A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
On August 6th, 2016, The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement issued a bold and extensive policy statement entitled “A Vision of Black Lives.” Many of the proposals it contains merit careful consideration and implementation. But one feature of this document that is problematic is that it endorses the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, and charges Israel with committing genocide against the Palestinian people. The charge of genocide, which BLM shares with the (Hamas-inspired) BDS movement, has often been used on the Left to equate Israelis (or Jews generally) with the Nazis – a rhetorical trope that is very common among BDS activists. To say that this comparison is deeply offensive to Jews of all political shades and stripes is merely to state the obvious. But, significantly, this charge has triggered a cascade of articles in the American Jewish press, debating how best to understand and respond to this accusation. The range of responses is intriguing. Some conservative and liberal bloggers or columnists simply condemn BLM outright, and imply that unless you repudiate Black Lives Matter completely, you are abetting anti-Semitism, and therefore a “self-hating Jew.” Other, more progressive souls among us scold the Jewish community for being too thin-skinned, and using this (relatively brief) segment of the policy document to justify their ongoing complacency, passivity and indifference in the face of the injustices heaped daily and yearly on African Americans.
In the midst of all this sound and fury, the most interesting and nuanced reflections, by far, come from young Jews of Color, who are in a much better position than the average American Jew or African American to grasp these problems in all their complexity. So, for example, on August 15, 2016, Stacey Aviva Flint, an urban planner and Master’s student in Jewish Studies, published an article in Tablet, an online Jewish magazine on politics and culture, called “As a Jew of Color I Back Black Lives Matter but Not Its Approach to Israel, Which Erases Jewish Experience.” In it, she noted that
Jews of Color are not naive to discrimination and racism within our own communities, whether in America or Israel. We have endured suspicion, inappropriate comments, and outright racism. BLM is right to bring these problems to the fore. On the other hand, if BLM is to be true to its call to elevate the “experiences of marginalized Black people,” it cannot forget the hundreds of thousands of Jews of Ethiopia, North Africa, and Arab lands who were persecuted and driven out of their ancestral homes, and found refuge in Israel. It is these experiences that place many Jews of Color like myself into an interstitial space: we desire to stand boldly with BLM yet we also challenge its blanket condemnation of Israel and support for boycotting it.
Of course, the very phrase “Jews of Color” is jarring and unfamiliar to many participants in this debate, and indirectly calls attention to a kind of racial stereotyping common in African American communities – the erroneous (but stubborn) belief that all Jews are white. James Baldwin addressed this phenomenon when he declared that some African Americans are anti-Semitic because they are “anti-White.” Or as Chris Rock put it, in a routine mocking Louis Farrakhan, “We don’t got time to dice white people up into little groups. I hate all white people.” So, let’s get down to basics, shall we? Are Jews “white?” Yes, and no. The vast majority of American Jews, whose ancestors – like my own – hail from Eastern Europe, are white, and as such, enjoy all the perks of white privilege in America today. But only half of the world’s Jewish population lives in North America.
That being so, it is important to note that after WWII, more than 820,000 black and brown skinned Jews, who lived for centuries as second (or third) class citizens in Muslim lands or in (Christian) Ethiopia were dispossessed and driven from their ancestral homes, and eventually found refuge in Israel. Indeed, one wonders whether the reluctance on the part of BLM activists to acknowledge that many Jews – and indeed, many Israelis – are actually black or brown skinned is due to a deeper reluctance among progressives to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is not just a white on white issue; that black and brown skinned people have oppressed other black and brown skinned communities that adhered to the Jewish faith historically, and that Israel was actually created with the express intention of remedying this problem (among others.) Why is acknowledging this so difficult for progressives? Because a frank acknowledgement of this fact renders the relentless efforts of anti-Zionist propagandists to depict the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as merely another instance of white, European colonialism moot.
On the other side of the equation, there is simply no denying that conditions of life for Palestinians living in Israel and the Occupied Territories today are so dreadful and debasing that they merit comparison with apartheid South Africa. Indeed, on August 16, 2016, Daniel May, a student at Princeton, wrote another illuminating article for Tablet entitled “The Problem Isn’t Black Lives Matter. It is the Occupation.” In it, he calls attention to the fact that
. . . American Jewish institutions cannot expect to maintain moral credibility on issues of racial justice in this country, no matter the specifics on policy, when they are silent when a Knesset member declares that his wife would not be willing to give birth in the same maternity ward as an Arab; when a book is banned in Israeli high schools for depicting a love affair between a Jew and a Muslim; when nearly half of all Israeli high school students declare their support for denying the vote to non-Jews; when Palestinian homes built without permits are demolished and Jewish homes built without permits only a hundred yards away are quickly connected to water lines and electricity. For a community that has reared its young to see their Judaism and their commitment to justice as inseparable, claiming that such realities must be understood in “context,” as “complicated,” or a tragic consequence of “ha’matzav” (“the situation,” as Israelis call it) reeks of moral hypocrisy.”
Indeed, it does, and these brief examples provoke disgust and dismay among progressive Jews living in Israel, the United States and around the world. They vividly illustrate Daniel May’s disturbing characterization of the current status quo as “Jim Crow on steroids.” But though conditions for Palestinians living in the Middle East now are as dire as the plight of Jewish dhimmis living in North African, Syria and Iraq prior to Israeli statehood, the facile attempt to equate Israel’s iniquities with the Nazi efforts to wipe out the Jewish people is not merely “problematic.” It is downright absurd. Consider the following.
In May of 2011, the Palestinian news service Ma’an reported that in 1948, the Palestinian population was 1.4 million. By the end of 2010, they reported, the Palestinian population had grown to 5.5 million, while the Palestinian diaspora numbered almost another 7 million. What this means, in simple terms, is that since creation of Israel, the number of Palestinian inhabitants in Israel/Palestine alone has almost quadrupled. By contrast, the Jewish population of Israel/Palestine in 1948 was merely 716,000, and grew to 6 million in the same interval of time. But numbers can be deceiving, because despite the influx of persecuted Jews from Ethiopia, from Arab lands, the former Soviet Union, etc., and the arrival of many orthodox Jews from the USA and around the world, the percentage of Jews to non-Jews in Israel and the Occupied Territories during this same interval of time shrank from 82% to 75%. This is because the average Israeli woman gives birth to 3 children in the course of her life time, while the average Palestinian gives birth to 4 babies.
What do we make of these numbers? Well, demographers, geographers and environmental scientists all tell us that they portend an imminent ecological catastrophe; that if population growth in the Middle East continues at its present rate, water, food and affordable housing will be exceedingly scarce for everyone in very near future. And sadly, they may add, in the present political climate, the likelihood of the population explosion in the region being addressed in next to nil. Why? Well, religion is a factor of course. But so is ethnic rivalry, since both sides seek safety in numbers, and hope to encircle or overwhelm their adversaries, or prevent themselves from being outnumbered. These religious and nationalist zealots, propelled by fear and hatred, are heedless of the fact that, in so are doing, they are propelling themselves (and one another) closer and closer to the edge of the abyss.
With that, it is also important to note that only now, in 2016, has the population of Jews world-wide has reached its pre-WWII levels, at 16 million. By contrast, in the same period of history, the total Palestinian population (world-wide) grew from 1.4 million to 12.37 million – i.e. nearly tenfold. Granted, the Palestinian population mushroomed even as their territorial claims and hopes for sovereignty has been steadily eroded by successive Israeli governments – a tragedy and humiliation for the Palestinian people, and a black mark on Israel’s human rights record. Even so, an unbiased appraisal of these numbers demonstrates the absurdity of efforts to equate the Israeli Occupation with the Nazis’ effort to wipe out the Jewish people completely. The latter, which culminated in the Shoah (or Holocaust) was an expression of evil on a whole other scale of magnitude.
Also, please note that if the Jewish population had grown tenfold since 1948, the State of Israel would never have been able to accommodate it – or even a fraction of it – within its borders. And if Israel had attempted actually to do so, the looming ecological crisis we’re still faintly hoping to avert would have already happened. Indeed, we’d be discussing it as a catastrophe glimpsed only in the rear view mirror, rather than the result of events that are now taking shape before our eyes.
Finally, to fully grasp how absurd the comparison between Israelis and the Nazis is, consider the different historical and contexts in which the Shoah and the Nakbah took place. Jews settled in Germany as early as the 4th century, and despite centuries of persecution, managed to eke out a living there, and occasionally, to thrive. They made great strides toward civic equality in the 19th century, when schools and professions were finally opened to them. And despite the feverish propaganda of Hitler, Streicher, Goebbels and Co., Jews as a group never posed a credible threat to German sovereignty, or to public safety, health or morals. After all, they comprised slightly less than 1% of the general population. And they did not question Germany’s right to exist, or engage in terrorist or subversive activities. Indeed, thanks to the efforts of Moses Mendelsohnn in the 18th century, by the dawn of the 20th century, the vast majority of German Jews regarded German as their mother tongue. Many were extremely proud of their German heritage, and there were thousands of highly decorated Jewish WWI veterans – an inconvenient truth that irked Adolf Hitler no end.
By contrast, Palestinians were living in Palestine since the expulsion of the Jews by the Romans in the first century, and initially outnumbered Jewish settlers who came there fleeing pogroms at the turn of the (20th) century by a considerable margin. Organized resistance to the Zionist project, and plans to expel Jewish immigrants from Palestine forever, started as early as 1920 – only four decades after the first settlers arrived, and almost three decades before Israel had even come into existence. Much of the resistance was organized by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who orchestrated bloody riots and massacres in Jerusalem, Hebron and elsewhere, and invited Adolph Eichmann to visit British-mandated Jerusalem in 1937. At Eichmann’s invitation, the Mufti actually spent most of WWII in Berlin, and with Hitler’s assistance, organized a contingent of Bosnian Muslims to join the Einsatzgruppen in their campaign to slaughter Jews in the Balkans during the war, killing roughly 22,000.
After the war, the Mufti retired to Cairo, where he helped many Nazi officials flee to South America to escape the trails at Nuremburg. He also insured that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a filthy fabrication written under the auspices of the Czarist secret police that stoked fears about an international Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination, was translated into Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu and most other languages spoken in the Muslim world. As a result of his efforts, millions of Muslims today are still persuaded that The Protocols of the Elders are completely genuine, and attest truthfully to an ongoing Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. (So were Adolf Hitler and his followers, by the way.)
Among the Muslim groups that still treat The Protocols as genuine is Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls the Gaza strip, whose leadership created the BDS movement. Hamas is dedicated to the complete destruction of Israel by any means possible, and the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement is among their most successful tools to demonize and de-legitimate the state of Israel. Of course, none of this justifies the dreadful injustices that mark Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But it goes some distance to explaining the anger and mistrust of Israelis who are chastised for oppressing Palestinians living in a territory contiguous with their own – one that they freely (and unilaterally) returned to the Palestinians – but who continue to attack and incite violence against them in the most lurid, anti-Semitic terms. Political cartoons are seldom subtle, but those drawn for Hamas publications often depict Jews as Nazis, or alternatively, openly celebrate the Nazi’s efforts to injure, abuse and annihilate Jews. This fluid alternation between identifying with the victim and identification the aggressor in Hamas propaganda –depicting Palestinians as victims of “Nazi” aggression, or alternatively as Nazis who are attacking and killing Jews – is not merely curious or equivocal. It is morally ambiguous and psychologically ambivalent, and speaks volumes about the convoluted historical relationships between Jews, Palestinians and Nazis in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s in the collective imagination of Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Some will object that these observations are irrelevant. After all, they will say, the Holocaust ended more than seventy years ago. And provided that their cause is just, that their pain and suffering is real, what does it matter what texts Hamas and its allies claim are genuine, what conspiracy theories they believe, or what kinds of images they draw in their cartoons? Let justice be done, regardless!
Well, OK. If that were the only problem with Hamas, I might understand (though not accept) BLM’s endorsement of the BDS movement. But Hamas uses civilians – indeed, their own people! – as human shields in virtually every armed conflict they conduct with Israel, ensuring a massive (and eminently preventable) loss of life that they inevitably blame on “Zionist aggression.” And their flagrant disregard for human rights goes further. In 2010, EveryOne Group, an Italian human rights organization, called attention to the kidnapping of 250 Eritrean refugees who sought asylum in Israel, but were captured en route and sold into slavery by Hamas. EveryOne Group has since tracked the activities of Hamas operatives in Sinai who are involved in the African slave trade, human trafficking, and the illegal trade in human organs. The proceeds from these sordid transactions go to purchasing the rockets that rain down on Israel, the tunnels that threaten her safety and sovereignty, and last but not least, to disseminating anti-Semitic propaganda, from the most lurid and stereotypical (which is mostly for domestic consumption), to the more subtle and polished performances from Hamas spokespersons and surrogates on the international stage.
This is a bridge too far. How can Black Lives Matter endorse a campaign that was started and sponsored by an organization involved in slave-trafficking? They say politics makes strange bed-fellows. But it doesn’t get stranger than this. One doesn’t have to be Jewish, much less a Zionist, to see that this perverse state of affairs requires careful reflection and analysis. And this is not only true of African Americans committed to the Black Lives Matter movement, but also of millions of decent and well-intentioned white people who support Black Lives Matter and thirst for justice for Palestine, but steadfastly ignore Hamas’ flagrant violations of human rights in Gaza and the Sinai. Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to exonerate Israel, or get her off the hook for her misdeeds. But the Left’s single-minded emphasis on Israel’s transgressions, it’s stunning lack of balance and even-handedness on this score, is abetted by collective ignorance of the historic (and extremely well documented!) ties between Islamism and fascism. And who benefits from this state of affairs? African Americans least of all. Those who benefit most are actually the slave-traders, organ traffickers and anti-Semites who continue their activities in the shadows.
So let’s be frank, shall we? Whether it operates in the interests of political expediency or political correctness, an inability or refusal to make Hamas accountable for its human rights abuses is a betrayal of their innocent victims. And by that I do not merely mean Israeli victims of terrorist attacks, who are relatively few in number, but the hundreds of innocent Palestinians who find themselves placed deliberately in harm’s way, and the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Africans whom Hamas has sold into slavery, or done irreparable harm by organ harvesting – in short, Muslims and people of color, as well as Israelis (black, white and brown.)
So, to summarize, Jews in Germany never constituted more than tiny fraction of the general population, or a credible threat to the sovereignty, security or safety of its citizens. By and large, the average Jew was as patriotic and devoted to German culture as the average Christian. But fueled by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and other bizarre anti-Semitic tracts, the Nazi propaganda machine depicted Jews as morally depraved, politically subversive, economically dominant and intent on ruling the world to rationalize their cruel depravity. Moreover, the Nazis did not simply confiscate Jewish property and land. Pauperization was merely a prelude to murder, and an effort wipe out an entire faith community. And that is precisely what Hamas promises – vehemently, and on many, many occasions – to do to the Jews living in Israel today, if it should ever get the upper hand. By contrast, as a rule, Palestinian Arabs were dispossessed as a prelude to exile, i.e. to precisely the same kind of treatment that Arab and Christian rulers meted out to Jews living in Christian and Arab lands for centuries. To conflate these disparate modus operandi is to forget history, and to mystify the entire situation.
Some will no doubt declare that any effort to call attention to these issues is evidence of an anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian bias. But this argument is vacuous, self-serving and eerily reminiscent of the argument made by Jewish extremists, to the effect that anyone who criticizes Israel’s government (or even Zionism in general) is an anti-Semite. Really? Come on! You cannot have it both ways. If you criticize the democratically elected government of Israel for human rights violations, you must also hold the democratically elected government of Gaza to the same standards of morality and leadership. Failure to do so is not simply the result of sympathy for the underdog, but of a glaring and obstinate lack of due diligence and/or ignorance of the historical facts. And if simple ignorance of the facts is not what not produces this relentlessly one-sided Left wing perspective, the problem lies deeper, in a lack of moral clarity and consistency that shades imperceptibly into old fashioned anti-Semitism. Therefore, I call upon the leadership of BLM to carefully reconsider their support of the BDS movement, and hope that someday soon good people all around the world who (directly or indirectly) support Hamas will shed their willful blindness and take a principled stand on this issue.
Copyright 2016 Daniel Burston