Thursday, September 8, 2016

Losing Me

How should we respond when allies, or people we thought of as allies (and still wish to think of that way), turn their backs on us? I suppose the answer depends on the context and on the details: if the people whose actions we are evaluating were personal friends or business associates, if there was a well-thought-out point to their decision to behave as they did or if it was a mere act of thoughtlessness, if the upshot of it all is that we are left merely with hurt feelings or if the consequences of the deed in question will be far-reaching and long-lasting in truly consequential ways, and if we—speaking wholly honestly—can say with certainty that we ourselves did nothing to provoke the incident. These are the questions I bring to last summer’s decision of the Black Lives Matter organization to label Israel an apartheid-state in its recently-published official platform and to accuse it of perpetrating genocide against the Palestinian people. At the very least, that made me personally—and morally, if perhaps not fully legally—into an accessory to genocide. I did not take it well, particularly because the real cause the organization exists to espouse is so personally resonant with me, and so meaningful.

To say that our nation has a racial problem is not something with which any thoughtful person would wish to argue. Black Americans, for example, comprise roughly 13% of the American population, yet 37% of the people arrested annually on drug-related offences in the United States are African-Americans….and no one considers that a mere function of the fact that three times as many black Americans as white ones use illegal drugs.  Just a few years ago, the United States Sentencing Commission determined that, on the whole, black people convicted in court receive 19% longer sentences than white people convicted of the same crimes. Some studies I’ve seen lately say that there are jurisdictions in which the police frisk 85% of the black people they pull over for driving offenses, as opposed to 8% of whites similarly pulled over.

All these statistics, of course, are open to interpretation. And, also to be sure, different groups put forward different sets of statistics to make their very different points regarding all the matters mentioned above.  Still, what does seem clear as day is that there are issues here in desperate need of sorting out, and it also bears saying that the issues do not have to do solely with police- or court-related matters: there is a certain inarguable inequity between the races in employment, education, and banking in our country as well.

And then there is the actual matter of black people’s lives. Here too the numbers are confusing. In 2015, twice as many white people as black people died in police shootings, but the percentage of black victims so killed was double the percentage of black people in the population. If the statistic is redone to include only unarmed civilians, the percentage of black citizens in the mix jumps from 26% to 37%. Again, there are dozens of websites offering not only different interpretations of these statistics, but different actual statistics. And the background against which these statistics need to be considered is itself a moving target depending on whose analysis you find the most persuasive. Labelling police officers as trigger-happy racists is beyond insulting to people who face incredible challenges in their daily work, including the daily obligation of making split-second decisions regarding their own safety and the safety of others. But to say that there are issues here in desperate need of resolution feels like the kind of statement that stands easily on its own. There’s a problem. It needs a solution. Upon that much, we can surely all agree.

All that being the case, the Black Lives Matter organization hardly need to prove, and least of all to me personally, why it needs to exist. But when the organization chose not to draw me in to the ranks of its supporters but instead to accuse me of being party to genocide…that’s where they lost me.

Let’s discuss this whole concept of genocide. According to Palestinian sources, there were 1.4 Palestinian Arabs living in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1948. Earlier this year, the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics determined that the global Palestinian population stands now at just under 12.4 million, about half of whom live in Israel or the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and half live in other countries. If Israel were committing genocide against the Palestinians, shouldn’t the numbers have gone down, not up? After the Second World War, there were six million fewer Jews in the world than in 1939. After one hundred horrific days in 1994, there were almost a million fewer Rwandans, of whom about 300,000 of the dead were children. The population of Cambodia declined by about 3,300,000 from 1970 to 1980 as a result of the in-house genocidal policies promulgated by the Khmer Rouge against its own people. Those numbers suggest how genocide actually works: regardless of the details, the numbers go down as the killing continues.

Even the rabbinic human rights organization T’ruah, which vigorously opposes a continued Israeli presence on the West Bank and which had been openly allied with Black Lives Matter, issued a statement condemning the use of the language of genocide as a casual insult: The military occupation does not rise to the level of genocide—a term defined as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” While we agree that the occupation violates the human rights of Palestinians, and has caused too many deaths, the Israeli government is not carrying out a plan intended to wipe out the Palestinians. There is no basis for comparing this situation to the genocides of the 20th century, such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, or Armenia, or the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, each of which constituted a calculated plan to destroy specific groups, and each of which killed hundreds of thousands to millions of people. The Black Lives Matter platform also does not address the use of violence by some Palestinians, including the rocket attacks against civilians that Human Rights Watch has classified as a war crime. One can vigorously oppose occupation without resorting to terms such as “genocide,” and without ignoring the human rights violations of terrorist groups such as Hamas.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, had this to say along similar lines: Whatever one’s position on the relationship between Israel, its Palestinian citizens, and the residents in the West Bank and Gaza, it’s repellent and completely inaccurate to label Israel’s policy as “genocide.” And the Platform completely ignores incitement and violence perpetrated against Israelis by some Palestinians, including terror inside the country and rocket attacks lobbed from Gaza. Unfortunately, these phenomena are not new but have been challenges that have faced the Jewish state since its inception more than half a century ago.

I couldn’t agree more. And I write as someone strongly predisposed to take civil rights matters to heart, as someone who does not need even slightly to be convinced that the fantasy many of us once maintained that racial discrimination was a thing of the past was just that, a fantasy in need of some serious revision. But to accuse Israel of genocide without being able to point to the actual killing fields, to the execution pits, to the gas chambers, to the extermination camps…or to the ever-declining numbers of their victims as the slaughter progresses—that is not just inaccurate, but libelous and insulting in a way that few charges made against Jewish people—or any people—could possibly match.

At the end of the day, an organization that promulgates hatred against Jews—and I don’t see how the use of the genocide-charge to defame Israel could reasonably be described otherwise—such an organization is not worthy of the support of decent-minded people. The decision of the leaders of Black Lives Matter formally to drive from their ranks anyone who stands with Israel is, I suppose, their decision to make. But it excludes me personally from feeling drawn to their ranks or interested in being known publicly as a supporter.

But where does that leave us actually? To walk away from the racial issues that divide our nation would be a huge error for the Jewish community. The Black Lives Matter movement is hardly the only organization that is working towards healing the wounds that racism inflicts on our society! The cause itself—the effort to create a color-blind society in which all citizens are treated equitably and fairly—could not be more worthy of universal support and should surely not be dismissed as something solely for the victims of racism to pursue. Our American nation is facing a problem that many of us imagined was quickly on its way to becoming a feature of the past, something we imagined our children would soon find strange to the point almost of being bizarre to contemplate in the way kids today find it odd to learn that women have been allowed to vote in our country for less than a century or that there was a time when it was illegal in every single state for gay men to pursue their intimate lives on their own terms and privately…and that the first state to repeal such laws—Illinois in 1962—was not joined by a single other state for almost a full decade.

To imagine that it isn’t possibly both to pursue the goal of racial equity in our nation and to refuse to associate with people who use groundless, deeply vituperative rhetoric to accuse Israel of pursuing a Nazi-style agenda of extermination against the Palestinians—that seems to me illogical in the extreme. I myself am proof positive that it is possible to do both those things and feel both those ways: I have nothing but contempt for racism and those who pursue a racist agenda…and yet I will never knowingly associate with people who make common cause with enemies of the Jewish people or of the State of Israel.

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