On Addressing Jews

The death of the two-state paradigm provides an opportunity for the Palestinian national movement to once again speak explicitly to Jews.

Peter Beinart and George Bisharat
September 18, 2023

Multilingual coins from Mandate Palestine

In 1970, Fatah, the most influential party within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), released a series of essays collectively entitled, “Towards a Democratic State in Palestine.” The document—written before the PLO accepted the partition of historic Palestine into two states in 1988—declared that the PLO “assumes a great share of the responsibility in winning Jews to the side of the revolution.” To that end, Fatah not only promised that a future democratic Palestine would be devoid of “bias, racism or discrimination,” it also explicitly took up the question of Jewish safety. To Jews who believe their safety depends on oppressing Palestinians, the authors insisted, Palestinians must say “no security in the racist state but all security in the new democratic Palestine.” Repudiating an Algeria-style solution, in which Jews leave the land, the document envisions a country built on “cooperation and tolerance,” where both Arabic and Hebrew are official languages and where Jews—like other communities—have the right to “develop culturally and linguistically as a group.” Fatah even imagines offering assistance to “Jews anywhere if they faced persecution.” Winning Jewish hearts and minds, Fatah argues, is essential to making the dream of a democratic Palestine “credible . . . desirable and feasible.”

If this language is surprising, it may be because Palestinian solidarity activists in recent decades have not made speaking to Jews a high priority. After the PLO endorsed a separate Palestinian state alongside Israel, many assumed that Israeli Jews and most Palestinians would eventually live apart, obviating the need for a shared vision. This may help explain why the 2005 call by Palestinian civil society groups for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel envisioned an end to the “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” equality for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return. But since the call’s purpose was to address violations of Palestinian rights, not imagine the political framework for their vindication, it did not outline what happens to Jews after Palestinian liberation. To many Palestinian solidarity activists, the place of Jews in a democratized Israel-Palestine is obvious: Jews will live equally alongside people of other ethnicities and faiths, as the BDS movement implies when it declares that it “is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination, including antisemitism.” But to many Jews—who have been taught that the alternative to Jewish supremacy is subjugation, expulsion or death—that’s not obvious at all.

The death of the two-state paradigm should lead the Palestinian national movement to once again explicitly address Jews. That’s especially important in the United States, where Jews are becoming more receptive to the Palestinian narrative. For decades, many American Jews who cherish legal equality in the United States have nonetheless defended Jewish supremacy in Palestine-Israel. They have quelled this cognitive dissonance by insisting that Israel treats its Palestinian citizens equally and would gladly end its military occupation if only Palestinian leaders accepted Israel’s “right to exist” as a Jewish state. But in recent years, these rationalizations have become harder to sustain. The 2018 nation-state law formalizes what has always been true: Jewish and Palestinian citizens are not equal; the former enjoy privileged status under the law. Israeli leaders no longer pretend that their blatantly undemocratic occupation of the West Bank, or their blockade of Gaza, are temporary. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist cabinet is eroding the rule of law even for Jews. Meanwhile, violent settler rampages in the West Bank like the one in Huwara tug at Jewish ancestral memories of antisemitic pogroms. Given these developments, it’s not surprising that more American Jews are questioning whether a Jewish state can be truly democratic. According to a 2021 survey by the Jewish Electoral Institute, 38% of American Jews under the age of 40 believe Israel is practicing apartheid and 43% say its “treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the US.”

This presents an opportunity for the movement for Palestinian freedom. American Jews, who have long been a key source of the Israel lobby’s political power, may now be primed to shift in large numbers toward supporting equality. Yet absent a conscious effort to integrate these Jews into the Palestine liberation movement, their doubts might result in disillusionment and disconnection from the issue, instead of action. To realize this moment’s potential, Palestinian activists must speak to Jews more directly. In Palestinian American political scientist Leila Farsakh’s words, “the Palestinian national movement needs to address what can be defined as the Jewish question, namely Jews’ attachment to Palestine and the Jewish claim to a home in Palestine.”

Asking Palestinians to assuage Jewish fears—fears that often stem from racist and dehumanizing assumptions about a supposed Palestinian proclivity towards hatred and violence—is unfair. It is unfair to ask the people suffering from oppression to reassure those who benefit from it. But successful liberation movements have often done just that. Brandon Terry, author of To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, has argued that King focused intently on the problem of white fear of Black equality, which he saw as a “longstanding, deeply-structuring feature of American culture and political life.” According to Terry, one of King’s “deepest, deepest commitments” was the belief that “you have to do things that will somehow disarm, disrupt, dispel those fears, in order to make progress on the political questions you want to pursue.” Disarming white fears was a focus of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela’s as well. While imprisoned on Robben Island, he taught himself Afrikaans, the language of the white South Africans most committed to apartheid. As a fellow prisoner explained, “His position was that you had to know their language, their passions, their hopes and their fears if you were ever going to defeat them.” For Mandela, defeating Afrikaners required helping them understand that they did not need apartheid to survive and flourish. Given the trauma many Jews feel as the result of family histories of antisemitism, answering those fears is at least as important in Israel-Palestine.

What follows are suggestions for how to seize the historic opportunity that this moment provides by answering Jewish fears in a way that is consistent with equality and historical justice. As writers and academics, we recognize that we are not organizing on the ground. We offer these proposals in hopes of aiding the activists who are doing that hard and crucial work.

First, drawing inspiration from 1970s Palestinian thought, today’s Palestinian solidarity movement could reiterate a vision of Palestinian-Jewish co-permanence rooted in equality, making it clear that Palestinian liberation does not require the departure of Israeli Jews. This is particularly important because many American Jews assume that Palestinian refugee return—an essential Palestinian right—would result in the retaliatory expulsion of Jews from their homes. The Palestinian movement could openly embrace Edward Said’s vision of a “humane and moderate solution” in which “the claims of the present and the claims of the past are addressed.” Palestinian thinkers have already offered different proposals for balancing the rights and interests of original Palestinian owners on the one hand, and more recent Jewish occupants on the other. The Palestinian solidarity movement could integrate this principle—that ending Palestinian dispossession should not result in the dispossession of Jews—into discussions of the right of return.

Second, the movement can stress, as the PLO’s representative in London, Said Hammami, did in a 1975 essay, that an equal Israel-Palestine, which fulfills the Palestinian right of return, can also welcome Jews in distress. “We are prepared,” Hammami wrote, “to accept that Jews living abroad who are really in need of a refuge and a new home should continue to be permitted to come and settle in Palestine.” This kind of assurance directly answers Jewish fears that are rooted in historic and ongoing antisemitism. Fairness requires that any future state’s first priority should be facilitating the return of those Palestinian refugees who wish to resettle. But the Palestinian solidarity movement can be clear that this does not preclude a generous asylum policy that offers refuge to any Jew or Palestinian in distress.

Third, the Palestinian national movement can acknowledge the Jewish conception of peoplehood and the Jewish connection to Israel-Palestine. Most Jews consider themselves members of a people with a deep religious and historical bond to what Jewish texts call “the land of Israel.” So long as it confers no rights to legal supremacy, that belief poses no more threat to Palestinian freedom than do Christian or Muslim attachments to the same land, which are also strong and sincerely held.

The same is true even for the term “Zionist.” An expansive Palestinian solidarity movement can recognize that while Zionism, in practice, constitutes a settler-colonial movement that continues to dispossess Palestinians, the term has a range of different meanings for Jews. A growing number may identify with a cultural Zionist tradition that dates back to mid-century figures like Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, which values a flourishing Jewish culture in Israel-Palestine while opposing a Jewish supremacist state. As the political scientist Mira Sucharov has shown, many of the same American Jews who reject Zionism when defined as “privileging Jewish rights over non-Jewish rights” endorse it when defined as a “feeling of attachment to Israel,” a term that can mean a place or a people rather than a state. So long as American Jews make clear that they support the right of Palestinians to legal equality and historical justice, and repudiate Jewish supremacy, there is no reason to make the word “Zionism” a litmus test for solidarity.

Finally, Palestinian activists should seek opportunities to talk to American Jews even if they do not currently support the BDS movement. We recognize the indignity of having to explain to Jews, or anyone else, why Palestinians deserve equality. We recognize that, in the past, Palestinian–Jewish discussion groups have often achieved little, and we are sensitive to the danger of ignoring the vast power disparity between Jews and Palestinians in Palestine-Israel and much of the diaspora. We are not proposing that Palestinian activists sit down with establishment Jewish organizations that have shown no willingness to criticize Israeli treatment of Palestinians. But shunning public dialogue with liberal Zionists in their moment of questioning is counterproductive. There is ample anecdotal evidence that listening to Palestinians helps progressive American Jews—especially young, progressive American Jews—move from criticizing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to challenging Jewish supremacy throughout Israel-Palestine. That’s especially true today, when events on the ground are creating a new fluidity in American Jewish discourse. Under these circumstances, declining to engage with, for example, the liberal Zionist student group J Street U on college campuses constitutes a missed opportunity. The American Jewish establishment labors to create a cocoon that isolates American Jews from Palestinians. When American Jews express an interest in breaking out of it, Palestinian activists should help them do so. Such work can be frustrating, but the potential benefits are clear: a broader Palestinian solidarity movement that exercises more political power.

Palestinian outreach to Jews may not take the same form today that it did a half-century ago. But the history of Palestinian political thought shows that answering Jewish fears need not elevate Jewish rights over those of Palestinians or anyone else. It shows that the Palestinian national movement can respond to Jewish anxieties without compromising its moral commitments. By reviving that tradition, activists today can outline a vision that liberates everyone between the river and the sea and inspires people fighting oppression around the world.

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

George Bisharat is an emeritus professor at University of California College of the Law, San Francisco.