Virginia 1619, Israel/Palestine 1948

This article was written before the warfare of May 2021

It has been over 400 years since the first group of slaves from Africa arrived on the shores of Virginia, and yet, against the backdrop of racial tensions between whites and blacks, the issue of slavery has risen again in the United States. A collection of articles appearing in a New York Times supplement in August 2019, entitled “Project 1619,” marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of that slave ship. The collection soon became the focus of controversy. Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who edited the supplement, wrote an introductory article that ignited a heated debate.

Hannah-Jones wrote that the founders declared colonial independence from Britain to ensure the continuation of slavery. Jones also slaughters some sacred cows, noting that the authors of the U.S. Constitution, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were themselves slave owners. She went on to accuse none other than Abraham Lincoln of racism, because at one stage he wanted to send the blacks back to Africa.

What has exacerbated the controversy within the U.S. is President Joe Biden’s decision that “Project 1619” will become an optional part of the curriculum in American schools. That decision sparked attacks from Donald Trump, who accused Democrats of educating themselves in self-hatred. Biden even offered to help fund the schools that use “Project 1619” or similar materials. As a result, in late April, Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell sent a scathing letter of protest to the Secretary of Education, urging him to cease his efforts to place such material in schools, stating: “Families did not demand this divisive nonsense. The voters did not vote for it. Americans never decided our children would learn that our country is the very embodiment of evil.”

Interestingly, it was not just the Republican establishment that was alarmed by the Democrats’ attempt to “fix” history. Former Israeli ambassador to Washington Zalman Shoval also intervened in the American debate, adding a “Jewish” angle. In an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post, Shoval came out against Project 1619, comparing it to the Nazis and Bolsheviks who, he said, were experts in engineering history to serve their political interests, as well as to Palestinian leaders in their efforts to prove the existence of a Palestinian people. These leaders, he wrote, “ are trying to undermine the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem in particular.”

At first blush, there seems to be no connection between the situation of blacks in America and that of Palestinians here. Blacks were brought to America as slaves and it has become their homeland. The conflict between white America and blacks is essentially racial, not national, and the U. S. has never conquered an African country. Despite this, Shoval found it appropriate to add his two cents and find the common denominator between the American and Israeli historical narratives.

Blacks and Palestinians are compared to Nazis when they demand redress of historical injustice and attempt to present a narrative of their own. It is true that America established the first democratic republic in the modern age, but this democracy was at the same time a regime of slavery. It institutionalized a discriminatory and racist regime of a type we today call “apartheid,” the traces of which are still prominent.

In Israel, too, there is an occasional demand to correct the historical narrative. Aluf Ben, editor of Haaretz, published an article entitled “Stop fearing the Nakba” (April 30, 2021), in which he explained his headline as follows: “A country must not run from its past, even when it’s unpleasant and raises difficult moral questions. It is a country’s duty to its citizens, who deserve to know what happened in the past so they can understand the reasons and motives for what’s happening now, namely the nation-state law, the repeated failure of the ‘Anyone but Bibi’ parties to create a Jewish-Arab governing coalition, Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and even the housing projects in the country’s periphery…. These are the ongoing results of ‘the birth of the refugee problem,’ the dark side of the War of Independence. We must talk about it.”

Aluf Ben’s article inspired a full-throated Zionist response. On Wednesday, May 5, Hanan Amiur wrote under the headline: “Aluf Ben is right: Stop fearing the Nakba,” saying that “we have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of.” There is a parallel in the American situation, where the “old” historians rise against the “new” historians: every statement generates a contradiction from the other side. The truth is that even if this historical debate is necessary, it does not resolve the current situation; what drives historical debate is contemporary reality. The current debate in the United States reflects the differences of opinion between the two parties on both sides of the American political map over a simple question: whether or not there is institutionalized, systemic racism.  

The significant difference between what is happening in Israel and the United States is that the Biden administration recognizes the existence of institutionalized racism. Such recognition was also reflected in the unprecedented trial and conviction of the police officer who murdered George Floyd. The black community in the US voted massively for Joe Biden and provided him with his victory. Biden promised not to forget them because they saved American democracy from a racist, fascist movement led by Donald Trump, a soulmate of Benjamin Netanyahu and the settler Right.

In Israel, Palestinian citizens remain excluded from centers of political influence. In the occupied territories, beyond the separation wall, they lack fundamental human and civil rights. The Israeli Left has always preferred national unity with the Right and the preservation of Israel’s national religious character over democracy. This is where the story of the Zionist Left and the victory of the extreme Right begins and ends. Without participation of the Palestinians in the struggle against discrimination and racism, against religious coercion, against predatory capitalism and the climate crisis, the Israeli Left will not experience a revival. The common denominator between blacks in the United States and the Palestinians here is not a similar history, but the fact that their problem reflects the crisis of democracy in both countries.

In the United States, until the mid-1960s, two regimes existed at once – democracy for whites and apartheid for blacks. So too, in Israel there is democracy for Jews and apartheid for Palestinians. This must be talked about, because the facts are there for all to see. They cannot be twisted without stretching credulity beyond the bounds of reason. These facts are our daily reality, dictating every moment in our political, social, economic and cultural lives. A checkpoint is a checkpoint is a checkpoint.FacebookTwitterשת

Even if Aluf Ben is right that it is important to talk about 1948 to cope with the roots of the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, bringing about understanding and cooperation between the two peoples, it is even more urgent to talk about the present and the future. History is being written by each of us. Institutionalized discrimination against the Arab population in Israel is backed by statistics, and the attitude toward citizens of the Palestinian Authority is horrific. For example, Israel has been vaccinated and is emerging from the pandemic, while in the West Bank and Gaza, infection rates are rising. Yet Israel is unwilling to provide the Palestinians with the vaccines that lie unused in its warehouses. Israel maintains a regime of work permits and checkpoints, preventing freedom of movement, and has been imposing a military regime on civilians without rights for more than 50 years.

In the United States, until the mid-1960s, two regimes existed at once – democracy for whites and apartheid for blacks. So too, in Israel there is democracy for Jews and apartheid for Palestinians. This must be talked about, because the facts are there for all to see. They cannot be twisted without stretching credulity beyond the bounds of reason. These facts are our daily reality, dictating every moment in our political, social, economic and cultural lives. A checkpoint is a checkpoint is a checkpoint.

About Yacov Ben Efrat