Palestine is not an Excuse for Bad Strategy
A popular taxonomy identifies four kinds of activists. At our best, our movements and organizations support all four, and see how they work together to make the world a better place. At their worse, they form a template for how our enemies can pit us against each other and Make Activism Gross Again.
Those four are: Advocate, Helper, Organizer, and Rebel. (This nice article by George Lakey goes into detail about these roles.) A quick way of understanding the Advocate role, is that they look for the established power systems already in place to find leverage and use it. While this doesn’t describe all politicians and candidates, the kind of person to run from the left is likely to be an Advocate. They are like chess players. They know the rules, seek to learn from the experience of others, and do what they can to win what is possible in the moment. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a good example.
In order to win, she had to embed herself with people who understand how to run for election, and let them do their job. As a Congresswoman, she is going to embed herself with people who understand how to be effective in Congress, so she can master that set of rules and win what is possible. As one of two or three Democratic Socialists in Congress, we can expect her to be on the left edge of the Progressive Caucus — but careful to play the long game. That means growing the number of like-minded candidates who make it, but also persuading other progressives that she’s a team player who can be trusted to work well with others and offer value for shared agendas.
In contrast, there is The Rebel. They see a problem or injustice and prefer to make a commotion of some kind to force powerholders to make a change. At their best, they are following in the footsteps of MLK, and work over time with coalitions to create the best commotion at the right time for maximum impact. But let’s face it — most rebels aren’t as patient, skilled or strategic.
At their worst, they engage in verbal fisticuffs with other kinds of activists, trying to shame or provoke them into being more like them. For example, demanding that someone already pretty far to the left adopt even more radical positions ‘or else’ face the wrath of the passionate true believers. It looks like lobbying, but owes more to the culture of Twitter call outs than to impactful advocacy.
Bernie Sanders is often caught between his strategy for achieving maximum impact — say, getting Medicare for All passed in 2020 — with demands from folks who care passionately about a single issue that he hasn’t prioritized. One example is Palestine. As a Senator, Sanders is arguably the most pro-Palestine in the Senate. But as a left activist, he certainly isn’t in the running. He’s ignored the demand to publicly support the Boycott, Divest, Sanction strategy supported by many pro-Palestinian and left groups in the US and around the world. And he did little to elevate the issue of Palestine in the 2016 presidential primary. He’s just not enough of a Rebel.
Good. He also got 42% of the vote and changed what’s possible for the left going forward.
Because the value of an elected official, of an activist in the Advocate role, is to get things done close or in the halls of power. A senator or congressmember embracing BDS, would probably be doing so at the expense of their effectiveness in most other areas. It’s pretty clear that the lobbying power of those who support Palestinian rights is not very high, and in most of the country if you only want to vote for someone who agrees with that position, you won’t have anyone to vote for.
I hope that changes. One way would be to elect more Democratic Socialists to Congress, or getting rid of hardline supporters of Israel’s occupation in Congress. We should also want to see more organizations embrace support for Palestinian rights through resolutions or grassroots actions.
Recently, in the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory, she made some comments deemed ‘insufficiently pro-Palestine.’ Namely, while criticizing Israel’s human rights violations, she also supported Israel’s right to exist and a two state solution. Even more recently, the Electronic Intifada came after primary victor Rashida Tlaib, who is set to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. Her sin was to accept J Street’s endorsement and donation ($3k) and by implication, support ongoing US foreign and military aid to Israel. It’s unclear what her positions are, and very clear that as a Congressmember she’s done nothing yet.
These two women of color are members of the Democratic Socialists of America and next January will be sworn in as members of Congress. Their job is to shine a positive light on a resurgent left entering the corridors of power so they can impact the lives of working class and poor people. (Though not exclusively so.) When Rebels immediately clamor to hold these women accountable for not speaking as Rebels, but as Advocates, we should push back.
Rebels don’t do well in Congress. But Advocates do. And when we have enough of them, they might even make a difference for Palestinians. Meanwhile, let’s try to redirect the energy of the Rebels. We want you to spark those movements and force the powerholders to change. Do it in a way that builds up your best hopes for the future, instead of tearing them down before they have even started.
The author is a former refusenik, spending time in military prison in Israel for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories, during the first Intifada. He has previously been employed by a Palestinian human rights organization in East Jerusalem, had a leadership role in a majority Palestinian youth organization, and was a member of Israel’s Communist Party, comprised mostly of Palestinian Israelis. He has led delegations of American Jews to the West Bank in support of the International Solidarity Movement and the Christian Peacemakers Team. He is a co-founder of Jews for Peace in Palestine in Israel and is a life long advocate for Palestinian rights.