There is an often-quoted passage by James Baldwin about the effect of America’s original sin of white supremacy on his family members.
His enigmatic and provoking thought is,
But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
Baldwin’s passage expresses outrage that African-Americans are controlled by a ruthless and comprehensive system that is nonetheless mostly imperceptible to whites.
The passage makes me think of the epithet “Good German,” used for those who should have known what monstrosities were done in their name, and should have resisted rather than acquiesced.
His call to consciousness and thoughtfulness of one’s place in a system of oppression broadens, when reading the passage in its setting in the essay “My Dungeon Shook”:
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. [Emphasis added.]
Baldwin’s essay is in the form of a letter to his young namesake nephew, first published in the The Progressive in 1962, and expanded in the book The Fire Next Time (1963). He advises engagement, to help white Americans from their “innocence.”
The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.
Baldwin says of white Americans,
They have had to believe for so many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of identity.
The resonance here for this Jew is double: applying Baldwin’s sensibility to Jews as “authors of devastation” of Palestinian Arabs — and the fact that a strong motivator for silence about Israel is to remain in the Jewish group.
The reproach to Code Pink’s Ariel Gold, as she was deported from Israel, was that she is a “Jewish woman trying to take advantage of that fact for the worse,” to speak for decent treatment of Arabs. Showing that one’s standing as a Jew is conditional on adherence to the oppressor’s side.
We can see a parallel to Baldwin’s description of white supremacist belief — “that black men are inferior to white men” — in Zionist belief and practice.
In Palestine, since the beginning of Zionist settlement, there has been a flavor of domination, and Jews teaching “lessons” to the natives that we can see today as the IDF bombs Gaza.
In 1882 the proto-Zionist movement Bilu was founded in Russia, and one of its members (Ze’ev Dubnow) wrote,
The aim of our journey is rich in plans. We want to conquer Palestine and return to the Jews the political independence stolen from them two thousand years ago. And if it is willed, it is no dream. We must establish agricultural settlements, factories, and industry. We must develop industry and put it into Jewish hands. And above all, we must give young people military training and provide them with weapons. Then will the glorious day come, as prophesied by Isaiah in his promise of the restoration of Israel. With their weapons in their hands, the Jews will declare that they are the masters of their ancient homeland. [BILU, Encyclopedia Judaica]
Henrietta Szold made a visit to Palestine in 1915, and reported in the American Jewish Year Book on the creation of the Jewish Shomerim to replace local guards of Jewish colonies, “a self-constituted and self-governed company of Jewish youths, revolver-armed, most of them noted for zeal and ebullient enthusiasm”:
The situation offers redoubtable openings on both sides, and there have been a few bloody, even fatal encounters between the two nationalities. The general impression is that the Shomerim are innocent of aggression; they have gone to extremes only in self-defense. Besides insuring the safety of Jewish property, Ha-Shomer has raised the dignity of the Jew in the eyes of his Arab neighbors.
In an ideology where our persecution is unique, our blamelessness at the start makes every following action decent. A principle of intimidation is central to the project. Szold shows early Jewish militia teaching Arabs respect by Jewish “self-defense.”
(By 1925, Henrietta Szold joined Martin Buber and others in the Brit Shalom movement, and later co-founded the Ihud movement, rejecting aspirations for Jewish domination and control of Palestine. She is best known for founding Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in 1912, to provide health care in Palestine.)
The subsequent Jewish militias, such as the Irgun — which took part in the Nakba and then was folded into the IDF — continued the process of “raising the dignity of the Jew in the eyes of his Arab neighbors.”
Vladimir Jabotinsky, who founded the Irgun and favored the principle of extra-legal retaliation for crimes against Jews, and extensive terroristic violence against British soldiers, Arab civilians, and even Jews, for the cause of Jewish rule, is considered part of the pantheon of Israeli heroes.
The intensive system of Israeli surveillance, control and retribution in which occupied territory Arabs live has continuity with the system of military rule that Arab citizens of Israel lived under until 1966.
Jabotinsky wrote in 1923,
Except for those who were born blind, they realised long ago that it is utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs for converting “Palestine” from an Arab country into a country with a Jewish majority…
Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.
The Jewish Israeli populace has been trained for a hundred years that retaliation is the key to survival, with a fortress mentality against people whose language, culture and memory are weapons as fearsome as their arms.
Some American Jews are fully participatory in the Zionist tale of “building our homeland.”
For Jews, to recognize the system of Jewish supremacy in Palestine is absolutely necessary, but painful.
Some, in Baldwin’s phrase, know better, but find it very difficult to act on what they know.
”To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.”