Resisting containment : Antifascism and Movements of support to the Palestinians in Trump’s America

The lecture given by Prof. David Palumbo-Liu in an exceptional session of the IISMM Seminar: « Thinking the Palestinian Experience » organized jointly with AURDIP at EHESS on Friday 18 May 2018.

Today I wish to consider two topics that might seem entirely separate. My argument will be that they can be productively understood together.

The first topic involves the strange partnership that has been struck between ultra-right and white supremacist projects, and pro-Israel politics. The central element of this partnership is between the aspect of white supremacy that Donald Trump embraces and the Zionist project of the Netanyahu government. One should wonder—how can Zionists share in the interests of anti-Semites?

The second topic involves the manner in which anti-fascist activists who engage in pro-Palestinian work have been attacked in North America. While we see no contradiction in carrying on activism in both areas, our critics see our anti-fascist work as being a mere cover for pro-Palestinian work. We, on the other hand, see them as perfectly consistent and of a piece.

During the US Presidential campaign, several colleagues and I became increasingly disturbed by not only the rhetoric being used by the man who would become our president, but also the way his hateful speech resonated with so many other Americans. Among other things, we were struck by his antagonism toward education. He said, “I love uneducated people.” He also made clear his animosity toward women, people of color, the disabled, queers, transgender people.

The more he talked, and the more his audience roared their approval, the more concerned we became. We began to think about establishing a national network to fight fascism on university campuses—it’s called the “Campus Antifascist Network,” or CAN.

Shortly after we did, and it was covered by the American media, we were attacked. But not just for starting an anti-fascist network. We were targeted for this especially because many of us who started CAN were also active in BDS work.

To give you a sense of this, I quote from one pro-Israel media source, “Legal Insurrection”:

“Palumbo-Liu and [Bill] Mullen, the organizers of the campus Antifa [sic] network, are two of the most aggressive anti-Israel pro-BDS faculty members in the country. They each have long histories of demonizing Israel and supporting the academic boycott of Israel….

This fits a pattern of anti-Israel activists co-opting and hijacking other movements, something we explored in If you are surprised #BlackLivesMatter joined war on Israel, you haven’t been paying attention.

Under the leadership of anti-Israel, pro-BDS faculty, expect the campus Antifa network to be re-directed against Israel, Israelis and Jews…

The teaming of the BDS and Antifa movements is the single most dangerous development I have witnessed in the many years I have been covering campus BDS. Antifa will give BDS even more muscle to intimidate and threaten those who oppose the BDS agenda.”

The idea that anti-fascist work is somehow incompatible with activism for Palestinian rights is found not just in the attacks on CAN. Almost exactly the same criticisms have taken place in Canada.

Consider this report from Canada:

«Several of the same groups and individuals that demonstrate against neo-Nazis, … also support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and [support] the Palestine solidarity movement. This has prompted some, like the Jewish Defence League (JDL), to characterize the anti-fascist movement as anti-Semitic.

We interviewed three Jewish members of the anti-fascist (antifa) movement in Ontario, to better understand how the movement as a whole feels about Israel and the Jewish people….

How do the groups involved in the anti-fascist movement see Israel?

We’re watching fascism happen in Israel, just like we’re watching it happening in the United States and in Canada. I think the Israeli government practices fascism, and that anti-fascist opposition to Israel generally takes that as a given. A position that is opposed to Israel is opposed to specific fascistic policies coming out of it and is part of a broader anti-racist stance. Depending on the leaning of the individuals, there is also a recognition that there is a lot of racism inherent to the Israeli state – there are ethnic hierarchies and society is structured based on those hierarchies, and an expansionist view of international relations and internal domestic policy, which is a hallmark of fascist thinking. A lot of opposition to Israel is based around that kind of tenet of anti-fascism.

How do anti-fascists feel about Jews generally?

… There are a lot of Jews who are involved in anti-fascism… I see a lot more Jews in the anti-fascist movement and more people who are having nuanced conversations – We … have to recognize that anti-Semitism has a specific role within fascism. It’s historically a sign of fascism. I think anti-fascists care about anti-Semitism a lot – more than the right gives them credit for.
Anti-fascists are against the oppression of any group – period. We have political disagreements with Jews, Muslims, liberals, most people. But that won’t stop us from coming out and defending communities that are under attack – including the Jewish community. Even though I disagree with Zionism, if there was a fascist rally that was going to go through some Jewish neighbourhood…, I would be the first one on the streets to stop them. I’m confident I speak for everyone. None of us tolerate their anti-Semitic s–t.»

I want to underscore that these questions in general are identical to the questions posed to CAN, and these responses coincide with the positions we hold—that anti-fascist work is poised against all forms of bigotry, especially nation-state projects based on racial or ethnic supremacy, such as those found in US white supremacy and Israeli Jewish supremacy. This means we oppose anti-Semitism and we oppose anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim ideologies at one and the same time. This seems an obvious, natural, and ethically consistent posture.

Today I will argue that the reason the legitimacy and logic of anti-fascist and pro-Palestinian work is denied by the right and by supporters of Israeli state policies is that our alliance, and our consistency, exposes a contraction we see more and more of globally—the alliance of supporters of Israeli state policies with virulently anti-Semitic individuals and organizations. These anti-Semites are trying to deny their anti-Semitism in order to normalize fascism and gain political power, and Israel is willing to accept those denials with precisely the same goals in mind– to normalize fascism and gain political power.

Let me immediately say here that the idea that Israel is sliding into fascism is not only a criticism we find outside of Israel looking in, it is also a point of view expressed within the state of Israel itself.

Less than a year ago, in June 2017, opposition leader and Zionist Union chairman Issac Herzog warned that Israel was headed toward fascism and that its fate as a democracy was at stake: “We are going through a process of fascistization of the Israeli politics,” Herzog warned while speaking at a cultural event in central Israel. The Jerusalem Post, a conservative Israeli publication, noted: “The opposition leader explained that the current government was ‘threatening artists, Supreme Court judges and threatening and firing journalists.’ He also noted that media outlets were being shut down and that ‘now the academics and the professors are also being threatened and are afraid to open their mouths.’”

In January 2018, in the leftist publication, Ha’artez, Zeev Sternhell argued that:

«The left is no longer capable of overcoming the toxic ultra-nationalism that has evolved here, the kind whose European strain almost wiped out a majority of the Jewish people. The interviews Haaretz’s Ravit Hecht held with Smotrich and Zohar (December 3, 2016 and October 28, 2017) should be widely disseminated on all media outlets in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. In both of them we see not just a growing Israeli fascism but racism akin to Nazism in its early stages.»

One can argue about whether or not these statements are true—the point I am making is that it would be wrong to dismiss out of hand the idea that Israel’s policies are increasingly fascistic solely on the idea that Israeli Jews have not had the same perception.

At its foundation, Israel’s actions are aimed to maintain and expand its project to annex Palestinian lands and to forcibly integrate Palestinians and non-Jewish groups into an ethno-nation, that is, into a Jewish state. It is a state that declares itself to be a democracy despite having at least 51 laws in effect that discriminate against non-Jews.

In this respect, conditions for non-Jews in Israel resemble the Jim Crow south.

This analog forms the foundation of how US scholars and activists understand the relation of their historical position and the connected struggles for black rights and Palestinian rights. It has taken a particularly powerful form in the manifesto of the Movement for Black Lives, which states:

«The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people… every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations, who then wage lobbying campaigns pushing for even more foreign military aid. The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government.»

Thus, contrary to what the writer for the Legal Insurrection believes, there is a perfectly logical reason why BlackLivesMatter would align itself with BDS, a reason blacks see for themselves.

Let me now turn to what is happening in the US and explain how anti-fascist work correlates with pro-Palestinian activism.

In the last two weeks Trump has performed two acts that put on display the extent to which he will play the tune Israel calls, despite the illegality and the deaths that these acts promise to produce.

First, the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem is blatantly illegal and purposefully inflammatory, going against UN Resolution 181 [1947], and 194 (1948) that set up a Special International Regime for the city of Jerusalem. UN Resolution 194 resolves that, “in view of its association with three world religions, the Jerusalem area… should be accorded special and separate treatment from the rest of Palestine and should be placed under effective United Nations control.”

In direct contradiction to these resolutions, Trump’s move acknowledges Jerusalem exclusively as the capital of the State of Israel.

Second, there is Trump’s withdrawing the US from the Iran Nuclear Arms deal, which only increases the chance of a catastrophic regional war into which not only the US but also Russia will likely be drawn, and the certainty that Iran will race forward, unmonitored, in developing nuclear weapons. As you know, two hours after Trump announced the withdrawal of the US from the Iran deal, Israel launched attacks on Iranian assets in Syria.

Of course, while all this is happening, the Palestinians are continuing their weekly protests–the Great March of Return, all the more urgent given these events, which take place during the 70th anniversary of the Nakba. The purposeful slaughter of unarmed Palestinian women, men, and children has been a particularly horrifying, and yet predictable, outcome of Trump’s actions.

The critique of the state of Israel’s policies, and the US’s role in facilitating those policies, is thus taking place at an especially urgent time. Israel is acting opportunistically and aggressively to take advantage of the Trump presidency and the political disarray in the United States. It is a presidency that has increased its attacks on anti-racist and anti-misogynist activism at the same time as it has increased its attacks anti-Zionist work.

There is no question whatsoever that the presidency of Donald Trump has pushed the agenda of a white supremacist ethno-nation to the foreground. This has taken place at the same time that his administration has aggressively aided and abetted Israel’s own ethno-nationalist project. This in turn is taking place in a wider geopolitical context. Historian Mark Bray connects the rightward movements in both the US and Europe:

«Europe and the United States have witnessed an alarming lurch to the right over recent years in response to the 2008 economic crisis, austerity measures, the strains of increasingly post-industrial economy, cultural and demographic shifts, migration, and the Syrian Civil War–referred to as the “refugee crisis” by the European right. These factors have fueled the rise of ‘respectable” Far right parties, such as the French Front national, the Dutch party for freedom, the Austrian freedom party, and xenophobic formations like Germany’s patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, known as PEGIDA.

In the United States, in just the first 34 days after his election, more then 1000 “bias incidents” were reported. Hate crimes increased by 94% in New York City over the first two months of 2017. More than half of which we’re committed against Jews. Mosques in Texas, Florida, and elsewhere have been set on fire. These attacks grew out every rise in the number of “hate groups,” specifically anti-Muslim groups and “unprecedented outreach efforts by white supremacist to recruit on college campuses. (Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook, p. xxiii)»

The twisting and manipulation of language and ideology is found in particular as far-right, ethno-nationalist parties are trying to reinvent themselves as more palatable, more normal, less extreme and closer to the mainstream. In Europe, as you know, many far-right parties are distancing themselves from the anti-semitic language that has in the past been a distinct part of their image. They now present themselves as allies with Israel, on the basis of their shared hatred of Muslims and of Islam. And Netanyahu has accepted this alliance.

Here are two examples of what happened in the US. First, the Forward reports:

«Breitbart News, the site chaired by Donald Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, is widely known as a platform for white nationalism and anti-Semitism. It is also brazenly Zionist, albeit peddling an exclusively right wing perspective on Israel.

Trump’s Jewish supporters have pointed to Breitbart’s Zionist stance to defend the president-elect’s choice of Bannon…

“He was and is and remains staunchly pro-Israel,” said Abe Katsman, the chief counsel for Republicans Overseas Israel, who has written for Breitbart News.
In other words, anti-Semitism as acceptable so long as the anti-Semite is pro-Zionist.»

Second, Truthdig notes:

«On the eve of Trump’s election, Gorka [Sebastian Gorka, then Special Assistant to the President] appeared in nationally televised interviews clad in a black uniform bearing the medal of the Vitezi Rend, a Hungarian fascist group that collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Speaking at a conference organized by the right-wing Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post in May, Gorka defended his wearing the medal, proclaiming, “My father was awarded a medal in 1979 by anti-communist members of a splinter order outside Hungary … I am proud to wear that, as a response to everything that we face today.”

Vitzezi Rend has appeared on a US State Department list of “organizations under the direction of the Nazi government of Germany,” and its late founder, Miklos Horthy, reportedly declared, “I have always been an anti-Semite throughout my life.”

Gorka’s attachment to a fascist order that reveres Horthy and his anti-Jewish legacy has not appeared to trouble supporters of Israel’s right-wing government. Not only has Gorka been an honored guest of the ZOA, he was welcomed by the Jerusalem Post, which received him with warm applause and a prominent speaking slot at its annual conference this May in New York. “The real agenda is clear: Gorka has written forcefully about the need to defeat the jihadi threat to Western civilization,” an op-ed defending Gorka in the Jerusalem Post read.»

With regard to Europe, we find the same phenomenon. The Washington Post reports:

In France, the Netherlands and Sweden, right-wing nationalists are counterprogramming decades of deeply ingrained anti-Semitism in their ranks. Critics say some hard-right parties in Hungary and Greece remain hotbeds of anti-Semitism. But as left-wing parties in Europe press for boycotts of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, many populist nationalists in Europe — at least in public — are pledging Israel their full support.

Its leadership insists that not only has the party purged its ranks of anti-Semites but now it also shares a common cause with Israel and the Jewish people: controlling the spread of Islam. Indeed, the Freedom Party is pledging to protect ethnic “Judeo-Christian” culture on the continent by stopping Muslim immigration and imposing more surveillance on Austrian mosques. That mission, it argues, has become all the more urgent given the recent arrival in Europe of nearly 1 million refugees from the Middle East.
In France, the proposition that anti-Semitism is present only the form of a “new anti-Semitism” emanating solely from Muslim and Arab societies in France is another attempt to deny the continuing presence of historical, and non-Muslim, non-Arab-based anti-Semitism. This too has the aim of consolidating far right and moderate politics and making the far right’s position more appealing to the general public. Primed by Islamophobia and anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiment, it is all too easy to reduce complex social and political problems to a slogan, and target one group as being the source of many, if not all, social ills.

This is why it is the marriage anti-semitism and right-wing ethno-nationalism that is dangerous: the coalition of right-wing ethno-nationalisms across Europe has had and will continue to have profound effects on not only immigrants and people of color, but also on the broader social, political, and cultural worlds of Europe. Simply put, ethno-nationalism is a threat to democracy and the rule of law.

As Hannah Arendt once wrote with regard to the failure of the Minority Treaties of the 19th and early 20th centuries:

The transformation of the state from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation had been completed; the nation had conquered the state, national interest had priority over the law long before Hitler could pronounce ‘right is what is good for the German people.’ Here again the language of the mob was only the language of public opinion cleansed of hypocrisy and restraint.—“The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”

That is to say, the idea of a democratic state of all its peoples quickly becomes eclipsed by an ethno-nationalist project that elevates some over others. What Arendt calls “the mob,” here and elsewhere, is nothing less than a fascist mob whose vociferous exclamations of superiority have ruptured the decorum of public speech. What we find today, however, is the opposite—the far right is happy to engage in hypocritic assertions that it has purged all its anti-Semitism or at least put it under control.

An article in The Forward makes a key point with regard to this seemingly contradiction we find in today’s white-washing of fascism. It states:

The coexistence of anti-Semitism and right-Wing Zionism “in Trump’s world make sense,” said Todd Gitlin, the Columbia University sociologist and cultural commentator in an email to the Forward. “Anti-Semitism and right-wing Zionism are varieties of ultra-nationalism, or, to put it more pejoratively (as it deserves to be put) tribalism. They both presume that the embattled righteous ones need to bristle at, wall off, and punish the damned outsiders. They hate and fear cosmopolitan mixtures. They make a fetish of purity. They have the same soul. They rhyme.”

It is exactly this accommodation of anti-Semitism by the Netanyahu government and the hypocrisy of opportunistic fascist groups in the US and in Europe that show exact nature of the contradictory partnership being forged. Gitlin, no fan of BDS it should be said, at least identifies the point at which these groups merge: in ultra-nationalism.

In contrast to this merging, the solidarity between anti-fascist activism and pro-Palestinian activism is founded on a critique of anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry. Both anti-fascist work and pro-Palestinian activism focus not on a “people” (that is, on Jews), but on state practices that are the very incarnation of ultra-nationalist projects. As Omar Barghouti has said time and again—BDS’s object of critique is not on a people, but on an instrument of oppression.

So far, because of growing criticism of Israeli state actions, and the fact that the increasingly unpopular Donald Trump has made such a spectacle of his support for Israel, more and more people are reconsidering their opposition to BDS. The ongoing killings of unarmed men, women, and children in Gaza, the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear weapons deal, the increased building of settlements, are all adding to Israel’s unpopularity and therefore a more sympathetic view towards BDS. I believe the American people are increasingly concerned about how far Trump will go in supporting Israel at the expense of US national interests and indeed, world interests. For example, many feel that withdrawal from the Iran deal unnecessarily puts Israel’s interests before the interests of the US.

Public sentiment in the US, especially among liberals and young people, is clearly shifting against Israel state policies. Most recently, and most dramatically, Israel’s blacklist against human rights workers and organizations has hurt its public image immensely.

The upcoming deportation of Human Rights Watch lawyer Omar Shakir is a case in point. His case follows that of the deportation of Katherine Franke, a Columbia University professor of law and member of Jewish Voice for Peace. Israel tried to smear Human Rights Watch as being pro-BDS, which is certainly not. Having found no evidence of HRW’s or Omar Shakir’s support of BDS, Israel came up with seven pages of evidence to use against Shakir from his past, including posters at Stanford University he put up in favor of divestment while he was an undergraduate student, years ago.

Let me end by saying that the greatest fears of those who worry about the merging of anti-fascist work with pro-Palestine work are indeed coming true. But not for the reasons they state. Those engaged in both anti-fascist and pro-BDS work are not driven by anti-semitism. It is exactly the opposite: they are driven by a shared value in fighting bigotry and ethno-nationalism, and in this sense we are ardently committed to fighting the anti-Semitism that is found in the words and actions of white supremacists (or supremacists of any racial identity), and the words and actions of an ethno-nationalist government that claims it speak for all Jews in order to elevate its interests above that of the democracy it claims to espouse.

David Palumbo-Liu
Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor of Comparative Literature and, by courtesy, of English
President, American Comparative Literature Association