Opinion

Why Israelis Backed the Civil Rights Movement but Fear Black Lives Matter

53 years of occupation shifted sympathies from oppressed African-Americans to their white oppressors

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Israelis protesting in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in Jerusalem, June 2020.
Israelis protesting in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in Jerusalem, June 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Israeli media coverage of protests in the U.S. following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was mainly focused on the initial bursts of violence and looting. Most of the expat Israelis interviewed by local media complained about damage to their businesses, expressed fear for their families and demanded a tougher response by authorities.

Once the violence subsided, the coverage decreased accordingly. The thousands of peaceful demonstrations across the U.S., unprecedented in their scope and makeup, drew scant interest. Thus, the Israeli public was not exposed to the extraordinary turnaround in U.S. public opinion or to the increasing recognition that police violence is but the tip of the iceberg of the systemic discrimination that many African Americans continue to endure in all walks of life.

People hold up a Black Lives Matter banner as they march during a demonstration against racial inequality in Washington, U.S., June 14, 2020.
People hold up a Black Lives Matter banner as they march during a demonstration against racial inequality in Washington, U.S., June 14, 2020.Credit: ERIN SCOTT/ REUTERS

Many Israelis, on the other hand, were outraged by the decision to suspend screenings of "Gone with the Wind," the resignation of a New York Times editor who published an op-ed calling on the army to disperse demonstrators by force and the removal, by mob or governor’s decree, of statues commemorating Confederate generals. Pundits and columnists denounced “censorship,” “stifling dissent” “rewriting of history” and “the tyranny of the politically correct.”

The objections were strongest on the Israeli right. Attacks on Jewish businesses in Los Angeles were cited as proof that the protests were antisemitic through and through. One leading luminary of the Israeli right tweeted that looting comes naturally to African Americans, another that they are simply incapable of catching up with others. The protests, in general, were ascribed on the right to radical, anti-Zionist left-wing groups out to topple Israel’s ally and savior, Donald Trump.

Rabbi Everett Gendler talking with King at the Rabbinical Assembly convention the rabbi chaired in March 1968
Rabbi Everett Gendler talking with King at the Rabbinical Assembly convention the rabbi chaired in March 1968Credit: courtesy Rabbi Everett Gendler

Sixty years ago, when the Civil Rights Movement was fighting for equality, the Israeli reaction was markedly different. Israeli newspapers were full of articles supporting African Americans and identifying with their struggle. Prodded by American-raised Golda Meir, socialist Israel saw itself as a champion of awakening Africa and its sympathies extended to the continent’s descendants in the U.S. The government repeatedly tried – but failed – to invite Martin Luther King on an official visit, despite fears that it would upset successive U.S. administrations.

Many Israelis endorsed the analogy, made by King and other Black leaders as well as liberal American Jews, between the persecutions faced by Black Americans and the Jewish people, between the liberation of Blacks and the biblical Exodus. After all, the founder of Zionism Benjamin Zeev Herzl noted in his book "Altneuland" that “only Jews can fully appreciate the terrible tragedy of human suffering” endured by Black people in the United States.

Israel, however, is a completely different country today, and its attitudes have changed accordingly. Expressions of anti-Zionism, antisemitism and support for Palestinians among Black protesters are magnified to stain the entire movement. Israeli propagandists and their allies in the U.S. Jewish establishment routinely targeted Black Lives Matter as inherently anti-Israeli, if not anti-Semitic. In recent weeks they have watched helplessly as the movement’s popularity skyrockets in the polls.

Protesters attend a rally against Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank, in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2020.
Protesters attend a rally against Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank, in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

Fifty-three years of occupation since the Six Day War have fundamentally changed Israel. After more than 40 years of right-wing rule, Israelis identify and are identified more with ruling whites than with oppressed Blacks. Ethnocentrism, Jewish fundamentalism and hostility towards Palestinians, it seems, have spawned blatant racism towards minorities in general, as Israel’s own black minority of Ethiopian Jews can attest. Sympathy for Africa and Third World liberation movements have been supplanted by increasing admiration for strong, authoritarian and often racist leaders, led by President Trump.

Small wonder that when Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing for an annexation of West Bank areas in which Palestinians would continue to be deprived of basic rights – in other words, apartheid – most Israelis can only shrug. The idolization of Trump as the most pro-Israeli president in history has turned public opinion, especially on the right, into a local version of Georgia, Alabama or Mississippi – which is also the name of a popular Israeli song from the mid-sixties that endorsed the Black struggle for civil rights.

'Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi', written by Naomi Shemer. Performed by the Yarkon Bridge Trio

It was written in 1965 by the late Naomi Shemer, widely considered Israel’s premier songwriter, before the Six Day War, before she emerged as a standard bearer for the Greater Land of Israel and before most Israelis followed in her path, never to return.

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