The unexceptional roots of Zionist fragility

On Tuesday, October 26th I participated as an audience member in Eyewitness Palestine’s October virtual delegation about Palestinian street art as resistance from Bethlehem to San Francisco. As expected, the content was moving, and the two guides were compelling speakers. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly,) a third party began loudly clamoring for the attention that should have remained focused on the two Palestinians. To be sure, the speakers and facilitator handled the disruption smoothly and effectively. The following comments are not intended to be a reflection of the overall quality of the event, but an analysis of what I believe to be some of the underlying factors that led the individual in question to feel so entitled to attempt to commandeer the proceedings in the first place.

I have a feeling many readers will know the situation I’m about to describe even before I put the words to paper. As a Palestinian, I myself have lost count of the number of times that I’ve felt my nerves begin to twitch in anticipatory unease at a certain familiarity of phrasing, a particular inflection of tone. It’s as though my chest and the pit of my stomach begin to silently mouth, Uh oh… Here we go… as the rest of my body gets the memo, steeling itself for the worst.

We had reached the Q&A portion of the session, and I don’t think it would be exaggeration to say that fascination with the topic combined with the audience’s clear recognition of the speakers’ expertise had allowed for a powerful sense of enjoyment to congeal. That’s what often makes these moments like the one I’m about to dissect so discomfiting: it’s not just a matter of a raised voice, of the very thought of your existence, freedom and resistance being so scandalous as a Palestinian that it reduces Zionists to all sorts of emotional gymnastics in accursed protestation. No: it’s that so much of the time, these things occur after a particular threshold of trust, of release, has been achieved. The very performance of these sentimental histrionics is its own enactment of racial discipline. Know your place, they tell us. Whatever you do, don’t make the shameful gaffe of thinking you can ever stretch out in your own humanity.

Mondoweiss Podcast Episode 23: A conversation with Sam Bahour

“I spent the whole weekend watching Palestinian films…” the questioner began.

So far, so good.

“…and nothing has disturbed me quite like what I’ve heard today.”

Uh oh…

“…to hear the word ‘Zionism’ be so cheapened, so twisted…”

Here we go…

And there it was: Zionist fragility. The questioner went on to dominate the session for the next few minutes. The threat of crocodile tears was ever palpable (even for an online event) as the individual insisted on rehearsing every single aspect of why they were a committed Zionist and how they were personally “so hurt” at Palestinians’ “experiences.” Forget the fact that the Zionist state continues to colonize Palestinian land with impunity, and has just labeled six Palestinian human rights organizations as “terrorist organizations”–the most important thing for all of us to consider was this individual’s hurt feelings. 

This person even generously offered to paint a mural with one of the speakers, a celebrated Palestinian muralist, apparently due to some kind of fetishized obsession with ensuring that every piece of Palestinian creativity is appropriately stamped with a Zionist seal of approval. In the moment, it’s laughable, but the takeaway, ever more sobering, more stinging after the fact, is that any aspect of your existence, from the sounding of your voice to the twist and twirls of your paint brush is cause for paranoia when the colonizer realizes they had nothing to do with it. How could we have humanity, a lifeworld, a history without them? Some kind of sacred presumption has been deeply violated. We have broken a contract that no one ever even bothered to ask us to sign, but whose contents remain implicit in every plea to “just hear me out,” every insistence that “we just want peace,” every attempt to redirect the conversation towards a misplaced personal affront.

These exchanges represent the projection of a deep, colonial anxiety that stems from uncertainty. It’s not for nothing that scholars of colonization often insist on quantifying the colonial process in psychological terms.

These exchanges represent the projection of a deep, colonial anxiety that stems from uncertainty. It’s not for nothing that scholars of colonization often insist on quantifying the colonial process in psychological terms. For all of their ruthless bravado, unapologetic Zionists realize, on a level often subjected to disciplined repression, that the Zionist state was and remains a horrendous injustice that necessitates stupendous levels of violence to sustain itself in its current hierarchical form. They realize the price that needs to be paid for an ethno-supremacist, colonial apartheid regime to remain intact, and that Palestinian bodies, lives and histories are the only accepted currencies.

But this commitment, however much it may be defended during the day, is shudderingly undermined by all kinds of insecurities during the long night of moral reckoning. Its inherent injustice is registered and, in an attempt to prove to themselves they feel otherwise, unapologetic Zionists will proclaim, loudly, intrusively, and in a manner countenancing absolutely no objection, that theirs is a good project, even a noble one, that they themselves are decent people, that there are plenty more places for the Arabs to go and, well, can’t we just be friends?

Small wonder that such outbursts often retain the feel of a monologue: to a large extent, the Palestinians who happen to be in the room at the time are mere props for the recalibration of Zionist colonial confidence.  

I am not the first person to use the term “Zionist fragility.” Senior Mondoweiss editor Philip Weiss used it in 2019 when describing the nonsensical lamentation from a member of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) that US media was biased against Israel. Weiss describes Zionist fragility as “when Zionists recoil with shock and injury over mild criticism.” Ali El-Sadany and Aidan Place used it when describing how a Zionist representing a normalization initiative began furiously shouting at and insulting them after they refused to be “token Muslims” in an anti-Palestinian propaganda trip. El-Sadany and Place describe Zionist fragility as rooted in fear:

“Since Israel’s foundation during the 1948 Nakba, the Israeli government has fed its people a constant barrage of messaging about existential threats, impending genocide, and Arab aggression, while simultaneously pushing a narrative of an Israeli David bravely and miraculously standing up to these Goliath dangers. This narrative was a lie in 1948, where, in private correspondence, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion acknowledged that the Zionist militias were stronger than the Arab armies and would have no issue taking control of the entirety of Palestine; and it is also a lie now, when neither Palestinians, nor Hezbollah, nor Iran pose much of a threat to Israel– and certainly not an existential one… This inundation with fear-mongering propaganda has produced an Israeli society (and Zionist community in the diaspora) that is, in many cases, paranoid, fearful, and focused on security to the exclusion of all else. Given this pervasive attitude, it is not surprising that many Zionists buy into simplistic narratives and Islamophobic hate or, in Adam’s case, grow vindictive and spiteful when faced with pushback. Their anger and hate is driven by fear.”

Finally, Rana Abdel-Fattah used it in a Tweet from June 23rd, 2021 describing a heated exchange between the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC:) Abdel-Fattah Tweets, “Whenever Palestinians open their mouths the Zionist lobby launches a frenzied attack. The goal is to silence us, pressure media institutions into censoring our voices, bog media down with complaints. Zionist fragility exposes the fact Israel is indefensible and Zionists know it.”

All of these definitions capture an important aspect of Zionist fragility. As Weiss and Abdel-Fattah’s descriptions show, Zionist fragility is certainly tethered to a panicked sense of losing one’s monopoly on the narrative. To take the case of the United States (where I currently reside,) after the onset of the Zionist state’s modern military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza strip and Syrian Golan Heights in 1967, the US and Israel cemented a military-imperial partnership that saw both militarized setter-colonial states associate regional stability with Israel’s unchallenged ability to retain total colonial and military supremacy throughout the region. Activist organizations like the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG) drew important links between Zionist dispossession of Palestinians in Palestine and US demonization of Arabs and Muslims in news and racist film and television representations. US corporate media and film studios were just as complicit in the manufacture of an anti-Palestinian public “common sense” as US and Israeli generals screaming about “terrorist threats” and “security concerns.”

For decades, the US gladly acquiesced to Zionist propaganda that dehumanized Palestinians, Arabs and/or Muslims in order to protect its geo-imperial interests. This was an arrangement from which US Zionist individuals and organizations also benefited, given that it provided them with the perfect rhetorical means by which to demonize intellectuals, academics, activists and organizers who fight for justice in Palestine. Federal and local law enforcement agencies, which have a long history of tying political radicalism to potentially seditious activity, were frequently all too willing to respond to demonization of pro-Palestine activism with surveillance, incarceration and attempted deportation over the years, while academic administrators, growing increasingly compliant with outside interests, gladly fired outspoken Palestinian faculty without a second thought.

All of this is to say that Zionism has certainly enjoyed a powerful narrative monopoly that has gone relatively unchecked within the mainstream for decades. When revelations of the latest instance of Zionist brutality previously came to dominate the media—such as the exposure of the Israeli Occupation Forces’ involvement in the genocidal Sabra and Shatila camp massacres in Lebanon of 1982, or the grotesquely asymmetrical death toll of assaults upon Palestinians in the Gaza strip such as in the summer of 2014—predictions that we had finally reached the point where the political mainstream must finally set firm limits upon Israeli military and colonial aggression usually proved unfounded.

It is not individual Zionists that must be appeased, but the very sanctity of Zionism’s colonial mandate to continue dehumanizing Palestinians.  

Now, however, with the increased sophistication of social media allowing Palestinian activists like Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd to document the inherent violence of Zionist dispossession in Palestinian neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah, there has been a slight chink in the armor of Zionist narrative impunity. To us Palestinians, such a development is not even the bare minimum of what needs to occur in order for Palestinian liberation to be realized, yet for Zionists, who have been so accustomed to controlling every aspect of the narrative for so long, it most likely represents  a clear crisis of control, the response to which is, as with all privileged classes who face even the slightest inconvenience, to lash out. A fist needs to be slammed on a table, sending the half-hearted moralists scurrying away apologetically. It is not individual Zionists that must be appeased, but the very sanctity of Zionism’s colonial mandate to continue dehumanizing Palestinians.  

But El-Sadany and Place are also correct that there is an element of fear to Zionist fragility, that such fragility is the manufactured result of a political movement that spent years indoctrinating its adherents to presume that danger lurks at every corner, but is most directly personified by an unapologetic expression of Palestinian self-determination and commitment to Palestinian liberation. We laughed heartily when the exercise of this fear took the form of patently ludicrous formulations like “social media pogroms” or “Free Parking,” but as pathetic as these are, as much as they betray the growing pains of a privileged and insulated political consciousness that has finally had to face the inconvenient truth of the need to recognize the existence of the other, their author is not wholly to blame. The perpetrators are also the creators of a political movement that appallingly sought to fight antisemitism with colonialism, and their successors who saw no issue with brainwashing scores of youth into believing that the freedom of the Palestinians their movement sought to colonize and ethnically cleanse represents some kind of existential threat.

Among James Baldwin’s many staggering accomplishments is certainly his ability to capture how American whites are emotionally, psychologically and politically stunted by white supremacy. One of the many indignities wrought by this state of affairs was, of course, the psychic tolls felt by countless Black people (including Baldwin himself) who had to entertain the existential growing pains of whites who were acquiring a kind of political adolescence (their actual age notwithstanding,) feeling, on the one hand, that there was something ultimately wrong about the institutional state of affairs from which they wrought so much material and individualistic benefit and, on the other, great resentment at being implicated in the system designed in their name–a resentment that only an underprivileged Black interlocutor could alleviate. As Baldwin wrote in his essay, “The White Man’s Guilt,” 

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, hereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating: one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history. 

But, obviously, I am speaking as an historical creation which has had bitterly to contest its history, to wrestle with it, and finally accept it, in order to bring myself out of it. My point of view certainly is formed by my history, and it is probable that only a creature despised by history finds history a questionable matter. On the other hand, people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled upon their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.” 

We, all of us creatures “despised by history” across timescapes and geographies, have always had to be more thoughtful, more reflexive in our understanding of organizational socio-political dynamics than members of the privileged, oppressor classes, who have always been able to take the simplistic, dominant narratives of hegemonic history and its assurances of their superiority, of the inherent rightfulness of their claim for granted. The dawning intrusion of an alternative consciousness upon these classes is precisely what inspires their recalcitrance, their reactionary regressions. 

There is nothing quite like a mind poisoned by the lures of racial supremacy, of unmitigated colonial power.  In this, Zionist fragility is far from unique. Indeed, it is but the younger relative of every anti-oppressive reckoning forced upon the privileged members of supremacist projects throughout–and within–history.

It’s well past time to stop pretending otherwise. 

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