Jim Crow in the Holy Land

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(Photo: gnuckx / Flickr)

This article is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and TheNation.com

The last days of the campaign sounded an awful lot like the Jim Crow South, when African Americans had officially won the right to vote but still faced massive discrimination.

On election morning, a powerful white official running for re-election urged his followers to get out and vote, warning that minority voters were turning out in large numbers — and those trouble-making civil rights agitators, he complained, were busing them to the polls.

But this wasn’t Mississippi or Alabama circa 1965. It was Israel in 2015.

And the candidate wasn’t some protégé of Bull Connor or George Wallace shouting into a bullhorn. It was Israel’s prime minister writing on his Facebook page.

Naked Racism

The leader of Washington’s closest Middle East ally — the storied “only democracy in the Middle East” — was pushing his right-wing supporters to get out and vote. “The right-wing government is in danger,” he warned, because — in his words — “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”

The naked racism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute electioneering was repellent. But more horrifying was the fact that it worked.

The language aimed to frighten right-wing Israeli Jewish voters with the specter of a large turnout among the Palestinians who make up 20 percent of Israeli citizens. The gambit brought back to Netanyahu’s Likud Party the far-right voters who otherwise might have voted for one of the even more extreme right-wing parties.

It worked. Likud trumped its challengers from the right as well as the left, and Netanyahu swept to victory.

Of course, there were other ploys to reach extreme-right voters as well. Netanyahu’s last-minute promise that he would oppose the creation of a Palestinian state — seemingly reversing a position he’d laid out several years earlier — may have been shocking to many in the United States. But it was actually consistent with the prime minister’s longstanding behavior.

As far back as 2001, Netanyahu bragged that he “actually stopped the Oslo Accord,” the diplomatic framework that was supposed to give rise to a Palestinian state. For the last six years, with one brief and ineffectual freeze, Netanyahu has led successive Israeli governments in building new settlements in the West Bank, “Judaizing” occupied Arab East Jerusalem, and attacking Gaza with brutal and illegal force — all with the intended effect of derailing any possibility of even a rump Palestinian state, let alone one that would be independent, viable, and contiguous.

Netanyahu attempted to dial back his reversal after the election. But given the prime minister’s consistent opposition to ending the occupation, President Obama should reject that lie.

Rethinking Old Assumptions

Indeed, the challenge for the Obama administration now is not how to rebuild its frayed relationship with Netanyahu, or even its relationship with Israel writ large. That relationship has been way too special for far too long, and it needs to be brought down to normal size.

In the past few years, we’ve seen Israel continue to act in violation of human rights, in violation of international law, and in direct contravention of the very values that it claims to share with the United States — unless those values happen to concern a continuing legacy of racism toward indigenous peoples and others outside the majority demographic.

Unfortunately, those violations were just ratified — again — by Israeli voters.

Obama’s challenge, then, is to craft an entirely new approach to dealing with Tel Aviv. It’s time to rethink the old assumptions, driven by pro-Israel lobbies and by outdated Cold War strategies, that called for providing Israel with uncritical support, diplomatic impunity, guaranteed military protection, and billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in military aid.

Those have been the key features of the U.S.-Israeli relationship for at least 48 years, and they have failed.

They’ve failed to bring Israel’s nuclear arsenal under international inspection or to make Israel sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They’ve failed to bring about an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, its rejection of the Palestinians’ internationally guaranteed right of return, or its discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. They’ve failed to encourage an Israel that respects human rights and accepts equality for all as an essential national goal.

As Obama considers the possibility — so long in coming — of reducing its diplomatic protection of Israel at the United Nations and elsewhere, his administration should keep in mind that litany of failures.

The U.S. relationship with Israel has sustained and cosseted an over-armed, nuclearized state that not only expropriates and occupies other peoples’ lands and deprives 20 percent of its own citizens of crucial national rights, but has also worked deliberately to derail U.S. and international negotiations with Iran. The United States can no longer welcome Israeli leaders who rely on openly racist provocations to win votes in support of apartheid policies or foolish wars.

A Normal Relationship

It’s time for an entirely new connection — one based not on a “special relationship,” but on the normal ties Washington shares with most other countries.

A normal relationship means reconsidering why U.S. taxpayers send $3.1 billion to Israel every year — that’s 55 percent of all U.S. military aid — when Israel, according to the IMF, is the 25th wealthiest country in the world.

It means asking why we don’t enforce the Leahy Law, which prohibits sending arms to any military unit known to commit human rights violations, when even the State Department’s own annual reports document patterns of Israeli violations. It means replacing our current “we-will-protect-Israel-no-matter-what-it-does” strategy with a new commitment to reaching a solution between Israelis and Palestinians based on human rights, international law, and equality for all.

A normal relationship, in short, means ending U.S. complicity in Israel’s violations.

Our own progress against racism in the United States remains too recent, too fragile, and too incomplete to allow our government to provide support to those relying on racist appeals to win elections abroad — especially when they include the leader of the U.S.-armed, U.S.-funded, and U.S.-protected “only democracy” in the Middle East.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

  • Dr. Aaron Lerner – IMRA

    “Jim Crow” ? Bizarre narrative
    Let’s walk through what happened:
    An Israeli politician told his supporter to GO OUT AND VOTE because people supporting another party were voting!
    To claim that this in any way Is similar to America of the past is to whitewash the very tainted past of America.
    Because the “American” response to the “threat” of a large Black turnout at the polls wasn’t to encourage whites to vote – it would be to PREVENT Blacks from voting!!!
    Israelis didn’t stand with shotguns to block Arabs from voting.
    They didn’t try to stop Arabs from voting by insisting that they pass a test only a PhD in American history could handle in order to register to vote (every citizen in Israel automatically has the right to vote – all they need to do is show up with their ID card or valid driver’s license).
    The ballot tallies weren’t mysteriously hijacked on the way to a central tally.
    So please – attack Israel all you want – but don’t deny the terrible American past.
    Same for the rest of the narrative:
    I am old enough to remember JIm Crow. And Jim Crow was a nightmare.
    A real nightmare.
    Comparing what’s going on in Israel is to deny all that pain and suffering.
    Israeli Arabs are NOT experiencing Jim Crow!!!
    Go to the mall in my Yuppy city – Raanana – and you will see Israeli Arab families as CUSTOMERS – -buying in stores and being served by Jewish waiters (and vice versa). Same for our main street Achuza – where, I might mention, there are probably more places open after 11 PM to eat than at “the city that never sleeps” (try getting a decent meal after a Broadway show).
    And the Arabs from the other side of the Green Line?
    Well, before Oslo and the terror it introduced Gazans commuted in the morning to work in Tel Aviv.
    Today many thousands commute from the West Bank and restrictions are being lowered with men and women over 50 and 55 respectively able to come over for any reason (not just to work) without any limits.
    And those who do come over eat at the same tables, drink from the same water cooler, go to the same bathrooms as anyone else.
    To repeat: don’t whitewash America’s terrible past by claiming that what’s going on here is in any way similar.