The More Things Change: Israel and Intersectionality
In an earlier column, I noted how common it is for people to act as though history begins with the present, and to lack perspective on the issues we face in the Jewish community and on college campuses. Way back in 1986, I observed that, like today, the most vociferous detractors of Israel were not Arab students, but members of other minority groups. Why, I asked, are the interests of blacks, Hispanics and other groups seen as incompatible with those of Jewish students?
Long before the Black Lives Matter movement existed, some of the most anti-Israel and sometimes antisemitic rhetoric and programs emanated from black student organizations (this was before the term “African-American” became popular). Jews did not have problems with the black “establishment,” which was old enough to remember the Holocaust, the founding of Israel and the role that Jews played in the civil rights battles. Younger black people, however, did not know or care about the history of Black-Jewish cooperation, or the confluence of interests between the two groups.
As I wrote in the 1980s:
Whereas liberals of the 1940s and 1950s were pro-Israel because that was the liberal issue — Israel was the model for the developing world — today, many liberals associate Israel with the vestiges of Western imperialism. It is indeed ironic that Israel, a country with perhaps the strongest labor movement in the world, and purest expressions of communism in its kibbutzim, should be denounced by leftists who call for just such organizations in other countries.
Neither the labor movement nor the kibbutzim are what they used to be, but the point is still valid. Israel is still a shining example of how a Third World country can develop. Israel, unlike racist South Africa, is not imposing its will on the majority of its population. Still, it was fashionable for liberals to portray Israel as a lackey of the United States and to equate Israel’s government with the Afrikaner regime in South Africa.
This attitude was especially ironic, because Israel had just rescued black Jews from Ethiopia. Columnist William Safire wrote at the time, “For the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought to a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens.” Jesse Jackson saw things differently. He condemned Israel because he viewed Ethiopian Jews as potential assets to the Israeli army and the settler movement.
When the 1980s UCLA Jewish student newspaper — Ha’Am — published an article that I wrote about Operation Moses, I was verbally accosted by one of my colleagues, a black graduate student who insisted that the Israeli government was still racist. This was also a period when radical black students invited anti-Israel and antisemitic speakers to campus.
I emphasized the importance of educating minority students who know little or nothing about Israel, and were susceptible to being influenced by the misinformation and vitriol of their militant leaders. The average black student was not involved in politics or concerned with Middle East issues. They did care, however, about affirmative action, which was a source of tension with the Jewish community — because many Jews opposed the idea due to the echoes it stirred of quotas once used to keep Jews out of universities.
Jewish and minority communities continue to have more in common than in conflict. Jewish students need to take visible positions on issues of concern to other minority groups if they expect any support from them on antisemitism and Israel. Jews certainly agree that black lives matter, but many of the leaders of that movement have made false analogies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is another example of how extremists can sometimes hijack groups and causes.
For Jewish students today, coalition building can be a daunting task because so many groups, especially the self-described progressives, are hostile to Israel. Still, opportunities exist to work with, for example, Indian Americans and students from Asia-Pacific countries, who do not have the history of antagonism toward Israel that is found among certain minority groups. On some campuses, such as Towson University, Muslim and Jewish students have found common cause.
I concluded my 1986 article by noting that building ties with minorities was crucial because public opinion polls showed that support for Israel among non-whites was considerably weaker than among Caucasians. I warned that, given the increasing political participation of minorities, “a trend of indifference or hostility toward Israel cannot be allowed to develop.”
We are paying the price today of our failure to heed that warning.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” “The Arab Lobby,” and the novel “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”