Learning Racism

When I was young I discovered racism.

I grew up in the St. Louis area, Brentwood to be exact. Pretty white bread to be sure. I went to grade schools that were all white. But in that time and in that “neighborhood” you went to grade school to 6th grade and when you went to 7th grade you went to the high school (where the big kids went). It was called Brentwood High (school), BHS. Well, when I began attending BHS in 7th grade I discovered black people. Back then they were called colored [just like in the movies]. As I attended classes and walked the halls and played sports I was in constant contact with these “colored” people. I had no particular opinion about “colored” people. I befriended them and then one day I asked Steve, one of my best friends to come home for lunch since I only lived a couple blocks away and he lived “on the other side of the tracks,” although I really didn’t know where he actually lived. Yet. So that day Steve and I walked to my house for lunch. My mom made great sandwiches, lots of potato chips and for dessert her home made chocolate cupcakes. After lunch, since we had a lot more time before we had to head for school, we went up to my room and played and talked as 7th graders would. Then my mom called up and said, “David you and Stephen better get going back to school.” And so we did, just walked the two blocks back to school.

The next day, much to my surprise I was called “nigger lover” both at school and in my neighborhood. As a young 7th grader this was a total shock. At that age you really (really) want to be liked and this was a total shock. So I told my mother and looked for guidance. Mom said, “David, tomorrow you invite Stephen’s whole family to lunch!”

And there you have it.

I had acted on these instincts already by inviting Steve to lunch in the first place as a totally innocent, natural thing to do. Who would think anything of it? Who would think any differently? This was normal behavior, no big deal. It was my parents who taught me to think and believe this way and mom cemented the message very deeply.

My family took summer vacations from St. Louis to Florida to see my grandparents. On the way we would invariably stop for gas and I would be confronted with “White Only” and “Colored Only” restrooms and drinking fountains. I would always go to the “Colored Only” restrooms and drink from the “Colored Only” drinking fountains. This would piss off the white attendants and any whites who saw it but I’d just get back in the car, sit between mom and dad in the front seat and mom would just silently put her arm around me and pat me on the back. Spoke volumes.

As I grew older I got drafted into the U.S. Army. One of my duty assignments was in Texas. I became best friends with all the black guys. We’d do almost everything together. One evening we went off base into town to get dinner. Pretty normal stuff. We entered the restaurant and sat down and began to review the menu. Then suddenly the owner came up and said we’d have to leave because he didn’t serve “people like that,” a.k.a. “niggers!”

I got so angry I was about to make a fuss, throw a chair or something. I’d never experienced anything like this and was incensed. My friends, however, had experienced it a lot and they were the ones who had to calm me down and with a great deal of dignity simply said we should go. So we left. The next day I wanted to go to the armory and get some way to bomb that damned place. My friends were cool. I was not.

On another occasion a bunch of us got a four day pass to go to the beach to enjoy spring break with college kids. The beach was covered with kids with a long, snaky aisle of sand running through it for cars to drive slowly through the mass of humanity. Everything seemed okay until suddenly we heard a commotion. A brand new 1967 Plymouth was making its way down this makeshift avenue through all the kids. But then we saw hundreds of beer bottles and cans raining down on the car and a bunch of white guys running after it. It was obviously a very dangerous development so we moved up a small hill to protect ourselves.

We then saw four guys (two whites and two blacks – probably military) get out of the car (dumb) to confront these white thugs. It was a stupid thing to do because by that time dozens of drunk white guys attacked them, hit them to the ground, threw beer bottles and cans down on them at point-blank range. Eventually, if not miraculously, these four guys got away. But then the white thugs broke every window in the car and turned it over. Whew! Crazy stuff!

Needless to say as a young boy and then a young man, this is how I learned racism in America. It has stuck with me, been part of my life, who I am ever since.

Many years later friends whom my wife and I knew from church, became the directors of the Middle East Studies Program (MESP) for American college students. They were based in Cairo, Egypt with about 20-25 students. Each semester they’d take a 2-3 week study tour of Palestine-Israel to “study the conflict.”

After we visited them one year Richard asked if I’d be interested in returning to help as his assistant during one of these Palestine-Israel trips. Having never been there before and being adventurous I said yes. So the next Spring (1998) I went back to Egypt and assisted during this field trip to Palestine-Israel.

We were based in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was, indeed, adventurous. But also eye opening and shocking to say the least. I was totally incredulous about this conflict.

One day during one of our outings we went to Haifa University. I noted a sign that was a jobs advertisement. There were jobs available to people who would wanted to apply but, as Richard pointed out, only for those who have served in the Israeli Army. The hitch was Arabs couldn’t serve in the IDF. So there you had it – “White Only” and “Colored Only” again.

As we traveled through the West Bank we also saw blatant discrimination against Palestinians with roads for Jews Only, checkpoints for Palestinians, homes being built for Jews Only, while Palestinian homes were being demolished to make room for them. And get this, the Palestinians had to pay for the demolition of their own homes.

As a result of this trip and this epiphany I returned to Palestine-Israel every year after that for about ten years. In 2000 I became a delegate with CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) in Hebron [a particularly nasty neighborhood – for Palestinians].

Because I remembered, in the 1960s in the United States how the country had its own epiphany when we all viewed the brutal treatment of blacks in the south on black-and-white TV, I felt this method of communication would be of value with this racist story. So I purchased some cameras and began filming and interviewing people and made my first documentary, “Beyond The Mirage: The Face of the Occupation.”

Now many others have made short films and documentaries, much better than mine – and continue to do so. And with advent of YouTube, cheap digital video cameras and iPhones more and more people can tell stories through video.

So perhaps more and more people are becoming aware of the racism of the Israeli occupation and yet the situation has only gotten worse and worse. Even in the latest Israeli election (March 2015) the Jews living in the West Bank (perhaps 500,000 of them) could vote but the Palestinians living there (approx. 1.5mm) could not? Why is that? Is this democracy? And then there’s the Israeli invention of “Present-Absent.” A present-absentee is a Palestinian who was expelled from his home in Palestine by Jewish or Israeli forces before and during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war but who remained within the state of Israel. They couldn’t vote in recent election or any election for that matter.

In Israel there are also many of what are called “unrecognized villages,” Palestinian villages within Israel that do not receive municipal services, such as connection to the electrical grid, water mains or trash-pickup, and they cannot elect government representatives.

After occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel began permitting Israelis who married residents in the territories to apply for their spouses to live in Israel under a program of family unification. But then the Israeli Parliament voted to block Palestinians who marry Israelis from becoming Israeli citizens or residents, erecting a new legal barrier as Israel finished the first sections of the new physical barrier against Palestinians.

Israel also has a law called the “Law of Entry into Israel”, a law allowing any Israeli and any Jew to travel freely in all parts of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river, but denying the same right to Palestinians – despite the fact that this is their country too. This law robs them of the right to visit towns and villages across the Green Line – places with which they have deeply rooted family, heritage and national connections.

Then there’s the Israeli “Nakba Law” which gives the Israeli government via its finance minister the right to impose harsh fines on government funded organizations that use funds for either marking Independence Day as a day of mourning or celebrating the Palestinian version of it, the day of Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic). Sorta like withholding fund for celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday (much less allowing a film called “Selma”).

To me justice looks like this. It is based on the fact that all people are created in the image of God and that God loves all the little children of the world, no matter what color their skin or how old they are, or whether they even believe in God. It is also based on the fact that all people are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights which means liberty and justice for all, not just some.

So, if white people can eat at that restaurant, then black people can too. If white people can live in that neighborhood, then black people can too. If white people can go to that school, then black people can too. If white people can have that job, then black people can too. And if white people can be President of the United States, then black people can too.

Therefore, if Jewish people can eat at that restaurant, then Palestinians can too. If Jewish people can drive on that road, then Palestinians can too. If Jewish people can live in that neighborhood, than Palestinians can too. If Jewish people can have that job then Palestinians can too. If Jewish people have the right of return, then Palestinians do too. And if a Jew can be the Prime Minister of Israel than a Palestinian can too.

But to believe this is said to be “anti-Semitic.”  The reason it’s “anti-Semitic” is because it is critical of Israel and its policies and any criticism of Israel has been conflated into being “anti-Semitic.”

Of course, this is wrong, it is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel.

It is not anti-Semitic to criticize and boycott apartheid South Africa on moral, human rights grounds.  It is not anti-Semitic to march from Selma to Montgomery by way of the Edmund Pettus bridge for equal rights for all.  Nor is it anti-Semitic to march from Ramallah to Jerusalem by way of Washington, DC, or through a St. Louis museum that closes down a debate on racism simply because it would include racism against Palestinians too, or through Seattle that recently voted to prevent any signs on the side of its buses that are critical of Israel.

In the words of Auschwitz survivor Hajo Meyer from an interview I did with him in Jerusalem (which you can see on Youtube), “You must criticize Israel if you at all care about the Jews and the Jewish heritage.”

David Neunuebel can be reached at: ajpme@mac.com