I want to commend Scarlett Johansson for raising the issue of Israeli oppression of Palestinians to American attention: As a result of her efforts and beauty many more Americans are aware of the evils of occupation than were a week ago.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “There is nothing in the world more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
How true. Today, I want to return to recent comments [‘1/19/2014’ and ‘2/2/2014’] about Dr. King, and his support of Israel. While it’s true that King made statements supportive of Israel, it’s equally true that his comments were quoted without context. Any attempt to appropriate King’s struggle for peace and justice to support continued Israeli occupation and exploitation of the Palestinians is unconscionable and misrepresents reality.
There is some controversy over where/whether/when King made the comment equating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism as related by Seymour Lipset in his essay “The Socialism of Fools: The Left, the Jews & Israel” about a “dinner” for Dr. King he attended. Lipset wrote, “When one black student made some remark against the Zionists,” Dr. King “snapped” back, —‰’When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism’.”
Let’s assume Lipset’s quote is accurate: What does it mean?
Lipset says that the split between blacks and Jews “stems much more from the American situation than from the Middle East Conflict.” King’s statement was clearly in response to a concern over rising anti-Semitism among some blacks in the movement and King condemned it, as was right.
Anti-Semitism must always be denounced. However, I am not alone in rejecting linkage of criticism of Israel as being anti-Semitic. If that were true there would be many Jews and Israelis, as well as non-Jews, who would be thusly tarred, unfairly.
Dr. King’s leadership as a non-violent civil rights leader and visionary did not make him an expert on Middle Eastern affairs — or on Zionism. King’s statements predated the expansion of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and I suggest that, like Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu, for example, King would not have been unsympathetic to their plight while remaining steadfast in support for a secure and free Israel.
King supported Israel’s security but never suggested that such security should come at the expense of someone else’s human rights. He denounced anti-Semitism in his community while at the same time not defending anyone’s right to oppress others.
Dr King’s statements on Zionism came well before the decades of Israeli oppression of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza — an occupation recently brilliantly highlighted by SodaStream.
(By the way: A sweet Super Bowl irony was Coca-Cola’s inclusion of a singing Palestinian woman, in traditional head scarf, in its beautiful multilingual presentation of “American the Beautiful.”)
Jewish columnist Peter Beinart writes, “That Israel systematically oppresses West Bank Palestinians has been acknowledged even by the former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who have warned that Israel’s continued rule there could eventually lead to a South African-style apartheid system.”
This is not an issue to delegitimize Israel: It is an issue of justice. It is an effort to delegitimize Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.
Israeli Bernard Avishai, visiting professor of government at Dartmouth College writes, “Boycotting companies operating in the settlements is not the same as boycotting Israel. Many Israelis, myself included, refuse to buy wines, eggs, beauty creams — and fizzy-water makers — produced in the settlements. The least we can do is demonstrate against these ersatz, destructive communities by refusing to let them profit from our purchases the same way they’ve profited from the cheap land and tax breaks that drew them there in the first place.”
Last week the Financial Times wrote, “The occupation imprisons thousands of the Palestinians’ young men, gives their land and water to settlers, demolishes their houses and partitions the remaining territory with scores of checkpoints and segregated roads. There are almost no basic foundations for an economy. The way to create Palestinian jobs is to end the occupation and let Palestinians build those foundations — not to build ‘bridges to peace’ on other people’s land without their permission.”
Today, it seems some readers would rather not confront issues of equity, injustice, poverty, occupation, indentured labor, transgressions and other non-peaceful images so they can worry about what’s on TV, in their mailbox or whether they have enough sunscreen for the beach.
Today, it is hard to believe that among us, living in privilege and comfort, are those who are so reductive in their thinking that they believe that Palestinian choices are limited between throwing rocks at or working for their occupiers.
In 2012, Peter Beinart wrote, “To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements” in the New York Times, saying American Jews “should lobby to exclude settler-produced goods from America’s free-trade deal with Israel. We should push to end Internal Revenue Service policies that allow Americans to make tax-deductible gifts to settler charities. Every time an American newspaper calls Israel a democracy, we should urge it to include the caveat: only within the green line.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception, becoming the rule, and in turn being accepted. The knowledge of evil is something which the first man acquired; it was not something that the prophets had to discover. Their great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference. One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.”
It’s hard to stand within our communities, as Dr. King did when he denounced anti-Semitism, and critique, to speak out of love rather than from fear. Critiquing our communities, out of love, is our alternative to succumbing to an indifference to evil.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.