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2021: The Year Palestinians Entered America’s Debate over Israel-Palestine
For my entire adult lifetime, the mainstream American conversation about Israel-Palestine—the one you watch on cable television and read on the opinion pages—has been a conversation among political Zionists. Its participants have argued over how the Jewish state should behave, not whether it should exist. Last year that began to change. Palestinians entered America’s public discussion in an unprecedented way, and with their entrance, anti-Zionism entered too. In 2021, the terms of US discourse began to shift. The ramifications of that shift will likely be with us for decades to come.
But first a reminder. Our Zoom call this week, for paid subscribers, will be on Wednesday, not the usual Friday, at Noon ET. Our guest will be Hanan Schlesinger, a rabbi from the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut who underwent a remarkable transformation, the kind that offers a glimpse into a radically different future for Palestinians and Israeli Jews. He’ll tell his story. We’ll send the link to paid subscribers tomorrow. Join us.
Back to what changed last year.
In 1984, in an essay in The London Review of Books, Edward Said observed that while Palestinians were increasingly talked about, they still weren’t often listened to. “Never has so much been written and shown of the Palestinians, who were scarcely mentioned fifteen years ago,” he noted. “They are there all right, but the narrative of their present actuality – which stems directly from the story of their existence in and displacement from Palestine, later Israel – that narrative is not.” Said was the exception that proved his own rule. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was a frequent guest on Charlie Rose. His columns graced The New York Times. But he was largely alone. A study by the University of Arizona’s Maha Nasser found that of the opinion columns in The New York Times that discussed Palestinians between 1970 and 2020, less than two percent were written by Palestinian authors. In The Washington Post, the figure was one percent.
They were absent because America’s public debate about Israel-Palestine largely pitted dovish Zionists against hawkish Zionists. Anthony Lewis versus William Safire. Arthur Hertzberg versus Elie Wiesel. Thomas Friedman versus Charles Krauthammer. Daniel Kurtzer versus Dennis Ross. Jeremy Ben-Ami versus Alan Dershowitz. Roger Cohen versus Bret Stephens. The participants changed but the terms of the debate remained largely the same: The doves said Israel could not afford to stay in the West Bank. The hawks said Israel could not afford to leave. Both sides shared a common belief that the Jewish state must survive.
During the fighting last spring, that began to change. While still underrepresented, Palestinian commentators gained more prominence. Noura Erekat appeared on CNN. Mohammed El-Kurd appeared on MSNBC. Refaat Alareer and Yousef Munayyer published in The New York Times. Rula Jebreal and Rashid Khalidi wrote for The Washington Post. Their presence shifted the terms of debate about Israel-Palestine in roughly the same way that the increased presence of Black commentators like Nicole Hannah-Jones has shifted America’s domestic debate about race. In ways that echo the 1619 Project, Palestinian critics went beyond current events to ask subversive questions about Israel’s moral foundations. They saw in its behavior in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where the expulsion of Palestinians sparked last spring’s war, a manifestation of the deep structure of a state that has been banishing Palestinians since it was born.
Why did Palestinian voices break through last year in a way they had not before. First, because the Black Lives Matter movement, and perhaps the #MeToo movement as well, created a new sensitivity in establishment media about questions of representation. When I was growing up in the 1980s, it was common to see all-white panels discussing Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy, all-male panels discussing the politics of abortion, or panels composed entirely of straight people discussing LGTB rights. Except on conservative outlets like Fox News, that’s rarer now. And so when violence erupted in Israel-Palestine this spring, the mainstream media’s new self-consciousness about representing historically excluded groups made editors and bookers more self-conscious about excluding Palestinians.
A second reason for the shift is the growing convergence between mainstream and social media. Like other groups with limited access to established publications and television channels, Palestinians turned to social media. And this created a mismatch between legacy media, where pro-Israel voices tended to dominate, and social media, where the playing field was more even. Dennis Ross may be a fixture on the TV chat shows and newspaper op-ed pages. But Noura Erekat has more than ten times as many followers on Twitter. Mohammed El-Kurd has more than twenty times as many. In recent years, the gulf between traditional and social media has narrowed. Newspaper editors and television bookers now spend a lot of time on Twitter. And so for Palestinian commentators, social media has become a backdoor into the establishment media from which they were long barred.
A third factor is America’s shifting demography. In understanding why American Jews enjoy such prominence in America’s debate over Israel-Palestine, it’s worth remembering just how deeply integrated into American society Jews are: The largest Jewish migration to the US occurred over a century ago. Palestinians, by contrast—like many other Arab American communities—are more likely to be first or second generation. A decade or so ago, the eminent Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi told me that Palestinians had not yet been in the US long enough to produce “our lawyers,” by which he meant a generation of Palestinians who were so fully Americanized that they could navigate America’s public debates without the friction encountered by their immigrant parents. That process of political assimilation has been impeded by Islamophobia, which two decades after 9/11 still creates a hostile climate for virtually any public figure who can be publicly associated with Islam. (Just look at the congressional GOP’s crudely bigoted attack last fall on Joe Biden’s appointee to be the deputy head of the Small Business Administration.) Still, Khalidi’s prediction is coming true. Ayman Moyheldin, for instance, who was born in Cairo to an Egyptian father and a Palestinian mother and emigrated to the US at age five, now hosts a show on MSNBC. Moyheldin is a scrupulously careful reporter who covers a wide range of subjects. But like all journalists, he brings his life experience and his professional experience—having reported extensively from the Middle East—to his work. And during the fighting last spring, that experience made his interviews stand out.
The final factor is this: Events themselves have made the need for Palestinian voices more glaring. Turn again to the analogy with race in the United States. In a penetrating essay last February entitled, “What The Trump Era Taught Me About Covering Politics,” Perry Bacon Jr., now a columnist at The Washington Post, noted that the US media would have taken Donald Trump more seriously as a presidential candidate earlier on had it included more Black voices. The reason is that Black Americans, because of their experience in the United States, found it easier to imagine the US electing a nakedly racist candidate. Similarly, Palestinians, because of their experience with the Jewish state, are better equipped to explain Israel’s rightward turn. If you see Israel as fundamentally liberal and democratic, it’s difficult to explain why Israel in 2018 passed a nation-state law that enshrines Jewish supremacy, or why it has so relentlessly erased the green line through settlement growth that its own leading human rights organization, and the leading human rights organization in the world, now call it an apartheid state. For most Palestinians, however, these developments aren’t baffling at all because they reflect continuity, not change. If Black American writers like Adam Serwer and Ta-Nehisi Coates have proved vital in the Trump era because they drew a link between Trump and the late nineteenth century backlash to Reconstruction, Palestinian commentators proved vital last spring because they drew a link between the expulsions from Sheikh Jarrah and the expulsions upon which Israel was founded. The more blatantly illiberal Zionism has become in the Netanyahu and Bennett eras, the harder Palestinian anti-Zionist voices have become to ignore.
This shift in the mainstream media has yet to reach Washington. The gap between America’s journalistic conversation and its inside-the-Beltway conversation has grown so large that America’s most prestigious newspapers now regularly publish anti-Zionist perspectives that are, by the definitions favored by many in Congress, antisemitic. I don’t know how, when, or even if, Washington will follow the media’s lead. Israel-Palestine has become yet another issue on which the left is winning culturally but losing politically. Still, the cultural change is striking, nonetheless. Almost four decades after Said’s essay, Palestinians in the US last year began to gain what he called the “permission to narrate.” And in the bleak year of 2021, that was a ray of hope.
Over the break I wrote two stories in Jewish Currents. The first is about the way Israel’s defenders in the US use antisemitism to avoid grappling with how Israel actually behaves toward Palestinians. The second is about congressional Republicans’ wildly Islamophobic arguments for why the United States doesn’t need an envoy to combat Islamophobia.
Here’s how Israel’s most famous novelist became an advocate for one equal state.
According to The Guardian, Britain’s Labour Party—which now sees anti-Zionism as potential evidence of Jew-hatred—has instigated disciplinary actions against more than forty leftist Jewish members on charges of antisemitism.
A conversation in 2002 between Christopher Hitchens, Michael Walzer, David Rieff, and Harold Honju Koh about the Iraq War.
See you on Wednesday,