Violence Doesn't Erase the Legitimacy of Grievances – in Baltimore, Tel Aviv or the West Bank

Why do Israeli leaders respond so differently when the stone throwers are Palestinian rather than Ethiopian?

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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An Ethiopian-Israeli protester detained by police in Tel Aviv, May 3, 2015.
An Ethiopian-Israeli protester detained by police in Tel Aviv, May 3, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Last weekend, Ethiopian Israelis — enraged by police brutality, racial discrimination and state neglect — threw stones, bottles and chairs at Israeli police, injuring 56. In response, Israeli leaders condemned the violence while acknowledging the grievances that had sparked it. “We must look directly at this open wound — we have erred, we did not look, and we did not listen enough,” declared President Reuven Rivlin. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added that, “We must all line up against racism, condemn it and work to eradicate it.” He pledged to convene a committee to work on the problems Ethiopian Israelis face in education, housing and employment.

In the United States last week, when Baltimore erupted in flames after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, political elites responded the same way. Hillary Clinton insisted that, “The violence has to stop.” But she also said, “There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.”

Illegitimate means do not erase legitimate grievances. Leaders can condemn violence while still acknowledging, and working to overcome, the injustice that helps fuel it. When the perpetrators committing the violence are Ethiopian Israelis or African-Americans, the distinction seems obvious. So why it is so hard for the Israeli government and its defenders to grasp when the perpetrators are Palestinian? Why can’t Israeli leaders condemn Palestinian violence without using that violence to excuse Israel’s unjust and undemocratic control of the West Bank?

I can already hear the objections. Hamas rocket attacks or suicide bombings are worse than throwing bottles in Tel Aviv or burning a CVS in Baltimore. That’s true. But the point is that denying people basic rights doesn’t become OK because some people respond to that denial in violent, even grotesque ways. In South Africa in the 1980s, supporters of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress forced alleged government informants to wear rubber tires filled with gasoline, and then set them on fire. In 1986, Mandela’s then-wife, Winnie, declared that, “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.” The practice was hideously barbaric. But it didn’t make apartheid any less wrong. (No, I’m not arguing that Israel is the equivalent of apartheid South Africa, only that an immoral response to injustice doesn’t justify that injustice).

Besides, even when Palestinian violence is more equivalent to the violence that broke out in Baltimore and Tel Aviv — when West Bank teenagers throw rocks at Israeli troops, for instance — the Israeli government’s defenders still seize on it to delegitimize Palestinian grievances. Last year, the Israel Defense Force’s English-language webpage published a blog post entitled, “What ‘Non-Violent’ Palestinian Protests Really Looks Like.” It declared that, “As Israeli soldiers do their best to keep the region secure, Palestinians throw rocks in unprovoked attacks against IDF forces.” Rock-throwing is wrong. But calling people who have lived for almost a half-century under military law and without free movement, citizenship or the right to vote for the government that controls their lives “unprovoked” is absurd. When Ethiopians threw rocks in Tel Aviv, Rivlin didn’t call their actions “unprovoked.” To the contrary, he condemned the violence while chastising his own government for not addressing the grievances underlying it. Yet the rioters in Tel Aviv enjoy Israeli citizenship, due process of law, the right to vote and the right to travel freely. They have, in other words, been far less provoked than the Palestinian rock throwers whose plight elicits no sympathy from the Israeli government at all.

Another objection might be that the African-American rioters in Baltimore weren’t trying to destroy the United States, nor were the Ethiopian rioters in Tel Aviv trying to destroy Israel. Hamas, by contrast, seeks to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. The difference, in other words, isn’t the type of violence used; it’s the outcome sought. But this misses the point too. First, not all Palestinian violence is aimed at eliminating Israel. Yes, Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. But Marwan Barghouti, a key orchestrator of the second intifada, is on record calling for “a Palestinian state, whose capital is East Jerusalem, and which coexists in peace with Israel.” More fundamentally, the fact that people use violence in service of an immoral political agenda still doesn’t delegitimize the grievances underlying it. Malik Zulu Shabazz, one of the organizers of the protests that turned violent in Baltimore, has a history of blatant anti-Semitism. But that doesn’t make police brutality in Baltimore any less unjust. Hamas is even more anti-Semitic than Shabazz. But that doesn’t make it any less unjust that Israel makes leaving Gaza almost impossible, even for relatives seeking to attend a funeral or wedding.

After the riots of the summer of 1967, Martin Luther King quoted the French novelist Victor Hugo as saying, “If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” Determining who causes the darkness, of course, is not simple. In Gaza, Israel creates darkness by denying ordinary Palestinians the right to leave and Hamas creates darkness by spreading its hateful ideology. But King’s point was that when people respond to injustice in violent, even vile, ways, people in power must address not only the violence, but the injustice as well. When African Americans or Ethiopian Israelis perpetrate violence, that’s not a particularly controversial point. But when it comes to Palestinians, Israeli leaders and their American allies apply a very different standard: Unless Palestinians emulate Ghandi, they have no legitimate grievances at all.

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