Ending progressives’ Palestinian exception

Benjamin Netanyahu and Joe Biden having a laugh

JVL Introduction

Sarah Doyel writes: “For all their legitimate criticisms of other injustices, progressives, with a few exceptions, continued their tradition of deafening silence on those suffered by the Palestinian people.”

It is this irony, captured by the acronym PEP – Progressive except for Palestine – that provides the title for a book under review here.

In it, authors Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick devote themselves to deconstructing the arguments progressives offer for making an exception of Palestine when it comes to demands for equal rights.

Doyel lays out the authors’ arguments about the major debates in progressive politics in this area beginning with the central existential question of Israel’s “right to exist.”

They continue on to discuss the bipartisan criminalisation of the BDS movement and more; and challenge the progressive view that the Trump administration’s policy toward Israel-Palestine was an aberration.

On the contrary, they argue that despite its damaging effect, it was  merely taking existing contentions to their logical conclusion.

Doyel also hints at limitations to the authors’ analysis, for instance not developing the argument of how the “liberal” justificatory basis for Israel’s violence against Palestinians lets off the hook those for whom the mere presence of Palestinians is regarded as an existential threat.

Read on!

This article was originally published by Mondoweis on Thu 11 Feb 2021. Read the original here.

Ending progressives’ Palestinian exception

Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick’s “Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics” is a crucial and ultimately hopeful tool that better equips progressives to combat injustices within their own political circles.

2020 marked another year of righteous indignation for progressives in the Democratic Party. Justly outraged by the horrific death toll and economic devastation of COVID-19, the ongoing pervasiveness of white supremacist violence, and the Trump administration’s deliberate failures with respect to all of the above, progressives had many reasons to be angry. Palestine, however, was not one of them, at least not according to mainstream progressive rhetoric. Israel’s systematic abuse of the Palestinian people continued unabated last year, from clinic demolitions to vaccine apartheid to the ever-present extrajudicial detentions and murders of Palestinian human rights activists. Among those killed was Ahmed Erekat, the cousin of late PLO secretary general Saeb Erekat and of human rights lawyer Noura Erakat who was fatally shot by soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint. For all their legitimate criticisms of other injustices, progressives, with a few exceptions, continued their tradition of deafening silence on those suffered by the Palestinian people.

With the exception of those who have already demonstrated their commitments to justice for Palestinians, such as Congresswomen Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), few members of the Democratic Party called attention to Palestinian rights violations that only worsened during the pandemic. To the contrary, many celebrated the “return to normalcy” in US foreign policy represented by President Biden’s electoral win. Liberals thus failed to recognize—or perhaps intentionally ignored—the robust bipartisan consensus under both Democratic and Republican predecessors that laid the foundation for Trump’s openly hostile policies toward the Palestinians.

It is this contradiction that lies at the heart of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics, the principled cri de coeur to progressives everywhere that authors Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick dedicate in part to the fallen 27-year-old Erekat. Delving into the phenomenon long-named in leftist circles as “Progressive Except for Palestine”, Hill and Plitnick meticulously deconstruct progressives’ neglect of the Palestinian cause. They explain the ways in which the singular exception of Palestine from demands for equal rights betrays not only Palestinians but the progressive movement itself.

Hill and Plitnick take readers on a thoughtful tour of the major debates in progressive politics with respect to Israel and Palestine, beginning with the central existential question of Israel’s “right to exist.” They continue on to discuss the bipartisan criminalization of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, Trump’s abandonment of the pretense to even-handed policy in the region, and the unconscionable humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Their argument is not that progressives should privilege Palestinian rights over those of Israelis, but rather that progressives’ indifference toward Palestinian rights constitutes a profound departure from progressive values. Hill and Plitnick thus make a compelling case for the moral imperative of progressives to “fight for [Palestinians] on their own terms.”

Hill and Plitnick avoid the oversimplified charges of antisemitism that characterize much of public discourse on Israel and Palestine, instead taking seriously and addressing the more sophisticated intellectual arguments that underpin liberal Zionist policies. These positions, which provide rhetorical lip service to Israel’s problematic occupation of historic Palestine and the existing Palestinian territories while maintaining the necessity of an ethno-national Jewish state, are among the most vexing to progressives sympathetic to very real concerns about antisemitism and Jewish safety. It is here that Except for Palestine shines: the book offers cogent rebuttals to the questions that most frequently stump otherwise well-intentioned progressives. Do Palestinians not also have the right to exist, the authors ask in their examination of this classical justification of Zionism. They poignantly call attention to the inherent hypocrisy in the requirements that Palestinians recognize the Jewish state of Israel in ways demanded of no other nation. Conversely, Hill and Plitnick note that Democrats will take to the global stage to champion victims of other humanitarian crises, but Palestinians in Gaza living in what is commonly described as “the world’s largest open-air prison” somehow merit little succor in the liberal worldview.

It is the chapter on the Trump administration’s policy toward Israel-Palestine, however, that best encapsulates the persuasive ethics of Hill and Plitnick’s thesis. Contrary to liberal constructions of Trump’s inflammatory foreign policy as an aberration, Hill and Plitnick argue that Trump-era policies, while damaging and dangerous, merely extended existing conventions to their logical conclusion. The authors correctly contend that no policy enacted by Trump was fundamentally new. Their argument that “the bulk of Trump’s actions were consistent with overall U.S. policy in recent decades” directly challenges liberal-progressive constructions of Trump as an unacceptable deviation from the norm. In doing so, Hill and Plitnick hold up a mirror to progressives who until now have rationalized deeply discriminatory policies on the grounds of historical precedent. Their reflections are desperately needed for a principled engagement by progressives with the complex political dilemmas of Israel-Palestine. This engagement is in turn foundational to the integrity of the progressive movement as a whole.

Where Hill and Plitnick could go further is in their treatment of the ideological bedrock of liberal-progressivism. Their argument, which hinges on the moral and intellectual inconsistencies of excluding Palestine from progressive commitments to equal justice for all, does not address the fact that liberal ideology has long served as a tool of empire. Indeed, they acknowledge that founders of the modern Zionist state of Israel such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky appealed to settler-colonial logic to justify their dispossession of the Palestinian people. Hill and Plitnick stop short, however, of delving into the ways in which liberal ideology has both legitimized and emerged from within broader colonial projects. Israel’s stated claims to historically Palestinian land rest on the liberal universalist notion of self-determination through the forcible establishment of territorial sovereignty. This concept is rooted in nineteenth-century colonial encounters, which established an international political order through the exclusion of certain nations from the ‘family’ of sovereign states.

Postcolonial scholars have contended that such exclusion might be fundamental to liberal ideology itself, as principles of global tolerance must always rely on a universal referent that is nonetheless inevitably determined by culturally specific (and thus Eurocentric) criteria. [1] One example of this is how progressives in the U.S. and Israel have been able to contort international law to support their arguments in favor of occupation. The 2020 platform of the Democratic Party, for instance, stipulates an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s “right to defend itself.” That this position is included under the broader category of “Advancing American Interests” is telling. No one committed to justice and safety for Israelis, as we all should be, would argue that the state does not have any right to defend itself in the face of attack. States’ right to self-defense is enshrined in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. But this appeal to international law as the justificatory basis for Israel’s violence against Palestinians erases the fact that many in the Israeli government view the mere presence of Palestinians as an existential threat. In this paradigm, any action taken to repress Palestinian rights is acceptable as their very existence constitutes an attack on the state of Israel. Such lines of reasoning are emblematic of the problems that plague liberal thought itself. Postcolonial scholarship suggests the exceptionalism that shapes progressive stances towards Palestine is not a product of the practical limitations of progressive politics, but perhaps rather a fundamental flaw in progressive values themselves.

Hill and Plitnick touch briefly upon this tension but do not expand their analysis, creating more of a descriptive rather than conceptual history of progressive positions vis-à-vis Palestine. They present a masterful explanation of the ways in which progressive policies on Israel-Palestine have evolved, often shifting to the right in response to dominant narratives about Palestinian resistance as inherently violent. These attempts to delegitimize any and all resistance parallel colonial repression, yet this analogy is not fully drawn out in the text. The authors point to clear anxieties within the Democratic Party evidenced by inconsistent positions on boycott as self-expression, Israeli settlements, and the violent exchanges between Hamas and the Israeli military in Gaza. They miss the opportunity, however, to analyze exactly why progressives are susceptible to paradoxical positions in the first place. A deeper interrogation of the inconsistencies in liberal values themselves is needed in order to understand not only how but why progressives regularly exclude Palestine from their calls for justice. Connecting the bipartisan support for Israel in US politics to widespread historical and contemporary impulses toward American empire, hinted at in the Democratic Party’s foreign policy platform, may shed light on this question. Except for Palestine contributes a vital critique of the limits of applied progressive politics without extending to the limits of their ideological base.

Such theoretical explorations may well be outside the scope of the book. Just as progressives must advocate for Palestinian rights according to the legitimate demands of Palestinians themselves, readers would do well to consider Except for Palestine on its own terms: as a powerful book designed to bring progressives into the fold of authentically justice-oriented approaches to the issue. Even those well-versed in progressivism’s deficiencies will learn something from the book’s careful genealogy of the Palestinian exception. Except for Palestine is a crucial and ultimately hopeful tool that better equips progressives to combat injustices within their own political circles. In this realm, Hill and Plitnick achieve their objective and then some.


Comments (2)

  • David Hawkins says:

    “Their argument is not that progressives should privilege Palestinian rights over those of Israelis”
    Is Ethnic Cleansing and white settler colonialism ever morally justified ?
    No ?
    Well then surely one would want to “privilege” the rights of the colonised over the colonisers ?
    To do otherwise treats the victimizer and victim with equal respect. Surely that can never be morally justified ?

  • Anthony Sperryn says:

    It seems to me that the Democrats are, fundamentally, spineless in this matter. The US democratic system depends on vast spending at election time and the Democrats are dependent on business, which means AIPAC. AIPAC, in turn, has been brainwashed by the formidable propaganda machine under the control of the government of Israel.

    Furthermore, the lessons of religion have been woefully lost. Biden as a Catholic cannot decently give unconditional support to Israel. Others, better qualified than me, can spell out the obligations under the Jewish religion.

    At the beginning, Obama was different, with crowd-funding support, a route taken by Bernie Sanders. In practice, this is hard to sustain. People may despair, but the threats, and actual onset, of climate change disaster may bring change because people will need to cooperate much more. It will still be difficult to shift establishments from their positions.

    The public domain may come into fashion once more, but power in society is not fairly distributed. We know about this in Britain and one can only hope that the lesson of the handling of the pandemic will not be lost. No doubt, the word “apartheid” will also have some effect for change as people learn respect for others is all important.

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