Empathy Toward the Palestinian Side Invokes Hatred and Distrust

The anger at Israelis who support Palestinian independence resembles the treatment of whites who supported the black civil rights movement.

Yael Sternhell
Yael Sternhell
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Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists marching in Alabama in 1965.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists marching in Alabama in 1965.Credit: AP
Yael Sternhell
Yael Sternhell

The July 15 march scheduled by the solidarity movement for Palestinian independence will surely stir an ugly wave of threats against Jews who dare to deviate from the consensus: those who express their identification with the Palestinian desire to end the occupation and establish an independent state. In the Israel of 2011, every manifestation of basic human empathy toward the Palestinian side, every disclosure of understanding for its aspirations and priorities hits a wall of hatred, distrust and the growing siege mentality.

How we got this far is one question, but since we're already here, maybe we'd benefit from remembering another march, in a different place and time, and the people who dared to take part in it despite the opposition of the stunted, racist consensus.

On March 21, 1965, activists left Selma, Alabama, and headed for the state capital of Montgomery to protest the denial of black voting rights in the American South. It was the third time civil rights organizations had tried to set out on such a march.

The first time, 600 participants ran afoul of the local police, headed by Sheriff James Clark, an untrammeled racist who decided to block the civil rights movement with his own body. His men treated the protesters with exceptional brutality, even according to the norms prevailing in the South. They used batons and tear gas; their horses trampled on the demonstrators. Skulls were cracked, bones were broken and organs crushed. The demonstrators, helpless before the force of the police, left the front lines for home. But the pictures, broadcast all over the country, had an effect.

The third attempt attracted 25,000 people, accompanied by federal police. This time the demonstrators reached Montgomery, and America took one step closer to returning the right to vote to the black minority. This was a high point in the struggle of the civil rights movement, a movement that, adhering to an ideology of nonviolence, managed within just a few years to topple the apartheid regime that had lasted for decades.

Leaving their comfortable lives

Anyone who looks at the photos from those fateful days in 1965 sees immediately that white faces - of women and men, nuns and rabbis, young and old - emerge in the sea of black faces. These were the movement's white supporters, who left their comfortable lives in the cities and suburbs and came to Selma to express solidarity with the most oppressed and hated minority in America.

It wasn't an easy task. From a distance of just a few decades, with a black president in the White House, it's hard for us to imagine why millions didn't march for African-Americans' just struggle in the South to enjoy basic freedoms, to realize the equality they deserved as citizens of a democratic country. But we must remember how deeply rooted was the belief among Southern whites that blacks were not entitled to civil rights, that whites had to preserve their social and politic superiority at any price, and that members of both races were eternal enemies.

All white people who disagreed with these beliefs, who agreed to come out openly against the majority, came to the South and declared that they were willing to stand beside black citizens in their struggle against oppression and discrimination and put their lives on the line. So the whites who took part in the marches also suffered the violence and hatred aimed at their black compatriots.

Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Detroit, was shot to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Every white who dared to lend a hand to the black struggle was seen as an enemy of the race in the eyes of many, as a traitor whose life was cheap.

Still, they marched. They marched because they understood that it was time to break through the indifference of the white community in the United States, that it was time to stop cooperating with the paranoia and racism of whites in the South and to stand on the side of justice and ethics, to stand on the right side of history. To this day they are remembered as people who did the right thing, who saw beyond prejudice and the hollow political conventions of their time, despite danger and fear.

Our necessary enemy

We, the Jews who live in Israel, participate each day, each hour, in the denial of basic rights to Palestinian citizens, in the perpetuation of the settlements and the occupation. We're in a similar position to that of many whites in the United States in the 1960s.

Most of us find it hard to support the Palestinian struggle for independence, whether out of laziness, indifference or a basic loathing of those we've been told all our lives are a necessary enemy. Most of us find it hard to stand up to the story told by the government and most of the media that the Palestinian declaration of independence is a disaster for Israel, exactly as most whites in the South saw the granting of voting rights to blacks as the end of civilization.

Most of us find it hard to believe that it's possible to live together in peace, just as those whites in Alabama found it hard to imagine life in a free society in which members of all races have the same rights. Most of us also have more pressing matters to attend to, just as the whites all over the United States found it hard to see why the fact that Southern blacks couldn't vote should keep them awake at night.

The march supporting the Palestinian declaration of independence is a golden opportunity for change. It's the moment we can say to ourselves, to our Palestinian neighbors and the entire world that we too can be freed from the chains of hatred, fear and the racism that grips the State of Israel.

This is the time to show that we too are capable of seeing beyond the paranoia that paralyzes us, that blocks all possibility of reaching a solution. In how many years will people look back on us, the Israelis, as people who couldn't grasp reality, who waged a useless war against others' legitimate aspirations?

Taking part in a solidarity march is a similar choice to the one of the whites who joined the march from Selma. It is the choice to take a stand, in real time, on the right side of history.



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