March 19, 2019
Within a week after Michelle Alexander became the latest African American scholar to be smeared by Zionists following her moral discussion of the Palestinian plight, Black Jews in Palestine/Israel are again protesting against state-sponsored racism in Tel Aviv. These two moments are intimately interlinked. Both the roots of and reactions to individual and collective Black protest reveal Zionism’s structural targeting of people of color. In fact, while Palestinians are suffering genocide at the hands of Zionism, they are not Israel’s only victims. Zionism has traditionally enabled the oppression of diverse population groups globally. Intersectional and transnational analyses of Zionism are thus inevitable as they help disclose the crucial relationship between Israel’s various victims, dispel the myth of an alleged “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” grasp Zionism as a transnational imperialist-colonialist force, and eventually strengthen de-colonial resistance.
The nervous reactions to Alexander’s piece in the New York Times from January 19 are perfectly in line with Zionism’s broader suppression of Black voices. Like Palestinians, Blacks are supposed to either submit to Zionist interpretations of their own history or to remain silent. The ongoing phenomenon of Zionist lecturing of Palestinians and Blacks about their own unique experiences and struggles also reveals Israel’s anxiety over its discursive power, which is significantly challenged by the de-colonial potential of intersectionality.
Michelle Alexander, the renowned civil rights advocate and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, reflected on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s opposition to the Vietnam War. King had faced backlash for his “lonely, moral stance,” which Alexander views as “an example of what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear.” Scrutinizing fears amongst U.S. politicians and activists, Alexander names the power of Israel’s political lobby and awareness of McCarthyite tactics as reasons for the general silence on Palestine. Addressing Israeli violations of human rights and international law, Alexander interprets that honoring Dr. King’s message would imply condemning these actions committed by Israel.
The author includes a slight intersectional and internationalist perspective. She relates Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States and recalls the displacement of indigenous peoples, colonialism, and systematic racism. Well aware of the difference between Judaism and Zionism, Alexander stresses Jewish resistance to Israeli policies, while discussing the ugly survival and current resurgence of anti-Semitism. Alexander focuses on the need for a transnational outlook:
I aim to speak with greater courage and conviction about injustices beyond our borders, particularly those that are funded by our government, and stand in solidarity with struggles for democracy and freedom. My conscience leaves me no other choice.
The quest for freedom, liberation, and equality does not end at man-made national and political borders. Neither do Israel’s crimes stop at its undeclared frontiers. Zionist terror gangs have, long before the proclamation of the state of Israel, persecuted Palestinians as well as Jewish dissidents. They conducted terrorist attacks internationally. Israel attacked indigenous Jewish communities from Beirut to Baghdad in order to coerce them into Zionism. Israel targeted Muslims, Christians, and Jews during its multiple destructions of Lebanon, which included the genocide of Sabra and Shatila, in which victims of the Nakba were mass-slaughtered abroad, decades after Zionist forced had expelled them from their homes.
As Zionism has increasingly become an authority within a global system of imperialism, it has traditionally supported dictatorships and engaged in human rights violations worldwide. To name a few examples, Israel was the staunchest supporter and enabler of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Israeli arms exports have potentially contributed to genocides from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Myanmar. Israel continues to threaten the Lebanese population with complete destruction and genocide almost on a daily basis. Most obviously, Israel has converted Palestine, in particular Gaza, into a human laboratory and is exporting weapons, technology, and tactics which had been tested on Palestinians and are later used by other governments to oppress citizens, including Americans. Given this transnational extension of Zionist violence, one can assume that even if Palestinians were completely annihilated, Israel would persist as an aggressive force in the world.
At the same time, Israel’s links with its white supremacist, anti-Semitic and otherwise racist, sexist, and homophobic allies, from Hungary’s Orban to Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Nazis in the Ukraine, are becoming increasingly visible. In fact, collaboration with fascists has been inscribed into the structures of Zionism.
As an analytical framework, intersectionality suggests that instances of marginalization of individuals and groups based on a targeting of factors such as their race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual identity, sexual orientation, or religion, are interlinked. While every struggle is unique, the recognition of structural and/or symbolic relationships between individual experiences of oppression has often resulted in formulations of solidarity. From South Africa to Indigenous America, Palestinians have found allies in other populations who experience expulsion, dispossession, and concentration. In particular, Black-Palestinian solidarity has been strong for decades.
Intersectionality vs. Israeli exceptionalism
The multidimensional extent of Zionist violence is, however, largely absent from many discussions over Israel. Dominant discourses on the so-called “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” generally project an alleged, oftentimes religious, battle between two equal parties within the borders of Palestine/Israel and more often than not portray Israeli atrocities as inevitable self-defense.
The intersectional focus on a plurality of struggles stands in stark contrast to Zionist propagations of an Israeli exceptionalism that singles out Israel and envisages Zionist settler-colonialism, apartheid, and genocidal policies as a freedom struggle that by definition cannot be related to other realizations of these phenomena. Such views are embedded in Western liberalism, as alleged progressiveness and commitment to human rights can well include support for Zionist atrocities and, hence, deny Palestinians their right to exist.
Israeli exceptionalism has depended on the perception of the so-called “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” as a singular and complex issue. Israel’s ongoing oppression of Palestinians is justified through the continuous recycling of old Orientalist archives of civilizational binaries, in which Palestinians are presented as nonhuman terrorists. Zionists have generally shown anxiety over the possibility that non-Palestinians might identify Palestinians as human beings, feel empathy with Palestinian suffering, or view the “conflict” as what it structurally is: brutal settler-colonialism.
Because Michelle Alexander did allude to precisely that, she was instantly attacked. Zionist representatives attempted to discredit her inclusion of the Palestinian plight into an internationalist struggle for human rights.
This was evident in the response tweeted by the ADL.
While stressing that they “have great respect for Michelle Alexander [and] her path-breaking civil rights work,” the Zionist organization finds her piece on the allegedly complex conflict to be “dangerously flawed, ignoring critical facts, history [and] the shared responsibility of both parties to resolve it.” Delusional talks around “both parties” have only served the extension of Israeli colonial hegemony, which has generally dismissed any potential prospect for Palestinian sovereignty and which views coexistence as a threat to its survival.
Zionists responded by resorting to simple Orientalist myths. U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a right-wing supporter of illegal settlements, claimed Alexander “has it all wrong,” and argued that “[a]n Arab in the [Middle East] who is gay, a woman, a Christian, or seeking education & self-improvement can’t do better than living in [Israel][.]” The depiction of indigenous Middle Easterners as homophobic misogynists who torture Christians has been central to Israel’s legitimization in the West as a superior civilization in an allegedly barbaric and dangerous Muslim world. Friedman’s fantasy also obscures Israel’s abuse of LGBT populations and its systematic persecution of Palestinian Christians.
Friedman joined other Zionist representatives in accusing Alexander of dishonoring Martin Luther King’s legacy. “If MLK were alive today,” Friedman thinks, “he would be very proud of his robust support for the State of Israel.”
Unlike many other prominent Black American civil rights activists, King did indeed support Zionism to a certain extent. However, he generally remained cautious about addressing Palestine and his views were rarely monolithic. In fact, there is some doubt over the authenticity and context of specific quotes attributed to him. Alexander herself highlights that evidence regarding that matter is “complicated and contradictory.”
Friedman’s assertion was supported by Zionist commentator Arsen Ostrovsky, who called Alexander’s writing “shameful,” “sickeningly invoking,” and “abusing [Martin Luther Kings]’s memory to attack Israel,” and smeared her as anti-Semitic. Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and current deputy minister for diplomacy in Israel, agreed. He accused Alexander of delegitimizing Israel. Peddling the myth of Israeli vulnerability, Oren thinks that “Israel has to take serious steps to defend itself,” as Alexander’s column is “a strategic threat and Israel must treat it as such.”
This militant language was echoed by the AJC which considered Alexander’s writing a “shameful appropriation” of King’s memory, tweeting that “[t]here’s no need to take potshots at democratic Israel[.]” The organization’s CEO David Harris claimed that Alexander’s piece “calls for [Israel]’s end,” and evoked Hamas and the standard rhetoric on Israel’s alleged peaceful intentions. Harris also published a commentary in the Times of Israel, claiming Alexander’s writing was “replete with errors” and showed no “understanding of Israel.” He, too, accused the scholar of dishonoring Martin Luther King. Copy-pasting lines from Orientalist archives, Harris complained that Alexander did not show understanding of, nor sympathy for, Israel’s “unenviable situation in a rough-and-tumble region where the weak don’t last long and, tragically, peace has proved elusive.” Ignoring Israel’s dependence on perpetual warfare and downplaying its illegal occupation of Palestinian land and lives, Harris projects a predictable fantasy of “Israel’s full-throttled pluralism and its age-old yearning for enduring peace and coexistence.”
Challenging Zionism’s discursive power
Discursive power in the West has been Israel’s most effective asset in extending its colonial hegemony in and beyond Palestine. Zionists want to lead the discussion on their own terms in order to continue isolating Palestinians. As a consequence of Zionist policing, Black Americans who dare to publicly verbalize connections between their own struggle and the plight of Palestinians will be denounced – in a perfectly colonialist manner – as ignorantly lacking knowledge of their own history, which is overwritten with a pro-Zionist narrative of the Black civil rights engagements. Israel’s lobby feels entitled to intellectual supremacy, with only them being allowed to profess history, to analyze, and to draw connections.
Concurrently, Zionist representatives have a long history of silencing Black human rights activists. They have invested in ridiculing, patronizing, and insulting Black activists, showing that there is no space for critical Black voices within Zionism.
Recently, Marc Lamont Hill, who called for freedom from the river to the sea, was smeared as a genocidal anti-Semite. The outrage over his advocacy once again revealed that Zionists identify a possible implementation of universal human rights as the ultimate end of Zionism. If Israel granted legal equality to all the people it controls militarily and politically, Israel in its current structures would indeed perish. Hence, the fear is justified.
The Movement Black Lives Matter has particularly been called out by Zionist representatives, who protested the Black activists’ internationalist extension of demands for equality onto Palestinians. Black Lives Matter has provided lucid analysis of the confluence of U.S. and Israeli hegemony and the transnational military-industrial complex that disproportionately targets people of color. The manifesto “A Vision for Black Lives, Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice,” published by the Platform for the Movement for Black Lives in 2016, offered a comprehensive critique of U.S. domestic and foreign policy and applied the term “genocide” to refer to Israel’s destruction of Palestinian lives.
The claim was met with instant condemnation from Zionist groups. The Reform Jewish Movement claimed it was “deeply committed to addressing the structural racism that exists in the United States” but condemned “in the strongest possible terms the platform’s language on Israel and the Palestinian Territories,” thus, imposing a limit on Black activists’ exploration of the transnational links between their own struggle and the struggles of others. The Jewish Community Relations Council dissociated itself from BLM altogether, accusing the platform of “co-opting and manipulation of a movement addressing concerns about racial disparities in criminal justice in the United States in order to advance a biased and false narrative about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.” Dismissing the activists’ concern for Palestinian lives as a conspiracy, the JCRC further proclaimed that conflating “the experiences of African-Americans and Palestinians oversimplifies complex matters and advances false equivalencies that diminish the unique nature of each.” By stubbornly blocking the verbalization of long obvious analogies and insisting on an alleged complexity of a very simple settler-colonial elimination, Zionist representatives are trying to rationalize their dismissal of Black internationalism. Thus, the organizations would support Black lives only if Black activists departed from their internationalist lens and viewed the injustices they continue to experience as an isolated political mistake rather than part of global power structures that oppress Black lives transnationally. In doing so, Zionist advocates implicitly ask Black activists to participate, at least by remaining silent, in the oppression of Palestinians, which in itself has always followed Eurocentric, colonial structures that Blacks continue to suffer from themselves.
Alan Dershowitz’s remarks implied that the authors of the platform are bigoted anti-Semites. In a piece for the Boston Globe, Dershowitz called their accusation “irrelevant,” while passionately insisting that the activists “declared war against the nation state of the Jewish people” and claiming that “singling Israel out and falsely accusing it of ‘genocide’ can be explained in no other way than blatant hatred of Jews and their state.” The platform did not target Jews, nor did it engage in any anti-Semitic tropes. It is Dershowitz who structurally connects Israel’s atrocities, however they may be worded, with the Jewish people in order to rhetorically shield Israel from criticism through accusations of anti-Semitism.
Dershowitz then attempted to relativize Israel’s atrocities by pointing to the crimes of other governments and dismissing all deaths caused by Israel as necessary self-defense, while praising the allegedly low number of civilian casualties caused by Israel. Dershowitz concluded: “Until and unless Black Lives Matter removes this blood libel from its platform and renounces it, no decent person — black, white, or of any other racial or ethnic background — should have anything to do with it.” Adopting Zionism and justifying Israel’s genocidal policies as “Jewish” self-defense would thus be a prerequisite for demanding human rights.
Zionism, however, did not generate from Judaism. It emerged as an integral part of European colonialism in the 19th century. Zionists and their allies have always seen the colony as an outpost of Western “civilization” in the Middle East/Eastern Mediterranean. Throughout the years, Israel has strengthened its role as the probably most advanced settler-colonial, Eurocentric project, which can only survive through perpetual warfare. Thus, the subsuming of all events in Palestine/Israel under the term “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” and the viewing of Israel’s actions as limited to this alleged conflict not only erases the obvious colonial power structures of a first world colonizer and a caged population. Even more, such rhetoric obscures Israel’s transnational violence, which is constituent of Zionism.
Israel’s transnational exploitation of people of color
As human rights group Dream Defenders made clear in their response to these condemnations, meaningful solidarity is necessarily intersectional.
Those who have previously claimed to be allies of the Black lives matter movement have shown us that they are comfortable with our resistance so long as it fits within particular confines and restrictions. It is convenient to endorse black lives matter when it benefits you. And as long as we stay silent about Israeli apartheid, they will “stand” with Black liberation in the US. Now that our movement has taken a stand against all forms of white supremacy and oppression, Black lives no longer matter. We want no part in this quid pro quo form of politics. True solidarity does not come with strings attached.
The silencing of Black advocates for Palestine should thus be viewed in the context of Israel’s transnational exploitation of people of color. It appears rather absurd that Zionist representatives are evoking the legacy of MLK in order to shield Israel from criticism. Coveted by fascists around the world, Israel has successfully developed a model of racial/racist hierarchies, which is obvious not only in its treatment of Palestinians, but also in Israel’s war against Black people, for whose very rights Martin Luther King was fighting.
“Israel belongs to the white man,” said former Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai who promised that he would use “all the tools to expel the foreigners, until not one infiltrator remains,” referring to African migrants. This has been a standard rhetoric in Israel, whose government has invested in making Black lives miserable. Israel’s maltreatment and persecution of non-white people is well-documented. Not only Palestinians, but non-white refugees and Black Jews face structural racism, political marginalization and socio-economic hardship, while white supremacism and anti-Black incitement govern the political discourse in Israel. African asylum seekers, who are legally delineated as “infiltrators,” are seen as a demographic threat and a “cancer,” as outlined by governmental minister Miri Regev, whose racism resonated with the broader Israeli public. Oren Hazan, an illegal West Bank settler complained that “the people that came from the black lands” were having babies and asked for their deportation. According to a poll by the “Israel Democracy Institute” from 2018, more than two thirds of Jewish Israelis favored the expulsion of Africans.
Although Israel claims to be a liberal democracy, it has declined 99% of all asylum applications. Thousands of Black people are concentrated in camps, including the notorious Holot Detention Center in the Negev. Even Black Jews are structurally marginalized. Members of the Ethiopian Jewish community were mass sterilized without consent, as a mechanism to fight the so-called demographic threat. Protests by Black people against Israel’s institutional racism are suppressed by Israel and remain absent from Western public spheres.
As Israel intensified its persecution of Africans in 2018, Netanyahu prided himself on having “removed” 20,000 “illegal infiltrators” and called for the complete removal of the remaining African population. Netanyahu built a fence which should protect Israel from “a flood of illegal migrants from Africa.” Just days before the publication of Alexander’s piece, he bragged about it on Twitter.
The same individuals who vehemently attacked Alexander remain silent on Netanyahu’s continuous incitement. Through their whitewashing of Israeli crimes and presentation of Israel as a “democracy,” they are actively concealing Israel’s persecution of Black individuals.
As the Jews of Color and Sephardi/Mizrahi Caucus, which works in partnership with JVP, identified in their intersectional analysis, “anti-racist, anti-colonial organizing and solidarity to break down the barriers that interlocking systems of domination place between oppressed communities and which seek to divide and conquer us.” Intersectional analysis has an implicit de-colonial potential. The connection of Martin Luther King’s legacy with resistance against the oppression of Palestinians can be a valuable starting point for the exploration of the interrelatedness of Black, Palestinian and other experiences with structural racism. Intersectionality has thus the possibility to disrupt Zionism’s fanatic fantasy that tries to discursively gap the discrepancy between history and myths and to place Israel above international law and human rights. Intersectionality could help further reveal that Zionism and human rights are incompatible and keep visible what Zionism is trying to render invisible: the humanity of people of color.
This article originally appeared in Mondoweiss.