It’s Time to Name Anti-Palestinian Bigotry

Anti-Palestinianism is as ubiquitous as it is invisible.

Peter Beinart
July 16, 2021
Rep. Rashida Tlaib recounts threats she has received in office because of her Muslim faith. Photo: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

IN JUNE, three Republicans in the House of Representatives—Michael Waltz, Jim Banks and Claudia Tenney—introduced a resolution censuring Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Presley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for, among other things, “inciting anti-Semitic attacks across the United States.” House Democrats accused their colleagues of Jew-hatred as well, just less explicitly. Rep. Ted Deutch did not mention his colleagues by name, but characterized their accusations of apartheid, and Tlaib’s opposition to a Jewish state, as “[a]ttacks . . . against Jews,” that “have led to antisemitism.” Four more House Democrats—Josh Gottheimer, Kathy Manning, Elaine Luria, and Dean Phillips—denounced unspecified members of Congress for calling Israel an apartheid state or claiming it has committed acts of terrorism. “These statements,” they alleged, “are antisemitic at their core.”

Such accusations have dogged Tlaib, Omar, Pressley, and Ocasio-Cortez since they entered Congress. Search for articles alleging that they are antisemitic and Google generates a seemingly endless supply. But if you search for articles suggesting that their critics are  “anti-Palestinian,” you’ll find next to nothing. There’s little indication that they’ve ever had to publicly respond to charges of anti-Palestinian bigotry at all. 

That’s strange because the evidence that the Squad’s critics are anti-Palestinian is far stronger than the evidence that the Squad is anti-Jewish. The reason this bigotry goes undiscussed is because, in mainstream American discourse, the word “anti-Palestinian” barely exists. It is absent not because anti-Palestinian bigotry is rare but because it is ubiquitous. It is absent precisely because, if the concept existed, almost everyone in Congress would be guilty of it, except for a tiny minority of renegade progressives who are regularly denounced as antisemites. 

In recent months, as definitions of antisemitism have proliferated—some of which have been used to equate anti-Zionism with Jew-hatred—Palestinian intellectuals have begun mulling a definition of anti-Palestinian bigotry. In a tweet last fall, Mezna Qato, a historian of the Middle East at Cambridge University, defined “anti-Palestinianism” as “Prejudice, hostility or discrimination against Palestinians. Denial of the Nakba. Accusing a Palestinian of ‘latent’ racism(s) without cause. Allowing Palestinian exception to all other held liberal or left values/politics.” 

Lawyers are grappling with the issue as well. This April, Palestine Legal, which defends the civil liberties of Americans who support Palestinian rights, asked the US Department of Education to investigate Florida State University for having “permitted and reinforced a disturbing environment of anti-Palestinian racism” against a student, Ahmad Daraldik, who was viciously harassed for publicizing his experiences under Israeli occupation. It was the first time the Department has been asked to determine that a case of anti-Palestinian bigotry violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits institutions that receive federal funds from discriminating based on race, color, or national origin.

There is no consensus among Palestinian intellectuals and activists about whether a specific definition of anti-Palestinianism is wise. Qato told me she worries it could “exceptionalize Palestinian rights as somehow distinct from rights accorded anyone else”—a frequent critique of definitions of antisemitism. Amira Mattar, the Michael Ratner Justice Fellow at Palestine Legal, told me that because the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights does not define other forms of discrimination, Palestine Legal “steered clear of defining anti-Palestinianism” in their complaint. But Mattar suggested that Americans do “need some way to identify the very specific repression that Palestinians and their supporters face for confronting Zionism, to show the very distinct harm that they suffer, which is distinct from larger forms of discrimination like anti-Arabism or Islamophobia.” 

What’s crucial isn’t that anti-Palestinianism gets its own definition. It’s that the concept enters US public discourse, allowing more Americans to recognize the bigotry that afflicts Palestinians—those in Israel-Palestine as well as in the diaspora—and their supporters, who are harassed and penalized in the US. As the recent movements against police violence and sexual harassment have shown, making visible what for many was previously invisible can transform political debates. Naming anti-Palestinian bigotry could help do the same.

RATHER THAN DEFINING “bigotry” or “discrimination,” the federal agencies charged with enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act rely on a series of examples that serve as a standard for evaluating future complaints. But while the government provides no definition, it’s not hard to understand what bigotry means in common speech: It means treating people as inferior because of their group identity.

Applying that standard to the Squad and its critics is revealing. In their joint letter,  Gottheimer, Manning, Luria, and Phillips allude to Squad members calling Israel an “apartheid state.” Waltz, Banks, and Tenney want to censure them for, among other things, claiming that Israel has committed “ethnic cleansing” and “promotes racism and dehumanization.” Deutch is outraged that Tlaib doesn’t support a Jewish state. 

But none of these examples—or any others that the critics cite—suggest that Tlaib, Omar, Pressley, or Ocasio-Cortez think Israeli Jews should be treated as inferior. When members of the Squad accuse Israel of apartheid—as Human Rights Watch has done—they are expressing their opposition to what international law defines as an “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination” by one group over another. It’s that same opposition to Palestinian subjugation that leads Tlaib to oppose a state that, in the words of B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organization, is based on “Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” Tlaib doesn’t propose replacing a state based on Jewish supremacy with one that favors Palestinians or Muslims; she supports replacing it with a state based on equality under the law. That’s the same principle she supports in the United States, and around the world. It’s the principle that has led her to oppose US aid to Egypt “until they address and are held accountable for their many, ongoing human rights abuses,” and to declare that, “if there was an economic boycott movement around Saudi Arabia, I would be the first to sign up for it.” 

Contrast this with the Squad’s congressional critics, who are comfortable with—if not enthusiastic about—Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as inferior. In 2019, Waltz and Banks, two of the three Republicans who recently tried to censure the Squad, voted against a House resolution supporting “efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a negotiated two-state solution.” (Their co-author, Tenney, was not in Congress at the time.) Since Waltz and Banks oppose a two-state solution, and emphatically oppose one equal state in Israel-Palestine, their clear preference is for some version of the one state that currently exists, in which millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip live under Israeli control but without the basic freedoms—citizenship, due process, free movement, and the right to vote—enjoyed by their Jewish neighbors. Waltz and Banks, in other words, support institutionalized anti-Palestinian bigotry.

In slightly more subtle ways, the Squad’s Democratic critics do, too. In theory, Congressional Democrats like Gottheimer and Deutch support a Palestinian state. But what they support in practice is unconditional US backing for the Israeli government—even if it is making a Palestinian state impossible. In 2017, Gottheimer and Deutch voted to condemn a United Nations Resolution that declared West Bank settlements “a violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two States living side-by-side.” The other three Democrats who recently condemned the Squad weren’t in Congress at the time. But this April, all of them, along with Gottheimer and Deutch, signed a letter opposing the imposition of any human rights conditions on US military aid to Israel. That means they support using US aid to help Israel control millions of Palestinians who cannot be citizens of the country in which they live or vote for the government that dominates their lives simply because they are Palestinian. 

The Squad’s Democratic critics might respond that they harbor no animus toward Palestinians; they’re simply defending the security and legitimacy of a Jewish state. But imagine if a foreign government granted full citizenship to its entire gentile population but provided its Jews either second-class citizenship or no citizenship at all. Then imagine if there were members of Congress who demanded that the US arm that government without restrictions and opposed any international pressure to make it change its discriminatory policies. There is no doubt those members of Congress would be deemed complicit in anti-Semitism.

ANTI-PALESTINIANISM is not only commonplace in Congress. It’s commonplace across American society. It’s not just that prominent media, business, and religious figures argue openly that Palestinians under Israeli control be denied elemental human rights. Americans who advocate for those rights are often penalized for doing so. On college campuses, administrators frequently cancel lectures, classes, professorships, and even entire student organizations, because they espouse pro-Palestinian views. Pro-Israel politicians and organizations pressure museums, theaters, and concert halls to deny venues to pro-Palestinian performers. In 2017, the state of Arizona refused to renew its contract with a lawyer who works with incarcerated people because he wouldn’t pledge not to boycott Israel. In 2018, Texas did the same when a speech pathologist who works with developmentally disabled children would not sign a non-boycott pledge.

Why is this widespread anti-Palestinian bigotry so difficult to name? Because until society decides that members of a certain group deserve equality, the bigotry that they and their supporters endure generally remains invisible.

The history of the word “antisemitism” offers a glimpse into how this works. As Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at the University of London, explained to me, 19th century English-speakers had no special term for bigotry against Jews until they imported “antisemitism” from Germany, where it had emerged in the1870s. Why did the term “antisemitism” emerge there at that time? Because, Feldman argues in a 2018 essay in the American Historical Review, it was in 1871 that German Jews “decisively” gained “civil and political equality.” In other words, it was only after Jewish equality gained some political legitimacy that opposing it denoted a specific form of bigotry. Before that, treating Jews as inferior didn’t require a special term because it was unremarkable, the normal order of things.

That’s roughly the situation for Palestinians today. For much of the 20th century, mainstream American and Israeli public discourse did not even tolerate the word “Palestinian.” In The Question of Palestine, published in 1979, Edward Said observed that, “merely to mention the Palestinians or Palestine in Israel, or to a convinced Zionist, is to name the unnameable.” That has since changed. Today, fewer American politicians still insist that Palestinians are merely generic Arabs. In 2019, when New York City Councilman Kalman Yeger claimed that Palestinians do not exist, he was stripped of his committee post. 

But what remains largely unnameable is the idea that Palestinians deserve equality, and that denying them equality—or penalizing Americans for advocating their equality—thus constitutes a form of bigotry. This absence carries particular weight because, since the 1970s, when American Jewish leaders coined the term “the new anti-Semitism” to describe criticism of Zionism and Israel, Palestinians and their supporters have faced relentless allegations of Jew-hatred. Israel’s supporters face no similar scrutiny, even when they openly insist that Palestinians live without basic rights.  

The more entrenched Israel’s anti-Palestinian bigotry has become—through relentless settlement growth in the West Bank and the passage of a nation-state law that formalizes legal inequality between Palestinians and Jews even inside Israel proper—the more fervently Israel’s advocates have insisted that questioning Jewish statehood constitutes antisemitism. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by 31 governments, the United States Departments of Education and State, and more than 200 US states, municipalities, universities, and nonprofits, includes among its examples of antisemitism “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” It’s a striking illustration of the way in which claims of antisemitism seek to silence claims of anti-Palestinian oppression. Under the most widely adopted definition of antisemitism in the world, a Palestinian who calls Israel bigoted is guilty of bigotry against Jews. 

Talking about anti-Palestinian bigotry is not risk-free. As Mezna Qato notes, it can encourage people “to think about Palestine as a question of ethnicity or identity,” and thus may “detract from a necessary focus on Palestine as a political struggle” against a discriminatory state ideology. 

It is up to Palestinians to decide how to wage their struggle for freedom. But since pro-Israel organizations in the US have made it nearly impossible to discuss Israel-Palestine without addressing questions of anti-Jewish bigotry, Americans of all backgrounds have a responsibility to ask why even blatant expressions of anti-Palestinian bigotry pass almost unnoticed. Because anti-Palestinianism is so invisible and so pervasive, introducing the concept could change the way Americans discuss what Israel does to Palestinians, and what America does to those who speak on their behalf. The notion of anti-Palestinianism might force politicians, pundits, and religious leaders who call the Squad bigots to reckon with the fact that the label applies far better to themselves.

Peter Beinart is the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.