The discursive construction of race is a tool of rationalizing and excusing dehumanization. Use of this tool is as much about the hegemony’s rhetorical construction of their own racial identity as it is about assigning a racial taxonomy on others. White supremacy, antisemitism, and manifest destiny, for example, are all discursive constructions of racial hegemony by those believing themselves to be White. This tool is used to defend appropriation of Indigenous lands, chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, Cherokee removal, Lakota starvation, Shoshone massacre, police brutality and militarization — among many other violations of human rights.
In 1879, German journalist Wilhelm Adolf Marr, attempting to use science to identify Jews as a distinct race, founded the Anti-Semitic League. Othering through the discursive construction of race, a practice contemporarily popular among the hegemony who believed themselves to be White, Marr’s rhetoric aimed for the creation of a biologically distinct ‘lower race’ through a study of the outward appearance of humans.
Marr’s rhetoric extended beyond simple religious bigotry, which had long existed; his key assertion being that Jewish character followed from Semitic biological traits. “Jews, according to Marr, could not help but be materialistic and scheming, and these traits meant an inevitable clash with German racial culture” (Rattansi, Ali. Racism: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 17). Marr’s dehumanizing rhetoric suggested an answer to the “Jewish Problem” — their refusal to assimilate and desire to maintain a distinct cultural identity was attributed to racial limitations — an animal, apish disposition.
To be honest, I am not familiar with all the complexities of the Israel–Palestine conflict; but as a progressive I see the ethos of Israeli hegemony in occupied Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) as problematic. The pathos is palatable when I read Palestinian stories of displaced society with no home, such as Haneen Shafeeq Ghabra’s (Ghabra & Calafell “lntersectional Reflexivity and Decolonial Rhetorics: From Palestine to Aztlán.” Rhetorics Elsewhere and Otherwise: Contested Modernities, Decolonial Visions, edited by Romeo García and Damián Baca. NCTE, 2019, pp. 62–84). When I delve into the 100+ years of complex geopolitics, wars, and terrorism, the logos is messy and fathomless. So, when I hear of a Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement (BDS) for occupied Palestine, inspired by a campaign against apartheid in South Africa, I see it as principled, messy, and fraught.
As an Anglo-Saxon Mormon man in the American Zion of Salt Lake City, I couldn’t be much further removed from the Israel–Palestine issue physically or more deeply bound to it rhetorically. So, when I read Blake Flayton’s opinion published in the New York Times, November 2019, I realize it is full of lessons for a man like me.
Flayton’s writing is steeped in appeals to place, identity, and time. He writes of his dis/placement on campus, his identities as a Jew, a student, a gay man, a progressive, a Zionist, part of a “downtrodden minority” and “the most persecuted people in human history.” Flayton’s first big rhetorical move comes early;
“As a gay abortion rights advocate and environmentalist, my place in [progressive social justice movements] has always been welcomed and accepted.
“Well, until now.”
Flayton is a sophomore at George Washington University, whose student government passed a BDS resolution last year. “I now find myself pushed to the fringes of a movement I thought I was at the heart of … because I am a Zionist,” wrote Flayton. I am not unfamiliar with rhetoric of Zion, of a biblical and romantic Mormon Zion. The Mormon colonizer and captain of settlers, Brigham Young, has been called American Moses. Mormon emigration from the United States, like Israel’s mythic exodus from Egypt, put Mormon’s in conflict with populations of Indigenous peoples. Just as Yahweh promised an inhabited Canaan to Israel in the Torah, Mormon revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants promised the establishment of a New Jerusalem in the West. The Mormon Exodus was a project of settler-colonialism, as is the mythic Exodus of Israel and its modern reincarnation, Zionism.
In Middle Eastern geopolitics, Zionism is the establishment of an Israeli hegemony on the land of Palestine through emigration and settlement, a project impossible without the lever of European hegemony. “From its inception, the Zionist enterprise forged special relationships with several major powers successively, and these patrons provided relative security as well as other solid advantages” (Fishman, Joel S. “The BDS Message of Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and Incitement to Discrimination.” Israel Affairs, vol. 18, no. 3, 2012, pp. 418). The first patron was Britain, which maintained hegemonic control of Palestine from the fall of the Ottoman Empire until 1948. The second patron was France which aided the ‘illegal Jewish immigration’ to Palestine after Britain prohibited new settlement on Indigenous land, not unlike King George III had in the North American Colonies, after the Seven Years War, with the Royal Proclamation of 1763.
While less consummate than the European colonization of the United States and Canada, the goal of Zionism has been realized with the State of Israel controlling 8500 square miles and Israel Defense Forces exercising control over another 2400 square miles of occupied Palestinian territories. Israeli citizens number about 9 million and 74% Jewish, with 1.4 million immigrating in just the last 30 years. The Arab population in the region of Palestine, including Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip is nearly 6 million.
Zionists today would either like to see full Israeli control of the West Bank while exiling or denying citizenship to the nearly 3 million Palestinians who live there, or a two-state solution where Palestinians are granted sovereignty over some portion of Palestine. The current Prime Minister of Israel insists that there will never be a State of Palestine. Zionists, like Flayton, who advocate for the two-state solution as the “only desirable resolution,” wrote Joshua Leifer, “misread the Israeli political map: the center they claim to occupy no longer exists.” Many Jewish post-Zionists, like Leifer, argue that “to be Zionist in Israel today is to argue for a political arrangement that leaves no room for Arabs’ full participation.” In summary, there are broadly three visions for the geopolitical future of Palestine: anti-Palestinian Zionists (the current hegemony), liberal Zionists (or two-state Zionists), and anti- or post-Zionists.
It is into this rhetorical maelstrom that Flayton ventured; “I didn’t think there was a conflict between [progressive and Zionist] ideas. In fact, I understood them as being in sync, given that progressives have long championed the liberation movements of downtrodden minorities.” With his ethos of opposition to the occupation of the West Bank, Flayton wrote, “It is my Zionism that informs my view that the Palestinian people also have the right to their own state.” Flayton skillfully constructs his argument’s ethos through his appeals to identity and pathos through expressing his feelings of marginalization and disbelief. Flayton sees the criticisms of Zionism as antisemitic, weaving examples of true antisemitism through threads of anti-Zionism. He’s hurt, and he’s frustrated, “For [the progressive activist crowd] at my school … Zionism itself is … racist.” What he, and fellow liberal Zionists on campus fear is “being smeared as the things we most revile: racist, white supremacist, colonialist and so on.”
But it is messy, isn’t it. As I write this essay, I sit in Utah Valley, where five generations of my ancestors have lived. The stories I was told as a child — that Mormons are a marginalized and persecuted people, murdered for their distinct cultural identity and refusal to assimilate, driven from their New Jerusalem in Missouri by a writ of genocide — constructed identities in me not dissimilar to Flayton’s. His appeals to body move us, “the establishment of the state of Israel [is] a fundamentally just cause: the most persecuted people in human history finally gaining the right of self-determination after centuries of displacement, intimidation, violence and genocide.” What is left out of the stories we tell ourselves in Utah Valley is that not 12 years after the Missouri Extermination Order that drove us out of Zion we issued our own to appropriate this land. The difference, perhaps, was that the later resulted in actual genocide.
This is messy because all this rhetoric is wrapped up in our identities. Writing in Israel Affairs, Joel Fishman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs expresses a very critical view of BDS activists, who “make no pretence of supporting Palestinian reconciliation with the Jewish state but openly call for the politicide of Israel, which they seek to destroy and replace with a single Palestinian state ruled by a Muslim majority. The advocates of BDS accuse Israel of being a racist and apartheid state” (Fishman, 412). This rather heated take by a Zionist is simply laying out the goal of post-Zionism, which can also be stated like this: “there are many other Palestinians who say very openly and simply, that they want Israel to not be a Jewish state, but to be a state for all its citizens, in which everyone lives under the same law.” In the later, Peter Beinart uses the tone of reconciliation, defining a future Israel as ‘not a Jewish state’ for something for all, for everyone, and same law. For Fisher, this language isn’t reconciliation but capitulation. Extending the borders of Israel to encompass all of Palestine (a Zionist campaign already underway) without violent removal of Palestinians or apartheid, will result in ‘a single Palestinian state’ with a ‘Muslim majority.’
This rhetoric gets heated on every side, but anti-Zionists carry the burden of a world’s weighty history with antisemitism. Writing on sports boycotts, Jon Dart of Leeds Beckett University, UK, makes the connection; “A broad pro-Israel campaign (‘hasbara’) has emerged to counter the growth of the BDS movement, with pro-Zionist groups comparing the call for sanctions/boycott with the Nazi-organised boycott of Jewish businesses in 1930s Germany” (Dart, Jon. “Israel and a Sports Boycott: Antisemitic? Anti-Zionist?” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, vol. 52, no. 2, Mar. 2017, pp. 172). Tragically, Zionists do have a rich corpus of antisemitic tropes to appeal to, highlighting how this phrasing or those optics are ‘clearly’ antisemitic. “Associating anti-Zionism with antisemitism is to misuse the terms and silence those opposed to Israeli actions and policies,” but anti-Zionists cannot simply be given the benefit of the doubt because “genuine antisemitism might seek to hijack anti-Zionist slogans in order to gain legitimacy… Those calling for BDS to be applied to Israel need to be cognisant, at all times, of the importance of the language used.” (Dart, 176–177).
This is messy, it gets heated, and there are many antisemitic tropes that are not commonly known outside the area of circulation. For example, a week ago, I did not know what blood libel is. Now knowing that, if Israeli Defense Forces killed Palestinian children during an operation and it is said, in common parlance, “They have blood on their hands,” that can be read as antisemitic. It is not rhetorically difficult to paint anti-Zionists as anti-Semites, but “if you say that all Palestinians who are anti-Zionists are anti-Semites, even those who say that all they want is one state in which Jews and Palestinians live under an equal law, then in fact, you are essentially delegitimizing all Palestinian politics” (Beinart). When 6 million Jews in Palestine enjoy a median income twenty times higher than their 6 million neighboring Palestinians in occupied territory do, who does the burden of being careful with language fall on?
On campus, Flayton shares the example of Students for Justice in Palestine (progressive) who attended a Fair Wages Now (progressive) rally. Given a soapbox, students will typically speak about what moves them, regardless of the gathering’s theme. Flayton was shocked by what was said, “The speakers railed against the oppression of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank… Reasonable people recognize that conflating the Jews with being money-hungry or cheap is anti-Semitic.”
Like most people, I don’t know how best to solve the Israel–Palestine conflict. Regardless, I do think that we should be observing the use of rhetoric in the conflict and drawing lessons that apply to conflicts closer to home. Both sides in this conflict are locked in competing narratives of victimization. “Israel has used its moral advantage against countries that historically persecuted Jews, with Germany being the most well-known example. For many Jews, Germans remain frozen in the immoral role of perpetrator, without legitimacy to criticize Israel,” wrote Joseph Yi and Joe Phillips, “Similarly, Palestinians have used their narratives of victimhood to garner symbolic and material benefits — if not from Israel, then from other countries and international bodies” (YI & Phillips. “The BDS Campaign against Israel: Lessons from South Africa.” PS: Political Science & Politics, vol. 48, no. 2, 2015, pp. 308). Similar battles of narrative are currently playing out in San Juan County, Utah, and in national populist politics in the United States.
The day Blake Flayton was published in the New York Times, Joshua Leifer offered this hot take on Twitter,
One of the challenges of doing and thinking Jewish politics after the Holocaust is to reclaim our full humanity — to recognize that we are not only victims. And that requires acknowledging that Jews — like all people! — have the capacity to build an oppressive, militarized state.
As we aim to correct the mistakes of dehumanizing rhetorics in the project of decoloniality, we must replace those stories that construct hegemony through dehumanizing the other with stories that reclaim full humanity for ourselves, our oppressors, and especially those we have oppressed; because we all are, after all, only and fully human.