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An Interesting Afternoon in Washington Square Park

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There will be no Zoom call this Friday.

I wasn’t planning on making a video for today but something happened yesterday that I thought was worth discussing.

If anyone is in New Haven, I’ll be speaking at Yale on Monday night, April 3.

I’ll be back with another video next Monday,

Peter


VIDEO TRANSCRIPT:

We don’t have a zoom call this Friday. We’ll wait until a week from Friday because of the Passover holiday. I wasn’t gonna make a zoom recording today at all, but there was an interesting incident that happened earlier today that I thought I would share.

So, I was asked to give a speech at a rally in Washington Square Park in New York that was kind of in solidarity with the rallies that have been happening in Israel against judicial overhaul. These rallies have been happening in Europe for quite a while now. And the organizers asked me to speak. And I said I’d be happy to speak. But you know, if I speak, I’m gonna speak about Palestinian freedom as well, not just the judicial overhaul. And they said that was fine. And so, I went to speak, and the points that I made I don’t think would be particularly surprising to anyone who listens to these videos. But I just started by saying that if this is a movement for democracy, democracy means government by the people. And if we ask, who are the people in Israel under the control of Israel, we can’t limit that to people who are citizens. We have to also include those who are Israel’s subjects: the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and even Gaza who live under Israeli control, but without the most basic democratic rights.

And so, if one wants a movement for democracy, they—the people who have the fewest democratic rights—they have to be put at the center of that movement. And I tried to make the point that it was much harder for Palestinians to protest for democracy than it was for Israeli Jews. That Palestinians in the West Bank can’t just go to Tel Aviv, they need military permission. That my friend Issa Amro, if he tries to protest non-violently in Hebron—which he does—is always in danger of being attacked or being imprisoned. That when Palestinians in Gaza did the Great March of Return in 2018 and 2019—most of whom were nonviolent—they were still killed in the hundreds and injured in the thousands or even tens of thousands. So, the point that I made was that if this is gonna be a real movement for democracy, it can’t be a movement that champions liberal democracy for Jews but accepts apartheid for Palestinians. And that it can’t be a movement to return to a status quo of the kind that Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid oversaw when they criminalized Palestinian human rights organizations and oversaw the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.

And then I made the point that while it might seem that what I’m suggesting is politically naive and strategically stupid because if you broaden this movement for beyond just judicial overhaul, beyond just the rights of Israeli Jews to include Palestinians under occupation, then you make it easy for people on the Israeli right to paint you as anti-Zionist, etc., etc. But the point that I tried to make to the crowd was that actually, I see it differently. That I actually think that the part of the reason that the Israeli right has been so successful, has been hegemonic in Israel for decades, is because you can’t have a successful movement for democracy that’s just a Jewish movement. That no great movement for equality can simply be the province of one ethnic or religious group. That all great movements of the left, great movements for equality, have to broaden and include all the people, be movements for democracy for all, that include people across ethnic and religious and racial divisions. And that if you wanted to move this protest movement—as impressive as it has been—from hundreds of thousands to millions of people, your best allies, the people who most thirst for freedom, the people who would be most important and valuable in a freedom movement, are the people who are most denied freedom today: Palestinians under Israeli control.

And that, in fact, that’s the way of fundamentally changing the political calculus in Israel. Not just putting Palestinian citizens at the center and allowing them to bring Palestinian flags, but indeed trying to find ways of reaching out to Palestinians in the occupied territories as well. And having a movement not to save democracy for Jews, but to build democracy for both Jews and Palestinians in all the territory between the river and the sea. But I never really got to say that last part, because at a certain point some people in the crowd were pretty angry with me. Not everyone. I think that actually a lot of people—maybe a majority—were actually pleased with what I was saying. And definitely I saw some people responding really positively. But there were some people who were pretty upset, and they were upset enough to basically pretty much shout me down. I mean, I just couldn’t keep speaking because people were booing and yelling so much that they wanted me to stop.

And so, I didn’t get to say what I wanted to say at the end, which was that I think even the Pesach story—although we think of it as a story of Jewish national liberation of course—that our sages teach us that it was not only Jews who left Mizraim, who left Egypt, but that there were also what are known as the Erev Rav, the mixed multitudes, other people, Egyptians and others, also who wanted to get the heck out of the bondage of Pharaoh’s Egypt. And some Egyptians, perhaps, who saw that liberation for the children of Israel would also be their liberation. And it’s true that many of the kind of rabbinic commentators take a dim view of this Erev Rav, and suggest that they caused problems when the Jews were in the desert. But I actually think that one can imagine this also as a multi-ethnic, multinational, multi-religious movement of people seeking freedom, which is I think what this movement in Israel-Palestine, what I hope it becomes. And what I genuinely believe is the only way that will fundamentally change the realities on the ground.

So, it was a weird experience. It’s like I barely ever give speeches at rallies to begin with, and I’ve never had the experience of kind of basically being heckled down in a speech. It certainly wasn’t the organizers’ fault. They were lovely. And a lot of people came up to me and said nice things. But one of the interesting things about the people who were upset because some of them came to talk to me is some of them said, we don’t necessarily disagree with what you’re saying, but we simply think that, sequentially, we have to focus on the judicial overhaul first, and then we can get to the issues, the kind of things you’re talking about. And the point that I made to them in return is, I don’t think that if you don’t include Palestinians now—first of all I don’t think you’re ultimately going to defeat the Israeli right. Just the numbers. If you look just at Israeli Jews, I don’t think you have a clear enough majority to bring anything like a kind of center left government to power. You would need Palestinian citizen parties to actually create a stable alternative government. But beyond that, if you don’t make this a movement for Palestinian freedom, what you will be essentially doing is just having it be a movement for the restoration of the status quo. And the restoration of the status quo for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem is apartheid. And that’s not worthy of the great movement that you are trying to build.

I’m not sure necessarily I convinced those folks, but it was an interesting experience. And I just kind of dream of the day that I could go to Washington Square Park and see a protest that was ten times that size and filled with Palestinian as well as Israeli flags, and be a kind of movement that could be the embryo of a movement in solidarity in the United States. Not just for what Israelis are doing against the judicial overhaul, but for freedom and democracy for everyone between the river and the sea. Again, we won’t be having a zoom call this Friday. But we’ll be back a week from Friday, and I’ll tell you about that next Monday when I record another zoom myself. Take care.

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The Beinart Notebook
The Beinart Notebook
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Peter Beinart