50 years later, King’s Birmingham letter resonates in Palestine

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
on 10 Comments
freedomridersPalestinian freedom riders Huwaida Arraf and Fadi Quran on Israeli Bus 148. (Photo: Activestills)

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the protests against Southern segregation in Birmingham and celebrate [Tuesday's] anniversary of Martin Luther King’s penning of his fiery “Letter from Birmingham jail,” we are challenged by King’s deeds and voice.

King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He talked about the importance of grappling with the underlying causes of popular resistance; the powerful role of nonviolent direct action “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

King was not only deeply committed to nonviolence, to fighting “the triple evils” of racism, materialism and militarism, but toward the end of his life, he also turned his passion to opposing the Vietnam war, thus entering the international realm and the struggle for human rights for all oppressed peoples.

Now, 44 years after his assassination and decades of unity between African-American and Jewish communities fighting racism and anti-Semitism, a new challenge is arising. African-Americans are feeling growing pressure to stand with their Jewish brothers and sisters, despite mounting distress over the policies of the Israeli government towards Palestinians. At the same time, the U.S. Jewish community is increasingly agonized and fractured over criticism of Israeli policies and the growing Jewish voice, from activist organizations to campuses, for an end to the occupation and for boycott, divestment, and sanctions towards Israel until there is a just resolution to the conflict.

What can we learn from King’s legacy about this contentious issue?

In October 2012, under the leadership of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, a delegation of African-American civil rights leaders, theologians, scholars and activists, (many of whom are Jewish), traveled to Israel and the West Bank to see for themselves. Informed by our experiences and knowledge of the segregated South, sit-ins, bus boycotts and nonviolent marches, many were unprepared for the striking parallels we faced.

“Why didn’t I know?” was a common, disturbing question.

While Israel is usually presented as a vibrant, productive, democratic society, the delegates learned about a reality that is usually hidden from public discourse. We learned that from 1948 to 1966, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship lived under military rule with checkpoints and permits to travel within their own country. There are now more than 35 laws that explicitly privilege Jews over non-Jews. Approximately 93 percent of Israeli land is in actuality for use by Jews only through the work of the Jewish National Fund and various state agencies. There are Jewish towns and Arab towns with major discrepancies in funding, infrastructure and schools, not to mention unrecognized Palestinian villages within Israel that receive no services whatsoever.

Numerous studies document an increasingly frightened, racist society: large numbers of Israeli Jews would not allow an Arab in their home, neighborhood, or children’s school, favor preference for Jews over Arabs in governmental hiring, and both societies live increasingly ghettoized lives.

Our experiences within East Jerusalem and the West Bank were even more troublesome; whether it was the aggressive Judaization of old Arab neighborhoods in the Holy City or the efforts by Israeli authorities to make it increasingly difficult for East Jerusalemites to retain their IDs. We witnessed the extensive systems of bypass roads (intended for Jewish settlers only), separate bus systems, the rapid growth of Jewish settlements, much on private Palestinian land, the crushing checkpoint system for Palestinians and the separation wall snaking through the West Bank.

Jewish settlers in the West Bank live under Israeli civil law, Palestinians under military law. Settlements receive ample water, electricity and infrastructure; Palestinian villages are marked by their scarcity.

In Hebron where militant Jewish settlers, guarded by heavily armed soldiers, have established an enclave in the middle of the Old City, there are streets that are “Arab-rein” (“clean of Arabs”) and a high level of daily harassment by well-armed settlers toward the local Palestinian population.

Given Israel’s reputation as the victim of Palestinian intransigence and terrorism, the other surprise for some members of the DCI delegation was meeting Palestinians deeply committed to nonviolent activism, well-versed in the teachings of King and Gandhi, placing their bodies on the line Friday after Friday in the villages of Bi’ilin, Budrus, Nabi Saleh and others. We learned of years of boycotts and nonviolent marches, campus actions, Freedom Rides and a growing commitment to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Just as King wrote, “Where do we go from here?” today’s African-Americans and American Jews are struggling with the terrible consequences for a society that was once a source of pride and comfort, but is now more publicly reaping the cost of privileging one group of people over another. Discrimination, racism and segregation are the prevailing reality and what leaders from Jimmy Carter to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu have compared to apartheid.

Clearly, powerful forces within our own society, from Christians Zionists to AIPAC to our government-backed global military industrial complex make this all possible. This is further reinforced by a corporate news media frequently parroting the voices of the Israeli government rather than investigating the human rights concerns of Palestinians. But grassroots activists, joining together as part of an international movement, are developing a new discourse which is human rights-based, rather than focused on Jewish victimhood and exceptionalism at the expense of the Palestinian population.

Perhaps this can unite African-Americans steeped in the civil rights struggle and US Jews who feel Judaism has been hijacked by the increasingly isolated and dangerous policies of the Israeli state.

This piece first appeared on April 16 in AL.com, published by the Birmingham News.

Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician, author, and filmmaker who is active in the US Jewish peace movement. She can be reached through her publicist at [email protected].

About Alice Rothchild

Alice Rothchild is a Jewish-American physician. Her most recent book is Broken Promises, Broken Dreams, published by Pluto Press. It describes Rothchild's exploration of stories of Jewish and Palestinian trauma and resilience.

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10 Responses

  1. Citizen
    April 18, 2013, 11:00 am

    RE: “King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He talked about the importance of grappling with the underlying causes of popular resistance.”

    The American people have been mislead by both the US mainstream media and by our elected government representatives, and they’ve never been told by either what primarily motivated the attack on 9/11. Although the 911 Commission made the actual motivation findings generic, more [the conclusion that all us foreign policy has blowback)or less (actual statements of key 9/11 guys), to this day the average American still buys the motive as Muslims don’t like our lifestyle–rather than the documented first hand truth–primarily, US rubber-stamping of Israel, but secondarily, combined with US support of Arab regime despots willing to be US lackies at the expense of their own people. link to youtube.com

  2. gamal
    April 18, 2013, 11:57 am

    “Just as King wrote, “Where do we go from here?” today’s African-Americans and American Jews are struggling with the terrible consequences for a society that was once a source of pride and comfort”

    ok its satire right? when did it go wrong, this year? or was it last year, when?

    “a society that was once a source of pride and comfort” some people are never satisfied, cherry tomatoes and Nokhachim Nifkadim not good enough for you? those are real innovations, anyway why are Black folks upset? what did they do? and what pride and comfort were they deriving back in the good old Nakba days? oh no, wait, she is not expecting the Black folks to do the heavy work of regretting and agonizing is she?

    “Given Israel’s reputation as the victim of Palestinian intransigence and terrorism, the other surprise for some members of the DCI delegation was meeting Palestinians”

    ok now i know this cant be for real, who is the joker, is Jackie Mason in there with Cedric the entertainer. i mean “meeting Palestinians”, perhaps its just me, they could stop off in Libya to see what hope looks like and a decrease in isolation, though my Black bretheren had best be a little circumspect, perhaps not meet too many “non-violent” militia men.

    i get it, its a change which needs to be sold ok, but its still funny and breathless, charming and all, but still she could have got a Black friend to proof read it for her.

    Blacks steeped in the civil rights struggle, is that still ongoing or have we got Black Power as well?

    • Annie Robbins
      April 18, 2013, 1:32 pm

      ok its satire right?

      no i do not think it is. this is not about ‘when did it go wrong’ it is about when people discovered what was once a source of pride has all along not been what they thought it was.

      link to dorothycottoninstitute.org
      (by amira hass)

      For the same reason it is natural for Harding and his friends to come now and listen to the Palestinians and Israelis who are actively fighting the occupation: In Jerusalem and Bil’in, Ramallah, Hebron, the Deheisheh refugee camp and the village of Walaja. One of the things that he learned immediately in the first two days was “how ignorant I was about what is really happening in this part of the world, how little I know and how little I have thought about how little I know – which is not characteristic of me. I come to this situation not simply as somebody who has been involved with non-violent actions of various kinds over many years, but as someone who for some known and unknown reasons, ever since I was in high school, was deeply concerned about learning about the Holocaust.

      “Part of it was inspired by the Jewish teachers that I had in high school, a number of whom loved me deeply and inspired me to take my own possibilities very seriously, and then going on to the City College of New York. When I went there in 1948 it was still about 96 percent Jewish in the student body, I was surrounded by the world of the children of the Holocaust and survivors themselves, and that was all part of my reality.

      “I also was closely related to some of the many Jewish people who had come to join us in the freedom movement in the South, and some gave their lives for that. So I came to this situation with all kinds of sensibilities. That’s part of the large space that I have, to be deeply hurt by what I have seen and felt.

      • gamal
        April 19, 2013, 6:42 am

        ok Annie i get it, what bothers me about Rothchilds article is the inherent instability of her position, and the inclusion of Black people as tokens, were they quoted, no they were just there lending authenticity to her experience and supposing the Palestinians she met were not sympatico?

        the idea that the civil rights of Black people have been achieved, with “Jewish” help, they must be so grateful, currently in the US the average net worth of a Black women is negative by i think some few hundred dollars and that of the average white woman is about $45,000, ah the burden of inferior culture and social pathology. The civil rights struggle for Black people in the states is on-going, people like Tim Wise know that and are engaged in it.

        Also those actual Zionists, you know who actually went to live there, from whom Rothcild drew an inflated sense of self prior to her enlightenment have reason to be feel betrayed by her, whats changed? they dont make her feel so good anymore, shame on them.

        While i accept that it can be seen as a positive development its paper thin, her whole piece reeks of privilege and semi-sincerity, what happens when Palestinians behave in manner that doesnt warm her heart, what happens when the full horror of the current imperial rampage becomes manifest in whatever new disaster and some fight savagely for survival, how will that affect her sense of herself, how will she avoid the politics of the last atrocity

        If you dont see the rampant tokenism in this piece i can readily accept it might be in my mind.

        thats an explanation of my reaction rather than an argument, whats there to argue about.

        people irrespective of their beauty, liberalism etc or lack of it deserve care love and to live their lives unmolested, did you not get what annoyed Lavie about others using a taxonomy that she herself uses, why not go down to nearest Black ghetto and call some boy Nigga, and see what their reaction will be, esse.

        My friend Said Oasman Tahir is a prison Muslim chaplain in California tending almost exclusively to Latino converts, he says they can make no spiritual progress till their anger is appeased and that their rage is sustained by continuos White condescension, in my opinion the fundamental injustice, the fundamental oppression is that of women, you are a woman, but you are also white if you can’t see whats troubling about Ms Rothcilds piece maybe i am imagining it, chip on the shoulder etc. And if Accentitude posts in support of her i will immediately recant because it is impossible for me as a matter of honour to argue with someone doing what he is doing being where he is at.

        this only a website after all.

        • Keith
          April 20, 2013, 12:37 pm

          GAMAL- “the idea that the civil rights of Black people have been achieved, with “Jewish” help, they must be so grateful….”

          Not only that, but her statement that “…decades of unity between African-American and Jewish communities fighting racism and anti-Semitism….” is a blatant misrepresentation of reality. While some individual Jews have made great sacrifices, organized American Jewry ceased supporting affirmative action for Blacks decades ago. Nowadays, the big Jewish “civil rights” groups are fighting against “reverse discrimination” which gives “less qualified” minorities “unfair advantage” when competing against their white (Ashkenazi?) Brethren.

          I originally made a much longer comment which didn’t survive moderation. We will see if this condensed version goes through.

  3. Obsidian
    April 18, 2013, 1:40 pm

    “.. traveled to Israel and the West Bank to see for themselves. ”

    Wait a sec. You mean they were allowed to travel wherever they pleased?
    Why weren’t these activists all turned away at Ben Gurion Airport and deported? Why weren’t the African-American Christians strip searched and abused by Israeli security?

    This is Israel isn’t it?

  4. DICKERSON3870
    April 18, 2013, 5:28 pm

    RE: “[G]rassroots activists, joining together as part of an international movement, are developing a new discourse which is human rights-based, rather than focused on Jewish victimhood and exceptionalism at the expense of the Palestinian population. Perhaps this can unite African-Americans steeped in the civil rights struggle and US Jews who feel Judaism has been hijacked by the increasingly isolated and dangerous policies of the Israeli state.” ~ Alice Rothchild

    MY EXCLAMATION: ¡Viva la Vida Alice Rothchild! Ohh ooooh oooooh! Ohh ooooh oooooh!

    AN EARLY SPRING EVENING’S MUSICAL INTERLUDE, proudly brought to you by the makers of the new Über-Xtreme Ziocaine Ultra SR (Sustained Release) Transdermal Patch®: Let The Good Times Roll!™

    Ohh ooooh oooooh! Ohh ooooh oooooh!
    Ohh ooooh oooooh! Ohh ooooh oooooh!
    I used to rule the world
    Seas would rise when I gave the word
    Now in the morning I sleep alone
    Sweep the streets I used to own

    I used to roll the dice
    Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes
    Listen as the crowd would sing
    “Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!”

    One minute I held the key
    Next the walls were closed on me
    And I discovered that my castles stand
    Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

    I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
    Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
    Be my mirror, my sword and shield
    My missionaries in a foreign field . . . ~ “Viva la Vida”*

    * From the 2008 Coldplay CD “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends”

    ● Coldplay: “Viva La Vida” (UNSTAGED) [VIDEO, 05:19] – link to youtube.com

    IMPORTANT NOTICE: Always use the new Über-Xtreme Ziocaine Ultra SR (Sustained Release) Transdermal Patch® responsibly. Do not attempt to drive or operate heavy equipment until you know how the new Über-Xtreme Ziocaine Ultra SR (Sustained Release) Transdermal Patch® will affect you.*
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    • DICKERSON3870
      April 18, 2013, 10:13 pm

      RE: I used to . . . Listen as the crowd would sing “Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!” ~ Coldplay (from “Viva la Vida”)

      MY COMMENT: Elliott Abrams, “Pastor” John Hagee, and the rest of their ilk, will not be satisfied unless “The Monarchy” is restored to Israel! ! !

  5. DICKERSON3870
    April 18, 2013, 9:58 pm

    RE: “Now, 44 years after his [MLK Jr's] assassination and decades of unity between African-American and Jewish communities fighting racism and anti-Semitism, a new challenge is arising. African-Americans are feeling growing pressure to stand with their Jewish brothers and sisters, despite mounting distress over the policies of the Israeli government towards Palestinians. ~ Alice Rothchild

    FROM THE AIPAC WEBSITE (undated):

    African American Political Leaders and Activists Visit Israel

    A group of African American politicians, consultants and activists arrived in Israel this week to participate in an American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF) Seminar. The group of 18 includes eight state and local elected officials and three appointed government officials, including the presidents of the city councils of Atlanta and Detroit. The other participants are all deeply involved in political and civic life in their communities, including five who are co-chairs for the DNC’s Generation44 fundraising initiative in their cities. A number of the seminar participants have already attended pro-Israel events in their communities and have shown interest in strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell and DeKalb County Commissioner Lee May passed Iranian divestment resolutions in their jurisdictions in 2009.

    SOURCE – link to aipac.org

  6. seafoid
    April 20, 2013, 3:51 am

    I just can’t understand why MLK has so little resonance in Israel. I suppose it is tied up with the ideology. Zionism is so obnoxious. And sectarian.

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