Reviewed: Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick, Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics, The New Press; John Lyons, Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment, Monash University Publishing
Thanks to two resoundingly successful campaigns between 2021 and 2022, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is enjoying new visibility in so-called Australia. It might be the most momentum BDS has developed on the continent since it was founded by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005. The recent boycotts of Melbourne Queer Film Festival (MQFF) and Sydney Festival have had a profound effect on the Australian arts landscape, with many in the industry wary of replicating these festivals’ disastrous responses to initial community requests and subsequent boycott campaigns alike.
It’s no coincidence that activists have targeted these cultural institutions.1 Under pressure from their audiences, these organisations have implemented myriad diversity and inclusion policies in recent years. Sincere intentions aside, such initiatives are implemented, at least in part, in order to maintain the progressive image integral to these institutions’ market positions. If they’ve ignored Palestine in the past, it’s because they didn’t perceive their inaction as a threat to their image and therefore financial stability.
These institutions now face a new problem. Successive brutal Israeli assaults on Palestinian life; the tireless work of diaspora Palestinian artists, activists and intellectuals; and major human rights organisations adopting the term apartheid to describe Israel’s regime have finally designated Palestine a worthy cause of ‘social justice’. For the first time, perhaps ever, failure to respond to calls for solidarity with the Palestinian people can seriously damage the reputation of organisations such as MQFF and the Sydney Festival.
• • •
There’s a term for the outlook expressed by these festivals: PEP (Progressive Except for Palestine). First used as a descriptor for a Democratic US congressional candidate in an opinion piece by then Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson,2 PEP—as both noun and adjective—has become a shorthand for individuals and organisations that profess to support progressive causes but reject solidarity with Palestinians. As the first book-length work to address this phenomenon specifically, Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick’s Except for Palestine positions itself as an incisive diagnosis of how Palestine has been condemned to exceptional status.
From the book’s first line the authors impart a sense of urgency: ‘As this book was going to press …’ In the book’s preface, written just after Joe Biden’s electoral victory in the United States, Hill and Plitnick warn against complacency as the soiled curtains of the Trump presidency close: ‘we have little reason to believe that the Biden presidency will properly attend to the systemic issues that preceded and, indeed, helped produce the Trump phenomenon’. Nowhere is this more true, they claim, than with respect to US policy on Palestine and Israel.
For a 155-page book, Except covers considerable historical depth. Across its four chapters—each identifying an issue or issues around which Palestine has been held to a different set of rules—Hill and Plitnick cite myriad texts, from Knesset speeches to 1980s New York Times op-eds, reaching as far back as Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s 1923 essay ‘The Iron Wall’. The book’s best analysis, however, is more contemporary and closer to home.
In the third chapter (‘Trumped-up Policy’), Hill and Plitnick demonstrate that their refusal to conceive of the Trump era as an aberration of US politics was not a mere afterthought. As they chart the bipartisan precedents to Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem and the cutting of funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), they elucidate a history of liberal complicity usually absent from reportage of these incidents and yet to be explored in popular writing on Palestine. But in its sole focus on US foreign policy, this chapter reveals something important: Except isn’t about Palestine at all.
It’s not so much a question of what it’s about but who. In the opening paragraphs of the introduction, Hill and Plitnick compare the reactions of ‘self-identifying progressives’ in two recent situations: Donald Trump sending US troops to the United States–Mexico border after labelling migration from Central America an ‘invasion’, and Trump’s announcement weeks earlier that the United States would end its funding of the UNRWA. According to Hill and Plitnick, ‘American progressives expressed sympathy for those fleeing persecution’. However, when it came to Palestinians being stripped of essential services, these same progressives remained silent. Hill and Plitnick lament that, for progressives, contesting this US government decision ‘should have been an easy call’. Although they refer to them in the third-person, it’s clear that these progressives constitute Except’s intended audience.
While chapter subjects are distinct—they can be read as stand-alone polemical essays—the mode of address throughout Except stays true to the introduction. Rather than simply presenting the hypocrisies of the institutions in question, Hill and Plitnick position Except as a rhetorical appeal to self-identifying progressives, imploring them to apply their purported values in a consistent manner.
As a rule, a rhetorical appeal must unite its audience via entreaty to the values and pathos deemed commonalities among diverse individuals. Although a self-selecting group by definition, Hill and Plitnick find only one way of uniting self-identifying progressives: not through a simple appeal to morality, but one to American morality. And so progressives’ failure to respond to the cutting of UNRWA funding identified in the introduction’s opening plea ‘not only contradicted core political values stemming from our notions of democracy, but our very conception of self’. Rather than Palestine, it becomes apparent that Except is about liberal American identity.
Although Hill and Plitnick, as seasoned journalists, work from a base of diligent and intricate research, this liberalising framework inevitably structures their arguments. Each sentence is carefully engineered so as not to set off an imagined Zionist sympathiser, upholding the balance fallacy at every opportunity: rather than asserting the right of oppressed peoples to resist their oppressor with whatever available means, the authors assert that Palestinians are long-standing users of non-violence. When settler nationalism rears its head, imperialism is never far behind, and sure enough Hill and Plitnick assure the reader that they’re not suggesting a halt to US intervention in the region that serves its national interests.
If this all sounds simply like liberalism—in its classical sense—that’s because it is; ‘progressive politics’, as it turns out, is hollow. Its only stable truth is that it’s a politics devoid of politics—it demands no relation to the material facts of people’s lives, no movement building, and no challenge to nationalism or ongoing colonisation. If Palestine is a question, it’s one that progressive politics can’t answer. Rather than any truth about Palestine, Except exposes the word ‘progressive’ for what it is: a floating signifier that’s always ready to be remade by market imperatives; a series of blow-up balloon letters reading ‘politics’ held high above the head by people walking designer dogs on stolen land.
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Nowhere is Hill and Plitnick’s adherence to the political formlessness they purport to critique more evident than in their treatment of the First and Second Intifadas, the popular uprisings that for Palestinians across the world represent the will of the Palestinian people. Littered with false equivalences, Except reduces these remarkable moments in the history of Palestinian resistance to a background spectacle of violence for the book’s ceremonial appeals to liberal American decency. Several times, the Second Intifada is deemed responsible for the ‘devastation’ of Palestine, as if it occurred without cause and not in response to ever-increasing Israeli colonial repression.
In the second chapter (‘Criminalizing BDS’), the rhetorical purpose of denigrating the Intifadas becomes apparent: ‘Durable, organized Palestinian efforts at global boycotts of Israel emerged against the backdrop of this violence.’ Yet this so-called ‘backdrop’ is entirely the authors’ invention, erected so as to frame BDS not as Palestinian resistance adapting to a new age of Israeli settler colonisation, but as the ‘civilised’ response to the Second Intifada. Only by cleaving the continuous history of Palestinian resistance into a violent past and a non-violent present can Hill and Plitnick make the defence of BDS appeal to their liberal readership.
This attitude towards insurrection doesn’t come as much of a surprise for Plitnick, a political analyst and writer long invested in working within the existing political order. Having previously held executive roles for Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Foundation for Middle East Peace and B’Tselem, his career evokes carbon-neutral catered board meetings and cultural sensitivity training more than flaming police cars. So when I read such lines, it wasn’t Plitnick I thought of, but Hill.
Usually a mere formality, the author photo that greets us at the end of Except makes one thing immediately apparent: race. But this was not the reason for my dismay at Hill’s authorial presence behind the erasure of the Intifadas—as Hamzah Baig has demonstrated, it wasn’t until Malcolm X’s Black Islamic Internationalism that an influential Black American began to make the case for solidarity with Palestinians.3 Until then, the mythos of the Israeli state held significant pull for many Black people in the United States, a phenomenon of which New York Democratic congressman Ritchie Torres is the most recent and zealous exemplar.
What is puzzling, however, is that Hill has long been a proponent for Palestine. In 2018, while addressing the United Nations on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Hill stated that ‘justice requires … a free Palestine from the river to the sea’. For using the phrase ‘river to the sea’—one that expresses a Palestinian claim to belonging in all of historic Palestine that Zionists and their allies claim in bad faith as anti-Semitic—Hill’s contract with CNN was terminated and his professorship at Temple University threatened. Although he eventually apologised (presumably so he wouldn’t lose his employment), affirming similar commitments to anti-Semitism that appear in Except, he also defended the phrase, and apologised for the ‘reception of [his] message’.4 As someone who is closely aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, Hill’s authorship behind this rhetoric is all the more jarring. During the protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he emphasised the importance of referring to these flashpoints of civil unrest not as ‘riots’ but ‘acts of rebellion’; not ‘random acts of violence’ but ‘political responses’. Why then, when it comes to Palestine, is Except more call for calm than call to arms?
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Before the boycotts, there was May 2021. On 10 May, Israel launched another indiscriminate bombing campaign against besieged Gaza, this time in response to Palestinian resistance to the eviction of families from Sheikh Jarrah, assaults on Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli forces, and attacks on Palestinians throughout Palestine and so-called Israel. Within days, Palestinian activists in so-called Australia joined Palestinians across Palestine and the world in protest, organising rallies attended by thousands, coordinating petitions and writing statements and articles. Many of the latter critiqued the mainstream Australian media for its use of equivocal language and lack of critical coverage of Israel’s assaults.
Written in the wake of these events, journalist John Lyons’ book Dateline Jerusalem has been welcomed by some as a long-awaited exposé, taking aim at Australian media for endemic ‘censorship’ of criticism of Israel. Drawing on observations Lyons made while based in Jerusalem as the Middle East correspondent for the Australian, it was ‘journalism’s toughest assignment’ not because reporting from Jerusalem is more difficult than other postings in a material sense, but because, for Lyons, reporting on Palestine and Israel poses the most rigorous test of one’s journalistic integrity.
Through a series of interviews with ex-colleagues and other media workers, Lyons investigates the forces that make journalists and editors ‘think twice before writing anything critical of Israel’. For the most part, the pervasive influence of the Israel lobby—particularly the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC)—is held responsible for this corruption of journalistic ethics.
When Lyons speaks from his own experience, he’s able to demonstrate just how groundless the claims made by people such as Colin Rubenstein (executive director of AIJAC) are; for example, that ‘Israel does more than any other country to avoid killing civilians’. Having seen firsthand ‘what looked like cobwebs of white balls (dropped) onto civilians in Gaza’, Lyons later spoke to doctors who confirmed they had treated patients with burns attributed to white phosphorous, a chemical weapon that burns people alive. Long after an Israeli army spokesperson denied these allegations to Lyons, Israel admitted to having used the chemical weapon.
However, when Lyons reaches beyond his own experience, his claims soften, couched in qualifiers such as ‘I think …’ and ‘in my opinion …’ His problem: the intimidation of editors and journalists that he describes happens behind closed doors, leaving no paper trail. As a result, Lyons can’t establish objective truth. With the political memoir genre foreclosed by the book’s investigative approach and the establishment of fact beyond possibility, Lyons further entrenches his ‘I’ in pursuit of the only mode of address available to him: rhetorical appeal.
Like Except, Dateline is rigorously researched. Unlike Hill and Plitnick, though, Lyons doesn’t use liberal rhetoric to unite a subset of the nation-state’s citizens; he directly addresses all ‘Australians’. In Except, one gets the sense that the centring of liberal identity is merely a rhetorical ploy, made with the hope that it will lead to some kind of improvement in Palestinians’ lives. For Lyons, no such goal exists; the problem apparently isn’t outlets refusing to publish Palestinian writers—something Randa Abdel-Fattah has written about on numerous occasions5—but that ‘Australians aren’t getting the full picture’. In case the appeals to civic nationalism throughout don’t make it clear, Dateline’s final line brings it home: ‘Australians deserve better’.6
Given the Monash University Publishing series of which it is part, Dateline’s appeal to the settler imaginary are unsurprising. Entitled In the National Interest, this series assumes and reasserts the legitimacy of the settler-colonial nation-state as a political form. One imagines titles such as Good International Citizen and Governing in the Internet Age as the perfect gift for your aspiring liberal policy analyst. Others, such as Our National Shame: Violence against Women, reduce complex questions of gender, power, violence and ethics to a crisis of the nation. Another title in the series, Burning down the House: Reconstructing Modern Politics, traces the story of ‘how our politics went awry’, erasing the violence of invasion and ongoing colonisation in one line, its title ingeniously appropriating the language of revolution while leaving all Australian flags intact.
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No individual publisher in so-called Australia has been targeted by Palestinian activists as much as Schwartz Publishing.7 Thanks to their progressive image and conspicuous paucity of critical coverage of Israel, the company has earned the reputation of the most high-profile PEP on the continent.
When it comes to Schwartz, rather than faulting the Israel lobby, Lyons identifies owner discretion for what former The Saturday Paper (TSP) morning editor Alex McKinnon calls ‘an unofficial but widely known editorial policy of avoiding coverage of Israel and Palestine’. When asked about the absence of Palestinian writers and criticism of Israel in his publications, owner Morry Schwartz states: ‘All I want is balance in everything, including Israel. There has been no direction to my staff.’ Top-down directive or not, in all the world news headlines on the TSP website from 2021, there’s only one mention of Palestine, entitled in the most oblique terms: ‘UN fears “full-scale war between Israel and Palestine”’.8 While there’s no reason to doubt the testimony of McKinnon and ex-TSP world editor Hamish McDonald, as with Israel lobby pressure, there’s no way to ‘prove’ censorship.
That said, censorship is the active curtailment of speech. If Schwartz’s media culture ‘leaves no fingerprints’, then technically it’s not censorship. Still, Lyons clings to the language of accusation, and in an implicit acknowledgement of the powerlessness of his framework, locates censorship at the level of the individual—that is, self-censorship: an unprovable accusation and therefore something that can never amount to a crime. Throughout Dateline, Lyons attempts to indict Schwartz, but Morry and co are acquitted. Insufficient evidence.
Lyons isn’t alone in his inability to conceive of justice outside punitive frameworks. News media isn’t simply beholden to the nation-state’s legal system—as any public speech is—but is in a symbiotic relationship with it. Come journalism awards season, media outlets announce the ‘stories’ they’ve published that have ‘exposed’ criminals. The progressive appeal in this is that they investigate those whom the government abets. In this way, via continued assistance in criminal proceedings, news media shares in the nation-state’s monopoly on violence. Appealing as they do to the language of criminality, rather than being anti-establishment, rallying cries of ‘censorship’ reaffirm the epistemological foundations on which the established regime claims legitimacy.
No journalistic concept bears the mark of the relationship between news media and the nation-state more than that of journalistic objectivity, something Lyons employs throughout Dateline, particularly in the case of the Palestinian media workers he interviewed. Writing about a petition and open letter organised by Palestinian ex-journalist Jennine Khalik in 2021, Lyons uses terms such as ‘Israeli–Palestinian Conflict’, the kind of ambiguous language that Khalik and signees were protesting. Thus he becomes what Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist and scholar Amy McQuire has termed the ‘White Witness’.9 Just as McQuire describes how settler colonial society always privileges this white witness over the Bla(c)k witness, so too does Lyons position himself as the authority to ‘objectively’ relay Palestinian testimony. Even after liberal human rights organisation Amnesty International recently declared Israel an apartheid state, the Australian news media continues to peddle the same equivocations masked as journalistic ‘objectivity’.10
Depictions of ‘interference’ between government and media are misleading. It’s not that the media has an undue influence on politics or vice-versa; it’s that the two are mutually constitutive of the horizons of political possibility, hemmed in on every side by liberalism. Consequently, journalistic objectivity can never attend to Palestine; to do so would undermine the settler nation-state’s legitimacy.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we stop protesting news media for its lack of coverage or criticality. These contestations are important precisely because they lay bare the impossibility of justice via state-sanctioned objectivity. In an essay on her Substack newsletter, McQuire points out that ‘the conversation is often focused on “diversity” in the media, rather than building a sovereign black media space totally independent of government’. She continues: ‘I believe that black media must be an arm of advocacy, not simply one [that] reports on this advocacy, but a weapon to be used by mob in the pursuit of justice.’11
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The Schwartz monopoly on Australian progressive media began with the launch of The Saturday Paper in 2014. In response to a lack of progressive voices, Schwartz’s solution was not to question old media forms, but to take the most staid one—the broadsheet—and replace its traditionally conservative content with reporting on climate change and social justice movements. But in ‘reinventing’ the broadsheet, Schwartz performs an inherently conservative act, ensuring the continuation of print capitalism’s flagship form—one integral to the historical development of nationalism12—as well as the (false) notion of ‘the world’ that it engenders.13
It’s tempting to view this in ironic terms. But to impose such a reading is to legitimise Schwartz’s separation of form and content, thereby ignoring the relationship between the colonising nation-state and news media inherent in state-sanctioned objectivity. In its appeal to irony, PEP performs a similar function. As Palestinian theorist Steven Salaita states, ‘supporting Israel isn’t a respite from otherwise admirable ethics’.14 The term PEP renders invisible the fundamental politics of those to whom it is applied.
In their preservation of state-sanctioned objectivity and the colonising nation-state’s legitimacy, Dateline and Except demonstrate that progressive and conservative politics share a fundamental commonality: the two operate in the container home to the left–right continuum—liberalism—premised on continuing colonisation and racial capitalism.15 It’s not that progressive politics is formless, it’s that, invested as it is in preserving its liberal inheritance, it renders form and structure invisible at every opportunity. With a distinct lack of political imagination, progressive politics asserts that the world’s political structures don’t need to be fundamentally transformed, just emptied of their current content, as if that were possible. No person or organisation is ‘progressive except for Palestine’; they are merely progressive.
Throughout Except and Dateline, Hill, Plitnick and Lyons refer to Palestine as if its treatment as an exception were a self-evident truth. But their appeals to US and Australian settler nationalisms reveal something else—in severing Palestine from Indigenous resistance against the liberal nation-state in the places from which they write, it is texts such as these that render Palestine an exception. It’s no wonder then that one fundamental concept—the basis of solidarity between Palestinians and First Nations peoples in so-called Australia and Turtle Island—is entirely absent from both books: Indigenous sovereignty. •
Muhib Nabulsi is a diaspora Palestinian writer, filmmaker and community organiser living in Meanjin on the unceded sovereign lands of the Turrbal and Yuggera peoples.
- Disclosure: I was one of the organisers of the MQFF boycott campaign.
- Rebecca Vilkomerson, ‘Progressive except on Palestine’, The Hill, 12 September 2011. This online article is no longer live, but is available on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine at <https://web.archive.org/web/20210107103209/https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/180961-progressive-except-on-palestine>.
- Hamzah Baig, ‘“Spirit in Opposition”: Malcolm X and the Question of Palestine’, Social Text, vol. 37,no. 3, 2019.
- My emphasis.
- Randa Abdel-Fattah, ‘Lobbied: The Palestinian Erasure’, Meanjin, 8 October 2021, <https://meanjin.com.au/blog/lobbied-the-palestinian-erasure/>; ‘Inaudible’, Meanjin, 17 May 2021, <https://meanjin.com.au/blog/inaudible>; and ‘The Great Palestinian Silence’ Meanjin, 10 July 2020, <https://meanjin.com.au/blog/the-great-palestinian-silence/>.
- This magazine too has published purportedly critical pieces that further entrench an Australian ‘we’: See Roj Amedi, ‘Human Rights and Political Wrongs’, Meanjin, 10 November 2017, <https://meanjin.com.au/blog/human-rights-and-political-wrongs/>.
- The Schwartz Media umbrella includes Quarterly Essay, Australian Foreign Affairs, the Monthly, 7am podcast and The Saturday Paper (TSP); they are also the owners of publishers Schwartz Books, which operates subsidiaries Black Inc., Nero Books and La Trobe University Press.
- I state this only as an example of the paper’s lack of critical coverage on so-called Israel and Palestine. This lack of coverage was evident from TSP’s beginning in 2014. See Tim Robertson, ‘Palestine and the Saturday Paper’, Overland, 1 August 2014.
- Amy McQuire, ‘Black and White Witness’, Meanjin, Winter 2019.
- As Palestinians have pointed out, the problem with human rights groups’ apartheid designations is that they normalise a nation-state that has always been a settler-colonial regime. See Lana Tatour, ‘Why calling Israel an apartheid state is not enough’, Middle East Eye, 18 January 2021.
- Amy McQuire, ‘Black Witness: Reading Ida B Wells in this place’, <https://amymcquire.substack.com/p/black-witness-reading-ida-b-wells/>, October 2021.
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1983.
- In response to Schwartz’s lack of accountability, First Nations and Palestinian writers and editors—McQuire included—started the Sunday Paper. The fact that it appropriates the newspaper form while refusing state-sanctioned objectivity is part of its joy in solidarity.
- Steven Salaita, ‘Except for Palestine’, <https://stevesalaita.com/except-for-palestine/>.
- The concept of racial capitalism demonstrates that race and racism are foundational to capitalism. It was coined by Black theorist Cedric Robinson in his book Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) and has since been popularised by Black theorists Robin D.G. Kelley and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.