|Apr/May 2016 Salon|
My first substantive encounter with the oppressive Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories came several years ago at an event held in the local Dutch Reformed Church here in Brooklyn, New York. Till then, what I knew about Israeli policies and actions in the West Bank and in Gaza had relied heavily on mainstream media reports. But the event that night featured two speakers, both Israelis, one an 18-year-old about to be drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces, the other a middle-aged American who had lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before moving to Israel. The younger man intended to refuse service in the Israeli army and expected to receive a jail sentence in consequence. The older man had already served time in the reserves. The church was mostly full, the pews largely filled with people sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. But a substantial contingent critical of what the speakers had been saying later turned up in the rear of the church and made themselves heard. One woman was especially vocal, shouting "cal-UM-ny! cal-UM-ny!" in an attempt to drown out the speaker. A lone policeman assigned to the event restored order.
The young man, who spoke in a soft Irish accent (because that's where he had learned his English) spoke about the experience of growing up Jewish in the state of Israel, especially the intense educational indoctrination I have since heard and read other Israelis such as the historian Ilan Pappe describe. At the time, I hadn't come across much in the American media about young men like this, though in more recent years the occasional article has appeared about young dissidents, most notably Israeli soldiers who deplored the behavior of the IDF during its brutal operations in the Gaza Strip during the summer of 2014.
The older man's words affected me more deeply. He spoke of what it was like to serve in the reserves of the IDF in occupied Palestine where the army's job was to act as protectors and police force for the Israeli colonies euphemistically known as "settlements." The reserves are not the hard-core, first-line Israeli troops. They are largely made up of men and women like this speaker, citizens of the Jewish state obliged to do military service as needed well into the upper years of their middle age. Presumably that less rigorous military imperative, combined perhaps with his more mature years, not to mention an experience growing up in a bastion of American liberalism, explains this man's conversion from true believer in the policies of the Israeli state to militant critic of them.
He described how the commander of his unit told them when they arrived in the Occupied Territories that, each time the troops were rotated, in order to instill proper fear into the Palestinians living there, it was necessary to kill at least one of them. More shocking to me, because I find the mean-spirited, gratuitous expression of hatred more disturbing, perhaps because more revealing, than outright murder, he related how on Jewish feast days Palestinians were put under strict curfew, sometimes for several days at a time. While they were thus confined to their homes, Jewish settlers went on rampages in Palestinian shopping districts, smashing shop windows and otherwise wreaking havoc.
Several years later when I was having a long siege with a stomach virus and didn't have the energy to read a book, I looked for an online course I could audit to pass the time. After rejecting one after another history and literary course because the professors were insufferably boring or preferred to talk about anything except the matter at hand, I settled for A History of Ancient Israel. It extended to 30 lectures, plenty of time to fill up my days, and didn't require too much previous knowledge of the Bible, with which I had some familiarity from my early youth. I even purchased two textbooks assigned to the course.
From early Jewish history, however accidental my introduction to the subject, to early Christian history, was a natural transition. Later still I discovered the work of "new" Israeli historians like Ilan Pappe and Shlomo Sand. After my period of debilitation passed, I continued to read in the subject, concentrating on Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and evangelizing my new knowledge on anyone I could get to listen. They, like myself in prior days, only knew the propaganda put forth by the Israeli and American governments in the mainstream media. They listened to me politely, expressed surprise, but I doubt ever took what I said seriously. It was simply too counter to the narrative we accept unthinkingly. There's a major museum, after all, on the Capitol Mall in Washington DC, the most public of public land in the United States of America, devoted to the destruction by the Nazis of the European Jews. There are similar museums in cities all across the country. High school history courses that may or may not give proper weight to comparable atrocities in our own national past devote considerable attention to the European Holocaust. Why should those friends and neighbors not view anything I told them about contemporary Israel with skepticism?
I nevertheless felt frustrated and unappreciated. For some reason I had expected those friends and neighbors to react as I had, not realizing I had reached the point I had arrived at only after considerable investigatory effort. Even so, I remained disgruntled and annoyed with them. Until one day something happened, perhaps an item in the news, that reminded me I live in a country whose very existence is the consequence of a thorough and methodical ethnic cleansing of the original inhabitants, involving not just their dislocation but frequent and sometimes gratuitous slaughter of innocents. I also live in a country where a substantial portion of the citizenry has been denied the civil, economic, and even human rights enjoyed by the majority based on their skin color. What was I doing paying so much attention to a small nation thousands of miles away, however influential it may be on the consciousness and politics of my own nation? I had fallen into the same trap as the one I believed my friends and neighbors had succumbed to. I may have been taking a more heterodox view of the subject, but the focus remained the same, crowding out the injustice and brutality being visited on some of these very same neighbors and friends simply because they were of African descent. What had happened on another continent 70 years ago had come to preoccupy Americans more than its own holocausts and their continuing aftermaths. Whatever the motivation behind those who have promoted and benefited from a constant memorialization of the Nazi genocide, it has served to deflect attention from, not to mention responsibility for, our own homegrown and still ongoing atrocities.
More recently, the two—what I learned about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians and what I already knew about the experience of African Americans in this country along with with my recent readings on the subject—have come together. This cross-fertilization of ideas is always one of the great delights, dare I say wisdoms, that can result from serious inquiries into seemingly disparate subjects. We don't need to make comparisons between apartheid Israel and apartheid South Africa, however apt those comparisons may be. Our own history provides enough material to understand, interpret, and then be reflected by Israel's. European Zionists arrived in Palestine not much more than 100 years ago. The first African slaves arrived in the American colonies 400 years ago. At that time "racism" as we understand it, or think we understand it, did not exist. It had to be invented, for the sake of controlling the African part of the population that was in indentured servitude or outright slavery. By according their European counterparts special status as "whites" and in return receiving their agreement to serve as a force to police their former brothers and sisters in servitude, those formerly inferior "whites" became racially, if not economically, equal to their masters and thus socially superior to "blacks."
Israel learned from us, not just from the way we controlled a necessary but socially undesirable subpopulation but, even more importantly, by how we ethnically cleansed and then isolated what remained of the indigenous peoples who had impeded what we saw as our right to the land as a superior, divinely chosen civilization. Some Zionists in the earlier decades of the 20th century openly acknowledged the American model of ethnic cleansing of the natives. It wasn't until after the second world war, ironically just at the time the state of Israel was receiving its imprimatur from the United Nations and just a few years after the Nazi Holocaust, that the removal or outright extermination of indigenous peoples became frowned upon internationally. Before that, in a relatively short time, tens of millions had been slaughtered in the Congo, Australia, the Americas, as well as in other parts of the world. It was done openly, in the name of civilization and peace, with the difference between then and now that those who perpetrated the slaughter frequently believed their own rationalizations.
We Americans eventually responded to the new post-war ethic by forcing our Southern states to stop discriminating against African Americans at the polling booth, in public accommodations, and education for fear of losing influence in client nations we supported as a firewall against Soviet communism. But we did nothing to reverse the effects of either two and a half centuries of outright slavery or the arguably more destructive policies that had impoverished Americans of African descent before, during, and after the New Deal. People who have been enslaved can recover their lost dignity and respond to educational and other opportunities when afforded them. Former slaves in the American South did so remarkably well during the short period of federal Reconstruction, as W.E.B. Du Bois eloquently documents in Black Reconstruction. Most of our ancestors, whether we are primarily of African or European descent, were once slaves or the equivalent of slaves. The O'Connors on my mother's side of the family were not likely "high kings"—as the popular histories like to call them—any more than my neighbors' ancestors were kings and queens in Africa. In this sense my name is as much a slave name as any African American's. If some of my relatives like to believe they are descended from Gaelic royalty, that to me is just an indication of a restive attitude toward their current position in society, as it is for anyone or any group that relies on a mythical past to tell them who they are.
But arguably more important than the depredations of past slavery, more immediately damaging to modern African Americans, has been their specific and conscious exclusion from the economic rehabilitation that was offered so-called whites (most of them only recently accorded that social status and even then only on an honorary basis) when FDR's administration took on the task of overhauling the social and economic foundations of American society during the Great Depression. African Americans were deliberately excluded by the federal government from loan guarantees and low down payments made available to "white" Americans looking to buy homes. The exclusion wasn't perpetrated in secret or in the dead of night by overweight men wearing bed sheets. It was effected openly and in writing by the Federal Housing Administration and, after the conclusion of the second world war during which African Americans soldiers had been segregated from their "white" counterparts and those not in the military denied access to well-paying jobs in the war industries, by the Veterans Administration.
The result has been a massive denial of the one sure source of individual and family wealth available to the American middle class: home ownership. Home ownership makes possible not just a secure place to live and raise a family, it provides collateral for college loans, starting a family business, as well as a host of other possibilities denied those without such a resource. If you deny this basic economic privilege to one group and not to others and then discriminate against them in employment opportunity, relegate them to second-class educational opportunities and other public services and pen them up in urban and now suburban ghettos, there is no reason to assume you will have any result other than the one we now have.
It takes a long time to beat a people down so thoroughly they accept their degraded status or even come to believe it to be the natural one. It's never a perfect process. There will always be malcontents who kick against the traces. But at some point a conquering power reaches its goal of "pacification," the word used in the 19th century to describe the ethnic cleansing of native Americans and in the 20th the destruction of South Vietnamese villages sympathetic to the Vietcong. Israel's plan for Gaza is to maintain it as an open-air maximum-security prison for its Palestinian residents for as long as it takes to convince them that there is no point in resisting Israeli power. A less severe, though nonetheless brutal, policy is applied in the West Bank where land is progressively occupied and resources commandeered. The object there is to force Palestinians into small, manageable enclaves, leaving all the rest of the land free for Israeli colonization and exploitation. With time they too will either accept their fate as prisoners in their own land or, better yet, leave.
This is the plan we have more or less adopted for our fellow citizens of African descent and, though it's no longer put forward openly, it still is the operative one in more subtle though hardly less effective ways than in the days of Jim Crow or the racist policies of the FHA. The checkpoints Israelis use to inconvenience and harass Palestinians living in the West Bank have their counterpart in our racial profiling, our arbitrary arrests of African Americans and other non-"whites," our frequent killing of unarmed black men and women by the police. Our black suburbs, like our black urban ghettos, serve the same purpose as the enclaves or bantustans in which Israel pens up residents of the West Bank. And through massive incarceration of young men of African descent we emulate and inspire the Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip, even if we do it out of sight rather than with F-16s and white phosphorous.
No two historical events are perfectly comparable. What does remain constant is human nature. As Americans we like to believe we too are a chosen people morally inoculated against responsibility for the kind of atrocious behavior for which we hold other peoples accountable. What looks like genocide in other parts of the world we call Manifest Destiny or even Law and Order when we perpetrate it. To keep our consciences from troubling us, we accord the same moral exceptionalism that we claim for ourselves to allies. No American government dares or cares to criticize, never mind condemn, Israeli brutality, any more than it wants to confront the consequences of America's own racism and history of oppression. To criticize the other implies taking a critical look at ourselves, and what people ever does that voluntarily? Meanwhile, with the same self-imposed myopia, we abuse, incarcerate and slaughter African Americans as if they weren't as much entitled to this land and its benefits as the rest of us are, as if they were aliens we tolerate rather than embrace—in other words, as if they were Palestinians.