It is instructive to compare the experiences of African-Americans and Palestinians. We can find differences, similarities, and lessons for one and the other in their histories, social statistics, cultures, and politics. While some may see Israeli paternalism in what follows, my intentions are the admirable ones of seeking insights that explain current conditions, and might help improve things for all concerned.
The term Palestinian is meant to include the Arabs of Israel. Some Israelis consider it bad tactics to grant the Arabs on this side of the fuzzy borders the label of Palestinians, but that is what many call themselves.
One can argue without end which group has suffered the most. The Jews of Israel can compete in the contest, claiming that emergence from the Holocaust belongs somewhere in the examination of misery and salvation. That lesson might also be instructive for Palestinians, but the more direct point of this note is to compare the political success of African Americans with the failure of the Palestinians.
Up from slavery, the extremes of segregation, discrimination, repression, lynching and poverty to residence in the White House (more apt to the example of Michelle than Barack Obama) is only the tip of a story about the incidence of African Americans who have reached positions of well-being and influence.
Comparison with the Palestinians of Israel and elsewhere does not produce a simple picture. There is an Arab on Israel''s Supreme Court, Druze and Beduin have made it to the upper ranks of the IDF. The Arabs of Israel score better on measures of health than the Whites of the United States and much better than African Americans. They are also closer to the majority on measures of income than are African Americans.
However, the Palestinians are stuck in deep political ruts and complaining of poor treatment. They have clung for three and more generations to the status of refugees, and chosen Members of Knesset who know how to protest but have not learned to use their weight to gain benefits for constituents. Arabs of East Jerusalem have boycotted local elections instead of selecting one-third of the municipal council and tipping the balance in favor of a mayoralty candidate. Other Palestinians line up for UN doles of food and social services, and ask others to produce their state.
African Americans have used their own votes and the institutions of democracy to stream resources and opportunities in their direction.
A Palestinian friend makes the point that the major parties of Israel have not been welcoming to Arabs.
There is something to that, but not a great deal. On the one hand are Arab and Druze Knesset Members who have been affiliated with Labor, Likud, and Meretz. One of my graduate students stopped writing his MA thesis in public policy in order to take an appointment as scientific attaché with the Israeli Embassy in Germany. He had a PhD in biology from Heidelberg, a position with one of the Israeli ministries, and an uncle who was a Labor MK and Deputy Minister.
African Americans had the help of Jews and others. (Jack Greenberg succeeded Thurgood Marshall as Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and served in that position from 1961 to 1984.)
Affirmative Action has elements of paternalism, but has also forced open doors and paved paths to opportunity. Some white power holders reached out to Black candidates in order to attract Black votes for their party, but other whites resisted African Americans. Especially prominent in the South were poll taxes and literacy tests administered in ways to keep Blacks from voting, along with harassment and murder of those who tried to surmount the barriers.
Politics is not a parlor game where help of the underdog is the prevailing norm. Grandma''s lesson (God helps those who help themselves) has its parallel in politics. The institutions and rules of democratic regimes pay off more for those who pursue advantage than to those who wait for help. The African American road up from abject misery involved a long process of migration to the north, voting and acquiring seniority in the Democratic Party, getting favorable presidential appointments to federal courts and eventually enough clout in the White House and Congress to overcome Southern whites in the same party. The problems of African American history continue to show themselves in measures of poverty, crime, health, and education.
Ranking Israeli politicians are not falling over themselves to help the Arabs of Israel or Palestinians. There are Israeli equivalents of Jack Greenberg. My friend Naomi Hazan, a former Meretz MK and colleague in the Hebrew University Political Science Department, now heads the New Israel Fund which has funneled money from overseas Jews and others to organizations concerned with civil rights, social services, and political help for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.
However, Jewish distrust of Arabs, and Arab distrust of Jews appear to be more prominent features of our politics. Yet Israel counts votes as accurately as other democracies. The media and courts have been open to Palestinian advocates.
The rules of democracy respect those who can amass votes, translate them into elected office, then trade support in the institutions of government for projects to help their voters. Protest produces some satisfaction, but it is vote trading that produces goodies.
The rules of international politics are murkier, and less reliable than those of a functioning democracy. Palestinian leaders can acquire handshakes, endorsements, good wishes, and financial support from here and there, without moving forward to anything more substantial. My reading of their future is that it depends on more flexibility with respect to what Israeli governments are willing to offer. Yassir Arafat could have gotten a state from Ehud Barak in 2000, and Mahmoud Abbas could have done it along with Ehud Olmert. Both pursued other routes, either via Palestinian violence, the Arab League, the United States or European governments. Anything but compromising with non-negotiable demands, or dealing with rejectionists in their community. Now Abbas is emphasizing the United Nations. September is his due date, but we can expect to reach October without a Palestinian state.