The Nation never debated the existence of apartheid in South Africa. So why does it when it comes to Palestine? (John Austin/Flickr)
As the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel gains traction across the United States, progressive media outlets are being forced to acknowledge Israeli apartheid like never before.
While it’s certainly an improvement from just five years ago, when pro-Palestine views were relegated to the most marginal corners of the left, the coverage has still been problematic, most notably for its near-blanket exclusion of Palestinian and Arab voices.
This dynamic was on full display in recent days when a debate erupted at The Nation over the National Council of the American Studies Association’s decision to endorse the academic boycott of Israel. In the end, The Nation published a total of five pieces on the topic.
Four were written by Jewish Americans (Michelle Goldberg, Judith Butler, Alex Lubin and Ari Y. Kelman, and just one by a Palestinian (Omar Barghouti). The Nation hosted a similarly disparate forum last year featuring three Jewish Americans and again just one Palestinian.
To be fair, the majority of pieces in the latest debate were in favor of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). But that doesn’t excuse the fact that when it comes to Israel and Palestine, The Nation habitually reinforces Israeli apartheid by privileging Jewish voices over Palestinian ones.
It’s highly unlikely that The Nation would ever host a forum on rape culture featuring four men and one woman, or a panel on racism made up of three white people and one African American. Yet somehow, four Jews and one Palestinian qualify as a “diversity of views,” according to its editor and publisher.
It doesn’t help that, based on a review of bloggers and columnists, it appears that The Nation employs no Palestinians or Arabs, and, as far as I could tell, none of their writers identifies as Muslim. Whose fault is that?
It’s also telling that the first to write about the American Studies Association vote at The Nation was Michelle Goldberg, whose piece was filled with so many inaccuracies it required two major corrections and prompted a fiery response from Judith Butler.
Though Goldberg claims to be “ambivalent” about BDS, she expresses far more concern for how a boycott might inconvenience Israeli academics than she does for the brutal consequences of Israeli apartheid on occupied, terrorized and dispossessed Palestinians.
Echoing anti-BDS propaganda taken right out of the hasbara playbook, Goldberg writes: “It’s repellant to contemplate Israeli professors being shut out of conferences or barred from journals for no reason other than their ethnicity, or forced to prove sufficient opposition to the occupation to be part of international intellectual life.”
It takes several paragraphs of similarly unfounded speculation before Goldberg bothers to mention that the boycott applies to Israeli institutions, not individuals, and therefore does not violate academic freedom. Then again, Goldberg’s distaste for BDS should come as no surprise given her ideological attachment to Israel, which she fails to mention in her piece.
Goldberg has spoken openly on more than one occasion about the “inherent contradictions … between Zionism and liberal democracy,” but nevertheless argues that the “continuing existence of Israel is more important than the reconciliation of all of our ideals” (“Michelle Goldberg: ‘Everyone knows’ journalists sacrifice their careers by taking dissenting views on Israel/Palestine,” Mondoweiss, 22 March 2009).
Writing in The Guardian in 2009, Goldberg claims, “history has shown the necessity of the Jewish state, and Israel is the only one there is,” therefore “the end of Zionism would merely be the beginning of a new nightmare.”
In other words, she is willing to at least for now overlook the horrific consequences of Zionism on the indigenous inhabitants of the Holy Land for the sake of maintaining a majority Jewish state.
Invested in Zionism
Goldberg can claim neutrality on BDS and sympathy for Palestinian suffering all she wants, but it won’t change the fact that she is invested in Zionism, an ideology that requires the erasure of Palestinians. With that in mind it becomes clear that her distaste for BDS is likely rooted in her commitment to an indefensible ideology that she admits is at odds with the equality she enjoys in the United States.
Compared to Goldberg’s pseudo-ambivalence, it’s almost refreshing, though still inexcusable, when The Nation publishes anti-BDS rants by writers who are more forthcoming about their intentions.
Last year, Nation staff writer Ben Adler, whose beat consists of “Republican politics and conservative media,” used his column to trash BDS and denounce the Palestinian right of return.
“Calling for a Palestinian ‘right of return,’” complained Adler, “is … calling for the demographic abolition of Israel as a Jewish state” (“The problem with BDS,” 31 March 2012).
He then took to Twitter to double down on his racist framing of Palestinian bodies as “demographic” threats — in what can only be described as the language of a bigot emotionally invested in Israel’s maintenance of ethnic and religious supremacy to the detriment of its indigenous inhabitants. It’s difficult to imagine The Nation, or progressives more generally, tolerating such bigotry against any other minority group. Yet at The Nation, Palestinians are fair game.
Worse still is the continued employment of The Nation columnist Eric Alterman, whose well-documented racist hostility toward Palestinians is regularly praised by right-wing outlets like Commentary and the Washington Free Beacon.
There is no shortage of Jewish American writers at The Nation lecturing Palestinians about what constitutes acceptable resistance to Israeli apartheid. The Nation justifies publishing these opinions in the name of diversity. But that certainly wasn’t the case at in the days of South African apartheid.
A search through The Nation’s archives reveals unflinching condemnation of South Africa’s apartheid regime and editorial support for the divestment movement in its earliest days.
In the 16 August 1965 issue, Stanley Meisler (who would later become an LA Times foreign and diplomatic correspondent) refers to South Africa as an “evil” and “neo-Fascist state” (“Our Stake in Apartheid”). Fast forward to 2013, and the magazine is printing Eric Alterman’s tantrum-induced smears of Max Blumenthal for having the audacity to write a book about Israel’s descent into fascism.
In what could just as easily be reprinted today to describe Israel, an 18 June 1983 Nation editorial reads, “It is degrading to regard South Africa in terms of US interests rather than in terms of principles. But the crisis in that country is a challenge to America as a multiracial society with (presumably) a multiracial foreign policy. It is a challenge to any country that spouts fine words about the ‘leadership of the free world’ — however that freedom may be defined” (“By Brute Force”).
An article in the 24 January 1987 issue opens with: “The appalling intransigence of the South African government in the face of worldwide pressure to abandon its apartheid laws, its brutality and violence, its censorship of the press, have combined to elicit a dramatic resurgence of corporate-action campaigns in mainstream America” (“Corporate Accounting: Give Your Dollars a Political Spin”).
That The Nation feels compelled to continue hosting debates on the merits of BDS is troubling given that no such debate existed at the magazine during South Africa’s apartheid regime. The existence of apartheid was not subject to debate then, and it shouldn’t be now.
Mother Jones recently chastised Liz Cheney for a 1988 editorial that argued against divestment from the apartheid regime. Unsurprisingly, much of her argument mirrors those being peddled by anti-BDS writers today.
The Nation should take notice, otherwise decades from now it will be the subject of ridicule for giving a platform to Israel’s apologists.
Rania Khalek is an independent journalist reporting on the underclass and marginalized.