MICHELLE ALEXANDER. Breaking the silence on Palestine (The New York Times International Edition).

Like Martin Luther King Jr. did, we must speak out about the grave injustices of our time.

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the lectern at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. The United States had been in active combat in Vietnam for two years and tens of thousands of people had been killed, including some 10,000 American troops.

The political establishment — from left to right — backed the war, and more than 400,000 American service members were in Vietnam, their lives on the line. Many of King’s strongest allies urged him to remain silent about the war or at least to soft-pedal any criticism. They knew that if he told the whole truth about the unjust and disastrous war he would be falsely labeled a Communist, suffer retaliation and severe backlash, alienate supporters and threaten the fragile progress of the civil rights movement. King rejected all the well-meaning advice and said, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.”

Quoting a statement by the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, he said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal” and added, “that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.” It was a lonely, moral stance. And it cost him. But it set an example of what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear.

It’s what I think about when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine. I have not been alone. Until very recently, the entire Congress has remained mostly silent on the human rights nightmare that has unfolded in the occupied territories. Our elected representatives, who operate in a political environment where Israel’s political lobby holds well-documented power, have consistently minimized and deflected criticism of the State of Israel, even as it has grown more emboldened in its occupation of Palestinian territory and adopted some practices reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States.

Many civil rights activists and organizations have remained silent as well, not because they lack concern or sympathy for the Palestinian people, but because they fear loss of funding from foundations, and false charges of antiSemitism. They worry, as I once did, that their important social justice work will be compromised or discredited by smear campaigns.

Reading King’s speech at Riverside more than 50 years later, I am left with little doubt that his teachings and message require us to speak out passionately against the human rights crisis in Israel-Palestine, despite the risks and despite the complexity of the issues. King argued, when speaking of Vietnam, that even “when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict,” we must not be mesmerized by uncertainty. And so, if we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, 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, and the severely limited access to decent housing, schools, food, hospitals and water that many of them face. 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, and we ought to question the U.S. government funds that have supported multiple hostilities and thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza, as well as the $38 billion the U.S. government has pledged in military support to Israel.

And finally, we must, with as much courage and conviction as we can muster, speak out against the system of legal discrimination that exists inside Israel, a system complete with, according to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinians — such as the new nation-state law that says explicitly that only Jewish Israelis have the right of self-determination in Israel, ignoring the rights of the Arab minority that makes up 21 percent of the population.

Of course, there will be those who say that we can’t know for sure what King would do or think regarding IsraelPalestine today. That is true. The evidence regarding King’s views on Israel is complicated and contradictory. Although the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee denounced Israel’s actions against Palestinians, King found himself conflicted. Like many black leaders of the time, he recognized European Jewry as a persecuted, oppressed and homeless people striving to build a nation of their own, and he wanted to show solidarity with the Jewish community, which had been a critically important ally in the civil rights movement. Ultimately, King canceled a pilgrimage to Israel in 1967 after Israel captured the West Bank. During a phone call about the visit with his advisers, he said, “I just think that if I go, the Arab world, and of course Africa and Asia for that matter, would interpret this as endorsing everything that Israel has done, and I do have questions of doubt.” He continued to support Israel’s right to exist but also said on national television that it would be necessary for Israel to return parts of its conquered territory to achieve true peace and security and to avoid exacerbating the conflict.

Today, we can only speculate about where King would stand. Yet I find myself in agreement with the historian Robin D.G. Kelley, who concluded that, if King had the opportunity to study the current situation in the same way he had studied Vietnam, “his unequivocal opposition to violence, colonialism, racism and militarism would have made him an incisive critic of Israel’s current policies.” Indeed, King’s views may have evolved alongside many other spiritually grounded thinkers, like Rabbi Brian Walt, who has spoken publicly about the reasons that he abandoned his faith in what he viewed as political Zionism. To him, he recently explained to me, liberal Zionism meant that he believed in the creation of a Jewish state that would be a desperately needed safe haven and cultural center for Jewish people around the world, “a state that would reflect as well as honor the highest ideals of the Jewish tradition.” He said he grew up in South Africa in a family that shared those views and identified as a liberal Zionist, until his experiences in the occupied territories forever changed him. During more than 20 visits to the West Bank and Gaza, he saw horrific human rights abuses, including Palestinian homes being bulldozed while people cried — children’s toys strewn over one demolished site — and saw Palestinian lands being confiscated to make way for new illegal settlements subsidized by the Israeli government. He was forced to reckon with the reality that these demolitions, settlements and acts of violent dispossession were not rogue moves, but fully supported and enabled by the Israeli military. For him, the turning point was witnessing legalized discrimination against Palestinians — including streets for Jews only — which, he said, was worse in some ways than what he had witnessed as a boy in South Africa.

Not so long ago, it was fairly rare to hear this perspective. That is no longer the case. Jewish Voice for Peace, for example, aims to educate the American public about “the forced displacement of approximately 750,000 Palestinians that began with Israel’s establishment and that continues to this day.” American organizations such as If Not Now support young American Jews as they struggle to break the deadly silence that still exists among too many people regarding the occupation, and hundreds of secular and faith-based groups have joined the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

In view of these developments, it seems the days when critiques of Zionism and the actions of the State of Israel can be written off as anti-Semitism are coming to an end. There seems to be increased understanding that criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli government is not, in itself, antiSemitic. This is not to say that anti-Semitism is not real. Neo-Nazism is resurging in Germany within a growing anti-immigrant movement. Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose 57 percent in 2017, and many of us are still mourning what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history. We must be mindful in this climate that, while criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, it can slide there.

Fortunately, people like the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II are leading by example, pledging allegiance to the fight against anti-Semitism while also demonstrating unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian people struggling to survive under Israeli occupation. He declared in a riveting speech last year that we cannot talk about justice without addressing the displacement of native peoples, the systemic racism of colonialism and the injustice of government repression. In the same breath he said: “I want to say, as clearly as I know how, that the humanity and the dignity of any person or people cannot in any way diminish the humanity and dignity of another person or another people. To hold fast to the image of God in every person is to insist that the Palestinian child is as precious as the Jewish child.”

Guided by this kind of moral clarity, faith groups are taking action. In 2016, the pension board of the United Methodist Church excluded from its multibillion-dollar pension fund Israeli banks whose loans for settlement construction violate international law. Similarly, the United Church of Christ the year before passed a resolution calling for divestments and boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Even in Congress, change is on the horizon. For the first time, two sitting members, Representatives Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, publicly support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. In 2017, Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, introduced a resolution to ensure that no U.S. military aid went to support Israel’s juvenile military detention system.

Israel regularly prosecutes Palestinian children detainees in the occupied territories in military court. None of this is to say that the tide has turned entirely or that retaliation has ceased against those who express strong support for Palestinian rights. Bahia Amawi, an American speech pathologist of Palestinian descent, was recently terminated for refusing to sign a contract that contains an anti-boycott pledge stating that she does not, and will not, participate in boycotting the State of Israel. In November, Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN for giving a speech in support of Palestinian rights that was grossly misinterpreted as expressing support for violence. And just over a week ago, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, apparently under pressure mainly from segments of the Jewish community and others, rescinded an honor it bestowed upon the civil rights icon Angela Davis, who has been a vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and supports B.D.S. But that attack backfired. Within 48 hours, academics and activists had mobilized in response. The mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, as well as the Birmingham School Board and the City Council, expressed outrage at the institute’s decision. The council unanimously passed a resolution in Davis’ honor, and an alternative event is being organized to celebrate her decades-long commitment to liberation for all.

I cannot say for certain that King would applaud Birmingham for its zealous defense of Angela Davis’s solidarity with Palestinian people. But I do. In this new year, I aim to speak with greater courage and conviction about injustices beyond our borders, particularly those that are funded by our government, and stand in solidarity with struggles for democracy and freedom. My conscience leaves me no other choice

.Michelle Alexander is a columnist for the New York Times


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12 Responses to MICHELLE ALEXANDER. Breaking the silence on Palestine (The New York Times International Edition).

  1. Cathy Taggart says:

    I think the best comment I’ve heard about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is this: “The Palestinians are Hitler’s last victims”.

    • Rex Williams says:

      Being regarded as ‘Hitler’s last victims’ hasn’t in any way improved their lives though, Cathy, as it has with the Jews in Israel.
      It is all in the different nature of Palestinians and the parasitic nature of Zionists in an illegal Jewish state.

      As with the years of the well orchestrated use of “The Holocaust” used as a political tool, “anti-Semitic” has been and still is a real marketing success, whereas “anti-Palestinian” would seldom raise a murmur.

      Until we see the removal from the USA of this insidious un-American AIPAC influence, organising as it does the graft and corruption that is in daily use there, (as with the AIJAC influence here in this country), AIPAC being the default US government in both houses in Washington… and then see the UN gather enough guts to act as it should have done over the past 70 years, things will remain the same.
      One has to finally add that where, other than in this power-mad USA, could you see the following travesties of justice, corrupt verdicts and cover-ups…..

      -the assassination of JFK
      -the disgrace that was the USS Liberty in 1967 with Israel having the submissive USA by the throat from that day on….
      -the 9/11 attack and the almost laughable, fabricated conclusion……

      ……and now, a country with such an enviable start in the 18th century based on the undoubted quality of its founding fathers, ending up with two so obviously corrupted houses of government, plus a collection of extreme neocons in the White House, all topped off with a fascistic president like Trump.


    • Ali Kazak says:

      There are no similarities between the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the departure of Jews from Arab states.
      Firstly, the ethnic cleansing of 70% of the Palestinian people from their homeland was a major aim of the Zionist organisation; it was carried out through war, terrorism and massacres.
      The departure of Arab Jews from Arab countries, and elsewhere around the world, was the other aim of the Zionists in order to replace Palestine’s population with Jews as Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion wrote in a letter to his son, Amos, in October 1937. “We must expel the Arabs and take their place,” as was described – pumping in Jews and pumping out Palestinians. They left their homeland under the encouragement and pressure of the Zionists, and when they refused to do so, as in Iraq, Israel send its Mossad agents to throw bombs at their cafés and synagogues and spread anti-Jewish leaflets to incite them. Another example is the international campaign Israel and the World Zionist Organisation launched against Syria to allow Syrian Jews to leave. All the Arab Jews who left sold their belongings before they left.
      Secondly, while the international community through hundreds of UN resolutions recognises the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians and supports their right of return to the cities they were ethnically cleansed from and compensation, there is not one resolution to support the Zionists’ claim.
      Thirdly, no Arab country prevents its Jewish citizens from returning; it is Israel who prevents us from returning to our homeland which we inhabited and developed thousands of years before the nomad Jews came to our county from Ur (now Iraq) led by our father Ibrahim.
      I could go on to expose this new repeated Zionist lie which they hope will be believed if they repeat it enough.

      • Jack Morris says:

        Mr Kazak, some inconvenient truths for you.
        From ‘The Inconvenient Truth About Jews From Arab Lands’ from Haaretz (https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-the-inconvenient-truth-about-jews-from-arab-lands-1.5250159) by Nathan Weinstock, once an anti-Zionist Jew who saw the light:
        ““In the course of my research,” he continues, “I found out that the story we had been told – that the Jews left the Arab countries because they were Zionists – was for the most part wrong. True, they had an affinity for the Land of Israel – that is certainly correct – but the organized Zionist movement was very weak in the Arab countries. The great mass of Jews left under duress. They were expelled. They were subjected to such enormous pressure that they had no choice but to leave.”
        You are seriously suggesting that the Jews can come back any time, walking into the arms of those who hate them?
        Furthermore when you say “the international community through hundreds of UN resolutions recognises the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians” you speak about a rabidly anti-Israel biased organisation dominated by the OIC that has no respect and little credibility.

  2. Kien Choong says:

    Hi, I don’t have a solution to resolving the conflicting claims between Israel (wanting to remain a Jewish state) and Palestinian refugees (wanting a right to return to lands now in Israel).

    However, I do think that the European Union could make a huge difference to the wellbeing of Palestinian refugees by: (i) recognising Palestine as an independent state (while acknowledging that there are territorial disputes that cannot presently be resolved); and (ii) admitting the State of Palestine into the EU as a member (or an associate) with full rights for any Palestinian to move and live in any part of the EU. I am sure that this would greatly reduce the sufferings of the Palestinian refugees, and in the long-run, create conditions for reconciliation between Palestinian Arabs and Jews in Israel (whether a single state or 2 state solution).

    When you consider that modern Israel was founded largely by European settlers – being the last of a series of settlements by Europeans in the New World and Antipodes (at the expense of their respective indigenous populations) – it seems right that the EU today take special responsibility for addressing the deprivations that Palestinian refugees currently face.

    I admire the achievement of Israel as a place where Jewish refugees from anywhere in the world has the right to settle in. It would be great if non-Jewish refugees have a similar right of settlement in countries that have ample capacity to take in refugees (e.g., Australia, Canada, the US and even Europe). There will always be refugees, and a true “global liberal order” ought to find a place for refugees fleeing deprivations, and not just foster free trade in goods, services and capital.

    • Jack Morris says:

      Kien, where do the 900,000 Jews who were forced leave their homes in the Arab world fit into your simplistic picture? The Palestinian refugees have been manipulated as pawns to put pressure on to Israel.

      • Kien Choong says:

        Hi, Jack. Thank you for your question.

        You are probably right (although I’m not a historian and hesitate to be unequivocal) to say that Palestinians have been manipulated as pawns. I imagine that at Israel’s founding, Palestinian villagers were told all kinds of stories that caused them to flee their homes. That said, I would be interested in a historian’s perspective on this.

        On your question about Jewish refugees, I would defend the right of Jews from Arab lands to return to their ancestral lands, if that is what they wish. I imagine they may even have a right to compensation.

        But the broader concern is about refugees, particularly indigenous populations that were forced to vacate land to make way for European settlers. In much of the New World and the Antipodes, the responsibility for addressing the injustices done to the indigenous populations lie primarily with the New World countries of US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There is little that Europeans can do that the US, Canadian, Australian and NZ governments do not themselves have the capacity to do.

        But in the case of the Palestinian refugees, it seems abundantly clear that there is an unwillingness or inability (it is not clear which) for the current government of Israel to address the injustices done to Palestinians. (I hope a future Israeli government will one day have both the willingness and ability to address the injustice done to Palestinians.) So I respectfully suggest that the European Union ought to do something to address the wellbeing of the Palestinian people, especially those still living in refugee camps.

        Just as Israel is a place where Jewish refugees can settle in; let Europe be the place for Palestinian refugees to settle in. Europeans have a long history of displacing indigenous peoples around the world. Here now is an opportunity for Europeans to reflect on their responsibilities to refugees around the world, especially Palestinian refugees.

        • Jack Morris says:

          Kien, In Israel, Sephardic Jews, who descend from communities in the Middle East and North Africa, account for just over half (52%) of the Jewish population and there is also a small population (approximately 125,000) of Ethiopian Jews who account for 1% of the Israeli Jewish population. And then there is the 20-25% of Israeli Arabs.
          That is to say, Israel today is NOT a product of white European settlement.

          • Kien Choong says:

            Hi, it’s true as you say, that Israel today is quite multicultural. While it was (as I understand it) founded by Europeans, it is today a society which takes in (Jewish) refugees from all over the world, and for that, there is a lot to admire (and learn from) the State of Israel.

            I have no views on Israel’s own responsibility to the Palestinian Arabs that have been dispossessed from lands that Israel now claims at its own. My argument rather concerns the responsibilities that Europeans (who have a long history of dispossessing indigenous peoples in the New World, the Antipodes, and lastly in Palestine) to reflect on their own opportunity to make amends by: (i) recognising a Palestinian State; and (ii) inviting Palestine to join the EU as a full or associate member, such that Palestinians have a right to live anywhere in the EU.

            I feel confident that one day future (and wiser) generations of Israeli and Palestinian will find peace among themselves. Meanwhile, there is a lot Europe could do to ameliorate the harms suffered by the Palestinian peoples.

          • Kien Choong says:

            Hi, I would add that the fact Australia today has many non-Europeans does not (in my view) lessen the responsibility of the Australian government (and its non-indigenous peoples) to redress the wrongs done to Australian indigenous peoples.

            (Actually I do have personal views about Israel’s responsibilities, but there is nothing to be gained by expressing them. There are many Jews around the world, who already speak up clearly about Israel’s responsibilities to the Palestinian peoples, and there is nothing useful I can add.)

    • Hal Duell says:

      I agree that the European nations, the US, Canada and others should take responsibility for the deprivations currently suffered be the Palestinians. A just way to do this would be by offering to welcome back the Jewish settlers who have usurped the rightful owners of the homes, lands and communities in Palestine, and allow those rightful owners to reoccupy the homes, lands and communities that are rightfully theirs.

  3. Hal Duell says:

    Finally this change for the better in public discourse is happening. The world-room has grown too small, and the elephant has grown too large.

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