On Contact: ‘Except for Palestine’
On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses why American liberals refuse to speak out about the crimes the Israeli apartheid state carries out against the Palestinians, with political analyst and author Mitchell Plitnick.
Mitchell Plitnick's new book, with co-author Marc Lamont Hill, is: Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics.
“Israel is in breach of more than 30 U.N. Security Council resolutions. It is in breach of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention that defines collective punishment of a civilian population as a war crime. It is in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention for settling over half a million Jewish Israelis on occupied Palestinian land and for the ethnic cleansing of at least 750,000 Palestinians when the Israeli state was founded and another 300,000 after Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank were occupied following the 1967 war,” wrote Hedges in his recent commentary, Israel, the Big Lie for Scheerpost. “Its annexation of East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights violates international law, as does its building of a security barrier in the West Bank that annexes Palestinian land into Israel. It is in violation of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 that states that Palestinian ‘refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.’ ”
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today we're going to discuss why liberals are liberal about everything except Palestine with the author, Mitchell Plitnick.
MP: Asking it specifically of the Palestinians is asking the Palestinians to say, "Zionism was correct. We had no right to be living in the land that we have lived in for centuries upon centuries. And they were right to dispossess us and drive us from our land. And isn't it wonderful that they're being so nice to us now that they're actually willing to give us little crumbs from their table."
CH: Those who oppose regressive policies on immigration, racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and the crimes of empire often draw the line when it comes to Israel. There they remain silent or mouth-tipped bromides about the war crimes the Israeli apartheid state carries out against the Palestinians. These liberals, some of whom but not all are Jewish, are known as progressive except for Palestine or PEPs. But is it actually possible to define one's self as a Liberal or a Progressive while making excuses for Israel's occupation, religious chauvinism, anti-Arab racism, selective application of human rights standards, and flagrant disregard for international law? Isn't there a deep connection between the militarized police in American cities, many of whom have attended Israeli training courses, which act as international forces of occupation and Israel's brutal subjugation of the Palestinian people? Is it accidental that corporations such as Caterpillar provide the equipment to Israel to demolish Palestinian homes and also provide the barriers between the United States and Mexico? Is it accidental that Caterpillar equipment, ubiquitous in the Israeli-occupied territories, destroy the sacred sites on Standing Rock tribal land while building the Dakota Access Pipeline? Doesn't holding fast one-sided, and unwaveringly pro-Israeli policies foster the truth-bending grip of authoritarianism and the evisceration of the rule of law? Is it accidental that civil liberties are revoked in the United States and Israel against its most vulnerable? Each country is plagued by a growing crypto-fascism, disdain for democracy, and unchecked militarism. Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick in their book, Except For Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics, argue that this disconnect is as damaging to our liberal democracy as it is to the democratic traditions in Israel. Once rights become privileges then they are easily revoked, not only for poor Blacks and Palestinians, but eventually for us all. Joining me to discuss Except For Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics is Mitchell Plitnick. So let's begin with this disconnect, which I think you and Marc quite presciently focused on in your book. Explain how it works.
MP: Well, you know, I think what we're looking at is we're trying to look at this sort of on the political basis. So, you know, one of the things that we avoid trying to get into is getting into people's heads and how people individually come to these basis, and think of it more in terms of politics. So we look at, for example, the way when Trump started imprisoning children on the border, really militarizing the border, you know, building the wall, and particularly the separation of families, how there was a massive outcry. There was protest--they were--they were set to protest in this country that had not been seen in many years. And it was--there was a basic moral outrage over what was happening. Yet, at the same time--or, at least around the same time, the Trump administration decided to cut off funds for the UN Relief and Work Agency, UNRWA, which is a tiny, tiny piece of US foreign aid, in general, and certainly the US budget, but it provide--UNRWA provides crucial services to Palestinian refugees, not only in Gaza and the West Bank, but in areas around, you know, Lebanon, and Jordan, and Syria. There was no really good strategic reason to do this. This was a move of spite that hurt innocent people. But this past without--almost unnoticed outside of people who are already active on the issue. So we compare--we open the book by comparing--contrasting those two things intentionally to say, "Look, you know, how is it? How do we live in a system where we--where one thing happens and people get outraged, then something that, true--you know, and we grant--you know, we make sure to grant. That--we understand that UNRWA is not happening--you know, the UNRWA cut is not something happening here. It's not happening to people here. It's not happening to our direct neighbors in the way that, you know, the border crisis worked. But still there was just nothing. There was just not a peep. There was no--virtually no objection from people who are generally interested in what happens in the Middle East. We felt--we feel that these two things cannot be reconciled in any way other than trying to figure out politically why it is that when we come to discuss Israeli actions, they seem to pass without scrutiny. We're seeing right now a really good example of this. You know, Betty McCollum just put forth a bill that simply calls for US law to be obeyed, essentially. That military aid to Israel, there would be reports by the State Department regularly on how that aid is used. You know, the AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group argues against it, saying it's redundant. Well, then if it's redundant, what's the problem, right? If you're going to contend that it already happens, which it doesn't, then why even bother objecting to it? Again, people do not want to discuss the entire--the implications of our policy in Israel-Palestine, and that's where we have a problem. So, you know, politically, the dynamic is that Israel can do what it wants, and it's politically virtually poisonous to even bring it up here in Washington. It's starting to change a little bit. But for--you know, for the mainstream liberalism of the United States, you know, it's okay to speak out about all sorts of other things, but, again, not for Palestine.
CH: Well, this is what Trump--he calls worthy and unworthy victims.
CH: So you have these liberal human rights groups calling for--calling on China to stop the repression against the Uyghurs. And I just want to give an egregious example of this kind of cognitive dissidence or mindset. So during Operation Protective Edge, in which Israel killed about five hundred fifty Gazan children and one Israeli child was killed from rockets, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel wrote that the crisis in Gaza and Israel is between, and I'm quoting, "Those who celebrate life and those who champion death. Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it's Hamasa's turn." Now, first of all, as someone who has spent months of my life in Gaza, the notion that Palestinian parents don't care and love for their children as deeply as we do is not only wrong but racist. But here you have Elie Wiesel who traveled the world. He was in the Balkans when I was there, and quite courageously outspoken about the Kosovo Albanians who were--became--driven to refugee camps in Macedonia. But this massive disconnect, I think, typifies exactly what it is you're speaking about. And I think you argue quite correctly that what it does is undermine just the credibility of those of us who do care about the rule of law and do care about human rights because it's clear that that's not true in the case of Israel-Palestine.
MP: Yeah. I would agree. I think that is one of the points that we're making. And I think also that when we're talking about, you know--we're talking about Elie Wiesel's statements, and I have had, over the years, a lot to say about Elie Wiesel, somebody who I read pretty much all of his works as a child and as a young teenager. And then saw his--later on, saw his complete inability to apply that humanity to the Palestinians. And it really was only the Palestinians who were an exception, although occasionally he would also make some really mind-boggling statements about other groups if it had something to do with Israel, so--the Armenian genocide was another place that he was a little bit weak on from time to time. But that's, I think, to some extent, at least, an example of NIMBY, right, not in my backyard, and that whole concept of it's very easy to stand up for human rights when it's not your group that is the oppressor. It's easy to point a finger at China, to point a finger at Russia, to point a finger at, you know--I'd make a very long list of human rights violators around the world. It's not easy to do it when it's your own people. And I think that's really the test of your ethical ability. Having said that, I think, you know, for Marc and myself, this was less about figures in the Jewish community than it was actually just a much more generalized--Jews certainly included, but a much more generalized message to liberal Americans, Jewish or otherwise, who seem to be okay with policies--I mean, I think, again, just to bring up a very current example, you know, we are quick to talk about--or, you know, in Venezuela, we are--there--there's always this big, "Oh, look how the election was stolen and what a horrible thing is going on there," so much so that the more radical rightwing was able to marshal support from fairly mainstream sources for the idea of regime change there. Even though, you know, many liberals did draw the line at that point, but still they were certainly willing to shine a great light on Maduro's electoral malfeasance in Venezuela. Now, when the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tells Israel, "All you have to do is not allow Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote in our elections and I will have the reason to canter them because you don't want to see what will happen if these elections go forward, and neither do I," the United States and the Biden administration explicitly said, "That's okay." They literally said, "We understand that you're going to do this and it's fine." And when he went ahead and did it, and actually the White House was asked about it, they have no comment about it whatsoever. They said, "That's an internal Palestinian matter," which would be great if they applied that to Venezuela as well, but obviously they do not. So how--again, how do we reconcile this? How is it--this is not Trump, you know, disregarding and saying, "I don't care what other country do." At least--I mean, I don't want to defend Trump in any way, but, you know, at least, he said, "I don't care what anyone does, what any other country does. I'm not going to police the human rights and democracy of other countries. That wasn't always consistent but, you know, for the most part he kind of stuck to that. Biden, on the other hand says, "Well, America is going to engage and we're going to defend our democratic values, et cetera, et cetera," and yet here is an opportunity to do it and they completely punt the ball. They literally turned their backs on it. So, again, it's that same concept. So when we're looking at, "Do we apply these values?" We don't. And everything about our attitude towards Israel and the Palestinians, I think you're absolutely right, undermines any notion that we are pursuing some sort of value-based foreign policy. Now, you know, the cynic in me says, "Why would you expect that? What country really does that when it's--you know, unless--you know, when it's inconvenient for them?" And I understand that. But, nonetheless, we as voters and as citizens do advocate for value-based policies. And yet somehow that advocacy seems to fall apart when it comes to Israel and Palestine.
CH: Well, and we should be clear that the Trump violations, moving the embassy, the American embassy to Jerusalem, which is, under international law, considered occupied territory, has bipartisan support. It was supported by Schumer. So…
MP: Oh, absolutely.
CH: …these [INDISTINCT]
MP: No. No. Yeah, I was just going to say, as a matter of fact, we go into the issue of the embassy in the book in-depth. We point out, in fact, that what Trump did--when he moved the embassy, what he did was simply not waive--not sign a waiver that…
CH: Right. That's right.
MP: …essentially froze a law that was passed in the Clinton administration. Clinton didn't sign the law but he also did not veto it. And it has been on the books ever since. Any president could have tried to fight it, instead they simply continued to sign the waiver. If Trump just didn't sign a waiver, that law was passed with enormous, almost universal at the time, bipartisan support. And--you know, and during the days of democratic administration. So it is absolutely bipartisan, and has been for a very long time. As a matter of fact, if we look back since really the birth of the state of Israel, lately, the Republicans had been very fanatically pro-Israel, but the actual questioning of our policy towards Israel, back in the '60s and '70s and to some extent the '80s, was actually in the Republican party, not among the Democrats. That was where the Israel's had rock-solid support with--among the Democrat for many decades.
CH: When we come back, we will continue our conversation about the limits of progressive politics, the Jewish state, and Palestine with Mitchell Plitnick. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the limits of progressive politics, the Jewish state, and Palestine with author Mitchell Plitnick. I want to talk about this point you raised in the book where Israel posits this question, "Does Israel have a right to exist," which isn't a question you write about the physical safety of Jewish citizens. The relevant political question is, is the dispossession and ongoing denial of rights at various levels of Palestinians justified? But they've really managed to dominate the debate with this kind of rhetorical feign. Explain how that works.
MP: So this--I mean, first of all, you know, our position in the book is that Israel has as much "right" to exist as any another state, which is none. No states exist by right. And we do--we absolutely put Israel in the category of settler colonial states. And so there are certain ethical questions that apply to all of them. I mean, in this regard, the only real difference between Israel and the United States, for example, is the fact that the conflict over the settler colonial policy is still ongoing. So, yeah, we make that point, and I think it's an important one. But, you know, when people are asking does Israel have a right to exist? Not only are they asking a question that is not asked about other countries, but more than that, it is a question that Israel only asks of one group, and that is the Palestinians. Egypt and Jordan have had longstanding peace treaties with Israel. The recent Abraham Accords that were signed with a number of Arab states, none of these do anything other than what every country does to another country it has relations with which is recognize Israel's sovereignty. That is what they do. And, as a matter of fact, for a long time, Zionist leaders and Israeli leaders. We cite in the book extensively, Abba Eban, the famed global ambassador to the UN and leader of Israel in the past decades and Menachem Begin, the former prime minister, both said, "We are not going to ask. It's actually insulting to ask that other states recognize our right to exist. We ask only that they recognize our sovereignty." That has obviously changed. But why has it changed? It has changed because doing this and asking it specifically of the Palestinians is asking the Palestinians to say Zionism was correct. We had no right to be living in the land that we have lived in for centuries upon centuries. And they were right to dispossess us and drive us from our land. And isn't it wonderful that they're being so nice to us now that they're actually willing to give us little crumbs from their table. I mean, this--and we point out that the early Zionist leaders, Vladimir Jabotinsky, a very right wing person, recognized that this was an unreasonable demand and not one that was even a moral one to make. You know, his view was, therefore, we need to utterly defeat the Arabs so that they will, you know, accept our supremacy and then we can be quite magnanimous and give them citizenship. And that was, you know, Jabotinsky's point of view. But as brutal as that sounds, it's better than this concept that Palestinians should grovel essentially and say, "You were right to do this to us." That is just unreasonable. And it is a way to make sure that the issue never gets resolved in any way other than an absolute Israeli victory. That's the--that's the point we make. And we…
CH: Well--but, Mitchell, Fatah has agreed to Israel's right to exist as you note in the book, but then explain that it doesn't make any difference.
MP: Right. Because once they agreed--because the purpose of this demand is, as I said, to make sure that no reasonable solution ever arises. So once--and the [INDISTINCT] has agreed a number of times to recognize Israel's right to exist. Once that happened, the demand changed. And it became that--it became a demand that the Palestinians accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. So the idea--and several scholars--you know, Israeli scholars have pointed this out. The idea behind that is to preclude any claim of housing new refugees and to also preclude any attacks or criticism on the shabby treatment of Palestinian citizens inside Israel. So that was--that--that's the purpose of that. And as--you know, as we quote Palestinian scholar, Yousef Munayyer, in our book, he said, "To ask Palestinians to accept that is to ask Palestinians not to be. To completely abandon who they are, their identity as Palestinians." And it's just--again, it's just not a reasonable demand. And Israel will if--you know, if Fatah foolishly accedes to this demand as well, which incidentally, I just want to throw in there, that during the Obama administration, John Kerry was quite public and very clear in saying, "I don't understand." And I think he meant it. "I don't understand why Palestinians accept this demand." That's what he said. And I think he was genuinely baffled by that idea. So, hopefully, Mr. Kerry will read our book and maybe he can glean some understanding. But it's obviously that the point of this--of this demand is to make sure that the conflict cannot be resolved in any way that gives Palestinians any sense of sovereignty or national identity at all.
CH: Let's talk about the national state law approved by Knesset in July 2018.
MP: So this, I mean, essentially, codifies apartheid. And I think many people recognize that, including many strong supporters of Israel. This was something that American supporters of Israel, very mainstream ones, very--you know, including like the American Jewish community was quite forceful in condemning this law. And this is a group that is--I would characterize as quite racist against Palestinians. They realize that what this law said, essentially, is Israel is an apartheid state. It's who we are. It is only Jews who can exorcise national rights in the state of Israel. We will allow other groups to be citizens but only Jews can build new settlements, and, in fact, we encourage that. The concept of making the--redeeming the land, making the land Jewish again. That--all of that is meant, again, to solidify Jewish control and make sure that Palestinians remain second-class citizens. There may be some room if Palestinians accept that for better treatment, I suppose. It doesn't make that impossible if you want to look at it that way. But that--I mean, that's the best case. That's the--that's the kindest light I think anyone can look at it in. It's quite a discriminatory law. And the problem is is that it is a basic law. It's not just a piece of legislation that's on the books. It is a basic law in Israel. The basic law is, essentially, the same as the constitution here in the United States. So, you know, we're talking about something that is fundamental. In and of itself, it didn't really change much in the moment, but it becomes a basis to defend really discriminatory laws that can and, you know, quite likely will be passed in the coming years. It gives it a constitutional basis. And it essentially tells the world, "Yes, we are in an apartheid state." It is not a coincidence that since that time, we have seen a growing trend among rights groups, including some inside of Israel, state--you know, blatantly calling Israel an apartheid state.
CH: I want to talk--I mean, this is also [INDISTINCT] January 2020 when you're writing the book. Twenty-eight states had laws or policies that penalized businesses, organizations, or individuals for engaging in or calling for boycotts against Israel. The laws usually penalize businesses or individuals for refusing to sign a document that commits them not to participate in any way in boycotts against Israel. Some of the law have real penalties while others are merely declarations that the state, we're talking about American states, opposes the boycott divestment and sanctions movement. I want to ask--you write about Samantha Power, these kinds of issue with Obama's ambassador to the UN. Isn't it really about the fact that if they--they will stand up for human rights if there's no cost. But the Israel lobby is so powerful. And what you're really getting at, at its core, is careerism. All sorts of people who probably even know better. I don't--I don't think that there's any other way to read the Israeli state as--other than as an apartheid state. But this is the problem with a liberal or a progressive embrace of human rights and a failure to do so when there is a cost that you can bear. I mean, I interviewed Richard Falk who has been--who did have intellectual integrity and, of course, was turned into a pariah.
MP: Yeah. You know, and Richard Falk is a great example. Richard Falk is himself Jewish. That made no difference. You know, if we go back to the days of the Goldstone report, report on Israel's assault on Gaza in 2008, 2009, Richard Goldstone isn't just a Jew. He's a Zionist, and has--was very active in--at the Hebrew University and in a number of Israeli institutions. Was very strongly connected to Israel. Made no difference.
MP: The--I think it's important--and I guess I want to preface my remarks because I, you know, written quite a bit about this. I think it's important to note that I do not believe for a minute that US policy arises as it does out--because of the Israel lobby. The Israel--the policy of the US--the basic policy of the US has towards Israel is one of self-interest and it's perceived strategic idea--you know, perceived strategies and strategic interests. And about 2014 or so, I wrote a paper for the Middle East Report that explained the origins of US policy. But once US policy was set in place, that's where the lobby is very, very effective. What the lobby does is not only--you know, primarily on Capitol Hill, but also in the--you know, in the broader media world and civil discourse, basically precludes debate. It precludes--and it works hard to stigmatize and criminalize, as we see, BD--you know, right now, it's BDS. It used to be, you know, more broad anti-Israel activity. They really laser-focused on BDS I think because they have identified BDS as a threat. And I think the point we try to make is that, look, you know, if you don't agree with boycotting Israel, fine. Don't boycott Israel. That is--that is everyone's choice. Everyone's individual choice. But to criminalize it is literally to attack the First Amendment. I mean, there really is no other way. And, in fact, you know, that's one of the reasons that whenever these laws have been challenged, they've lost, because, legally, there's really no defense for it. It's worth stopping to think about the fact that nobody would dream of enacting these kinds of laws regarding our own government because it would so explicitly violate the First Amendment. Yet somehow when it comes to Israel, we can do that. It makes no sense. Part of the reason…
CH: We're going to have to--we're going to have to stop there, Mitchell.
MP: I'm sorry.
CH: We're going to have to stop there. That's all right. Thank you. That was Mitchell Plitnick, coauthor with Marc Lamont Hill on their new book Except For Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics.