The Twin Ghosts of Slavery and the Nakba: The Roots that Connect Ferguson and Palestine
We invaded the downtown Seattle shopping center with Hebrew prayers—people’s mic style—candle lighting, and a parade of Jews holding menorahs. On the first night of Chanukah, in coordination with the national Jewish Day of Action to End Police Violence, our Seattle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace helped lead and organize a Chanukah ritual. Over one hundred Jews and allies gathered to light candles as we rededicated ourselves to working for racial justice. Honoring the actions of young Black people in Ferguson, Missouri, whose protests sparked a national movement, we lit the first candle in remembrance of Michael Brown. We went on to recite the names of unarmed people of color killed by police in the past year, and then said the Mourner’s Kaddish to commemorate their lives.
We organized this event in a matter of four days, but despite the short turnaround time, we had a large turnout. Mainstream Jewish organizations, including synagogues that had never associated with Jewish Voice for Peace in the past, publicized our event. As glad as I was to see Jewish folks supporting Black Lives Matter and condemning racist violence in the United States, I couldn’t help but remember how different it was to read the names of Palestinians killed during Israel’s attacks on Gaza this past summer when some of these same synagogues and groups were promoting and attending Stand with Israel rallies.
At one of our higher-profile protests last summer, we participated in an act of civil disobedience at Boeing, a major supplier of weapons to the Israeli Defense Force, to draw attention to how Boeing profited from the attacks on Gaza. At our die-in, nine activists, locked to each other, lay down across the crosswalk to block the entrance to Boeing, while fifty others lay down on the sidewalk. As I recited the names of over one thousand Palestinians killed through the bullhorn, I felt the enormity of my grief at how many lives had been cut short. Yet most mainstream Jewish organizations continued to blame Palestinians. Quoted in an article about responses to Gaza in Seattle, Keith Dvorchik from the Jewish Federation claimed, “Nobody wants to see any of the innocents die. Everybody really wishes that Hamas would stop the bombing.” This disingenuous statement, which shows little regard for Palestinian life, is business as usual for mainstream Jewish organizations.
The next month, I got to be part of another Jewish commemoration of Palestinians killed in the attacks on Gaza. In mid-September, thirty-six of us artists and cultural workers gathered at the Isabella Friedman Center in Connecticut for a weekend of remembrance and collaboration at the first ever convening of the national Jewish Voice for Peace Artists Council. The theme of our gathering was “Facing the Nakba.” Nakba is the Arabic word for the catastrophe of ethnic cleansing and displacement that began with the founding of the Israeli state in 1948 and continues with the ongoing displacement and destruction of Palestinian lives and homes.
We joined together to mourn, to bear witness, and to fight against hopelessness. Being asked to face the Nakba before the High Holy Days was personally meaningful to me because Teshuvah—one of the central concepts of the Jewish Days of Awe, which can be translated as a turn or return—asks that we turn to face our past. As we review our actions over the last year, we look into the gap that often exists between who we are and who we hope to be in the world. This return can be thought of as a turning away from denial and a turning toward the painful places within and outside of ourselves. When we ignore what exists in that gap, we end up being haunted and controlled by it. When we turn to face it, we can begin to take responsibility and make amends. We were being asked to collectively turn to face the catastrophe of ethnic cleansing that was integral to the creation of the Israeli state.
One day during the retreat, the facilitators laid pictures and descriptions of Palestinians who died in the most recent attacks on Gaza on the floor of the synagogue. Looking at the faces of entire families who were killed or at the face of a young girl who loved to sing, I was shocked by how hard it was for me stay present. I felt the urge to turn away, to leave the space, to numb out. It was hard to feel the weight of responsibility: these precious lives were taken by a state that claims to speak for me, and these deaths were funded by a government that claims to represent me.
I felt the contradiction of trying to mourn Palestinian lives in Jewish religious space, which, at best, tends to ignore Palestinian deaths, and at worst, justifies them in the name of “self-defense.” Yet the facilitators helped make it possible for me to stay present in this holy space by inviting in our emotions. One of the facilitators cried upon introducing the display, and as I looked around the room of artists grappling with these images of tragedy, I felt a kinship among us. I realized that what makes returning to face the Nakba possible is that we do so together with hope for healing in our hearts. Only by facing the reality of this tragedy can we possibly begin to work toward true justice.
This concept of returning to face the violence at the root of a nation state connects the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the struggle for Black liberation in the United States. Both the attacks on Gaza over the past summer and the killings of Black people by the police are not aberrations in either nation, but the continued legacy of racist violence, which was integral to the founding of each nation. By squarely turning to face how the past lives in the present of both countries, we can move toward reckoning with the root cause of racialized violence in both the Israel and the United States.
Haunted by the Nakba
I’m not the first Jewish anti-occupation activist to consider the contradictions of the present moment for Jews and racial justice. In a recently published article in Tikkun, “Is It Right to Compare Ferguson to Gaza? Reflections from a Jewish Protester,” Shaul Magid points out that many “Jewish leaders in America whose eloquent voices I have heard regarding Michael Brown and Eric Garner are reluctant to cry out openly and forcefully against the injustices of the forty-seven-year occupation of the Palestinian people.” He points out how much more difficult it is for American Jews to raise our voices against the occupation of Palestine because protesting Israel comes “with a price, the vengeance of the American Jewish Establishment … the accusation that we are not ‘pro-Israel.’” But, as Magid argues, “a protest without a price is easy. A protest with a price is heroic.”
I was relieved to see Magid sort through some of these contradictions because I felt confused when I saw people like my former rabbi, who was blatantly racist toward Palestinians, write a blog about Jewish solidarity with Ferguson. Indeed while I want to encourage as many Jewish folks as possible to speak out against racism in the United States, I don’t want Jews who stood by silently as Gaza was decimated to seek redemption by supporting Black Lives Matter without being pushed to face violence being done in our names as Jews, as well as Americans.
Because of the incredible power of the Black Lives Matter activists and movement, all across the United States, more people than ever before, including Jewish folks, are talking about racist police, the prison industrial complex, and even structural racism. I keep wondering how we can seize this moment to deepen the conversation about the roots of this violence both here and in Israel. While we should absolutely keep our focus on Black Lives Matter in the streets of the United States, I still want to think about how this unique moment could propel more of us to turn and face this original racist violence at the heart of the creation of both countries as the way to move forward for both healing and justice as Americans and Jews.
Unfortunately, while Magid highlights the need for Jews to speak out against the Occupation (of Palestinian land taken in 1967), his analysis is limited because he fails to address the racist violence embedded in the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, the Nakba. His refusal to acknowledge the Nakba mirrors the limits in his examination of police violence in the United States: the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and enslavement of African Americans built into the fabric of this country. His comparison of U.S. and Israeli societies as overly militarized thus end up comparing symptoms without addressing the deep intertwined causes: both “democratic” nations were birthed by securing freedom and rights for some people at the cost of other people’s enslavement, dispossession, and displacement.
Because Magid ignores the Nakba by limiting his critique to the Occupation that began in 1967, its ghost ends up haunting his piece: he limits and contradicts his own argument. Using the language of mainstream supporters of Israel, Magid criticizes the “anti-Israel camp” for using Ferguson as a decoy and making “careless and reflexive comparisons.” Yet Magid never explains why they deserve this label beyond saying that they ignore each country’s specific context. In fact, the main comparisons I have seen, like Magid’s, have been about the militarization of the police. For example, in “Liberation for all”: Why Palestine is a key issue on the streets of Ferguson, Rania Khalek points out that Israel has created a “homeland security industry,” which teaches oppressive tactics to other law enforcement officials from the United States, who end up using these tactics against disenfranchised populations. In any case, it’s curious to see Magid blithely categorize people as “anti-Israel” in the same piece where he describes how he has been accused of not being “pro-Israel” for speaking out against the Occupation.
When Magid discusses the horrific IDF policies of house demolitions, unwarranted arrests, interrogation of children, destruction of property and businesses, and beatings, he clarifies that he is “not referring to IDF actions against terrorists or actions done for legitimate security reasons or in defense of Israeli citizens.” Again he is attempting to draw a line by using the very language of the Israeli state, Jewish institutions, and the mainstream media, who use the word “terrorist” to dehumanize Palestinians and the concepts of “security” and “self-defense” to justify the very violence that Magid describes.
His description of U.S. racism is similarly limited; he argues that racist policing is part of an “unending story of racial discrimination in America that is exercised by law enforcement overstepping their mandate and using violence as a tool of hatred.” While U.S. racism is certainly an unending story, I’m not convinced that the problem is one of law enforcement overstepping their mandate. I actually believe that their mandate is to uphold an unjust racial hierarchy. Rather than an aberration or a tool of individual hatred, this violence is just one manifestation of the legacy of racism that began with the founding of this country.
The Foundation of Racism
In “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that in order to address contemporary racism, we need to look back at the founding of this country to consider how our democracy was built on the economic basis of slave labor. Our democracy, created through “black plunder,” and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, continues to enforce freedom for some, while enforcing inequality for others. Coates argues, “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.” Police reforms, such as cops wearing cameras, cannot fundamentally alter the racism of state violence.
Coates carefully documents how racism past and present—two hundred and fifty years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of separate but equal, and thirty-five years of racist housing policy—impacts the current lives of Blacks in this country who are oppressed by systemic racism and then blamed for this very victimization. He traces how families were torn apart by slavery, and how the roots of American wealth and democracy lie in the “for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family.” The media and pundits then reverse this power dynamic by pathologizing black family structures and chiding Black fathers for shirking their responsibilities.
This tactic of oppressing a population and then blaming them in order to justify their continued oppression is another trope that links the portrayal of African Americans and Palestinians in public discourse. In the aftermath of the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, officials and the media attempted to portray both of them as “thugs” and “criminals” in order to justify their murders. Black protesters, facing militarized policing in Ferguson, were also portrayed as “thugs” in order to delegitimize their actions and justify the disproportionate police response. As Nadia Barhoum argues in “The Rhetoric of Racism from Ferguson to Palestine,” the media displays the “fear and bias that has been integrated in the state building process. This fear suffocates empathy and encourages society to approve of militarization and the use of force against the imagined threat of the other.”
Similarly, according to Barhoum, “Palestinians are often described as synonymous with Hamas or as ‘terrorists’—the Palestinian equivalent of ‘thug,’ bearing its own set of racist stereotypes.” That is why it is particularly telling when Magid relies on the “terrorism” rhetoric, which portrays Palestinians as “others” who need to be controlled.
If we look back to the founding of Israel, Jewish forces actually inflicted widespread terror on Palestinians in order to give birth to the state. The Nakba refers to the destruction of most Palestinian towns that existed in what became the state of Israel, and the expulsion of most of their Palestinian residents between 1947 and 1949. During this time, 530 Palestinian localities were destroyed and 800,000 residents were expelled or fled in terror and were not allowed to return. Palestinians were dispossessed from their homes, lands, and livelihoods as a result of Israeli ethnic cleansing operations.
In March, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, agreed to the strategy of Plan Dalet, which declared the intention to ethnically cleanse as much of Palestine as possible in order to control the most amount of land with the least amount of Palestinians. To accomplish this task, Jewish military forces, essentially terrorist organizations, were told to carry out this campaign in the following manner: “either by destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up, and by planting mines in their debris) “ or by “encirclement of the villages, conducting a search inside them. In case of resistance, the armed forces must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state.”
As this strategy was implemented, many massacres occurred, including one in the village of Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948, where more than one hundred Palestinian village residents, most of them unarmed, were murdered. Many massacres like this one terrorized the Palestinian population, and encouraged flight from the surrounding villages.
Instead of hearing about this history of Jewish violence against Palestinians, as American Jews, we are taught to be afraid of Palestinians. As a child, I often heard: “they (the Palestinians) want to drive us (the Jews) into the sea.” This is another example of literally reversing the facts to create fear of the victims who were driven out of their own land. In fact, many Palestinians were pushed into the sea during the ethnic cleansing of Haifa: “Men stepped on their friends and women on their own children,” Ilan Pappe writes in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. “The boats in the port were soon filled with living cargo. The overcrowding in them was horrible. Many turned over and sank with all their passengers.”
Unfortunately, the Nakba is not over: it continues with ongoing Israeli attacks on Palestinians, such as the decimation of Gaza this past summer when over two thousand Palestinians were killed, trapped in a strip less than five miles wide whose borders are controlled by Israel. At least 18,000 homes were destroyed, and key infrastructure damaged. Even before this attack, Gaza was still rebuilding from the Cast Lead offensive in 2009 and Pillar of Cloud in 2012.
Recognizing the potential political danger of facing the Nakba, the Israeli government has attempted to outlaw its remembrance with its passage of the “Nakba Law” in 2011. By criminalizing Nakba commemoration, this law discourages organizations from even mentioning the Nakba, which can cause a loss of funding from the Israeli government. Nonetheless, in Israel, organizations such as Zochrot, are dedicated to publicizing the Nakba, while the Nakba Education Project in the United States is making information about the Nakba accessible to Americans.
An Ocean of Trauma and Healing
When a government is trying to outlaw memory, it tells us that this act of remembering—of refusing to deny, ignore, or forget—is an act with potentially radical consequences. At the end of his article, Magid writes about the need for Jews who are speaking out against racist police violence to also speak out against the Occupation because “that is the difference between protesting above a safety net and speaking truth to power.” But speaking truth to power requires looking to the sources of that power, not just its current manifestations. By returning to face slavery and ethnic cleansing—the racist requirements for the birth of each nation—we have a chance to address the legacy of trauma and racism in both these democracies, instead of being haunted by them.
Performing Teshuvahor looking into the gap between who we are and who we hope to be as Democratic societies allows us to turn away from denial and justification and towards taking responsibility. Coates argues for a serious consideration of making government reparations to Blacks in the United States: “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal,” he claims because “an America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” Black Lives Matter is giving us the opportunity to take this first step toward spiritual healing by turning to face the originating violence that splits our country at the roots.
As Jews who care about racial justice and healing, we are also being prompted to look back at the founding of the Israeli state to begin this process of spiritual and moral reckoning. When I heard that phrase, “they want to drive us into the sea,” as a kid growing up in landlocked Ohio, it didn’t make sense to me. What was so bad about being pushed toward the sea? Doesn’t the Passover story tell us that if we move toward the ocean, the waters will part for us and create a path toward liberation? It feels like there is another possibility embedded in that rhetoric.
As Jewish folks who have our own histories of experiencing dispossession and displacement, I keep pondering what it would mean for us to consciously choose the sea. I don’t mean literally, but what might it mean to take the wide perspective that comes from our journeys as a people who have crossed many oceans in the Diaspora and survived so much violence directed against us? Unfortunately, in recent history, our struggle to survive has led us to emulate European colonialism by founding the state of Israel. But other journeys and choices are always possible. Could the perspective of the sea help us loosen our tight grip on the land of Israel to begin acknowledging that although we escaped trauma and oppression, we ended up traumatizing and oppressing another people?
I want us to turn and face the notion that as Jews, we are indeed capable of inflicting trauma on other people. There is nothing exceptional about us; all humans are capable of enacting violence against others as they seek their own freedom. And if we choose not to look away, what is possible? If we choose to look into the watery depths of history that contain the horrors of humanity—from the Middle Passage, to pogroms and massacres, to the Nakba—only then can we take responsibility and begin to make amends. In the process of dehumanizing another people, we have dehumanized ourselves by making the land more important than our own humanity. Let’s make the leap into the sea to face our inheritance, as both Jews and Americans, and create a future that relies on our interdependence as humans, not these violent separations, as the basis for our values.
(This article was written in response to Shaul Magid’s piece, “Is It Right to Compare Ferguson to Gaza? Reflections from a Jewish Protester.” To read Magid’s response to this article, click here).