In his new book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Ali Abunimah, renowned author and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, strikes a refreshingly positive and hopeful tone about a conflict that is anything but. The book is available directly from Truthout by clicking here.
For Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip, in the walled-off ghettos of the West Bank and even inside present-day Israel, the reality could not be more grim. But the battle for justice is heating up in spaces far outside Israel-Palestine. For the first time ever, Palestinians and their allies are winning the argument, most notably on college campuses, where pro-Israel forces are waging war on Palestine solidarity activism and, by extension, free speech.
He contextualizes the Palestinian struggle as inseparable from the global struggle for racial equality, economic democracy and decolonization.
Abunimah does a masterful job laying out this winning argument in his book. But more importantly, he contextualizes the Palestinian struggle as inseparable from the global struggle for racial equality, economic democracy and decolonization, making connections that are vital to the fight against racial domination and subjugation in all its forms, particularly in the United States, where mass incarceration and border militarization are taking lessons from Israel.
During a brief reprieve from his book tour, Abunimah spoke with Truthout over the phone from Chicago about Palestine activism, BDS (boycott, divest and sanction), why Israel does not have a right to exist as a Jewish state and how Palestine solidarity activism is part of the broader global struggle against economic and racial domination.
(Spoiler alert: At the very end of the interview, Abunimah describes his recent visit to The New York Times, where he learned that, despite publicly ignoring independent media, mainstream elites are paying attention to what we have to say.)
Rania Khalek for Truthout: The first sentence of your book, “The Palestinians are winning,” has probably taken many people by surprise, given the worsening reality on the ground for Palestinians. Can you explain what you mean?
“Israel’s claim that it is a Jewish and democratic state is totally incompatible with universal human rights and democracy.”
Ali Abunimah: What I meant is that Palestinians are winning the argument for Palestinian rights, and they’re winning the argument that Israel’s claim that it is a Jewish and democratic state is totally incompatible with universal human rights and democracy.
As I think the book shows, the only way Israel has to deal with this is to try to suppress the discussion, particularly through repression on campus, which we’re seeing escalate in really dramatic ways all around us. But other than that, there’s no way they can win. They can’t win in an open discussion, and I think that that’s something we’ve seen with the way so-called liberal Zionists have just run screaming from this debate.
I love the connections and intersections you make in your book between the subjugation and control of people of color in the United States and Palestinians and African refugees in Israel. Why do you think these connections are important to highlight?
They’re important to highlight because they’re real at a number of levels. One is mass incarceration. The new Jim Crow and Obama’s mass deportation are products of still-very-present white supremacist and colonial mentality in the United States. These ideologies are what allow people of color to be treated essentially as a demographic threat in the United States. And that goes from Arizona, which I talk about in the book, where it’s kind of ground zero. But it’s also very much at the federal level and all over the country.
And these connections are real in very material ways.
In the book, I talk about this kind of conveyor belt of US police chiefs being taken on these junkets to Israel, where they’re taken to places like Megiddo Prison, where Palestinian children are tortured and held in solitary confinement. And then they come out and say, “Wow, Israel is so great. We’re going to take everything we learned about counterterrorism back to the United States.” Our police chiefs in the US have no problem praising Israel as a paragon of human rights and good practice, and that really should set alarm bells ringing off everywhere.
So those are the connections I saw and writing this book was a process of learning about them and deepening my own understanding. But I think as a movement that something we need to do urgently is broaden and deepen our understanding of shared and joint struggle.
Israel has built an economy that benefits and grows from having a population to control. While the United States certainly doesn’t need lessons in methods of racial domination, which you clearly state in your book, Israel’s surveillance and weapons industry has found a big market in the United States, particularly on US-Mexico border. Why is this problematic?
It’s problematic because millions of people are being victimized by this. Millions of people are having their lives destroyed by it, and there’s a direct connection.
Israel uses Palestinians under occupation and under siege in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as captive guinea pigs to test these technologies of death and control on. And then they’re sold to United States and other countries to perform similar tasks.
“Israel uses Palestinians under occupation and under siege in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as captive guinea pigs to test these technologies of death and control on. And then they’re sold to United States.”
For example, recently the Obama administration awarded a contract to Elbit Systems, one of the biggest Israeli arms companies – most notorious for weapons that have been used to commit war crimes against Palestinians. And the Obama administration gave this company a contract to set up surveillance systems on the US-Mexico border.
This is all in the context of the massive militarization of the border with Mexico and Obama’s mass deportation, which has divided and caused suffering to hundreds of thousands of families in this country. And it’s all being lauded as a great thing.
So if the pushback doesn’t come from us, if it doesn’t come from below, where is it going to come from? They’re creating a really frightening dystopian future of surveillance and control, where Israel is held up as the model, where Palestinians caged in Gaza and Palestinians living in the ghettos of the West Bank are the future model that repressive states and surveillance states will use all over the world.
When Israeli apartheid ultimately is dismantled, how can we prevent another system of oppression from replacing Israel’s current system the way that mass incarceration and the drug war replaced Jim Crow in the US?
Another reason why I thought it was so important to make these connections was to really sound the alarm that the end of official Jim Crow and the end of official segregation in the United States did not mean the end of racism. It did not mean the end of white supremacy.
As Michelle Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness] and others have shown, white supremacy simply morphed into more insidious forms, even colorblind forms. That’s the new Jim Crow she talks about, which manifests as mass incarceration.
“Palestine is in many ways a testing ground for ultra-neoliberal policies.”
And in post-apartheid South Africa, even though it was a tremendous victory to defeat the apartheid regime and one that we still rightly celebrate, the fact is that in South Africa 20 years after apartheid, there is still incredible economic inequality and this inequality still is alarmingly along racial lines.
We need to make sure that this isn’t reproduced in Palestine. And what I wanted to show in the book is that this is not a hypothetical thing that could happen in the future but it’s already happening.
That’s what I talk about in the chapter called “Neoliberal Palestine,” which is that you already have this very tiny, wealthy Palestinian elite that is very closely tied to the Israeli occupation and that already controls much of the Palestinian economy and if there were a Palestinian state, that wouldn’t change. You would have a South Africa-type situation or worse.
So people need to put the struggle for justice in Palestine back into the context of the global struggle for economic democracy and economic sovereignty and against neoliberalism. Palestine is not separate from this struggle. It’s very much part of it.
Palestine is in many ways a testing ground for ultra-neoliberal policies, like for example what’s going on now, which is they’re building these industrial zones where Israeli companies and foreign countries will be able to exploit Palestinian labor, where there are no protections for workers’ rights, no protection for the environment, where the Palestinian Authority or Palestinian state if it ever came into being would not even be able to enter these zones to inspect them.
“We can tie the issue of Palestine back into issues of economic democracy that really affect everyone and are not just specific to [the] local Palestinian situation half way around the world.”
That’s the future that the World Bank and the IMF and all these governments that claim to be supportive of Palestinian independence are actually setting up right now.
Do you think the BDS movement should be incorporating economic justice into its framework to counter this?
Absolutely, and I think it’s very well placed to do that. An article we published recently on the Electronic Intifada by Charlotte Silver really illustrates the power of this.
There have been quite a few campaigns against Veolia, which is this French multinational company that cities all over the world use. When they privatize their public services, like water and waste management and so on, they will contract them out to Veolia.
And Veolia has been targeted because of its profiteering from Israeli occupation. It’s operated in Israeli settlements; it’s run landfill sites in the occupied West Bank and so on.
When activists in United States have put together campaigns targeting Veolia, they have been successful because they have worked across issues.
They have worked with environmental groups concerned about Veolia’s impact on the local environment. They’ve worked with bus drivers and unions, people whose jobs have been threatened or who’ve lost their jobs when Veolia took over transportation services. In Boston and St. Louis, they’ve actually succeeded in driving this occupation profiteer out because of those kinds of coalitions.
So what I’m saying is that, in very practical ways, BDS campaigns allow people to build a much deeper and broader economic analysis. It needs to go much further than that, but I think those are incredibly promising beginnings that show that we can tie the issue of Palestine back into issues of economic democracy that really affect everyone and are not just specific to [the] local Palestinian situation halfway around the world.
“Ultimately, reality cannot be covered up with marketing gimmicks and slick advertising campaigns and YouTube videos.”
You have a chapter in your book titled “The War on Campus.” Since your book was released a month ago, that war seems to have intensified dramatically. Is this war on Palestine campus activism getting worse?
Before I get to the book, what we’ve been seeing in the past few weeks is, for example, the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine at Northeastern University, which is really unprecedented in the United States – those things have happened in Canada, but in the US, I’ve never heard of a case like that. So we’re talking about outright censorship now, and this is all being done because of campaigns and harassment by well-organized, well-funded, off-campus, pro-Israel groups.
In the case of Northeastern, as Max Blumenthal’s reporting has shown, this is coming from a group called Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which is founded by this guy called Charles Jacobs.
Charles Jacobs, this very right-wing Islamophobic guy, also founded something called the David Project, which I talk about in the book. The David Project is specifically focusing on campuses, and I quote them in the book saying essentially that the future of the US-Israeli relationship and whether or not the US will continue to support Israel is a battle that is going to be won or lost on campus.
This is why they are putting these huge resources and efforts into trying to suppress Palestine solidarity on campus, including – and I discuss this in the book – an effort to redefine advocacy for Palestinian rights as a form of bigotry, so that if you’re calling for an end to racial discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel or if you’re calling for equal rights for Palestinians and Israeli Jews, then under their definition you are a bigot who should be subjected to university disciplinary hearings.
It also involves the misuse of US civil rights law, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, to harass and intimidate universities into cracking down on Palestine solidarity activism.
This is a huge campaign. It’s national. It’s organized. It’s determined. And I think it’s going to escalate. But I don’t think it’s going to work. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to cause really huge headaches for students and faculty in universities.
One of the architects of the use of civil rights law to harass universities, a guy called Kenneth Marcus, who I write about in the book, actually says, “It doesn’t matter if we win or lose these cases. We’re making it such a hassle for people to get involved in Palestine solidarity that we’re scaring them off, and that’s fine with us.” So he really is saying pretty explicitly that the goal is to intimidate and silence people whether or not they’re actually doing something wrong.
Off-campus pro-Israel groups seem to be turning increasingly to state institutions and legislatures to silence and suppress Palestine solidarity activism. Is this part of a broader trend?
This again is very much part of it, although there’s been some reluctance on the part of the big pro-Israel groups to support the legislation, which has been introduced in several states – New York, Maryland, Illinois – and also the US Congress, that aim to penalize universities in really draconian ways if their faculties or departments support the Palestinian call for academic boycott of Israel.
“The Palestinian struggle, the struggle embodied in the BDS movement, is fundamentally an anti-racist struggle.”
These are really undemocratic, repressive laws. I think that some of the reluctance to support them is not because these pro-Israel groups are huge defenders of free speech, but it just looks so bad for them to be turning to laws to repress free speech on campus in really explicit ways.
And by the way, these laws were particularly advocated by Michael Oren, who is a former American who became an officer in the Israeli army and Israeli ambassador to the United States. So these laws are being directly pushed by very influential Israeli figures, and sadly there are legislatures both at the state and federal level who are prepared to pick them up and run with them, to heck with the First Amendment and the Constitution.
Israel is investing loads of money into propaganda efforts to counter BDS, which you talk about in your book. But it doesn’t seem to be working? Why do you think that is?
To put some perspective on it, in the book I talk about how Israel launched a major campaign in 2010 at the behest of a think tank called the Reut Institute to, using their words, “sabotage and attack” the Palestine solidarity movement. This strategy was adopted by all the major pro-Israel organizations in the United States. And, as you say, they poured in millions or tens of millions of dollars.
But here we are four years later and boycott, divestment and sanctions are bigger than ever, people are talking about them more than ever, people are focusing on Israel as an apartheid state or a practitioner of apartheid more than ever. So yeah, it hasn’t worked because, ultimately, reality cannot be covered up with marketing gimmicks and slick advertising campaigns and YouTube videos.
Just the grim reality of what Israel is doing to Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank where it continues to demolish homes and steal land, within present-day Israel, where it seems a week doesn’t go by without the Knesset passing yet another law to discriminate against non-Jews, with the horrifying state-sponsored racism targeting African refugees and asylum seekers – you just can’t hide that with slick public relations.
Also, publications like the Electronic Intifada, like Mondoweiss, like many others in independent media, get through to young people who are really where this sea change is happening.
“You can’t predict the future based just on what people say they’re willing to accept right now.”
How many young people on college campuses get their news from the PBS NewsHour or the ABC nightly news or from CNN? Not that many that I meet. The mass media still has a big impact, but I think among young people, they’re not turning to those. They’re turning to media that is uncensored, where the gatekeepers cannot shut out the Palestinian narrative. That’s why public relations like Israel’s cannot ultimately change the direction that this is going.
More and more, I see the Israel-Palestine debate as two very different sides, one made up of white and privileged individuals who use belligerently racist rhetoric to advocate for Israel and the other a diverse and colorful coalition of impassioned, grass-roots activists dedicated to equality and decolonization around the world. Do you think that this dynamic is having an impact on the way people view the conflict?
I think it’s shaping who is actually fighting for Palestinian rights and where the struggle for Palestinian rights fit into a broader struggle.
In the book, I talk about the joint work that is being done by Students for Justice in Palestine in places like Arizona and MEChA, the largest Chicano and Latino students organization in this country where they see a very strong affinity and identify with each other’s struggles and see it as one struggle. I think that that’s something really deep.
It’s not just about putting a rainbow face on the struggle, which is what Israel is trying to do, and I talk about this in the book. They’re trying to get token ethnic diversity into a campaign to defend a white supremacist settler colony.
That’s what Israel is trying to do with tactics and techniques to co-opt Latino students. They even have tried to get black students in the United States to be spokespersons for Israel, which is particularly grotesque given the state-sponsored racism against people of African origin in Israel right now.
So that’s the difference. It’s not just about who is there, it’s about the values people are defending. The Palestinian struggle, the struggle embodied in the BDS movement, is fundamentally an anti-racist struggle. It is a struggle for equality. It is rooted in universal rights. It’s not just a struggle for a Palestinian ethnic group. It is a struggle that is rooted in values that are inclusive of everyone. That’s the difference between Zionism and Palestinian solidarity work today. It’s an unbridgeable difference.
In your book, you demolish the notion that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state. This is the first time I can remember that people are speaking about this openly, which I think speaks to how quickly the discourse is changing.
For me it was crucially important to examine this claim that is made so often. Obama supports Israel’s right to be a Jewish state. Of course, Netanyahu makes this demand every time he pops up in the United States. It’s a very prominent demand, but it’s almost never examined from the perspective of those who would be its victims, which is, of course, Palestinians and other non-Jewish people in that territorial context. So I thought it was very important to take this claim on its own terms and really examine [it]. What does it mean in practice to say Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state? How can this right be violated? By whom? And what measures can Israel take to remedy any violation of its right to exist as a Jewish state?
“Whereas there’s no public response to our criticisms, they are apparently heard deep within these elite institutions.”
And what I argue in the book is that there is no legitimate remedy for having too many people of the wrong ethnic or religious group because any remedy would mean expelling them or subjecting them to different forms of apartheid, which is, of course, what’s already happening. So there can’t possibly be a right. Because if there is a right, then we’re saying Israel has a right to be racist – and in the 21st century, that’s simply unacceptable.
But I felt I needed to really lay the argument out as clearly as possible with really clear and well-documented examples, so that people could actually use this as a tool when they’re confronted with this claim.
I also think it enhances the argument against a two-state solution. In the last chapter of your book, you talk about self-determination and decolonization. There’s always this panicky reaction from Zionists about what a “one-state” solution would mean for Israeli Jews.
Since I wrote my first book, One Country, which was an argument for a single decolonized democratic state, I got this response from people that, “Well, this sounds nice but of course it’s utopian because Israeli Jews would absolutely never accept it, so there’s just no point talking about it.” And you hear that from people on the far right to people on the far left, like Norman Finkelstein.
So I thought it was really important to take that head-on and to make what I think is the very self-evident claim. But it apparently escapes many people, that those who have power and privilege are seldom in favor of giving it up. That’s just not how it works.
If you had gone and polled whites in Georgia in the1950s and said, “Would you like to give black people the vote and abolish all forms of racial discrimination,” what would the poll numbers have been?
In fact, the same was true in apartheid South Africa, which I show in the book. Even into the early 1990s, the number of whites in South Africa who were prepared to give up apartheid and replace it with a one-person, one-vote system was in the single digits. But in 1994, that’s exactly what happened.
So you can’t predict the future based just on what people say they’re willing to accept right now. You have to understand how power dynamics shift and how BDS is an important part with other forms of Palestinian resistance in shifting that power dynamic so that things that seem improbable or impossible today actually become likely within a very short time.
And so I talk about the process of decolonization in South Africa and in Northern Ireland to show that, yes, these things are incredibly difficult and people resist them – but they can happen. And the idea that somehow Israelis are uniquely immune to this kind of change and development strikes me as a racist argument that says Israelis aren’t capable of the kind of transformations that are going on in South Africa and Northern Ireland and other places, which haven’t gone far enough, but which are underway. I don’t accept that notion that somehow Israelis are fundamentally different.
What has the response to your book been? Has there been any engagement in the mainstream?
The reaction has been fantastic on college campuses, which is where I’ve been. Everywhere I’ve gone, there’s been great enthusiasm to have this discussion, and I really hope this book will be a tool, particularly for activists and particularly for students, because so much of what’s in it is inspired by what they’re going through.
Compared with five, six years ago when my first book came out, I think we’re so much further in terms of a sustained, national Palestine solidarity movement that seemed unimaginable even five years ago.
I would be interested in seeing the engagement of critics. There are a lot of so-called liberal Zionists who I would be curious to see if they’re willing to take this on because I don’t know if they can. This will be a test to see whether they actually have the arguments that can stand up to this. I don’t know if they’re going to take up that challenge, we’ll have to see.
You were at The New York Times recently. Why?
I was invited to The New York Times for a project one of the reporters is doing on Palestinian Americans. Do you want to hear a story about the newsroom?
So I went to do a video interview there and while I was there, I happened to run into Ethan Bronner [former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief who executive editor Bill Keller refused to reassign following revelations that his son had joined the Israel Defense Forces].
I introduced myself to him and he said, “How do you know me?” I said, “I know your picture. I’ve seen you speaking on video.” And he turned to the person he was speaking to and pointed at me, and he said, “This guy spends all his time criticizing me.” And I responded to him, “I don’t spend all my time criticizing you. I also criticize other people.” And he said, “Well, I can’t think of a time you’ve said anything nice about me.” And I said, “Well, can you think of a time I’ve said anything incorrect about you?” Then I said, “It’s very nice to meet you,” and we shook hands and I went to do my interview.
I just thought that was interesting – that whereas there’s no public response to our criticisms, they are apparently heard deep within these elite institutions.