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

Tensions Created by Terms

For the average American, the potential personal cost of engaging in a public or even private debate on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict carries the real risk of being accused of anti-Semitism. Once so accused — whether deliberately or by unconscious insinuation and whether one deserves that accusation or not — there is no established way to clear one’s name. Decent, well-meaning people do not want this destructive accusation attached to them. Rather than run that risk, Americans who might otherwise have something to contribute all too frequently opt for self-censorship. As a result, only the most unhealthy, tepid form of debate is possible, one in which participants are self-conscious, hesitant to speak, and afraid of breaking taboos. These proscriptions on free speech lead to social and political tensions.

The main source of these tensions has little or nothing to do with irrational hostility toward Jewish people or their religious and cultural practices. Rather, it stems from the fact that Zionism has exempted itself from the principles of popular democracy: it is beyond criticism; it has assumed for itself financial entitlements from the U.S. treasury; and it has created the expectation that the U.S. will support Israel under all circumstances. For many Americans, Israel seems like nothing so much as an ever-expanding set of demands, risks, requirements, obligations, privileges, and exemptions — from which they are unable to abstain.

If all the problems between the Israelis and Palestinians were to magically be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and a new era of peace and brotherhood were heralded, all the issues related to Zionism’s impact on domestic political life in the U.S. would still remain intact and continue to generate tension. Take for example, three issues utterly unrelated to foreign policy: terms limits, gun control, and housing.

Stop U.S. Aid to Israel

Artist: Doug Minkler (U.S.)

The Israel solidarity movement lent its influence to efforts to resist term limits for government office-holders, because it often takes years for pro-Israel officials to be elected and educated about Israel’s complex needs and preferences. From the Zionist perspective, it is better for sympathetic officials to remain in office as long as possible. Americans favoring term limits resent the fact that U.S. financial aid to Israel indirectly underwrites the hasbara movement in the United States, in other words, that their tax dollars are being used to support their political opponents.

Gun control advocates complain about the importation of Israeli-made firearms into the U.S. They decry the distortion of a political process that requires them to support, via their tax dollars, a country that exports into the U.S. the very products they seek to restrict. Israel goes to great lengths to control gun access in its own country, and American gun control advocates resent Israel’s disregard for the domestic security concerns of ordinary Americans.

Housing rights advocates in the U.S. are deeply offended by Israel’s formal policies of collective punishment, especially the destruction of homes. For these grassroots activists, housing security is the foundation of social development. Each time Israel demolishes a Palestinian home, American housing rights advocates resent anew the alignment of their government with one that calls itself a democracy and yet punishes with homelessness those who have not been convicted of any crime.

Seen collectively, many Americans see Zionism as an insult to their cherished values, yet are constrained from speaking out by the broken language of the debate.

Sixth Annual Congress of Palestinian Students

Artist: Unattributed (Algeria)

Next Section: An Analogy for the Contemporary American Debate

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