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The Role of Jews in the Palestinian Solidarity Movement

By HENRY HERSKOVITZ and MICHELLE J. KINNUCAN | April 26, 2011

After Malcolm X returned from his epiphanic trip to Mecca, he was asked if White people could join his Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was very clear in his response:

“They can’t join us. I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are ‘proving’ that they are ‘with us’. But the hard truth is this isn’t helping to solve America’s racist problem. The Negroes aren’t the racists. Where the really sincere white people have got to do their ‘proving’ of themselves is not among the black victims, but out there on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is – and that’s in their own home communities.” The Autobiography of Malcolm X, pp 383-384, emphasis in original.

He added that by working separately, Whites and Blacks would form a successful collective. “Working separately, the sincere white people and the sincere black people actually will be working together.”

The words of this fighter for justice are valid 46 years later in another context: Defining the role of Jews in the Palestine solidarity movement. The lesson is that sincere Jews should not play leading roles in the Palestinian solidarity movement, but should instead expose and challenge the racism that exists in their own Jewish communities. So what are Jewish-led and Jewish-identified groups and leaders doing? Certainly, they criticize atrocities committed by Israel in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, but are they clearly defining their positions? Do they oppose Jewish supremacism, as some opposed White supremacism in South Africa during the 1980s? Which of the higher profile Jewish-led and Jewish-identified groups are demanding an end to a Jewish state and full and immediate return for displaced Palestinians and their descendants?

With the possible exception of the Neturei Karta rabbis, they don’t exist. Following Malcolm X, Jews have predictably ingratiated themselves into some Palestinian organizations, have created “dialogue” groups between Jews and Palestinians (where the elephant of who’s oppressing whom is conveniently ignored), have spoken clearly against Christian Zionism, but where are their voices challenging Judaic Zionism? After all, it’s “their own home community”.

Why is it that our group, Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, standing in front of an avowedly Zionist synagogue in Ann Arbor, Michigan for over seven years, remains the only Jewish-founded and Jewish-led group that openly and explicitly challenges Jewish power, here and in Palestine? Why is there a list of over forty Jewish peace activists who refuse to stand with us and against the racism so deeply rooted in their own community? What are they in the game for?

Proportionately and in dollars spent, votes coerced, degree of dedication and organization, no other community supports Israel more strongly than the Jewish community. Perhaps a case might be made that Christian Zionists are more numerous, but they follow the lead of Jewish Zionists; strong Jewish-led anti-Zionist campaigns focused on the Jewish community would help empower more Christians to challenge Christian Zionism. Also, Christian Zionists are dwarfed by the political footprint of the Jewish organizations comprising the “Israel Lobby”. In short, the Jewish community’s worthiness and appropriateness as a target for criticism and concerted anti-Zionist organizing, it is as clear as it is confounding that more Jews don’t take on this vital task.

This writer joined the steering committee of a local peace group shortly after the attacks of 9/11 and was continuously frustrated that attempts to place Palestine on the table for discussion and action were swept off. This in spite of the fact that US support for Israel was one of three major reasons the attacks were purportedly launched. The Jewish leaders of this peace group could not countenance harsh criticisms of Israel, and when membership overwhelmingly (78 per cent in favor) supported a resolution calling for an end to military aid, the leadership eventually terminated the membership and reorganized Michigan Peaceworks as a Director-led 501(c)(3) organization.

Personal experiences like the above suggest a pattern: Jews become peace activists, but when the realization strikes that they must choose between the mutually exclusive constructs of a Jewish state and a just peace, these activists move into gate-keeper mode. Like Monty Python’s Black Knight, they cry “None shall pass” to those of us who call for the peaceful dismantlement of the Jewish state. Our voices are marginalized, and by the very same folks who should be joining us.

After all, who better than Jewish activists to challenge the Jewish community? Personal discussions with Christian activists indicate that all-too-many are terrified of being labeled an “anti-Semite”. Terrified to the point of inaction, at best. They look to Charles Freeman, Arun Gandhi, Helen Thomas, and Will Smith as examples of what could happen to them should they speak truthfully.

This sets the stage for true peace activism from Jews in the movement: The racist nature of the Jewish state is fostered in local, American Jewish communities. As an example, the rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation, where we protest every Saturday, confirmed in the local newspaper that his congregation is unabashedly Zionist: “there is one general statement which I can make on behalf of the congregation – Beth Israel Congregation affirms without any hesitation or equivocation the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state”. According to its website, Beth Israel proudly stood with Israel as it battered Lebanon in 2006. Children from Beth Israel are taken on trips to Israel where they are posed with armed IDF soldiers and in front of military vehicles. In short, Zionist indoctrination and support for Israel are staples in the religious life of that congregation.

The unwillingness of many Jewish activists and organizations to confront the local roots of violent Jewish supremacism foisted upon the indigenous people of Palestine is shocking and inexcusable. It would be clear to Malcolm X, were he to return to us today. He would most likely have harsh words to Jewish peace activists who do not hold their own community accountable for the support they give the Jewish state, much like he had for Whites who refused to expose the racism in the White community.

The solution to Jewish supremacism in Palestine is simple: End it. Demand of Jews in the peace movement that they stop yelling only about a 1967 “occupation”, and start condemning the creation and maintenance of a Jewish supremacist state imposed by force upon an unwilling and incredibly resilient native population in 1948. This was the culmination of a Jewish movement started decades earlier. Taking the cause of justice and peace back to the Jewish community is the most valid path forward for Jews supporting an end to the racism both in Palestine and in their own community.

~

Henry Herskovitz is a retired Mechanical Engineer, and became a peace activist after witnessing the effects of US-led sanctions against Iraq in 2000. He founded Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, a group in Ann Arbor that has held non-violent vigils at Beth Israel Congregation for over seven years. He’s worked with the International Solidarity Movement as well as the Michigan Peace Team in Palestine. Contact:  http://www.facebook.com/people/Henry-Herskovitz/627467402

April 26, 2011 - Posted by | Solidarity and Activism, Timeless or most popular | , , ,

6 Comments

  1. Henry Herskovitz demonstrates in his own organizing that escaping the temptation to use Jewish privilege to play gatekeeper and say “none shall pass” is all too difficult.

    When members of “his” group Jewish Witness For Peace and Friends, a group containing both Jews and non-Jews, considered signing on to the Qawem Coalition statement in support of Palestinians right to resist in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, the overwhelming majority supported it.

    Rather than allow the question to go to a vote after the discussion, however, Herskovitz became agitated and stormed off, disrupting the meeting and preventing the vote from taking place.

    The pattern of Jewish supremacist obstruction when they can’t muster the votes is also a time worn pattern for any one who has been at this for a while. When the topic is Palestine, somehow all the procedures get re-examined, all manner of excuses raised, and even dishonest tactics get undertaken.

    It is great that Herskovitz takes Malcolm’s advice and dares to bring the struggle to his community. But his own hypocrisy when it comes to gate keeping shows just how hard it is to shake free of unjust privilege. It is good that Herskovitz has moved the gatepost to allow Palestinians the right to exist and the right to return. But why he does not afford them the right that El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) would certainly champion, to defend themselves by any means necessary, means he has a ways to go to truly be in solidarity with Palestinians or anyone facing the daily brutal violence of genocidal oppression.

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    Comment by 4justice | April 27, 2011

  2. If what you say is true then maybe Henry Herskovitz had more sense than the “overwhelming majority” of Jewish Witness For Peace and Friends. The Qawem statement falsely identifies “zionism as a white supremacist colonial ideology” when it is in fact a Jewish supremacist ideology open, if not welcoming, to Jews of any color.

    And everyone but the most ethically challenged recognizes that not every “means” is right or legitimate even if some sociopath claims it is “necessary”. The phrase was coined by Jean-Paul Sartre, a Marxist who also cheered Israel’s creation, writing in 1949: “we must rejoice that an autonomous Israeli state has legitimated the hopes and combats of Jews throughout the world. … For the Jews, it is the crowning of their sufferings and their heroic struggle; for all of us it signifies a concrete progress towards a humanity where man will be the future of man.”

    According to Spike Lee, in “By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X”, even Nelson Mandela declined to utter the words “by any means necessary” for the film. So, it looks like Henry Herskovitz is in good company. Spike Lee says he understood and accepted that decision but I guess greater minds than Nelson Mandela and Spike Lee know better.

    The Qawem statement doesn’t even claim to be the product of Palestinians. It (and your comment) reads like a manifesto by a few US-based (white-dominated?) activists presuming to dictate the terms of Palestinian solidarity to others.

    Like

    Comment by 4commonsense | May 1, 2011

    • #2,

      You may want to check your comment against this:

      Ethiopian Jews experience Israeli racism at a very early age

      https://alethonews.wordpress.com/2010/05/01/ethiopian-jews-experience-israeli-racism-at-a-very-early-age/

      Like

      Comment by aletho | May 2, 2011

      • You misunderstand me, Aletho, I think. I don’t dispute that there is racism against non-Ashkenazi Jews by Ashkenazi/White Jews in Israel but that doesn’t change the fundamental nature of Zionism as a Jewish supremacist movement. The fact that Ethiopian Jews are in Palestine instead of Ethiopia and have internalized Zionist ideology, at least in practice i.e. by making aliyah to Palestine, demonstrates that Zionism is open, if not welcoming, to Jews of any color. Meanwhile, millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendents are excluded from their homeland because they are not Jews.

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        Comment by 4commonsense | May 2, 2011

        • My understanding is that the Ashkenazis who founded Zionism found the Misrahim to be an unfortunate fact of life, today they are simply tolerated because they can be used.

          Even as a hierarchic multi-ethnic society, Isrrael remains a racist settler colonial one. Many colonial systems imported and used coloreds for military and administrative functions.

          Like

          Comment by aletho | May 2, 2011

  3. Dear “4commonsense,”
    The thing is, it was only one white Jewish person, Herskovitz, and one white non-Jewish person, Kinnucan, who believed it was valid to obstruct the democratic will of the group at the meeting of Jewish Witness for Peace and Friends I refer to in my comment above. They failed to sway the majority to their way of viewing things and saw fit to put their infinite wisdom over all of the other group members present. Even the one other who shared their concern agreed that it should be decided the way other matters were decided by the group: by a democratic vote. How is the behavior of Herskovitz and Kinnucan any less controlling than the behavior of the local peace group Jewish leaders that silenced the membership adopted Palestine position described in the original article?

    Do you have any proof whatsoever that Qawem was white dominated as you suggest? Based on your detailed knowledge of the Jewish Witness for Peace and Friends meeting in question, you do know for a fact what race the two people dominating the supermajority were: white. Why all the hypocrisy?

    I think this case just demonstrates once again the danger of having a solidarity group for Palestine centered on Jewish people, the people with privilege in this conflict. The concerns raised in this article are quite valid, even if the authors themselves have been caught up participating it. But I would further caution them that even when Jewish leaders turn themselves toward the Jewish community, they can still end up gatekeeping as happened in the Jewish Witness for Peace and Friends case.

    Perhaps Gilad Atzmon’s strategy is safer – Jews should join the movement as human beings rather than as Jews? Despite the understandable temptation to use the privilege bestowed on Jews vis-a-via non-Jews that many Jews and non-Jews alike hope to use as a shield against the charge of anti-Semitism, the cost may not be worth it.

    Despite my concerns about the blind spots of the authors in their own dealings, I do wish to thank them for raising these issues for discussion. It shouldn’t take courage to do so, but sadly, in the current political climate, it surely does. They deserve credit on that score.

    Like

    Comment by 4justice | April 4, 2012


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