Eric Garner was not a criminal. He was unarmed. He was not dangerous. He was an African-American father of six children who was physically detained and subsequently killed because of a minor infraction of selling loose cigarettes.
What happened to Eric Garner on Staten Island was a human tragedy and a national tragedy. It was certainly not the first time such a thing has happened in America and elsewhere but the video recording of the entire event gave all of us a gruesome window into race and law enforcement in urban America, just as the video of the police beating Rodney King did in 1991.
In the Jewish world Garner’s killing has provoked well-placed outrage and indignation. Rabbis have written on their blogs and preached in their sermons, Jewish intellectuals have weighed in by writing in journals and on social media, activists have organized protests, and demonstrators have been arrested. It is laudable that American clergy and lay leadership who too often choose not to weigh in on matters of national concern have stood up and protested for justice in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
Jewish clergy in America have a long history of fighting for civil rights. Long before the famous photo of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Selma with Martin Luther King in 1965, lesser known rabbis such as Joachim Prinz, Balfour Brickner, and Seymour Atlas risked their careers to stand up against racial inequality in the 1950s and against the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s when many of their congregants and many American Jewish institutions were reluctant to do so. Perhaps this presents us with an opportunity as American Jews to revisit that American Jewish tradition of fighting for justice and against inequality.
Differences and Similarities Between U.S. Racism and the Israeli Occupation
In the anti-Israel camp there has been much made of an alleged “Ferguson-Gaza” symmetry, referring to Israel’s tactics during the Gaza War in the summer of 2014 and the senseless death of Michael Brown this fall. There is something troubling in such a symmetry, as there are in many symmetries, since they too often ignore context and history. Many symmetries have agendas that decry one thing in the service of something quite different. But just because this comparison is being used to drive an anti-Israel agenda, and may be using Ferguson as a decoy, does not mean that is it, by definition, wrong on all counts. We should remember that comparisons do not claim to collapse distinctions. Rather, they claim to highlight similarities in light of distinctions. What happened in Ferguson and on Staten Island and what happens under Israel’s occupation to Palestinian civilians are surely not the same. But that does not mean that they are necessarily categorically different. Done well, comparisons can provide heuristic tools to understand the complexity of both sides.
The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are clearly part of a long and sordid history of American law enforcement in regards to race. In this sense they are part of an American story and part of an American “problem.” But these events are also more generally about the abuse of power in an overly militaristic society, and they illustrate a problem about the endemic inequality in a social system that enables, and empowers, its police force to act in such an abusive manner. America has experienced this from its past of slavery to the deaths of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964 by white policemen in Mississippi to Rodney King in Los Angeles to Michael Brown in Ferguson and now Eric Garner on Staten Island. Each case is distinct yet all contribute to 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.
In tying these latest events to the Israeli occupation I do not mean in any way to instrumentalize the Brown and Garner deaths by pointing to the American Jewish response nor do I want to agree with careless and reflexive comparisons that have been floating around the media from anti-Israel groups. Yet I do suggest, especially regarding the American Jewish response to the Garner case, the symmetry mentioned above is not totally unwarranted but not in regards to the events themselves as much as how they have been dealt with in the Jewish community. To reject the symmetry out of hand is as careless, in my view, as it is to accept it uncritically.
Will Jewish Groups Also Stand Against the Collective Punishment of Palestinians?
Many of the same rabbis and Jewish leaders who now raise their voice in protest against the death of Eric Garner are more reluctant to raise their voice in protest against similar actions in the West Bank against Palestinian civilians every day. Many Jewish groups such as T’ruah or the Tikkun Community are at the forefront of the protest movement against the occupation and thus their place in the Eric Garner protest movement is consistent with their larger commitments against injustice. But many other 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—injustices that are being carried out “in their name.”
Many argue that the context of the crisis in Israel/Palestine is of a totally different nature. I respectfully disagree. The situations are certainly not identical, no two situations are, but they are not categorically different either. Actions by the IDF against innocent Palestinian civilians do not always result in death, although sometimes they do. Sometimes they result in house demolitions, unwarranted arrests, interrogation of children, destruction of property and businesses, and beatings. I am not referring to IDF actions against terrorists or actions done for legitimate security reasons or in defense of Israeli citizens, for example, destroying the Gaza tunnels or bringing to justice those who helped plan and execute the gruesome deaths of worshippers in the Har Nof neighborhood in Jerusalem and other terrorist attacks. I am talking about consistent abuses of power, illegal actions done for the purposes of collective punishment, actions done to instill fear in the population or, most troubling, simply for entertainment. In short, the moral hazards of managing the occupation of another people.
This last point evokes the scene in the film The Battle of Algiers when a journalist asks the French military chief about violence against Algerian civilians. The military chief responds: “I’ll ask you a question. Do you want France to be in Algeria? Because if you do, then this is how we have to behave. If you don’t, then tell us to leave.” Occupation, like colonialism is, as Frantz Fanon wrote in Wretched of the Earth, itself an act of violence. It is itself an injustice. Hence unwarranted violence of the colonizers against innocent civilians is inevitable and to defend or remain silent about an occupation is to be complicit in acts of brazen violence that are part of what it means to be an occupier or a colonizer.
The Limits of Video Evidence
The reason that we all know about Eric Garner is because someone was there to videotape his death. But violence against civilians has been videotaped by Palestinians dozens of times. Israeli peace groups have been distributing cameras to Palestinians to videotape these actions for years. Using these cameras is considered illegal in the occupied territories. When they can, the IDF confiscates these cameras and destroys the film, blinding us to what subsequently occurs. Many of those cameras are not unlike the one that videotaped Eric Garner’s death. If an NYPD officer had confiscated that camera, none of us would likely be in the street protesting the death of Eric Garner. Most of us would not even know his name. He would be a forgotten name on a police blotter.
The film Five Broken Cameras that contains some very raw footage of four years of nonviolent protests in the Palestinian village of Bil’in, including the killing of an unarmed civilian. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film. Many American Jews, and Israelis, protested the film’s footage as presenting a “biased” and “inaccurate” view. But there are many other testimonies and video footage one can view. One can look at the Yesh Din, Yesh Gevul, and Settlement Watch websites. One can read the testimonials of soldiers who are part of “Breaking the Silence.” There is a plethora of reliable venues one can visit to see these clips. I have heard many arguments by my colleagues that video footage documenting brutality against Palestinian civilians is unreliable or doctored. I have not heard one of them suggest the video footage showing the death of Eric Garber was unreliable or doctored.
I say to many of my American Jewish colleagues who have justifiably marched and even been arrested protesting the death of Eric Garner; where are you when similar injustices occur against Palestinians like him all the time? Where were you when you saw similar acts of violence in Five Broken Cameras? “It is different,” many of my colleagues and friends say. How it is different is not exactly clear. Many simply live in the orbit of Israel exceptionalism. Others simply cannot fathom that the Jewish State is acting so unjustly. Others, too many, would like to speak out but are caught in the “chokehold” of the American Jewish Establishment driven by AIPAC. They fear retribution, marginalization, or worse. Their fears are not unwarranted. One can certainly understand this fear and yet when it comes to standing against injustice, fear of retribution can be a legitimate concern but it cannot be an excuse.
A Wake-Up Call to American Jews
Long ago, Supreme Court Justice and Zionist Louis Brandeis said that “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews we must become Zionists.” By that I assume he meant that Zionism was about supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland that reflected the democratic values of justice and equality for all its citizens and is thus commensurate with the selfsame American values. And that being “better Jews” meant supporting those values, both in America and in a future Jewish homeland.
Brandeis was not idealizing America; he knew of its endemic racism and practice of inequalities. He was a Jew from Kentucky who lived through a spike in anti-Semitism in the 1930s. However, as a jurist he also understood the American system contained the potential to slowly eradicate those inequalities, or at least make them illegal, and also gave its citizens the freedom to openly protest those inequalities. It is not a stretch to say that according to Brandeis, being a good American today would include being in the street protesting the death of Eric Garner. But is being a good American today remaining silent in the face of a forty-seven-year occupation in the Jewish homeland? Is being a good American today being a Zionist if being a Zionist means defending or making excuses for, or even denying the existence of, the illegal and immoral occupation of another people? I would hope not.
I have heard the names of past Jewish leaders such as Abraham Joshua Heschel in these dark days. There were actually many other rabbis who rose up before Heschel and risked their careers to fight for civil rights at a time when the American Jewish Establishment, especially in the south, was afraid to take a stand on this issue. While no one can know for sure (Heschel died in 1972), I hope Heschel would have protested the death of Eric Garner and also attended protests at Sheikh Jarrakh and Bil’in and Nili in the West Bank where injustices are being perpetrated almost every day. He would not have remained silent about the immorality of the occupation, of house demolitions, of imprisoning children without charge, even if there was a price to pay. And there’s the rub. While I respect and stand in solidarity with my colleagues who protest the death of Eric Garner, I also recognize it is, for us, a fairly risk-free issue. Who will oppose us?
It is much harder to be an American Jew and raise one’s voice and openly say to the Israeli government, “Enough! You do not act in our name. We will not support you. You want to be called a Jewish State but you are not acting in our eyes like a Jewish State. End the occupation, end the occupation, end the occupation.” Who will take to the Jewish social media, and Jewish public space, and say “not in our name”? This protest comes with a price, the vengeance of the American Jewish Establishment, the criticism of the Israeli Establishment, the accusation that we are not “pro-Israel.” Who is willing to pay that price? Early Jewish protesters against civil right such as Rabbi Samuel Atlas knew that price. Preaching for civil rights in his synagogue in Alabama in 1957 he lost his pulpit. A protest without a price is easy. A protest with a price is heroic.
Sadly, nothing can bring Eric Garner back. But his death, and the American Jewish cries for justice in its wake, can also be a wake-up call for American Jews. Let these cries of injustice sail across the ocean and be heard by the many in Israel who have been protesting against their government for decades, who often wonder, where is the American rabbinate? As I have said, there are many in America who have risked much and faced the wrath of the American Jewish Establishment to challenge the “Iron Wall” of the ostensibly “pro-Israel” camp that refuses to distinguish between legitimate security and injustice. I say to all those of my people who have stood in protests against the death of Eric Garner: There are many Eric Garners who are living under the thumb of a forty-seven-year occupation. There may be a price to pay to raise our voices in their behalf but it is the right and just thing to do. But maybe that is the difference between protesting above a safety net and speaking truth to power.
(Wendy Somerson wrote a response to this article, “The Twin Ghosts of Slavery and the Nakba: The Roots that Connect Ferguson and Palestine” that you can read here).