The Illusion of Electoral Politics from Palestine to Black America

Originally published September 30, 2019 on Mondoweiss

Writing in the midst of a heated 1980 US presidential race — an election that saw incumbent Jimmy Carter given a hard run for his money by ultra-conservative neoliberal Ronald Reagan — legendary Black author James Baldwin unflinchingly answered the question of ‘who are you voting for, Uncle Jimmy’ by extolling a sobering truth: both candidates represented a certain violence, especially unto the Black community, which the election couldn’t possibly promise to quail. Writing polemically, he states: 

“No black citizen of what is left of Harlem supposes that either Carter, or Reagan, or Anderson has any concern for them at all, except as voters – that is, to put it brutally, except as instruments, or dupes – and, while one hates to say that the black citizens are right, one certainly cannot say that they are wrong. One has merely to look up and down the streets of Harlem; walk through the streets and into what is left of the houses; consider the meaning of this willed, inhuman and criminal devastation, and look into the faces of the children.”

Baldwin’s writing calls into criticism the total nature of elections; that is, bourgeois elections taking place in white supremacist, capitalist states which enact “willed, inhuman and criminal devastation” on marginalized members of its society. Despite Baldwin’s focus on the 1980 US presidential election, the relevance of his comments to the current elections in Israel, as well as the upcoming 2020 elections in the US, is uncanny and critically important. 

Electoral politics are asked to carry that which they cannot hold; electoral politics are made to be the face of a change which they’ve never known. As the elections in Israel and the possible ousting of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister have dominated Western headlines over the course of several weeks now, the illusion of the power of a vote must once again be called into question.

“The fact that there’s been public recognition of the importance of Arab participation in Israeli civil society is appreciated,” Suhaib A., a Palestinian community organizer and student based in Atlanta tells me. “However, I can’t help but wonder how much of its simply posturing on behalf of liberal Israelis rallying behind Gantz as a ‘progressive’ break from Netanyahu’s openly racist behavior.”

Of course, the recognition of Arab participation that Suhaib is referring to is the slew of headlines declaring that Palestinian citizens of Israel are ‘having their moment’ in this election, that they are ‘finally’ formally engaging in Israeli political affairs, or that Netanyahu’s openly anti-Arab and fascist rhetoric and policies may have somehow been a good thing that ‘awakened’ Arab voters. And while these stories may have slivers of truth lodged somewhere inside them, the reality is that Palestinians have fought to be present in the political process for decades now, in a multitude of ways in a system which denies them agency and power on their own occupied land, and assuming the difference in this election was that Netanyahu’s open racism backfired is actually to consider such rhetoric good or even helpful. 

“The messaging I’m paying the most careful attention to is the narrative that Arab Israelis exercise their ‘democratic rights’ equally in Israel, and that Arab choice is respected in Israel,” Suhaib says. “This is the exact opposite of how the State of Israel has conducted itself historically and currently when it comes to the more outspoken demands of Palestinians to cease all illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. These demands from Arab Israelis, which by sheer number and important largely eclipse the media’s so-called ‘Arab choice’ candidate Gantz, are given absolutely no consideration, as they have the potential to hinder the totally undisputed interests of the State of Israel over its Palestinian colonial subjects”

The difference between Gantz and Netanyahu is minimal at the most and, in reality, the demands of Palestinians in Palestine and around the world are utterly disregarded in both men’s platforms. While the image of a far-right authoritarian Netanyahu, bent on strongman rule, continued occupation, and heightened anti-Palestinian action has in many ways “turned the global tide of support against Israel’s interests” as Suhaib tells me, it has also allowed for a massive oversight of the structures which perched him atop a settler-colony in the first place. Conversely, as some liberals in the West have sought to paint Gantz as a sort of savor for the alleged ills of Israel’s government practices, the questions of violence against Palestinians, of the land’s return and retracted borders have been washed away despite their near identical image to Netanyahu’s.

Similar to United States, President Trump, the totality of problems related to and within Israel have been thrust onto Netanyahu, as if the entire political system which created such space for his position to even exist is not to be indicted wholly— as if Trump and Netanyahu themselves willed Israel and the US into existence, and with their bare hands molded them into the mosaics of racist violence that they are today. That isn’t to say that I view Netanyahu (or Trump) as ‘good’ or their rhetoric identical to that of other politicians, however it means we cannot allow the spectacle of politicians, elections, and party politics to distract us from the fact that the political project of liberation is incomplete so long as the land remains occupied. 

This forced thrust of total responsibility onto mere individuals has also allowed for a type of reductive political energy Baldwin warns against: that ousting of a single politician through electoral means will somehow secure integral change to the system which placed them there. In the US, for example, the fervor surrounding Trump has funneled massive amounts of political energy onto a single man, while the mechanisms of anti-Black violence, settler-colonialism, US imperialism, incarceration and immigrant detention, police violence, the ceaseless murders of Black trans women, and other oppressive violences that existed long before him and will exist still after him remain unhindered in their growth.

Even so-called “progressive” candidates have been able to use the electoral moment, and the hyper-focus on single individuals as faces of entire governments, to sound “radical” while still supporting the occupation, violence, and the continued land grabs Israel is built on. Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s ‘criticism’ of Israel essentially mounted to telling Netanyahu “how dare he” bar Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, that such a decision contradicts Israel’s case as a “tolerant democracy.” Bernie Sanders on the other hand has been slightly more tough, but still focuses his criticism and statements on who is running Israel and merely the ‘racism’ in Netanyahu’s rhetoric as opposed to the settler-colonial structure and project itself. In both cases of criticism, nothing is mentioned of the settler colonial nature of Israel’s existence, of the open air prison Gaza has been made into, and so forth. 

“Israel also controls Palestinians’ essentials like water, wheat and electricity, and they never miss a chance to pressure Palestinians using them,” a student in An-Najah National University in Nablus tells me, who asked to remain anonymous for the sake of their safety from Israeli forces. “So yes, the lives of Palestinians are dependent on the elections and what happens to the Israeli government, but never in a beneficial way.”

“Israel was founded with hate and Palestinian blood, if its strutcture and philosophy doesn’t change it would never give Palestinians justice,” the student tells me. Their words cut deep, expressing the same truth as Baldwin. “I see ‘Israeli-Palestinians’ engaging in the elections as a futile attempt to make the Israeli government more democratic and less monstrous while violating Palestinians’ rights every day.”

As a Black person in the US, this sentiment feels all too familiar: so-called important national elections seem to always be at the expense of my community’s existing oppression. Whether a Democrat or Republican are in the Oval Office, the rising trends of incarceration and police violence, for example, have steadily traversed across all politicians and parties for more than a century now. James Baldwin boldly stated “my vote will probably not get me a job or a home or help me through school or prevent another Vietnam or a third World War,” and that all it amounts to is ‘bought time.’ So are we to believe the entire thrust of Palestine’s liberation, or Black America’s uprising from slavery, or the repatriation of Indigenous land in both locations rests on the power of a vote? Has electoral action ever properly carried such weight?

If any two groups in the world can relate to the feelings of statelessness, distrust in or the impossibility of an electoral process, one which always makes promises that are never for us, it is Black people in the U.S. and Palestinians. The similarities of lack of agency and representation, and what little ‘representation’ that exists being lended to attempts at assimilation with disregard for demands of radical and world-altering justice, are profound. In both cases, the student tells me, it the illusion of “being democratic and actually caring about everyone” while still being “hella racist and having walls.”

“A good example of this is giving ‘Israeli-Palestinians’ their right to vote; in all other scenarios Israel deals with them as second-class citizens but they chose to give them the right to vote,” the student exuberantly tells me. “That’s because they know for sure that it won’t make the slightest change and even if it was close to doing so they could easily stop it.”

This sentiment is not new either; as political activist and writer Emma Goldman famously wrote almost a century ago, ‘if voting changed anything they’d make it illegal.’ And as news broke this week that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has appointed Netanyahu to form Israel’s new coalition parliament, it appears even more that whatever “differences” which were to be voted away are simply differences of perception. As Italian political prisoner and theorist Antonio Gramsci reminds us, the capitalist and colonial state is a formation of ruling class unity — a unity which can see ‘compromise’ between the likes of Netanyahu and Gantz as a natural necessity to secure the settler-colonial project.

Whether between Netanyahu and Gantz or Trump and Sanders, parties and politicians rarely disagree over enacting violence. Rather, they argue over who will have the right and power to enact violence. They don’t disagree over continued occupation of land, or apartheid, nor ending state violence, but how and from whom such violences should take place. As Palestinian author and activist Steven Salaita succintly put it on Twitter recently, “replacing Neyanyahu with Gantz is akin to trading a wrecking ball for a bulldozer.” 

Salaita’s words ring true not only for the current socio-political situation taking place in Israeli elections on Palestinian land, but for the totality of electoral politics in places like the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada as well. When in history has an end to structural racism—whether anti-Palestinian or anti-Black racism— and the repatriation of land, mass decarceration, ending of imperialist military practices, and eliminating glaring state violences that are foundational to the colony’s establishment, ever been dealt away with by the instance of a vote? The repeated folly of hope in electoral processes speaks to the similar situations of illusions, hyped villains, and distractions Black Americans like James Baldwin warned against decades ago, and Palestinians at the frontline of their own liberation today must remain be weary of.

“If we’re to change our children’s lives and help them to liberate themselves from the jails and hovels–the mortal danger–in which our countrymen have placed us, the vote does not appear to be the answer, either,” Baldwin writes, combating the reducibility of entire worlds of politics and oppression to an electoral process. “It has certainly not been the answer until now.”

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Musa is a cultural worker, community organizer, and independent researcher. They are a member of the Walter Rodney Foundation, and host of the Groundings podcast.