Except for Palestine

Steven Salaita – February 24, 2019
Progressive except for Palestine, PEP (or PeP), is a familiar appellation.

Palestine solidarity activists have been using it for a long time to describe the kind of leftist who professes support for racial and economic justice without extending that concern to Palestinians. In other words, the appellation describes standard-issue liberals in the metropole.

In recent months a cognate has emerged: feminist except for Palestine. This species, often indistinguishable from the PEP, locates in settler colonization a space for women’s liberation. In some cases, FEPs affirm Zionist civility by highlighting male barbarity among Israel’s enemies. They have a cozy relationship with US intervention in backward regions of the globe and imagine that gender equality can be realized through Zionism. Lately, they’ve been trying to rid the Women’s March of radical affectations.
Other variations of the pro-Israel leftist exist, but PEPs and FEPs are the most common. I’m less interested in their political characteristics—again, they simply do what US liberals have always done—than in how anti-Zionists choose to name them. I’m not sure it’s wise to concede that people who invoke racial and sexual justice in order to affirm Zionism are fundamentally decent.
Before we look at these naming conventions, let’s dispose of a few pretenses: any belief that equality and Zionism can coexist is laughable. Nobody understands the silliness of “egalitarian” settlers better than Israel’s most fanatical supporters. The godfather of Likud, Vladimir Jabotinsky, mocked the notion that an ethnocratic state can facilitate Enlightenment values. His crankier heir, Meir Kahane, declared that “a Western democracy and Zionism are not compatible. You can’t have both.
Because it is embedded in global capitalism, Israel, the political manifestation of Zionism, will always work against liberation. Attaching a progressive agenda to the well-being of nation-states is a gift to the ruling class.
As for appending “except for Palestine” to a positive identity (progressive, feminist, and so forth), we ought to consider what happens to Palestine in these formulations. It unwittingly becomes background context to liberal self-absorption.
I argue in Uncivil Rites that PEP is too generous a descriptor for those who support Israel, but my appeal to change the phrase to something like RBI—regressive because of Israel—never caught on. I understand that persuading people to alter ingrained terminology is a difficult (and often foolish) task and that meaning changes according to speaker and audience, but I’m not ready to abandon the effort. Those who dispose of Palestine shouldn’t be allowed to claim a solid politics.
Why replace “progressive” with “regressive”? Humans, after all, have a right to describe their own identities. If somebody chooses to support Israel, a settler colony that steals land, destroys crops, bulldozes homes, imprisons children, and murders civilians, then regressiveness is a vital feature of that person’s outlook. Self-description doesn’t supersede material loyalty.
Furthermore, accepting a Zionist’s self-description as progressive or feminist (or socialist or anti-racist or whatever) renders Palestine subservient to arbitrary branding choices. Exposing hypocrisy is satisfying, but less so if it elides the import of Palestinian liberation. It’s better to scrutinize Israel as a source of moral privation rather than situating Palestine as a void that signifies an incomprehensible lapse of morality.
Or, put more simply, a progressive or feminist (or socialist or anti-racist or whatever) with shit politics on Palestine isn’t somebody with an inconsistency; it’s somebody with shit politics in general. Supporting Israel isn’t a respite from otherwise admirable ethics; it portends ethical flaws across a range of issues.
Palestine is a great irritant to liberal activists, pundits, and politicians. It either illuminates their duplicity or upsets their ruling class sponsors. In turn, those with inherently regressive politics approach the nation with a combination of avoidance, dishonesty, gutlessness, and dissimulation. Let Palestine fill such invertebrates with dread. In fact, facilitate that process. These people already extol our colonizer. Why allow them to also reduce our homeland to a state of exception?
This article was first published on on February 20, 2019.