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The Tokenization of Jewish Activists and Subsequent Marginalization of Palestinian Activists

There was a time, approximately seven or eight years ago, when Palestine solidarity movements required the massive participation of Jewish anti-Zionist activists in order to combat the spurious charge of "anti-semitism." Since supporting Palestinian self-determination was always bad-jacketed by right-wing and Zionist groups as "anti-semitic" it seemed logical, and perhaps even necessary, to always emphasize the large number of Jewish leftwing activists who rejected Zionism and supported the Palestinian struggle.

The problem with this strategy, however necessary it might have been, was that it led to the silencing of Palestinian voices and the marginalization of Palestinian activists. Thus, at every rally, Jewish activists would speak for the plight of their Palestinian counterparts who, watching from the sidelines, cheered them on. If we remove the labels "Jew" and "Palestinian" and, instead, look at the context through an abstract anticolonial lens, the problem with this strategy should be clear. In other anti-racist, anticolonial movements the fact that activists representing the ethnicity of the colonizer are speaking for the colonized would be treated as extremely problematic. This is not to say that those of us who represent a colonizing group should not come out on the side of the colonized (we should, both in Canada and elsewhere) but that, rather, we should not create a context where the ultimate justification for anticolonial solidarity lies with people connected to the colonizing population.

I cannot imagine, for example, marginalizing indigenous activists here, in Canada, by filling the stage of their struggle with Eurocanadian activist authorities. Or (and perhaps this is a closer analogy), during the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s, pushing black South African activists off the stage so that white Canadians of Dutch descent could speak against Afrikaaner colonialism.

I was under the impression that, just two or three years ago, the Palestinian solidarity movement had reached a point where Palestinian activists could freely represent their own struggle without having to worry about speaking through a Jewish comrade - less, just by virtue of being Palestinian, they were labelled "anti-semitic." There was an international BDS movement gaining momentum and, in the pro-Palestinian solidarity movements of the so-called Third World there was never anxiety over the spectre of anti-semitism (for why should the victims of imperialism, and of the long history of genocidal colonialism, feel any guilt over another crime committed by Europe, to riff off Cesaire and Fanon, in the heart of Europe itself?).

Finally there would be no more marginalization of Palestinian voices and, though the Zionist ideologues continued to claim that pro-Palestinian solidarity was synonymous with anti-semitism, no more anxiety over a charge that was clearly polemical and manipulative.

Unfortunately, as Lenin once said: "one step forward and two steps back." As this recent article in Canadian Dimension shows by its picture, we're back in the stage of the colonial representatives speaking for the colonized. The queer Palestinian woman's self-determination is only justified by her love of the colonizer. Again, in any other anticolonial/anti-racist movement this would be seen as a very, very problematic representational strategy. (It is also telling that, in this Canadian Dimension issue focused on Queers Against Israeli Apartheid there is not one article by a queer Palestinian.)

Moreover, this strategy returns us to the days of anti-semitic anxiety. If we reject that Palestinian solidarity is "anti-semitic" - and that "anti-Zionism" is not a synonym for "anti-semitism" - then the best strategy is, now that we have over a decade of anti-Zionist Jewish solidarity activism, to only make these types of arguments when they are necessary.

Aside from marginalizing Palestinian activists, we are tokenizing our Jewish comrades. It's similar to the famous race-guilt claim: I'm not racist because I have a whole bunch of black friends. Personally I think this is a product of white guilt, and that all the anxiety over the "anti-semitism" charge doesn't come from the Palestinian activists but the activists of European descent. Always desperate to appear good and humanitarian, the white activist becomes increasingly anxious over charges to the contrary - even if these charges are ultimately baseless. This anxiety, though, can lead to the valorization of these charges. Even more alarming, however, is the fact that this anxiety connects to a deep-seeded systemic racism where people of colour (in this specific case people who represent the colonized) are marginalized and silenced by good-intentioned white authorities.

There was a point, almost a decade back, when I was excited by the growing anti-Zionist Jewish movement. In fact, I'm still excited by its existence and the courage and dedication of many of its members. But there was also a point where I began to wonder why dedicated Palestinian activists, no less courageous or dedicated than their Jewish counterparts, were being marginalized in a struggle that connected intrinsically to their existence as a people. A point where I was disturbed when new activists would say: "I never supported the Palestinians until I heard an anti-Zionist Jew speak" - because I would want to respond, "Why did you not support the Palestinians when they spoke about their own suffering?"

Now it appears as if we're returning to this era of anti-semitic anxiety for no good reason. There are ugly stories, that I will not repeat, of Palestinian women and men again being marginalized, feeling used, and pushed off of the activist stage. And the simultaneous rise of Jewish tokenization will simply make the Zionists think that we protest too much.

I am not saying that the "anti-semitism" charge should not be confronted, when necessary, by Jewish members of the movement. Nor am I saying that the history of this confrontation was unnecessary: it was necessary and, at the time of its necessity, actually helped unsilence Palestinian voices. All I am saying is that the refocusing on this problematic, and returning it to the centre of the Palestinian solidarity movement, is very dangerous at this stage. Now it will lead to silencing rather than unsilencing. Now it will detract from the central focus: the liberation and decolonization of Palestine.