Rattling the Cage: Dr. Rice strikes a nerve

Israel's treatment of Arabs is, in some respects, reminiscent of the treatment of southern blacks in the days of Jim Crow.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
After a group of IDF soldiers near Hebron commandeered a Palestinian taxi last July, shot a passerby for no reason except malice, left him to bleed and tried unsuccessfully to cover up the whole thing, the army brass decided to ask its soldiers what exactly was going on in the West Bank. As reported in Yediot Aharonot on Dec. 16, the IDF surveyed 1,000 soldiers doing West Bank duty, and about 250 of them said they had "been involved in acts of abuse either as participants or as onlookers, or had heard from their fellow soldiers about incidents involving physical or verbal abuse, the taking of bribes at checkpoints, acts of humiliation, unnecessary delays [of Palestinians] and more." A senior officer present at an IDF discussion of the survey said, "We knew there was a problem, but we didn't figure it was this severe." A soldier serving at the checkpoints said that when a Palestinian is caught trying to get around inspection so as not to miss a day's work, "You punish him. You can let him roast in the sun for eight hours, or kick him one and send him to the end of the line. These sorts of things are always going to happen. Once a truck driver lied to me about having a permit to go through, so I made him get on his knees for four hours." There's nothing new at all in these findings; the commonness of such abuses has been testified to for decades not only by Palestinians, human rights groups and journalists, but by many, many Israeli soldiers. Yet along comes Condoleezza Rice to compare what Palestinians go through at the West Bank checkpoints to what blacks went through in the Jim Crow South, and Israelis are shocked, offended, outraged, etc. (She balanced the comment, which she reportedly made in a closed session at Annapolis, by comparing Israelis' fear of suicide bombings to southern blacks' fear of Klan bombings. But Israelis weren't about to let that part of her remark get in the way of their righteous indignation, so they chose not to hear it.) I think Rice's two-sided analogy gave a pretty well-balanced picture of Israeli-Palestinian relations, about as well-balanced as can be managed in two sentences. There are some very important differences between Israeli treatment of Palestinians and the whites' treatment of blacks in the old South. As Rice implied, one is that southern blacks didn't use terror while the Palestinian nation does. Another is that blacks never sought to drive the whites out of the South, as Palestinians have done to Jews in Israel. Yet another is that when the South was forced to end Jim Crow, blacks down there took yes for an answer. When Israel began trying to end the occupation, Palestinians, in the main, took it as a sign of weakness and as proof that the "armed struggle" had worked, and would keep working. THESE ARE some of the dissimilarities between the West Bank and the old South, and the dissimilarities are all that Israelis, in general, will allow themselves to see. But after coming to this country from America 23 years ago, I have seen Israelis treating Palestinians and Israeli Arabs in ways that made me think immediately of white crackers putting blacks in their place in Louisiana or South Carolina back in the old days. The first incident happened only a few days after I arrived in Jerusalem, while I was talking with an old lady sitting on a bench watching some kids play. Practicing her English, she congratulated me on moving to Israel - she was so nice - and then I saw her glaring at some dark-skinned boy of about 12 and yelling at him in Hebrew, clearly telling him to get the hell away from there. The boy, grinning at first as if to show he wasn't intimidated, turned and went away as he was told. "You see?" the lady said to me in English. "What happened?" I asked. "The Arab - he looks at the Jewish girl," she explained, still glaring. I didn't have the guts to say anything to her, but I remember moving away a little and saying under my breath, "'The Arab looks at the Jewish girl.' What is this, Alabama in 1911?" That was the first time a doubt rose in my mind about the creed, which I'd had no reason to doubt before, that Israel has nothing against the Arabs and never lifts a finger against them except in self-defense. Since then I've seen much worse incidents here of Jews putting Arabs in their place - in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, sometimes with violence, usually in a leering, gleeful way - and I am immediately reminded of southern whites having their fun at the expense of some hapless, terrified blacks. When Israeli Jews bully Arabs, they don't appear to be acting out of desperation, to be avenging Arab terror or war, to be striking back at their oppressors - they appear, instead, to be luxuriating in the power of the strong over the weak, of the bosses over the bossed. The kind of Israeli behavior documented most recently by the IDF's own survey may not be the rule around here, but neither is it by any means the exception, and it can only go on because Israeli society, tacitly or overtly, condones it. This is the way in which Israel's treatment of Palestinians - and, to a much lesser extent, its own Arab citizens - is reminiscent of the treatment of southern blacks in the days of Jim Crow. It's not the whole story of the Israeli-Arab conflict, but it's a very important part of the story. Israelis can scream bloody murder at Condoleezza Rice, but they're only trying to shoot the messenger.