Though it may have sparked debate in the Jewish-American community, the idea that Israel can be a cause célèbre for white nationalists is hardly news to Palestinians, whose very existence vies with a state steeped in European, colonial racism.
Since his appointment last week as chief White House strategist, sensationalist media maven Steve Bannon—whose editorial sensibilities have spawned such haute headlines as “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”—has become something of a lightning rod in the mainstream Jewish-American community.
The Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt said his group opposed Bannon on grounds that the alt-right hero is “so hostile to core American values” while Greenblatt’s friend, “America’s rabbi” Shmuley Boteach, defended Bannon by citing the latter’s Jewish employees, who are ever so grateful that their boss lets them “keep the Sabbath.”
At issue is whether Bannon’s white supremacist bone fides point to an alarming strain of anti-Semitism at the highest levels of U.S. government. Given his pedigree, that should be an easy question to answer. But what has people scratching their heads is how Bannon and his former Jewish boss, the late Andrew Breitbart, could have embraced the supremacists among them while, at the same time, singing the praises of “the Jewish state.”
As a Palestinian, I don’t understand the question. Though it may have sparked debate in the Jewish-American community, the idea that Israel can be a cause célèbre for white nationalists is hardly news to millions of Palestinians, whose very existence vies with a state steeped in its founding zeitgeist—European, colonial, and yes, racist.
You don’t need Edward Said to guide you through it. Just spend a single day among the “natives.”
Whether they are refugees who hail from one of the more than 500 villages destroyed by Israel’s founders; whether they are second-class citizens who live in Israeli cities renamed to cover their Arab roots; whether they contend with a network of settler-only roads on their way to work, school, or hospital; Palestinians are no sooner vexed by the state’s whiteness than are Ethiopian Israelis. That they, too, rail against the state’s brutality speaks to a systemic bias, one that—as in Trump’s America—should hardly be surprising.
Ask anyone who has ventured beyond the menacing Hebrew signs warning against entry to the West Bank, as if the latter were some Conradian hinterland—not an identical landscape whose occupiers invade and sequester at will. Ask anyone who has eyed, from below, the jarring architecture of European privilege, those menacing hilltop settlements with their rows of Santa Barbara-style homes—their red mission tile and lush lawns aesthetic travesties against the adjoining hills and ancient terraces.
What are these, if not the markers of ultra-nationalism, of a system calibrated to a certain standard of citizen? Yet to follow the debate now pulsing through the Jewish-American community is to walk away unsure.
Naomi Zeveloff, writing in The Forward, quotes a Columbia University sociologist who explains that “right-wing Zionism,” presumably of the kind feted by Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett, is—it’s true—a form of ultra nationalism. The Zionist fringe can commingle with the most bigoted on the American Right, for the lot of them, to quote the professor, “make a fetish of purity.”
But for Palestinians, that kind of fetishization is hardly fringe. Consider the recent case of Palestinian workers at a Haifa branch of Café Café, where a shift manager reportedly forbade his staff from speaking Arabic (this in a restaurant serving “shakshuka for two,” a dish that even the New York Times acknowledges originated in North Africa).
One hopes that, for Jewish-Americans who care about Israel, this daily Palestinian reality might awaken something of the awareness now felt so urgently by the American left—that the supremacists among us are just that, long since settled within the bulwarks we have built.
At the same time, this should not be a conversation for Jewish-Americans alone. As a Palestinian, I too must let go of the too-easy logic that places, say, Jonathan Greenblatt, outside the bulwarks I have built. He may represent an organization with which I seldom agree, but he also has vowed nothing less than to identify as Muslim, a courageous act of defiance against the new American president and his much-feared “Islamic registry.”
The aim here is not to sound Pollyannaish, or to engage in moral equivalency. Neither is it to deny the very real privilege that we, who hold the American passport, can fall back on as we pursue such inquiries. Instead, it is to recognize that, with privilege, we also have a responsibility to engage in uncomfortable discussions—discussions that others cannot have.
When I think of those “others,” I always remember Said, the tragic hero of Hany Abu Assad’s Oscar-nominated film, Paradise Now.
Though it follows two would-be suicide bombers, the story’s most offending scene has nothing to do with bombs. It takes place in the movie’s final act, as the young Palestinian protagonist is being shuttled to his “target” by an English-speaking man with a Hebrew accent.
While the car makes its way along Tel Aviv’s wide highways and perfectly paved streets, Said, who has just jumped a fence from the West Bank, gazes stern-faced at snippets of life along the picturesque coast.
Here, Abu Assad gives us the Palestinian’s vantage point. As the camera fixes on the scene from the car window, we are looked down upon by a building-length image of a European male, blond and bare-chested, advertising the latest mobile phone. We see a man in shorts strolling to his late-model SUV. We see a woman peddling her bike through a crosswalk, girls laughing in their bikinis, giggling children running along the shore.
And nowhere in this alien landscape do we see a reflection of ourselves.
Instead, for a moment, we are forced to empathize with the quiet Arab, as he sits awkwardly in his suit and tie, his freshly cropped hair no camouflage in this foreign place.
Part of what makes the scene remarkable is that this character is not in a foreign land at all. Israel, for all its trappings, sits within the only physical geography Palestinians can call their own. And yet, despite their proximity, they have been overwhelmed with the knowledge that they can never belong.
The message comes from all directions, from right and from left. It is louder than any political party, louder than its apparatchiks, louder and, at once, more insidious.
That, perhaps, is why Palestinians have no difficulty seeing beyond the supremacists in America’s midst, beyond the Bannons and the Trumps, to remind us that these bigots and the state they so support have always been of a kind.