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Jim Crow and the Palestinians

The controversy generated by Newt Gingrich’s outrageous statement last year that Palestinians are “an invented people” should have led to greater caution in the formulation of politicians’ public statements on Israel and Palestine. However, this seems not to have been the case: Mitt Romney recently offered the judgment that “Palestinians have no interest in peace” as if he were making an uncontested factual observation.

This was the moral equivalent of saying that African Americans were never interested in ending Jim Crow or that black South Africans did not want to see Apartheid dismantled.

It is revealing that Romney proposed this characterization of Palestinians’ political stance in the same speech (at a fund-raiser among the ultra-wealthy in Florida) in which he insisted that 47 percent of the people in this country believe that they are entitled to government assistance and do not want to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

The convergence of backward positions regarding governmental guarantees of universal availability of food, health care, housing, and other necessities and retrograde policies on settler colonialism practiced by Israel might be expected. But the Democratic Party scarcely fares better when it comes to Israel and Palestine.

At its recent national convention, the party leadership chose to disregard voting preferences of delegates by passing a two-thirds voice vote — despite the fact that the convention’s oral response clearly indicated otherwise — asserting that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Such flagrantly undemocratic behavior summons up such past moments in convention history as the conduct toward Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964.

In my home state of California, elected officials have gone so far as to encourage the violation of First Amendment rights in order to control opposition to Israel. Largely in response to University of California students’ support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, state legislators recently passed an Assembly Bill (HR 35) that, while unbinding, calls upon campus authorities to restrict student activism that is critical of Israel.

Such desperate measures implicitly proclaim that curbing criticism of Israel is more important than safeguarding constitutional rights. Perhaps those who support these measures fear the increasingly widespread use of the “apartheid” label to describe Israel, employed not only by students but also by such prominent figures as President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

If they fear the emergence of a new anti-apartheid movement, this time directed against Israel, they may very well be correct. The BDS movement is rapidly gaining support: this past spring, the Eighth Annual Israeli Apartheid Week was observed on campuses in South Africa and throughout Europe, North America and the Arab World.

Shortly after the passage of California Assembly Bill HR 35, the University of California Student Association passed a strong resolution that not only opposed HR 35 but recognized “the legitimacy of boycotts and divestment as important social movement tools” and encouraged “all institutions of higher learning to cleanse their investment portfolios of unethical investment in companies implicated in or profiting from violations of international human rights law, without making special exemptions for any country.”

We here in the U.S. should be especially conscious of the similarities between historical Jim Crow practices and contemporary regimes of segregation in Occupied Palestine. If we have learned the most important lesson promulgated by Dr. Martin Luther King — that justice is always indivisible — it should be clear that a mass movement in solidarity with Palestinian freedom is long overdue.

Angela Davis is Distinguished Professor Emerita, University of California Santa Cruz and a member of the jury for the 2012 Russell Tribunal on Palestine. She is author of many books including “The Meaning of Freedom” and New Critical Edition of Frederick Douglass’s  “Narrative of a Life of a Slave,” both published in the Open Media Series by City Lights Books, www.citylights.com.


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