Jesse’s Gyrations on Palestine

Micah Sifry’s “Jackson and the Jews: Palestine and the Struggle for the Democratic Party” in your November 1988 issue, reveals all the contradictions and inadequacies of later-day Democratic Party liberalism. He concedes that Jesse made several shifts to the right on the Palestine question: “He began speaking of ‘secure borders for Israel’ (as opposed to internationally recognized borders); he confronted Mikhail Gorbachev on the issue of Soviet Jewry; he avoided singling out Israel’s relations with South Africa.” He admits that when “asked on Face the Nation if he would ‘sit down with Arafat,’ he replied ‘it isn’t necessary to do that.’” Jackson’s Palestine resolution at the convention prattled on about “maintaining the special relation with Israel founded on mutually shared values and strategic interests.” It endorsed the Camp David accords. Subsequently, Jackson rushed to mollify the Israeli ambassador, as Sifry testifies. But, in spite of the fact that Jackson withdrew the resolution in the interest of party unity, Sifry pretends that “Palestinian rights have finally made it onto the US political agenda.”

To be polite about it, this is bullshit. In 1984, Jesse was openly pro-Palestinian until the shameful Hymietown slurs. Subsequent to that race, Jackson was convinced, by Ann Lewis, ex-head of Americans for Democratic Action, set up by the party in the late 1940s as its answer to Henry Wallace and to keep liberals chained to Wall Street in the Cold War, that he had to choose between continuing to beat up on the party leadership and remaining an outsider, or getting along and going along. He chose the second route. Getting into Gorby’s face about Soviet Jewry was part of his scheme to make peace with the Zionist moneybags that are crucial to the party, as Sifry admits. All the other compromises on principle flowed from that same orientation. Sifry, like many other burned out liberals, fantasized that Jackson would be their Moses to lead them out of the desert of political isolation. They did not want to see what the newspapers were telling them, over and over again, namely that Jackson was making his peace with the party right wing. But now, after his November 13 interview with the Chicago Tribune, it is impossible to continue on as a Jackson supporter and maintain credibility as any kind of leftist: he stressed that the party needs to shape a new message with a more conservative cast…The Democrats should advocate a stronger military, Jackson said, and make the military more attractive for enlisted personnel by providing scholarships and lifetime health insurance. To support his argument building a coalition between his constituents and more conservative Democrats in the South…Jackson pointed to 1986 Senate races where several Democrats were helped greatly by black voters registered since Jackson’s 1984 run.

Sifry and his fellow liberals did not understand what was happening before their eyes because, in the end, they fundamentally share Jackson’s party perspective. Sifry never expected the resolution to pass or Jackson to be the candidate. He knew Dukakis would be the nominee and that a vote for him would be the same as a vote for the Israeli army. We may be sure he voted for him, “in order to fight larger battles.” Modern liberalism may be exactly defined: The racist notion that Palestinian lives must be sacrificed to the party moneybags, so that Central American lives might, perhaps, be saved.

The idea that Palestinian rights could be attained via a pro-Zionist party is a species of crackpot realism, of a piece with the equally mad notion that serious social change can come through a capitalist party To be sure, Jackson’s delegates were, for the most part, pro-Palestinian, even if moderately so. But Jackson is in the process of killing the Rainbow Coalition and substituting for it a new PAC, Keep Hope Alive, totally controlled by him. Those Jackson delegates were demoralized by Jackson’s surrenders on platform issues, by his acceptance of Bentsen for veep, and then his, and their, campaigning for Dukakis, even after that character likewise moved to the right, in a tank.

They will be further demoralized as they see their hero move ever farther to the right. Some of these elements will learn from the debacle. Will Sifry? Will he now conclude that it is impossible for liberals, or pro-Palestinians to go forward in the Democratic Party? Ask him. At any rate, serious leftists and pro-Palestinians will not wait around for those like Sifry who believed in saviors. With them, or without them, or against them, we will build a new left, socialist party, the only kind of a party that will be unconditionally for the Palestinians.

Lenni Brenner
New York City


Sifry Responds

To be polite about it, if Lenni Brenner or anyone else thinks that in 1988 there was a better candidate on Palestinian rights than Jesse Jackson or a better vehicle to advance the cause of Palestinian-Israeli peace than the Rainbow campaign, or for that matter any political action that did more to revitalize the American left, I would love to hear about it. But Brenner’s political purism leads him to see failures and sell-outs where in fact tangible progress has been made. If Palestinian rights have not finally made it onto the US political agenda, as Brenner insists, what are we to make of Shultz’s decision to open talks with the PLO? Did Jackson, along with the organizing efforts of progressive Arabs and Jews, have nothing to do with it?

Unlike Brenner, I think their efforts were timely and crucial. Brenner says that Palestinian rights cannot be attained via a pro-Zionist party, but the point of my article was that in response to the intifada, emerging dissent in the Jewish community, the Jackson campaign and the hard work of many activists, the Democratic party is no longer a monolith on the Middle East. A serious and unfinished effort to realign the liberal/progressive wing of the party is under way. It won’t have the support of the “Zionist moneybags” but it does have a solid black base and significant backing from other minorities, labor, farmers, gay and lesbian activists, and even some Jews. Judging from the December meeting of the National Rainbow Coalition board, the Rainbow organization is far from dead or dominated by Jesse Jackson alone. And the Keep Hope Alive PAC, which has only one employee, is being set up to supplement the coalition’s activities, primarily by raising money to support Rainbow candidates for office.

Brenner’s assertion that Jackson has made peace with the party rightwing can’t be serious. If they’ve made peace, why the intense behind-the-scenes battle currently raging over the successor to party chair Paul Kirk? Obviously, the moneybags still view Jackson as more of a threat than Brenner does. Sure, some centrists are trying to woo Jackson so they can co-opt him, but I think his roots and the constituencies that have mobilized around him will keep him more honest than any other leader in the party. (Brenner complains that Jackson wants to give scholarships and lifetime health insurance to enlisted personnel, but don’t forget the disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics who are drafted by their poverty into the army. One shouldn’t immediately dismiss redistributive politics just because they’re in the military.)

Of course, I never promised anyone a rose garden, even with Jesse Jackson in the White House. Brenner is right to point to the contradictions of working within the Democratic party. But I would argue that in the United States of 1988 the tradeoffs of choosing to work for a left agenda, or even for more narrow goals like Palestinian rights, outside of the two-party presidential system were far worse.


Wanted: More Domestic Coverage

Micah Sifry’s article on the shifting alignment in the Democratic Party was a welcome correction to MERIP’s overall underreporting on domestic American politics. For me, it highlighted the need for an analysis of the role of American Zionists in recent decades in promoting the Cold War and undermining the United Nations. Sifry correctly noted that in reaction to Jesse Jackson, many Jews have been “inclined to push and support efforts to move the party rightward.” He also observed that “the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev has signalled the end of the Cold War, making Soviet Jewry a less salient cause.” I have not seen in Middle East Report or elsewhere a competent review of the process by which Israel supporters have for years strengthened the so-called “Defense Democrats” in their hard line toward superpower and Third World relations (beginning long before Jackson addressed the Middle East issue).

I believe this is quite relevant to MERIP's mission, because East-West tensions and a marginalized UN have in turn been used effectively in this country to manipulate the debate and shape public opinion regarding the Middle East. I write not as a person knowledgeable about this process. Rather, I would like to encourage MERIP to seek and publish at least one essay exploring it so a great piece of history will not be lost on me and some of your other readers.

Rostam Pourzal
Falls Church VA

How to cite this article:

"Letter," Middle East Report 157 (March/April 1989).

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