Left-Wing Language for Your Right-Wing Needs!

Because I hate myself, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching language created by the left get taken up by the right. Conservatives are wielding the language masterfully, leaving many well meaning progressives disoriented and asserting the righteousness of any cause that comes packaged in the correct words, forgetting that language is meant to advance our goals, to serve us, not the other way around.

I’m not the first to note that a lot of activists today are fixated on language and that with this comes a fear of saying the wrong thing and getting iced out of a movement. The flip side of this is that when someone speaks the right words, we assume it means they’re one of us. But there’s a problem: language can be learned by anyone, it can be taught in business seminars and in online forums. If we don’t subordinate language to the material changes we’re fighting for, we lose the ability to draw clear lines between us and them.

Who’s Doing This?

Zionists are the cutting edge when it comes to hitching progressive language to reactionary ends. For the past few years, the attention of the American Zionist movement has been focused on college campuses. Campuses are bellwethers of broader political trends, making what happens on campus important for those concerned with future societal developments. For Zionists, it’s the growth of pro-Palestine groups and the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) movement that’s the most worrying. Their response is a case study in the use of left-wing language by right-wing assholes.

Take the first #StopBDS Conference hosted by the Israeli mission to the UN and World Jewish Congress at the UN headquarters in New York this week (that’s right: a UN conference with a hashtag in the name – welcome to 2016). As Rania Khalek reported from this gathering of the trolls, the speakers struck a repetitive message: “Speak left,” said Frank Luntz. “Speak the language of the left,” reiterated Yosef Tarshish, chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students.

What does a Zionist “speaking left” look like? On campus, it means yoking one’s Jewish identity to support for Israel and then claiming to feel “unsafe” in response to pro-Palestine organizing. The impulse to make this claim comes from the rise of progressive students demanding ‘safe spaces’ for members of oppressed identities. While I’m not opposed to this, as it comes from the long and ugly history of violence against the oppressed by those with privilege, as I’ve said before, this demand is becoming one of the prefered tactics of campus Zionists.

A letter sent out by the university chancellor to UC Santa Cruz students offers a great example. Here’s an excerpt:

“On our campus, which has a long and proud history of student engagement in critical issues of equity and social justice, I want to be sure we acknowledge differences of opinion and work to maintain civility in the midst of turmoil.

In student government, as is their right, the Student Union Assembly this week voted to reinstate a resolution urging the University of California to divest from Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has generated passionate opinions on both sides.

I’m concerned this resolution will have a chilling effect on individuals within our campus community. However unintentional, its passage may create an environment in which some of our Jewish students feel alienated and less welcome on our campus.”

The chancellor invokes the campus history of social justice, positioning himself as a progressive. From there, he brings up the student union’s resolution in favor of BDS and insists this may make Jewish students feel “alienated” and “less welcome.”

More accurate would be to say the resolution could make Zionists feel unwelcome. But the chancellor’s conflation of Jewish identity with support for Israel allows him to invoke a discourse of safety for oppressed identities as the bludgeon that it often becomes; a human shield, as it were, against criticism. That this conflation inflames anti-Semitism is curiously not a concern of these douchebags, who are happy to pretend all Jews support Israel. Much better to take what power you can from the discourse of oppressed groups and use it to cover for support for an apartheid state. And that’s what makes black Zionists like Chloe Valdary doubly valuable for Israel, as they can make additional claims to the need for safety, cynically counterposing black and Palestinian struggles – a particularly coveted trait when these movements are forging stronger ties.

To take another egregious example, let’s look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

A while back, Clinton’s team produced a chart of “intersections.” Indecipherable, it invoked the necessary know-how of the language of intersectionality as a signal to voters: “Clinton’s with it,” it shouted. No matter that the chart was absurd and that Clinton’s policies have and will continue to reinforce, not undo, oppression. No matter that Clinton doesn’t even pay her interns, who more likely than not are overwhelmingly women.

As she asked at a campaign rally in February, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow…would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make immigrants feel more welcome?”

“No!” her audience responded, but this cheeky remark was to a strawman – no one, not Bernie Sanders, not even weirdos on the internet, claims it will. But it’s enough to know the language for Clinton, to “speak left” as Luntz put it.

Fortunately, most working people aren’t fooled by this insincerity. We want redistribution. We want real feminist and antiracist gains: abortion on demand, universal health care, union protections and a $15 minimum wage for home care and fast food workers, defunding the police and an end to mass incarceration. Clinton won’t offer these but her cynical deployment of the language of the left is a feignt to pretend otherwise, and a quick look at the unbearable Clinton supporters penning articles about her radicalism is evidence that this is convincing a fair number of voters.

Why Does This Matter?

As usual, Adolph Reed Jr said it best: “[identity] politics is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism.” What he means by it is that rather than countering a strawmanned ‘class-first’ politics – the ‘break up the banks and stop there’ fantasy evoked by Clinton -the language of identity politics is elastic enough to incorporate the bourgeoisie along with the working class, particularly when it uncritically links identities to political ideologies.

It’s how we get the “black misleadership class” in Reed’s terms, bourgeois African Americans purportedly speaking on behalf of “the black community.” By pretending this community isn’t internally riven by class divides, this essentialized view of a definitionally progressive blackness lets the black bourgeoisie fill the symbolic role of a black voice, immune from criticism by their allies, who are told to shut up and listen, not question the political credentials of the speaker. This doesn’t just cause chaos at the level of institutional politics, though it does that too. It also opens up space for incoherence and misleadership in movements.

As Douglas Williams put it, “we have gotten to a point where any critique of tactics used by oppressed communities can result in being deemed “sexist/racist/insert oppression here-ist” and cast out of the Social Justice Magic Circle.” While Williams is writing of the need to build a broader, more effective movement, the phenomena he’s referring to – the belief that the oppressed shouldn’t be criticised – is not only linked to a condescending belief that oppressed groups can’t argue their views, it hands a cover to conservative projects as long as they’re led by members of an oppressed group.

Teach for America is one of the most prominent organizations to take advantage of this opening. As Drew Franklin detailed at Orchestrated Pulse, Teach for America faced a “race problem” in the wake of the devastation of the New Orleans public school system. In Franklin’s words, this led it to “re-brand itself as a Civil Rights organization. Selling such an image necessitated a new class of political operatives, one that was “majority-led by the oppressed group.”” Yet again switching out the substantive and often socialist demands of the civil rights movement for symbols, TFA could claim membership under the umbrella of social justice just as long as it had enough people of color on its payroll and knew the right words to use.

I can’t help but think that was the purpose of a recent event hosted by TFA Massachusetts. Titled “#StayWoke: Social Justice through Hashtag Activism,” the event promised to help attendees struggle for racial justice, even as the organization hosting it eviscerates black communities across the country. Want to know someone who looks like he attended one of these trainings? Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, pictured here wearing a shirt that reads #StayWoke while speaking with TFA alum and black misleader-par-excellence Deray McKesson despite the fact that Twitter has a severe diversity problem.

And that gets to the heart of the issue. Neoliberalism, capital, or university administrations have no problem accommodating symbols. New language can be learned by hiring a social justice consultant, new faces can coexist with old in high places, granted the majority remain shut out. It’s calls for redistribution that don’t jive with the status quo but these are ignored in favor of those demanding the easily assimilable.

Aviva Chomsky skillfully addresses this in the context of the university in a recent piece. “While schools have downplayed or ignored student demands for changes in admissions, tuition, union rights, pay scales, and management prerogatives,” she writes, they’ve incorporated the more symbolic and individualized demands “into increasingly depoliticized cultural studies programs and business-friendly, market-oriented academic ways of thinking.” Those demanding changes of language – apologies, inclusive rhetoric, an end to microaggressions – are recognized while those advocating for prison divestment  or an increase in material support for students from oppressed groups are shut out.

The critical stance I and the writers I’m quoting adhere to isn’t a condemnation of anti-racism or feminism as such – I support both the symbolic and redistributive demands of college students. Rather, as Ben Norton wrote in a post on Reed and identity politics, it’s “a condemnation of a politics that is centered on social constructs, like race or gender, rather than on material conditions.” If we focus our politics around achieving material changes, this necessarily entails fighting oppression wherever it appears. But to hitch this struggle to redistribution prevents those opposed to this project from claiming the mantle of social justice.

Where Does This Leave Us?

First and foremost, we shouldn’t blame those confused by this rhetoric – indeed, I was one of them until very recently. These are people who want progress but are being sucked into the morass of conflations of identity and politics. This is concerning not only because of its lack of strategic efficacy but also because it burns people out. To be always on, to have your identity, your cultural preferences, your social circle and your dating life all bound up with and signifying your politics is a recipe for exhaustion. And I’ve seen it happen: either these activists enter into non-profits and lose sight of radical movement work altogether, or they give up completely, shifting into a consumption or lifestyle politics. If we want stronger movements, we need to argue against these politics.

But for those in positions of power – people like Luntz or Clinton, groups like TFA – cynically emptying out the force of these anti-capitalist words, we should be merciless in denying them access to this cover. Where those in power seek to insulate themselves from criticism by invoking the language of the left, we need to insist on placing these words back in the context from which they came: the struggle against capital and for the oppressed. By refusing to bestow any magic on words, we can render them useless to the powerful and in doing so, make the sides in this fight unmistakably clear.

re: free speech on college campuses

As I’ve noted previously, the absence of campus Zionists from the countless think pieces on campus activism and the right to free speech is glaring.

My view on the supposed conflict between the right to free speech and the right to equality across race/gender/sexualities is that it doesn’t exist, and we shouldn’t cede to the conservative framing of this debate as one in which these two aims are intractably opposed. Instead, we can (and should) argue that, in the case of current anti-racist protests, students are advocating for free speech by agitating for the conditions that would allow black students to freely exercise their speech. That rather than the ‘coddled’ enemies of speech they dislike, black students are defending this right which is being denied them. Having said this, the debate will nonetheless continue to operate as it is, what with the majority of media outlets serving fundamentally conservative societal functions. This being the case, we must start analyzing how the tactical censorious being displayed by a small subset of progressive activists is becoming the preferred tactic of a very different sort of campus activist: Zionists.

As yet another example of how effectively Zionists are using the censorious discourse of a right to feel safe on campus as a means for shutting down BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) initiatives, the following is an email UC Santa Cruz students just received:

“On college campuses across the country, students are engaged in challenging but necessary conversations with administrators about race, religion, ethnicity, and identity.

At their best, challenging incidents can usher in long overdue changes that promote greater understanding and equality. At their worst, they can exacerbate tensions and contribute to what some experience as a hostile environment.

Globally, we’re seeing how hatred can lead to unimaginable acts of violence.

Nationally, students affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement stood in solidarity with their peers at the University of Missouri who are protesting widespread racism on that campus and working toward meaningful change.

On our campus, which has a long and proud history of student engagement in critical issues of equity and social justice, I want to be sure we acknowledge differences of opinion and work to maintain civility in the midst of turmoil.

In student government, as is their right, the Student Union Assembly this week voted to reinstate a resolution urging the University of California to divest from Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has generated passionate opinions on both sides.

I’m concerned this resolution will have a chilling effect on individuals within our campus community. However unintentional, its passage may create an environment in which some of our Jewish students feel alienated and less welcome on our campus.

We have a commitment at UC Santa Cruz to engaged, respectful dialogue. The free and open exchange of ideas is a pillar of our Principles of Community.

I am convening my Chancellor’s Diversity Advisory Council to discuss the climate for Jewish students on campus. The council has advocated for African American students, LGBT students, and the disabled members of our community, among others, and I want to be sure our campus community welcomes and supports Jewish students, faculty, and staff. I will share my thoughts about that conversation as it unfolds.

Universities are microcosms of our complex, diverse global society. With so many differences, the opportunities for division are endless. Instead, let us make the conscious choice to seek common ground, to forge understanding, and to cultivate compassion. By doing so, we will model the way for the world-a laudable and fitting goal for UC Santa Cruz.”

This administration has made use of radical organizing in support of black students to stifle a pro-Palestine initiative. These two struggles are deeply connected; to position them as opposed is a political move that needs to be argued against. As for me, I’m gonna keep arguing against whoever wants to censor speech they dislike – but more than nine times out of ten, that means I’m gonna be arguing with Zionists.


A Spectre is Haunting College Campuses

A recent piece about trigger warnings is making the rounds online.

The article, written by Rani Neutill, details the escalating requests for trigger warnings she faced while teaching a college course on sex and film. She starts the semester providing trigger warnings before each film she shows in the classroom, but it isn’t long before two students leave in tears after a screening. They hadn’t done the readings for that day, leaving them unaware of the film’s content. After class, Neutill has a particularly odious encounter with one of the teary-eyed students, a white female African American studies minor. This student is a Good White Ally,™ scolding our author, a woman of color, about the importance of showing diverse representations of African Americans. It’s indisputable: this student is the worst.

At this point, we can see where the story is going: Neutill’s students request ever more contrived warnings about the course content, and she complies with their requests. This dynamic stifles the course, with Neutill eventually sending “a meticulous email detailing which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included” each night before class. While she began the semester a proponent of trigger warnings, by the end, she’s had enough: these students refuse to engage positions they disagree with, using trigger warnings to foreclose any chance of their grappling with difficult ideas. Instead of developing analytical skills, Neutill’s students opt for coddling. The state of campus political culture continues to spiral downward and the front of the classroom is further lined with eggshells.

Now, the most important kernel in the article can go almost unnoticed – Neutill’s job security, or lack thereof. A “wandering postdoc” and “not so young woman of color,” Neutill is presumably under close scrutiny from her department. In her account, she’s challenged more often in the classroom and given more critical teaching evaluations from her students than her white male colleagues. These higher standards matter for her job prospects. While I won’t speculate on Neutill’s reasons for accommodating her students’ increasingly ludicrous requests, I can imagine myself swallowing the urge to abandon trigger warnings if it meant keeping my job. If I wasn’t confident that the university would back me up should these coddled activists file complaints against me, I might cede the ground to them, choosing the course of action that helps me keep food on the table.

And that’s the issue: I wouldn’t bet my paycheck on the university’s support. Workplace insecurity makes it hard for non-tenured professors, adjuncts, and graduate students to set boundaries in the classroom or challenge students on contentious subjects. The backdrop of eroding work conditions that disproportionately impact workers of color, women, and queer employees is central to Neutill’s story.

Articles like Neutill’s get a lot of play these days, not only from conservatives, but on the left as well. The question of whether there’s an instinct toward censorship among left-leaning campus activists has come up in conversations I’ve had with left-wing political organizers, journalists, progressive faculty, and campus activists themselves — and invariably, these discussions turn upon the spectre of an elite (nearly always female) social justice activist threatening our intellectual and political freedoms.

Now look, I’m a twenty-something who’s got a B.A. from one liberal private university and now works and studies at another — I’ve met this figure, she exists, and she does seem to be rolling increasingly deep on campuses. And by god, she’s easy to make fun of – after all, we’ve established that she’s the worst – privileged, too sensitive, always trying to prove herself the Best White Person in the room, even if that means potentially throwing actual people of color under the bus, or in Neutill’s case, out of a job.

That being said, she’s only one minor figure on campus. If we’re concerned about the stifling of campus intellectual culture, why leave out the other censorship-happy campus activists? Organized Zionists have been more successful than any other group at leveraging the censoriousness built into the university’s corporate structure — they cost Steven Salaita his job, are compiling a McCarthyite blacklist of Palestine solidarity activists, and continue to shut down SJP organizing across the country through appeals to administrative power. In addition, there are the white supremacists – it surely would be a mistake to leave out the guys who pressured Boston University to fire Saida Grundy for tweeting what amounts to critical race theory 101 (and while BU didn’t fire Grundy, the university definitely didn’t back her up either).

To focus on the social justice activist’s political shortcomings is to miss the forest for the trees – after all, the source of much of whatever power she and other campus censors have is the structural condition of the university; nothing silences a professor like the lack of a secure contract. Not even the biggest and baddest of college activists can hope to stifle discussion as pervasively as precarious working conditions do; to direct our ire at the activist but not the university misdiagnoses the problem from the start.

If we want the free expression of ideas, it’s legitimate to discuss the first figure, the lefty-liberal campus activist, but framing this conversation around labor conditions allows us to bring in the others who, not surprisingly, often go unmentioned in discussions of campus political culture. Perhaps even more importantly, this view demystifies the institution most responsible for this mess: the neoliberal university. Graduate students and faculty censor themselves for fear of being painted anti-Semites, hysterical man-hating feminists, “reverse racists,” and yes, to avoid being labelled “problematic” too. Yet, fundamentally, much of this censorship happens because we’re terrified of being perceived as too controversial and losing a job, or worse, not getting hired in the first place.

Making fun of misguided tactics from progressive campus activists is satisfying, but it isn’t constructive, not when the right already spills so much ink engaging in this flavor of activist-bashing. Instead, to the extent that students are using social justice discourse, intentionally or not, to jeopardize academics’ jobs, we need to identify and challenge this. If censorship and appeals to power are becoming instinctive tactics for college activists, we should advocate for bottom-up collective action instead. But most importantly, if more academics had access to collective bargaining agreements, long-term contracts, and tenure, attempts to censor difficult discussions, whether by social justice activists, Zionists, racists, or anyone else, would be much more likely to meet with just the sort of critical intellectual engagement we all so desperately desire.

Mohammed Omer interviews Gazans

Mohammed Omer, a reporter from Rafah, inside of Gaza, has been reporting seemingly 24/7 since the siege began.

In his newest piece, he interviewed Gazans during a brief calm in the violence of Operation Protective Edge.

What’s remarkable about these interviews is the clarity with which these besieged Palestinians articulate the complexity of the conflict. While Zionists and their supporters in the media cannot speak the word “Hamas” without adding “terrorists,” the interviewees express what we all know: resistance is justified when the violence being visited upon you is not.

This we know. This is why the media cannot break from the equation Hamas=terrorists. To introduce nuance is to open Israel up to a barrage of criticism, and that is unacceptable.

Instead, we can all now condemn the killing of children. But contextualizing these deaths and how militant resistance stems from a state that has long visited death upon innocents?

Well, I don’t think that’d get past the censors anyway.

Women’s Rights, from Boston to Gaza

Gaza and Clinic Defense
Gaza and Women’s Self-Determination

This was my favorite of the photos I took at a clinic defense action last week in Boston, MA.  It was directed at the anti-abortion protestors whom we were at the clinic to counter, though more broadly addressed the entire Boston community, drawing the connections between these conflicts. For analyses of this connection, I recommend this Electronic Intifada article, as well as this piece by INCITE!

The action was a response to the effects of the US Supreme Court striking down the buffer zone law, which had required that protesters (specifically, it was enacted with respect to anti-abortion protesters outside of abortion clinics) remain thirty-five feet away from the clinic being targeted.

Since its nullification, anti-abortion protestors have returned to hovering around the front of the Planned Parenthood building.  As long as they are not physically blocking entry, they are considered to be exercising their right to free speech.  However, the very real effects of their presence is an end to freedom of movement, as a patient must suffer their entreaties and company as she enters the building, and then wonder about how non-violent these anti-abortionists truly are as she passes through Planned Parenthood’s heavy security precautions.

At the action, I watched one of these anti-abortionists pace back and forth in front of the building, anti-woman literature in his hand, scanning passers by so as not to miss an opportunity to harass any who might have been entering the clinic.

The history of violence associated with these anti-abortion protestors is very recent.  The following is from the National Abortion Federation’s website:

“This foundation of harassment [outside of clinics] led to violence with the first reported clinic arson in 1976 and a series of bombings in 1978. Arsons and bombings have continued until this day. Anti-abortion extremists have also used chemicals to block women’s access to abortion employing butyric acid to vandalize clinics and sending anthrax threat letters to frighten clinic staff.

In the early 1990s, anti-abortion extremists concluded that murdering providers was the only way to stop abortion. The first provider was murdered in 1993. Since then, there have been seven subsequent murders and numerous attempted murders of clinic staff and physicians, several of which occurred in their own homes. In 2009, NAF member Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed in his church in Wichita, Kansas.”

This history was viscerally present as I watched the anti-abortion protester pacing back and forth on the sidewalk.  While this event was a controversial action in the feminist community here in Boston, it ultimately allowed women and Planned Parenthood patients, including those who attended the event but most importantly those who didn’t and instead happened upon it, to see that there are others willing to push back against the monopoly on space that has long been held by the anti-abortionists. Two of those involved in planning the action argued for it here.  They are members of Boston Feminists for Liberation, the independent feminist organization that organized the event.

The action went as I imagined it would: it was low-key, with twenty-five or so (mostly) women holding signs and speaking out on the edge of the sidewalk nearest the street.  Dozens of the neighborhood’s residents joined in on the action upon seeing it, and we succeeded in causing a few of the anti-abortionists to pack up their signs and head home early. We also became the focus of their video camera, allowing a brief reprieve for Planned Parenthood’s patients, who would otherwise have been the focus of their filming.

And, as my second favorite sign, also directed at the anti-abortionists, read:

“Life begins when you stand up to right-wing fascists.”

Who can argue with that?

For Those Directing Operation Protective Edge, the Palestinian Dead are Incidental

Operation Protective Edge is about land.

The Gaza buffer zone comprises over 40% of the Gaza Strip. (image via keldbach.net)
The Gaza buffer zone comprises over 40% of the Gaza Strip.
(image via keldbach.net)

It is about water.


It is about energy resources.

Gaza Marine is the larger of two gas fields located in Gaza's territorial waters.
Gaza Marine is the larger of two gas fields located in Gaza’s territorial waters. (image via 1derrick.com)

In these aspects, it is the same as every other incursion Israel has ever made into Palestine.

The people suffer here until death, and that’s because the Palestinian people don’t matter.

I don’t say this as a rhetorical device, meant to push for action in solidarity with the Palestinian people (though you should take part in such actions, as many of you already have). I say it because from the point of view of the Israeli state, and the political ideology of Zionism, it is true.

This is the key difference between apartheid in Israel/Palestine and apartheid in South Africa. Whereas oppression of the majority and the maintenance of this majority as a beaten-down labor force was the means by which the white minority maintained its privileges in South Africa, in Israel/Palestine, the Palestinian people are incidental. Comparisons between these two situations are apt, and powerful, but we must emphasize the different economic positions occupied by the respective oppressed populations in order to understand the differences in the strategies taken by the state in each case. The black majority in South Africa was critical to the functioning of the economy. For Palestinians in Israel/Palestine, this is not the case.

Earlier in Israel’s history, Palestinians were discouraged from working for Jewish businesses. Labor Zionism imagined a socialist utopia for Jews only. To achieve those aims, the Palestinians needed to be physically separated from the functioning of the Israeli economy and society, ideally by leaving the land entirely. While the Bantustans in apartheid South Africa remained relatively near to centers of industry, as the exploited majority was needed as a labor force to produce value for the white owners of capital, Palestinians are needed for nothing. A 2010 UNRWA study estimates the unemployment rate of Gazans hovers around 45%.  Many Gazans once worked in the Israeli economy, and now subsist within the proscribed boundaries of Gaza, reinforcing the functioning of Gaza as little more than a massive open-air prison.

To take a step closer toward truth, we must recognize that rather than no value, Palestinian lives actually have negative value to the Israeli state. Widely viewed as a demographic threat to the state’s desired Jewish majority, Israel’s aim has long been to drive Palestinians into neighboring states.  Failing that, Israel bombs and immiserates the Palestinian people in the hopes of destroying their resistance and political leadership.

This is the answer to the cries around the world asking how Israel can bomb so many civilians, as it is doing now, or starve so many thousands, as it has been doing for years as an occupying force. In South Africa, the oppressed black population had to be ill-treated, to maintain white supremacy, but they also had to live and produce economic value. In Israel/Palestine, Palestinians are at best a nuisance to the Israeli state, and at worst, a parasite.

With this in mind, the answer to the how behind Israel’s genocidal policies, we can return to the why.

Why bomb a power plant?

Why destroy sewage treatment centers?

Why massacre neighborhoods until they are razed to the ground?

Why declare a buffer zone which comprises 40% of the Gaza strip?

Why destroy a university?

In short: why target an entire infrastructure?

These questions taken together paint a picture that turns upon one glaring fact: Israel’s Operation Defensive Edge is not about wiping out militants, as in the age of the “war on terror,” it is common knowledge that indiscriminate violence breeds militancy and terrorism.  Instead, it is about wiping out the Palestinian people, erasing evidence of their existence.  Israel has done this with hundreds of villages in the West Bank, and it is now doing the same in the Gaza Strip.  This is the reason for forbidding residents of the buffer zone from returning to their homes.

As morally reprehensible as it may be, this is why Israel engaged in Operation Protective Edge.  When the missile strikes finally subside, many publications will speak of how Israel lost the war.  Popular support for Hamas will not have diminished; a peace process will not have begun; and hundreds of children will be dead.  But these lamentations will miss the point.  This is not a war; there is only one military involved.  This decimation of the Palestinian people and their infrastructure is the purpose, and in this aim, Israel has already won.

On Israel, Birthright, and Ignorance

I’ve recently cut ties with a lot of people with whom I grew up. Or, rather, in some cases, they’ve cut ties with me.

My family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when I was still young, and after some time living in an apartment, we moved into our first ever house. It was in Squirrel Hill. While Pennsylvania is a deeply Christian state, Squirrel Hill is a strong outpost for the North American Jewish community. Our neighbor was a rabbi, and there was a synagogue at the end of my block, and another one two blocks up in the other direction.

While many North American Jews are on the frontlines of the battle to free Palestine from Israeli occupation and siege, many others are material and ideological supporters of the Zionist regime. Those siding with Israel have the organizational and financial advantages of state-backing, one of the most tangible resources for reproducing Zionist support being birthright trips.

When I decided to take a solo trip to Paris after my junior year of high school, many of my friends’ parents heard about my plan from their children. One day, I stopped into a local administrator’s office. He, the father of my one of my peers, immediately tried to warn me away from my plans.

“I don’t know why you’d want to go alone somewhere so far away. It could be dangerous,” he remonstrated, pausing as if permitting me time to defend myself.

As I began to answer, he spoke again. “Why don’t you go to Israel instead?”

I stopped, caught off guard by the suggestion.

Stammering to get out the first of many reasons why that idea didn’t interest me, I responded.

“I’m not Jewish.”

“That doesn’t matter,” he answered, not missing a beat. This didn’t seem like the first time he had delivered this proposition to a student. “You live in Squirrel Hill. And you said your father is Jewish, after all. So, Judaism isn’t entirely outside of your upbringing. The birthright program will pay for the trip, and you’ll get to travel with other young people.”

I sat in silence. Seventeen years old and with no political knowledge about the region, I tried to imagine reasons a state halfway around the world, to which I had no connection, would pay for me to visit.

“I thought your mother has to be Jewish to make you ‘technically’ Jewish,” I offered. I’d learned this over the years in Squirrel Hill.

He smiled, “Israel would love to have you. I can write a letter on your behalf.”

I left in a fog. I definitely wasn’t going to take him up on the offer, but it was the offer itself that I couldn’t fit into my understanding of the world. I had saved a chunk of my paychecks for years in order to have enough money to travel to France for a month, and yet, a country of which I had no knowledge was willing to save me all that trouble, and treat me like a VIP. I didn’t yet know that this offer was not free. Thousands of Palestinians paid with their blood so that a high school girl from Pennsylvania could save her money for a different vacation. I was a VIP; my blood put me on a guest list which was guarded by tanks, guns, and bombs, the better to keep out countless exiled Palestinians from ever returning to their land.

As is immediately visible from browsing the websites of these birthright organizations, their mission is to tie the Jewish diaspora emotionally to land claimed by Israel, conflating Jewish identity with the Israeli state.

Browsing a sample itinerary from Mayanot, one such popular birthright group, the stops along the trip belie the oft repeated assertion of the “non-political” nature of a birthright trip.  The first day includes a “border tour,” a stop only described as centering around an Israeli army post.  The following day begins with a visit to a winery in the Golan Heights, followed by an afternoon listening to the stories of the “heroic defenders of the Golan.”  The exclamation starting off day three, that this is the day you’ll meet “your new Israeli friends – soldiers!” who will join you for the next eight days adds to the paranoia surrounding the entire experience.  Never mentioned by name in the itinerary, an ‘other’ is ever-present, so threatening as to require constant military escort.

Many young people leave these trips and return home, unless they exercise their ‘birthright’ and gain citizenship in Israel.  Those that return to their home nations are encouraged to share their experiences with their community, effectively reproducing a normalized Zionism amongst youth in the Jewish diaspora.  As is apparent in the strong reactions many of my Jewish friends from home have had to my pro-Palestinian views, this process works.  Many refuse to accept that I can critique the Israeli state’s policies without hating the Jewish people.  Their existence as Jewish people gives them a right to land claimed by Israel; how else do I explain their birthright trip?

It is this cynical manipulation of young people’s lack of historical knowledge by the Israeli state and its most prominent supporters that de facto drafts an unwitting demographic into supporting its colonial logic from a very young age.

This memory of my brief encounter with birthright terrifies me. Had I not been so attached to a romantic image of Paris drawn from novels and poetry, I would have taken that man up on his offer. I didn’t know any better, or, more accurately, I didn’t know anything about the region.  I would have returned knowing simply one perspective, and one day could have found myself supporting an ideology whose defenders shout encouragement at the bombing of children, as some Israelis have been doing since the start of the current siege on Gaza.

I saw that my old neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, had a pro-Israel rally a week or so ago. In the midst of massacres of civilians in Gaza, a few hundred people gathered in one of Pittsburgh’s nicest neighborhoods, meeting at my old hangout, the intersection of Forbes and Murray Avenues, to defend Israel’s right to bomb ambulances and power plants, and ultimately, to massacre children.

Children, no different than I had been when I was offered a trip worth thousands of dollars, in return for allowing my name to provide one more tally for Israel’s annual statistics presentations, in which it parades the number of young people who take the settler-state up on its offer for an all-expenses-paid vacation.  This data can then be used as justification for the Israeli state’s continued colonial logic.

Seeing the area in which I had grown into adulthood as a meeting site for a rally celebrating  what amounts to an ongoing massacre of children, hundreds of children who will never have the chance to experience adulthood, brought me to tears. While writing this, I learned that larger, more unapologetic gatherings have been held, with the latest event bringing together over 2000 people to stand “unequivocally with Israel.”

It’s events like these that normalize violence, minimizing the relentless bombing taking place in Gaza as I write. As an old Squirrel Hill acquaintance, who is now in Tel Aviv, commented on a photo, (posted below), I took of a recent rally for Palestine I’d attended in Boston,

“Massacre, wow! That’s strong language.”

It is. And I wish it weren’t true, but it is in just such cases that one has the obligation to name things as they are. The outpouring of images and words from Palestinians, and their supporters around the world, has forced the discussion of the Israeli occupation into the mainstream media in a way that has never been seen before, with the effect being that many who had never heard these long-silenced voices and long-hidden facts are now free to do their own research, form their own opinions. As more of us name the massacre, both in its current bloody form and its slower method of blockades and occupation, we diminish the possibility of ignorance amongst young people, who might otherwise be drafted into a Zionist perspective before having the chance to make up their own minds, as was nearly true for me.