Thursday, January 28, 2016

I Would Have Liked To Tell Her....

Scout Bratt, who was apparently among the protesters who shut down the "Creating Change" conference event hosted by A Wider Bridge and featuring Jerusalem Open House, defends the "disruption" in the Forward. As an argument, it isn't worth much. It does provide a good example of what I termed the "conspiratorial edge" in rhetoric about Pinkwashing. Bratt asserts that Israel has a "branding" campaign seeking to designate itself as LGBT friendly, which may well be true. But she does not provide any evidence that A Wider Bridge (much less Jerusalem Open House, which is not mentioned in her article at all) has any connection to that effort. Here's the extent of Bratt's case for linking the two up:
It’s because of this interconnected struggle that we can’t sit quietly and watch pinkwashing organizations like A Wider Bridge paper over Israel’s harmful policies toward Palestinians — policies that harm gay Palestinians in Haifa as well as in Ramallah. This pinkwashing is an integral part of Israel’s “Brand Israel” public relations strategy, which appeals to racist ideas of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims as backward and intolerant in contrast to the supposedly enlightened Western liberalism of Israel.
Well those certainly are two sentences next to one another. How is A Wider Bridge part of the governmental "Brand Israel" strategy? Does the fact that Israel seeks to promote its LGBT policies necessarily make all queer Israelis mouthpieces for the government? What, exactly, does A Wider Bridge do that constructs Palestinians and Arabs as backwards? If A Wider Bridge seeks only to "paper over" Israeli governmental policies, why is it hosting avowedly left-wing organizations like Jerusalem Open House who regularly and openly criticize the Israeli government? Apropos my recent Tablet article, how does A Wider Bridge emphasize Israel's "Western liberal[]" character when it is among the few North American organizations to devote significant attention to Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish narratives?

One searches in vain for answers which are not forthcoming. And they need not be forthcoming, because the meta-answer is that "whenever queer Israelis are present, they're in on the Zionist plot." What more needs to be said? Two Jews are an argument, three are a conspiracy.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the heart of Bratt's column does not focus on seriously arguing for why the sort of exclusion she promotes is justified. The heart of it, rather, is an ode to how good it feels to be part of this protesting community. I'll quote her at length:
So often, calls for dialogue or critiques of protest rhetoric are invoked to mask the deep need for self-reflection and critique. Rather than listening to and grappling with the urgent cry for justice expressed at Creating Change, many commentators have reverted to the usual accusations. 
Yes, banning an organization from a conference or protesting the reception it hosted may have been disruptive. But why are we so afraid of disruption? 
At our alternative Shabbat service, hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago and Coalition for a Just Peace in Israel-Palestine, I saw a community united by a shared sense of what it will take to bring about the world we want to see. Sometimes, that will include disruption. As we read from the weekly Torah portion about the splitting of the Red Sea, we asked one another, “What does it mean to divide and conquer? How can my true liberation be bound up in your drowning, your oppression, your suffering?” What we were welcoming that Shabbat was not rest, but action. Not comfort, but empowerment. The sea parting for all of us, or none. The world that is on its way, not the world as it is. 
As the space filled with yearning and energy, we drank up the feeling of being surrounded by those who shared our commitment to building community in the name of justice for all.
The ecstatic, almost messianic zeal one reads in these words is meant to be uplifting. It is actually terrifying. When I read this passage, I immediately turned to Milan Kundera's thoughts on the matter:
She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.
And so we get the earnest question about why anyone should be concerned about "banning an organization from a conference or protesting the reception it hosted." What could possibly go wrong, when it feels so right to be "surrounding by those who shared our commitments," and off they went with fists raised and march slogans (of "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free") chanted in unison?

Bratt concludes with what has to be a sick joke: lamenting the "increasingly personal attacks on activists [in Israel], legislating against human rights organizations, and escalating state and vigilante violence that goes unchecked." To write that even as her cohort precipitated just such an attack, even as it drove off such an Israeli human rights organization, even as it used its coercive power and implied threat of violence against progressive Israelis secure in the knowledge that they would go unpunished, is an outright mockery.

But it did crystallize one further thought in my mind. A few days earlier, Maya Haber put out a call urging progressive Jews to invest in liberal and progressive infrastructure in Israel. Through the 1990s, conservative Jews dedicated vast sums of money funding think tanks and NGOs and programming and institutes, which paid dividends in prompting the nation's right-wing drift post Oslo. The left should respond in kind; building its own civic society network to revive Israel's dormant progressive base. And I agree with her. whole-heartedly! That is one of the most important things that progressive Jews and non-Jews can do to help precipitate a just peace wherein both Jewish and Palestinian self-determination rights are actualized on equal terms.

But the problem Haber overlooked is that a considerable element of the left doesn't want to see a reinvgorated Israeli left. Certainly, they claim to be appalled by efforts to marginalize Israeli peace organizations; groups like Breaking the Silence or B'tselem. Yet it turns out that when such groups try to present their message to the world, they're targeted with the same exclusionary zeal as all other Israelis. Ami Ayalon is among the highest-ranking Israeli security officials to support "Breaking the Silence". But when he came to speak at Kings College London, it was at the invitation of the Israel Society, and it was anti-Israel protesters throwing chairs and smashing windows in a bid to drown him out. Likewise with Moshe Halbertal at Minnesota, preparing to explain why military forces (Israelis included) are obligated to put their own troops at risk in order to protect civilian populations.  And likewise with Jerusalem Open House. JOH has to be counted among the human rights organizations Bratt claims to care so much about. Yet when the chips were down, she was among those demanding they be silenced, and A Wider Bridge was the organization that had their backs.

The reason for this incongruity is that, once you're deep enough down the rabbit hole, the prospect of a "Zionist left" is more threatening to them than a Zionist right. The latter only confirms their prejudgments about what Zionism is and inevitably must be. The former, by contrast, challenges these preconceptions, it would force them to reckon with alternate possibilities and consider richer narratives. Jerusalem Open House, A Wider Bridge, Ami Ayalon -- they aren't protested because they're going to say something outrageous to progressive ears. They're protested because they'll say something that, if truly considered as part of an egalitarian commitment to deliberation, would probably have resonance.

It wouldn't, to be sure, be the sort of resonance that leads to raised fists and chanted slogans. It would not be the sort of feeling Bratt would want to "drink up". But it would provide the foundations for a genuine progressive step forward. And with regard to that ambition, Bratt is not an ally. She's a saboteur.


Binyamin Arazi said...

"What, exactly, does A Wider Bridge do that constructs Palestinians and Arabs as backwards? "

Presumably by highlighting the fact that Israel has gay rights at all, it embarrasses the Palestinians whose track record on gay rights is still atrocious. And according to the "pinkwashing" brigade, this reinforces notions of "Jewish", "Israeli", or "Western" supremacy. But that's a bogus way of looking at it. "Western" or not, there's no excuse for the deplorable treatment of gays in the Palestinian territories. They *should* be embarrassed about it, just as we should be embarrassed about the errors we make.

Binyamin Arazi said...

This whole conception of Israel as "Western" is nonsense anyway. Although we do have a Western style democracy, that's where the similarities end. Israel is an Eastern country, and Jews writ large are an Oriental people/culture.