By Osama Alkhawaja
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” — Noam Chomsky
On November 29, CNN fired Professor Marc Lamont Hill, a prominent academic, author and activist, for having the audacity to step outside the spectrum of what is considered acceptable discourse on Israel and Palestine: Hill simply acknowledged that an oppressed population has the moral right to resist its oppressor.
Unlike how his words are being characterized, his statements were neither controversial nor radical; a quick skim of our history books would clearly suggest the contrary, and that it was not Hill’s message that led CNN to fire him, it was the result of the Palestinian exception to free speech and the subject of his criticism: Israel.
That is not to say Israel is never criticized or discussed in the mainstream media. It’s just that when it is, the criticism needs to neatly fit into one of two pre-packaged positions. On one side, we have the Donald Trump-Benjamin Netanyahu camp that blames the Palestinians for all of Israel’s abuses and mistakes. On the other, we have the Democratic Party-liberal Zionist camp that acknowledges Israel’s unjust treatment of the Palestinians but excuses it under a web of “well-intentioned” justifications.
Hill challenged this narrative unapologetically, and provided a rare voice of criticism outside this narrowly accepted spectrum of debate. As a result, his rhetoric, words and tone might have shocked people’s sensibilities, but he has nothing to apologize for, and CNN should reinstate him immediately. Here’s some context to the “controversial” statements he made, from the perspective of one member of the people Hill was fired for defending.
The Nakba is the Arabic word for disaster, and it refers to the Palestinian exodus in 1948, in which more than 700,000 Palestinians became refugees overnight. This is the same event that gave rise to Israel’s “Independence Day.” The mention of the Nakba offends Israeli nationalists in the same way that a Trump supporter might be offended by the constant reminder of the Native American genocide. This trope of a triumphalist nation state celebrating its “birth” at the expense of its victims’ continual subjugation is eloquently described by Frederick Douglass’s famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
“The Israeli nation continues to restrict freedom…. There are more than 60 Israel laws that deny citizenship rights to Palestinians just because they are not Jewish.”
Hill is illustrating why there can be no democratic Jewish state of Israel; it will either be democratic, or Jewish. To insist on the latter is to explicitly declare that one segment of the population will be granted privilege over another. Israel’s new “nation-state” law is the embodiment of this reality, for the law explicitly states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” Richard Spencer, the prominent white nationalist, directly cites Israel’s nation-state law as an example of the ethno-state he wants to create in the US.
If CNN wants to be morally consistent, it should not fire Hill for condemning the maintenance of an exclusively Jewish state unless it would do the same for commentators who condemn making the US white again. The only solution is to have a pluralistic democratic society that does not favor one religion over another, whether that’s in the US or in Israel.
Hill called for the international community to engage in boycott, divestment and sanctions.
In 2005, after half a century of occupation, over a decade of stalled peace talks and an ineffective international community, members of Palestinian civil society issued a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This call was modeled after the South African anti-apartheid movement, and it has three very clear goals: Ending the occupation, recognizing the full rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and respecting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as stipulated in UN Resolution 194. It is telling that these demands, which mirror those made by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are deemed controversial when they are applied in defense of the Palestinian people.
Hill noted that contrary to Western mythology, Black resistance to US apartheid was not “purely nonviolent” and that, “We must recognize the right of an occupied people to defend themselves.”
Hill is an accomplished historian. As such, he recognizes that history is replete with oppressed populations using any means necessary to gain their freedom. Patrick Henry once proudly told the British, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Hill merely echoed this sentiment, and lost his job as a result. Resistance against an occupying force is glorified, it seems, unless that occupying force is our ally.
That being said, to argue that a people have the moral right to resist is not the same as advocating for violence. I personally believe that violence will not bring Palestinians closer to freedom, especially if that violence endangers innocent civilians and children. But at the moment, it is not Palestinians who need to be reminded of this, it is Israel.
Commentators are routinely invited on CNN to justify Israeli attacks of aggression that result in the death of innocent Palestinian civilians, and never has any one of them been fired for their comments. Rick Santorum denied that Palestinians even exist. The moment Hill attempts to balance the scales by arguing that Palestinians not only exist, but also have the moral right to resist, he is fired for stepping outside the acceptable spectrum of debate.
He concluded by saying “Free Palestine from the River to the Sea.”
News outlets have heavily criticized Hill for this statement, calling it a “dog-whistle advocating the elimination of Israel,” yet very few pundits, even those urging CNN to reinstate Hill on free speech grounds, have interrogated this claim. What this statement actually means for Palestinians is that everyone from the river to the sea shall be free, whether they live in Gaza, the West Bank or Israel. The fact that Hill was fired for advocating this says more about his critics than it does about him.
Hill’s statements suggest that the only solution to the conflict is a single united country that gives equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of what side of the border they are born in, or what faith they practice. This runs in tension with the narrowly acceptable public discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which remains fixated on the notion of a two-state solution. However, if the past 70 years have proven anything, it is that walls and borders and discriminatory laws, which are all necessitated by a two-state solution, are not the answer. As a Palestinian, I thank Hill for representing this belief.