Most folk outside the United States – and until this month, most Americans – won’t have heard of Michelle Alexander. She’s a civil rights lawyer and academic and has written a book called The New Jim Crow, and a few months ago The New York Times took her on as a regular columnist. Like millions of black – and white – Americans, she’s a devotee of Martin Luther King Jr.
And last week, she began her op-ed in the Old Gray Lady of record and one-time conservatism with a long and admiring tribute to the black, Christian, nonviolent civil rights campaigner who, just a year before his 1968 assassination, decided he must speak out about the disaster of the Vietnam war.
He had been told to soft-pedal the conflict which had by then cost the lives of 10,000 Americans, but which was still supported by the political establishment. So even though he would be falsely accused of being a communist, he chose to break his silence.
So far, so good. But last week, Alexander chose to “break” her own silence. Not about racism in the US or about second-class citizenship or Trump, but about the Palestinians.
For not only did she reiterate King’s belief that Israel must return parts of its then newly conquered territories – East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and Golan – but she launched into a long, eloquent, rather patronising, self-indulgent but courageous condemnation of Israel’s outrageous treatment of the Palestinians.
Like King, she had been silent on “one of the great moral challenges of our time” – along with the US congress, civil rights activists and students – but further silence on Israel and the Palestinians, she decided, would be “betrayal”.
If they had been wise, Israel’s friends, supporters and lobbyists in America might have held their peace. After the election of Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to congress – both supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel – the state’s comrades-in-arms might have dismissed Alexander as a parvenu, a hitherto respected scholar who had tried to advance her social status by adopting the Palestinian cause in King’s shadow with neither the knowledge nor political support to sustain her. But no.
The sky fell. She was “vicious” in her views, wrong on facts, potentially antisemitic, a “strategic threat” to Israel itself. Her article was “dangerously flawed”, an “error-ridden rant” that ignored Palestinian violence and terrorism. It was a sign of just how shaken Israel’s friends have become in an America that is breaking the old taboo on US-Israeli relations and Washington’s permanent acquiescence in Israel’s illegal colonisation of Arab land that even that old artillery-piece Alan Dershowitz was trundled out onto his Harvard battlements to take aim at “one of the most biased, poorly informed and historically inaccurate columns about the conflict between Israel and Palestine ever published by a mainstream newspaper”.
Like one of those magnificent iron cannons which tourists are expected to admire on ancient fortress walls, Dershowitz hurled forth barrage after barrage at Alexander. She condemned the bulldozing of Palestinian homes “without mentioning that these are the homes of terrorists who murder Jewish children, women, and men”. She bemoaned casualties in Gaza “without mentioning that many of these casualties were human shields from behind whom Hamas terrorists fire rockets at Israeli civilians”.
But this sort of gunfire is now regarded as so inaccurate that Americans – especially in the Democratic Party – are beginning to ask themselves just what is really going on in Israel and the occupied Palestinians lands.
Not once in his own rant did Dershowitz mention the massive Israeli Jewish colonisation project which is stealing land from Arab Palestinians for Jews and Jews only on the West Bank.
Is the boycott and divestment campaign against Israel which Alexander supports – along with congresswomen Tlaib and Omar – really “delegitimising” Israel, as her critics claim? Or is Israel delegitimising itself by confiscating land which does not belong to it?
The real reason for all the battlefield smoke, of course, has less to do with Alexander’s robust if occasionally cringe-making assault on Israeli injustice towards Palestinians as it does her scholarly background as a black civil rights worker who might understand what injustice really means, and the dangerous fissures appearing within the Democratic Party over America’s automatic, uncritical, all-appeasing and fearful support for Israel.
It’s easy to accuse a white American of being an antisemite for “breaking the silence” over US-Israeli shenanigans; quite another to condemn a black American without giving the impression that such condemnation is not itself racist.
And just read what Alexander actually wrote. If the US is to honour King’s message and not merely the man, she insisted, “we must condemn Israel’s actions: unrelenting violations of international law, continued occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, home demolitions and land confiscations. We must cry out at the treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, the routine searches of their homes and restrictions on their movements.”
Americans should question “the US government funds that have supported multiple hostilities [sic] and thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza, as well as the $38bn the US government has pledged in military support to Israel”.
There are the usual mistakes, of course. Gaza is – technically – no longer “occupied” since Israel closed its settlements there in 2005.
But since the Gaza Strip is under economic and military siege, its land and sea borders sealed, its territory at the mercy of Israeli bombs and shells each time Hamas fires its real but inaccurate rockets into Israel – often in retaliation for Israeli raids into Gaza itself – it’s nitpicking to claim that this does not constitute a form of occupation.
As Alexander added, “we must not tolerate Israel’s refusal even to discuss the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, as prescribed by United Nations resolutions” without mentioning that these were unbinding UN General Assembly resolutions and that few Palestinians inside the West Bank and Gaza – let alone in the vast Palestinian diaspora – really believe that the 1948 refugees and their descendants will “return” to property inside what is now Israel.
The host of critics, in Israel as well as the US, who now assault the latest taboo-breaking liberal American academic probably do realise just how serious Alexander’s op-ed could turn out to be.
They complain that infinitely worse assaults on human rights have occurred in Syria, Iraq, Chechnya, Kurdistan. True. But Israel’s role as an American ally changes such equations. The Syrians, the Iraqis, the ocean of Arab dictators and their torturers, the Russians in Ukraine and the Turks in Kurdistan do not claim to represent us, except insofar as they all now trumpet their apocalyptic battle against “world terror”.
But the Israelis say they are just like us, that they represent our values of democracy and freedom, that they are upholding our freedoms, that Israel and America must be inseparable. And then they treat the Palestinians with brutality, deny their nationhood, steal and colonise their lands – and expect us to shut up.
The very blackmail which has been historically used against US politicians, diplomats, journalists and academics – that they are “antisemitic” if they dare to express their outrage at Israel’s actions – is one of Alexander’s targets. The fear engendered by the Canary Mission website, which lists pro-Palestinian students and professors, and local US legislation that can deprive American citizens of their livelihood if they choose to boycott products from a foreign country called Israel, is causing real anger.
That’s why attempts to ram through new legislation against boycott movements is being opposed by Bernie Sanders and his colleagues. The “silence” which Alexander is breaking on the Middle East represents the very threat to American free speech which Sanders – whether or not he’s a presidential candidate in 2020 – has identified.
Yet now we’ve reached another weird precedent in the efforts of Israel’s supposed friends to silence Alexander. For many of them are now telling her what Martin Luther King would have said if he were alive today. He was a Zionist, they tell her. He would repudiate her views. So a black woman academic must now be told how she should interpret the thoughts and example of her own iconic and inspirational black leader.
And if the brave and liberal members of America’s Jewish community who condemn Israel are regularly smeared as “self-hating Jews”, what does that make Alexander?