Its from a tried and predictable playbook and it goes like this: a politician / academic / public individual from the left who has vocally criticized the actions of the state of Israel is suddenly caught in a swarm of media attention and statements of denunciation for what is described as “hateful” and “antisemitic” speech. Social media posts, often from years ago, are usually the sole evidence, and the context for these posts is always absent. This cynical move is pursued even more harshly if the individual targeted happens to be a person of color. Such denunciations are unfortunately a common occurrence meant to deny people platforms to speak (as happened with Angela Davis), committee positions (like the recent ousting of Ilhan Omar), to hurt electoral chances (like Kim Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK), jobs, and sometimes completely destroy people’s careers (like Shahd Abusalama, Norman Finkelstein, or Steven Salaita). This kind of attack can even be deployed in situations where the issue of one’s position on Israel is seemingly not central, like in a local aldermanic race in Chicago.
And so perhaps the current controversy surrounding candidate for Chicago’s 50th Ward Mueze Bawany should not be surprising. On Thursday, in a shameless attack, the Chicago Tribune reported on a small handful of Bawany’s deleted tweets from 2019, describing them as offensive. Coming in for particular criticism were Bawany’s comments on Israel. Bawany’s campaign has the backing of the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU HCII, United Working Families, Democratic Socialists of America, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and many other unions, and has energetic grassroots support with an impressive host of West Ridge activists pounding the pavement to get him into city hall. He challenges Debra Silverstein, a machine stalwart, who has been in office for over a decade, has a massive campaign budget, is Democratic Party committeeperson, and whose shrewd attempts to maintain her seat include her changing the ward borders last February to literally remove Bawany and another challenger from the ward—an unsavory tradition that is as Chicago as Malört.
Smearing Solidarity with Palestine
This smear campaign (which is what it is) is clearly designed to indicate that the question of Palestine is relevant to local election campaigns. The thing with old plays, like the pick-and-roll, is that they keep being used because they often yield an easy basket. If you have lifted a finger in solidarity with Palestine you can almost expect this sort of attack professionally or if you enter the public eye. That is why the way we who stand in solidarity with occupied Palestine respond is so crucial. First, the response affects your immediate prospects of whatever campaign your opponents are trying to sabotage. And secondly—and much, much more importantly—how we respond has ramifications for the movement as a whole.
Capitulation and the ceding of certain political ground around Palestine can bring about setbacks and demoralization, especially in the context of a movement that is under coordinated attack and repression. Two features of the backlash are the wave of over 200 anti-boycott resolutions being pushed across the country and the broad adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism that according to Jewish Voice for Peace is “a direct censorship threat to Palestinians and Palestinian rights advocates.”
The goal for these smear campaigns is the capitulation of solidarity activists and utter silence on the plight of Palestinians. For many politicians, the price of admission to the Democratic Party has been a complete reversal of one’s support for Palestinians. Georgia senator Raphael Warnock and Florida representative Maxwell Frost are two recent examples, as well as the cautionary tale of Jamaal Bowman. For others, the aim is an intimidated silence, and an admission and apology for the “harms” and “hurt of their words” is enough to stymy electoral chances and punish those who utter solidarity with Palestinians.
While there is no easy way to navigate these kinds of smear campaigns against both individuals and the movement as a whole, being able to resist them and help push back on these attacks requires clear politics and refusing the very rules of the game. If one accepts the parameters of the discussion set by our opponents then we have already lost. If we accept the false assumption that to criticize Israel is at best insensitive and hurtful or at worst antisemitic, we have painted ourselves into a dead-end. So let’s look at some broad strokes about how we can politically confront these falsehoods.
Countering False Narratives
It is completely understandable that amid media tempests in teacups, grassroots campaigners can immediately feel incredibly defensive. It’s gross when you are someone who has devoted huge amounts of time trying to make a better world to be cast as a hateful racist. It is additionally insulting in the context where people of color are tone policed by white liberals for not expressing their anger “appropriately.” “Anger,” as the great Audre Lorde said, “is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes, as is fury when the actions arising from those attitudes do not change.” And sure, sometimes when people speak while they are angry they say things inelegantly or crudely, but being angry is an appropriate response to injustice. Relatedly, in a country where Islamophobia has been on the rise, it can not be seen as accidental that someone who would be the first Muslim alderperson in a city where, according to Council on Islamic American Relations, 500,000 Muslims reside is the person under attack.
First we need to name it for what it is: a smear. Then the false claim, that criticizing Israel is antisemitic or “harms” or “hurts” individuals has to be reframed. We first must clearly and confidently express that we are antiracists and we oppose antisemitism. It is our side–not the supporters of Israel–who are most often the ones confronting the right and the white supremacists who are the actual antisemites. Bawany’s stance against antisemitism has been amply clear in a ward that is so multi-faith, which makes the notion that he is somehow secretly a racist frankly silly.
It is precisely because we are antiracists and stand for human rights that we are critical of the state of Israel. The state of Israel is explicitly—as expressed by its own Basic Laws (the equivalent of its constitution)—a Jewish ethnostate. Its differentiated legal system affords different rights to Jews than to Palestinians, which has been described as apartheid by a huge array of reputable liberal human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, various bodies of the United Nations, and human rights organizations within Israel like B’tselem. This situation puts Palestinians under illegal occupation in the West Bank, besieged and routinely bombed in Gaza, in a discriminatory legal situation for those Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, or forced to live abroad as refugees.
We must point out that Zionism, to paraphrase Jewish socialist Annie Levine, is not a “historic yearning to return to Zion” but a modern political ideology and movement carried out through a still-unfolding process of settler colonialism premised on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Zionism’s insistence on a “national home” for Jewish people that maintains a Jewish majority serves to justify apartheid and the denial of Palestinians’ democratic rights and right to return. When one criticizes or opposes Zionism we are not criticizing Jews or Jewishness, but rather a modern political ideology of racial exclusion. We should be clear that this is a criticism of a political ideology and a racist state, not of all the Israeli citizens that inhabit it. We too want peace, but we think this can only be achieved through justice, equal rights for all, Jews and Palestinians, including importantly the right of Palestinians to return to land stolen from them.
Context Matters: The Bombardment of Gaza
Another thing that has been erased in the recent kerfuffle is the context in which the criticism was made. Bawany’s tweets were made during one of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in 2019. He alludes to this in his statement where he speaks of “deep sadness and exasperation” over the events and how his personal experience as a child of refugees underscored how disturbing Israel’s war was. With sympathy as to pressures on his shoulders, I worry that this cedes too much. The very narrative of the situation in Palestine being the result of a “conflict” between two seemingly equal sides or “perspectives” is the well-trodden liberal position. This position disregards the reality of the situation in which there is an oppressor nation, Israel, with one of the most modern militaries in the world and full political and financial backing of one of the most powerful states in the world, the US. This oppressor nation maintains an illegal occupation and expanding settlements that are both illegal per international law, wages war on Palestinians, essentially a stateless population without a formal military.
In May of 2019, when Bawany made the tweet, Palestinians in Gaza were one year into the Great March of Return, which consisted of demonstrations every Friday at the dividing wall imprisoning them. In response, Israeli forces murdered at least 214 Palestinian protesters, 46 of them children, according to the United Nations. Eight thousand Palestinians were injured from being shot by live rounds, and another 28,000 injured by other causes. Let me underscore this—every Friday for over a year Palestinians would march toward the border wall to be met with Israeli troops mowing them down with live fire. During this period, videos leaked that show Israeli snipers shooting protesters to be hailed with cheers. In one such video the recorder exclaims, “What a fabulous video!” Then defense minister Avidor Leiberman tweeted that this sniper “deserves decoration.”
May of 2019 was marked by a massive bombardment of over 200 missile strikes carried out by Israel on Gaza—one of the most densely populated places on earth. 25 Palestinians were killed, including a pregnant mother and her fourteen-month-old daughter Seba Abu Arar. Human Rights Watch wrote at the time that the “targets appeared to contain no military objective or may have caused disproportionate civilian loss in violation of the laws of war.” During the bombardment not just Bawany but people around the world were aghast, angry, and, yes, perhaps spoke in “impolite” terms. And it is good that people were angry; only those who have lost all traces of their humanity in a racist fog could be otherwise. The double-standard of a regular person like Bawany being chastised for using rude language while outraged against this violence while Israeli politicians and their backers cheered on the violence openly is absurd.
That was the context for Bawany’s tweets rendered invisible by the language of them “causing harm.” Rejecting the framing here is key. Instead of defensively claiming we were emotional because of war we have to fight to clearly and confidently reframe it. “I was speaking emotionally,” I would say, “because I am someone who values human rights, and the well-documented human rights violations and war crimes that were being committed by the state of Israel at that point in time were maddening.” Shifting away from “equal conflict” to the territory of “human rights” and oppression is required to begin to push back against a narrative that is as dangerous as it is noxious.
Palestinians Need Solidarity Now More Than Ever
It should also be noted that the smear against Bawany is occurring today in a political moment in which the situation of Palestinians is even bleaker than in 2019. Israel’s new government that was just formed last month is the most far-right government of its history (and that is saying a lot). New minister of security Itamar Ben-Gvir is a literal fascist who openly calls for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and who says his hero is Baruch Goldstein, a man who massacred twenty-six Palestinians who were praying in a mosque. Bezazel Smotrich, minister of finance, also has a long history of racism and settler vigilantism and has clearly laid out his plan for full annexation of the West Bank. This year saw a dramatic increase in military raids and extrajudicial assassinations carried out by Israel in the West Bank with more Palestinians killed (170) in 2022 than any year in the past twenty. This includes the brazen assassination of prominent Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and its attempted cover-up.
January of this year has only increased the pace with thirty-five people killed in the year’s first month. Settler vigilante violence has increased with, per Israel’s own reporting, 838 incidents of attacks on Palestinians by armed settlers. Under this steamroller of Israeli violence, “[t]he collapse of the West Bank,” writes Jehad Abusalim, “and with it the loss of countless lives and communities, is now not a question of if, but when.” And yet . . . somehow, the uncouth language of a tweet from three years ago is what draws headlines in the Tribune. It is as revolting as it is ridiculous.
The lesson here for the left is that even in small, local campaigns we have to be prepared to refuse the framing presented by the pro-Israel establishment. Ruling-class media outlets like the Chicago Tribune will come calling and ask the stock question, “Do you support the right of Israel to exist?” as they did when they ambushed Bawany. The framing of this question is a trap and needs to be rejected as such. “What do you mean?” I would ask. “If the question is do I think that there should be an exclusively Jewish state, with second-class legal status for Palestinians, responsible for an illegal occupation, well-documented war crimes, and continued expansion of illegal settlements, then no I don’t think those things should exist. I am against racism and injustice. What I am for is Palestinians being afforded the most basic parameters of human rights, and equal civil rights for both Jews and Palestinians who live there.”
I am in solidarity with Bawany against this smear campaign, and encourage him to not cede ground or play by the rules set by our opponents. If we play by their rules, we automatically lose. Even in local politics, the issue of Palestine is certainly still one of the most hotly contested here in this country because of the “special relationship” that the US state has with Israel. We must be steeled and prepared to clearly and confidently take it up, and stand against racism and for justice in Palestine.