A Broken Language, a Crippled
Debate, and the Gift of Art

An Analogy for the Contemporary American Debate

At some point, tensions become too unbearable to ignore. For many Americans, this point has come and they have begun to speak and act out, despite the risks. This can be seen in the rising number of grassroots activists who previous to the second intifada rarely voiced any public criticism of Israel. This small but growing number includes citizens working on the issues mentioned above and also in movements dedicated to women’s rights, immigration reform, free speech, the separation of church and state, and other domestic concerns. Their activism is reflected in part in the campaigns on U.S. campuses to boycott Israeli products and to pressure colleges and universities to divest themselves of funds and corporations that invest in Israel.

Writers criticizing grassroots American opposition to Zionism have used as their reference points current and historical events in Europe and in the Arab and Muslim worlds. This is illogical. The United States is the world’s longest running democracy; it did not experience the Inquisition, pogroms, fascism, monarchies, and dictatorships that shaped European, Arab, and Muslim political cultures. Such references provide historical context, but as a lens for looking at contemporary American events, they are irrelevant.

A much more relevant model comes from American history: the battle between Unionists and states’ rights advocates. In the years between independence and the outbreak of the Civil War (1789-1861), a great moral argument boiled up between the northern industrial states and the agricultural south over the question of human bondage or, as the south preferred to call it, “the peculiar institution.” The states’ rights position came to serve as a cloak for the pro-slavery position. This moral argument spilled into the political arena as abolitionists fought with proponents of slavery over the question of whether they would be, through their government, morally aligned with slavery.

Ninth Commemoration of Comrade Ghassan’s Martyrdom

Artist: Marc Rudin (Switzerland)

In the same way today, the central characteristic of the friction between two movements in the U.S. — the Israel advocacy movement and the Palestine solidarity movement — is quintessentially moral. The Israel advocates hold Zionism aloft as a jewel, the very essence of Jewish moral principles and the quest for justice. Many in the Palestine solidarity movement, which counts innumerable Jewish activists among its members, believe that achieving justice for the Palestinians is the most significant way of strengthening democracy at home and abroad and of honoring the tolerant and inclusive principles of Judaism. Each side says that it occupies the moral high ground. Both cannot be right.

As in that earlier time, the moral question has political implications. American anti-Zionism has emerged from the concern that the government’s policies do not reflect the moral values of the people. And American anti-Zionism is politically based, not at all like European anti-Semitism that emerged from religious and economic hostilities.

This American battle is not over the question of Israel’s right to exist, and it is not being fought between America’s Jewish and non-Jewish communities. This battle is over the question of whether Americans, speaking through the actions and policies of their government, wish to be morally aligned with the founding myths and political actions of Israel and whether or not there is a dignified and honorable identity for those who hold this position.

The states’ rights/Zionism analogy is rich in parallels: the existence of institutionalized inequality within a self-proclaimed democracy; the emergence of an opposition; the tactical maneuvers used to suppress that opposition; the distortion of language; the compromising of Congress; and so forth. For this reason, many of the essays in this exhibit make reference to the American battle over slavery.

Inevitable Historical Trend

Artist: Unattributed (China)

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