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Jean-Paul Sartre and the Problem of Being “Progressive Except for Palestine”

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was famous for his anti-colonial positions, but waffled when it came to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Why did he struggle to be consistent, and what does that tell us about “progressive except for Palestine” intellectuals today?

In 1979, a relatively young Edward Said met the legendary philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre—and was hugely disappointed. Everything about their encounter was designed to be impressive: it took place at a colloquium hosted by the French journal, Le Temps Modernes, in the “starkly white and austere” home of philosopher Michel Foucault himself. When Said received the invitation (from Sartre and the equally famous Simone de Beauvoir) he didn’t believe it: in a London Review of Books essay, published 21 years later, Said reflected: “At first I thought the cable was a joke of some sort. It might just as well have been an invitation from Cosima and Richard Wagner to come to Bayreuth, or from T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf to spend an afternoon at the offices of the Dial.” At this point in Said’s career, he was a professor of comparative literature at Columbia, and had only just published his famous work Orientalism, a cornerstone of postcolonial studies. And so at the colloquium, initially feeling overwhelmed by the company (“I recall rather needlessly and idiotically introducing Foucault to [Sartre]”), Edward Said waited for Sartre to say something profound and meaningful about the topic (so graciously described as “peace in the Middle East”) that brought so many people to the event. But when Said finally demanded that the silent Sartre speak up, all the elderly radical philosopher did was “prais[e] the courage of [Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat” —who had in the previous year participated in the notorious Camp David Accords with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin— “in the most banal platitudes imaginable.” Sartre’s rehearsed truisms were “about as informative as a Reuters dispatch.”

Said was stunned. In his essay, he lambasted Sartre not just for his statements about Sadat, but also—and more damningly—for his conspicuous silence on Palestine. 

For Said’s generation, Sartre had “been one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century” and his cerebral profundity was “at the service of nearly every progressive cause” in the era of decolonization, embracing social movements in Algeria to Cuba to the Congo. Many Arabs involved in decolonization movements across the Middle East took to Sartre’s inspiring philosophical writings on existentialism and his political writings on self-emancipation. But in 1979, a year before his death, Sartre had become, in Said’s eyes, an unrecognizable ghost of the former intellectual revolutionary. “I could not forget [Sartre’s] position on Algeria, which as a Frenchman must have been harder to hold than a position critical of Israel,” Said wrote. “I was wrong of course.”

More than 40 years later, Israel continues to evict Palestinian families, build illegal settlements, and in a recent-flare up of the conflict, ruthlessly bomb Gaza under the brazenly-named “Operation Guardian of the Walls.” As of May 19, at least 243 people have been killed, displacing more than 72,000 Palestinians and destroying more than 184 residential and commercial buildings. The world’s leading human rights organizations have condemned Israel for enforcing apartheid and committing war crimes with impunity. Yet the mainstream media continues to portray the “Israel-Palestine conflict” as one of hopeless complexity, and Sartre’s historically frustrating “progressive except for Palestine” (PEP) position is unfortunately rather pervasive in the United States among alleged progressives. It’s also as foul and indefensible as it ever was. 

The rather derisive (and prescient) taunt of “progressive except for Palestine” has gained some degree of popularity over the years. Recently, Marc Lamont Hill (a professor at Temple University) and Mitchell Plitnick (writer and political analyst), published a book titled Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics, exploring how self-proclaimed progressives in America can, and should, broaden their politics to include advocating against the oppression of Palestinians. Hill’s and Plitnick’s book calls for greater scrutiny into the liberal (dis)regard for Palestine and the silent—or sometimes willfully mystifying—position that many progressives hold. From Justice Democrats like Ayanna Pressley and Ro Khanna’s anti-BDS vote on House Resolution 246, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s confounding vision for achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians, to Tulsi Gabbard’s virtual silence on Israel’s recent bombardment of the Gaza, many reputed progressive icons have proved inconsistent (to put it gently) and unreliable in their advocacy for Palestine in American politics. 

Those familiar with the campaign for Palestinian human rights have commonly used “progressive except for Palestine” as a broad description for figures on the left of American politics who seemingly support racial justice and economic justice and are left-leaning on issues of immigration, LGBTQIA rights, and women’s rights—but are, in the blink of an eye, struck with some debilitating stupefaction when asked to extend their politics to the question of Palestine. 

Many of these so-called progressives attempt to remain “neutral” or “nuanced,” trying to walk a tightrope to appease supporters on both sides of the conflict. For example, former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s attempt at a “balanced” record has had him affirm Israel’s status as a “crucial contributor to our national security in the region” while sporadically issuing concerns about human rights violations against Palestinians, even mercifully opposing an aid package or two to Israel. Others, like Vice President Kamala Harris, engage in counterfactual fantasizing by insisting Israel actually does meet international human rights standards. And perhaps Tulsi Gabbard holds views most reminiscent of Sartre—although she says she’s an “anti-imperialist,” her voting record in regard to the conflict says otherwise: she’s denounced the “neoliberal/neoconservative war machine” that motivates the United States to engage in “wasteful” wars, but has also voted for the anti-BDS bill and co-sponsored House Resolution 23, which reiterates the United States’ pledge to veto U.N. resolutions requesting Israel to observe international law. 

This kind of dancing around the question of Palestine is hardly new. Edward Said, in a 1988 interview in Power, Politics and Culture, agonized over the lack of support from the American left for Palestine, saying that it was a bizarre thing to behold. Said summarizes the attitude of the American left on Palestine as a combination of a lack of knowledge, sanctimonious talk about Israel as a bastion of democracy in the Middle East, and of it also “being a place for the remnant of the Holocaust” which has limited the American left’s political and intellectual reaction on the question of Palestine “to an astonishing degree.” Given all the “meta-theoretical issues” that come up in various debates on the left like “the role of the intellectual” and “the role of the left in American policy,” the fact that Israel receives billions of dollars in political and military subsidies from the United States should be at the forefront of many of these discussions. 

“This is the one place […] where American intellectuals have a very direct role to play,” Said explains, adding that the question of Palestine is “implicated in many of the issues the Left has been so vociferous about.” Yet American public intellectuals in Said’s time engaged in very little concerted action or organizing around this issue—and arguably, they still haven’t. The same holds true for mainstream American politicians. As Said incredulously asks: “If on the one hand you say that we’re against providing support to repressive regimes in Latin America and Southern Africa and various parts of eastern Asia, what is the problem with saying the same thing from an internationalist perspective about Israel?”

The question of Palestine has irritated liberal politicians for a number of reasons, but primarily because it clarifies the contradictory nature of their supposedly commendable politics. While Jean-Paul Sartre was neither American nor a politician, he fell into a similar trap. His own thinking on the subject of Israel and Palestine—complicated and bewildering as it was given his other anti-colonial positions—largely attempted a “neutral” stance. Sartre was not alone in this: a number of his contemporaries who have often been associated with the left— like Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Michel Foucault—afforded little sympathy for the liberation of Palestine beyond basic platitudes. Their positions, and specifically Sartre’s during the Six-Day War, are emblematic of the same moral cowardice today. 

Sartre and the Six-Day War

In the 20th century, Arab intellectuals took part in a radical project of recreating both culture and the Arab self after colonialism. Many of these Arab thinkers turned to Sartre, combining existentialism with Sartre’s ethics of engagement—essentially (and ironically) the process of accepting political responsibility for one’s actions—with anti-imperial causes. Their aim was to address the tangible social, cultural, and political need for people to decolonize and reinvent themselves in a postcolonial society. Many even used Sartre’s ethics of engagement as a remedial tool to remove the detritus left by colonialism and mitigate the legacy of colonial trauma. Hopefully, they believed, this would act as a plausible route to cultural and political decolonization. 

Sartre’s relationship with these Arab intellectuals, leading up to his estrangement from them in May 1967, was generally quite positive. It is the intrigue and politics surrounding the events of the Six-Day War that epitomizes how the famous philosopher lost the high-stakes political game of remaining “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a time when a position of neutrality was simply unsustainable.

The Six-Day War was a notoriously short-lived conflict that lasted from June 5 to June 10 in 1967. The orthodox position held by AIPAC and pro-Israel supporters is that the war was justified—an impending attack by Israel’s Arab neighbors Egypt, Jordan and Syria, who had mobilized troops outnumbering the Israeli army around its borders, would have wiped Israel off the map. Seeing its very survival at stake, Israel launched a preemptive attack and won the war in only six days. 

However, John Quigley, a professor of international law at Ohio State University, argues that this orthodox position is wrong. Drawing from declassified documents made available by the United States, France, Britain, and Russia, Quigley contends that Israel’s army outnumbered those of its Arab neighbors at its borders and Israel’s allegedly preemptive attack on the Arabs could not be justified as self-defense but an act of aggression that violated international law. In this time, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, and the war marked a significant turning point in the asymmetrical conflict between Israel and Palestine. It produced over 100,000 refugees and pulled more than a million Palestinians under Israeli rule. The land acquired by Israel during the war was also the focus of U.N. Resolution 242, which called for Israel’s withdrawal from these territories. Later it would become the basis for the Camp David Accords, which laid out a feigned roadmap for the two-state solution. 

In the months leading up to the Six Day War, Sartre’s reactionary posturing on Palestine infuriated his Arab friends. Why? What could make Sartre obtusely disavow his intellectual legacy pertaining to anti-imperialism when it came to the Six-Day War in 1967? 

Part of the answer lies in the complexity of Sartre’s understanding of victimhood. According to historian Yoav Di-Capua—in his book No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre & Decolonization (2018)—the celebrity philosopher whose writings had played such a salient role in the “intellectual DNA of Arab decolonization” and who deemed the Arabs as the “collective others of colonialism” stood paralyzed when it came to publicly denouncing Israeli aggression. In 1967, with memories of the Holocaust still raw in the world’s memory, Sartre was reluctant to criticize the state founded by its survivors. It was difficult for Sartre to reconcile the Jewish “other” with the Palestinian “other.” Who was the bigger victim? Who was the most deserving of sympathy for their cause? As Di-Capua writes, many Arabs believed that Sartre was “trading in ethical reparations for Zionists.” 

The late philosopher Pierre Bourdieu expressed this position best in Revue d’études palestiniennes, stating that he had “always hesitated to take public positions” on the issue of Israel and Palestine, because he did not “feel sufficiently competent to offer real clarifications about what is undoubtedly the most difficult and most tragic question of our times (how to choose between the victims of racist violence par excellence and the victims of these victims?).”

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gained global attention, Sartre refrained from giving his opinion for as long as he could. But as perhaps the most prominent European pundit of anti-colonial liberation politics at the time, he felt an increasing pressure to publicly step into the fray. For many Arabs who supported Palestinian liberation, the position of neutrality was an unconscionable stance to take—some hoped it might change if Sartre were to bear witness to the severely impoverished realities of the Palestinian refugee camps, Jabalia and Deir al-Balah. Di-Capua writes that after Sartre visited these camps, he publicly announced:  

Thanks to your help, I was able to witness Palestinian reality and to better understand what the men, women and children who live in the camps, away from their land, feel. I also understand their deep desire to return to this land. I know that you are currently getting organized in order to accomplish this goal and since I understand [your situation] I would like to express my sympathy to you… I would like to assure you that I wholly acknowledge the national right of all Palestinian refugees to return to their country. 

Presumably, Sartre expressed these sentiments without knowing exactly how he would reconcile the Palestinian right of return with his support of the establishment of Israel. Although both Arabs and Israelis desired his validation during this tumultuous time, Di-Capua writes that only Arabs took Sartre’s writings to heart. Israeli intellectuals generally understood that “Sartrean thought was constitutive of the postcolonial Arab project” and thus considered him as the go-to philosopher of the Arab intelligentsia. Consequently, Arabs expected intellectual and political consistency from Sartre. They expected him to employ the existential and humanistic language he often weaponized against European oppressive forces in Cuba, Algeria, and the Congo to the case of Palestine.

The Bitter Fruit of Both-Sideism

In 1967, as the region stood on the precipice of war, Sartre’s sympathetic verdict hung in the balance. On the last leg of his trip in Israel, which he took to explore “both sides” of the conflict, he visited a kibbutz where he met Jewish workers who embodied the trope of the “peasant-intellectual.” Both Sartre and his partner de Beauvoir were “ashamed of the fate of Jews in Europe and happy to see that they were building a new socialist life for themselves” in Israel. In fact, the two saw the workers as an example to the world of how to combine resilience and socialism, with Sartre saying: “You have a right to be proud.” This encounter left them deeply affected, and Sartre left Israel with a more sympathetic opinion than when he arrived. But the jury was still out: Sartre refused to choose a side, saying he still held a position of “absence,” in other words, no opinion at all. 

Echoes of this stance are frequently heard today: it is perfectly encapsulated by celebrities like Rihanna, Debra Messing, and Gal Gadot. Known for their progressive stances on various other social justice issues, these public figures still hold the classic PEP position combined with a healthy dose of  “bothsideism”: the idea that both Israel and Palestine are on equal footing, though one is a nuclear-armed power and the other isn’t even allowed to have its own currency.  Even the ice cream brand Ben and Jerry’s, who issued a surprisingly direct statement on the murder of George Floyd last year, and who can tick off advocacy for refugee and migrants’ rights, climate change, and LGBTQIA rights on their Progressive Resume, isn’t exempt. Issuing intrepid statements championing the Black Lives Matter movement but continuing to profit from illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine? That fits the PEP bill.

The PEP position has rightfully been critiqued (or demolished) by Australian journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger. His work protests the decontextualized Western media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which largely presents the illusion of equality between both sides rather than the reality of an asymmetrical conflict between oppressed and oppressor. For the powerful, this fantasy is comfortable because it absolves them of responsibility for making difficult decisions. President Biden’s White House remarks regarding the recent bombardment of Gaza are a classic example. He offered condolences to lives lost on both sides, praised Israel’s “restraint,” asserted its right to exist, and insisted that both sides deserve to live in peace. Moments after promising to restock Israel’s military arsenal (and deny Palestinians the right to do the same), Biden touted “the genuine opportunity to make progress.” For Israel’s apologists, the mere acknowledgement of Palestinian suffering was a step too far. For supporters of Palestine—or anyone with consistent moral principles—it was not nearly enough. 

The politics of neutrality that Sartre adhered to, presumably against his better judgment and against his own ethics of engagement that he had proudly broadcasted for years, would lead him to turn his back on the Arab intelligentsia. This “iconic act of betrayal” was crystallized in their minds after Sartre and de Beauvoir (along with a slew of other prominent figures, like Pablo Picasso and Marguerite Duras) signed a pro-Israeli statement that affirmed Israel’s sovereignty and right to exist after being convinced that its very survival was at stake. The letter was additionally published on May 30, 1967 by Le Monde in the midst of anti-Arab protests which had started to gain traction in France. At a time when Sartre had hoped to remain virtually neutral on the conflict, this gesture was interpreted as blatant support for Israel, destroying any illusion that he hadn’t picked a side. When Lutfi al-Khuli, Egyptian intellectual and friend of Sartre, accused him of abandoning the struggle of the Arab people after signing the statement prior to the Six-Day War, Sartre replied, “All I did was take a principled position against war. I did not change my support for the Arab and Palestinian struggle for freedom and progress.” And yet, however inadvertently, he did abandon the struggle—in fact, did he ever truly take up the cause in the first place?

Numerous factors influenced Sartre’s decision to sign the statement: it was quite likely that the French betrayal of Jews in World War II, the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the personal doubts and worries of his friends and family (including his adopted Jewish daughter) informed Sartre’s steadfast ambiguity on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Additionally, the French left in France were deeply alarmed at Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s closure of the Tiran Straits on May 22, and the mounting demonstrations preceding the Six-Day War in the Arab world left Sartre terrified of the “spectre of a second Holocaust.” As Amina Elbendary, an associate professor of history at the American University of Cairo, writes, “Israel was sacrosanct” for Sartre and many European intellectuals on the left. In any topic regarding the conflict, the security and historical significance of the nascent nation of Israel “was the prime consideration, whatever the justice of the case.” 

Although Sartre was passionately against the rule of the French in Algeria, a “similarly colonialist situation,” Sartre justified the colonialist presence of Zionism in Palestine “as being the result of ‘ideas of the time’ (the late nineteenth century!), as if this somehow absolved the Israeli state of the moral and political responsibility of displacing an entire nation,” writes Elbendary. 

Only years later would Sartre backtrack on some key positions concerning Israel, more in line with his previous anti-imperialist struggles. When the 1972 Munich attacks occurred—in which Palestinian commandos took hostage members of Israel’s Olympic delegation in an attempt to secure the release of political prisoners—Sartre took a controversial position. In his essay “About Munich,” he wrote about the uses of Palestinian violence, saying that in the war between Palestinians and Israelis, terrorism was their only weapon. According to Sartre, “the oppressed poor have no other choice […] This abandoned, betrayed, exiled people can show its courage and the force of its hate only by organising deadly attacks.” Although his position would later oscillate, and over the years it seemed like he might become more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, Sartre’s unwavering record of adopting anti-imperialist causes—as Said iterates in his essay—ultimately fell short on the question of Palestine. When it mattered, his position of “absence” was akin to silence. 

We stand at a curious cultural and political juncture when it comes to Palestine. Although AOC has previously been accused of pandering to the Israel lobby, she also introduced a resolution with fellow Democrats Mark Pocan and Rashida Tlaib that calls for the discontinuation of arms sales to Israel. Additionally, Senator Bernie Sanders recently introduced a resolution to block $735 million dollars in U.S. arms sales to Israel (though he soon withdrew it). 

With every bomb the Israeli army drops on Gaza, the stakes are becoming clearer—and so is the cowardice of those who claim that choosing a side is simply too difficult. Being neutral is not only a refusal to say anything for fear of losing status or alienating supporters; it’s also engaging in platitudes that are focused on reorienting attention away from Israeli repression and toward vague, nebulous statements against “hate” or “violence.” While Sanders has been one of many high-profile voices condemning Israeli aggression, he still has not crossed over the Sartrean boundary. Calling for an “even-handed approach” to the conflict and asking progressives to “tone down the rhetoric” about Israeli apartheid, Sanders’ peculiar brand of realpolitik illustrates the tedious mental gymnastics required to avoid taking an uncomfortable, honest stance on Palestine that could alienate friends and family (or, in a politician’s case, allies and donors) in the process. 

Sartre, like Sanders, built his reputation by making bold and courageous arguments on behalf of the powerless. The principles they advanced—which are shared by contemporary progressives—are noble ones. But those principles need to be applied consistently to have any real meaning. Sartre’s distinct ethical dilemma stemmed from his fear of crossing the line of neutrality and trying to straddle the center of two conflicting sides—but the straddling of this line is indefensible when lives are at stake. A person of the “progressive except for Palestine” persuasion who is too afraid to cross this Sartrean line has little of value to say on the politics of liberation today.

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