Lessons from the civil rights movement on an important anniversary
By Alice Rothchild
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the protests against Southern segregation in Birmingham and celebrate today’s anniversary of Martin Luther King’s penning of his fiery “Letter from Birmingham jail,” we are challenged by King’s deeds and voice.
King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He talked about the importance of grappling with the underlying causes of popular resistance; the powerful role of nonviolent direct action “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
King was not only deeply committed to nonviolence, to fighting “the triple evils” of racism, materialism and militarism, but toward the end of his life, he also turned his passion to opposing the Vietnam war, thus entering the international realm and the struggle for human rights for all oppressed peoples.
Now, 44 years after his assassination and decades of unity between African-American and Jewish communities fighting racism and anti-Semitism, a new challenge is arising. African-Americans are feeling growing pressure to stand with their Jewish brothers and sisters, despite mounting distress over the policies of the Israeli government towards Palestinians. At the same time, the U.S. Jewish community is increasingly agonized and fractured over criticism of Israeli policies and the growing Jewish voice, from activist organizations to campuses, for an end to the occupation and for boycott, divestment, and sanctions towards Israel until there is a just resolution to the conflict.
What can we learn from King’s legacy about this contentious issue?
In October 2012, under the leadership of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, a delegation of African-American civil rights leaders, theologians, scholars and activists, (many of whom are Jewish), traveled to Israel and the West Bank to see for themselves. Informed by our experiences and knowledge of the segregated South, sit-ins, bus boycotts and nonviolent marches, many were unprepared for the striking parallels we faced.
“Why didn’t I know?” was a common, disturbing question.
While Israel is usually presented as a vibrant, productive, democratic society, the delegates learned about a reality that is usually hidden from public discourse. We learned that from 1948 to 1966, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship lived under military rule with checkpoints and permits to travel within their own country. There are now more than 35 laws that explicitly privilege Jews over non-Jews. Approximately 93 percent of Israeli land is in actuality for use by Jews only through the work of the Jewish National Fund and various state agencies. There are Jewish towns and Arab towns with major discrepancies in funding, infrastructure and schools, not to mention unrecognized Palestinian villages within Israel that receive no services whatsoever.
Numerous studies document an increasingly frightened, racist society: large numbers of Israeli Jews would not allow an Arab in their home, neighborhood, or children’s school, favor preference for Jews over Arabs in governmental hiring, and both societies live increasingly ghettoized lives.
Our experiences within East Jerusalem and the West Bank were even more troublesome; whether it was the aggressive Judaization of old Arab neighborhoods in the Holy City or the efforts by Israeli authorities to make it increasingly difficult for East Jerusalemites to retain their IDs. We witnessed the extensive systems of bypass roads (intended for Jewish settlers only), separate bus systems, the rapid growth of Jewish settlements, much on private Palestinian land, the crushing checkpoint system for Palestinians and the separation wall snaking through the West Bank.
Jewish settlers in the West Bank live under Israeli civil law, Palestinians under military law. Settlements receive ample water, electricity and infrastructure; Palestinian villages are marked by their scarcity.
In Hebron where militant Jewish settlers, guarded by heavily armed soldiers, have established an enclave in the middle of the Old City, there are streets that are “Arab-rein” (“clean of Arabs”) and a high level of daily harassment by well-armed settlers toward the local Palestinian population.
Given Israel’s reputation as the victim of Palestinian intransigence and terrorism, the other surprise for some members of the DCI delegation was meeting Palestinians deeply committed to nonviolent activism, well-versed in the teachings of King and Gandhi, placing their bodies on the line Friday after Friday in the villages of Bi’ilin, Budrus, Nabi Saleh and others. We learned of years of boycotts and nonviolent marches, campus actions, Freedom Rides and a growing commitment to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Just as King wrote, “Where do we go from here?” today’s African-Americans and American Jews are struggling with the terrible consequences for a society that was once a source of pride and comfort, but is now more publicly reaping the cost of privileging one group of people over another. Discrimination, racism and segregation are the prevailing reality and what leaders from Jimmy Carter to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu have compared to apartheid.
Clearly, powerful forces within our own society, from Christians Zionists to AIPAC to our government-backed global military industrial complex make this all possible. This is further reinforced by a corporate news media frequently parroting the voices of the Israeli government rather than investigating the human rights concerns of Palestinians. But grassroots activists, joining together as part of an international movement, are developing a new discourse which is human rights-based, rather than focused on Jewish victimhood and exceptionalism at the expense of the Palestinian population.
Perhaps this can unite African-Americans steeped in the civil rights struggle and US Jews who feel Judaism has been hijacked by the increasingly isolated and dangerous policies of the Israeli state.
Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician, author, and filmmaker who is active in the US Jewish peace movement.