Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Unity—At Whose Cost?

By Noel Ignatiev

The Palestinian American Women’s Association announced that it would boycott the recent Women’s March in Los Angeles. The announcement came after Scarlett Johansson was confirmed as a “Special Guest speaker” at the march. Johansson was the face of the advertising campaign of SodaStream, whose plant is located in a settlement built on land stolen from Palestinians in the West Bank. Johansson’s stance confirms that she fully deserves the praise heaped on her by Netanyahu in his speech to AIPAC in Washington several years ago, when he said she should be “applauded” for opposing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign. As a result of protests against her support for Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, she was  forced to relinquish her role as an ambassador for Oxfam. The invitation to Johansson was especially outrageous coming as it did at the moment when international attention is focused on Palestinian women and children held captive in Israeli prisons, including 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi, imprisoned for resisting Israeli soldiers evicting her family from its home. The invitation to Johansson made a mockery of the claim by march organizers that the march was “Pro Peace, Pro Inclusivity focused on marginalized voices and the power of voting.” (The PAWA statement can be found here:

Clear enough, one would think. One either believes that an injury to one is an injury to all, or one does not. Yet at least one longtime advocate of socialism and supporter of workers’ struggles, peace, etc., an opponent of Israeli policies (if not of the Zionist state per se), took it upon himself to comment in a post: “Better solution that [than] boycott: take your own signs and denounce the perfectly dreadful spokesperson for Sodastream,” adding “Still and all, to have a half-million march in LA is splendid and encourages us all.”

He is not alone. Another, also of impeccable left credentials, commented, “Sectarian. Best to march with their own signs.” The incident raises important issues of principle: What do groups owe others in the name of unity, and How can they make their voices heard? The PAWA made it clear they support the demands of the women’s march. The problem is, the organizers of the women’s march do not support the PAWA, whose members report that at last year’s march they were verbally abused and bullied, to the point that some of them were concerned for their personal safety. Their concerns were brushed off. This time they drew the logical conclusion, and refused to march.

There is a history on this issue in the U.S.: the women’s suffrage movement that arose after the Civil War demanded votes for white women and made it clear that it was not concerned about voting rights for black women or men, and later on, after black people had lost the right to vote in the South, that it did not intend to challenge their exclusion; the white-supremacist stance of Anthony, Stanton and the others was one of the reasons why those in power accepted the 19th Amendment, and also explains why its passage was the biggest non-event in U.S. history. (For more on this, see Robert and Pamela Allen, Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movement in the United States.)

Of course neither of those I quoted presuming to advise the Palestinian women can be accused of anything so dreadful as “racism”; both of them said they support Palestinian rights. Nevertheless, both were asking the Palestinian women to subordinate their cause to the “larger” cause of women’s rights. To their credit, the Palestinian women refused. By their actions they were declaring their intention to enter the movement as full equals or not enter it at all. They were practicing what C.L.R. James called the “essence of principled politics.” 

Had the Palestinian women chosen to take the path recommended by their “friends,” and shown up with signs and leaflets condemning the presence of Scarlett Johansson on the speakers’ platform and denouncing those who invited her, how would they have been received? Is it right to ask them to subject themselves again to what they experienced last year? Would those who advised them on how to make themselves heard have defended them physically from their enemies? Or would they have thrown them under the bus in the interest of the precious “unity” which “is splendid and encourages us all?”

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