Jesse Jackson, Jr. Goes to Israel

Israel is in ferment. The pathways along Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv are packed with Israelis furious at their government for its refusal to engage with their real lives. It is not enough to bash the Palestinians on the head and call that governance. Inflation and a housing crisis dog the lives of Israelis, and following the example of Egypt, they have convened in their squares, refusing to leave. Netanyahu had bragged during the high point of the Arab Spring that such events could not take place in Israel, the “only democracy in the Middle East.” Noy Alooshe’s new video takes that line about the world shaking and remixed it with images of crowds in Tel Aviv shouting with the spirit of the Spanish indignados, “The People Want Social Justice.” Shake Bibi Shake, goes the video, a sort of Ibiza on the Rothschild Blvd.

The United States Congress is on holiday. Its members hastily voted for an austerity program and turned tail to their districts. A fifth of the Congress is now ready for a trip to Israel, the 51st State. The bill will be paid by the American Israel Educational Foundation (a front of AIPAC). When Bibi came to Washington, he received twenty-nine standing ovations from these members of Congress, the longest one by my count for these lines, “Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights. I want you to stop for a second and think about that. Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one-half of one-percent are truly free, and they’re all citizens of Israel!” Obama got only twenty-five standing ovations for his 2011 state of the union address, and Azmi Bishara and Haneen Zoabi will contest Bibi’s views on Israeli Arabs (both elected to the Knesset, hounded out by the establishment for their honesty). Nonetheless, the reception to Bibi’s speech revealed the servility of the U. S. politicians toward their 51st state. No wonder they hastily fled to Tel Aviv rather than face the smoldering anger of their own constituents.

Wrath at the neo-liberal consensus overflows into the central squares of the world’s cities, with London burning in anticipation of more fires across Eurasia and Africa (North America has to be content with Wall Street fluctuations as a marker of its political discontent, at least for now). To fly into Tel Aviv’s inferno, the members of Congress will have to refuel in London or Madrid or Paris, cities where the tinder glows. Austerities combined with police brutality absent any cultural project to stifle dissent make matters predictable. As Nina Power put it in The Guardian Monday morning, “Decades of individualism, competition and state-encouraged selfishness – combined with a systematic crushing of unions and the ever-increasing criminalization of dissent – have made Britain one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.” Substitute Spain or Israel for Britain and the story line is the same.

Into this cauldron arrive the 81 U. S. Congress members (55 Republicans, 26 Democrats). They are led by the hoary Democratic whip Steny Hoyer and the Steerpike of the Tea Party, Eric Cantor. Half of the Republicans are freshmen, or, in other words, members of the Tea Party brigade. Among the Democratic contingent, startlingly, is Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Congressman Jackson is not unaware of the politics of the region. After all, his father, Jesse Senior, has taken an active role in Middle East affairs, and had once made his own affinity for the Palestinian cause public (in 1988 he made his support for Palestinian statehood a plank of his campaign, for which I happily worked in Los Angeles). When Candidate Obama was building momentum in the primaries, Jesse Senior remarkably said, “Decades of putting Israel’s interest first will end. Zionists have controlled American policy for decades and will lose their clout when Barack Obama enters the White House” (this was at the World Policy Forum in Evian, France). Obama’s campaign responded hastily saying that Jackson was not an advisor and so could not know what they were thinking. Events provided Obama spokesperson Wendy Morigi right, as Obama has tilted to the Israeli wind even as Bibi has treated his presidency with the greatest disrespect (this should come as no surprise: in the settlement of Ofra in 2010, Bibi, on camera, comments on how absurd it is that Americans continue to support Israel regardless of what it does). Jackson Senior’s remark is an indication of how sensible people transferred their own hopes onto Obama, an empty signifier for liberal dreams.

It is perhaps this family history that has moved Congressman Jackson to seek meetings with both Israelis and Palestinians, something that the others are loath to do. But that is window dressing. The real task, Congressman Jackson tells AP, is that he wants to learn about “Israel’s business and commercial sectors” and about its “latest tools and technology in its fight against terror.” Rather than drink the ambrosia from Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s Start-Up Nation, Congressman Jackson might learn more about Israel’s economic myth from the protestors on the streets of Tel Aviv, and from commentators such as Yagil Weinberg, who points to the economy’s reliance upon private sector cartels which are integrated into the state sector. And to learn about this “fight against terror,” he might want to take a walk in Gaza City, or else to talk to the activists at the Palestine Center for Human Rights and B’Tselem. While he’s at it, Congressman Jackson might want to investigate the ongoing (and under-reported) airstrikes on Gaza. Israel’s most remarkable achievement has been to sell its failure to attain peace as a counter-terrorist success story.

But Congressman Jackson will do none of these things. He will meet a few establishment Palestinians and pretend that he has learnt new things, that his map is now clearer and his pro-Israeli positions are well founded. He will not honor the wisdom of the African Heritage Delegation to Israel-Palestine, whose statement (August 2), makes five claims:

  1. We call on African Americans and all people of good will to support an end to the Occupation, including the removal of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the dismantling of the apartheid wall; the end to the military and economic blockade of the Gaza Strip; the granting of full equality to all Palestinian citizens and Mizrahi Jewish citizens of Israel; and the recognition and realization of the right of return for Palestinian refugees and internally displaced Palestinians.
  2. We call for the humane treatment of Palestinian children and adults in the custody of the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli Police; the release of all political prisoners; and an end to indefinite detentions without trial.
  3. We call for the United States government to cease its military aid of $3 billion of our tax dollars annually to Israel, which, in the name of security, is used to further oppress, harass, maim and kill Palestinians.
  4. We endorse the international campaign calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel in support of Palestinian freedom, justice and equality.
  5. We call on U.S. citizens to join an Interfaith Peace Builders delegation and travel to Palestine/Israel to learn about the impact of the Occupation firsthand.

Call Congressman Jackson and let him know that his trip to Israel is hasbarafor the Bibi agenda (202-225-0773 and 773-734-9660). It spits in the face of the Palestinians and of the Israelis crowded into Tel Aviv’s promenades. Before you go to the 51st State, Congressman Jackson, consider what this means on its periphery, where bare life shudders with each day, fear of bombs and distended bellies; what this means to those who gather in the squares of Tel Aviv and Gaza City, eager for something that Bibi’s crowd cannot deliver.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached 

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).