Can Palestinians Speak?

Our Zoom call this week will be at the regular time: Friday at Noon EST.

Given all the attention the media has paid to the climate at American universities since October 7, I’ve invited two exceptional students, one Palestinian and one Jewish, to be our guests. Nadine Bahour recently graduated Harvard and works as an organizer with the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee. Rochelle Berman is an undergraduate at Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. They’ll talk about what it’s like to be Palestinian and Jewish on campus today.

As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Tuesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Benny Morris, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.

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Sources Cited in this Video

Elon Musk endorses a tweet declaring that “Jewish communities have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them.”

Elon Musk declares that the phrases “decolonization” and “from the river to the sea” “necessarily imply genocide” and “will result in suspension” from his platform.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt applauds Musk’s “leadership in fighting hate.”

Fadi Quran on the phrases “decolonization” and “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.”

Rashida Tlaib on the equal future she supports between the river and the sea.

The original Likud platform, which declares that “between the Sea and the Jordan [River] there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen declares last week that “there will be Israeli security control from the Jordan [River] to the [Mediterranean] Sea at all times.”

Theodore Herzl writes to Cecil Rhodes in 1902 arguing that he should support Zionism “because it is something colonial.”

Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1923 calls himself a “Jewish colonist” in his famous essay, “The Iron Wall.”

The Jewish Colonial Trust bank, founded at the second Zionist Congress.

Things to Read

In Jewish Currents (subscribe!), Maya Rosen writes about the struggle between the families of Israelis held hostage in Gaza and the Israeli government.

Jehad Abusalim (last Friday’s guest) sends a message to the children of Gaza.

David Feldman, director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, discusses the problem with calling Hamas’ brutal massacre a “pogrom.”

Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal (and newsletter subscriber), argues for a cease-fire with conditions.

An event at the Center for Jewish History for Geoffrey Levin’s fascinating new book about the history of American Jewish dissent over Israel.

Reading Torah with a knife.

Last week, I spoke about Israel’s war in Gaza on Democracy Now and MSNBC.

See you on Friday at Noon,

Peter


VIDEO TRANSCRIPT:

Hi. Our call this week is gonna be Friday at noon for paid subscribers, our normal time the day after Thanksgiving for those in the United States. And we’re going to talk to two college students—or one is a recent college graduate—about what it’s like to be on campus as a Jewish and Palestinian student today in the post-October 7th environment. We’ll be talking to Nadine Bahour, who recently graduated Harvard and is still very involved in Cambridge in pro-Palestinian organizing at Harvard, and with Rochelle Berman, who’s a student at Barnard Jewish Theological Seminary. So, Harvard and Columbia campuses have been in the news a lot. These are two very thoughtful young people who will talk about what the debate has been like as they have seen it for college students at kind of ground level. That’ll be this Friday at noon.

So, things have been happening over the last month that just are kind of astonishing to me and terrifying to me—so many things that sometimes like I just feel myself in a constant state of being overwhelmed by them. And some of them are happening on the ground in Israel-Palestine and Gaza. But some of them are happening here. Some of it has to do with free speech. So, the suspending of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at Brandeis and Columbia and George Washington, which is never something—maybe I was naïve—that I thought I would see. But also, other things. So, just a couple days ago, there was an astonishing series of events that happened on Twitter/X, right? And let me give you the chronology here first, right? So, the chronology is that Elon Musk, right, who runs this G-d forsaken platform, he retweets somebody. And the person he retreats writes, ‘Jewish communities have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them.’ And then Elon Musk writes, ‘you have said the actual truth.’ So, like basically, Elon Musk is saying that like what Jewish communities—whatever the heck that means—basically like are threatening and expressing hatred towards white people. That’s like pretty much standard issue kind of white nationalist stuff, right? So, he says that.

Then like a day later, he declares that the phrases ‘decolonization’ and ‘from the river to the sea’ will be banned on X/Twitter because, ‘they necessarily imply genocide and call for extreme violence.’ So, here’s the guy who’s basically just flat-out basically made a white national statement, who’s all of the sudden so concerned about the Jews that basically Palestinians and their supporters can’t use the phrase ‘decolonization’ and ‘from the river to the sea.’ And then to add one more act to this like tragic comic farce, Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League on Shabbat—although I know I shouldn’t say that, but somehow that made it even more annoying to me—he then basically says that Musk’s banning of these terms, ‘decolonization’ and ‘from the river to the sea,’ he calls it an important and welcome move and he appreciates this leadership in fighting hate from the guy who just exposed himself as like a blatant white nationalist. But now he’s fine because he’s basically gonna say you can’t use the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ and ‘decolonization.’ Like, it just kind of like really blows my mind, honestly. But I thought maybe it was worth taking the time for a moment to say something about these phrases, ‘the river to the sea’ and ‘decolonization,’ and why—I mean I didn’t think I would ever have to say this—but like why I don’t think they should be banned from one of America’s still most prominent social media platforms.

So, let me start with ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ right? So, first of all, I should say this is not something that I would chant. It’s not my politics. The reason it’s not my politics is I believe in one equal binational state where both Jews and Palestinians have self-determination within a context of equality under the law. If there was a partition and Palestinians and Jews agreed to partition the land, that would be fine with me, too. But since I don’t think that’s anymore possible, I prefer one equal binational state, which gives everyone equal individual rights and collective expression over one state that has been called an apartheid state by even Israel’s own human rights organizations, right? So, ‘Palestine from the river to see will be free’ doesn’t express that because it imagines a Palestine, right, which is not a binational state, right. So, I would prefer something that left open the possibility for what Bashir Bashir, the political theorist, calls ‘egalitarian binationalism.’ So, something more like ‘everyone should be free from the river to the sea,’ or even just ‘Palestinians should be free,’ not ‘Palestine should be free from the river of the sea.’

But that said, ‘Palestine from the river to the sea’ has a particular history to it. It didn’t start with Hamas. It’s not particularly a Hamas chant, as everyone says. It starts long before Hamas started in 1987, and you have to understand it in a Palestinian context. And I’m gonna put a tweet in by my friend Fadi Quran, who goes into it because, again, part of the problem with these conversations is we’re constantly talking about Palestinians and so rarely listening to Palestinians. So, then you do something like this, which of course compounds the problem because now you’re literally banning Palestinians from speaking on the platform. But for Palestinians, the British create this colonial territory called Palestine along with the French. And the British, they also create, you know Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, etc. And these other places then move towards national independence, right? And they’re called Iraq, Jordan, Syria, right? And they are majority Arab countries, right? So, for Palestinians, that would have been the natural progression that they would have liked to see happen in this territory that the British called Palestine. Instead, what happens is that the British endorsed the Zionist movement in the Balfour Declaration and you end up getting basically, you know, a call for partition, which the Balfour rejected. We can go into all that. But basically you end up getting a Jewish state and certainly not a Palestinian state in all of the territory that was the British Mandate.

So, for the Palestinian point of view, their nationalist project is hijacked and can’t have the same fruition that you see in all of those other territories. So, I think it’s in that context, right, that people say Palestine should be free from the river to the sea. Now, the question is, what does that mean for the Jews who are there, right? Now, I will say that all of the Palestinians that I know, that I speak to, that I engage with, virtually without exception, what they mean by this is something kind of along the lines of what Fatah used to talk about before it supported partition: a kind of secular democratic Palestine in which people of all religions, including Jews and other ethnicities, would be treated equally and would have the right to freedom of speech. Now, you might say, that’s wildly naive, that would never happen. OK, you can take that view, put that to the side, right? But this is what people actually believe in, the intellectuals and activists that I listen to. Now, of course, there are other Palestinians who don’t, right? I mean, Hamas, if they say ‘Palestine will be free from the river of the sea,’ I think that their evidence based on their first charter, based on various actions suggest that they have very, very little regard for Jewish life. And so, if in that context, right, I would see that phrase as fundamentally hostile to Jewish safety.

But the point I’m trying to make in all of this is if someone says, ‘Palestine will be free from the river to the sea,’ you have to look at the context of what that person believes about what they want this free Palestine to be, right. And so, you should look at the other context of what they have said, right. And in the case of, say, Rashida Tlaib, who was literally like censured by Congress for having used this phrase, we kind of know what she believes because she said it again and again and again. And it’s emphatically not a vision in which Jews are oppressed or expelled or God forbid killed, right? This is what she said on October 8th. She says, ‘I am determined as ever to fight for a just future where everyone can live in peace without fear and with true freedom, equal rights, and human dignity,’ right? So, that’s what Rashida Tlaib means by it, right? How can you say that that is a call that necessarily implies genocide or a clear call for extreme violence? If a Palestinian, or a pro-Palestinian, or anyone else is making a statement that explicitly calls for genocide or extreme violence, then sure don’t allow that on, absolutely, right. But to say that because they use a phrase, that there may be some people who interpret it as a free Palestine that doesn’t allow room for Jews, but they’re clearly others for whom it’s a statement of equality. To say that implies genocide, it seems to me is just fundamentally kind of unfair. It’s especially unfair because of the profound double standard, right? Because there isn’t a Palestine from the river to the sea, so we don’t know how it would treat Jews. But there is an Israel from the river to the sea and we know how it treats Palestinians, right? Like that’s not theoretical. That exists, right? And it’s considered to be an apartheid state by its own leading human rights organizations, right—B'Tselem, Yesh Dinbecause most of the Palestinians under Israeli control are not even citizens and don’t even have the right to vote in the country that controls their lives.

And what’s even more absurd is that Israeli officials, in justifying this one apartheid state that exists, they use the phrase ‘from the river to the sea.’ The Likud charter says, ‘between the river and the sea, there will be only Jewish sovereignty,’ right? But that’s not banned on Twitter. Basically, to say, we’re gonna control all this territory. Millions of Palestinians are not gonna have the most basic human rights. But for Rashida Tlaib to say, ‘Palestine will be free from the river to see’ when she’s explicitly said that what she means by that is a state where Jews and Palestinians are created equal, that’s considered genocidal and not allowed on Twitter? Like, I mean, is that fair, really? Just a couple days ago, Israel’s Foreign Minister said there will be Israeli security control from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. Well, the Jordan’s the river and the Mediterranean is the sea. So, he’s also saying ‘from the river to the sea’ explicitly in a context where people are not treated equally, but he’s fine to say that on Twitter, right? Like, can you understand why Palestinian supporters might find this like a little bit unfair?

And so then on the question of decolonization. So, it’s not OK to use the word ‘decolonization’ because that implies genocide. Well, first of all, like, there’s been a heck of a lot of decolonization in the world over the last hundred years, which hasn’t been expressed through genocide, right? Last I checked, like, there was decolonization in India, in Kenya, in much of the Global South, right? So, just to say ‘decolonization’ means genocide is just like frankly bizarre, I think, right, for a lot of people around the world. And even if one were to talk about like saying they wanted decolonization now. Let’s say, we need real decolonization in the West Indies because we’re still basically under the thumb of the British because we have the Queen as our sovereign. Is that genocidal, right? Or the Western Sahara under the control of Morocco, we want decolonization. Is that going to be banned, right? It seems only in the Palestinian case, right, is it necessarily assumed to be genocide.

But it’s also worth noting that there’s a reason that Palestinians are talking about decolonization and a lot of other people in the world are not talking about that. It’s because there are aspects of Israeli control over Palestinians that actually look pretty darn colonial, right? So, like colonialism—just a shot of it, like on its face kind of—is basically like the idea that you are controlling people as subjects, but they can’t have citizenship in your country. It’s like Britain’s controlling India or, you know, the French are controlling Algerians, but they don’t have citizenship in the country that’s controlling them. They don’t have political expression, right? So, if you look at the situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank, for instance, it looks pretty darn colonial. They’re under Israeli control, right? The Israeli military controls the whole area, even though it subcontracts some of the dirty work out to the Palestinian Authority. They can pick up the garbage, etc. And the Jews in that territory, all of them have citizenship, and the Palestinians don’t, right? Like that’s colonialism, right? And so, you can’t call for decolonization except in that context because you’re supposedly supporting genocide, right, even if you explicitly say that you want to replace it with a territory in which everyone has equality under the law?

Now, Zionism as a whole, right, I recognize that to reduce Zionism to colonialism misses a lot, right? Zionism was also a movement of Jewish refuge for millions of people who had nowhere to go. It was a Jewish nationalist movement at a time when Europeans were having national self-expression all over Eastern and Central Europe. It was felt as a movement of Jewish liberation for lots and lots of people. I was raised that way. I know. I understand why that’s the way that so many Jews feel about Zionism. But it’s also true that in addition to those things—Jewish refuge, Jewish liberation, Jewish nationalism—Zionism also had a lot of colonial qualities to it, right? And like, you don’t have to take it from me. You can just look at a lot of the early Zionists who use the word ‘colonialism’ or ‘colonization’ as a positive term because it had positive connotations. Which was to say, of course, Jews had deep historical religious ties, historical ties to Eretz Israel. Like you don’t need to tell me that. I know. I, you know, I Daven Shacharit this morning, OK? I know.

But it’s also true that political Zionism, starting in the late 19th century, is a movement led by Europeans who are returning to this area and have a very set of kind of typical colonial views. They’re going to bring modernity. They’re going to bring civilization. And, whether they set out to or not, they also bring dispossession to the people who are living there, right? And like a lot of them are not shy about saying this, right? So, this is Vladimir Jabotinsky, right, one of the most important Zionist leaders, the forefather of revisionist Zionism, the tradition that ultimately leads to the Likud Party. This is what he says in his famous essay, ‘The Iron Wall,’ which I really recommend everyone should read, right? He says, ‘to imagine, as our Arabophiles do, that they’—meaning the Arabs—‘will voluntarily consent to the realisation of Zionism in return for the moral and material conveniences which the Jewish colonists brings with him is a childish notion,’ right? He’s basically saying the Arabs, the Palestinian Arabs, are never gonna go along with this Zionist project. And he refers to them himself as the Jewish colonists, right? The first Zionist bank is called the Jewish Colonial Trust, right? And this is Theodore Herzl who writes in to Cecil Rhodes, right, the famous, you know, the colonial figure from southern Africa. Herzl writes to Rhodes kind of asking him to help support Zionism. He says, ‘You are being invited to help make history… it doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asian Minor, not Englishmen but Jews… How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial,’ right?

So, the truth the matter is the reason that people don’t like calling Zionism ‘colonialism’ today is because today ‘colonialism’ is an epithet, right? And people are looking to defend Israel against its critics and opponents. But back then, people who were very, very proudly Zionists, thought it was fine to be colonial because it had a positive connotation, right? So, Zionism is many things. Not only a settler colonial movement, but one of the things it is, is a settler colonial movement. And to say that, and to say you want decolonization, should not be banned on Twitter, the fuck they’re calling it now, right? Like, again, if someone says my vision of decolonization is to kill the Jews, then yeah, ban them, right? I would like people when they talk about decolonization to specify what they mean by that because Algerian decolonization meant the expulsion of Jews. Many other decolonizations meant that, in Mahmoud Mamdani’s phrase, the settler becomes native, and basically everyone who’s there is treated equally. That’s an ethical kind of decolonization. I think it’s important that people specify that.

But it’s not fair if just because people use the term ‘decolonization’ to ban them on Twitter unless you have some other evidence that what they mean by it is mistreating Jews. And the assumption is that Palestinians just naturally have that inclination, right? Again, if you’re going to talk about Mohammad Deif, who launched the this evil attack on October 7th, fine. You could have that assumption about him, right? Or if it’s Hamas making a statement. They don’t deserve any benefit of the doubt about anything given the evil thing they did. But if you’re just talking about ordinary Palestinians who are saying this, it’s kind of racist to just assume that their natural inclination is to want to kill Jews absent any evidence. And then to go from there to banning them, right, which then makes you even more ignorant about what they really think just perpetuates like a really awful cycle, it seems to me, that we’re in, and it’s getting worse, and it really bothers me. Again, on Friday we’re going to be talking to Nadine Bahour from Harvard and Rochelle Berman from Barnard Jewish Theological Seminary about being a Jewish and Palestinian on college campus for paid subscribers. I hope many of you will join us.

Authors
Peter Beinart