Trending Topics:

Angela Davis and the Jewish Civil War

US Politics
on 26 Comments

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

This week a political and symbolic drama unfolded, involving the, once again, contentious relations between parts of the Black and Jewish community. Though initially local, the drama has taken on a heightened dimension because it involves one of last living icons of the Civil Rights and Black Power era, Angela Davis. The fireworks continue as I write. In the coming weeks they may escalate further.

The drama began in Birmingham, Alabama, with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute bestowing the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award on Angela Davis. It is now a national and international spectacle that highlights Israel’s continuing injustice against Palestinian life and land. The Board members of the Birmingham Holocaust Center who protested Davis’s award, and who played a part in the subsequent rescinding of the award, had no idea of what they were getting into. Evidently, they still don’t.

Though the intrigue surrounding the rescinding of Davis’s award may include other constituencies as well, liberal and evangelical Christians who support Israel with few if any questions among them, the local Birmingham Jewish establishment has taken the worst of it. Their objection to honoring Davis is part of a larger political canvas, one that relates to the Jewish civil war over what it means to be Jewish in our time. The central issue in the Jewish civil war? Palestine.

Other issues highlighted by way of Birmingham are important. Historical African American suffering is belatedly being memorialized in the South and elsewhere. It hit a low point with the rescinding of Davis’s award. The Black-Jewish alliance, at least what’s left of it, faces a common challenge of how memorialization works and for whom. When government, not-for-profits, moneyed elites and corporations sanction and finance projects like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Birmingham Holocaust Center, what is represented and who sets the limits of representation and advocacy is often contested. The Davis Affair hits different sides of the memorialization debate.

The human rights award for Angela Davis was primarily scuttled over her support for the Palestinian cause and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement emanating from Palestine. As a non-violent strategy, BDS seeks to penalize, even ostracize, Israel for its ongoing abuse of power. The ultimate aim of BDS is to force Israel to change its policies toward Palestinians. The Birmingham Holocaust Center objected to Davis’s award by offering the increasingly contentious connection of the Holocaust and Israel as defining for Jewish and American life. In their view the BDS movement improperly and provocatively singles out Israel for its human rights abuses.

Such Holocaust-Israel-BDS commentary from the Jewish establishment carries a disturbing subtext. Placing Israel in a negative light is viewed as an attack on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. In this view, Jews and non-Jews who support BDS against Israel occupation policies are either self-hating Jews or are anti-Semitic.

Another issue raised in Birmingham is the freedom for African Americans to speak on issues considered by some Jews to be outside their purview and ability to analyze. For Jews of Conscience, how the memory of the Holocaust functions is at stake. Does the Holocaust demand of Jews and others a solidarity toward all those who are suffering, including and especially, the Palestinian people? Or is the Holocaust to be used as a blunt instrument by the Jewish community to discipline those who question Jewish and Israeli abuses of power?

Consider Angela Davis and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute disciplined on the Holocaust-Israel-BDS front. But, the fight-back is on.  Since the rescinding of the award, Davis has spoken forthrightly about the issue of Israel, Palestine, BDS and against the charges of anti-Semitism leveled against her and others who support BDS. Some members of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute have resigned over the decision to revoke Davis’s award. The Birmingham City Council has unanimously approved a resolution of support for Davis. Jewish groups such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace have issued statements supporting Davis and her principled stand on Palestine.

Which side you are on is a tossup in the Jewish civil war. And increasingly in the Black-Jewish alliance as well. The Jewish establishment sees Angela Davis as an enemy. Jews of Conscience see her as an ally.

Stepping into the breach of the Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award conflict is the reconstituted Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation. They will sponsor an alternative teach-in and discussion with Angela Davis to take place in Birmingham on the date the award ceremony was originally scheduled. Perhaps this will spark a new level of dialogue and accountability for all sides.

Don’t hold your breath though. For the Jewish establishment, the priority is the Holocaust and Israel. Their fear is that a level-headed, justice-oriented, non-violent critique of Israeli power, shorn of anti-Semitism, the very type Angela Davis offers, will bring the state of Israel state to its knees. But what if such a critique brought Israel to its senses?

Perhaps it is a strange twist of fate that a revolutionary Black icon, who has consistently viewed democracy and human rights in an international perspective, may represent a renewed alliance of African Americans and Jews of Conscience on the question of Palestine. Perhaps when Angela Davis arrives in town the Jewish establishment in Birmingham and elsewhere, with their allies, will be forced to recognize that truth and reconciliation applies everywhere and to everyone. Including to Jews – for what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

Other posts by .


Posted In:

26 Responses

  1. echinococcus
    echinococcus
    January 13, 2019, 12:02 pm

    Your voice is much appreciated considering the side you’re on. There is, however, no “Jewish Civil War”.

    It’s more like a minute percentage of those who continue to call themselves Jewish raising objections; for the most part rather bleating objections that do not endanger the continuation of the invader occupation of Palestine.

    You seem to have no idea at all of what a civil war is. Not a good idea, that of using the word “war” as a metaphor for any kind of perhaps-opposition either, from LBJ’s War on Poverty to MW’s War of Ideas.

    • annie
      annie
      January 13, 2019, 5:52 pm

      a minute percentage of those who continue to call themselves Jewish raising objections

      Echi, continually minimalizing the contributions of our jewish allies, providing even more examples of “Sowing discord among the resistance”.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        January 13, 2019, 6:06 pm

        “a minute percentage of those who continue to call themselves Jewish raising objections”

        Try looking at numbers instead of percentages.

      • echinococcus
        echinococcus
        January 13, 2019, 10:25 pm

        Annie,

        How do you minimize what’s minimal in fact? Instead of shooting the messenger, diversify.

      • annie
        annie
        January 13, 2019, 10:58 pm

        your comment reminds me of something i read on twitter the other day:

        The far right doesn’t win by convincing people it’s right, it wins by convincing people that it’s convinced other people it’s right

        saying “minute percentage” over and over again, as much as you’d like it to be true, doesn’t mean it’s a “fact”. and the logic doesn’t stack up w/either the polls or the reaction by the worry worts pouring literally millions of dollars into capturing the minds of their youth.

        i find you wholly unconvincing ;)

        diversify, try looking at numbers instead of percentages.

      • echinococcus
        echinococcus
        January 14, 2019, 2:07 am

        Annie,

        Convincing you is a tall order, seeing it’s more a question of unconvincing.
        One very basic, in fact the basic principle of statistics is that the absolute numbers of not only minute, but even respectable percentages of minute fractions of population are by that very definition minute.

        If now you insist that tribals (ie people who live in the pre-Zionist nationalist myth of “Jewish” peoplehood to the point of subscribing to a non-religious Jewish identity and having organizations under that shingle) are reliable as allies, have it your way. I much prefer addressing the general population.

        There’s absolutely no problem, though, re working with religious Jews who can justify calling themselves that, ex-Jews or born atheists with typical-sounding names, of course not, but what one needs is the general population. Which the imperialism-supporting liberals are not. Seeing that you also mention polls, I’ll remind you that the people some “deplore” are substantially more strongly opposed to imperialist invasion than what you so improbably call “left” (latest here: https://caitlinjohnstone.com/2019/01/11/new-poll-us-military-occupations-supported-by-far-more-democrats-than-republicans/ — I checked the source document and this part of the poll looks like it’s better than a bank check.)

      • annie
        annie
        January 14, 2019, 2:51 am

        cutting your extraneous verbiage:

        Convincing you is.. more a question of unconvincing.
        One very basic..principle of statistics is that the absolute numbers of.. percentages of minute fractions of population are by that very definition minute.

        If..you insist that tribals.. are reliable as allies, have it your way. I much prefer addressing the general population.
        There’s..no problem..working with religious Jews.., ex-Jews or atheists …but what one needs is the general population. Which the imperialism-supporting liberals are not…you.. mention polls, ..people some “deplore” are..more..opposed to imperialist invasion than what you..call “left” (latest here:https://caitlinjohnstone.com/2019/01/11/new-poll-us-military-occupations-supported-by-far-more-democrats-than-republicans/ — I checked the source document and this part of the poll looks like it’s better than a bank check.)

        convincing? not so much.

      • Citizen
        Citizen
        January 14, 2019, 12:27 pm

        If memory serves, when Trump told the public he was getting our troops out of Syria ASAP, all the cable tv news shows quickly trotted out pundits from both sides of the aisle who said that was a bad move & so repeated both Democrat & GOP leadership. Interesting since Trump campaigned he was going to put and end to the bipartisan regime change foreign policy.

      • echinococcus
        echinococcus
        January 14, 2019, 3:51 pm

        I see no rebuttal of the “extraneous verbiage”.

      • annie
        annie
        January 14, 2019, 7:44 pm

        i find nothing worthy of rebuttal, especially not all your extraneous (“I’ll remind you that the…substantially.. strongly so improbably”) verbiage.

  2. Talkback
    Talkback
    January 13, 2019, 12:50 pm

    “In their view the BDS movement improperly and provocatively singles out Israel for its human rights abuses.”

    According to these supremacist, imbecile narcissists the Palestinans have no right to focus on their oppression, but are only allowed to criticize (and BDS) human rights abuses globally.

    It makes me wonder why the same shmocks don’t support occupation, illegal annexation and colonialization, oppression and expulsion globally, but only in the case of their beloved Apartheid junta.

    • annie
      annie
      January 13, 2019, 5:56 pm

      talkback, Davis addressed this in her excellent interview with Amy Goodman that Marc linked to.

      AMY GOODMAN: …I wanted to read more from the letter from the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. They said, “We do not suggest that Israel should be immune from criticism, but BDS ignores gross human rights transgressions by other countries around the world and focuses solely on Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. “….

      ANGELA DAVIS: Well, first of all, as I pointed out, BDS emerged from Palestinian civil society, and its purpose is precisely to focus on Israel, just as the boycott against South African apartheid was focused on the South African apartheid state. So, the first criticism they propose, I don’t think is valid at all.

      it’s so absurd we keep hearing this criticism of BDS, that it focuses solely on israel. as a palestinian lead movement, why wouldn’t it!

      • Misterioso
        Misterioso
        January 14, 2019, 10:29 am

        @Annie

        “it’s so absurd we keep hearing this criticism of BDS, that it focuses solely on israel. as a palestinian lead movement, why wouldn’t it!”

        Well and truly stated!!

        Failing to comprehend that it’s a nonsensical, easily refuted counter argument, Zionists always trot out “whataboutery” as a tactic.

      • CigarGod
        CigarGod
        January 14, 2019, 11:37 am

        Thank you, Angela.
        She has always been focused like a laser.
        Unfortunately, most people swallow the Zionist bait that if we speak of Zionist imperfection, we must speak of 300 year old American colonialist imperfection (etc) or we are anti-semitic.
        F%#$ that S&@$!

      • Citizen
        Citizen
        January 14, 2019, 12:32 pm

        Israel is always treated very specially by America when it comes to gifting it endless billions & UN vetoes, yet when it’s treated accordingly re criticism in view of such discrimination suddenly it’s whataboutary. Every time Israel is given more foreign aid, nobody ever cries, “What about this country or that one over there? Don’t you think they need some aid too?”

      • annie
        annie
        January 14, 2019, 3:16 pm

        israel pr is such a well oiled machine. their talking points are unwavering. wash rinse and repeat. angela’s response “I don’t think is valid at all”, is too kind.

        i don’t see how the absurdity of the claim could go unnoticed by anyone and yet, like clockwork, all israeli institutional support echoes this same claim. i don’t even understand how amy goodman can even repeat those words with a straight face.

        this has become a mainstay of anti bds hasbara, it’s repeated all the time. and each time it’s used it sould be followed by asking why a palestinian led movement wouldn’t *uniquely* target israel, the occupying country!

    • Abern
      Abern
      January 15, 2019, 10:48 am

      “In their view the BDS movement improperly and provocatively singles out Israel for its human rights abuses.”

      I find it hard to believe that is actually their view. I think they just believe it is useful propaganda to present that to the public. I think it is just more Zionist dishonesty.

      • Talkback
        Talkback
        January 15, 2019, 11:06 am

        This.

  3. Mooser
    Mooser
    January 13, 2019, 12:54 pm

    “the Jewish Civil War”? Good, I’ve been waiting a long time for an answer to the question “What if they gave a war and nobody came?”

  4. Keith
    Keith
    January 13, 2019, 6:38 pm

    MARC ELLIS- “Or is the Holocaust to be used as a blunt instrument by the Jewish community to discipline those who question Jewish and Israeli abuses of power?”

    Yes, and obviously so.

  5. Boris
    Boris
    January 14, 2019, 9:53 am

    I wanted to read about Jewish civil war, but all the links claiming to point to such information point to something completely unrelated.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      January 14, 2019, 4:00 pm

      “I wanted to read about Jewish civil war”

      Don’t worry “Boris”, if we look at the percentages, your side is winning, by a large margin.

  6. hophmi
    hophmi
    January 14, 2019, 10:06 am

    Marc Ellis, please detail all of the times Angela Davis spoke out on behalf of Soviet Jewish refusniks during the time she was being feted by Communist despots.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      January 15, 2019, 12:22 pm

      “please detail all of the times Angela Davis spoke out on behalf of Soviet Jewish refusniks during the time she was being feted by Communist despots.” “Hophmi”

      Their situation was so desperate, we would have welcomed help from anyone!

  7. brent
    brent
    January 15, 2019, 12:51 am

    I’ve long thought an issue with Israel for Jews had to do with what Judaism should stand for. A battle for the soul so to speak. About what makes for a better world.

    In my judgment, there are no better allies for Palestinians who seek peaceful co-existence because the world pays attention and respects what they think and write.

    For these reasons, I find Palestinian tolerance for lone wold strikes against individuals because they are Jewish as being particularly damaging to a peaceful accommodation. When one is killed for being of a group that pulls the members closer and influences observers.

    Without a one gun policy, I question if the Palestinian cause will make serious headway. Its necessary to be seen as responsible to get trust in a problematic circumstance.

  8. larick
    larick
    January 15, 2019, 1:55 am

    hophmi, I never heard Angela Davis touting the Soviet Union, so that’s a non-sequitur. She might have been a bit more pre-occupied with staying alive and not being assassinated by the police when they were and still are shooting Black people down in the streets in this country. Where is and was Israel when that was happening, being so gung-ho “self determination” bound? I participated in the anti-Soviet Boycott of the Moseyev Ballet here in L.A. That boycott was ok, right, because we were protecting Jews. Those same Jews who led that, Zev Yaroslavsky, retired L.A. County Board of Supervisors, for example, are arch-Zionists who will not even discuss Palestinian liberation. There is no objection to the weekly executions of unarmed Palestinian civilian protesters even allowed in Hillels, for one example, where these boycotts of the Soviet Union took root. Blatant hypocracy and cover for dispossession of a people and their land. Check out the U.N. Convention on genocide: The word can be spelled I-S-R-A-E-L.

Leave a Reply