We on the Left Need to Fix our Broken Israel/Palestine Politics | Opinion

It is the elementary duty of the Left to show solidarity with the dispossessed. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's clear who the Left must stand by: Palestinians killed by Israel's airstrikes on Gaza, Palestinians fighting against dispossession in East Jerusalem, or lynched by street mobs. We must also stand by Israeli civilians killed by Hamas's rockets. But given that Palestinians have had to endure the daily humiliation of military occupation in the West Bank, the brutal siege and periodic wars in Gaza and unequal citizenship in Israel proper, progressives should stand up for the Palestinian cause.

Yet the American Left's approach to the issue has been hamstrung by a broken political vision that is shocking in its irrelevance to the actual politics of the conflict.

If for decades, the American Left ignored the plight of the Palestinians and the crimes of the Nakba in 1948, today it has gone to the other extreme, adopting an equally myopic vision based on an uninformed fantasy. This fantastical view locates the problem not in Israel's military rule over Palestinians but in its very existence as a state, a ridiculously overblown vision when it comes to effective political organizing.

Many on the Left seem to believe that using the monicker "setter-colonialism"—a term that even some of Israel's own historians and early Zionist leaders used to describe the state's origins—somehow magically leads to a solution. As a result, instead of specific political demands, we have calls that are, at best, vague.

What does it really mean to "decolonize Palestine from river to the sea," for example, a phrase so popular on the Left? You could forgive an average Israeli Jew from hearing in the call the echoes of the Palestine National Covenant that before its significant amendments in 1996 openly called for the mass expulsion of the vast majority of Jews. Maybe you believe this is an uncharitable interpretation and the call is meant to confer equal rights on everyone. But how does this relate to the actual existing politics in Palestine or Israel? How does it help build solidarity with progressives there?

We on the Left need to fix
Kosovo Albanians march through the streets of Pristina on May 14, 2021, calling for an end to violence in Gaza. - Protesters held placards reading "Freedom for Palestine" , "End Ethnic Cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah" among others during a pro-Palestinian protest in Kosovo. ARMEND NIMANI/AFP via Getty Images

In fact, not only is the dominant approach of the American Left not interested in such solidarity with leftist Israelis, but opposition to it has become the very core of its program. The boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, known as BDS and launched in 2005, has now been widely adopted across the Left, including by an organization I belong to, the Democratic Socialists of America. Had the BDS movement decided to focus on calling for conditioning military aid to the U.S. or boycotting products from illegal settlements in the West Bank, it would have been able to build a united front, supported by many Israelis. Instead, the movement encourages cutting ties with all Israeli universities, boycotting any and all Israeli products, and effectively cutting all contact with Israel.

Ironically, BDS agrees with the most right-wing elements in Israel that there is no difference between Israel's legal existence and its illegal settlements. The folly of this approach means that BDSers have gone on to boycott left-wing playwright David Grossman's anti-war play, or the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra founded by none other than Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said.

It's something of a bitter irony that these tactics aim to delegitimize anything and everything Israeli while also ignoring Palestinian politics, but then claim to be charting a path to a one-state solution. If all cultural and political voices of Israel are boycotted, who exactly do these campaigners hope to build this one-state with? Their progressive friends in Brooklyn?

But there isn't even any debate about this anymore on the Left. The elevation of this lazy fantasy of politics into orthodoxy means that any challenge to it on the Left is shouted down, be it from Edward Said's family or from Norman Finkelstein, who, after years of fighting for Palestinian rights, is now censured because he refuses to support a blanket BDS and asserts Israel's right to exist as a sovereign state.

This broken politics means that even DSA's most well-known politicians are forced to simply ignore the organization's policy; Bernie Sanders opposes the boycott movement, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez invites the use of Israeli water technology into the U.S. and newly-elected Jamaal Bowman pledges "full support" to Israel.

The extremity of the position has rendered it totally irrelevant.

We need to course correct. In lieu of this broken rejectionist politics, the American Left of which I'm a proud member should adopt the slogan championed by Edward Said: "Two Peoples, One Land." It should recall that Said's "one state solution" was for a binational state that explicitly recognized the right of self-determination for both Jews and Palestinians. His politics followed that of his fellow PLO comrade, Palestine's poet laureate Mahmoud Darwish, who said, "We recognize the State of Israel and the Palestinian people's right to self-determination. This is the starting point in all that we do: This land belongs to both peoples, and both have an equal right to exist."

The American Left should build solidarity with actual progressive forces on the ground, like the Communist Party of Israel, whose decades-long struggle for Arab-Jewish unity has made it one of the only electorally successful Marxist parties in the world.

But at an even deeper level, the solution the American Left supports is of secondary importance. Of course, if the forces on the ground in Israel and Palestine ever came to espouse a one-state solution, we should be the first to follow them. But the substance of our policy should be to put pressure on Israel, by conditioning military aid, to end the occupation of West Bank and the siege of Gaza, to stop building illegal settlements (which we should work to boycott), to assure equal citizenship to Palestinian citizens and to meaningfully address the plight of Palestinian refugees and their UN-recognized right of return as part of a final-status settlement.

This requires dropping the blanket anti-Israeli campaign that to seeks to delegitimize Israel's very existence. No matter what fantasies we hold today, the clock can't be turned back to 1948, or 1881.

It's bitterly ironic when those who compare Palestine/Israel to South Africa forget what stood at the center of Nelson Mandela's politics throughout his long years of struggle: Unlike the PLO's covenant, African National Congress's 1955 Freedom Charter didn't divide the people of South Africa to "settlers and natives" but stood against such division by loudly declaring, "We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white."

In the tough times ahead, the American Left must stand in solidarity with the Palestinians' rightful struggle against occupation; but to do so, it must also break with its hitherto broken politics.

Arash Azizi is an Iranian socialist activist and author of "The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran's Global Ambitions" (Oneworld, 2020). He is a PhD candidate in history at New York University (NYU).

The views in this article are the writer's own.