When should anti-Zionists apologize to apologists for Israeli war crimes?
By Steve Salaita
Two Saturdays ago, I was relaxing in my pajamas while my child watched cartoons and my wife tapped at her laptop when our calm morning was interrupted by a loud, menacing knock. I opened the door to a smiling man holding a thick manila envelope in both hands.
“Are you Steven Salaita?” he asked.
“I have some paperwork for you,” he announced, handing me the envelope. Before spinning around, he bid me a nice day. I was taken aback by his lack of passive aggression.
I knew what was in the package: the hard copy of a legal complaint. I had again been named as a defendant in a frivolous lawsuit—part of a Zionist harassment tactic that’s come to be known as “lawfare”—stemming from the 2013 American Studies Association [ASA] resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. A group of scholars who opposed the resolution, and were trounced in a painstakingly democratic process, filed suit against the ASA and a handful of its members (all women and/or people of color), with the backing (and likely encouragement) of Kenneth Marcus’s Brandeis Center. After a lot of haggling and headache, a judge threw out the suit. Now it’s being filed in a different court. The mopey dunderheads want to give their doomed proposition another go.
I opened the envelope and removed a stack of papers about two inches thick, bound with a single rubber band. I deposited the papers into a kitchen drawer and returned to the cartoons.
Zionists have been knocking on my door for years. They’re goofier than Sponge Bob, more tedious than Teen Titans, and less eloquent than Pikachu; in turn, I generally don’t give a shit what they’re complaining about today. So sue me.
You probably know that pro-Israel activists are intense, but unless you’ve been their target it’s hard to imagine the level of intensity. They never stop. This relentlessness separates them from garden-variety fanatics. A single punishment, no matter how vicious, is never enough. Their goal is to force targets into destitution, and then they’ll keep going until observers are destitute by association. The belligerence honors the settler colonial entity to which they’re devoted.
If you fight back (the correct decision), they’ll smear you as anti-Semitic. If you ignore the noise, they’ll grow louder. And if you apologize, well, it would be a bad idea. They’ll see it not as a victory, or an opportunity for reconciliation, but as an invitation to be more exasperating.
The list of journalists, academics, writers, artists, politicians, musicians, and activists punished for affirming Palestinian life—or merely for running afoul of right-wing Zionist orthodoxy—illustrates that recrimination is its own kind of stimulus. It’s been so effective, may as well accelerate the model. It’s hard to imagine the model’s demise without reshaping the anatomy of US political discourse.
And forget about avoiding it. If you criticize Israel’s behavior—or condemn Zionism, the more important approach—you simultaneously risk defamation, or at least the nattering inanity of both voluntary and professional trolls. Institutions exist around the world to protect Israel’s reputation and to inoculate the state against the kind of inquiry any healthy community understands as normal. Those institutions are funded by billionaires and various government agencies. It can lead to the bizarre scenario of a solitary Twitter critic getting pitted against the world’s most powerful forces.
I once was that solitary critic. After a series of tweets profanely critical of Israeli war crimes during 2014’s Operation Cast Lead, a vicious 51-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip that killed thousands and destroyed the territory’s infrastructure, I found myself in a protracted legal and political battle against a distinguished research university, a Kennedy (albeit one of the family’s lesser specimens), the central Illinois business community (including the founder of Jimmy John’s), US Senators Dick Durban and Mark Kirk, a healthcare conglomerate, and the Israel lobby.
It’s never ceased being surreal (and disturbing) how so many superficially disparate institutions can mobilize against threats to their dominion, no matter how small or isolated. Israel plays a critical role in the culture of reprisal against radical ideas, especially those proffered by queers and people of color. Zionism is a devastatingly effective instrument for ruling class intimidation.
After my battle ended (with a court settlement and a new job overseas), Zionists kept at it. They’re always on guard to submarine career opportunities, in keeping with the sensibility that criticizing Israel warrants lifetime punishment. I’d take solace in knowing that they’ll finally relent after my death, but, like all colonizers, they have a history of unearthing graves of the subaltern.
When I used to give speeches, attendees regularly asked if I regret posting the tweets that caused so much trouble. I was supposed to say yes, humble myself with obliging contrition and thus complete an age-old healing ceremony in which the native assuages the settler’s anxiety. Depending on my mood, I could be terse or whimsical, but I never apologized or copped to remorse. There are hundreds of things for which I feel obliged to seek forgiveness; upsetting advocates of ethnic cleansing isn’t among them.
My reluctance was also expedient. Why apologize? It won’t appease Zionist partisans. They’ll only extract more conciliation and keep at it until I’ve become so pathetic that I sound like Wajahat Ali.
Beyond the pointlessness of the gesture, I had no right to apologize. My presence behind a microphone was in service of Palestine’s national struggle, not for the sake of conquering the opportunistic ecosystem of US punditry. Pacifying my interrogators would betray legions of people in and beyond Palestine who fight oppression with pluck and dignity.
In any case, these justifications are beside the point. Zionists have decades of racism to account and atone for before we even consider the matter of Palestinians’ behavior.
Apology is a simple concept, but in practice it’s devilishly complicated. It’s an inconsistent custom, spanning cathartic to passive aggressive. Contingent on specific qualities of harm and redress, apology informs and encounters the range of human behavior.
The idea is to make amends with someone you’ve harmed or to resolve a conflict. Apologizing can be an admission of error. It’s compulsory in some types of therapy, but doggedly avoided in most civil and criminal trials (until, of course, the sentencing phase). It’s also crucial to notions of forgiveness and repentance, so it conjoins wide-ranging phenomena and exposes otherwise unnoted disparities of power.
Public apologies are a popular entertainment. Who can forget Bill Clinton, predatory lout par excellence, hoarsely expressing remorse about his infidelities in front of countless flashbulbs and microphones? He refuses to personally apologize to Monica Lewinsky, though.
How about Michael Vick after he was busted for running a dog fighting ring? Vick didn’t merely articulate regret, but vowed to redeem himself. Sports radio praised his apology. Vick’s emphasis on becoming a better person pleased the meatheaded arbiters of US exceptionalism.
A venerable subgenre is the tearful apology, perfected by horny televangelists with furtive drug habits and private jets. When people weep behind closed doors, it can be powerful, but when they do it in front of the camera, audiences are apt to treat the tears as disingenuous. Ridicule ensues on social media. A symbol of vulnerability becomes an opportunity for derision. Apology is dialectical, achieving maturity only after the reaction of both recipient and spectator.
We understand the mechanics of apology—as a discursive rite, a calculated performance, a device for political airbrushing, or the bedrock of artful dissembling—more readily than its emotional characteristics. It’s expected in certain situations, surprising in others, a perfunctory exercise or an oratorical art. We’re conditioned to revere its status as a civilizing force, evoking the humility of genuflection or the satisfaction of closure, an essential feature of linear time.
Non-apologies (also known as nonpologies) can induce rage: sorry you were offended; sorry you misunderstood me; sorry you’re so sensitive; sorry you felt hurt by what I did. These aren’t simply refusals to take ownership; they implicate the aggrieved party in some kind of failure. Another variation of the non-apology disavows agency: I didn’t know; the situation was complex; I meant well; something something moving parts; I was confused.
War criminals love this genre. Robert McNamara, architect of numerous US atrocities in Vietnam, spent his final years rehearsing pitiful non-apologies. “I’m very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things, I’ve made errors,” he proclaimed, sounding both ghoulish and robotic.
Tony Blair followed McNamara’s model when he stepped forward to lament his role in the US-UK invasion of Iraq. Bemoaning the “hardest, most momentous, most agonising decision” he’d ever made, Blair confessed to “more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever know or believe,” before absolving himself of culpability: “I did it because I thought it was right.”
Neither McNamara nor Blair apologized to the actual victims of their depravity. The war criminal non-apology is a strictly metropolitan affair.
Sometimes apology is a policy issue, as when governments face down ugly histories (almost always involuntarily). The German government has been apologizing for Nazism since the late 1940s. The Canadian government apologized to Indigenous peoples for residential schools (i.e., concentration camps for kidnapped children), something to which its US counterpart is disinclined. Mexico recently called on Spain to apologize for the brutality of its conquest, but received a negative response.
These acts have legal and economic implications. A formal governmental apology is understood to also entail some form of remuneration (which is why the adjective “formal” is so important). It’s also supposed to indicate more humane priorities, but that’s no guarantee. Canadian colonization hasn’t slowed a whit since its government purported to make amends.
Friendship, ceremony, sport, worship, parenting, trade, politics, intercourse—none would be possible without apology. No matter its provenance or intent, it forces us to acknowledge our reality as social creatures.
Sometimes, however, a refusal to apologize can preserve existence, even when death is the competing option.
Demanding apologies from people they harm is a Zionist specialty. When lickspittles for settler colonization urged me to repent for anti-Zionism, I constantly had to remind myself that I, and not the lickspittles, was the aggrieved party. It’s a sad but necessary reminder, because aggravation is the Zionist’s cardinal sensibility.
Zionist demands for apology also inhabit a political rhetoric. They transfix the settler into a permanent subject-position. By conferring to themselves a unique capacity to be offended, they tacitly proclaim the native to be incapable of sentience. The world is refracted through their anxiety, which is both exceptional and ordinary, a leitmotif of majorities around the world who imagine themselves to be imperiled.
To demand apology without considering reciprocal sites of grievance nurtures a world conditioned to serve the needs of power. For Zionists, it is yet another way to ensure that Palestinians acquire no claim to freedom.
Apology as political bludgeon was recently on display vis-à-vis Ilhan Omar, a first-term congresswoman from Minnesota. Although Omar isn’t Palestinian (she’s Somali), her comments critical of the Israel lobby (and to a lesser degree of Israeli policy) inspired tremendous hostility. Omar’s Muslim faith (along with her blackness and immigrant origin) became a focus of those displeased by her criticism.
Forward opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon helped set the episode in motion by admonishing Omar on Twitter: “Please learn how to talk about Jews in a non-anti-Semitic way. Sincerely, American Jews.” Chelsea Clinton, no doubt raised to seize the lucrative opportunities available from punching down, chimed in to register her mortification. Soon every beltway tosser with an establishment fetish was dragging Omar.
Omar and her detractors came to represent irreconcilable polarities in an online brouhaha, which elided a host of issues, not least the anti-colonial struggle of actual Palestinians. The debate became a referendum on one person’s singular heroism contraposed to the atavistic depravity of Islam. US political discourse knows no other approach.
Had observers examined Omar’s views on Palestine-Israel, a more banal conversation may have emerged. (Let a lonely writer dream.) It’s difficult to nail down Omar’s positions because they’re inconsistent; we only know that she’s against Israel, a vague intellection largely engendered by Zionist foot-stomping. As is their custom, Omar’s antagonists invented a sinister emblem to suit colonialist fantasies of persecution.
Omar’s actual politics are less dramatic. She has both affirmed and downplayed BDS; her post-election affirmation of BDS set her up for defamation. She apparently approves of the Oslo peace process. She cites groups like If Not Now, J Street, and MoveOn, but doesn’t promote outfits led by Palestinians. In an op-ed that can reasonably be described as milquetoast, she proffered support for the two-state solution amid boilerplate about security and values.
She voted for a budget resolution (HR 21) that provides billions in aid to Israel (along with other unsavory foreign policy initiatives). While gridlock between Donald Trump and congressional Democrats had provoked a government shutdown, the issue at the heart of HR 21, Omar made no effort to distance herself from its imperialist spending. (For example: “I voted for the budget because it was important to get federal employees back on payroll, but I deplore its lavish expenditures for a serial human rights violator.”)
Omar has made anti-Israel statements and antagonized AIPAC, but has nothing to say about Zionism. The distinction matters. Without analysis of Zionism as a settler colonial ideology central to a capitalist order that fosters massive global iniquity, we end up reifying the notion of a fundamentally decent United States prone to incomprehensible lapses of judgment, a perspective Omar likes to utilize. In fact, reducing US support for Israel to effective lobbying absolves the architects of genocide on both sides of the Atlantic. Omar’s position in Congress inhibits her ability to be radical, but observers of that institution suffer no such limitations.
In short: although Omar is capable of sharp commentary, her public record on Palestine-Israel more or less hews to the international consensus. Her canonization as anti-Zionist heroine was largely in response to racist abuse. And Zionists abused her in no small measure because of her positionality as a Black Muslim woman. Her defamation was foreordained. Ungar-Sargon’s tantrum mobilized a simmering anxiety that preceded Omar’s arrival in Washington.
Omar ought to be defended from Zionist defamation on principle, but it’s important to keep Palestine solvent in our analyses. The ongoing debate about her comments, real and imagined, taps into an essential motif of US exceptionalism: a solitary hero confronting an indomitable adversary. Context is displaced from the site of anti-colonial struggle onto a public contest involving metonymical antagonists. The Palestinian people, by design, disappear amid the noise of spectacle.
Only those who personally interact with Omar know her private thoughts, motivations, concerns, aspirations, or worries. Sure, we can infer strategy or intent based on what she chooses to make public, as is our right, but the complete scope of a controversy is unavailable to spectators. I try to remember that victims of smear campaigns aren’t proxies for my desire, but vulnerable human beings apt to intense feelings of loneliness and betrayal.
I’m nevertheless comfortable suggesting that Omar’s apologies were a mistake. Two main reasons inform this belief: 1) apologizing only empowered the mob, and 2) it set a bad precedent for Palestine solidarity activists.
We can return to Ungar-Sargon to illustrate the first point. Even after Omar met with various “Jewish groups” (where she presumably continued expressing regret), Ungar-Sargon kept condemning Omar—at one point she juxtaposed Omar with the KKK—and deemed her contrition inadequate. It’s unclear what would satisfy Ungar-Sargon’s exacting standards, but following her orders doesn’t seem to work.
Ungar-Sargon is the product of a distinct political culture. In personal relationships, apology is critical to forgiveness, but power never forgives dissent. It deploys a rhetoric of conciliation as a pretext to maintain jurisdiction over acceptable critique. For the settler, insistence on redress is a weapon, less destructive than bombs and bullets, yes, but a worthy complement to their physical terror. Colonial self-indulgence governs even the most intimate aspects of our behavior, mediating our emotion, authorizing our resistance.
As to the second point, apologizing to Zionists for deploring their ideology, or merely for having said an unkind word about Israeli brutality, doesn’t absolve the offender; it invigorates the Zionists’ commitment to discipline. (Here I am not concerned with legitimate harm, but with the notion that condemning Israeli deeds, or the awful ethics of the state’s defenders, is the type of harm worthy of redress.) It likewise excludes Palestinians from the public domain except as ontological devices for liberal sanctimony.
If pro-Israel operatives don’t understand the difference between anti-Zionism, a movement deeply invested in equality, and racial hatred, the bread-and-butter of the state they defend, then it’s the operatives’ problem to sit with. We needn’t internalize the fallout of voluntary ignorance.
And if they can’t distinguish everyday practices of culture—the lived reality of history and religion—from a chauvinistic nation-state committing war crimes in the name of cultural vitality, then their anxiety is warranted. We certainly shouldn’t let them project that anxiety onto the unprotected. It’s not the native’s responsibility to ensure the settler’s comfort.
When Zionists demand apology from Israel’s critics, to whom are those critics meant to apologize? It’s supposed to be self-evident, but only because whiteness is so legible as a site of humanity, of logic, of feeling. The demand is remarkably complicated, in fact, but few observers interrogate problems that in a smarter political environment would be obvious. So absorbing is the tabloid character of colonialist whining that even the simplest questions disappear.
To whom, then, do provocative Palestinians apologize? American Jews? Israeli Jews? All Jews everywhere? Or only Zionist Jews? Including IDF bureaucrats? West Bank settlers? What if not everyone who identifies as Jewish wants an apology? What if some of them feel offended or exploited by the demand?
How about Christian Zionists? (They comprise the largest demographic in this drama, after all.) Do they get to enjoy the spectacle, too? Why shouldn’t they, right? Apparently, Palestinians have nothing better to do than validate settlers’ insatiable sense of victimhood.
And what of the politicians who work so hard to lavish Israel with money and weapons? As Israel’s benefactors, surely they deserve a bit of relief, as do the corporations earning billions in the marketplace for carnage. Do Boeing and Lockheed Martin get a cut of Palestinian remorse?
Would it help to issue a personal apology to the self-appointed exemplar of world Jewry, Benjamin Netanyahu?
You see, even leaving aside moral and philosophical questions, Zionist demands for apology don’t make a goddamn bit of sense.
A few years ago, when people implored me to apologize for anti-Zionist comments, I would ask for clarification. “Apologize to…?” Answers inevitably settled on some variation of “the Jewish people” or “the Jewish people in this room.” Arriving at that answer sometimes required nifty interpolation: “The people you hurt,” one guy replied.
I’m sorry, I told him, but I’ve already apologized to my family.
Apology is far too complex for synthesis. Even limiting analysis to its role as a discourse in relations of disparate power will omit something important.
However, we know enough about Zionist rituals of forced atonement to understand that they don’t belong to the category of détente, but coercion. Apology is merely a pretext, a simulation of penance that reinforces the primacy of Israeli life. If Palestinians cannot verbalize sensibilities fundamental to their identity, then it means Zionists have effectively severed them from the insuppressible proclivities that comprise a human being.
We learn a lot about racialized hierarchies of civil society in settler colonies by exploring which groups are expected to demand apology in contrast to the groups for whom apologizing is natural. Those expectations correspond with proximity to ideals of normative citizenship. In other words, fewer people would entertain Ungar-Sargon’s narcissism if she weren’t Extremely White.
Consider why it’s a given that Palestinians should apologize to their oppressor, or why it’s a longstanding Zionist practice to defame Black radicals as anti-Semitic and then use the targets’ refusal to apologize as evidence for the defamation. These practices are indispensable to the settler’s rhetorical arsenal. They work so well because real Americans know where to find barbarity. Even in the absence of racist intent, racism is structured into the demand.
Reifying Zionism is no way to combat anti-Semitism. And chaperoning resistance from a position of authority keeps the world on a trajectory that soon promises to make all of us sorry.