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The Role of Jews in the Palestinian Solidarity Movement

After Malcolm X returned from his epiphanic trip to Mecca, he was asked if White people could join his Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was very clear in his response:

“They can’t join us. I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are ‘proving’ that they are ‘with us’. But the hard truth is this isn’t helping to solve America’s racist problem. The Negroes aren’t the racists. Where the really sincere white people have got to do their ‘proving’ of themselves is not among the black victims, but out there on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is – and that’s in their own home communities.” The Autobiography of Malcolm X, pp 383-384, emphasis in original.

He added that by working separately, Whites and Blacks would form a successful collective. “Working separately, the sincere white people and the sincere black people actually will be working together.”

The words of this fighter for justice are valid 46 years later in another context: Defining the role of Jews in the Palestine solidarity movement. The lesson is that sincere Jews should not play leading roles in the Palestinian solidarity movement, but should instead expose and challenge the racism that exists in their own Jewish communities. So what are Jewish-led and Jewish-identified groups and leaders doing? Certainly, they criticize atrocities committed by Israel in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, but are they clearly defining their positions? Do they oppose Jewish supremacism, as some opposed White supremacism in South Africa during the 1980s? Which of the higher profile Jewish-led and Jewish-identified groups are demanding an end to a Jewish state and full and immediate return for displaced Palestinians and their descendents?

With the possible exception of the Neturei Karta rabbis, they don’t exist. Following Malcolm X, Jews have predictably ingratiated themselves into some Palestinian organizations, have created “dialogue” groups between Jews and Palestinians (where the elephant of who’s oppressing whom is conveniently ignored), have spoken clearly against Christian Zionism, but where are their voices challenging Judaic Zionism? After all, it’s “their own home community”.

Why is it that our group, Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, standing in front of an avowedly Zionist synagogue in Ann Arbor, Michigan for over seven years, remains the only Jewish-founded and Jewish-led group that openly and explicitly challenges Jewish power, here and in Palestine? Why is there a list of over forty Jewish peace activists who refuse to stand with us and against the racism so deeply rooted in their own community? What are they in the game for?

Proportionately and in dollars spent, votes coerced, degree of dedication and organization, no other community supports Israel more strongly than the Jewish community. Perhaps a case might be made that Christian Zionists are more numerous, but they follow the lead of Jewish Zionists; strong Jewish-led anti-Zionist campaigns focused on the Jewish community would help empower more Christians to challenge Christian Zionism. Also, Christian Zionists are dwarfed by the political footprint of the Jewish organizations comprising the “Israel Lobby”. In short, the Jewish community’s worthiness and appropriateness as a target for criticism and concerted anti-Zionist organizing is as clear as it is confounding that more Jews don’t take on this vital task.

This writer joined the steering committee of a local peace group shortly after the attacks of 9/11 and was continuously frustrated that attempts to place Palestine on the table for discussion and action were swept off. This in spite of the fact that US support for Israel was one of three major reasons the attacks were purportedly launched. The Jewish leaders of this peace group could not countenance harsh criticisms of Israel, and when membership overwhelmingly (78 per cent in favor) supported a resolution calling for an end to military aid, the leadership eventually terminated the membership and reorganized Michigan Peaceworks as a Director-led 501(c)(3) organization.

Personal experiences like the above suggest a pattern: Jews become peace activists, but when the realization strikes that they must choose between the mutually exclusive constructs of a Jewish state and a just peace, these activists move into gate-keeper mode. Like Monty Python’s Black Knight, they cry “None shall pass” to those of us who call for the peaceful dismantlement of the Jewish state. Our voices are marginalized, and by the very same folks who should be joining us.

After all, who better than Jewish activists to challenge the Jewish community? Personal discussions with Christian activists indicate that all-too-many are terrified of being labeled an “anti-Semite”. Terrified to the point of inaction, at best. They look to Charles Freeman, Arun Gandhi, Helen Thomas, and Will Smith as examples of what could happen to them should they speak truthfully.

This sets the stage for true peace activism from Jews in the movement: The racist nature of the Jewish state is fostered in local, American Jewish communities. As an example, the rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation, where we protest every Saturday, confirmed in the local newspaper that his congregation is unabashedly Zionist: “there is one general statement which I can make on behalf of the congregation – Beth Israel Congregation affirms without any hesitation or equivocation the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state”. According to its website, Beth Israel proudly stood with Israel as it battered Lebanon in 2006. Children from Beth Israel are taken on trips to Israel where they are posed with armed IDF soldiers and in front of military vehicles. In short, Zionist indoctrination and support for Israel are staples in the religious life of that congregation.

The unwillingness of many Jewish activists and organizations to confront the local roots of violent Jewish supremacism foisted upon the indigenous people of Palestine is shocking and inexcusable. It would be clear to Malcolm X, were he to return to us today. He would most likely have harsh words to Jewish peace activists who do not hold their own community accountable for the support they give the Jewish state, much like he had for Whites who refused to expose the racism in the White community.

The solution to Jewish supremacism in Palestine is simple: End it. Demand of Jews in the peace movement that they stop yelling only about a 1967 “occupation”, and start condemning the creation and maintenance of a Jewish supremacist state imposed by force upon an unwilling and incredibly resilient native population in 1948. This was the culmination of a Jewish movement started decades earlier. Taking the cause of justice and peace back to the Jewish community is the most valid path forward for Jews supporting an end to the racism both in Palestine and in their own community.

Henry Herskovitz is a retired Mechanical Engineer, and became a peace activist after witnessing the effects of US-led sanctions against Iraq in 2000. He founded Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, a group in Ann Arbor that has held non-violent vigils at Beth Israel Congregation for over seven years. He’s worked with the International Solidarity Movement as well as the Michigan Peace Team in Palestine. Contact:  http://www.facebook.com/people/Henry-Herskovitz/627467402

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