What the Conflicts in Ferguson and Israel Have in Common

It’s infuriating when people spit on something you consider sacred but worthwhile understanding what drives them to do so.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
A protester holds up a sign in front of the Ferguson Police Department, Nov. 25, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.
A protester holds up a sign in front of the Ferguson Police Department, Nov. 25, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.Credit: AP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Watching the violence this week in Ferguson, Missouri, I began thinking about Jews, Palestinians and Larry Bird. Let me explain.

In Boston in the mid-1980s, I played on a basketball team composed of seven white kids and six black kids. Like the other white kids, I revered our hometown basketball team, the Celtics, and their star player, Larry Bird. But over time, I began to notice something curious. When the subject of the Celtics came up, many of the black kids would either go silent or say something derisive. One afternoon, on a long bus ride, an argument broke out and I realized, to my amazement, that most of my black teammates rooted against the Celtics. When asked which teams they supported instead, they either mentioned the Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan, or - even worse - the Celtics’ arch rival Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson. The subtext was obvious: Bird - along with several other key Celtics players - was white. Jordan and Johnson were black.

To me, the Celtics were a benign, even heroic, symbol of our hometown. To my black teammates they were a white-dominated team in a white-dominated city. Although I was too young and cocooned to realize it, Boston was renowned among African Americans for its bigotry. In his autobiography, Bill Russell, the Celtics’ star center in the 1960s, had called it a “flea market of racism.” In the mid-1970s, when a judge ordered black kids bussed to white schools in the name of desegregation, thousands of white Bostonians protested. By the mid-1980s, Chicago and Los Angeles had black mayors. In Boston, that was still unthinkable.

I identified with the Celtics in the same way many white people in Ferguson, and across the country, identify with America’s police and courts. They know there are some bad cops. They know American justice isn’t perfect. But overall, they see the police as honorable folks doing dangerous work on behalf of a system that deserves their loyalty and respect. Among black Americans, it’s different. Many African Americans see law enforcement as structurally racist - worthy less of reverence than of scorn. According to a recent Gallup poll, almost 60 percent of white Americans have confidence in the police. Among African Americans, it’s barely one in three.

What does this have to do with Jews and Palestinians? Actually, quite a bit. It’s enraging to see people vilify something that you venerate. It’s hard to exaggerate the gut-level loathing that many white New Yorkers in the 1980s and 1990s felt toward Al Sharpton, who built his career on denouncing the NYPD as racist. Or that devout Catholics felt toward the gay rights activists who at the height of America’s AIDS epidemic invaded New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral to protest the Catholic Church’s views about homosexuality.

That’s how many white Americans now feel toward the African American activists denouncing the police in Ferguson. And it’s how many Jews feel when they see Palestinians call Israel a racist, apartheid state. It’s one thing to disagree about policy. It’s another to have people spit on something you consider sacred.

The challenge is to put aside your fury long enough to investigate the different experiences that might lead an African American in Ferguson to loathe the cops or a Palestinian to loathe Israel. That doesn’t mean justifying violence. The people breaking windows in Ferguson are fools. The men who murdered four rabbis last week in Har Nof are monsters. I’m not talking about them.

I’m talking about people who peacefully desecrate the things we love.

Arguing against such people at the level of abstraction is fine. I myself have written repeatedly about why I don’t consider Israel an apartheid state. But it’s insufficient. Moving the conversation forward requires focusing less on people’s conclusions and more on the life events that produce them. Travelling through Ben-Gurion Airport as a Jew is vastly different from travelling through it as a Palestinian, just as getting stopped by the police can be vastly different depending on whether you’re white or black. But very few American Jews, and very few white Americans, have been told, face-to-face, what that alternative experience is like. America’s discourse about race, and the American Jewish community’s discourse about Israel, would be much better if they had.

“Do not judge your neighbor,” says the Talmud, “unless you have been put in his place.” The point isn’t that judgment is wrong. It’s that, whenever possible, we should base our judgments on intimate knowledge. And in gaining knowledge of others, we challenge them to gain it of us too.

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