Sanders and Palestine: a Post Mortem

Photograph Source: shimriz – CC BY 2.0

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 visible.

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 liberation.

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.