Among the many Op-Eds, blogs, videos and other commentaries about the most recent escalation of the conflict between Israel and Gaza, two, in particular, have moved us to respond. The first, “The Middle East Problem,” is a five-minute video that has been circulating via social media. In this video, Dennis Prager reasons that the “Middle East conflict is the easiest to explain.” Why? Well, because “one side wants the other side dead.” Prager argues that Palestinians would commit “mass murder” against Jews in Israel if Israel “laid down its arms,” while on the other side, if Palestinians committed to completely abandoning violence, there would be peace.
Describing Jews as essentially peaceful and Arabs as fundamentally violent, Prager warns:
Finally think about these two questions: If tomorrow Israel laid down its arms and announced, ‘We will fight no more.’ What would happen? And if the Arab countries around Israel laid down their arms and announced, ‘We will fight no more.’ What would happen? In first case, there would be an immediate destruction of the state of Israel and mass murder of its Jewish population. In the second case, there would be peace the next day.
In conclusion, Prager states: “Why can’t the world’s one Jewish state the size of El Salvador be allowed to exist? That is the Middle East problem.”
The second commentary, “To the Students for Justice in Palestine, a Letter from an Angry Black Woman”, is an article published July 28, 2014. The author, Chloe Valdary, also invokes a “we’re GOOD they’re BAD” discourse to condemn the social justice efforts of Students for Justice in Palestine. While Prager argues from the lofty perspective of an All-Knowing-White-Man who took many graduate courses at Columbia, Valdary summons the grassroots vantage point of an Angry-Black-Woman defending the civil rights legacy of “her people.” Valdary argues that unlike Black American civil rights activists, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) are not “freedom fighters” mounting a “legitimate ‘resistance’” in the name of “civil liberty and freedom of expression” because SJP allegedly seeks to:
- “promulgate the legacy of early Islamic colonialists who raped and pillaged the Middle East, subjugated the indigenous peoples living in the region, and foisted upon them a life of persecution and degradation…”
- “support a racist doctrine of Arab supremacism and wish (as a corollary of that doctrine) to destroy the Jewish state…”
- “[target and intimidate] Jewish students on campus, arrogating their history of exile-and-return and fashioning it in your own likeness…”
- “justify the calculated and deliberate bombings, beatings, and lynchings of Jewish men, women, and children by referring to such heinous occurrences as part of a noble “uprising” of the oppressed…”
- “[pretend that SJP] and Rosa Parks would have been great buddies in the 1960s [when in fact] Rosa Parks was a real Freedom Fighter. Rosa Parks was a Zionist [as were Coretta Scott King, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Count Basie, and Dr. Martin Luther King Sr].”
Lumping all Black Americans into one undifferentiated group of ardent and eternal Zionists, Valdary attacks what she views as SJP’s “repugnant agenda”:
You see, my people have always been Zionists because my people have always stood for the freedom of the oppressed. So, you most certainly do not get to culturally appropriate my people’s history for your own. You do not have the right to invoke my people’s struggle for your shoddy purposes and you do not get to feign victimhood in our name. You do not have the right to slander my people’s good name and link your cause to that of Dr. King’s. Our two causes are diametrically opposed to each other.
While Prager misrepresents “The Middle East Problem” and Valdary distorts SJP’s “agenda,” both use the discursive maneuver of creating undifferentiated camps: Those groups that are good/right/deserving versus those groups that are evil/wrong/undeserving. In the world according to Prager and Valdary, there is one indistinguishable group of Jews and a one homogenous group of African Americans, both of whom have a just cause. And then there are those “Arabs,” all of whom have an unjust cause.
For example, Prager presents “THE Middle East” problem as a racialized Good/Evil, Right/Wrong narrative. This binary framework, channeling racist and Islamophobic assumptions about Palestinians, has historical parallels with how Nazis talked about “THE Jewish problem” and justified atrocities against Jews, Roma, and other targeted groups. It also has parallels with how European colonists and WASP elites talked about “THE Indian problem” and/or “THE Negro problem” and justified the dispossession of land from American Indians and the enslavement of African Americans. Prager describes “Jews/Israelis” as completely or mostly deserving and Arabs/Palestinians as completely or mostly undeserving of sympathy. In addition to past atrocities committed against American Indians and African Americans, recent events including the Rwandan and Bosnian Genocides reveal that racialized Good/Evil narratives are loaded with deadly persuasive potential. And, of course, Nazi elites of the Third Reich provide extremely powerful examples of the pre-meditated murderous impact of racialized narratives. Consider the racialized narrative of Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, in an excerpt from Goebbels article, “The Jews Are Guilty” (1941):
Every Jew is our enemy in this historic struggle, regardless of whether he vegetates in a Polish ghetto or carries on his parasitic existence in Berlin or Hamburg or blows the trumpets of war in New York or Washington. All Jews by virtue of their birth and their race are part of an international conspiracy against National Socialist Germany. They want its defeat and annihilation, and do all in their power to bring it about. That they can do nothing inside the Reich is hardly a sign of their loyalty, but rather of the appropriate measures we took against them.
This type of narrative oozed with severe bigotry and racism when WASP and Nazi elites created a binary deserving/undeserving group. It exudes bigotry and racism when Dennis Prager explains the “conflict” between Israelis and Palestinians as one between a deserving Jewish population and an underserving Arab one. This discursive maneuver is no less racist when used by an African American woman who juxtaposes virtuous African Americans with heinous Arab Supremacists.
Prager and Valdary’s one-sided, ultra-Zionist versions of history are as “true” as the claim that American Indians MASSACRED innocent settlers in what is today the United States. Such “truths” are initiated by erasing the colonial atrocities that preceded these so-called “massacres”. Let’s try Prager’s, and Valdary’s logic by applying it to the struggles of Americans Indians against European-settler-colonialism in American history.
How does this logic sound: “In regard to the American Indians, it is a simple problem to describe: One side (American Indians) wants the other side (European/White colonists) dead; and if it didn’t there would be peace.” Now, were there Indigenous peoples who wanted European/White colonists and European-American military forces dead? Yes! Why? Because Europeans colonized their lands and some European colonists and later many prominent members of the American government sought to destroy Indigenous cultures as well as annihilate Indigenous communities and families. Is it true that most American Indians wanted Whites dead? No. Most wanted the right to live in their territories free of colonization and military occupation. If United States history, Australian history, South African history, and the history of other European settler-states teaches us anything about the consequences of racializing and dehumanizing Indigenous populations, Prager’s assertion that everything will be OK if only Palestinians would embrace peace and give up resistance is either naïve or boldly disingenuous. Since Prager is a Columbia graduate, “boldly disingenuous” is more likely the case. In the United States, even when the Cherokee, Lakota, and countless other Indigenous nations embraced peace and gave up their resistance, the European-American government did NOT allow them to live in peace.
Ardent Zionists like Prager and Valdary demonize Palestinians/Arabs to justify the European colonization of Palestine, just like European elites demonized Americans Indians to justify the theft of Indigenous lands in the United States and dehumanized Africans in order to justify their enslavement. Prager’s and Valdary’s racist depictions of Palestinians as inherently violent, murderous, and anti-Semitic, while Israeli Jews as well as African Americans are benevolent and peaceful, does not “explain” reality, but warps it to justify the aims of a European-settler-colonialist-apartheid-state that is currently murdering Palestinians daily in Gaza in the interests of expanding its power and control over the lives of an occupied people. By invoking the “All-Knowing-White-Man” and “Angry-Black-Women” standpoints, both Prager and Valdary seek to convey that “we” virtuous White and Black people stand with our virtuous Jewish brothers and sisters against “them”: those villainous, savage, evil Arabs.
In Prager’s and Valdary’s sagas about virtuous Jews and villainous Arabs there is no room for actual details like the following:
- The state of Israel was established in 1948 after Jewish military forces ethnically cleansed Indigenous Palestinian populations and destroyed hundreds of Palestinian villages. According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Jewish military forces removed between 750,000 and 800,000 Palestinians. Jewish officials, including Menachem Begin who became the 6thPrime Minister of Israel, decided to ignore the UN Partition Plan that had allocated 50% of Palestine for a Jewish state and summarily decided that 80% of Palestine was to become Israel. As a result, non-Jewish Palestinians, who in 1947 had the right to live in 90+ percent of Palestine, were forcibly removed or relegated to 20% of their original lands.
- As pointed out by professor of history Robin Kelley; “In violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories have expanded exponentially since 1967. Currently, there are over 500,000 settlers living in the West Bank, and at least 43% of the land has been allocated to settler regional and local councils, and therefore is off-limits for Palestinian use. And so are certain roads. Israel has built an elaborate system of paved settler-only roads that cross over crumbling, often blockaded Palestinian roads.”
- In Israel today, according to a report prepared by Adalah—The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (hereafter referred to as The Legal Center), Arab families are greatly over-represented among Israel’s poor: In 2009, over half of Arab families in Israel are classified as poor, compared to an average poverty rate of one-fifth among all families in Israel.
- In addition higher poverty rates, The Legal Center report reveals that Arab schools are not funded at levels equal to Jewish schools: “According to official state data published in 2004, the state provides three times as much funding to Jewish students as to Arab pupils.” There is educational inequality in higher education as well: “Arab students are dramatically underrepresented in Israel’s universities and other institutes of higher education. Arab academics constitute only about 1.2% of all tenured and tenure-track positions in Israeli universities, leaving Arab citizens marginalized in the production of knowledge in society.”
- The Arab population in Israel also faces inequity at the hand of the Israeli criminal justice system. The Legal Center report finds that instead of being afforded freedom of expression, Arab members of the Israeli Parliament/Knesset are punished for their political views via indictments and revocation of parliamentary privileges, even though they have engaged in “legitimate political activities and speech that falls within the scope of their work as elected representatives.” On a routine basis the police harass and arrest Arab citizens of Israel in order to silence political dissent. For example, the Legal Center reports “Anti-war protestors against the Israeli military operation “Cast Lead” in Gaza—mainly Arab citizens, including many minors—were subjected to serious police violence. They further encountered disproportionate and systematic mass arrests, primarily on the pretext of their mere presence at the scene.”
- Instead of blind patriotism for Israel, there exists a range of opinions among those who identify themselves as Jews. In addition to ardent, ultra-Zionists who refuse to share land with Palestinians, there are liberal Zionists who support a two-state solution as well as anti-Zionist Jews who call for the dismantling of the Israeli state. Jews who support the civil and human rights of Palestinians include Rabbis for Human Rights, Jews Against the Occupation, Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss and other minority branch members of the Jewish religious group Neturei Karta, Israeli military veterans from the organization Breaking the Silence, Jewish Voices for Peace, and Rabbi Henry Siegman, the former head of The American Jewish Congress, just to name a few.
Valdary’s delusional rantings about heinous Arab supremacists omit actual examples of White supremacist statements and policies made by Israeli officials, like the following:
- In 2010, Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu referred to African refugees in Israel as “infiltrators” and “a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country” and he reignited this discourse in recent speeches. Other members of the Israeli Parliament or Knesset, including Danny Danon and Ayelet Shaked have more recently referred to African and Asian refugees as “infiltrators.”
- Miri Regev, a former army brigadier general in the Israeli Defense Forces and current Knesset member, called African refugees a “cancer in [Israel’s] body.”
- Israeli officials frequently link African immigrants to crime. According to a report by the African Refugee Development Center: “In Tel Aviv, Binyamin Babayoff, a council member and a member of Shas claimed in June 2010 that the Sudanese brought ‘filth and vandalism’ and that ‘according to police figures, in places where illegal infiltrators live, crime rates have increased significantly, and they are responsible for 40 per cent of criminal offenses.’ However, official statistics by the Tel Aviv police department show that African refugees were responsible for only 0.72 percent of crimes in Tel Aviv in 2010. Israelis were six times more likely to be involved in a crime in Tel Aviv than African asylum seekers.”
- Israeli officials have subjected upwards of 130,000 African womenimmigrating to Israel, including Ethiopian Jews, to mandatory contraception as a form of sterilization.
In her blog post, Valdary frequently refers to “my people”, meaning African Americans. Despite attempts by a small but “morally significant” group of Jewish Israelis who challenge anti-Black racism, African diasporic peoples are experiencing “an unprecedented level of open racism” in Israel. Tragically, Valdary seems unaware of this reality. Her narrative calls forth the legacy of African American struggles against racism and segregation to silence activists who model their movement for justice after that same legacy. In effect, her libelous statements against SJP and simplification of the struggle for Black freedom in the United States are constructed to justify racist and discriminatory practices against not only Palestinians, but also people of African descent in Israel today. SJP, on the other hand, can celebrate a “long-standing position against anti-Semitism along with all forms of bigotry” and a nuanced, intersectional, and internationalist vision of solidarity in viewing “the struggle for Palestinian liberation is deeply intertwined with the fight against patriarchy (sexism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism), racism, and capitalism.”
In omitting important information like the details above, Prager and Valdary fashion sagas or epic stories that could inspire fantastic Hollywood movies or propaganda films. However, “Good/Evil” narratives are horrible, reckless, and dehumanizing when applied to complex realities. For those reading this article who espouse racialized narratives about the “good”, the “bad”, and the “undeserving”, we are urging a move beyond the rhetoric of a virtuous “we” and villainous “them”. Furthermore as scholars who specialize in the historical and sociological experiences of marginalized groups in general and African Americans in particular, we offer final observations about Valdary’s claims about Black Americans as eternal Zionists.
Ardent Zionists like Valdary claim that Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a Zionist due to his statement in 1967 about Israel’s right to exist. They link Reverend King and other Black Americans not to Liberal Zionists who call for a two-state solution but to ultra-Zionists promoting blind patriotic support for Israel devoid of consideration for Palestinian civil and human rights. Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929 and assassinated in 1968, Reverend King gave his life for the civil and human rights struggles of Black Americans in particular and humanity in general. In both his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967 and his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech of April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination, King more specifically refers to the colored peoples, the peasants, the poor and dispossessed of the world. Rabbi Henry Siegman is a contemporary of Reverend King. Siegman was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1930, and lived two years under Nazi German occupation. Unlike Reverend King, Rabbi Siegman is still with us today. As the former head of The American Jewish Congress and the former head of the Synagogue Council of America, Rabbi Siegman was more toward the ardent Zionist end of the spectrum. Once Rabbi Siegman recognized that Israeli leaders were involved in ethnic cleansing, were committed to Apartheid, had no respect for Palestinian human and civil rights, he became an ardent critic of Zionism.
Valdary claims she is a Zionist because, like Reverend King and others, she has “always stood for the freedom of the oppressed.” But as Sherry Wolf has pointed out, “No one but a craven ideologue for the indefensible would insist that King could cheer on Israel’s system of separation, discrimination and domination” against Palestinians. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967, King warned us against the “brutal solidarity” that allowed Black and White soldiers to destroy entire villages in Southeast Asia, although poor Blacks and poor Whites “would hardly live on the same block” back home. Reverend King’s vision was internationalist in its anti-racism, and he spoke about the need to commit oneself instead to a cause “beyond the calling of race or nation or creed.” Like King, we view the struggle for justice and liberation anywhere as “the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.” To be on the side of the oppressed is to be on the side of the Palestinians struggling against occupation, apartheid, and for self-determination, peace, and freedom. Reverend King implored:
Finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place, I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers [emphasis added].
Unlike Prager and Valdary and like Reverend King and Rabbi Siegman, the authors of this article are ardent supporters of human and civil rights of all peoples, especially for extremely vulnerable populations like Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.