Co-opting Solidarity: Privilege in the Palestine Solidarity Movement

By Nicole Solomon
The upsurge of support worldwide for Palestinians facing increasingly right wing Israeli policy is a crucial piece of movement toward global solidarity with and among oppressed peoples. It is good and fitting that, in the face of the Israeli government’s genocidal practices and the strategic backing of the United States government, the numbers of liberation-minded people in the U.S. opposing the occupation and other horrendous actions is growing. The Israeli occupation has become a central issue for activists in the U.S. It is about time that many who had previously dodged the issue – especially white progressives and radicals – moved it to the forefront of their agenda. The Palestinian solidarity movement must grow. As we grow, we must remain – and hopefully become increasingly – radical.
I write this article as someone committed to all struggles against oppressive power, as a white queer Jewish anarchist living under the United States’ white supremacy, engaged in anti-racist activism, theory, praxis. My identity is of immediate relevance in addressing Palestinian solidarity activism. The identities of all activists involved are, as they inform the privileges we hold and the vulnerabilities we have in the context of our activism. The April 20 and 22 demonstrations in Washington D.C., landmark events in the global Palestinian solidarity movement, also represent a turning point in the movement against the occupation. If we don’t act in principled solidarity, we face the risk of becoming a white co-optation movement.
Many U.S. white goy (non-Jewish) activists have little to no understanding of the histories of anti-Jewish oppression, anti-Semitism (a term often used in the U.S. interchangeably with “anti-Jewish,” but actually refers to all “semites” – Arab as well as Jewish people) or the vulnerabilities of Arabs, Muslims, South Asians and anyone perceived as such. They may feel a sincere affinity for Palestinians and rage at the practices of the Israeli government, but that doesn’t mean they have an understanding of what solidarity means. Solidarity involves acting accountably with an understanding of the participants’ locations of power. Not every U.S. activist involved in Palestinian solidarity efforts is acting in ways accountable to Palestinians and others involved in the movement. These activists often occupy privileged locations of identity – whiteness and, more often than not, WASPiness and class privilege. Such activists may plan actions supposedly on behalf of Palestinians yet structured around agendas other than what might actually be useful to Palestinian people. For example, activists may initiate (or attempt to initiate, the more common occurrence in April in DC) illegal, potentially high risk activities that could endanger Muslims, Arabs and South Asians in the area, generally at a much higher risk than, for example, white goy anarchists. High risk actions for Palestine are not acceptable when privileged activists organize them without discussion with Muslim and Arab groups, particularly when there was no call for such activities from Muslim, Arab and South Asian groups. Such situations especially occur in contexts where majority white and goy groups claiming to be pro-Palestinian liberation activists have little to no relationship or communication with South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities in general. Many white goy activists autonomously plan “pro-Palestinian” actions they think sound cool, without any familiarity with the work already done by Arab, Muslim and South Asian activists groups or how they could usefully plug in. Such activists act in ways unaccountable to the people they are supposedly “in solidarity” with. Non-Palestinians engaging in solidarity work must support Palestinians, not use the Palestinian solidarity movement as an opportunity to advance their own (conscious or unconscious) agendas.
A dangerous trend emerging here, which has emerged over and over in radical movement, is activism as co-optation, not in solidarity. In the 60s and early 70s the Black Panther Party was exoticized by white U.S. activists who got pleasure from their “edgy” identification with these “Others.” Similar dynamics can be seen today with white radicals in the globalization movement fixing their colonial gaze upon yet another oppressed and “bad-ass” group. In the context of this history, what warning bells go off when white U.S. black bloc anarchists “in solidarity” mask up in red and black kaffiyas, a traditional Palestinian head covering, seemingly oblivious to the significance of such in Palestinian and broader Muslim and Arab cultures. This is appropriation of aspects of an oppressed people’s culture by a privileged class. While there may be times when it is appropriate for non-Palestinians to wear kaffiyas, direction for how to use cultural symbols must come from those whose symbols are being used.
Radical theorist bell hooks discusses the pleasure white people may find in racial transgressions that exploit Otherness in her essay, “Eating the Other: desire and resistance.” She writes: “The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling … Certainly from the standpoint of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the hope is that desires for the ‘primitive’ or fantasies about the Other can be continuously exploited, and that such exploitation will occur in a manner that re-inscribes and maintains the status quo.” Underlying power structures are not challenged when white people fetishize people of color and seek connection with them because they are desirably exotic.
White U.S. goyim in the Palestinian solidarity movement can often be seen playing into this dynamic, where the privileged radicals are offered up a fresh way to assume a position outside of the mainstream. They are offered ways different from “normal” summit-hopping through which marginalized peoples and their struggle can act as another gateway to “new” forms of “edginess.” Within this framework, it is ultimately the white goy whose desires and pleasures served through the imperial transgression of the conquest of yet another “outsider” frontier.
The slogan “we are all Palestinian” said in conjunction with the wearing of kaffiyas, the flying of the Palestinian flag and paired with activities furthering white goy activists’ own identity and self-image, could be seen as “eating the other” within activism. Identification with Palestinians – an “exotic” and demonized group within racist U.S. discourse, one of the most blatantly and frequently discussed as such in this moment – is rather edgy. White U.S. anarchists in full black bloc drag who don kaffiyas – in misappropriated, anarchist-appropriate colors, no less – manage to simultaneously play off of and into racist constructions in the U.S. of the scary kaffiya-wearing Arab. It is not the place of white U.S. anarchists to play around with these visual semiotics when they are not the ones injured by them. White U.S. anarchists can always take off the kaffiya and blend back into society as a “real” U.S. citizen, not a “potential terrorist.”
It also rather “spices” up bland white U.S. anarchism, kicks your black bloc up a notch, to fly a Palestinian flag. To what degree does the rebelliousness of the act, perceived or actual, inform the decision to fly the flag? Never mind the questions raised by anarchists flying a state flag – in this case, for a state some are fighting to establish. Not that it is wrong, but what is the thought process in these instances? Why is it acceptable now even among anti-statists? U.S. white anarchist flag waving is not an example of principled solidarity. In some cases it may be yet another example of white political-symbol consumers trying to absorb some of that spicy extreme outsider Other-ness. It is necessary to end these patterns in the interest of building sustainable movement for global liberation, in which anti-racism must be central.
White goy activists in the U.S. can float through Palestinian solidarity activism with a casual freedom and comparative ease South Asians, Arabs, Muslims and Jews – even white Jews – cannot enjoy. As usual, people of color in general and now Arabs, Muslim and South Asians in particular are the targets of police repression and media distortion. Counter demonstrators also invariably target Palestinians and other Muslims, Arabs and South Asian as the subject of verbal – if not physical – assault of the most vitriolic racist kind. If the counter demonstrators are Jewish Zionists, they will also specifically target Jewish demonstrators for verbal – if not physical – assault. Zionists tend to feel deeply betrayed by pro-Palestine Jews and act in intensely rageful, at times violent, ways toward them. White Jews are in a much riskier situation than white goyim when it comes to Zionists.
Jews opposing Israeli colonialism will continually be attacked not only for their political position, but for being Jews holding that position. White goyim need to realize this, as they must realize the particular targeting of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians, at risk in ways white Jewish activists are not. Sept. 11 exacerbated an already hateful climate. Muslims, Arabs and South Asians are even more vulnerable to racist violent crimes, whether perpetuated by a private citizen or direct agent of the state. All white activists must also remember that non-Arab and/or Muslim people of color continue to be targeted by police and other “authorities,” something sometimes forgotten post 9/11.
All white demonstrators in the U.S. need to keep these things in mind to be accountable when deciding how to conduct themselves at pro-Palestinian events. Differences in vulnerability among activists must be understood so that we can watch each other’s backs at demos, actions and in daily life.
For instance, anti-Semitic propaganda by the “left” creates an unsafe environment for Jewish radicals. Where do white goy activists in the United States, at a distinct racial/ethnic privilege over Jews and with no understanding of the worldwide historical legacy of anti-Jewish oppression, get off burning a star of David, a traditional symbol of Judaism and Jewish people, as occurred on April 22? What does that mean to them? What does it mean to the media, the cops, their fellow white goy protesters? Their fellow Arab and Muslim protesters? Their fellow Jewish protesters?
Anti-Semitism can and will be exploited by pro-occupation forces. Anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish statements play into the hands of Zionists, who rely on keeping the lines between the state of Israel, current Israeli policy, Judaism and Zionism as hazy as possible. It is crucial for us to keep the distinctions between them clear. A statement by Jews Against The Occupation points out that “Judaism, a cultural and religious identity, is not the same as Zionism, a political movement. Criticisms of the state of Israel or the idea of a Jewish state, whether put forth by Jews or non-Jews, do not constitute anti-Semitism. Equating Judaism and Zionism serves the Zionist agenda by passing off all criticisms of the Israeli State as anti-Jewish.” White goyim who attempt to pass off anti-Jewish statements as merely critiques of Israel also contribute to this dynamic.
To perpetuate a racist image of Palestinians as inherently anti-Jewish, the media will use white goyish anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish sentiment within the Palestinian solidarity movement. Palestinians – and other Muslims, Arabs and South Asians – will be conveniently scapegoated. It is not only white goyim who express anti-Semitic sentiments, yet theirs are most often obscured and unchallenged. White Jews, in an unspoken alliance with the interest of white goyim – and white supremacy – have often racistly focused on the anti-Semitism of people of color, helping to create a false understanding of how power operates through racial hierarchy. At demonstrations white goyim have said, displayed, defended, not noticed or been unconcerned by anti-Jewish sentiments. You can say Ariel Sharon is a war criminal without playing off anti-Semitic caricatures of his Jewish features, or make signs with a Star of David equaling a Swastika (while the Israeli flag has a star of David on it, this is a symbol of Judaism in general, not Israel specifically.) At the anti-American Israel Public Affairs Committee rally in D.C., there was at least one occurrence of a white, blond haired, blue-eyed apparent goy coming to the aid of another non-Jewish white demonstrator displaying swastikas and spewing anti-Jewish rhetoric, when the latter was challenged by other demonstrators. Said apparent goy told the demonstrators concerned with anti-Semitism to shut up in the name of the anti-Semite’s “freedom of speech.” Such actions on the part of white goyim are, in part, the product of simplistic, paternalistic, binary thinking that does nothing to aid Palestinians fighting for liberation and an end to the occupation. The enemy is colonialism, not Jewish people.
In Barbara Smith’s essay, “Between a rock and a hard place: relationships between Black and Jewish women,” she discusses both the anti-Semitism that weaves its way through radical movements and the racism of many white Jewish radicals. Smith writes this specifically to Black women within the context of the complex histories of relationships between Black and Jewish women, but her essay is useful to others engaged in radical politics where racism and anti-Semitism are present. She writes, “in the case of racist Jewish people we have something to throw back at them – anti-Semitism. Righteous as such comebacks may seem, it does not serve us, as feminists and political people, to ignore or excuse what is reactionary in ourselves. Our anti-Semitic attitudes are just that.”
U.S. white goy activists who indulge in anti-Jewish and/or anti-Semitic sentiment are acting out of oppressive racism, even if supposedly, charitably, “on behalf of” others. The solidarity movement to end the occupation is of vital importance, and it is crucial that we centralize a radical anti-oppressive politic. The histories of solidarity movements, and the often fragile alliances and coalitions that build them, sometimes paint a grim picture of the ability of dominating power to internally colonize attempts to build movements of resistance to oppression. The histories of these failures too often go unrecorded. We must name these dynamics before and as they occur, for it is the masking of these relationships, sometimes hidden in the rhetoric of solidarity, that allows them to hijack and destroy the radical possibilities of our struggles. Through naming and dismantling these techniques of dominating power, we will overcome them. We must do this in order to build anti-racist liberatory solidarity capable of toppling colonial occupations and bringing the possibilities of a new world to life.
Special thanks to Dan Berger, Eugene Koveos, Louisa Solomon and Diane Welch for their help in preparing this article.
Nicole Solomon is a writer and musician in New York City and runs Fringe Element Records.Originally appeared in Onward, 2002.
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