Last week, I gave a lecture at the University of California at San Diego about politics and social justice. Afterward, as I was signing books, a young Black woman approached my table and whispered a question, asking me what I thought about the horrors playing out in Gaza.
The next person in line was an older Jewish woman who implored me to “do whatever you can” to change people’s opinions because “everybody hates us now,” noting that Jewish people had always stood up for civil rights.
Both women had come to hear me speak, expressed their approval of my work in general and, I would assume, agreed with me on many issues. But on the political fallout from the war in Gaza, it seemed pretty clear that they had divergent views, but each assumed that I agreed with her point of view.
Of course, both women are individuals, not spokeswomen for their entire communities. But even so, those brief conversations were a small example of how the war between Israel and Hamas has strained perceptions and relationships in this country among key groups in the progressive coalition and how so many feel as if they’re obligated to declare where they stand.
Taking a position against the killing of civilians — such as Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack and the Israeli military’s operations in Gaza — is relatively easy. It gets harder when considering support for or opposition to the overall prosecution of the war, including the growing calls for a cease-fire. And when the aperture is widened from the particulars of the current violence to the history of the broader conflict, the divergence of opinions becomes even more stark and complicated.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed several pro-Palestinian activists and scholars in America. Almost all of them described themselves as anti-Zionist, but in our conversations, all of them also condemned antisemitism. This week, I turned to Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League — whom I spoke to soon after he appeared at Tuesday’s March for Israel that drew tens of thousands of people to the National Mall — who sees anti-Zionism, by definition, as antisemitism. He told me, “Zionism is fundamental to Judaism.” He believes that claiming to be anti-Zionist but not antisemitic is like someone saying in 1963 that “I’m against the civil rights movement, but I’m also against racism.”
He not only believes that you can be a harsh critic of the Israeli government without being anti-Zionist; he also says that he, like many others, supports Palestinian identity and Palestinian nationalism while also being a Zionist.
It is here, in the dispute over definitions, that things begin to break down and where people on both sides of the issue, who all see themselves as standing for righteousness, are frequently seen by those on the opposing side as standing for hatred and cruelty.
For instance, there are several forms of Zionism, and people in these debates rarely seem to be explicit about which form they are for or against. Political Zionism? Cultural Zionism? Religious Zionism? Some combination of them? Does it matter?
This lack of specificity can contribute to cynicism.
When I talked to the pro-Palestinian activists and scholars, I posed a simple question that is often asked: Do you believe that Israel has a right to exist? To my surprise, none answered with a direct “yes.”
One of them, the journalist and scholar Marc Lamont Hill, a co-author of “Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics,” told me he believes that “all nations deserve to have their territorial integrity honored and respected” and doesn’t believe we should be “harming Israel as a state.” He also believes the question is flawed because, in his view, it “presumes that every other state’s right to exist has been affirmed but Israel’s.”
He believes that in that question, what people are really asking is whether Israel has the right to exist “as a Jewish state, as an ethnocentric state,” to which he responds, “no nation has the right to not be a state of all of its citizens” or to “create a hierarchy along ethnic, racial, gender, religious lines.” As Hill sees it, “It would be like asking Native Americans if America has a right to exist.” He specified that his critique is specifically about political Zionism.
When I told Greenblatt that none of my interviewees gave a direct “yes” to the right-to-exist question, he said that was “almost indescribably offensive” because he connects any hesitation on the question to historical antisemitism and a denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.
But Greenblatt and Hill do agree on a narrower point: that there is discrimination against Arabs in Israel. “There’s definitely discrimination there,” Greenblatt said.
Amnesty International has gone much further, accusing Israel of operating an “apartheid regime” and declaring that “whether they live in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, or Israel itself, Palestinians are treated as an inferior racial group and systematically deprived of their rights.”
I emerge from these discussions feeling a sense of whiplash, aware that the dispute is playing out with antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents in this country surging and fear rippling through Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities.
After talking to everyone, I wished that they could all have been in a room talking to one another.
It’s hard to accept that smart people who seem to want to do the right thing can’t find some common understanding on these issues, find more points of agreement and pull out of a descending cycle of recriminations.
If they don’t, I fear that this dispute will be a lose-lose for all.
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