Thursday, June 30, 2011

Freedom Riders and the Flotilla

As all of you surely know, Israel is about to experience the arrival of a second flotilla of self-proclaimed humanitarian activists intent on “breaking” Israel’s blockade of the Gaza coast. There have been some interesting developments over the last few days—some shipping companies are refusing to allow their boats to be used now that it has become clear to them that they could potentially face prosecution for abetting a terrorist organization, while others are reporting acts of vandalism against their ships (particularly in Greece, where some of them are docked)—but the basic consensus, as reported in Thursday morning’s Haaretz, is that that a flotilla of about ten vessels will eventually set sail for Gaza from diverse European ports, possibly as soon as next week. Included will be an American ship capable of carrying thirty-four passengers. Signed on to travel along are the well-known American author, Alice Walker (who told NPR the other day that she was moved to participate because she is, and I believe I quote, “in favor of children and sunshine”) and about a minyan’s worth of Jews whose sense of Jewishness is apparently elastic enough to allow for the occasional act of succor and support to the murderers of Jewish children. It’s that kind of world!

Yes, of course, these people—and I reference here specifically the Americans and even more specifically the Jews in their midst—don’t say that they support terrorism. Just the opposite, they say that they are opposed to terrorism, that they hate terrorism. It is, they explain, not Hamas they support, but the Palestinian people themselves of whom they are trying to be supportive. Indeed, in this version of the narrative, the Palestinians of Gaza are not supporters of Hamas at all—this despite having voted them into office in 2007 and, by all accounts, openly approving of their elected leaders’ efforts to annihilate Israel and wage a war of terror against its civilians—but actually their victims! Observing that that version of the story appears to have no basis in fact seems unimportant. One of those planning to sail, a student at the University of Arizona cited in the Times last week, openly and apparently without any sense of irony compared the situation of the Palestinians of Gaza to the situation of black people in America that the civil rights movement of the 1960s came into being to address. According to that line of thinking, he said, those planning to travel with the flotilla are not supporting terror at all, but are continuing the principled work of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. And the demonized Israelis are thus cast as the unreflective, unrepentant descendants of the white-dominated power structure that refused to allow the federal laws demanding the integration of the races in public places and spaces to be put into effect. The pursuit of this line of thinking is not the mere silliness as which most of us would tend casually to deride it. It is insidious and dangerous in a different sort of way. And it is that specific aspect of the issue I would like to take up with you today.

Do you remember the Freedom Riders? I had to refresh my memory a bit, but once I started reading the story came right back to me. It was 1961. Previously, in 1960, the Supreme Court of the United States in a case called Boynton vs. Virginia had declared racial segregation in interstate bus and train stations and on interstate buses and trains to be illegal. This resulted in some progress, but the law was widely ignored in most of the states in which segregation was the rule rather than the exception. And so, in 1961, a group of thirteen individuals, seven black and six white, chose to test the law by leaving Washington, D.C., on buses headed for the deep south.

For several days, nothing much happened. But in the second week of the journey, the self-proclaimed “freedom riders” were dragged off their bus near Anniston, Alabama, and severely beaten. The bus itself was torched and destroyed. In the wake of that incident, most of the participants were evacuated by the federal government to Louisiana. Some, however, refused to give up, among them John Lewis who later became a U.S. congressman and who currently represents Georgia’s fifth congressional district. The Congress of Racial Equality, the organization sponsoring the operation, sent in fresh volunteers. For a while, while the group travelled from Birmingham to Montgomery, things were calm. But when the group arrived in Montgomery, its members were savagely attacked by a mob of over 1000 angry segregationists. The unwillingness of the local police to take meaningful action to prevent violence eventually prompted President Kennedy to threaten to use federal troops to calm the scene, a move that was headed off at the last moment by the decision of the governor of Alabama to use the Alabama National Guard to disperse the rioters. Eventually things calmed down. The freedom riders continued their journey, ending up in Mississippi. There was violence, but not on the level the riders encountered in Alabama. And then, in the fall of that year, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally issued the orders necessary to bring its institutions in line with its own guidelines—in response at least partially to a petition to do so drafted and sent to them by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy—which action brought to an end the era of segregated waiting rooms, buses, toilets, lunch counters, and drinking fountains for white and black people in America’s bus and train stations and, by extension, on America’s buses and trains as well.

I was only eight years old in 1961, but I remember learning about the Freedom Riders in school. It would have been part of our Current Events lesson, I suppose, but what exactly our teachers told us—and how explicit they were regarding the issues to which the Freedom Riders were responding—I don’t recall. I was only in third grade. Was Miss Zenowitz able adequately to explain to our lily-white classroom in P.S. 3 why exactly it was that black people could not use the same restrooms as white people in Alabama train stations? I doubt it! But—and I say this not because I had a slight crush on willowy Miss Z., which I believe I did—she did find some way to express her admiration for the effort. And I remember it to this day! And so it was with those thoughts firmly in mind that I read the comment of the University of Arizona student, one Gabriel Schivone, comparing the passengers signed up to sail on the Gaza flotilla with the CORE Freedom Riders of 1961. I suppose, being who I am, I find it difficult to believe that anyone not blinded by sheer hatred of Israel could not find such a comparison beyond odious. And yet I also feel the need to respond to it, at the very least here. So here goes.

Gabriel, is that really what you think? That the people who put Hamas in office and who continue to support its program of terror aimed at civilians, its absolute and unyielding rejection of Israel as a partner in negotiation, its endless detention and illegal treatment of Gilad Shalit, and its willingness to sacrifice the safety of its own people by placing military installations in civilian neighborhoods—that those people are in the Arab-Israeli context the people playing the role of black people in the American South in the unhappy days of segregation and overt, officially sanctioned racial prejudice? The black people of Alabama and Mississippi were victims of an uncaring system of organized discrimination directed directly against them and designed specifically to deprive them of their civil rights. It was an odious part of our American culture for as long as it lasted, something of which even those of us who obviously played no specific role in bringing it into existence or in supporting it or maintaining it should still feel ashamed to acknowledge as part of our national legacy. The people who got on those buses and risked life and limb for what now, in retrospect, seem almost like trivialities—being free to chose where one sits in a luncheonette or where one waits in a bus station—were acting nobly against an evil that needed to be eradicated. Is that what you think Israel is doing by trying to guarantee that no ships bearing missiles or weaponry intended for use against Israeli civilians dock without first being inspected in a port controlled by Hamas, an overtly terrorist organization, Gabriel? Is your hatred of Jewish children so intense that you cannot see the difference between Israel attempting to do what it can to prevent people from murdering the children of Sederot in their beds while they sleep at night and the principled effort of white and black Americans working together to bring down a pernicious system designed to degrade and dehumanize American citizens merely because of the color of their skin? Do you really think that Israel wishing to prevent Hamas from carrying out its dastardly work is the same as that mob in Montgomery doing its best to prevent the Freedom Riders from using whichever toilet in the Montgomery bus station they were standing closest to?

The comparison is beyond obnoxious, Gabriel. It is revolting to me personally to imagine someone like yourself, someone educated in an American university, daring to compare yourself to one of the 1961 Freedom Riders as you prepare to grant your personal support to Hamas. And, yes, I am rejecting the lame argument that the flotilla is apolitical and that it is supporting the Palestinian people and not their government. In the end, saying that you are not supporting Hamas and then joining the flotilla anyway is meaningless rhetoric belied entirely by your actions. If Hamas is valorized, legitimized, and strengthened by your actions, how is it you imagine that you are not supporting them?

I’m sure you’re all excited about the prospect of being part of the effort to demonize Israel or, at the very least, to cast the State of Israel in the worst light possible by daring its navy to oppose your effort to support its unrepentant enemies. Will you eventually regret your actions? I'd like to think you will...but whether you do or don't come to realize that you are acting basely will not matter much once you will have done your part to support the terrorist effort to delegitimize Israel. Regret alone will not undo that. In the end, you will be free to regret or not to regret your actions. But, please, leave the Freedom Riders out of it, lest you compound your sin by debasing the memory of truly noble people who, unlike yourself and your flotilla friends, selflessly risked everything to improve the world in which they lived.

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