Over the next week, many American Jews will celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday at their synagogues, in community centers, or in African-American churches. Most American Jews, from Left to Right, embrace King’s message of racial equality, personal dignity, constitutional justice and aspirational democracy.
I am making a personal plea to every rabbi, every community leader, every citizen, Jewish or non-Jewish, black or white, Left or Right, to take this opportunity to refute the growing libels spreading among many black Americans against Israel and the Jewish people.
Please work into your Martin Luther King Day speeches, prayers and private conversations three essential messages: Gaza is not Ferguson; Zionism is not racism nor is Israel an apartheid state.
Moreover, a healthy, mutually-respectful alliance is essential to both blacks and Jews.
Popularizing their latest lie, Palestinian activists are trying to link “occupation” from “Ferguson to Gaza.” This is a cheap, dishonest attempt to build solidarity among “people of color,” even though some Palestinians are white and some Israelis are black. This insulting oversimplification threatens to divide blacks and Jews.
Gaza isn’t Ferguson because: • America’s divide is biological, racial, not the national clash of Israelis versus Palestinians.
• America’s racial story begins with slavery and black powerlessness, while Palestinians have shaped their national story at key moments. Palestinians chose not to accept the 1947 partition, to ignore Ehud Barak’s Camp David 2000 compromise and dismiss Ehud Olmert’s 2008 concessions.
• The African-American story stars non-violent peacemakers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama, while the Palestinian story features violent demagogues and terrorists like Haj Amin al-Husseini and Yasser Arafat.
• No mainstream African-American organization seeks America’s destruction, whereas the Hamas charter echoes the PLO charter’s longstanding call for Israel’s destruction.
• No systematic African-American violence or terrorist group targets whites, while many Palestinian terrorist groups hunt down Jews, not just Israelis.
• And Gaza isn’t Ferguson, because Gaza, since Israel’s disengagement, is a Jew-free Palestinian zone, run by Hamas, which dictates Gazans’ destiny. Ferguson is an integrated American city where blacks and whites live together – usually harmoniously.
This new “Big Black Lie” updates what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called the Soviet-Palestinian “Big Red Lie,” that Zionism is a form of racism, including the contemptible UN attempt in 1975 to compare Israel to South Africa and Nazi Germany.
When African-American activists echo this simplistic anti-Zionist sloganeering, they trash Martin Luther King’s legacy, because King recognized the anti-Semitism behind anti-Zionism. King respected Jewish national rights and Palestinian national rights. He sought reconciliation.
When African-American activists insult Israel and the Jewish people they open historic wounds. Just as African- Americans are justifiably sensitive to slights because of their traumatic past, Jews are justifiably sensitive too.
The messianic dream of Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s founder, included saving African blacks after saving the Jews, because “only a Jew can fathom” African slavery, in all its “horror.”
Even if no one monopolizes empathy, it’s important to toast the deep ties between Jews and blacks. The American connection is most familiar, with the many examples of Jews supporting the Civil Rights movement, from Rabbi Dick Hirsch and the Reform movement offering King office space in Washington, DC, to the shared Jewish and African- American blood spilled in Mississippi when Klansmen murdered Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Earl Chaney.
This relationship has been healthy, mutual, not a one-way street. Beyond King’s support for Israel and Zionism, when the UN labeled Zionism racism, even the former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver declared himself “shocked” because “the Jews have not only suffered particularly from racist persecution, they have done more than any other people to expose and condemn racism.”
While sympathizing with the Palestinian “search for justice,” Cleaver could “see no net gain for freedom and human dignity in the world” from these “UN resolutions repugnant to human reason and historical fact.”
Meanwhile, as Zionists and black activists bonded in New York, Israelis and blacks bonded in Africa. Israel’s Mashav initiative for developing countries has worked to help modernize Africa since the 1950s. Mashav has trained over 200,000 international aid workers and assisted people in 140 countries, with a particular concentration – and impressive track record – in Black Africa.
Finally, appealing to the head as well as the heart, every Martin Luther King Day speaker should make a two-pronged argument to our African-American activist friends about their potential role in the Middle East conflict. They can continue playing the role too many play in universities today, joining the anti-Zionist pileon against Israel and Jews on campuses, committing macro-aggressions against Jews in an age when the smallest triggering micro-aggressions are not tolerated.
They can continue sending Jews into our own trauma vortex and guaranteeing no compromise, no flexibility over the Middle East conflict, which is the natural tendency when attacked.
Alternatively, using their historic ties with the Jewish people, building on their recent affinities with Palestinians, isn’t it time for African-Americans in the King and Cleaver tradition to try mediating, reconciling. Rather than exacerbating the problem, joining one side while risking radicalizing the other through discrimination and hostility, African-Americans have unique standing as mediators. As bridge-builders, they could deploy their credibility with both sides to seek a compromise, which will require mutual recognition of each side’s legitimacy, each side’s pain, and each side’s willingness to compromise a lot but gain even more – a chance at peace.
And so, this Martin Luther King Day, hijack the ecumenical festivities, not to score points for “our” side but to stop the bleeding; not to grandstand but to bridge-build; not to add tension but to push for reconciliation, helping to heal all three peoples’ wounds.The writer is the author of
The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. He is professor of History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @ GilTroy and www.giltroy.com.