Dorothy Zellner is a wise friend; I check in on her every once in a while to ask how she thinks the movement for Palestinian freedom is going in the United States. A founding member of Jews Say No! and a volunteer with Jewish Voice for Peace, Zellner has a substantial track record as an activist. She is a former civil rights worker who went south first in 1960, then spent 10 years working for civil rights organizations. I called her right at new year’s to ask her some questions.
PW: Dorothy, you were in the civil rights movement, and in the women’s movement. You’ve seen social change move from the margins to the mainstream. Do you see that happening now with the Israel/Palestine question?
DZ: I say mostly yes. If you think about the situation in Israel/Palestine even 5, or 6, or 8 years ago, we were really a little tiny tree in the big forest. Now I think we’re closer to the mainstream. I don’t have any documentary evidence for that. I just feel it. You don’t have to explain so many things so many times to people. They know some of the words, they know some of the language. I think we’re closer. I’m finding that if I say that I’m working on Israel/Palestine issues, and the occupation, people don’t look at me like I’m speaking Urdu. They actually understand the words. Now whether they agree is another story.
But being in the mainstream doesn’t mean you’re victorious, it just means that more people know about the situation. And I think more people do. That’s probably due to the incredible growth of organizations like JVP. So we’re closer. But are we there? No. I think we have been overtaken unfortunately by this terrorism craze. That’s probably going to be the case for the next while.
As long as there are these big terrorism episodes, it’s to everyone’s advantage to go with that and forget everything else. It happened not only with Israel/Palestine, but you can even see how the Times played very little attention to the French climate change conference. It was all about Paris. Then it was California day and night.
Probably Netanyahu is going to do his best to try to fold the Palestinians into the general terrorism concern, and I think it’s very important for us to be on our toes about what terrorism is and what terrorism isn’t. Terrorism as I understand it means that extreme violence is perpetrated against civilian populations for a political purpose. By that definition, I don’t believe that the Palestinian movement is a terrorist movement. I don’t care how many 12-year-olds pull knives, that doesn’t make it terrorism. Terrorism is not just the technique; it’s the purpose, it’s the reason. So we have to be very straight in our heads about what’s a terrorist. If we’re not, then everybody becomes a terrorist. And if everybody becomes a terrorist, then nobody is a terrorist.
I think the term “terrorism” still is useful, and our own history as a left movement in this country is that we are staunchly opposed to terrorism. We are trying to unite people and move them forward, not trying to frighten people into the arms of anyone (most likely, the far right). I don’t know how many white people were scalped by Native Americans, you could portray Native Americans as terrorists, but they were fighting for their liberation. And Palestinians are fighting for their liberation.
But Dylann Roof is a terrorist. When he kills 9 black people, he has a political purpose. He thinks he’s organizing white people to oppose the advances of black people by scaring black people. We have to get this straight in our minds. Otherwise we become vulnerable when people say that Palestinians are terrorists– and they’re not. Even when they’re firing the rockets. Politically I don’t think this is a feasible tactic, but I don’t think that’s a case of terrorism. Because they are fighting for their liberation. And that’s different from trying to scare people into doing what you want.
Do changes in the conversation remind you of shifts during civil rights days? Is there a year in the 60s this recalls? The other day Israel’s ministry of education banned a book that portrays a Palestinian man and a Jewish woman having a romance, because it threatens Jewish identity. Can you say what this reminds you of in American history?
I don’t go back to the 60’s for a plan. This is such a deeply racist country that those in power have tried to keep the condition of black people off the stage, in the wings. What happened in the civil rights movement is that SNCC and others invented ways of cutting through media and getting themselves right under your eyeballs. That was the great success of the movement. The tactics and the people who were involved immediately broke through the ordinary conversation. We haven’t been able to do that in the Israel/Palestine movement. Yet.
So I’m not looking at this so much from a civil rights strategy. Rather, the analogy with the civil rights movement might be: what is going to happen in Israel proper, to the 20 percent of the population who are Palestinian citizens of Israel. No matter what happens to the occupation, there is still the question of what happens to those 20 percent.
The Zionists call this the Jewish state, but by any measure, it’s not a Jewish state even now. If you add the foreign nationals who live and work there, whose children were born there, and you add in the long-time Christians who live there also, who operate the churches there, and you add in the many thousands of non-Jewish spouses and relatives of Russians who emigrated to Israel, some people have estimated that it’s almost 30 percent of the population that is non-Jewish.
If you have a so-called Jewish state, and 20 percent are Palestinian citizens of Israel– everyone agrees, the left and the right, everyone agrees on that number– so Palestinian citizens of Israel hold the key and this is going to be interesting to watch what happens there. That’s where the analogy is to the U.S. Because black people in the U.S. from year one were never more than 12 percent.
A state that has 20 percent of its population being second class citizens is not a stable state. And sooner or later something will touch off that population, and it’s going to be extremely interesting to see how the government responds, regardless of what happens to the West Bank. That is one of the contradictions they’re dealing with.
There are other contradictions in Israel too that make it unstable. And that is the contradiction between the religious and the secular. That’s been going on since the state was founded. It’s already made a significant demographic shift inside the country. Jerusalem is now largely religious and Tel Aviv is largely secular.
The third is they’re having difficulty integrating, I use the word advisedly, integrating the Jews of color, like the Ethiopians. There are actually organizations in Israel dedicated to protecting the rights of Ethiopian Jews. So if everything was so hunky dory, how come this group has to have organizations protecting their rights?
In addition to the internal contradictions and the international isolation, what is emerging as a key factor is BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). Nobody is scoffing at it anymore. When I was in France recently, I was shocked to learn that it is now illegal to promote BDS there. The issue has gone all the way up through the French courts, and the French courts have said it’s illegal to promote BDS, on grounds that it’s “incitement to hatred.” So the BDS forces are going to the European courts for a ruling, and they don’t know what will happen there, but in the meantime it’s a serious organizational issue, because if you stand in front of a store handing out leaflets you can get arrested and serve time and also be liable to fines. While I was there several groups were discussing this and one of them was the Jewish Union for Peace, which is similar to JVP, and a Jewish part of the anti-occupation movement. They had a long discussion about it, and they are going ahead regardless. This is important. This means that even the legal situation is not going to stop people. I’m sure the other organizations will not be stopped either. A state that is supposed to be for liberte, egalite and fraternite is going to arrest people giving out BDS literature! And those efforts are also being made in the United States. That doesn’t happen when you have a trivial technique. BDS is very important, and it’s growing.
We watch this closely because we’re anti-Zionist Jews. Isn’t it possible Israel is merely approaching a crisis, like the Civil War (!) that will “save the union,” in its case preserve a Jewish state? By contrast, the civil rights movement was nonviolent, largely. What chance do you see of a nonviolent resolution in I/P?
I am still of the belief, that what we are seeing is like the slow motion demolition of a building, it comes down very slowly. The Israel we know and have come to love [chuckle] is coming down.
Now they could have had a Jewish state if they had agreed to a two-state solution maybe 25 years ago. I don’t see that it’s possible now. I just don’t see any way that it’s possible.
The issue is going to be, and has been already– that it’s one state, and what kind of a state it’s going to be. That’s where the struggle is going to go. What kind of state will this be? I am very much in favor of people being safe. I want Jews to be safe in Israel/Palestine, whatever you call it. I want Palestinians to be safe. I want everyone to be safe. But it’s going to be hard to be a nonviolent change.
The Palestinians have been using nonviolent techniques at least since the 80s. The first intifada was largely nonviolent. Because it failed, the second intifada was much more violent. But we can see over the years the protesters—in Budrus, in Bil’in– how they are treated when they are nonviolent. I have seen that with my own eyes.
The world generally has not generated the support for this Palestinian nonviolent movement. And if the world doesn’t support nonviolence, I don’t see what their recourse is. If people here are really serious about nonviolence, they better start supporting people there who are nonviolent, who are out there every week being perfectly nonviolent and getting shot at and tear-gassed by the IDF. That would make a difference. Like J Street, if they want a Jewish state and they want to minimize the possibility of violence, then they had better hurry up and start supporting these Palestinians who are nonviolent.
A bright spot in the future may be the Palestinian citizens of Israel who may be able to constitute a very important force in the country electorally. The fact that there’s a Palestinian list was very very important. If they stay together and if they keep pressure on the Supreme Court, which is a totally weak-kneed jellyfish court, they will be able to use their influence inside the country in a nonviolent way. And again, if you’re really serious about nonviolence, you have to support them.
Israel is sitting on a hotbox. And Adalah in Israel, which is like our NAACP, is not kidding when they say they can show discriminatory 50 laws on the books. In addition, an explosion is building up about housing. Since 1948, Israel has built not one new Palestinian town. Meanwhile they have built hundreds of towns for Jews. Now where do Palestinians live in a state where nothing has been built for them, and when they try to build on their own houses, they are denied permits and their houses are destroyed? So what will happen? You don’t have to be a wizard to figure out that this is an extremely dangerous situation.
So I see Israel sitting on a hotbox of their own making even if there were no West Bank or Gaza.
I am deeply dismayed that the Jewish conversation about these issues is so backward. It’s the most reactionary community around. Am I being too pessimistic or hard on that community? What are the signs of the change among Jews?
You say you’re deeply dismayed by the Jewish conversation. I know that– this comes through in your postings. Sometimes I feel that you’re being a bit too pessimistic. I think you are hard on them, hard on us maybe I should say, but many times I have to say it’s merited. In this country we have a Jewish establishment that’s getting older and older, it’s completely ossified in its thinking, it does not understand what’s happen on the ground. To think seriously that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic?! That’s totally self deluding. If they think that, they are setting up this firewall against anybody that has criticisms. And they will be the last to know that these changes are happening. Because they can’t see it, they’re in the bubble; and to protect themselves, they are becoming more vicious.
And the Jewish young people, we often don’t hear much from them in the Jewish press, because they’re leaving the established Jewish world. They’re slamming the door. I think that’s a big factor in the changes in the Jewish community. The old part is still very strong, ridiculously strong. But how long they will hold on, I don’t know.
You and three or four other wonderful civil-rights veteran Jews went on that Open Hillel tour of campuses last spring. These are people who should have been welcomed into every goddamn synagogue in the country to celebrate what they represent. They were shunned because of what they were saying about Israel. Who can save Israel if not these people? No one. It’s too late. That is my reflection. Can you reflect on the tour months later?
When we went on the Open Hillel tour, it wasn’t the synagogues that didn’t welcome us. What was worse–the campus Hillels didn’t welcome us. That’s worse. For these young people supposedly being taught in the United States of America that they should listen to various issues in order to make up their minds– 12 out of 13 Hillel’s wouldn’t welcome us.
But—we spoke at those 13 campuses. The Hillel’s didn’t welcome us but the other student groups rushed in to welcome us. And very many of those people were Jews. So this illustrates what I’m saying. The establishment leadership still thinks they still have things under control. And they intimidate the Hillel’s from inviting people like us. But they don’t realize that 20 to 30 percent of the membership of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is Jewish. All over the country, the Hillel establishment is losing the kids, and those are the most vital, the most energetic, and the most thoughtful and critical kids. So the old-time Jewish establishment is hanging on to this institutional structure, like hanging on to a fish’s spine after you eat the fish.
If the established Jewish leadership has more rebellions like Open Hillel and they have more desertions, I suspect that what will happen is that the Jewish community leadership institutionally will get more and more vicious until they begin to see that the house of cards is falling down.
That’s what I’ve been feeling about the occupation: I don’t see that we’re going to lose this, how we can lose this? The Palestinians are going to win just by staying there. They practice “sumud,” the Arabic word for being “steadfast.” They’re going to win, because this is not a society that’s going to adapt to them under these conditions. The only way that Israel can adapt– the government of Israel can adapt– is by making this a multi-lingual multi-ethnic state, that’s the only way the pressure can be taken off.
But in order to prevent that from happening, since the Israeli government has the guns, the tanks, the airplanes– it looks to me like they could become more and more vicious and could use them.
On the street, I’m seeing more people with thumbs up, and more people who have always been opposed but who are more hateful in their responses. That seems to me to be a situation that’s going to go on for some time until there’s a tipping point, til people realize especially in Europe that they’re betting on the wrong horse.
What’s possibly analogous is the jockeying behind the scenes that occurred among the white rulers of South Africa when they realized that the end was near. There evidently were some white people who were smart enough to know that if they wanted to keep power, they had to give up some of their power. You could call them enlightened capitalists, whatever you want to call them. I think that’s starting to happen in Israel. We’re seeing the security apparatus openly criticizing Netanyahu, and who knows what else is going on that we don’t know anything about. They may be saying to themselves, this is the situation, it’s better to cope with reality. Better to do a, b, and c so that we keep a lot of what we have.
I do not see this state of affairs going on another 50 years, like it has in the past. This is not stable, this is not sustainable. The tide is definitely turning against the Israeli government.
Now it’s hard to see that on the ground; it’s hard when you go to these pro-Israel meetings and you see the same old hysteria. But if you look around, a lot of people at those meetings, in ten years are going to be dead. They’re in their 70’s and 80’s, and they’re clinging to some vision they had in 1948; and some of that vision was a good vision. I don’t want to take that away from them: the vision they had of being you know a phoenix coming out of the ashes and being a non-materialist society–which it actually was in the beginning. But they’re clinging on to that vision. And we know from what’s recently come out, a lot of people who fought for the Haganah, they were fighting because people told them it was kill or be killed. Many of them later came to realize: why did 700,000 Palestinians have to be removed, never to be permitted to come back, and all their goods stolen? Some people have had a crisis of conscience. And that’s why studying the Nakba is very important. And all the movies being made about that are very important. My favorite one is “The Great Book Robbery,” about all the books that were taken. Let’s not even talk about the houses, let’s talk about what’s was in the houses. Tom Segev says there was a warehouse in Tel Aviv with 50,000 rugs in it. And people just came and took whatever they wanted. Who did they think they were taking them from? This has to be dealt with.
And though it all looks permanent from the outside, it’s not. It’s totally impermanent. When the Palestinian citizens of Israel get organized, wow, we’re really going to be seeing something else.