Fighting Zionism with a Class Analysis on the Streets of Somerville
by John Spritzler ( http://spritzlerj.blogspot.com/ )
Yesterday my friend and I were collecting signatures on Elm Street in Somerville, Massachusetts, a predominately working class town. We need about 4,000 signatures to put a referendum on the Somerville ballot that would let people vote whether the Somerville Retirement Board should divest its Israel bonds. One man, walking to the nearby supermarket, stopped to talk, but wouldn't sign. He was a young teacher; I think he said he taught high school economics. He said he just didn't want to sign. My friend asked him if he thought people should be able to vote on the question and he answered yes. Why then, my friend asked, would he not therefore sign, since the signatures were required for the referendum to appear on the ballot and that was the only way people would be able to vote on it? The teacher got annoyed at having his illogic pointed out to him so directly. He said he didn't like being pressured to sign something, and if he didn't want to sign that was his business, and we should leave him alone. Then he started to walk away, but my friend wouldn't take no for an answer and repeated the question, challenging the teacher to respond logically. Some more charged words were exchanged and then the teacher finally left, angrily insisting that he didn't need to explain his reasons to us.
My friend and I then discussed the teacher. My friend said he thought that the teacher was actually a pro-Zionist who didn't want to admit this to us and therefore used an illogical argument to avoid signing. Usually one never gets a chance to find out the truth. But this time was different.
After a while the teacher emerged from the supermarket with groceries in hand and retraced his path. I was alone this time as the teacher approached me. As he came by I said to him, "Hi, I know you don't want to sign, but just for my own edification, please tell me, is the reason really because you actually support Israel?" He said, "Yes." I said, "I don't understand how you can support Israel when you know that Israel engages in ethnic cleansing." He said, "I don't support ethnic cleansing but I think you're way too one-sided with your divestment against Israel." I said, "Please tell me how you characterize the two sides in this conflict, because I suspect that we may not even agree on this and we should clarify it." He said, "Why don't you tell me how you define the sides, first?"
I said, "I think that one side is the elites -- Israeli and Arab and American. And the other side is ordinary people, both Jews and Arabs. The elites want to foment an ethnic war between Jews and Arabs for the purpose of social control, to make it easier for elites to control their own people. When Jews and Arabs are at war with each other, their respective elites have a much stronger grip on 'their own' people than when there is peace. That's why the so-called peace efforts have failed for 50 years; they were only pretend. The elites don't really want a peaceful resolution of the conflict. U.S. leaders want Middle Eastern elites to stay in power because otherwise the oil and other wealth of the region would fall into the hands of ordinary people instead of the American and local upper classes. Israel's ethnic cleansing and racial discrimination against Palestinians is designed to foment a Jewish-Arab war. The result is obviously terrible for the Palestinians, but also bad for ordinary Jews who live in fear, who are blamed for the terrible crimes of their government, and who would much rather live in peace and security. Divestment from Israel would help both ordinary Palestinians and ordinary Jews because it would help end an ethnic war that benefits only the elites. Why would anybody want to help the other side, the elites?"
I know this sounds a bit like over-the-top propaganda for my point of view, but the truth is -- I swear! -- that the teacher then said he would like to sign, and he did.
Following this encounter a woman stopped to talk. She too wasn't sure if she wanted to sign or not, even after I talked about how Israel was engaged in ethnic cleansing and apartheid practices. I then told her what I thought were the two sides in the conflict. She then asked me if I was Jewish. I said my ancestry is Jewish although I don't think of myself that way. She said she was Jewish too. And then she signed.
OK, its true: later on a woman who was, I think, Jewish and who was extremely pro-Israel heard me give the same explanation of the two sides but she still refused to sign. (We spoke for a long time, however, despite the fact that she had an impatient child with her, and I think that when she left there was some real doubt in her mind that maybe the Israeli government was wrong.)
What this experience demonstrates is that a class analysis of the conflict in the Middle East is extremely powerful. It resonates with people. It makes it very clear that the values shared by virtually all decent people in Somerville are in conflict with the values of self-serving elites, and that our divestment campaign is simply applying the values that most people share to this faraway conflict. Furthermore, this kind of class analysis frames the discussion in a way that makes it clear that the conflict in the Middle East is just another battle in the same class war that goes on in Somerville as much as elsewhere -- a war between the working class values of equality and solidarity and democracy versus the elite values of inequality, competition (when necessary for social control, even the extreme version of ethnic war) and top-down control.
This class analysis framework allows people to take the insights that they have about class conflict in their own lives and use this insight to understand the conflict in the Middle East. Instead of Somervillians seeing the conflict as one between faraway Jews versus faraway Arabs, they can see it as one between ordinary people like themselves and elites like the ones they face in Somerville. This in turn encourages people in Somerville to feel a solidaristic connection to people in the Middle East fighting apartheid Israel. Spreading this kind of understanding and solidarity is the way we can build a world-wide revolutionary movement to defeat the elites and make a world like the one that billions of people really want.