“The shift in US public opinion toward Palestine and Israel has been dramatic over the last decade, especially transformative in the last few years,” Phyllis Bennis recently wrote in The Nation. “US polls have been shifting since the mid-2000s, away from the uncritical embrace of Israel and toward a view much more critical of Tel Aviv and in favor of Palestinian rights.” It has taken generations of struggle and countless instances of Israeli settler-colonial violence against Palestinians for Americans to finally question their government’s unwavering and virtually unconditional support of Israel. As attitudes towards Israel and its apartheid regime continue to change, and as more constituents demand accountability and action from their elected officials, when will that translate to substantive changes in US foreign policy? Phyllis Bennis returns to The Marc Steiner Show to discuss her recent article and what this sea change in public opinion could mean for Israel, for Palestinians, and for the US political landscape.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, where she also serves as director of the New Internationalism Project. She is a founding member of the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation and serves on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace. She is the author of numerous books, including Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism.
- Phyllis Bennis, The Nation, “On Israel and Palestine, US Electeds Are Out of Touch With Their Own Voters”
- Open letter to President Biden from 500 former campaign staffers
Studio Production: Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: David Hebden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us once again. For many Jews and others, the Palestine-Israel conflict can be a real dilemma. Growing up Jewish knowing your people’s history, the oppression, and the Holocaust, you grew up in a Zionist world thinking Israel is our salvation. Then if you’re lucky, you begin to see the contradictions. And for me, it was the Six-Day War, a war I almost fought in, and then the occupation of Palestine, the West Bank, was a turning point. Meeting Israeli leftists and Palestinian activists challenged what I always believed. And now the occupation of Palestinian land, the absolute oppression of Palestinians, the apartheid-like reality of their lives, the recent assaults on Gaza, the deadly attack on Jenin, and this new neo-fascist right-wing government in Israel has begun turning the minds and hearts of people across the US and around the globe. We’re going to examine those changes and what they mean.
Phyllis Bennis wrote an article in The Nation magazine entitled, “On Israel and Palestine, US Electeds Are Out Of Touch With Their Own Voters.” It’s showing up in public opinion, media coverage, and even political and policy discourse. Phyllis is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow where she directed the New Internationalism Project, and also a fellow at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. She helped found the US campaign for Palestinian rights, spent six years on the board of Jewish Voices for Peace and now serves as an international advisor. She’s a noted scholar and activist who has consulted with numerous UN officials and twice was almost named the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. She has written 11 books and joins us once again here on The Marc Steiner Show. And, Phyllis welcome, good to have you with us.
Phyllis Bennis: Great to be with you, Marc.
Marc Steiner: Doing the intro, sometimes when we get this, I could make it even longer, but I try to shorten it.
Phyllis Bennis: Shortening is good.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk a bit about the overall sense of the piece that you wrote and what is happening now, especially in the US when it comes to the unthinkable, untouchable for most people, which is the critique of Israel and moving away from its support. What do you think is really going on here? What is underpinning all of this?
Phyllis Bennis: Well, what’s changed is not only because of the latest set of atrocities, the latest attack on Gaza, or the election of this much more explicitly fascist – One of the leaders of the current government, for instance, the Minister of Finance, Smotrich, identifies himself as a fascist homophobe quite proudly. There are two supporters of parties in Israel who years ago were so extreme, deemed so supportive of racism and the call to racist violence that they were actually expelled from the Knesset. In the context of Israeli acceptance of anti-Arab racism, you have to be pretty extreme to get kicked out of the Knesset. But they were because they are so extreme. They’re now in the government, they’re now the leading voices of this government.
So there’s been a very clear shift to the right but there’s also been a movement in this country, which I’ve been part of, you’ve been part of and is engaging far more people than ever before. Young people in particular, young Jews, young people of color, and young Democrats, have massively shifted their understanding of the Israel-Palestine question overall. Partly because young Jews growing up – It’s not like when I was growing up in LA, if you were Jewish, it was all about Israel. That was your identity. It wasn’t really about God. We never talked much about God. We talked about Israel and we supported Israel. My first organizing was as a Zionist organizer and I learned a lot from it about how to organize. But then I changed what I was organizing about, of course. But this isn’t only one thing that has changed but now young Jews grow up identifying proudly to be Jewish in terms of the legacies of social justice that have always been part of Jewish legacies, Jewish history, and Jewish realities.
And the question of Israel is no longer central to their identity. What we’re seeing certainly is the rise of explicit critics of Israel among young Jews, anti-Zionist, non-Zionist, a whole range of views that are all critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians, recognizing it as apartheid. But also coming to that identity in the context of identifying with social justice movements, with the Black Lives Matter movement, people, young Jews who were mobilized in the summer of 2020 with the killing of George Floyd and see their commitment to social justice in that context. So everything around us is changing and this rise of explicit extremism, I suppose is the way to put it, has accelerated that already existing process. So that’s really what we’re seeing. And this happens first at the level of the public and you see it in these amazing polls that we’ve come out, some of which I referenced in my recent piece in The Nation.
But you also see it in the actions of leading academic organizations, the most recent being the American Anthropology Association. Which is the leading academic organization of professors of anthropology who voted quite overwhelmingly in support of a resolution criticizing the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. It was a very powerful reality and it’s not the first. We’ve seen this with a number of other academic institutions starting with the Middle East Studies Association, the MLA, and the Modern Languages Association. So there’s been a bunch of these and that changes the discourse. And then we see it in the media, the mainstream corporate media, which is still very problematically, not evenhanded, shall we say, to put it in its most polite terms, still pro-Israel in a very powerful way, but nothing like what it used to be.
You now see Palestinian voices routinely on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. You hear Palestinian voices on NPR. This is now taken for granted. The word Nakba, the word that the Palestinians use means The Catastrophe in Arabic. The way they describe the battles that led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1947 and 1948 and led to the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, the refugees who have never been allowed to return to their homes. You see that word in the mainstream press as a matter of course.
So there’s been an enormous shift, and now the final part, after you get to the popular shift and the media shift, then the key is when do we get to the policy shift? And that’s the hardest of all. But even there, we’re starting to see a little bit of it. We’re starting to see shifts in the Democratic Party. The question of support for Israel is by far a more partisan issue now than it’s ever been. The big goal of AIPAC and other parts of the pro-Israel lobby was always to make sure that support for Israel remained a bipartisan reality. God forbid it should be only the Democrats or only the Republicans. And for a long time, it was much more dominant in the Democratic Party. Because for years in the ’50s and ’60s when I was growing up, Israel was seen as a proto-socialist country. Support for Israel was a left-wing thing and it wasn’t so great among the Republicans.
But people started to learn that that wasn’t quite the case and that the role that Israel played in the world, the role that it played in the region, the militarization of Israel, the billions of dollars that the US was giving every year directly to the Israeli military, to be used for things that were in complete violation of international law and the laws for protecting human rights, and even US laws that say that US weapons cannot be used except in very, very narrowly defined circumstances that Israel has routinely ignored. And no one in Congress, no one in the White House has ever held them accountable for that. So that’s really the conditions we’re looking at right now.
Marc Steiner: You quote several polls in here and they really are mind-boggling. The Zogby Poll.
Phyllis Bennis: One of my favorites.
Marc Steiner: He’s a great guy. 63% of Democrats and 40% of Independents said Israel’s West Bank settlement should be torn down and the land returned as you wrote about. And the Jewish Electoral Institute showed that 25% of US Jews viewed Israel as an apartheid state.
Phyllis Bennis: Right. And 38% of young Jews said it’s an apartheid state.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Phyllis Bennis: That’s extraordinary.
Marc Steiner: Two questions for you about this: Talking about why you think this shift has taken place, what’s the underpinning of this shift? Let me start there then I have a second one.
Phyllis Bennis: Well, partly what I spoke to earlier is that there is a sense, and it’s very generational among young Jews, that their identity as Jews has far more to do with being supporters of human rights and social justice writ large than it does with the specific support for Israel. There are not as many young Jews growing up caring very much about Israel and those who do are overwhelmingly increasingly critical of Israel. They’re concerned with it because they hate what it’s doing in their name. You see all around the world, organizations that pop up that are called some version of Not in Our Name, and it starts with young Jews who are outraged at what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, whether it’s the assaults on Gaza, whether it’s the theft of Palestinian land, whether it’s the displacement, the detention of children. Only Israel, for example, only Israel among all the countries in the world has an explicit juvenile military justice department.
It’s shocking that 12-year-olds can and are arrested by the military held in military courts, put on trial before military judges, and treated as if they were military threats. 12-year-olds. We look at this question of apartheid, which is not new for Palestinians, and ironically, South Africans who have for many, many years viewed Israeli practices as violating the international covenant against the crime of apartheid. But it’s very new for mainstream human rights organizations. It’s only in the last three or four years that you have the most influential and preeminent international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and the key Israeli human rights organizations like B’Tselem and [inaudible 00:12:33] and others that have determined that Israel is in violation of that international covenant and is violating the laws against apartheid. Not because it looks like South African apartheid, it doesn’t look anything like that. But what they share is that violation of international law, specifically the laws against apartheid.
So you have that only emerging in the last maybe three years, four years, and it took a very long time in both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, for instance, there was great reluctance at the highest levels of those organizations to explicitly criticize Israel at all, years ago. It took a long time even to get there. And once that happened, once there was an opening, it again took a very long time before the leadership was willing to agree to even investigate and do the thorough legal investigation interrogation of Israeli practices, that finally the analysts who know this stuff inside-out were prepared to argue it and win those arguments to say, yes, this is apartheid and they have different versions of it. Some say it exists only in the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Some say that it applies to Israeli treatment of Palestinians from the river to the sea, meaning within 1948 Israel and all the occupied territories.
One of the most important identifies it as including not only all of the territory, but also the treatment of Palestinian refugees saying that the definition should be applied not geographically, but to people who are affected by these laws. So people living all over the world who are Palestinian refugees or Palestinian exiles who are denied their internationally guaranteed right to return to their homes are victims of the crime of apartheid as well.
So there are differences in how they apply the law but what they agree on is that Israel is violating the laws against apartheid. And that’s had a huge impact on public opinion in the media among, members of Congress, among churches, among the clergy, and very influential faith leaders like Reverend Dr. William Barber, the leader of the Poor People’s Campaign and the head of Repairs of the Breach, who has opened the new Center for Public Theology and Public Policy. It’s essentially a new center in the Yale School of Divinity that’s designed to train up a new generation of faith-based activists working for social justice. And Rev. Barber is the Founding Director of that new center. He has talked about Israeli apartheid against the Palestinians. So it’s become normalized to use that language.
Marc Steiner: So a couple of quick things here. I really want to get to it. When you write about the 12 Jewish members of the House, 25 senators critiquing the occupation and the slaughter, putting in there the rocket attacks against Israel, but balancing it out in ways they’ve never done before.
Phyllis Bennis: Right.
Marc Steiner: With the outright occupation and the death of Palestinians. You’re not prescient but you’re brilliant and have great analysis. So where do you think this is taking us? Where do you think this could possibly take this country politically when it comes to Israel?
Phyllis Bennis: It is taking us clearly in the direction of a complete reconsideration of the longstanding assumptions of US relations with Israel, ranging from the billions of dollars guaranteed to go to the Israeli military every year. President Obama, for all of the racism with which he was treated by Netanyahu during his presidency, was the one who negotiated and signed off on a 10-year memorandum of understanding, guaranteeing to the Israelis that they would get a minimum, not a maximum, but a minimum of $3.8 billion a year directly to the Israeli military. No accountability to US laws that say it can only be used for self-defense, and that any unit of the military that has committed a crime of a violation of human rights cannot have access to those weapons. All those things are put aside in the case of Israel.
This is where real Israeli exceptionalism emerges. We sometimes get accused and the movement for Palestinian rights is accused of treating Israel differently than we would treat all other countries. And I want to say sometimes to people who say that, really? Did I miss you at the last protest at the Saudi Embassy that we were protesting? Did I miss you there? Because we’re not the ones that are trying to treat Israel differently. We’re trying to treat Israel like every other country is treated and it’s our government that treats it differently, that exempts it from accountability. So we’re moving very directly, not quickly, and this is the challenge. How many more Palestinians will be killed in assaults on Gaza in the pogroms of [inaudible 00:18:06], in the assault on Jenin’s refugee camp? How many more will be killed? How many more children will be arrested before the policy changes?
But we’re heading directly towards that shift in US policy to normalize relations. Nobody’s saying we shouldn’t talk to Israel, we shouldn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, but ending the privileging that Israel has had. Whether it’s the billions of dollars of military aid, the protection of Israel in the United Nations – So that the United Nations Security Council, either the US will veto or will discourage from being brought up any resolution or protecting Israeli officials – Whether military or political officials from ever being held accountable at the International Criminal Court. All of these are gifts, they are privileges given only to Israel. So at some point, we’re going to start rethinking that and Congress is going to start saying, you know what? We don’t need to do that anymore.
Whatever we think about what happened in the past, whatever members of Congress think about how it used to be political suicide to even criticize Israel, we’re moving towards a reality where it’s going to become political suicide not to criticize Israel. We’re not there yet but we’re getting a whole lot closer. You mentioned those two examples of the group of senators and the separate group of members of the House at the time of the 2021 Israeli assault on Gaza, where they came out publicly urging their own president to reverse course and call for a ceasefire. The other part of that that was even more extraordinary came from a group of Democratic Party operatives.
Marc Steiner: 500.
Phyllis Bennis: 500 of them. These were the former leaders of the 2020 Biden campaign, the people who elected, who got President Biden and Vice President Harris into office. And they wrote a letter, 500 of them signed off on this letter that went way beyond what the members of the House and Senate teams had written. Their letter was extraordinary. They referenced the 73 years of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, they spoke about settler colonialism, and they referenced apartheid. Their letter went way beyond. And the important part of that was not how they showed their commitment to justice, that’s certainly important, the other part of it that was so important was that they were hereby recognizing officially that it is no longer a fear that we have, that we won’t get another job in the Democratic Party if we criticize Israel. They were recognizing the gap that exists between the electeds and the base of the Democratic Party.
Marc Steiner: It was a stunning letter. People can look up when they see these articles I’ll link attachments to our conversation. And I went through that list and I went through all 500 names to look at them. There were a lot of Jewish names on that list.
Phyllis Bennis: Also, absolutely. The rise of Jewish Voice for Peace, which I’m very proud to be an active member of.
Marc Steiner: As you should be.
Phyllis Bennis: Thank you. Jewish Voice for Peace is now, as I understand it, the fastest-growing Jewish organization in the country. It’s not the biggest but it’s the fastest growing. And it’s now got something close to 20,000 members and somewhere around 300,000 regular supporters online who are reading it and following and responding to its calls. And that’s huge. That hasn’t ever happened before. So at some point, the political cost of supporting Israel is going to outweigh the political advantage of, for example, avoiding the possibility that the pro-Israel lobby is going to decide to fund your opponent in the next election and risk losing your seat. It’s going to be a bigger risk at some point to refuse to criticize Israeli treatment of Palestinians than the potential of a financial loss in the form of support for a new opponent that you didn’t have to face in the last election.
Marc Steiner: So there’s one thing before we close because we don’t have much time here in our conversation today. As I look at this, this was not in your article, but I think about it all the time when I read these articles and think about the things we’ve done over the last 50 years and the struggle, is that antisemitism in this world runs very deep. And I say something sometimes, it’s an anathema to some people that yelled at me when I first said it, which is, for the first time in our history as Jews, we may be causing the eruption of antisemitism itself because of what Israel’s doing. And besides the opening of consciousness among young Jews and others in America around what’s happening with Israel and Palestine at the moment, there’s also the real threat of what it could unleash.
Phyllis Bennis: Absolutely.
Marc Steiner: And that’s something I think about that I’ve not fully thought through completely, but I wanted to raise that with you.
Phyllis Bennis: No, it’s a very important question, Marc. The rise of antisemitism in this country right now is greater than it has been since the 1920s when the Klan was lynching Jews. Not as many, not as consistently as they lynched African-Americans for sure, but there were Jews who were lynched because they were Jewish. Antisemitism was and remains a key component of far-right racist identity. The Klan still holds Jews responsible for all the bad things in this country. In the march of the Klan and other fascists in 2017 in Charlottesville, their chant was, “Jews will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.” And we see, right now, we’re seeing the jury debating the sentence for the murderer of the Jews in Pittsburgh, which was a straight-up right-wing, anti-Semitic attack that is rooted in white supremacy.
And one of the things that we’re dealing with right now is the weaponization of false claims of antisemitism, claiming that somehow a criticism of Israel is antisemitic, there’s an effort going on to normalize a very dangerous definition of antisemitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association, whose own author said, this should never be used as a legal definition because it will completely deny the right of free speech. He put it forward as a kind of working idea for how to think about antisemitism. But in doing so, he raised a very dangerous thing, which is being used all over the country to weaponize that false claim, accusing people who criticize Israel of being antisemites and then saying, you see, there’s a rise in antisemitism. That’s what we have to challenge.
What that does is prevent us from challenging the real antisemitism that is on the rise, that’s rooted in white supremacy and racism in this country. And that’s what’s on the rise. That’s what’s the danger to Jews in this country and around the world right now. And by keeping the focus on not only the right-wing but centrists and liberals of various sorts who are insisting on supporting Israel and claiming that criticism of Israel is somehow antisemitic, they are undermining the actual important efforts at challenging the real dangerous antisemitism that is actually threatening Jewish communities all around the world. So there’s a very clear obligation that we have to fight against real antisemitism. And one of the ways to do that is to challenge the weaponization of false antisemitism that has made that challenge to the real kind, much more difficult.
Marc Steiner: It is always a fascinating conversation we have with you Phyllis and I deeply appreciate you taking the time, and thank you for the work you do. And we’ll be linking to all the articles, this article, and other parts of that article on this website. So Phyllis Bennis, once again, thank you so much for your work. Thanks for joining us here on The Marc Steiner Show at The Real News.
Phyllis Bennis: Thank you, Marc, it’s been a pleasure.
Marc Steiner: I hope you enjoyed our conversation today with Phyllis Bennis, noted author, activist, and Institute for Policy Studies fellow where she directs the New Internationalism Project. We’ll be linking to her article and more on the site so please check that out and all of her other work. And thank all of you for joining us today. And thanks especially to Cameron Granadino for running the show and Kayla Rivara for whom this would not be happening. Please let me know what you’ve thought about today’s show, what you heard, and what you’d like us to cover. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right back to you.
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