential candidates
look more or less the same.  Let’s call it a limitation of the genre and
leave it at that.

So, members of this group were working on a statement explaining why
Palestinians should support Sanders.  Somebody put up a shared document
with various points exaggerating Sanders’ record as an advocate for
Palestinian rights and some fantasizing about Palestine’s future under a
Sanders presidency.  Again, pretty typical stuff, which is to say a whole
lot of bullshit.

In the margin of the document, a user asked, “Is Sanders a Zionist?,” to
which another person replied, “Yes he is.”  No discussion ensued.  The
question and answer hung in silence until the document went public, at
which point any consideration of Sanders’ Zionism had been scrubbed.

I’m less interested in the question of Sanders’ Zionism than I am in the
reasons for scrubbing Zionism from the conversation about Sanders.  Sanders
doesn’t call himself a Zionist, and the label can flatten a pretty wide
range of thought, but if we examine Sanders’ positions against what the
Palestine solidarity movement understands to be Zionism, then Sanders
unambiguously fits the description.  He constantly affirms Israel’s right
to exist as a Jewish state.  He opposes right of return.  He treats
Netanyahu as the aberration from a humanistic norm.  Yeah, he’s a Zionist.
This fact wasn’t lost on his Palestinian American champions.  It just
didn’t seem to bother them very much.

But let’s leave the question of Sanders’ Zionism to the side, for it has
proved effective at putting colleagues at loggerheads.  Whatever Sanders or
any other politician thinks about Palestine should have no influence on how
*Palestinians* think about Palestine.  In fact, according to the
mythography of electoralism, it’s the community’s duty to educate the
politician.  In order to accomplish that goal, the community needs to
convey principles it considers nonnegotiable.  For Palestinians, those
principles would include right of return and full equality in all of
historic Palestine.

That’s not what happened in the various statements of support.  Instead,
their authors instrumentalized Palestine as an abstract commitment—an idea
mobilized through performances of ethnic verisimilitude—in order to boost a
campaign extraneous to the actual work of decolonization.  Rather than
pressuring the politician, they made demands of the audience and assured
people opposed to Zionism that voting for someone pledging to uphold
Israel’s “Jewish character” wasn’t a pragmatic concession, but an act of
virtue, a feat of devotion to Palestine.

What does it mean that groups visibly and proudly identifying as
Palestinian felt it necessary to scrub Zionism in order to boost a
politician jockeying to supervise US Empire?  By what moral calculus did
those groups take vital demands off the table?  Did they have the consent
of refugees for whom right of return is sacrosanct?  Of the Palestinian
working class in the United States?  Or was it an exercise in unilateral
leadership by the diasporic professional class?

I know what the response is:  we didn’t mythologize anyone; we regularly
pointed out his weaknesses.  Well, not really.  (I didn’t see you pointing
out that Sanders is a Zionist, for example.)  Exerting tremendous energy to
conceptualize Sanders as a benevolent uncle figure and then occasionally
saying “he needs more work on this issue” or “we need to keep pushing him”
was a cardinal feature of mythologization, as was running interference with
points of view more palatable to the mainstream when fellow anti-Zionists
dissented from the consensus.  Saying “he’s the best on Palestine even
though he’s not perfect” was the rankest kind of mythmaking.  It confused
“being better than a terrible field” with “being good.”

I saw in these statements a yearning to matter, a desire to at long last be
taken seriously after decades of abuse and disregard.  It’s a normal
response to subordination, to the pain of continuous betrayal, but no
amount of high-minded talk about an electoral revolution will compel sites
of power to care about Palestinian Americans.  They shouldn’t be our
audience, anyway.  Palestinians are admired by people around the world who
value justice and resilience and dignity.  Let’s not forgot our place,
which isn’t among consultants and technocrats, but with the ignominious,
the surplus, the unbeloved.

During the primary, and during the 2016 election cycle, whenever I
expressed skepticism about deploying Palestine in service of a presidential
campaign, other Palestinian Americans quickly intervened:  “Well, I mean
Steve’s making an, ahem, important point, but, here, let me butt in and do
it, you know, more responsibly.”  I found it to be a pathetic move.  The
idea was to keep radicalism in check, or to snuff it out.  Decolonization,
however, is inherently radical in the metropole.  The interventions were
thus a form of ostracism:  we don’t want disreputable elements of our
community running a bus over this good foot we’re trying to put forward.
The limits of US electoralism came to define the parameters of Palestinian

Electioneering requires compromise, but compromise isn’t a neutral
practice.  The people are made to sacrifice for the affluent.  That’s how
compromise works under capitalism.  Every time, every single time, it’s
some aspect of Palestinian freedom that must be compromised.  Never the
candidate’s position.  Never the system’s inherent conservatism.  Never the
ongoing march of settler colonization.  We’re volunteering to be captured
by the settler’s notion of common sense.

And what would have happened if your guy won?  You already gave up right of
return.  A one-state solution.  Anti-imperialism. Nobody was talking about
general strikes until the pandemic. And nobody ever talks about armed
struggle.  How did you plan to get these things back on the table after
having surrendered them to a person whose first, second, and third priority
is appeasing power?  You gave up something Palestinians have struggled and
died for over the course of decades, and for what?  Just to make the
apocryphal and frankly useless point that this politician is a more
tolerable Zionist than the other ones?

And when your guy loses?  This is the question of the moment, isn’t it?
You gave up all that leverage for nothing (except for individual
benefits).  What happens next?  God knows I can’t answer that question.
I’m not saying don’t participate, don’t vote, don’t be interested in a
candidate.  That’s not the point.  I dislike coercive forms of persuasion.
 I’m simply trying to convince you not to give up the idea of freedom as
it’s articulated by the downtrodden.  Not for any reason.  Certainly not
for a goddamn politician.

There’s a question you ought to ask as necessary (which is to say
constantly):  what happens to Palestine?  When we humor a system calibrated
to exclude us, when we pretend that liberation is possible on the margins
of a hostile polity, when we imagine liberal Zionism as a prelude to
freedom, then what happens to Palestine?

Raising this kind of skepticism is a good way to get branded a hater.
(Treating the recalcitrant as irrational is a central feature of electoral
discipline.)  I hate this sensibility precisely because I’m not a hater,
because I recognize that defiance is a priceless asset in conditions of
loss and dispossession.  Let’s please abandon this smug idea that
skepticism ruins the party for sensible people.  It’s an ugly form of
internal colonization.  Recalcitrance can be a deep, abiding act of love,
in this case a devotion to life realized in the form of a simple question:
what happens to Palestine?

The system you deign to reform ranks nothing above ruling class
accumulation—the system, in other words, is designed to betray, and
performs its mandate with brutal efficiency.  And so the answer to that
timeless question never changes:  Palestine goes away.  Any group that
doesn’t facilitate a flow of capital into the imperial core is fit for
disappearance.  Our mandate, in turn, isn’t to seek the approval of our
oppressor, but to earn his contempt.

Instrumentalizing the persecuted is a critical feature of electoralism.
Promoting a Zionist presidential candidate *and* remaining faithful to the
core tenets of anti-Zionism?  Forget it.  It’s not happening.  It *can’t*
happen.  Electoralism is salted against insurgency.  It’s not a space for
ideas, for creativity, for the simple decency of not asking the least
powerful among us to defer their freedom; it’s hostile to anything that
impedes the reproduction of orthodoxy.  Liberation has always required
tremendous imagination.  That’s not on offer when the talking points are
being written by David Sirota.

You have no cause to be angry with Sanders.  Not now.  He hasn’t broken a
single pledge.  He never hid his intentions.  There was plenty of reason
for concern when he kept repeating liberal Zionist platitudes.  It was you,
not Sanders, who folded Palestine into a campaign that always promised to
maintain the status quo.  The outcome was easy to predict because it has
many decades of precedent.  Palestinians, victim of a million betrayals,
should know this better than anyone.  We also know that struggle has no
easy trajectory.  Mass movements predicated on voting make for attractive
sources of relief.  Then they go up in smoke and you’re left to find the
next shiny figure to exploit, the next fount of excitement and pageantry
and social capital.  This isn’t a serious politics.  It’s terminal naivete,
or industrial self-promotion.

And now what?  You disposed of the most radical members of our community,
systematically excluding so many brethren from the life-sustaining pleasure
of shared resistance, in order to assuage a bunch of faceless assholes
waiting for the first opportunity to dispose of you, all that love
sacrificed for no reward beyond some retweets and an evanescent sense of
importance, your moment of being accepted by the polity now replaced by
angry regret for having again succumbed to the gravitational pull of
authority, of the state and its functionaries, of the very institutions
that maintain our dispossession.  But our nation, Palestine, is neither
temporary nor ephemeral.  Our politics should match the condition.

*This essay first appeared on Steven Salaita’s blog
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