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Solidarity From a Self-Respecting Jew

Palestine Will Win

by ERIC MANN

In the midst of an Israeli military slaughter of civilians in Gaza and now, its announcement it will commandeer 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank—the largest Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land in 30 years–to build homes for Jewish settlers the title “The Palestinian people will win” may seem delusional and hyperbolic. But it is not a rhetorical device; it is a moral argument rooted in a reading of anti-colonial history. Israel has browbeaten the world, manipulated anti-Arab sentiment, and attacked its critics to justify its escalating occupation. It is possible that this recent escalation of barbarism may become a tipping point in world public opinion to oppose Israel ethnocide and support the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people. Discrediting and dismantling the Israeli ideological arsenal and getting our government to withdraw all military aid from Israel is a key battleground for the human rights movement in the United States.

When I first joined the civil rights movement in 1964 as a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality and first heard the militants from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee chant “Hell no, we won’t go” to fight in the war in Vietnam I understood that the Black and Vietnamese national liberation struggles were an ideological, strategic, and emotional common reality. From the beginning I believed the civil rights/Black liberation revolution would win “Freedom Now” and we would see that “Jim Crow Must Go.”  But my first years of anti-Vietnam war work were marked by an excruciating sense of outrage and despair. I watched in horror as my own government—that Dr. King would later call “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” —dropped napalm, cluster bombs, fragmentation bombs, and Agent Orange on a civilian population—eventually killing 4 million people.  I felt the people of Vietnam were heroic; but I had little hope that we could truly end the war with Vietnam intact and independent. Then someone gave me a copy of Vietnam Will Win by Wilfred Burchett, an Australian supporter of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam. He explained in great detail the long-term military capacity of the Vietnamese people to withstand U.S. barbarism, but—as was later expressed to us directly by Vietnamese representatives to the U.S. peace movement—also explained that key to that victory was a powerful anti-war movement in the United States that could weaken, undermine, and eventually destroy public support for the war and force the U.S. government to withdraw all troops from Vietnam.

Applying these lessons today, we have to turn our focus to the United States government, which is Israel’s largest military and ideological ally. We should demand a complete cutting off of all U.S. aid to Israel, our government’s disassociation from Israel’s policies, and aggressive support for Palestinian self-determination and national liberation.

This tactical plan involves three components.

1)    Support for the Palestinian political project. This will support and end to Israeli interference in the internal affairs of the Palestinian people, an end to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and conditions under which Palestinian people have the right to travel and meet and receive humanitarian aid from all over the world.

2)    An international ideological counteroffensive against the Israeli government’s colonial master narrative. As one element of a far broader campaign I will address the Israeli government’s charges that Jews in Israel and throughout the world who oppose its occupation, partition, and oppression of the Palestinian people are “self-hating Jews.”

3)    Strengthening a broad, multi-racial united front in the United States rooted in Black and Latino communities with strong support from people of all races and classes, including Jews, to demand the complete and immediate cutting off of all U.S. military aid to Israel.

The Story of a Self-Respecting Jew

The Israeli thought police have tried to silence or intimidate Jewish critics and opponents in Israel, in the U.S., and throughout the world by labeling them “self-hating Jews.”  Israel’s argument is that these Jews have responded to anti-Semitism by trying to disassociate themselves from their Jewish identity and history—and thus side with Israel’s “enemies.”  Israeli ideologues argue that since Israel is “the Jewish state” and thus speaks for all the Jews in the world those who disagree are by definition “anti-Semitic” and “self-hating Jews.”  But in fact, there are many Jews in the U.S.– especially those who have been part of the civil rights, anti-war, anti-apartheid, environmental justice, and international human rights movements–who have contempt for the Israeli ideologues who would rather foster anti-Semitism against their Jewish critics than engage in an honest debate—let alone look in the mirror.  I think we consider ourselves “self-respecting Jews” or some concept similar to that and out of that self-respect and an independent political perspective based on the principles of human rights and self-determination for oppressed peoples comes respect for the people of Palestine.donate now

This self-respect includes an ongoing and militant opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish remarks, slurs, and actions—including statements by some who oppose Israeli policy by using anti-Semitic arguments. This is complicated by the fact that Israel itself tries to make a complete identity of itself and “worldwide Jewry” and attacks Jew who oppose both anti-Semitism and Israeli policy as “anti-Semites.” While this makes the job more difficult, those Jews who are militant opponents of anti-Semitism and Israeli policy can help provide some leadership in fighting on both fronts.

From this perspective, as my relatives often said, before telling a long narrative, “To make a long story short….” let me tell you about my own journey of consciousness and commitment.

My life has been shaped from birth by the Jewish, anti-fascist, working class, pro-union, pro “Negro” internationalist, and socialist traditions.  While I joined the civil rights, Black liberation, anti-Vietnam war movement in 1964 (when I was 21), my involvement in the struggle against anti-Semitism and fascism and “for the Negro” began in my family and my life experience prior to my next 50 years of a lifetime of organized resistance to the system.

I have always been a member of an organization.  As I say in my book, Playbook for Progressives:  16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer, in order to be effective you must “join an organization based on political agreement with its strategy and tactics and build a base and never walk alone.”  For me that meant the Congress of Racial Equality, Newark Community Union Project, Students for a Democratic Society, organizing prisoners as I spent 18 months in prison for militant anti-war demonstrations, Soledad Brothers and Attica Defense Committees, United Auto Workers New Directions Movement, Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition, Labor Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, Bus Riders Union, Community Rights Campaign, and our Fight for the Soul of the Cities.

In my case, it is not possible to separate my Jewish identity, history, and experience from the life choices I have—shaped by the revolutionary Two Decades of the Sixties in which hundreds of millions of people turned the world on its head.  So, when the apologists for Israel’s militarism accuse people like me of being “self-hating Jews” I see it as despicable and desperate. But I also know that those arguments are used to intimidate and silence many Jews of conscience including those in Israel who are standing up to these atrocities.  I also know that many non-Jews who are appalled by Israel’s policies fear accusations of anti-Semitism.  As such, I want to explain the deeply personal/political experiences that lead me to support the Palestinian people’s right to a homeland and self-determination and opposition to Israeli policy, politics, and persecution very early in my life.  I present my journey as a “self-respecting Jew” as one tactic in the larger ideological war.

I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1942. My father was in Europe as a member of the infantry during the Second World War against the German, Japanese, and Italian fascists.  My mother Libby and Aunt Marcia raised me.  I have a picture of me holding a picture of my father in an army uniform when I was 2—before I had ever met him.

Both sides of my family came from Jews who fled Russia and Poland during the anti-Semitic pogroms of the early 1900s.  Some became impoverished small shop owners—like my mother’s father whose “candy stores” always went out of business despite her efforts to help him–as he labored 16 hours a day only to work himself to death at an early age.  Others, like my grandmother Sarah Mandell, were teenage, immigrant, Jewish garment workers.  My grandmother worked in a sweatshop close to the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory in Manhattan—whose workers were among the most militant and politically conscious, leading strikes of the International Ladies Garment Workers of which she was a proud member. Management kept the factory doors locked so the workers could not escape. On March 25, 1911 the factory caught on fire killing 146 women.  I learned of that story from my grandmother long before I read it in labor history books.  She worked in the industry as a pattern cutter until she was 50. She was among the last Jewish workers as the workforce became Black, Puerto Rican and Dominican. I was honored to speak for my family at her 100th birthday party and thanked her for being one of my role models.  She said, “The best thing about this party is that I know who all of you are and still have all my marbles.”  She read the Jewish Daily Forward (Fovitz), a secular, socialist, Yiddish newspaper all her life.

My parents were militantly anti-Nazi.  My father, Howard, spent his teenage years as an organizer for the Textile Workers Union—having gone to the South to organize Black and white workers in the 1930s.  He was also a member of the Young People’s Socialist League.

My mother hated the fascists more than anyone I knew.  “The fascist bastards” was one of the first expressions I learned.  I understood the Germans had done something terrible to us but was surprised, at 5 years old in 1947, to experience anti-Semitism by some of the kids on Argyle Road across from Prospect Park in Brooklyn where I lived.  They called me “a Jew bastard” and said, “You killed Christ”—who I did not know at the time.  My mom got very angry and said, Scratch a goy and you’ll find an anti-Semite.”  She went storming out to confront the mothers whose sons had said it, telling them “they learned that hatred from you.”

When I was six, I came up into our apartment repeating a rhyme I had heard the older kids say:  “Eenie Meenie Miney Moe, Catch a N—-r By the Toe.”  My mother was livid, “What did you say?  Don’t you ever use that word!  Do you know how cruel that word is?  The word is ‘Negro.’  It describes people who are Black-skinned.  After what Hitler did to our people, how could you talk badly about the Negroes?  The Jews and the Negroes are in the same boat.”  I felt terrible.  I had grown up with such adoration from my mom that I was shocked at her anger at me and felt truly terrible about what I had done.  I was proud of my mother and wanted to apologize to the Negroes I had not yet met.  I went back down to my friends in Prospect Park—Jews, Italians, and Irish—and told them the terrible mistake we had made and how we hadn’t known what the word meant.  They smiled at me as if I was really stupid; they had known exactly what they were saying.

So at an early age my worldview was set.  We were Jews who were for socialism and the labor movement and we fought for the Negro and against the fascist bastards inside and outside the United States.  That worldview continues to shape my life today.

In 1950, we moved to Valley Stream, Long Island, a working class, white suburb just outside of Queens.  I loved going to Saturday morning services at Temple Gates of Zion—for the camaraderie, the mystery of a Torah I would touch with the tallis as the Rabbi brought it through the aisle for all of us to embrace.  I loved the Hebrew and Yiddish languages I did not speak—the songs, Adon Alum, Ein Keloheinu, that I knew by heart, the Kaddish, the mourners prayer with its alliterative and evoking Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba to which we responded Amein–and the chalah and pickled herring.

Each week we would be asked to donate so that the Jewish people in Israel could plant trees in a desert.  Our Rabbi explained the miracle that Palestine was “a land without a people” and we Jews were “a people without a land.”  Then the Rabbi continued, “We have to plant the trees because they had it for 1,000 years and did nothing with it.”  I asked, “Who were they?”  He simply said, “The Arabs”—with the clear implication it was “us” against “them.”  He continued, “After the Holocaust, we desperately needed a land.  So we got Israel, and the Arabs have so many countries why can’t they take “them.”  (I later understood he was talking about the nakba in which 700,000 or more Palestinians were forcibly driven out of Palestine and have still demanded “the right of return.”)  I still remember the contempt in his voice.  One of the ways a movement loses support is when it can’t make sense to its own members and its “logic” is morally questionable.  If there was one thing I came away from that conversation with, at 13, was that in fact Palestine was not “a land without a people.”

In high school I played JV basketball and was in the theater group and student government.  Traveling in those circles I knew about the high school fraternities and assumed me and my friends would all be “fraternity brothers” in one of the two fraternities—Black and Gold or Green and Red.  I was not asked to join either one.  My liberal Christian friends explained that Red and Green did not accept Jews—but assured me that when they got in they would change all that.  My friends who got into Black and Gold told me more firmly that it was a Christian fraternity and I was not welcome.

I was then approached by two very impressive guys, Howie Sandler and Bob Pelcyger. They were members of a Jewish fraternity, Mu Sigma. When I asked them why I had never seen anyone with their sweaters they explained that it was sort of underground.  “Since our sweaters are all gold with black trim and their sweaters are all black with gold trim, Black and Gold says they do not want to be confused with Jews—so anyone caught wearing the Mu Sigma sweater will be beat up.”

Besides how intellectually ludicrous the racist argument was, this was my first “identity crisis.”  I was an internationalist; I did not believe in racial segregation.  I did not want to be in a Jewish only fraternity.  But the choice was not of my making—I would join an all Jewish fraternity or no fraternity at all.  This whole rejection by my former friends was unsettling. What about us was less than them?  Were we outcasts?  What about us didn’t they like?  If I joined Mu Sigma, would I once again be stigmatized as “the Jew” which I hadn’t experienced since I left Brooklyn? But for reasons I can only trace to my parents and, by then, my own character, personality, and politics I responded to the high-school anti-Semitism with anger, contempt, and resistance.  While it had not been my first choice to be in an all Jewish fraternity, if that was going to be forced on me, then I would embrace it and make it into a cause.

Again, years later, when I read the world-shaping Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon I understood my own situation in a far broader historical and racial context.  I was deeply moved by his discussion of the terrible self-image many Algerians had to confront because of it was imposed on them by the brutal French occupiers–who enthusiastically murdered unarmed and poorly armed Algerians but folded in front of Hitler’s army like a house of cards and turned over French Jews and resistance fighters to the Nazi occupiers. Fanon argued that no amount of individual psychotherapy could undo the degradation of a people who were systematically vilified by an oppressor.  Only rebellion, armed force, aggression towards the oppressor, and an ideological understanding that your movement reflected civilization in the face of the barbarism of the oppressor could offer any chance of personal and collective liberation.  Only national liberation could heal the wounds of national oppression.  I read W.E.B. DuBois and listened to Malcolm X.  They were “race men” and Pan Africanists who understood that the healing of the profound wounds inflicted upon Black people by a white supremacist system based on slavery required a war to the death with “the white man”—not every white person–but as the personification of racist, white supremacist, capitalist system that had to be overthrown.

In thinking back on this, I am again thankful beyond words for my mother Libby.  When she witnessed anti-Semitism she never tried to give me “arguments” about how to pacify the savages, like “Well actually, we didn’t kill Christ” or “not all of us have big noses or are dishonest businesspeople.”  She understood that whoever won the battle of ideas would win the war.  As such, she went on the warpath against “the dirty anti-Semites” and “the fascist bastards.”  I saw her tell an anti-Semitic man on a bus he was an “ignoramus,” which I thought was one of the greatest curse words I had ever heard.  Like Fanon, my mom taught me that the only way to address racial degradation is to stand up and fight back.

I also came to understand that agreeing to join Mu Sigma was not just an act of defiance.  As I got to meet many of its members, I really liked them a lot.  They were smart, intellectual, had a great sense of humor—Jewish humor—ironic, sarcastic, philosophical, with long stories that people had to perform not just tell.  They were also cool guys.  In realizing I liked those “Jews,” I realized I also liked myself.

After my 3 month “pledging period,” I was finally “initiated” and got my Mu Sigma sweater.  I told my fraternity brothers that we should all wear our sweaters to high school and stand up to those Black and Gold idiots.  They all refused.  Some accused me of “picking a fight” to which I replied, “Of course, that’s exactly what I want to do and what we need to do.”  I also thought they must be exaggerating the consequences.

Again, to my shock, many of my former buddies from the baseball league where I had been an “all-star” physically attacked me, beat me up, spat on me, called me a fucking Jew bastard, and once again a Christ killer.  These were guys who I had grown up with since 7th grade, had gone to their homes, and yes, who came to my fucking bar mitzvah before they learned from their fraternities and families that they hated me. The idea of being attacked by people who knew you personally showed me the depth of racial hatred—once the ideology took root you became the “other” and your former friends could beat you with not an ounce of moral ambivalence.

My attackers called our fraternity “Jew Sigma.”  Groups of 3 and 4 guys threw me up against the lockers, and punched me until they knocked the wind out of me.  As the week went on, every day my sweater was covered with more and more dried spit.  I would not wash it off.  I treated it like a badge of honor.  But I was also very frightened.  I realized I was physically afraid, not physically tough enough to stand up to my attackers.  I was practicing passive resistance out of necessity not philosophy.

The next Sunday I went back to my fraternity and, in retrospect, organized my first civil rights action.  I challenged my fraternity brothers, “Look, either we all wear these sweaters or I quit.  We should not let those anti-Semites push us around.  But if we are afraid of being beat up then let’s disband the fraternity.”  In the movie, all of the guys would have charged out of the meeting and taken on the bullies.  But in the real world the campaign turned on the decision of one person to stand with me the next morning. Marvin Weinstein was a wrestler and a body builder.  When he put on his Mu Sigma t-shirt his muscles rippled out of the sleeves.  He was the perfect person for the job.

I went to school the next Monday.  The Black and Gold guys came towards me again, but then they saw Marvin right next to me as my bodyguard.  Marvin confronted Pat Zarcone, one of the leaders of the pack, in front of 100 people in the hall:  “Hey Pat, do you have any problems with us wearing these sweaters?”  Pat, also a jock and as big as Marvin, assessed the situation and said, “Not at all Marvin, I don’t know where you got that idea.”  The war was over; the other side had backed down.  I had not been the strongest.  But I was the best tactician, I had a strong class stand, and was able to rally forces to my side—and win the battle.  The next day more fraternity brothers, hearing of the truce, came to school with their sweaters on.  Many of the girls said, “Oh, there is a new fraternity at school.”  It was a rite of passage for me—the first time I had fought for a principle involving a lot of personal risk.  I was really surprised that I was willing to fight so hard—and of course it was great to win.

Throughout this time, I did not think the oppression of Jews was the central problem in the world or even my life—but it informed my emotional make-up and worldview.  By 13 I was reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and learned of the death of Emmett Till—tortured and murdered by white racists for looking at a white woman in Mississippi.  I understood the experiences of the anti-Semitism I experienced with some sense of proportion and priority.  Out of the interaction of personal experience and political perspective I understood that we all had to make choices and mine would be to consciously disassociate myself with the oppression of the dominant culture and to side with the oppressed.

By the time I got to Cornell University in 1960, I worked with the 10 Black students in the entire university—including Angel Flemings and Sam Carradine—to challenge Cornell’s racist admission policies.  Every summer I worked in the South Bronx as a social worker with Black and Puerto Rican kids.  When I graduated I joined the civil rights movement as a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Harlem and the Northeast.

My experience reflects the choices of many other Jews as well. I just came back from the 50th Anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer, hosted by Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a transformative experience to see Robert Moses, Dave Dennis, Hollis Watkins, Courtland Cox, Dottie Zellner, Frankye Adams Johnson, Charlie Cobb, the SNCC Freedom Singers, and many hundreds more who made history 50 years ago still working full time for social justice and social revolution.  It was heartwarming that several Black speakers at the event, thanked the organizers of Jewish origins for the historic role they playednot in comparison to others but in terms of their overwhelming over-representation.

To make this concrete, it was estimated that about 1,000 volunteers went to Mississippi and the South in the summer of 1964.  Of the white kids who went, more than 50 percent were Jewish, while Jews in 1964 were 2% of the U.S. population and 3% of the whites.  What is the mathematical probability of that happening as a random act?  Virtually none.  But as a political probability it is very high and even predictable because of the long history of Jewish suffering, discrimination, and the trauma of the Holocaust–but also because of the long social justice traditions and proven leadership in social revolutions all over the world.  As Nelson Mandela observed, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

And yet in Mississippi in 2014 there was not one supporter of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  How was that possible?  Because the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, anti-apartheid, and Palestinian liberation movements have been allies since at least the 1960s.Today, the vast majority of liberal, radical, progressive, revolutionary Jews work in inner city, urban communities as teachers, social workers, and live and work in a multi-racial reality in which their identity as Jews is an important but not primary point of reference.  The Israeli state and its ideological warriors have no buttons to push with them.  They have no ambivalences about Israeli brutality and nothing to prove to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or the Israeli government.  These Jews, as part of a far larger social justice movement can play a critical role in opposing U.S. military aid to Israel and opposing Israel’s attacks on Gaza and the Palestinians.

Exposing Israeli Human Rights Abuses and Demanding the End of all U.S. military aid to Israel

There are moments in history that are tipping points—often not fully understood at the time but in retrospect—when the tide turns and seemingly impossible revolutionary objectives become shockingly possible.  Often, they are when a system exposes itself in ways that even its closest supporters find disgraceful and are unable to defend to themselves let alone others.

The occupation of Gaza has gone on seemingly forever, but today the United Nations Human Rights Council is investigating war crimes charges against the state of Israel because “more than 1,900 Palestinians were killed in the recent fighting, a majority of them believed to be civilians while on the Israeli side 64 soldiers and 3 civilians were killed.”  Human rights lawyers are documenting that the Israeli army attacked homes, schools, hospitals, Gaza’s only power plant, and U.N. premises in apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replied, “Hamas has carried out ‘a double war crime’ for targeting civilians with its rockets and ‘using civilians as human shield for its activities.’”  Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, in a full-page ad, called on President Obama to condemn Hamas for “using children as human shields:” Wiesel argues, “I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire.  And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields, in both cases, by worshippers of death cults…What we are suffering through today is not a battle of Jew versus Arab or Israeli versus Palestinian.  Rather, it is a battle between those who celebrate life and those who champion death. It is a battle of civilization versus barbarism.” By posing the battle of a barely armed, occupied, blockaded, starving people with rockets trying to stop ethnocide by a nuclear power with one of the best financed armies in the world as one of barbarism versus civilization, Wiesel is correct but needs to look in the mirror—for in his aggressive defense of the murder of children it is he who has become the barbarian.  In my many conversations and readings over the past weeks I have found that many of those who have strained to find some rationale for Israel brutality have reached the breaking point—and agree that this is a shanda, a great sin that must be stopped.

For those of us in the United States, the focus of our work should be in demanding the end of U.S. military aid to Israel. The numbers are staggering. Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid since World War II, $121 billion to date. The 2014 federal budget includes $3.1 billion in direct military aid and an additional $504 million for research, development and production of anti-rocket and missile defense systems, most of which are US-Israeli joint projects. Annual Foreign Military Assistance grants to Israel represent 23 to 25% of the overall Israeli defense budget. Defense Department contracts since 1999 show that at least 50 companies have profited from contracts totaling more than $6.5 billion benefiting Israel, either for the Israeli military or for work performed in Israel.[1]

In the present attacks on Gaza, Israel has hit houses, offices and farmland with airstrikes by F-16s (manufactured by Lockheed Martin), missiles fired from Apache helicopters (manufactured by Boeing) and shelling from naval gunboats. The US government has continued to fuel for fighter jets and military vehicles, to Israel’s armed forces despite a soaring civilian death toll from aerial and other military attacks. On July 14, the same day President Obama vowed that “We’re going to continue to do everything we can to facilitate a return to the 2012 ceasefire,” the State Department approved a $544 million sale of AIM-9x sidewinder missiles and associated support services to Israel. These missiles can be used by F-16s to hit ground targets.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said “[The US] has not only provided the heavy weaponry, which is now being used by Israel in Gaza, but they’ve also provided almost $1 billion in providing the Iron Domes to protect Israelis from the rocket attacks, but no such protection has been provided to Gazans against the shelling.” Glen Greenwald’s recent release of new Snowden documents indicates that “Israeli aggression would be impossible without the consent, lavish support, and protection of the U.S. government…the relationship between the NSA…and the Israeli spying agency…is at the center of that enabling.”

To continue this lethal partnership, many U.S. police are being trained by Israeli defense forces in suppression of Black and Latino colonial subjects in the U.S.  As one example, in the recent armed police suppression of demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, both the St. Louis County Police and St. Louis police department have received training by Israeli security forces.

As such, it is President Obama even more than Prime Minister Netanyahu who should be the primary focus of our demands and our organizing.  In that context, Jews in the U.S., just as they were in Freedom Summer 50 years ago, can be a critical component of a multi-racial united front for social justice and human rights.

Eric Mann, a veteran of Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers is the author of Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer.  He is the host of KPFK Pacifica’s Voices from the Frontlines:  Your National Movement-Building Show www.voicesfromthefrontlines.com  He can be reached at eric@voicesfromthefrontlines.com