Why American politicians cannot say the words ‘Israeli apartheid’

Mariam Barghouti

Al-Jazeera  /  May 9, 2021

American political language does not have the capacity to address Palestine because it is disabled by white supremacy.

Over the past few weeks, as the Israeli colonial forces escalated their brutal violence against the Palestinians of occupied Jerusalem, many hoped for some kind of a sharp reaction from the new Biden administration.

But that did not come. Instead, we once again heard about how “deeply concerned” the US State Department is about “unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions” and that both Israeli and Palestinian officials need “to act decisively to de-escalate tensions”.

Some Palestinians also expected more from the “progressive” members of the US legislature. But they too dressed their words in euphemisms. Representative André Carson tweeted that he is “extremely dismayed by Israel’s efforts to forcefully evict Palestinians from their homes”. Representative Marie Newman called on the State Department to “immediately condemn these violations of international law”. Representative Mark Pocan co-authored a letter with others, expressing “deep concern about Israel’s imminent plan to forcibly displace nearly 2,000 Palestinians”.

And for her part, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the Israeli army’s actions “inhumane” and said “the US must show more leadership in safeguarding Palestinian rights”. Just a month ago, in an interview with Rabbi Michael Miller, head of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the “progressive” congresswoman also talked about “valuing a process where all parties are respected” and building “a path to peace”.

Conspicuously absent from all these statements are words that objectively assess the situation in Palestine, such as “occupation”, “apartheid”, “settler-colonialism”, and “ethnic cleansing”.

It is disappointing, although not surprising at all, that American politicians choose to use such language that obfuscates the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Yet, the problem here is not just what they say but also why they feel compelled to say it.

This is the language that has long been entrenched and engineered by the powerful Israeli Lobby in the US to whitewash the Palestinian reality by presenting the Israeli apartheid and colonialism as an issue of “conflict resolution and mediation”. By focusing on “peace” as a matter of negotiation between two sides engaged in a “conflict”, this rhetoric obscures the imbalance of power between the occupier and the occupied and muffles Palestinians calls for justice for Israeli colonisation and crimes.

The fact that American politicians across the spectrum feel compelled to use this language reflects not only the significant influence the Israeli Lobby enjoys in the US, but also the structural racism of US society and government. In other words, the hesitation to show support towards the Palestinian cause is also rooted in the inability of American politics to sincerely acknowledge the white supremacy, racialised hierarchies and socioeconomic discrimination it reinforces and protects on American soil.

American politics cannot truly embrace the values of justice, accountability and equality – which are part of the Palestinian and other progressive struggles – because it is crafted to feed white privilege. And in that, the US is very much like Israel: in both countries, your rights and opportunities are inescapably decided by your racial or ethnic background.

Challenging this hegemonic language means challenging head-on the whole political system and its power structures. And for a member of Congress, that is a dangerous proposition.

We have to recognise that while some members of Congress have progressive views, they run and get elected to first and foremost serve their communities, where they focus their energies on American domestic issues. A statement on Israel deemed “problematic” by their party establishment could close a lot of doors for them and prevent them from fulfilling their obligations to their communities. It can also mean losing their elected office.

One just has to look at the backlash New York-based Human Rights Watch is experiencing for publishing last month a report calling the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians what it is – apartheid. The American Jewish Committee said its arguments “border on antisemitism”, while the International Legal Forum called it “anti-Semitic” “blood libel”. It is such attacks that American politicians fear.

Their complacency is disappointing but it is a reflection of the US political reality.

But while condemning such obfuscating rhetoric from American politicians, we should also reflect on our own perceptions and expectations as Palestinians. Why is it that we still cling on to a hope of hearing something different from American politicians after all these years of staunch pro-Israel US foreign policy? Why is it that the US still holds some kind of importance for us?

The fact that Palestinian politicians still care so much about what American politicians and other public figures say about Palestine shows that they still see the US as the legitimate broker for peace, which it has repeatedly proven it is not. They still hold on to old promises the US has broken many times.

The Oslo Accords – the much-taunted “success” of US diplomacy – were unviable from the start because the treaties were written in the American political language – i.e., in the language of racial hierarchies, not of justice. Yet Palestinian politicians remain faithfully committed to these tragic agreements, which have only further entrenched Palestinian dispossession and strengthened the Israeli military occupation. More than this, the accords also maimed our own political language, which – in a similar fashion to the US – is used to obscure the reality of Palestinian oppression. It is used to cover up the despotism of Fatah and Hamas, which put maintaining their regimes above the interest of the Palestinian people.

Change in the political language of both the US and Palestine can come only through a sustained challenge to the status quo. And that will inevitably be accompanied by upheaval. Perhaps it is the moment we are currently living, where Palestinians in Jerusalem, but also in the West Bank and Gaza, are taking to the streets to confront the Israeli occupation, that will lead to change.

For those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause in the US and elsewhere, watching the events in Jerusalem, it is important to understand that this is not a “plea” for “human rights” and “peace”; this is a resolute struggle for justice and dignity. It is also important for them to understand that Palestine does not fit into the disempowering language of American or Western politics. The only genuine way to talk about what is happening now in Sheikh Jarrah, Al-Aqsa compound, Damascus Gate, and elsewhere in occupied Palestine is through the language of the dispossessed themselves and their struggle against apartheid, colonisation, occupation and ethnic cleansing.

Centring Palestinians and choosing justice as the frame of reference is the only way to talk about what is going on. And we need more than talk, we need action. We need people to brace for upheaval and join it, to challenge the status quo and help produce change in their own communities and elsewhere.

Mariam BarghoutiPalestinian American writer based in Ramallah