- Interview by
- Bruce Baigrie
Ran Greenstein is an associate professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He has written extensively on the differences and similarities between South African and Zionist settler-colonialism and among his publications are Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine (Pluto, 2014), and Identity, Nationalism, and Race: Anti-Colonial Resistance in South Africa and Israel/Palestine (Routledge, forthcoming). Ran recently spoke to the South African BDS Coalition in a wide-ranging interview that covered the political landscape in Israel, the occupied territories, and the international arena. (This interview was conducted on August 21, before the recent completion of deals between the UAE and Bahrain.) The analysis Greenstein provided both highlights how seemingly intractable the situation is, but critically he offers a range of strategies and tactics to build Palestinian solidarity in the region and abroad. This is an excerpt from a longer interview.
Moving on to international solidarity—there have clearly been some significant gains, some of which you’ve mentioned already. However, there have been some big defeats as well. Jeremy Corbyn’s loss is the most obvious example, where the leader of one of the largest political parties in the world was openly critical of Israel. Whilst Brexit was the major reason for that loss, anti-Semitism was clearly a significant component and there have also been smears against Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib in the US. These can be characterized as sort of counter-campaigns based on cynical accusations of anti-Semitism. Unsurprisingly the targets are exclusively left-wing politicians who are critical of Israel. In the past these accusations hardly held much water, but it seems the intersection with modern identity politics has given these accusations an uncritical acceptance from various progressive quarters who would otherwise be natural allies to the Palestinians. Even AOC indirectly reprimanded Omar and her response illustrated this process where she said “Lots of people here proclaiming to be “woke” trying to police communities on what they are/aren’t allowed to be upset by.” The implicit message here is that if there are accusations of bigotry that come from individuals from a marginalized group, they are deemed unquestionable. This might explain why Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests did little for building Palestine solidarity outside of its usual quarters. Leaders of BLM even had to backtrack on certain statements of theirs. The additional danger of course is that whilst this reactionary partnership between the right and center develops, actual violent right-wing anti-Semitism rises. What’s your take on these developments and how should the left handle these disingenuous attacks whilst not ignoring the sporadic, but actually existing anti-Semitism in its ranks?
I think there are a number of issues here. First of all, we have to careful about our language to avoid this kind of reaction. There’s no doubt that Ilhan Omar is not anti-Semitic, but there are sensitive issues like the association of Jews with money. She didn’t even really say that or mean that, but you have to be careful. It’s the same thing with Corbyn. But these are minor technical issues because that’s not really what’s behind it.
In my opinion the focus [of solidarity activists] should be not on what Israel does or does not do, whether it trains police officers or not, but rather on the similar ways in which Palestinians and various other populations are or have been oppressed and that all of us deserve freedom, equality, and justice. The Palestinian struggle is about these basic demands: access to land, equal rights, and access to a physical homeland, particularly for the refugees. If you focus on these general human demands that cannot be denied, I think you can make some progress. It is about the humanity of Palestinians, their quest for justice that is similar if not identical to that of many other groups that no one thinks twice about supporting. There is universal support for these kinds of demands, but this is not the case for the Palestinians. Why? Because as Edward Said said, they are the victims of the victims, and Jews still retain this image that they are the eternal victims, even if they are the ones in the case of Israel, not as Jews, but as Israelis, who are the oppressors.
It is very difficult to fight this, and in some cases you can’t. So I would always speak to the issue in a way that abstracts from all the specific Jewish components of the conflict except when it comes to Jewish groups such as JVP and IfNotNow and so on. For other organizations in solidarity with Palestinians such as the BDS movements in South Africa and elsewhere, I would try not to talk about Jews at all. I mean it’s not a Jewish issue—it’s a relationship between an oppressive state and an oppressed population where the personalities, the structure, and histories may be linked to the notion of Judaism, or Jews, but there is nothing specifically about Jewish identity that has anything to do with the oppression. To some extent you will always be criticized for being antisemitic because the target of your activism is predominantly Jews even if you don’t target them because they are Jews. You can’t avoid it completely, but try to use a universal language of oppression and freedom, of equality and justice, as much as possible. Don’t talk about the legacy of the Holocaust and that Jews should know better because of their own.
This is my personal Jewish perspective: I don’t think there are specific values that make Jews any closer to notions of justice and redress than any other group because Jewish history is internally diverse. Of course, there are important Jewish voices for justice, equality, socialism, but there are also important reactionary voices. Judaism today is as divided as it’s always been historically, so personally I don’t want to relate to that past at all as a guide for the present because it can lead us in many different directions. Rabbi Meir Kahane was the most outrageous racist in Israeli history and he was a legitimate representative of Jewish tradition just as much as Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein are.
This goes for any specific political arrangements—one-state or two-state solutions, don’t focus on these. I want to deal rather with universal principles that are applicable everywhere and then ask, why should we make an exception for the Palestinians? If the answer is because there are Israeli Jews who have rights as well, well let’s find a way of reconciling these rights, but without denying the humanity, the justice, the rights, and cause of the Palestinians themselves. They demand no special rights, only what is enshrined in international law and UN conventions.
I think it’s important to point out that there is a massive amount of money involved, or aid given to Israel and that there are very powerful lobby groups invested in Israel. However these lobbies are not particularly “Jewish” in how they operate. Just like there’s a powerful lobby group for Saudi-Arabia, there are lobby groups for various interests, but the Israeli one is powerful. I think it’s important for us to make this clear within our movements and dispel the misnomer that it is an entirely Jewish lobby. Think of the evangelicals in the US, the military establishment there, where Israeli’s interests coincide with American imperialism in the region. Whenever you raise the fact that Israel has powerful well-funded networks on its side, one gets accused of anti-Semitism but I think it’s important to stand up to the accusations. However, that seems to be much harder now. For example, the left seemed to trip over itself in the UK in almost capitulating entirely to what’s being thrown at them. Take the case of Rebecca Long-Bailey being fired from the shadow cabinet for retweeting an article that had a sentence or two about Israeli special forces having trained US cops. Of course, it was false that the knee on the neck tactic is an Israeli one, but it’s an objective fact that Israel has trained US cops.
Take this example, you saw a lot of cartoons, or memes, showing the equivalence between George Floyd and Palestinians on the ground. In the same way that black Americans have had physically and metaphorically American police on their necks, Israeli soldiers do the same thing to Palestinians. I think this is a powerful point without needing to discuss whether they were trained or not by Israel. So, we need to be strategic and think in advance even if it’s a correct point factually, and even if it makes a good political point, can it create a backlash? Try to anticipate the real or imaginary “tropes” that will be used in order to criticize you as antisemitic. This is why I hate this Twitter culture that is always about an immediate response. We need to plan knowing full well, as you say, that there will be a backlash; people are looking out precisely for the kind of responses that could be used against the movement. Let’s try to eliminate that as far as possible. Look at what happened to Achille Mbembe: he said something about the equivalence between apartheid in South Africa and Israel, and then he said something different in a different time, in a different publication, about the comparison between apartheid in South Africa and the Nazis. Of course, he never compared the Nazis to Israel, but through the mediation of South Africa it somehow became linked and then he was accused of denying the Holocaust. To some extent you can’t avoid it and you will be tainted with the antisemitic slur regardless of what you say, but let’s try to minimize the opportunities for that and to act pre-emptively as far as possible.
Closer to home, it seems to have been a while since Palestine solidarity has gone beyond lobbying the ANC and the government. The strategy of working with ANC, seems too often to be more advantageous to the ANC, allowing them to easily co-opt the emotion around the Palestinian struggle. A while back you had the blatantly corrupt and reactionary Kebby Maphatsoe being given a platform with Leila Khaled. This seems to be the net result of this strategy rather than building pressure on the ANC for their own role in the current position of the Palestinians. On the flip-side, there is not much by way of solidarity across the continent. SA has been one of the few African countries prepared to take a stand in international forums like the UN and feels very isolated. Israel’s lobbying efforts in Africa seem to have been quite effective. So how do we adequately pressure the South African government, whilst both supporting their efforts and being aware of the massive challenges they face in isolating Israel?
About a month ago I was invited together with Na’eem Jeenah to speak to the Foreign Affairs committee in parliament on international solidarity with Palestinians, and I avoided saying anything specific about what South Africa should do. What I said was quite mild: that there were two steps that could be taken immediately and shouldn’t be controversial. The first is to extend the labelling of all products from the OPTs—that was won by Open Shuhada Street many years ago—to an outright ban of all settlement products from the occupied territories. The second step is to stop all security related cooperation with Israel. Not all trade, which would be a more radical step for now, but anything security-oriented because that has inevitably an oppressive implication. So, these are two somewhat limited but realistic goals that solidarity movements can campaign around and use in order to put pressure on the South Africa government.
Na’eem was more far reaching and spoke of breaking off all relations—in fact, some people in parliament were under the understanding that relationships were broken off, but that’s not the case. This is a more radical step that I don’t think you can actually expect South Africa to take now, breaking off formal diplomatic relations with Israel. You can campaign around it, but I don’t think it’s realistic. So I would go for more limited but very clear steps that are linked to oppressive policies. Even the government shouldn’t have great difficulty in accepting such steps. Another issue has to do with South African citizens who serve in the IDF. Again, you can see the clear rationale for that campaign. My preference would be to strategically choose kinds of campaigns that admittedly are limited in scope but have the potential of mobilizing large number of people who don’t have to be so committed to this cause to see the oppressive implications at stake.
Finally, and I completely agree with your point about not getting involved in one state versus two state debates so in that sense let me apologize for this age old question but it does seem things have shifted enough for it to be more than a form of ritualistic catharsis. Five years ago, Norman Finkelstein said that one state is “Man on the Moon stuff” whilst the international community is still for two states. Was he right, is he still right?
There is definitely a growing recognition that there is not going to be a two state solution, so in that sense, things have changed. You will know about Peter Beinart who wrote in the NYT (New York Times) of all places about moving towards a one state solution, and I think this represents important changes, but they are not necessarily positive. The move to a one state solution is a recognition that you can’t remove Israel from the OPTs, therefore you have to talk about the entire geographical space that is controlled by Israel. It’s not a victory; it’s a sign of recognizing the earlier struggle failed.
For me the important question, linked to an earlier point, is how do you get the different forces in the Palestinian space, to work together. That it’s a unified country is no longer in dispute. What are the practical political implications of that? How do we organize to ensure democracy? We must organize as one movement, but how do we do it practically? This raises again the question of how different political forces that agree on a platform, but are physically separated, can work together in a joint movement. It’s difficult to speak yet about a unified movement. For the time being anyway, the more realistic way forward is to continue to work on the three core demands but in different geographical spaces and different political arenas. You can’t unify these struggles immediately, not in the short-term, so in this sense the one-state is indeed a reality on the oppressive side, as far as Israeli domination is concerned, but it’s not yet a reality on the emancipatory side, as far as oppositional forces are concerned.
We have to work on the practical application of this concept, to work towards greater coordination, pooling together of resources, joint mobilization on shared concerns. That’s the future direction. Whether it will eventually lead to a unified movement like the UDF [United Democratic Front] is too early to tell, but I think that while different movements operate in their own spaces, at least part of their energy and efforts should be directed towards working together. So, continue to operate in your own space, with its political realities, but try to pay more attention to the need to unify your efforts. Whenever you campaign on an issue that is specific to your part of the overall situation, think how other people, other Palestinians in particular but also Israelis, can take part, physically and symbolically, through solidarity or direct action. We need individual localized campaigns that mobilize people on the basis of their immediate concerns and, without losing the local specificity, to try and also build a broader framework.