Most of us generally think of the U.S. as a country that has made significant strides in combating racism, even if it still has a long way to go. Israelis and their supporters sometimes try to downplay Israeli racism by comparing it to the unfortunate phenomenon of American racism. But as shown by the aftermath of the recent murders of five family members in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, any suggestion of a rough equivalence is obscene.
First, let us go back a generation and recall the 1989 murder in Boston of Carol Stuart, a pregnant lawyer. She and her husband Charles were shot in their car as they returned from childbirth class; Carol died and Charles was seriously wounded in the abdomen. Charles told police that a black gunman with a raspy voice had entered the car in a hijacking attempt and shot them both. The Boston Police reacted fiercely by targeting virtually the entire African-American male population of the Mission Hill neighborhood where the crime occurred. Men and youths were stopped, frisked, searched, interrogated, some even stripped naked on the street. The police apparently intended to wreak such havoc that eventually someone who knew something would crack and provide a lead on the killer. To that end, they were “successful,” inducing a tip and arresting a known robber named William Bennett as the murderer. Charles Stuart then picked Bennett out of a lineup. If that were the end of the Stuart saga, it would have been outrageous. Only those who worship at the altar of police authority could justify the brutalization of an entire community in response to a crime, however horrible, committed by an individual. The racist overtones of the police response were unmistakable as well. It would have been inconceivable for the police to commit such mayhem against any white community if Stuart had identified a Caucasian as the assailant. As it turns out, the story took an expected and dramatic turn a few months later when Stuart’s brother told the authorities that Charles had murdered his wife and fabricated the black gunman with the raspy voice. Charles committed suicide before the police closed in.
Fast forward 20 years to Itamar and the nearby Palestinian village of Awarta. In the wake of the grisly discovery of the five bodies, the Israelis, assuming the perpetrator to be a Palestinian from Awarta, launched a retaliatory/investigative response on the village that could best be described as the Boston Police on supersized steroids. The Israeli Defense Forces immediately arrested 20 “suspects” and eventually detained hundreds, holding dozens in jail for at least several days. International activists reported that the IDF took over about 30 homes for their own housing, either expelling the residents or forcing them to crowd into one room. They arbitrarily searched and vandalized hundreds of homes, including defecating on beds, and physically attacked numerous villagers. The Jewish settlers themselves sought revenge, hurling stones at random Palestinians. Even PM Netanyahu got into the act, announcing the construction of 500 new housing units for settlers as payback for the crime, as if the entire Palestinian community were responsible. Of course, the fact that all of the settlements are considered illegal by every country on Earth except one never even entered the discussion.
The Boston Police received some much-deserved flak from the public when the dust settled on the Stuart tragedy. It would be nice, but probably unduly optimistic, to think that such heavy-handed tactics could not be repeated today in the U.S. But the orgy of collective punishment unleashed by the IDF, the settlers, and the government went light-years beyond what the Boston Police dared to impose in Mission Hill. Can anyone imagine the police rounding up dozens of innocent blacks, occupying dozens of apartments housing black families, allowing white vigilantes to stone African-American residents? Can anyone imagine Boston’s mayor unveiling a housing plan that targeted the entire African-American community as payback for a black-on-white crime?
It now appears that the initial presumption that the murders in Itamar were committed by Palestinian(s) may also be incorrect, but regardless of how that plays out, the responses of Israel’s settlers, army and government have demonstrated that millions of Palestinians are subject to ruthless and arbitrary treatment at the hands of Israelis – private citizens, army, and government alike – who presume to exercise unchallenged authority over them. The U.S. surely has not resolved its own racial disparities, but at least such brazen public displays of foul racism here would be unthinkable. The Israelis don’t even bother with a fig leaf. How long will Israel continue to enjoy the near-unanimous support of U.S. lawmakers, which requires willful blindness to a system of ethnic superiority that we are proud to have abandoned decades ago?