The rising toll of knife-wielding and car-slamming Palestinians who have been tragically shot and killed on an almost-daily basis over the past two months in Israel has helped fuel a popular narrative among many of the country’s critics: The expansion of settlements in the West Bank by Benjamin Netanyahu’s increasingly racist right-wing government and the spike in Jewish terrorism have empowered young Palestinians to throw off the yoke of oppression and take up arms against the occupation. This romanticized version of events, which purposely downplays the immediate cause of recent Palestinian deaths—the fact that they were killed because they tried, and often succeeded, in killing Jews—conveys the impression that innocent Palestinian youths are being senselessly and ruthlessly shot down, randomly, by trigger-happy Israeli cops and soldiers.
It is no coincidence that this plot sounds familiar to American ears. It’s meant to. Framing the escalating violence in Israel in such a way consciously seeks to create an analogy between the recurring shooting and killing of unarmed black men in the United States and the deaths of Palestinians in order to promote solidarity and link the two struggles in the American public imagination. A recent media campaign featuring iconic African-American activists like Lauryn Hill and Angela Davis along Palestinian activists aims to solidify the notion of a shared destiny by employing the catchy slogan: “When I see them I see us.”
Yet something is very wrong with the vision that links Palestine to Ferguson. It is one thing to convey sympathy for oppressed people—and yes, in many ways Palestinians are oppressed. But comparing Gaza to Baltimore or Jerusalem to Ferguson isn’t just inaccurate or unfair—it’s insulting. African-American teenagers aren’t being shot in American cities by policemen because they are randomly attacking innocent civilians in the streets with knives, or shooting parents in front of their children. The entire point of the Black Lives Matter movement is that the victims are innocent.
And despite the ongoing occupation and subsequent injustices that Israel propagates, Palestinians do share in the responsibility for their own travails and suffering. Trying to obfuscate this inconvenient truth by incorporating their cause into the heroic struggle against racism in America threatens to invest Palestinian terror with a moral legitimacy that does violence to the facts, and will only inflame rather than help end the conflict.
During a public gathering to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Million Man March that was held on Capitol Hill in October, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the outspoken and controversial pastor whose church President Obama once attended, declared that “The youth in Ferguson and the youth in Palestine have united together to remind us that the dots need to be connected.” He went on to blame “racism, militarism and capitalism” for their historical agonies and implied that Israel was reproducing the European colonial scheme: “Apartheid is going on in Palestine. … As we sit here, there is an apartheid wall being built twice the size of the Berlin Wall in height, keeping Palestinians off of illegally occupied territories, where the Europeans have claimed that land as their own.” Such rhetoric, which has become widespread among Israel’s critics (especially on the academic left), aims to reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a formulaic anti-colonial David vs. Goliath standoff. In doing so, it threatens to transform the conflict from a historically complicated political, geographic and religious struggle to the one thing it has never actually been about: racially motivated imperialism.
The increasingly ubiquitous habit of tying together the Palestinian and African American causes with the thread of colonialism seems to forget, ironically, just what the European colonial project was all about. Rooted in a realpolitik competition for global domination between great powers, a rapacious need for raw materials and new markets to satisfy growing industrial economies and consolidating political regimes, and imperious fantasies of national grandeur and racial supremacy that concocted the so-called “White Man’s Burden” to “civilize” the world, Europeans employed their technological and administrative superiority to forcefully subjugate native peoples in Africa, Asia and Latin America, plunder their lands, and in some places like the Congo, devastate entire populations.
Israel, unfortunately, has done a lot of regrettable and unjust things. But none of them have ever amounted to this. And whereas western colonialism was dedicated to conquest and exploitation, the origins of Israeli expansionism are located in a markedly different motive: sheer physical survival. Although it is true that many Israeli settlers justify their presence in the West Bank with biblically rooted claims of a greater Israel, the state’s influential military establishment along with the majority of the population, have always been much more pragmatic and accordingly concerned with the strategic security that such motivations serve, rather than with fringe messianic fantasies.
The settlers, who are often presented by Israel’s detractors as the true face of the nation, represent a small fraction of the general population (and the extremist and violent sects among them are tellingly despised and condemned by a vast majority of Israelis on both sides of the political aisle as well as by the settler establishment). The settlers may be vocal, well organized and disproportionately influential due to Israel’s unstable parliamentary system—but they lack the political legitimacy that is falsely attributed to them. Polling suggests that their public appeal has been plummeting due to the atrocious terrorist acts against Palestinians perpetrated by fanatic settler youths, and that less than a third of Israelis support their cause.
One of the saddest twists of fate in this conflict is that, like in any Greek Tragedy, Israel continues to do the last thing it actually wants to: control the lives of millions of Palestinians. Although the occupation is unjust, it must not be understood as an expression of racial apartheid or Zionist imperialism as much as a counter-productive national security strategy. After all, Israelis have voted, repeatedly and overwhelmingly, in 1992, 1999, and 2006 for left-centrist governments that were dedicated to securing a land for peace agreement with the Palestinians and withdrawing from the occupied territories. Regardless of who was to blame for the failures to achieve a final deal in Camp David fifteen years ago—a thorny issue that to this day both sides continue to contest—Israelis have proven time and again their willingness to return the West Bank in exchange for ensured security. Just this summer, despite the spike in religiously motivated violence, polls surprisingly indicated that a majority of Israelis still favored a two-state solution.
The reason for this is clear: Most Israelis, despite what the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions efforts have tried to suggest, do not want their kids to serve in the West Bank, they don’t want their taxes to fund the settlements, and they don’t see the territories as necessary for realizing the Zionist dream. On the contrary, the only reason Israelis are unwilling to get out of Judea and Samaria is the existential fear that like in Lebanon (2000) and Gaza (2005), history will repeat itself a third time and a unilateral withdrawal will transform the West Bank into yet another terror state on their borders—one that is much closer to the coastal population centers and economic heart of the country and would therefore make life in Israel unbearable and intolerable. In this regards, the settlements are perceived by many as a means and not an ends: they provide a strategic buffer zone that absorbs the brunt of the terror attacks and protect cities like Tel Aviv or Haifa from coming under daily barrages of rocket fire as had happened in southern Israel after the IDF withdrew from Gaza. Any peace arrangement that could ameliorate these security concerns would probably also swiftly bring about the end of the occupation.
Portraying Israel as a colonial and apartheid state purposely belies this security rationale and falsely substitutes the racial motive for the political one. Employing power to subjugate, exploit and dominate populations deemed racially inferior is what justified European colonialism and American Jim Crow. Doing so in the belief, misguided as it might be, that you are genuinely protecting the public welfare doesn’t make you an imperialist. It makes you a modern state.
The gross discrepancy in tactics makes the Palestinian claim to solidarity with African Americans equally dubious. The most successful method for dismantling Jim Crow proved to be, after all, the non-violent resistance campaigns spearheaded by, among others, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Their courageous efforts at defeating southern racism through non-violent means included integrating lunch counters and bus lines and holding mass boycotts and public demonstrations. And they succeeded in changing public opinion and forcing congress and the federal government to intervene not simply because they won the moral high-ground and exposed the raw bigotry and hatred undergirding southern racism—but because theirs was a genuine message of peace, justice and universal brotherhood.
As King famously declared in his speech at the March on Washington in 1963: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” Passionately committed to the benevolence and amity preached in the gospels, King understood that the very nature of the struggle would shape its eventual outcome. He therefore emphasized: “It is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends.”
Israelis would be very glad if Palestinians wished to align themselves with the African American cause that King, maybe more than anyone else, embodies. So, it is curious and revealing that they have time and again rejected non-violent protest as a strategy to end to their own oppression. Despite efforts at promoting such alternative forms of resistance, many Palestinians have instead continuously opted for violence: in recent weeks they have celebrated the slaughter of innocent Israeli civilians and incited for more bloodshed while echoing the infamous Hamas founding charter that avows to “obliterate Israel” and reclaim “every inch of Palestine.” It’s worth remembering that even the most militant African American organizations such as the Black Panthers primarily challenged only those perceived to be the instruments of their oppression—the police; whereas Palestinians have chosen to indiscriminately attack unarmed women, children, and the elderly. To ignore both the blood-curdling eliminationist rhetoric and the repeated rejectionist actions and violent terror attacks of their interlocutors in favor of the idea that all the Palestinians want is a peaceful two-state solution might indeed be the essence of wise, far-sighted state-craft. However, the fact that many Israelis have come to believe otherwise and mistrust Palestinians is not simply evidence that Israelis are colonialist racists.
Even though there were competing voices within the Civil Rights movement, it was King’s inspirational message of peace and coexistence that ultimately prevailed. While there are similar dissenting voices among Palestinians—it is only the violent fanatics on their side whose voice is being heard. And we must seriously contemplate why this is so before comparing Palestine to Selma. When Palestinian knife-wielding attackers admit that they set out to “stab Jews” and are soldiers in a holy war we need to consider the grim fact that their tactics are so different because their goals may be so far apart: most African Americans sought emancipation from their enemies; too many Palestinians seek the destruction of theirs.
The attempt to perpetuate an inherently flawed and purposely misleading analogy between Palestinians and African Americans is symptomatic of the increasingly distorted manner in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come to be viewed in the West. The politicization of knowledge among some of Israel’s critics has led to the irresponsible simplification of what is at heart, an incredibly complex affair in which both sides have legitimate grievances. But understanding the real origins of the conflict—a prerequisite to ever engendering a viable solution to end it—demands nuance, sophistication and a moral ambiguity that too many are unwilling to employ. Yes, the occupation is unjust; but, what are the reasons for perpetuating it? How can a sovereign nation, entrusted with the common security of its citizens, justify signing peace treaties with the same people whose founding charter is explicitly committed to their destruction? These are not excuses, but fundamental questions. Attempting to conveniently sweep them under the rug of ignorance by hurling hollow accusations of “settler-colonialism” and “systems of repression” towards Israel that attempt to falsely compartmentalize the conflict into a distorted historical model to which it doesn’t apply, is a betrayal of intellectual life and a mockery of common sense.
Calls for African American solidarity with the Palestinians could be more compelling if their experiences were actually similar. But they aren’t, at least not yet. Israeli police officers who shoot knife-wielding Palestinians trying to stab innocent civilians to death are not similar to police officers in the United States who kill unarmed black men. The former were shot because they tried to kill someone. The latter were shot because of the color of their skin.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragedy with no heroes and far too many victims. Let us therefore remember that Black lives matter. Palestinian lives matter. Israeli lives also matter.
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Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.