Two days after Israel almost implemented a system of racial segregation on the West Bank bus system, Barack Obama spoke to the Adas Israel Congregation as part of Jewish-American Heritage Month. In his address to the conference, Obama took the time to reaffirm the ‘special relationship’ between Israel and the U.S., and drew repeated comparisons between Israel’s creation and the civil rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s, led in part by Martin Luther King Jr.
Anybody familiar with not only the history of the civil rights movement, but also of the creation of Israel, should be immediately aware how deeply problematic this comparison is:
Earlier this year, when we marked the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, we remembered the iconic images of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King, praying with his feet. To some, it must have seemed strange that a rabbi from Warsaw would take such great risks to stand with a Baptist preacher from Atlanta. But Heschel explained that their cause was one and the same.
And to a young man like me, grappling with his own identity, recognizing the scars of race here in this nation, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the idea that you could be grounded in your history, as Israel was, but not be trapped by it, to be able to repair the world — that idea was liberating. The example of Israel and its values was inspiring.
Those shared values compel us to reaffirm that our enduring friendship with the people of Israel and our unbreakable bonds with the state of Israel.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that Abraham J. Heschel and MLK had the same basic goals in mind, but their respective peoples went about it in two radically different ways. During the civil rights movement, no white person was ethnically cleansed from their home, no African-American protester amassed nuclear weapons and helicopter gunships, and representatives of the African-American community did not invade their closest neighbour five times in the space of 40 years. This is by no means Abraham J. Heschel’s fault, but President Obama has full awareness on these matters, and knows full well the history of Palestine.
That’s what makes his comparison between the civil rights movement and Israel so grossly insulting, not only to Palestinians, whom he calls “not the easiest of partners” and refers to as hostile terrorists in his speech, but also to those who took a non-violent approach to civil rights activism, as MLK Jr. did. Where was the non-violence in Israel’s creation? Israeli forces drove out almost a million people in order to establish a religious and ethnically pure state (the Nakba), refusing them the right to return to their homes, and demolishing the homes of those who refused to flee. Current settlement expansion and recent bills moving through the Knesset are further proof that this continues to be the goal.
Among them is a bill which would codify Israel as a Jewish nation state, thereby relegating all non-Jews to second-class citizen status, and a bill which would pass a series of draconian anti-terror laws which disproportionately affect innocent Palestinian civilians and their businesses, and would criminalize the distribution of the Palestinian flag. Comparisons to Nazi Germany are neither helpful nor appropriate, but laws such as these quite frankly have the same odour of persecution as early anti-Semitic laws passed in Nazi Germany, albeit towards a different group.
Where exactly are these “shared values” that Obama speaks of? For even if one grants that Zionism began as a genuine movement for self-determination – it did not – that is certainly not its objective any more. If anything, President Obama ought to be praising the Palestinian resistance movement, which is desperately trying to end the bloodthirsty occupation and lift the siege on Gaza. These are the underdogs, the people fighting tooth and nail for their basic rights to be respected – where was his praise for them? Where was his contempt for the Israeli government, who are the real “not the easiest of partners” with their gross campaign of settlement building and ethnic cleansing?
If Rosa Parks were alive today, it is hard to imagine her lending her support to Israel, just two days after it moves closer to the brink of implementing racial segregation on public transport, the exact thing she fought against. Similarly, it is practically impossible to see Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps one of the most famous advocates of non-violence, examining the history of Israel’s expansionist campaigns with a smile. And finally, it is hard to see Albert Einstein, a prominent Jewish figure that Obama also cites in his speech, lending his support to the use of chemical weapons on innocent Gazan civilians.
Indeed, Einstein would have had no love for Obama’s speech, and was a staunch critic of the “shared values” between Israel and the United States. Einstein’s name was among many Jewish names (such as Hannah Ardent) attached to a letter to the New York Times in 1948, which condemned both Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir (both future Israeli Prime Ministers) as “terrorists” and “fascists”, likening their groups activities to those of the Nazis. Einstein was also vehemently against the establishment of a Jewish state, the likes of which is currently leaping over the legislative hurdles in the Knesset, and urged for a peaceful solution whereby both sides lived together.
In short, even on the eve of an Israeli state, Einstein had grave concerns about the maniacal, segregationist, and bloodthirsty practices of the Jewish settlers, and never once referred to himself as a Zionist.
By now, we are used to Obama’s sycophantic speeches to Zionist conferences like Adas and AIPAC, and the content is usually the same. But what makes his recent speech so pernicious is his invocation of civil rights activists like MLK Jr. and anti-war activists like Einstein, neither of whom had any time for racial segregation nor bloodthirstiness. It is an insult to their memory to compare their struggle and ideology to that of apartheid Israel, when Israel is exactly the kind of abhorrence they fought so passionately against.
According to the wisdom of Obama, racial segregation in the U.S. was a blight on the nation’s history that caused unforgivable damage to African-Americans. In Israel, it is justifiable, excusable, and even admirable.
You can read Obama’s full speech to the Adas Israel Congregation here, and below are some noteworthy passages:
“Where other nations actively and legally might persecute or discriminate against those of different faiths, this nation was called upon to see all of us as equal before the eyes of the law. When other countries treated their own citizens as “wretched refuse,” we lifted up our lamp beside the golden door and welcomed them in. Our country is immeasurably stronger because we did”
“From Einstein to Brandeis, from Jonas Salk to Betty Friedan, American Jews have made contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect”
“It’s particularly important to remember now, given the tumult that is taking place in so many corners of the globe, in one of the world’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, those shared values compel us to reaffirm that our enduring friendship with the people of Israel and our unbreakable bonds with the state of Israel — that those bonds, that friendship cannot be broken”
“And to a young man like me, grappling with his own identity, recognizing the scars of race here in this nation, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the idea that you could be grounded in your history, as Israel was, but not be trapped by it, to be able to repair the world — that idea was liberating. The example of Israel and its values was inspiring”
“Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, as well. Now, I want to emphasize — that’s not easy. The Palestinians are not the easiest of partners. (Laughter.) The neighbourhood is dangerous. And we cannot expect Israel to take existential risks with their security so that any deal that takes place has to take into account the genuine dangers of terrorism and hostility”