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Michelle Alexander’s NY Times Piece: Bursting the Bubble, Lancing the Boil

January 26, 2019

A Palestinian woman tries to avoid walking in sewage water that flows from the nearby Israeli settlements into the West Bank village of Kafr Thulth, near Qalqilya, December 25, 2012. Local residents said that the sewage water comes from the Wadi Qana settlements, especially the Ma’ale Shomron settlement, and said that this has been an ongoing problem for four years. Despite some friends here not believing such insidious practices do not happen, they do happen and continue now seven years later.


What two Black intellectuals, Angela Davis and now Michelle Alexander, have done is both simple but profound: They have rejected the idea that criticizing Israel, even harshly, is antisemitism. Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. They have defended and legitimized criticizing Israel. They have given their support and solidarity to the “BDS” (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement against Israel as a legitimate anti-racist tactic to put pressure on Israel to end its oppressive practices against the Palestinian people. The two women compare Zionist practices with South African Apartheid. 



With very few exceptions – I know one or two – most humans live in a self-contained bubble, reinforced by those around us. It can be a bubble of class, race, religion, ethnicity or some combination thereof. Pretty much everyone has their very own bubble, that they can’t seem to see beyond. For Catholics – at least the Pope and the Cardinals anyway – it’s abortion; for Jews, especially but not uniquely in the US of A, it’s Zionism and has been since the end of World War II. There are so many “I’m progressive on everything but Palestine” people.

Lancing the boil is a precondition for healing a wound; before it is cleansed a fair amount of puss comes to the surface. That is what Michelle Alexander’s piece “Breaking the Silence on Palestine” (NY Times, January 19, 2019) accomplished. It is a kind of political pin prick that bursts the myth of progressive Israel. With its publication a new kind of “dialogue” – one far more frank – about Israel’s “relationship” with the Palestinians has begun.

As Alexander notes:

“… it seems the days when critiques of Zionism and the actions of the State of Israel can be written off as anti-Semitism are coming to an end. There seems to be increased understanding that criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli government is not, in itself, anti-Semitic.

Alexander is building on a discussion of the nature of Zionism and its Palestinian victims which has been going on for some time and has included more recently  Alice Walker, Marc Lamont Hill and Angela Davis. All have a lifetime of fighting against racism in American and for the common good in general. This position build on more than half a century of peace and leftist movement criticism of Israel combined with sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people.

Zionism created its own special narrative. It transferred the Nazi crimes against Jews (and others) to the Arabs; whatever mixed record the Arab world has had over the centuries vis-a-vis its Jewish residents, it was neither Arabs nor Moslems who created Krystallnacht or Auschwitz and exterminated Jewry. Placing a long history of sustained European antisemitism unjustly on to the Palestinians and Arabs was important ideologically to create the myth of Israel as the victim, not the perpetrator of oppression.

It is this narrative that Alexander is deconstructing which make her argument “radical”. It really isn’t. Outside of the US and Israel, what Alexander argues is more or less the accepted paradigm:: Israel is a settler colonial state; Palestinians are an oppressed people, that the Israeli Occupation of the 1967 territories – the longest military occupation of modern history – is unjust: a form of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from 1948 until today characterizes the essence of Zionism.

The former publishers and editors’ of the New York Times had well known for their pro-Israeli biases. The new publisher gave  green light to  Alexander’s piece; this is a watershed event in mainstream publishing. Its the beginning of challenging the mainstream narrative of the poor oppressed Israel dealing with a Palestinian population made up of terrorists and Islamic fanatics.

For decades American Zionists and their allies savaged critics of Israel and supporters of Palestinian rights like Norman Finkelstein, Steven Salaita, Linda Sarsour and others. Pro-Israeli zealots have fine-tuned the art of attacking their critics as antisemitic/racist while denying the repressive heritage of Israel’s treatment of  Palestinians. Tactically,  it all boils down to defending Israel by going on the ideological offensive, attacking critics as racist rather than looking homeward and admitting to Israel’s sorry record of expelling Palestinians from their homeland in 1948-9 and the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza  since 1967.

Now the critics are fighting back.


Zionism is its own special kind of self-contained bubble.

There were people sunning on the beach at Tel Aviv while, less than 100 miles away the IDF wounded 18,000 and killed several hundred Gazans last spring. The Museum of Tolerance built on an ancient Palestinian cemetery in Jerusalem is hardly an example of tolerance. Israelis (and their American supporters) howl about Hamas while oblivious to the alliances between American Zionists and proto-fascist elements like John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel.” There has been a financial and arms give away to Israel at $3.8 billion a year since the late 1970s  while in the US infrastructure is in bad need of repair, public education increasingly threatened, the healthcare system one of the worst among global core countries. Americans are in a frenzy over Russian interference in the US election; that is a drop in the bucket compared with what Israel supporters, AIPAC and the like, have doing for decades.

Other parts of the narrative are unraveling.

Jewish religious fanatics with Brooklyn accents, acti as if they were “coming home” to a place to which their “historic right” is more fabricated than real. They have long hid behind a misinterpretation of the Old Testament as a pretext for destroying Palestinian olive groves in the West Bank and regularly dump their sewerage on to Palestinian farm lands. In January 2019, these despicable practices continue; they are indefensible. Nor is comparing Hamas, essentially the Palestinian extension of the Moslem Brotherhoods, with the Nazis, fair or accurate.

The list goes on.

Suddenly, cracks in the well-worn Zionist narrative are starting to show.

Over the past half century the acceptable narrative has shifted. Early on, it was “Israel is right and the Arabs are wrong and there is no such thing as a Palestinian people (Golda Meir’s famous remark). Sometime around the time of the Oslo Accords, early 1990s the narrative shifted to “both Israelis and Palestinians are right; both have legitimate grievances”. Michelle Alexander, Alice Walker, Marc Lamont Hill, Angela Davis, Cornell West have intellectually punctured the illusion of the “both sides are right” formulation  which dominates the thinking of liberal Zionists in America today. They admit that Palestinians have suffered, but insist that so have Israelis, ie, both sides have justice on their side, the kind of argument made by Rabbi Michael Lerner and others. (1)

When Alexander writes about the experience of Rabbi Brian Walt, a South African by birth, she is rejecting the confusing and inaccurate description of the conflict as one “between two peoples both in the right”. The onus falls squarely on Israel and the Occupation, comparable to South Africa during the Apartheid period. Israel is an oppressor nation; the Palestinians are an oppressed people.

Alexander describes the evolution of Rabbi Walt’s growing critique of political Zionism:

“During more than 20 visits to the West Bank and Gaza, he saw horrific human rights abuses, including Palestinian homes being bulldozed while people cried — children’s toys strewn over one demolished site — and saw Palestinian lands being confiscated to make way for new illegal settlements subsidized by the Israeli government [which is subsidized by the US]. He was forced to reckon with the reality that these demolitions, settlements and acts of violent dispossession were not rogue moves, but fully supported and enabled by the Israeli military. For him, the turning point was witnessing legalized discrimination against Palestinians — including streets for Jews only — which, he said, was worse in some ways than what he had witnessed as a boy in South Africa.”

As the song goes, the times they are a changing.


(1) Not to overstate criticism of Lerner. In many ways, despite this “both narratives have justice on their side” approach, he was one of the first American Jewish leaders to squarely look at the Israeli Occupation of the 1967 Territories without blinders on. When pressed, he hasn’t shied from defining Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza an an occupation.




4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarge Cheever permalink
    January 27, 2019 7:39 am

    Robbie — good analysis, good writing as usual.   Please put Ellen on your recipients list so I don’t have to forward your articles to her anymore. Talking of bubbles–think of the one the leaders of our present administration were in when thinking about the furlough.  Their wealth insulated them from the fact that, despite our wealth as a country, most people leave marginally from pay check to pay check. Best, Sarge

    • January 27, 2019 8:15 am

      Thanks Sarge…Yes, was thinking how, when Trump finally got it that people are suffering, he really didn’t get it because he’s so rich and arrogant… Will contact Ellen.

  2. John F Kane permalink
    February 2, 2019 5:10 pm

    Again thanks for your summary reporting. Two criticisms: I am surprised at your omission of or any interpretation of Jimmy Carter’s writings (e.g., Peace not Apartheid, etc. And your one comment about bubble Catholicism is seriously wrong: “For Catholics – at least the Pope and the Cardinals anyway – it’s abortion.” Not true for Francis, nor for the Cardinals and Bishops he has appointed. As one case in point, a bishop in Kentucky recently gave a severe critique of the “Covington Catholic students and their MAGA hats during their anti-abortion events in DC.” Etc.

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