Struggle Over Substance, Not Symbols
When it comes to flags, George Carlin said it best:
“I see them as symbols, and I leave them to the symbol-minded.”
Yet, those who fanatically oppose particular flags are just as symbol/simple-minded as those who wave them.
For example, the recent Jacobin surge to purge every Confederate flag flying over American soil represents the latest march of the symbol-minded. After all, what could be more simple-minded than the notion that imposing the removal of a particular color pattern is a victory for the cause of justice?
The symbol-minded #TakeItDown crowd insist that the Confederate flag is, and can only be, a standard of state-empowered bigotry. In support of this, they cite the historical use of it by defenders of Jim Crow against the Civil Rights Movement.
Individuals can appropriate symbols to communicate any message they choose. To presume bigotry in the use of any particular symbol can itself be bigotry.
Yet, even more problematic is the waste of energy on symbols that could have been expended on substance instead. Instead of needlessly antagonizing individuals who might (and might not) support bigoted policies over the symbols they display, activists would do far better to focus on opposing the bigoted policies themselves.
The number of black men now incarcerated (effectively enslaved) in America is higher than the number of enslaved black men during the time when the Confederate flag first flew. Hounding Southern heritage enthusiasts (many of whom have no interest in racism) does nothing to free a single unjustly imprisoned black man. It does nothing to end the drug war, or police brutality, or the general persecution of blacks by the American “justice” system. It is nothing more than a divisive distraction.
American activists who are truly concerned about Jim Crow, should turn their attention away from symbols of the past, and toward the de facto Jim Crow realities of the present-day American police state.
They should also pay more mind to the de jure Jim Crow regime their own tax dollars pay for in Israel. Even while government officials all across the country make a big show out of taking down a purported symbol of Jim Crow, the same American government hypocritically pours billions of dollars into the fighter planes and fences that enforce one of the most brutal apartheid regimes in history. Just take two particularly evocative examples.
One of the most paradigmatic Jim Crow policies was the public bus segregation famously challenged by Rosa Parks. Yet, Israel has had a segregated bus line since 2013.
One of the most recent high-profile cases of state bigotry in America involved the police harrassment of black teenagers over the use of a swimming pool. Yet, around the same time, this was far outdone, with much less notice, by Jim Crow Israel, which expelled 200 Palestinians from a pool to allow Israeli settlers to bathe.
Revisionist Zionism itself, of which the State of Israel is largely an embodiment, is predicated on ethnic supremacism and exclusion. This played out in the very foundation of Israel upon the ethnic cleansing and dispossession of three quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs in the 1948 Nakba.
It has continued to play out ever since in the relentless Israeli policy of “Judaization” that subsidizes Jewish settlement, strangles Arab development, and enforces the continued dispossesion of Palestinians.
And it took a great leap forward with the 1967 war and resulting Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and other territories. The West Bank has become the central theatre for the land-rustling Israeli settler movement, which instead refers to it as Biblical “Judea and Samaria.” And the Gaza Strip has been made a vast-yet-dense ghetto and open-air prison where Palestinians are “concentrated,” immiserated, and massacred.
Israel’s Jim Crow character has been accentuated by the recent hard-right turn taken by its political class as well as its broader culture. The rise of the extreme right in Israel has been meticulously documented by the heroic Max Blumenthal in his indispensable book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.
The clearest manifestation of this shift was the rise to power of the Likud Party and the second premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu beginning in 2009. But perhaps just as important was the attendant rise of the even more populist and ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party under Avigdor Lieberman as a key junior partner in the Likud-led ruling coalition. Blumenthal wrote:
“With Lieberman’s party serving as the linchpin of this right-wing coalition government, and with Likud’s old guard overwhelmed by younger zealots, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came down firmly on the side of the party’s hardline future.”
This has resulted in what one Israeli politician called, “the most right-wing government in Israel’s history,” which has generated:
“…a constantly expanding battery of racist and anti-democratic proposals pouring from the legislative offices onto the floor of the Knesset. By 2012, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) had documented forty-six anti-democratic bills that had either passed, wer close to passing, or which had been introduced but had either failed or were still up for deliberation. The laws were so popular with the general Israeli public that a few legislators from the ‘centrist’ Kadima Party jumped on the bandwagon. Among the bills introduced by Kadima was one that proposed to outlaw any Israeli nonprofit associations that gave information to foreign authorities conducting investiagations of Israeli politicans or military officers for war crimes.”
The late Yisrael Beiteinu member David Rotem, in his leadership position in a key Knesset committee, became a one-man legislative machine, proposing, “bill after bill that stripped away the minority’s citizenship rights…” One of Rotem’s signature bills was:
“…the Communities Acceptance Law, which would allow the small, exclusively Jewish towns planted across Israel’s Galilee region to formally reject applicants for residency on the grounds of ‘suitability to the community’s fundamental outlook… Introduced in the spirit of the state’s longstanding policy of “Judaization,” which aimed to disperse the Jewish population into majority Arab areas, interrupting and confining Palestinian communities with Jews-only towns, the law was certain to pass.”
Blumenthal clarified that:
“The parliament’s political makeup was not an aberration, but rather the reflection of an authoritarian trend that had gained momentum with each electoral contest since the collapse of the so-called peace process in 2000. The hunger for an iron-fisted strongman who could ‘finish the job’ was reflected in opinion polls, exposing the attitudes of a deeply traumatized, heavily indoctrinated society with little patience left for the complications of democracy.
Daniel Bar-Tal, a world-renowned political psychologist from Tel Aviv University, conducted a groundbreaking survey of Jewish Israeli attitudes after Operation Cast Lead. Summarizing Bar-Tal’s findings, journalist Akiva Eldar wrote, ‘Israeli Jews’ consciousness is characterized by a sense of victimization, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the Palestinians, and insensitivity to their suffering.’”
Blumenthal conveys the detail that:
“Those occupying the lowest social strata — working-class Russians and the Jews of Arab descent known as Mizrahim — were encouraged to demonstrate their Israeliness before the wealthy and politically dominant Ashkenazi elite by acting out against Arabs in exaggerated displays of violence and racism. Their attitudes mirrored the crude bigotry that poor whites living under the boot of an agrarian oligarchic class displayed toward poor blacks in the Jim Crow South. And like in the American South, polls of Israeli Jewish opinions demonstrated that racism rose in inverse proportion to levels of wealth and secularism.”
And indeed, Yisrael Beteinu arose chiefly as a political vehicle for Israeli Russian immigrants.
Blumenthal relates one disturbing vignette after another, depicting the nationalist, militaristic fever that has overtaken Israel. Particularly disturbing is the attitude of the youth. Blumenthal tells of preadolescents in a museum shouting “whore” and “hookers” at older Palestinian women; high school students chanting “death to Arabs,” and one student claiming that, “This country has needed a dictatorship for a long time already.” Indeed, as Blumenthal reports:
“A Friedrich Ebert Foundation poll of Jewish Israeli youth attitudes published in 2011 — the most comprehensive poll of its kind with data compiled through twelve years of research — showed that 60 percent of Israeli Jews between fifteen and eighteen years old preferred ‘strong leaders’ to the rule of law.”
The blindness that Americans can have toward the Jim Crow realities of US-sponsored Israel is exemplified best in a story Blumethal relates about Condoleeza Rice, which I will close with:
“In a 2008 meeting with then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, [Knesset-member Tzipi] Livni emphasized Israel’s rejection of the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their confiscated land and property inside Israel on the grounds that the refugees threatened Israel’s Jewish character. Rice, an African-American raised in the Jim Crow American South by a pro-civil rights Baptist preacher, shuddered at the implications of Livni’s statement. ‘I must admit that though I understood the argument intellectually,’ Rice reflected, ‘it struck me as a harsh defense of the ethnic purity of the Israeli state when Tzipi said it. It was one of those conversations that shocked my sensibilities as an American. After all, the very concept of ‘American’ rejects ethnic or religious definitions of citizenship. Moreover, there were Arab citizens of Israel. Where did they fit in?’
But Rice’s personal obligation to the legacy of racial justice was superseded by her loyalty to her boss, President George W. Bush. She was committed first and foremost to his messianic ‘war on terror’… ‘I took a deep breath and tried to understand, and slowly I came to see what she meant,’ Rice reflected after considering Livni’s demand. Silencing her initial doubts, she proceeded to insert language into White House position papers, insisting the refugees return to the Palestinian state in the West Bank or Gaza. ‘That would allow the democratic State of Israel to be ‘Jewish’,’ Rice wrote.
In cooperation with Livni, Rice then proposed to the Palestinian Authority’s negotiating team that the refugees be airlifted en masse to Chile and Argentina, where they would begin a new life in permanent exile. ‘Bad things happen to people all around the world all the time,’ she told the Palestinians. ‘You need to look forward.’”
For more on this topic, be sure to read Jim Crow in Palestine: parallels between US and Israeli racism by Curtis Bell.