This opinion piece about The Mapping Project first appeared in Mondoweiss.
The Mapping Project is undermining years of social justice efforts to bring Palestinian rights into the mainstream. In greater Boston, where I live and organize, the folks I know can’t stop shaking our heads and asking “why?”
Palestinians and social justice activists have hard ideas to bring into the mainstream. We need to show how the state of Israel is allied with right-wing causes like policing and imperialism and that mainstream Jewish organizations are complicit with (and sometimes fronts for) pro-Israel political pressure.
I suppose that’s what The Mapping Project was trying to do, to expose the system we’re up against, to bring into one place, for example, the way the ADL simultaneously promotes a militarized, racist Israel and militarized, racist policing in the US. This is true, but being right is not the same thing as being effective.
Because of our opposition’s free wielding of false accusations of antisemitism and the confusion it causes among potential allies, the movement has spent much effort over the years being intentional about how we communicate. We explain to policymakers and the public that there is nothing inherently pro-Jewish about supporting Israel, a right-wing, militarized, Apartheid state that does not embody Jewish identity. We explain that there is nothing anti-Jewish about fighting for Palestinian rights. We explain that one can’t be truly antiracist on behalf of any group without also standing up for the humanity of Palestinians. We work hard to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism because we support the humanity of Palestinians and Israelis (and everyone!) and believe that we are all oppressed in some form until everyone is liberated.
Yes, it is exhausting and infuriating to have to work so hard to consider the comfort of (mostly white, mostly Jewish) people when the lives and rights of Palestinians and other people of color are being taken. But while Palestinians in Palestine fight for their land, their livelihoods and their security, we in the US are fighting for a narrative – a narrative that respects Palestinians as equal in every way, a narrative that will open policy options that aren’t available now. So, we are careful.
And then, out of the blue, comes The Mapping Project.
Good, smart people can disagree, but it is my view that The Mapping Project, while a Herculean effort that provides lots of useful information, is a poor piece of research and a destructive piece of activism. If they intended it to be truth-telling, they didn’t implement it well.
The Mapping Project is Poor Research
First, it’s important to trace institutional and political relationships between pro-Israel and other military interests, like police, and creative to show links with other harms like medical apartheid. While many of the organizations identified by The Mapping Project are legitimate advocacy targets, it is unhelpful to throw random organizations like a disability rights group (even if they do advance Israeli interests) in along with major players like the ADL. Including every possible actor hides the important differences in their levels of influence, and it unnecessarily opens windows for attack.
Second, while the data is well-referenced, the conclusions drawn by The Mapping Project are not always supported. A single interaction between Facing History and Ourselves and AIPAC is not sufficient evidence to conclude the organizations are collaborators. Ironically, there is relevant information not included in The Mapping Project, perhaps because it didn’t lend itself to an easily linked data point, but rather requires the harder work of unraveling narratives and exposing distortions. Facing History and Ourselves is a good example. An influential educational nonprofit, they promote an understanding of antisemitism that considers some critiques of Israel to be anti-Jewish. This does show a convergence in narratives between Facing History and AIPAC that is useful to map. In other words, I think Facing History is a strategic choice for action and their narrative supports AIPAC’s pro-Israel agenda, but I don’t think you can conclude that from the data point that Facing History presented at an AIPAC event in 2019. The problem of selective data and weak conclusions is especially troubling in a project that presents itself as data-driven.
Third, I see no analytical value to presenting organizations on a geographical map. I understand that maps can be powerful tools for illustrating local-global connections and facilitating local organizing. But showing that an organization with offices on Arlington Street gets a grant from an organization on Tremont Street doesn’t add to their analysis.
The Mapping Project is Destructive Activism
Besides being poor research, The Mapping Project is a strategic mistake of incalculable proportions that we will pay for over many years.
First, the release of the Mapping Project, without the support of key antiracist groups working in the Israel-Palestine space, and without a clear call to constructive action, put activist groups in a bad position of catch-up. The ADL and friends were highlighted in media spaces that covered The Mapping Project with their anti-Palestinian spin, but no one was ready from the social justice community to step in and convey our message. Every time the media said “we reached out to The Mapping Project and other local pro-Palestinian actors and got no response,” it was a huge missed opportunity.
Second, while we all know that pro-Israel advocates would have attacked the project even if it had been good, their attack is stronger because the advocacy message of The Mapping Project is so unclear. Saying, “Our goal in pursuing this collective mapping was to reveal the local entities and networks that enact devastation, so we can dismantle them. Every entity has an address, every network can be disrupted” makes sense to me, a progressive in the movement who understands organizing, nonviolent action, and local-global connections. But any informed person could anticipate that these words would be interpreted by fear-mongerers and mainstream media as a call to antisemitic violence. If, as the developers say, the map “is intended first and foremost to cultivate relationships between organizers across movements and deepen our political analyses as we build community power,” the project should have been vetted more broadly and coordinated with other organizers, including ones positioned to bear the brunt of the pushback.
Third, and importantly, The Mapping Project alienates potential allies and upends rather than cultivates synergies between causes. A case in point is the inclusion of Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey on the map. While the information provided about them is likely true, some people would consider Warren and Markey on the right side of many other issues, and worthy of inclusion in the “need to cultivate” category – unlike others on the map, such as the Consulate General of Israel to New England. I’m not saying we should excuse or go easy on those who are “progressive except for Palestine,” but I do think each kind of actor needs its own strategy. And the left is hardly in a position to throw progressives under the bus for their imperfections, especially since we too are imperfect. The challenge is to learn how to hold tight to our values while building alliances, especially with people in positions of power who can move our policy aspirations forward.
The Mapping Project is not ideologically or religiously anti-Jewish as the ADL and other spokespeople for zionism claim, and those bogus accusations should be exposed for what they are–virulent, deceptive, anti-Palestinianism. But even though it is not antisemitic, The Mapping Project is still destructive to our public-facing work and to the movement.
Confusion Within the Movement
We have been asked to defend The Mapping Project because it has been attacked by the same forces that regularly attack us, and there’s some logic in that. For example, respected Mondoweiss activist/journalists Phil Weiss and Adam Horowitz doubled down on their defense of The Mapping Project, saying:
The attacks on one element of this analysis demonstrate a truth of the report and a problem we have long pointed out here. Israel lobby institutions have considerable political and cultural power in dictating the discourse of Israel/Palestine, and the resultant policy. But they are unaccountable. That power can never be pointed out. Because it’s supposedly a form of Jew hatred.
But others point out, if not publicly, that while we’re used to having to defend against attacks on movement work, in this case we’re asked to do that with no preparation, context or collaboration on the content of what we’re asked to defend, and we don’t even know who is behind the project. This is an organizing problem that extends beyond The Mapping Project.
How do we know what is the most constructive stand to take in this situation? So much time and effort has already been wasted doing damage control, when a respectful, movement-grounded effort would have been better positioned to withstand the inevitable attack. Many activists feel derailed rather than helped by The Mapping Project, meaning that empirically, it’s not having the effect the authors likely wanted.
But let’s be honest, there are sub-par research projects and poorly conceived social justice campaigns all the time. Why did this one garner such incredible visibility, to the extent that the city council in Newton, my Boston suburb, felt compelled to make a statement against it? Because we do not have the civic space to have open discourse around Israel-Palestine. Just last month pro-Israel advocates leveraged fear of Jew hatred to try to shut down and control an event sponsored by Families Organizing for Racial Justice that featured Palestinian-Americans in Newton talking about their search for belonging. But the Newton City Council didn’t make a statement against anti-Palestinian racism, no. They didn’t even respond to my invitation to attend the event. That’s my point: The civic space we have is small and precious and must be utilized wisely.
Pro-Israel actors have long searched for examples of “antisemitism from the left.” These examples are essential to their twisted logic claiming that “everyone hates Jews, including those who call themselves antiracist, so Jews are never safe, which is why Israel must be supported unconditionally or there will be another Holocaust.” Sadly, the Mapping Project has given those pro-Israel forces a gift and we, social justice movement actors, are left trying to mitigate the harm.
Since this article was published, I did an interview with KKFI’s “Understanding Israel and Palestine.” You can hear our discussion about The Mapping Project followed by an interview with Charlotte Kates of Samidoun. Also, Jewish Currents “On the Nose” podcast discussed The Mapping Project, and referred to my and other articles exploring various points of view.