By Joseph Levine

Abstract: An examination of the rhetorical devices by which the mainstream media and political establishment distort the terms of the debate over Israel-Palestine, with special emphasis on the abuse of progressive ideas about identity and harmful speech. This essay was originally part of a panel on "Resisting the Crackdown on Palestine Advocacy On Campus (and off)" Society for Anti-Colonial Middle Eastern and North African Thought (SAMENAT), Eastern Division, American Philosophical Association January 16, 2024.

As someone who has followed the political battle over Israel-Palestine in the U.S. (and other Western countries) since the 1960's, it has always struck me how the very terms of the debate have been tailored by those in power - both in politics and the media - to render support for Israel the default position, the clearly "reasonable" stance, while advocacy for Palestinian rights is always playing defense. The reason for this situation is not that support for Israel is in fact the reasonable position. Quite the contrary - I claim, but cannot fully defend here, that understood correctly, the principal "case for Israel" doesn't even pass the "smell test".  The explanation for this inversion of reason involves a number of factors, the power of the "Israel Lobby" being high among them, as well as the contribution of the Israeli state to American/Western geopolitical interests in controlling the Middle East. And one of the key mechanisms by which this trick is accomplished has to do with the manipulation of discourse, employing phrases and slogans that, when pressed, make little sense, but serve to inoculate many people against the reasonable arguments that might otherwise move them.

The discourse-control mechanisms have changed over the years somewhat, adapting to new social-political trends, so I want to focus on the current state of the rhetorical battle. The principal mechanisms I see at work now involve the manipulation of progressive ideas about Identity and Harm, along with the long-standing exploitation of the horrors of the Holocaust and the centuries of (mainly) European anti-semitism.

Let's begin with Jonathan Greenblatt, executive director of the ADL, who explained why opposition to Zionism constitutes anti-semitism as follows:

"Zionism is the right of Jewish people to self-determination in their ancestral homeland. This right of self-determination, that many in the anti-Zionist camp want for Palestinians or would want for other peoples, they would deny to Jewish people. Unless you don’t believe in nationalism as a concept and unless you support denying the legitimacy of any national project from France to Ukraine, if you hold the idea that Zionism is the only form of nationalism that’s wrong, that’s discriminating against Jewish people. That’s the anti-Semitism."

And of course this framing is expressed most succinctly in that ubiquitous but elusive phrase, "Israel's right to exist". No one bothers to defend "Israel's right to exist", since denying it is allegedly self-refuting, a sign that one is not to be argued with, but banned from polite company.

So what is this alleged right that Jews have to self-determination, and their state to exist? Notice how odd the phrase "X's right to exist" sounds when applied to any other state. What does it even mean? Well, to the extent it isn't merely an empty rhetorical move, I take it that it is captured by the Greenblatt claim above. To say that Israel has a right to exist is to say that Jews, as a people, have a right to self-determination, and this is interpreted to mean that Jews have a right to construct and live in a state that is "theirs": a "Jewish state", one that institutionally privileges Jews in any number of ways. Among the ways it privileges Jews, two stand out: that only Jews have an automatic right to immigrate to Israel, while non-Jews, especially the millions of Palestinians and their descendants who were driven out in 1948, have no such right; and that it is a legitimate national project to ensure a substantial Jewish majority among Israel's citizenry– a sentiment that is often expressed officially by the need to "Judaize" certain areas of the country, when it's thought that too many Arabs, though citizens, inhabit a region.

Notice that not only is it claimed that Jews have this right, along with other peoples, but that it is an expression of anti-Jewish prejudice to hold otherwise. It's not just wrong, the wrongness to be demonstrated by political argument, but it's evil, and therefore to be shunned, "deligitimized" in the words of Chuck Schumer; therefore no need to argue against it. Well, it's not hard to see why anti-Zionism must be deligitimized, because there are no good arguments, at least for those who are small-d democrats, for the basic premise of Zionism, the right to a Jewish state.

If one believes in democracy, then one is committed to a civil, as opposed to a religious or ethnic, conception of the people the state "belongs to" - its citizenry. In fact, the long-standing position of many Palestinian Israeli citizens (along with some Jewish citizens as well) is that Israel should be the "state of all its citizens." But Israel isn't such a state. While it allows non-Jews to be citizens, it officially distinguishes between "nationality", such as Jew, Arab, etc., and citizenship. While citizens all have certain equal rights, other institutional formations within the state are reserved for the exclusive benefit of citizens of Jewish nationality. Greenblatt's comparison to France and Ukraine, therefore, is quite wide of the mark. While of course there are ethnic dimensions to being French or Ukrainian, no small-d democrat supports institutionalizing French or Ukrainian ethnicity into the very fabric of the state. If being an ethnocracy is what's entailed by Israel's right to exist, then it doesn't have that right after all - but of course neither does any other ethnic group have a right to have a state of their own.

The ideas of Identity and Harm come into play as follows. First, take that phrase of Greenblatt's quoted earlier, " their ancestral homeland". If I, the descendant of Eastern European Jews, have a homeland other than the US, it's Poland, or the Pale of Settlement more broadly. How does Palestine come to be my "ancestral homeland"? Well, primarily from the Jewish religion, which teaches that we descended from the ancient Israelites and that we will one day return. But it is clearly illegitimate in a political dispute for one side to appeal to their own specific ideology or religion in order to justify a claim against others–in this case, the real indigenous people of Palestine, who were actually living there–who have no reason to accept this ideology.  This is a clear violation of the liberal principle of "public reason", as forcefully articulated by John Rawls.  A similar argument is presented by the political theorist Margaret Moore, who explicitly rejects arguments "...that rely on religious truth or authoritativeness of some doctrinal text to justify a group's right to a particular land."

One last note on "Israel's Right to Exist", and this brings us to the question of the way the claim of Harm is exploited. In the last decade or more it has become a common argument in progressive circles that speech can harm, and that the experiences and reactions of people of certain Identities - whether racial, gender, or ethnic - must be respected when adjudicating what may be said or published. If members of the relevant Identities feel fear, isolation, marginalization, or the like when confronted with certain words and slogans, then there's at least a prima facie case for banning them from certain venues. This quite reasonable position has been exploited by the anti-Palestinian forces with a vengeance. For instance, why say "Israel's right to exist" rather than "Jews' right to live in a state that privileges them"? Well, the latter way of describing the right in question, which I claim is more honest, is very unlikely to garner support from those who believe in democracy. But having a "right to exist" sounds a lot like being allowed to live, and so the denial of Israel's right to exist translates emotionally quite quickly into the denial of Jews' right to live, so a genocidal intention is then easily attributed to those who promulgate that view.

We can see this move everywhere, from Elise Stefanik's claims about the word "intifada" to the near universal condemnation of the slogan, "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free". Those who condemn the use of these slogans argue that they express genocidal (or at least ethnic cleansing) intent,but notice they never quote anyone endorsing these slogans who explains that they mean throwing the Jews into the sea, for the very good reason they can't find anyone. Rather, the ubiquitous trope is to appeal to how some Jews hear these slogans. But since when do the members of one group locked in a political battle with another get to be authoritative about the interpretation of their opponents' slogans? I don't know anyone in the Palestine advocacy movement who wouldn't consider making Israel the state of all its citizens to count as the fulfillment of Palestine being free from the river to the sea. They are calling for freedom for Palestinians within a state that treats everyone equally.  But once we appeal to the Harm principle, the mere fact that many Jews hear these slogans that way renders them acts of hate speech. It is instructive to see in this regard the New York Times articles on the fear haunting Jewish students at Harvard and other institutions. Almost all of the cases cited involve a Jewish student feeling fear or discomfort after being exposed to the Palestinian indictment of Jewish supremacy in Israel. For instance, one of the principal pieces of evidence that anti-semitism runs rampant at Harvard, cited in a new lawsuit against Harvard, stemmed from a screening of the documentary "Israelism". The student cited claimed watching it, which he of course was not required to do, made him feel "anxiety and great discomfort".  Defend the Israeli system if you want - that's your right - but don't get the entire discussion shut down based on your feelings.

Clearly this is a perversion - an intentional one - of the reasonable attention to the feelings of the marginalized that talk of harmful speech is supposed to express. But in this case, the political expression of a truly marginalized group, Palestinians, is suppressed, not because of any expressed harmful intent on their part, but because their opponents, who cannot begin to claim they are "marginalized", claim it makes them feel afraid. Again, how can anyone take this seriously? Yet two university presidents resigned because of this!

Finally, more recently another perversion of the progressive attention to Identity issues has come into play. Zionism, it is contended, is an integral part of Judaism, and therefore of Jewish identity. So if you attack Zionism, you are attacking Jewish Identity, and hence engaging in hate speech. Now, as someone raised in a strictly Orthodox Jewish home, and who went to Yeshiva, I can tell you that Zionism is not an integral part of Judaism. However, suppose we allow that more modern Jews have incorporated Zionism into their practice of Judaism, as evidenced by the prominence of Israeli flags in synagogues. Does this provide a justification for silencing anti-Zionist expression? Of course not. Compare the rhetoric one often hears from white supremacists, especially in the South, that the statues of famous Confederate generals and the Confederate flag itself are not in themselves hostile to African-Americans, but rather an expression of Southern pride, of their white Southern heritage. I think it's likely that many Southern whites do feel these artifacts express their Identity and culture, and that it hurts to see them denigrated. But of course we still continue to advocate for the expulsion of such symbols from the public sphere because of their very real, historical association with centuries of oppression of Blacks. In this case too, even if we grant Zionism a role in modern Jewish Identity, that can't trump the very real, historical association between this ideology and what the renowned Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi has described as "the hundred years' war on Palestine".

To sum up, the "disciplining of the discourse" concerning Israel-Palestine by the political and media elite, along with, increasingly, university administrators, serves to prop up the position of the Israel lobby from any serious scrutiny. What would normally be considered clearly illegitimate arguments and positions are protected from criticism by demonizing the opposition. The university, one of the few places where this disciplining has not heretofore prevented Palestinian voices and perspectives from being heard, is now in the crosshairs of the Israel lobby and the political and media establishment. We can't let them win.

Joseph Levine is Professor of Philosophy at University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of Purple Haze: The Puzzle of Consciousness, and many papers in the philosophy of mind. He has also written a number of pieces on the Israel-Palestine conflict, for the New York Times blog The Stone, Mondoweiss, and the Boston Review.

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Feb 20, 2024
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