Progressives are Comparing Palestinians to Black Americans. That’s good
Almost everyone seems to agree that the changing American conversation about race is changing the American conversation about Israel-Palestine. The rise of Black Lives Matter, noted The Washington Post last weekend, “has starkly changed the Israeli-Palestinian debate in the United States, shifting it for many liberals from a tangled dispute over ancient, often-confusing claims to the far more familiar turf of police brutality and racial conflict.”
This shift makes some people unhappy. And so, in recent days, critics of “wokeness” have produced a flurry of columns arguing that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians differs from the conflict between white and Black Americans. That’s true. The critics argue that using an American racial lens to understand Israel-Palestine thus simplifies a complex struggle. That’s also true. But so what? Analogies are, by their nature, comparisons between different things. The test of an analogy’s usefulness isn’t whether the two things it compares are the same; it’s whether they are the same in some fundamental way. And the plight of Palestinians and Black Americans is the same in a fundamental way: Both groups live under the control of a state that denies them equal rights. That’s the core insight that the anti-wokeness crowd wants to obscure
The first thing to recognize about the analogy between Black Americans and Palestinians is that it’s not unusual. Americans of all ideological stripes interpret events outside the United States by comparing them to events inside the United States—even though the comparisons are never exact. America’s most famous Black activists and thinkers—from W.E.B Dubois to Malcolm X to the Black Panthers—repeatedly compared the plight of Black Americans to the plight of Africans and Asians struggling against colonial rule, even though Black Americans, unlike Nigerians or Indonesians, were not generally seeking independence. In the 1980s, the American anti-apartheid movement drew heavily on the memory of the civil rights movement, even though Martin Luther King preached nonviolence and Nelson Mandela did not. In the 1990s, campaigners for US military intervention in Bosnia made constant analogies to the Holocaust, even though Serb armies were focused primarily on driving Bosnians from their homes, not murdering them. Pro-Israel activists themselves often analogize the United States to Israel, which they claim shares America’s commitment to democracy and is enmeshed in a parallel struggle against jihadist terrorism.
So Israel’s defenders don’t have a problem with analogies between the US and other countries. They have a problem with the analogy between Black Americans and Palestinians. One criticism they level is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not racial since Israeli Jews—or at least the roughly fifty percent of Israeli Jews whose families emigrated from the Middle East—are not “white.” Sure, but a conflict doesn’t have to be “racial” in American terms to involve structural oppression of one group by another. Han Chinese aren’t “white,” yet they dominate and oppress Uighurs and other minority groups. The distinction between Hindus and Muslims is religious, not racial, and yet under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India increasingly privileges Hindus and subordinates Muslims by law. What matters in Israel-Palestine isn’t that Jews and Palestinians aren’t racial groups. It’s that being Jewish or Palestinian is, essentially, an unalterable characteristic—a Palestinian in Israel can’t really become Jewish. And on the basis of that unalterable characteristic, Palestinians have fewer rights.
A second argument against the Black-Palestinian analogy is that Jews, unlike white Americans, have been persecuted. Yes, we certainly have, and that oppression fuels the belief of many Jews that we need a state that we alone control. But peoples that have been oppressed in one time and place can still oppress others in another. Chinese people were repeatedly humiliated and dominated by the Western powers, yet China now commits genocide in Xianjing. Hutus endured colonial domination by first Germany and then Belgium; after taking power they committed a genocide in the 1990s against Tutsis. Sadly, an experience of oppression does not inoculate people from oppressing others. The core of the Black-Palestinian analogy is that both Black Americans and Palestinians experience structural oppression. And that remains true even though Jews—the group committing the structural oppression in Israel-Palestine—have experienced oppression ourselves.
Finally, critics of the Black-Palestinian analogy argue that the conflict in Israel-Palestine, unlike the conflict in the US, is a conflict between nations. That’s slightly oversimplified. There have been important Black American figures—Marcus Garvey, for instance—who saw Black Americans as a separate nation. But it’s true that most Black and white Americans consider themselves Americans—they share a national identity—while most Israeli Jews and Palestinians don’t. This difference has important implications for what a workable solution in Israel-Palestine might look like. It’s why many Jews and Palestinians, myself included, once supported partition between a Jewish and Palestinian state. And it’s why even many of us who now support one equal country between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea believe that country must be binational—offering substantial community autonomy to members of its two separate nations. In that regard, Belgium or Canada are better models for Israel-Palestine than the US.
But while this difference is important, it doesn’t undermine the Black-Palestinian analogy because people who compare the plight of Black Americans to the plight of Palestinians aren’t arguing that a future Israel-Palestine should have the same constitutional structure as the US. They’re simply saying that, in both places, one group enjoys supremacy over another.
And that’s what the critics of the Black-Palestinian analogy are so reluctant to acknowledge: That in Israel-Palestine there is such a thing as Jewish supremacy. It’s not exactly the same as white supremacy in the US, or Hindu supremacy in India, or the Protestant supremacy that once existed in Northern Ireland. But it is supremacy nonetheless: a political and legal structure in which group one enjoys rights that another does not.
The notion of Jewish supremacy is deeply uncomfortable for many Jews; it fundamentally contradicts the way we think about our history and ourselves. Perhaps that might be mitigated if we thought more at those anomalous moments in Jewish history when Jews wielded enough power to oppress other nations. During the holiday of Chanukah, every Jewish kid learns that the Maccabees rose up to free Jews from Greek oppression. Few are taught that the Maccabees created the Hasmonean Dynasty, during whose reign in the first century BCE The Judean King John Hyrcanus conquered Idumaea and told its people to either convert to Judaism or die.
Or maybe that kind of thing only interests nerds like me. The point is that many Jews resent the analogy between white supremacy in the US and Jewish supremacy in Israel-Palestine because being a white American doesn’t constitute a particularly distinct or ancient cultural heritage; it’s just what you are when you’re not Black. Being Jewish, on the other hand, is far, far more than simply not being Palestinian. It’s a culture, a legal and ethical system, and a kind of extended family that stretches across millennia and across the world. Remove me from it and I would be—like many Jews—a fish on dry land.
So, of course, being Jewish in Israel-Palestine is not the same as being white in America. And yet, in Israel-Palestine, there is something called Jewish supremacy, and it crushes the dignity of millions of Palestinians every day. And, somehow, we Jews must learn to hold both of those truths at the same time—so we see the analogy between Black Americans and Palestinians not as a threat to our identity, but as an invitation to struggle for justice.
On our Zoom call this coming Friday at Noon ET, for paid subscribers, I’ll be talking to the Palestinian-American-Italian journalist, novelist, and screenwriter Rula Jebreal about whether the US media conversation about Israel-Palestine is really changing. As you can read here, Rula has experienced the difficulties of trying to change that conversation from the inside. Subscribe and join us.
There was a lot of powerful material in the press last week. To its credit, the US media made a greater effort to humanize Palestinians, and allow them to speak for themselves, during this war than it has in the past. But nothing moved me as much as this conversation that The New York Times’ podcast, “The Daily,” hosted with a 21-year-old woman named Rahf Hallaq, about what it’s like to be human in Gaza.
No former US official has been as honest about what it’s like to make Israel-Palestine policy in the White House as Ben Rhodes. So it’s worth noting what he said last week after listening to his friends in the Biden administration talk about US policy during the Gaza war: “When you are in government sometimes you are doing something that is not really the right thing but you convince yourself it’s right.” (It’s about 15 minutes into the podcast)
Like many people, I’ve been deeply unnerved by the spate of anti-Semitic attacks in recent days. In this twitter thread, Yair Wallach makes some important points about anti-Semitism and the movement for Palestinian freedom.
In this piece, Israeli journalist Barak Ravid offers a behind the scenes glimpse of the Biden administration’s diplomacy during the recent Israel-Gaza War. Turns out Israeli officials repeatedly rebuffed US appeals, which is the kind of thing that’s bound to happen when an American president explicitly rules out using the leverage that America enjoys as a result of its nearly $4 billion in annual military aid.
This is a little old, but I’ve rarely heard an American politician more skillfully answer a question about his views on Israel and his relationship with the Jewish community than Congressman Jamaal Bowman does here.
This is also off the news, but if you’re interested in Edward Said (whose writings have been crucial to my intellectual journey in recent years, and to those of so many others), you’ll adore this recent essay by Adam Shatz.
This is off the news too, kind of. But if you understand how towering a figure Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik remains among American Orthodox Jews—and how right-wing many of Soloveitchik’s disciples are—you’ll grasp how astonishing these comments of his, about Israel in 1958, are.
I was on Fareed Zakaria’s Show on CNN on Sunday talking about Israel-Palestine. The segment comes in two parts (part 1, part 2).
The New Yorker published a profile of me last weekend by Ben Wallace-Wells, who is a really good writer. I’m flattered. But I haven’t read it, and I don’t know if I will because thinking about doing so makes me anxious and I tend to avoid things that makes me anxious. New York Magazine wrote a profile of me in 2012, which I hear wasn’t very friendly. But I don’t know for sure because I still haven’t read it.
Hope to see you on Friday,
What's the utility of these analogies? Do they create empathy, understanding, or progress?
My concern is these historical comparisons, however true - settler colonialism, nazi germany, jim crow - devolve into debates about history and not how to achieve rights and equality for Palestinians.
Humanizing Palestinians, showing lives under occupation in the West Bank and blockade in Gaza, will do more than imperfect analogies. No one choses to be a small child in Gaza.
"And the plight of Palestinians and Black Americans is the same in a fundamental way: Both groups live under the control of a state that denies them equal rights."
Precisely which equal rights denied to Black Americans are you referring to?