By Cornel West*
No one gets closer to peace by silencing voices critical of a lethal status quo. We need a candid debate about the grim catastrophe unfolding in Israel
Why is it so difficult, if not impossible, to have a candid debate about the grim Israeli-Palestinian catastrophe that prevails in our midst? What stands in the way of our capacity to grasp the undeniable need for justice for Palestinians and the understandable fear of annihilation of the Jews in Israel? Is the only option a desperate Palestinian counter-violent struggle against the structural and military violence of the occupying Israeli state?
The recent firing of Marc Lamont Hill by CNN for calling for a free Palestine once again opens up this Pandora’s box – with little, if any, hope left for a non-violent solution. Many supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, such as Hill and myself, see this strategy as a last-ditch effort to avoid more bloodshed. This is especially important in the US context, as $3.1bn dollars of military aid currently goes to Israel to support such an unjust and inhumane occupation.
Yet we must persevere and persist in our quest for free Palestinians and secure Jews in Israel. We must put the rich humanity of Palestinians and Jews in Israel center stage by highlighting their equal calls for respect, fairness and accountability. First and foremost, this equality means a wholesale stoppage of the silencing of honest and compassionate voices critical of the lethal status quo.
Hill’s courageous UN speech in honor of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People was a gallant attempt to highlight the horrendous suffering of and callous indifference to the Palestinian people. Building on the heroic Palestinian tradition of critique and resistance – best manifest in the words and life of Edward Said in the US context – Hill unsettled the toxic status quo and received its knee-jerk response: he was cast as an antisemite and promptly silenced from mainstream media. And for Black critics of Israel, such attacks are especially dangerous given the intimate and fraught history of Black-Jewish relations in the US and the tremendous status that Black freedom fighters have around the world.
The climate of opinion is shifting against the impunity of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Needless to say, there will be some reckoning. Lies and crimes do not triumph forever. The crucial challenge is how this reckoning will – and must – minimize violence and xenophobic sentiments (be they anti-Jewish or anti-Palestinian).
Hill – like Said – favors a secular, democratic state that respects Jewish and Palestinian citizens equally. I also find this option morally desirable. But is it feasible for two peoples who have such enmity toward one another? Furthermore, the unique history of Jews in the world – from slavery in Egypt, ghettos in medieval times, expulsions, pogroms, and the Holocaust in the 20th century – warrants suspicion of any state shot through with harsh enmity. Security for Jews is a non-negotiable reality in our Jew-hating world – past, present and future. Yet there can be no Jewish security in an Israeli state that occupies and dominates Palestinians.
The most controversial moment of Hill’s bold address was his call for “a free Palestine from the river to the sea”. For most Zionists and many others these last words were cast as anti-Jewish, signifying the destruction of the Israeli state or even the genocide of the Jews. These gross misunderstandings and misconstruals play upon the deep fears and memories of vicious attacks and ugly assaults on Jewish people. These fears and memories are part of the core of what it means to be Jewish, and must be respected.
Yet they must never be used as an excuse to ignore Palestinian suffering or as a rationale for occupying Palestinian lands and people. This is precisely what happened. Hill’s words – though used by the PLO and Hamas – were not intended to be either antisemitic or a call for genocide. On a personal note, after knowing and working closely with him for over 20 years, I am certain that these words were neither a dog whistle nor an explicit call for genocide. Hill, like myself, is profoundly disturbed by the escalating deplorable anti-Jewish words and actions around the world. This must be vigorously opposed – be it in Pittsburgh, Paris, or the West Bank – but it must not render invisible the misery of Palestinians under the rule of the Jewish state.
The great paradox is that one of the great gifts of the Jewish people to the world – the precious gift of a prophetic tradition from Moses and Amos to Esther and, in recent times, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – puts justice for all at the center of any vision of the world. Such justice requires respect, fairness, and accountability of the people, for the people, and by the people. When this priceless tradition is crushed by the greed of predatory capitalism, the hatred that accompanies tribal nationalisms, and the cowardly avarice of the US Empire, we get the prevailing Israeli-Palestinian catastrophe. This massive disregard of innocent life, be it thousands of Palestinians or hundreds of Jews, is a sign of moral decadence. And this status quo – this house of cards – cannot stand.
The Israeli state will, like so many others, either continue along the path of authoritarianism and xenophobia or it will embrace the dismantling of occupation, give full citizenship to Palestinians in Israel, and provide land justice in some form. Unlike Hill, I do not foresee a singular, secular and democratic state for both peoples – though, like him, I think it would be best if possible. But I do see a chance of free and secure Palestinians and free and secure Israeli Jews with real self-respect and self-determination guided by not only fears and painful memories but also hopes and inspiring visions of justice for all in a Palestinian state and Israeli state with genuine sovereignty in both. Neither Hill nor I have the answer to this catastrophe but no one gets closer to a peaceful solution by demonizing persons and silencing voices critical of a lethal status quo.
*Cornel West is an American philosopher, author, critic, actor, civil rights activist and leading member of Democratic Socialists of America. Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University