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Ferguson and Palestine ad absurdum

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On January 19th, Stanford student protesters associated with the Silicon Shutdown and Ferguson Action movements walked onto the San Mateo Bridge and shut down traffic as part of a national series of protests in honor of MLK Day.  Amongst their ranks stood supporters of Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine, brandishing an enormous Palestinian flag.  Indeed, Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine – as part of the near-annual affair that is the ASSU Israeli Divestment debate – has recently latched on to the coattails of a nationwide movement for racial justice in attempts to underscore a connection between the Israeli occupation and race relations in America.

This piece makes no attempt to comment on the Divestment debate — troves of eloquent voices have already penned op-eds on either side of the issue, and it is encouraging to see Stanford students seize this opportunity to educate themselves in the various narratives of the conflict.  Rather, while one assumes the best of intentions on Divestment organizers’ behalves, it is imperative that racial justice supporters on campus understand an important truth: the Ferguson-Palestine narrative is a false analogue, and to pander to it is deeply offensive to not only the campus Jewish community, but also to the integrity of the racial justice movement.

The narrative is conceivable at first glance.  African-American communities face systemic injustice and oppression from a white majority, be it in the form of mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, judicial bias, or, of course, police violence.  Ostensibly, Divestment advocates argue that Israel-Palestine mirrors this narrative directly – casting Israelis as the white oppressors and Palestinians as the colored oppressed.

The most basic histories of these two conflicts unravel the fallacies of this connection. Analogizing the tribulations of Palestinians to the generation-spanning oppression of African-Americans glosses over any Palestinian culpability in the conflict’s continuation; it is easy to adorn the Palestinians as similarly oppressed when we conveniently forget the abominable Palestinian terrorism of the Second Intifada or the abundance of reasonable peace offers rejected by Palestinian leadership. Moreover, comparing the Jews of Israel to the American white majority is tantamount to whitewashing; the majority of Israeli Jews are Sephardic, a historical distinction defining Jews of Middle Eastern ethnicity.  Injustices undoubtedly exist in both scenarios, but Israel has a fundamentally different relationship to the Palestinians than does the United States to its Black population. To ignore this fact in order to uphold a Ferguson-Palestine mythology perpetuates a pernicious tendency to scapegoat Israel – and the Jews – for the world’s problems.

Yet, the most infuriating aspect of the analogy emerges in an oft-referenced argumentation – the so-called “Israelification of American Police.”  The narrative reads like a chapter of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: every year, police departments across the United States are sent to Israeli-run conferences, where they are indoctrinated into practices of racial profiling and police brutality.  The narrative attempts to stretch circumstantial connections to an extent that is so fantastical, it borders on the edge of anti-Semitism; it appears we’ve uncovered the conspiratorial origin of racialized policing in America: the evil, Jewish State of Israel.

Indeed, American police departments do regularly send police chiefs to popular conferences such as the Anti-Defamation League’s National Counterterrorism Seminar in Israel, where they receive training in counterterrorism — not policing, not crowd control, but counterterrorism.  Even journalist Max Blumenthal, whose 2011 exposé remains the main genesis of this narrative, admits that the training largely consists of tutorials in “how to secure large venues…the mindset of a suicide bomber and how to spot trouble signs.”  The connection drawn here is frankly offensive; to extrapolate any sort of causality between the mere attendance of a St. Louis police chief at an Israeli-run counterterrorism conference in 2011 to the actions of Officer Darren Wilson in 2014 requires either a massive stretch of the imagination, a vitriolic desire to scapegoat Israel at any cost, or some combination of both.

The Ferguson Action movement has flourished as a refreshing example of how our generation can successfully organize itself and make its opposition to injustices heard – something that Divestment organizers clearly hope to emulate in surely the best of intentions.  But the Ferguson-Palestine narrative is a dangerous line to walk, and Divestment organizers risk not only alienating members of the coalition they have worked so hard to build, but, more importantly, perpetuating an anti-Semitic fiction that affects us all.  Jewish Americans have been overrepresented in civil rights movements throughout the 20th and 21st century; let’s make sure we aren’t promoting racism in the process of fighting it.

Nadav Hollander ’16

Contact Nadav Hollander at nadavh ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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