Opinion

For pro-Trump Racists in America and Israel, Black and Palestinian Lives Don't Really Matter

After police killings of African Americans and Palestinians, an increasingly integrated white nationalist, Evangelical and right-wing Orthodox Jewish coalition blames them for being shot

Joshua Shanes
Joshua Shanes
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Protest against the Israeli police killing of Iyad al-Halak, an unarmed autistic Palestinian man, and the U.S. police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. Jerusalem, May 31, 2020
Protest against the Israeli police killing of Iyad al-Halak, an unarmed autistic Palestinian man, and the U.S. police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. Jerusalem, May 31, 2020Credit: Mahmoud Illean,AP
Joshua Shanes
Joshua Shanes

I haven’t been sleeping, these nights. As the festival of Shavuot ended, I read about riots across America, a response not only to the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis but of systematic oppression and police brutality in response to peaceful protests.

Then I read about a 32-year old autistic Palestinian shot dead by an Israeli soldier meters from his school because "he looked armed" (he wasn't) and when shouted to stop he jumped behind some garbage to hide. 

This is personal to me. That could be my son. He might have responded that way. He is the smartest person I have ever met, perfectly able to attend school and likely would have responded similarly to shouting. That frankly probably would have been him by now had he not enjoyed white privilege; I can think of more than one occasion that his skin color has probably saved his life.

And then I read a response to Eyad Hallaq’s killing by a prominent Israeli lawyer contending that his parents are to blame for "allowing" a special needs person out on his own. A man who then blames Palestinians writ large for being so stupid, and so violent forcing "us" to kill them.

I've encountered this "Cool hand Luke" argument before: it's the argument of the abuser – "Why do you make me hurt you? I don’t like it any more than you." But never in such a grotesque manner, and never in a way that touched me so closely.  

Rana, mother of Iyad Halak, 32, killed by police on his way to a nearby school for people with special needs, holds his photo at their home in East Jerusalem's Wadi Joz, May 30, 2020
Rana, mother of Iyad Halak, 32, killed by police on his way to a nearby school for people with special needs, holds his photo at their home in East Jerusalem's Wadi Joz, May 30, 2020Credit: Mahmoud Illean,AP

I wish I could bring this person, who knows nothing of autism beyond the word itself, to Eyad’s parents, to dare say it to their faces. Parents, who very well may (wrongly) be blaming themselves, and had to suffer the additional indignity of a house search, despite their son clearly having been killed for no reason.

I have always firmly resisted the intersectional conflation of police violence against African Americans with Israeli violence against Palestinians. I find this to be an anti-Semitic conflation based on spurious connections.

The line from anti-Israel rhetoric to anti-Semitism is crossed when Israel is blamed for global ills the way that Jews collectively have been traditionally blamed for global ills, or for orchestrating a global conspiracy to achieve that end.

Israel is not responsible for racism, or the system of racist oppression that has shaped America in different ways for over four centuries. Israel *is* responsible for arms it ships to oppressive regimes, but otherwise it is only responsible for what it does in its own borders and occupied territories.  

So why does racist oppression in America and Israel/Palestine conflate for me now, beyond my emotional connection to Eyad Hallak?

I believe the answer is that there are parallels. They are not causing each other, but they share similar attributes, and their advocates are increasingly coalescing into a single camp, the Evangelical/Orthodox Jewish/Trump white nationalist nexus. 

First, in both cases, there is one group empowered over another, and particularly empowered to inflict violence with almost total impunity. It is systematic, it involves generations-long, on-going expropriation and violence, and those who benefit in both cases seem incapable of recognizing that privilege and instead blame the victims for their status. 

In both cases this includes those who revel in it, who are excited by their superiority and privilege, and also those who deny it, those who react against its most extreme examples when shoved in their faces – but ONLY these most extreme examples – but refuse to recognize its systematic causes and manifestations, and therefore obviously refuse to do anything serious to address it. "Such a pity." "Someday it will get better when they change."  

Terrence Floyd sits silently at the spot at the intersection in Minneapolis, Minn., where his brother George Floyd was killed in police custody. June 1, 2020
Terrence Floyd sits silently at the spot at the intersection in Minneapolis, Minn., where his brother George Floyd was killed in police custody. June 1, 2020Credit: Bebeto Matthews,AP

Secondly, in both cases, there is the phenomenon of theoretically accepting protest, but only if it’s non-violent. But not like that. Or like that. Or like that.

Hence criticism of quietly "taking a knee" at the national anthem. Hence, regarding Israel, even economic boycott – the quintessential form of non-violent protest and a centerpiece of the American civil rights movement – is labeled "violent" and forbidden. And when violence inevitably explodes, whether mass violence or by a tiny cell, they see a circular proof that the oppression is justified. 

Don’t forget that "Come let us deal wisely with these people lest they rise up" (Exodus 1:10) has been the logic of every dictator and genocide from Pharoah to Hitler and South Africa, and beyond.

Third, in both cases those in the armed forces empowered to inflict violence will do so. In some cases, the military and police attract volunteers who seek to inflict violence. In other cases, it systematically conditions people to use it once they have the power to do so, especially when the system encourages it.

Beyond them, there continues the culture of circling the wagons, protecting one's abusive comrades from consequences. Whether fellow officers, fellow soldiers, or, too often when Jews see Jewish violence in Israel, fellow Jews. 

It is inevitable. It is human nature.

Fourth, in both cases there is groupism and dehumanization going on all over. From the president on down there are attacks on "leftist scum," immigrants as snakes, attacks on "thugs" replacing the n-word, and of course assumptions of Palestinians as something less than equal, even less than human, and certainly less than a nation worthy of equal rights. 

Protest against the Israeli police killing of Iyad al-Halak, an unarmed autistic Palestinian man, and the U.S. police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. Jerusalem, May 31, 2020
Protest against the Israeli police killing of Iyad al-Halak, an unarmed autistic Palestinian man, and the U.S. police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. Jerusalem, May 31, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

I don't know the answer beyond trying to move society beyond ethno-nationalism and racism and towards humanism. Societies do need security forces to function, but the system set up both here and there are based on racial contracts, as Adam Serwer recently explained. In both cases, society and the state (openly in the case of Israel) is organized to benefit one group over another. 

Neither case is responsible for the other, but these similarities are glaring, and the millions who support one of them here also explicitly endorse the one over there, and vice versa.

Israel has the highest support for Trump in the world, by far, and the Evangelical movement (with its rightwing "pro-Israel," pro-Trump Jewish allies), represented by groups like Christians United for Israel and racist preachers and politicians like John Hagee and Mike Huckabee, explicitly view Israel as a white outpost against Muslim barbarism, the proxy frontier of the Western Christian world.

May the families of Iyad Halak and George Floyd find peace someday soon. May the memory of their lost ones, as Joe Biden put it, soon bring a smile to their lips before it brings tears to their eyes.

And may both these societies – American and Israeli – soon decide collectively that Black and Palestinian lives matter, and matter as much as any other.  

Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston and Director of its Arnold Center for Israel Studies

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