By Penina Eilberg-Schwartz
With whom do you believe your lot is cast?
From where does your strength come?
— Adrienne Rich, Sources
Merriam Webster defines a litmus test as “something (such as an opinion about a political or moral issue) that is used to make a judgment about whether someone or something is acceptable.”
It is also “a test for acidity or alkalinity using litmus.”
What differentiates the political litmus test from the chemical one is reward. Science — in its purest form, when you remove the desires and hopes and fears of the scientist — looks upon every result as the same. It doesn’t favor one over the other. Science punishes neither alkalinity nor acidity; it simply notes each result and moves on. But as everyone who knows anything knows, politics is not a science.
Those on the left in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and in its satellite conflict in the U.S.) are all too familiar with litmus tests. We see examples of these markers of belonging and threats of exclusion everywhere we look.
These litmus tests, of course, are most dangerous for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
It used to be that Israel’s military law in the West Bank prohibited the use of the word Palestine in the classroom or anywhere else. It used to be that a Palestinian could be arrested simply for being found with a Palestinian flag. My friend H. remembers that her father kept his flag hidden at the very bottom of a drawer. This act of resistance — if small — was also essential, and very dangerous.
In 2010, the Israeli cabinet approved Avigdor Lieberman’s amendment to the Law of Citizenship requiring that all new non-Jewish immigrants to Israel pledge an oath of loyalty to the “Jewish and democratic” state. (Lieberman actually wanted a tougher version that would apply to all Palestinian citizens of Israel as well.) While the Knesset did not ultimately approve the amendment, the people who supported it remain enormously powerful, shaping realities for both Israelis and Palestinians.
The litmus test not-so-subtly embedded in the idea of the loyalty oath is Israel’s demand that Palestinians recognize its “right to exist,” its demand that Palestinians recognize the legitimacy of Zionism as a movement and, ultimately, accept the violence and dispossession it led to. This question of Israel’s right to exist is the litmus test at the bottom of all tests posed by mainstream Israelis and Jews to determine whether or not a viewpoint is acceptable.
While Palestinians face the greatest danger of failing the litmus test — which one can fail by the simple fact of being Palestinian — Jews in America also find themselves caught in these mechanisms of testing and counter-testing.
In the Bay Area, grantees of the San Francisco Jewish Federation may not hold public events with organizations — Jewish or not — that consider Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) a legitimate movement. This policy prohibits any public events with leaders of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) participating on a panel. JVP is a vocal advocate for the selective boycott of companies profiting from the occupation, and this, plus the organization’s failure to demonize the wider BDS movement, makes the airing of its views unacceptable. If you want to be accepted by the broader Jewish community in the Bay Area, you must reject boycott. Some manage to remain on the margins of the community by limiting themselves to boycotting products that were made in settlements, but anything broader than this means you’ve failed the test. And if you want to be seen as legitimate by the broader Jewish community, this is a test you must pass.
The examples of these litmus tests used by the holders of power to silence and control Palestinians and activists on the left are easy to find. We could keep sharing them for a long time, in part because there are just so many of them. But it’s also easy for us to talk about these examples because, as with anything that is easy to talk about, they affirm our understanding of who we are. It is much more difficult to look at the litmus tests we are asking others to pass.
When starting this essay, I felt inclined to open with the litmus tests of the right for several reasons. Most obviously, those stories have the power to remind us that we don’t want anything to do with the tools of exclusion and their violence. But I also felt the need to start with the litmus tests of the right as a way to show my hand: this is who I am, this is the position to which I belong, these are the terms I use, please don’t refuse me.
This is a familiar impulse for me, and I think for some other Jews on the far left, too. It may have something to do with the fact that in some progressive non-Jewish spaces (and in radical Jewish spaces, too) it is assumed that Jews are on the “wrong side” when it comes to Israel/Palestine. It is assumed that we are not anti-occupation, or not anti-occupation enough, or not anti-Zionist enough, or not supportive enough of BDS.
Or if an assumption of our politics is not made, sometimes we are asked the question: which side are you on? And while we don’t have to answer — and this is a dead giveaway of our privilege — we choose to. We choose to because we want to be seen as we see ourselves: on the side of justice, on the side of freedom and equality for all people. Maybe we even go further. We want to differentiate ourselves from the Jews who are on the “wrong side” or who, in their silence or complacency, end up supporting the wrong side.
This performance of correct views plays out mostly in relationship to Zionism, the argument over the one-state vs. two-state solutions, and the validity of BDS. That is to say, the litmus tests we create on the left use the same determining factors as the litmus tests of the right. We privilege the opposite answers, but we use the same questions.
Every year when I am invited to the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network’s seder in San Francisco, I think about going and then don’t. I don’t go, in part, because of a general sense of unease that I won’t be able to pass some test that’s been presented to me. Or if I do pass the test, there will be a quiet price, one that I’ve experienced before, a sort of dissonance and a sort of hiding.
Not long after the assault on Gaza in 2009, I was standing in a sea of people in downtown San Francisco, protesting Ehud Olmert’s presence at a speaking event across the street. I found my friend M., walked with him through the chants of from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!, and cocked my head at his friend who said something cruel about Jews. When M. said, man, Penina’s Jewish, the friend stopped for a second, smiled, punched my arm and said, Oh no, no, no — I don’t hate Jews, just Zionists. I nodded a little, smiled a little, and stayed quiet.
I don’t identify as anti-zionist. My preferred predicate is “non” for many reasons. I have ambivalence about nationalism in general, I see and condemn the ways that Zionism has been historically linked with colonialism and racism, and I am not sure if “Jewish and democratic” is possible, at least within the confines of a modern nation-state. I condemn the violence that has characterized both Israel’s founding and many aspects of its existence since, and I want to stand with Palestinians calling for justice and an end to occupation.
Though I cannot identify with Zionism on philosophical terms, I also struggle to say I am against it as a whole when I am not against the Zionisms of Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt that supported Jewish self-determination in the form of a bi-national state in Palestine. I’m not sure it would have been possible, but I am not against it. I think it’s actually a very beautiful idea. And maybe more relevant: I still have people in my life who identify as “progressive Zionists,” and though I challenge elements of their thinking, I cannot reject them.
But I’m afraid to tell some of my friends this. It feels like there is a test that’s been posed to me by the radical communities where I’ve sought belonging, and the test is one I can’t pass: Are you willing to identify as anti-Zionist? Are you able to fight for a democratic one-state solution without fearing for Jewish safety? How voraciously are you willing to fight for BDS, the movement that Palestinian civil society has called for?
I hesitate to critique BDS. In mainstream Jewish spaces, especially where the movement has been so broadly demonized, I feel protective of BDS’ legitimacy and voice. But there’s still something in the campaign that troubles me, a sense that some on the left are inadvertently using BDS as a tool with which to sort through, measure, and reject other progressive voices.
Some supporters of BDS seem to view anyone using other strategies to fight the occupation as dissembling traitors who co-opt progressive language while actually supporting the status quo.
This is a relevant critique for some kinds of work — certain dialogue projects have legitimately been called into question in this way — but we have to be careful about concluding that there’s only one correct way to participate in a struggle.
BDS isn’t trying to change minds, nor should it. It’s trying to mobilize people who already believe that the occupation must be stopped and offer them a collective action that could force Israel’s hand. I think we need this movement desperately. But just as the civil rights movement needed both Black Power and civil disobedience, I think it’s true that we need other things alongside BDS — namely, smart and strategic individuals and organizations that are trying to change minds.
Setting aside the validity of other strategies, it is simply dangerous for us to create our own litmus test out of BDS. Or more accurately, it is dangerous for us to duplicate the litmus test that the political center-right makes of BDS and simply reverse it. The fact of the reversal does not erase the fact of the duplication.
If we choose to begin a more honest and open conversation about this within the anti-occupation camp, we have to keep in perspective the relative non-danger in the tests of the left, as compared (for just one example) to the very real danger in Israel that lies behind the loyalty oath idea.
There are no real dangers for me if I fail the leftist litmus test. The consequences I fear are ephemeral — being lumped in with people whose beliefs and actions I detest, being called naïve or racist or both, being rejected by friends and people I respect, losing access to an identity that I’ve tried to call home.
I certainly do not think that it should be the job of anti-Zionists to make non-Zionists feel safe, just as it should rarely be a priority in a struggle to make those with privilege feel safe. We know, historically, that this is not how change happens. But ultimately, I think it’s okay, and actually necessary, to welcome people whose activism involves helping to soften those who can be softened, as well as activists who are completely uninterested in “taking care” of people with more centrist views. We need both things; I don’t know why some activists think we have to choose.
There is no one solution that solves a problem. There is only an interlocking system of strategies that together, in a way none of us understands, finally brings about the change that we need.
My friend recently told me about the moment she became close with one of her colleagues during a planning meeting for their advocacy organization. Everyone had been fiercely on the same page about next steps, and the meeting had just ended when my friend turned to her colleague. They were still sitting and the other participants were getting up to leave when she asked, but what if we’re wrong?
Locke wrote about an implicit agreement we are asked to make with the countries in which we live. Along the same lines, you could argue that every community must have litmus tests, that they are an essential tool for creating boundaries without which communities would not exist. What marks the difference of course is who has the guns. The litmus tests that are most dangerous are the ones backed by the most force. So we might decide to forgive the litmus tests of the left.
But there’s a problem here: we hope that the movements for freedom we are building now will define the realities of the future. If the only difference between the two kinds of tests is the mechanism of power that lies behind them, the only reason the litmus tests of the left aren’t dangerous yet is because we don’t have power yet. But we want that to change, and when it does, we don’t want to have built a reality based on tests; we don’t want to have built a reality that looks anything like the one we were trying to fight.
I don’t think all views in a movement can be held. A movement is a movement because it has defined edges. But the edges should always be moving, and we should always be holding them under a microscope and asking of ourselves and of each other, but what if we’re wrong?
A shorter version of this piece was originally published on August 18th, 2015 on +972 Magazine.
Penina Eilberg-Schwartz is a writer and activist based out of the Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Reform Judaism, The Rumpus, This Recording, Neutrons Protons, and sparkle + blink. She is currently working on a book of literary non-fiction about the life of Combatants For Peace co-founder Sulaiman Khatib.