Palestinian activism demands checking your liberalism at the door

Can you be truly committed to liberal values and be an full-throated supporter of the Palestinian cause?

We ask this question partly in response to recent comments by Mahmoud Abbas claiming that Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of Khazars, and that Adolf Hitler had six million Jews slaughtered not because of antisemitism, but because of their “social role” as moneylenders.

On Sept. 7th, the Guardian’s former Jerusalem correspondent Peter Beaumont (unproblematically) covered the row over Abbas’s antisemitism, and, a few days later, Bethan McKernan, the outlet’s current Jerusalem correspondent, reported on a letter signed by ‘Palestinian intellectuals’ putatively condemning Abbas.  However, the Guardian reporter failed to note that some of the signatories themselves have engaged in antisemitic rhetoric.

It’s also telling that the letter itself suggests that it’s Palestinians who are most negatively impacted by Abbas’s vile defense of Hitler, in complaining that “the Palestinian people are sufficiently burdened by Israeli settler colonialism, dispossession, occupation, and oppression without having to bear the negative effect of such ignorant and profoundly antisemitic narratives perpetuated by those who claim to speak in our name.”  The injurious impact of Abbas’s antisemitism on Jews themselves is not mentioned.

Let’s also recall that Abbas’s comments defending Hitler are nothing new, as he peddled practically the same antisemitic lies in a 2018 speech.  Also, just last year, there was widespread outrage after Abbas claimed Israel had carried out “50 holocausts” during a news conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The Palestinian leader, in fact, has a long history of Holocaust denial. His 1982 doctoral dissertation, titled “The Other Side: the Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism”, not only included the lie that Zionist leaders conspired with Hitler, but it even questioned the existence of the gas chambers.

But, the racist vitriol by the “moderate” Palestinian leader needs to be seen in the broader context of the fact that Palestinians, based on polling, are the most antisemitic people on the globe, and that antisemitism – including the glorification of violence against Jews – is peddled continually by PA officials, the Palestinian media, popular Palestinian cultural figures, influential religious leaders and in Palestinian textbooks.

Moreover, we haven’t even mentioned the genocidal antisemitism of Hamas, the extremist Islamist movement controlling Gaza whom a plurality of Palestinians voted for in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.

Even leaving aside the historical antisemitic baggage of early Palestinian leaders, such as the alliance between the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Nazis, the fact is that being a putatively liberal Western pro-Palestinian activist (or journalist) demands that one ignore or even excuse the endemic anti-Jewish racism within Palestinian society and the role this irrational hatred plays in perpetuating the conflict and in perpetuating the Palestinians’ own misery.

Regarding the latter impact, Walter Russel Mead has persuasively argued that being in thrall to antisemitic conspiracy theories “is a sign of widespread social and cultural failure” and that the “emancipation from antisemitism is thus one of the necessary steps that many individuals and cultures have to take before they are able to act effectively and participate meaningfully in contemporary life”.

Worse, not only do many who advocate for the Palestinian cause often ignore Palestinian expressions of Jew hatred and related conspiracy theories, but their racism is often framed as a legitimate grievance, rather than as the pathology it is.

How can it be that though we live in a civilisation where the most loathsome quality is racism, and where most Western progressives primarily identify politically in opposition to that quality (and ‘all forms of bigotry’), that same political community enthusiastically makes common cause with a uniquely antisemitic Palestinian society – seemingly without experiencing even a momentary bout of cognitive dissonance?

To even begin answering this question, we have to stress the profound difference between ‘progressives’ and true liberals – the latter referring to those who champion ideals such as pluralism, reason, universal human rights and the imputation of agency and dignity to individuals qua individuals.

Modern day ‘progressives’, on the other hand, are often quite illiberal in rejecting universalism in favour of “a caste system of victimhood in which those on top must defer to those with a greater claim to restorative justice”, championing the cause only of those defined (often arbitrarily) as “oppressed identity groups” – a political orientation which often leads to moral double standards, as well as conspiratorial explanations for complex problems.

Regardless of which side of the Israeli-Palestinian debate you’re on, liberalism demands that you take Palestinians seriously as moral actors, as agents of their own fate, and that you judge their behavior as you’d judge anyone else’s.  It’s because seeing the conflict through liberalism’s enlightened lens reveals uncomfortable truths about Palestinians, as well as their society and their movement, that progressives continually demand, in effect, that you check your liberalism at ‘Palestine’s’ door.

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