Seeing the Things in Front of Our Eyes

What made Ben and Jerry’s divest from the West Bank? Much of the answer lies in Vermont, in the local movement that grew there over many years. It’s a fascinating example of how citizen struggles, led by ordinary people, can bring historic change. On our Zoom call this Friday, August 13 at Noon ET, we’ll be joined by two Vermonters who led that effort, Wafic Faour and Hannah Rose, who will tell us how it happened. Join us.

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Let’s go back in time. Throughout American history, respectable people have made respectable-sounding arguments on behalf of practices we now consider self-evidently immoral. It’s worth revisiting those arguments occassionally. Because doing so helps us see the same dynamic—respectable people making respectable-sounding arguments that justify evil—today.

In 1990, a man named David G. Sanders, who served as a consultant to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a column in The New York Times entitled, “Why Won’t Mandela Renounce Violence?” Nothing in the column, so far as I can tell, was untrue. Sanders accused Mandela of spurning the tradition of peaceful protest made famous by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Entirely correct. Mandela had helped turn the African National Congress away from purely peaceful protest when he and his comrades founded the ANC’s military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), in the early 1960s. In 1985, when South African President P. W. Botha offered to release Mandela from prison if he renounced violence, Mandela replied, “Let him renounce violence.” Even in 1990, when Mandela was finally freed, he told the crowd that greeted him in Cape Town, “The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue.” The ANC did suspend violent action later that year. But to the chagrin of white South African leaders and some international observers, it still refused to disarm its military wing until a multi-racial government was in place.

So Sanders was right about the difference between Mandela and King. He was also correct to note that the ANC in 1990 had engaged in bloody clashes with rival Black South African forces, and that bodyguards for Mandela’s wife Winnie had kidnapped and murdered a fourteen-year-old boy accused of informing for the South African police.

Taken together, these facts added up to a plausible-sounding argument that Mandela was a man who practiced “violence and intimidation.” To seal his case, Sanders quoted Mandela quoting Lenin, a nod to the widespread—and correct—charge that the ANC was closely aligned with the South African Communist Party and had long received military training from the Soviet Union. 

So why, in retrospect, do Sanders’ criticisms seem so grotesquely misguided? It’s not because Mandela, let alone the ANC, was faultless. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission later found Winnie Mandela responsible for the kidnapping. The ANC itself would later admit that it had committed torture and murder during its guerilla struggle. 

What makes Sanders’ column so morally warped is less what he wrote than what he didn’t write. He almost entirely overlooked the core issue: Apartheid. He ignored the fact that whatever Mandela and the ANC’s mistakes and sins, they were confronting a system of institutionalized violence and legalized bigotry that for generations made Black South Africans’ lives a living hell. Sanders evaded that. Which made his column, for all its factual accuracies, a kind of lie. 

I don’t know what has happened to David G. Sanders. But the American debate over Israel-Palestine often resembles his column. Take the events of the last week. First, pro-Israel newspapers slammed pro-Palestinian protesters in Brooklyn for supposedly threatening Jews by chanting, “globalize the intifada.” Then pundits and Jewish leaders accused Representative Rashida Tlaib of having claimed that Jews made money off the pandemic. Then a pro-Israel group suggested that defeated Congressional candidate Nina Turner was guilty of antisemitism for blaming “evil money” for her loss. Then the same group accused Representative Ilhan Omar of having endorsed a hostile tweet about George Soros by the racist former Iowa Congressman Steve King. 

The charges were all, in some way or another, misleading or unfair. The interpretation of Tlaib’s remarks was tortured and unconvincing. Omar had not endorsed King’s tweet; she had mocked it. There’s no evidence that Turner singled out Jews when referring to the “evil money” that allegedly contributed to her defeat. “Intifada” means uprising. For most Palestinians, it connotes a struggle against Israeli oppression, not antisemitic attacks upon Jews. And while the second intifada involved many armed attacks, the first intifada, for the most part, did not. 

But the problem with these charges goes beyond their factual inaccuracies. The larger  problem is that controversies like these suck up so much of the oxygen in America’s debate over Israel-Palestine that, much of the time, the debate evades the core moral issue: That millions of Palestinians lack basic rights. 

There is a place to talk about the antisemitism of the left, which exists. (I’ve written about it.) There is a place to talk about Hamas’ immoral use of violence against civilians. There is a place to talk about Mahmoud Abbas’ corruption and Hamas’ repression and its antisemitic 1988 charter. None of these subjects are illegitimate. But when they become a vehicle for evading the fact that Israel subjects millions of Palestinians to institutionalized violence and legalized bigotry, they become—like that David G. Sanders column—a lie.

The lie is that because Palestinians are imperfect—because they sometimes do immoral things, as do members of every oppressed people, because being oppressed does not turn human beings into saints—they are to blame for the fact that Israel expels, subjugates, imprisons, and murders them. It’s a lie told about most oppressed peoples: They brought it upon themselves through their misbehavior. White South Africans said they had to maintain apartheid because the ANC were violent Marxists. During the civil rights movement, some white Southerners tried to discredit the civil rights movement by claiming that Martin Luther King, Jr. had surrounded himself with communist advisors. During World War II, prominent white Americans said that Japanese Americans had only themselves to blame for being interned because their language schools allegedly inculcated loyalty to Tokyo. After 9/11, many Americans said the US government had no choice but to violate the rights of American Muslims because Muslims were susceptible to jihadist terrorism. Today, Chinese officials use the same logic to imprison vast numbers of Uighurs in reeducation camps. 

Members of oppressed groups still have moral obligations. But there’s something deeply wrong when Palestinians (who lack basic rights) and their supporters receive far harsher scrutiny than Israel, which is denying them those rights. If I thought Rashida Tlaib were an antisemite, I would say so. But when do we start asking whether the hundreds of members of Congress who enthusiastically endorse permanent Israeli control over millions of stateless Palestinians are anti-Palestinian? When Hamas fires rockets, it deserves to be condemned. But how many Palestinian children must the Israeli military kill before we start asking Israeli leaders and their American supporters why they don’t embrace nonviolence? 

Sometimes the greatest forms of deceit stem not from the statements people make but from the questions they don’t ask. In the US today, the debate about Israel-Palestine still sounds a lot like that column by David G. Sanders. Justifying evil remains eminently respectable—more respectable, sadly, than trying to stop it.

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Other stuff:

My Jewish Currents (subscribe!) colleague David Klion interviewed Huffington Post reporter Daniel Marans about Nina Turner’s defeat last week in Ohio.

On August 12th, I’ll be talking about what is and isn’t antisemitism in a conversation with American Friends of Combatants for Peace 

Watch this remarkable 2008 speech by Richard Trumka, the union leader who died this week, about racism in the US labor movement.

Until I watched this Al Jazeera documentary on the history of the PLO, I never knew that the Jordanian monarchy almost called in the Israeli military to crush Palestinian fighters in Jordan in 1970, in what became known as “Black September.” (That revelation is about 14 minutes in.) The episode on Black September is the second in a six-part series. They’re all worth watching.

There will be no newsletter next Monday, August 16, and no Zoom call on Friday, August 20. 

See you on the Zoom call this Friday, August 13,

Peter