No, it’s not fair to put some blame on the anti-Israel anti-Zionism folk for the recent vandalism at the Workman’s Circle in Los Angeles. Discourse is never “fair.” A discourse is a grouping of performative statements and acts over which it is impossible to exercise complete control. They depend upon echo chambers, autonomous microcosms that generate and control all kinds of statements, acts, and effects that are entered or brought into them. This control remains independent of any single subject’s good intention prior to the statement or act itself. Echo chambers inevitably create destructive effects unexpected by single subjects, especially those who are absolutely convinced of the rightness of their own cause and the correctness of their own judgment. We can, for instance, say and be absolutely convinced that that we are not racists, or colonialists, not anti-Semites, not “a self-hating Jews.” Maybe it’s even true. But then I say something and that’s the way it comes out –racist, colonialist, anti-Semitic, or “self-hating.” This is all especially true when the echo chamber contributes to a discourse built on deep, intractable antipathies and the affect carried by these antipathies.
None of this is unique to anti-Zionsim. I said the same thing online about conservative groups like the Tikvah Fund and the way in which a platform like the Jewish Review of Books creates an echo chamber meant to pool up statements and bend them into a conservative cultural-political arc, regardless of any single speaker’s actual intention or ideological commitment. There were people who thought my remarks were unfair, as if the truth at hand had to do with the intention and autonomy of the speaker who contributes willingly or unwillingly to the echo chamber set up by the discourse under question. One could expand upon this point and argue, reasonably, that groups like AIPAC or the ADL create or form part of an echo chamber in which anything anyone says about Israel, no matter how “liberal,” like “two states for two peoples,” which was once a leftwing statement, turns into something grotesque, monstrous, stupid, and “rightwing.” This is how a discourse like Zionism can deteriorate, how it runs down over time, especially when it’s not carefully and critically recalibrated, re-invented, reconsidered, etc.
So why should it not be the case that 1-Staters and other members of the Israel, the Free-Palestine-Zionsim-is-racism-is-settler-colonialism-Israel-Lobby crowd create their own echo chamber, whose sound is impossible to control? You can see its formation at BDS, Electronic Intifadah, Mondoweiss, International Solidarity Movement, the Middle Eastern Studies Association, and at talkback sections at the Guardian or at Juan Cole’s blog Informed Comment. Unlike AIPAC, this formation is not as institutionally articulated, or backed up by big money and political muscle. But it works in its own little ways, with effects that are often toxic, especially given the way in which the direct objects of the discourse, “Israel” and “Zionism” are subject to so many combinations of hatred, rage, contempt, shame, and self-righteous indignation. These are the affects out of which the anti-Zionism echo chamber contributes to an environment in which it is possible and probable that all sorts of bad things can happen. Stupid things get said, apologetic things like “Yes, understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important,” despite one’s own commitments to anti- violence. Public murals and community centers get defaced. Events and cultural performances are disrupted, speakers get shouted down, persons morally and physically intimidated, and so on.
While I cannot believe that any single person is individually in control of what actually happens inside an echo chamber, I nevertheless believe that we’re all responsible and should be held responsible for the things that happen there in the echo chambers to which we contribute. We demand this all the time, of our opponents. Like anti-black racism in the Tea Party, like anti-Arab racism in the Jewish community, like anti-Semitism in the Palestine solidarity community. We cannot just backtrack and simply say, “that’s not what I meant,” because what we “meant” no longer matters. What matters is what we say and do, the discourse to which we commit and the more general environment those commitments create. This is not about garden-variety racism or anti-Semitism, but if “we” have to struggle constantly against extreme forms of racism or anti-Semitism in the community that we have helped build, then maybe we have committed to the wrong community. Maybe there is something wrong with “Zionism” or with “anti-Zionism.” Maybe we have not drawn internally the kinds of sharp lines between the permitted and forbidden that such commitments and communities require. Or maybe we have drawn too sharp and unthinking a line between good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, that sharp metaphysical line between “friends and enemies.” Once “you” have done that, no matter where you stand, then yes, you are responsible for the kinds of things that are carried out in your name or in the name of your commitment.