Eleven years ago I attended an event at American University in Washington D.C. A Zionist student group invited one of the Israeli Defense Forces commanders who oversaw Israel’s brutal 2002 operation “Defensive Shield” to speak on campus. The commander played a significant role in the cruelty, destruction, and death Israel unleashed on the people of Jenin during the operation. Several Palestinian students and other supporters of Palestinian autonomy, including myself, were there to challenge and disrupt the Israeli state narrative that the commander came to deliver. Two young Palestinian women stood up to charge the commander with war crimes in Jenin, and they listed off many of his specific crimes before security guards expelled them. In the neoliberal logic of respectability politics, ethnic cleansing carried out by U.S. military allies is perfectly acceptable, but disrupting an ethnic cleanser’s speech? Well, that’s just rude and in poor taste.
I was taken aback by the commander’s response to the charges the women levelled against him. He didn’t deny any of their facts. He didn’t deny doing any of what they said he did. There was nothing in their facts for him to challenge. Instead, he attacked the terminology they used to describe his actions, particularly the word “massacre.”
“Massacre? Massacre!” he responded incredulously, “We only killed 52 people in Jenin! How is that a massacre?”
I found this response to be telling of how little he regarded the worth of Palestinian lives. How many people did he need to kill for the word “massacre” to be appropriate? British soldiers in Massachusetts killed five civilians in 1770, and to this day historians refer to it as the Boston Massacre. But for this IDF commander, 52 Palestinian people was too small a number for the word “massacre” to be used. Today, I see this same kind of obfuscation and deflection in the Zionist backlash against the Movement for Black Lives.
The Movement for Black Lives is a collective of representatives from 50 Black liberation organizations who came together to articulate a common vision at the public policy level. They recently released a document titled “A Vision for Black Lives” which lists their policy demands. In the Invest-Divest section of the document, the group calls for the United States to divest from militarism and imperialism and use those resources instead for domestic infrastructure and community wellbeing programs. It also supports the Palestinian led BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, which works to end international support for Israeli apartheid, similar to the international movement against South African apartheid. While Israel is far from the main topic the document discusses, it charges:
“The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. The US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. Consequently, every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations, who then wage lobbying campaigns pushing for even more foreign military aid. The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people. Palestinian homes and land are routinely bulldozed to make way for illegal Israeli settlements. Israeli soldiers also regularly arrest and detain Palestinians as young as 4 years old without due process. Every day, Palestinians are forced to walk through military checkpoints along the US-funded apartheid wall.”
Zionists cannot dispute these facts. Instead, like the IDF commander who diverted attention from the damning case against him by obfuscation, Zionists in the United States have responded by attacking the tone of the language in the MBL statement. They have responded that terms such as “genocide” and “apartheid” are counterproductive, offensive, and hurt their feelings. Anti-Defamation League National Director Jonathan Greenblatt calls the document’s references to the state of Israel “irresponsible and completely over-the- top” and “offensive in tone.” He claims the MBL is “wrong on the facts” but does not offer a single argument or shred of evidence to support that claim. He simply asserts it as a taken-for-granted truth.
Exactly which facts does the MBL have wrong? Many Zionists, such as the Jewish Community Relations Council, have gone so far as to publicly state that they will no longer support the Black Lives Matter movement because of its support for BDS and its use of the term “genocide” to describe the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Rabbi Ari Hart of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale wrote a piece titled “Black Lives Matter Lost Me With That Israel-Bashing Platform.” His article – which likewise doesn’t offer a single piece of evidence or argument as to why the MBL is wrong but simply states it as an unquestionable article of faith – moves from tone policing to deflection. People are also oppressed in Mauritania, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, North Korea, and Venezuela, he argues, not just Israel, so why doesn’t BLM talk about those states instead? Alan Dershowitz likewise argues that other countries have killed even more people than Israel has, so why is BLM singling Israel out? Besides being a deflection, this line of reasoning willfully ignores the fact that the MBL document does criticize U.S. complicity with oppression in countries other than Israel. Israel is a very small part of what the document talks about, and Israel is not the only foreign nation whose policies it criticizes. Black freedom fighters have long faced this type of criticism when they dare talk about the relationship of U.S. imperialism/foreign policy to white supremacy here at home. When Martin Luther King began to speak against U.S. militarism and imperialism, many supposed liberal “allies” turned their back on him and criticized his decision to speak against the war. In his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. King expressed his frustration with those who were with him when he criticized racial prejudice, but turned on him when he connected individual racism to larger international systems of oppression.
This is exactly what we are seeing with Zionists who tell Black Lives Matter organizers, “You’ve lost me now that you are talking about international politics.” And in such declarations is an implicit threat: if you criticize Israel, we will stand with your oppressors. One wonders what these supposed “allies’” commitment to social justice really was to begin with if they can look at something like the Israeli state’s systemic abuse of children and still cheerlead for Zionism.
The main criticism from the Zionist establishment against the MBL document is focused on its use of the term “genocide.” This past week has been a cacophony of outraged Zionist voices – how dare those Black people betray us by supporting Palestine! How dare they use the word genocide! If it is genocide, then how come there are still so many Palestinians? And since these voices offer nothing other than the assertion that Israel is not genocidal, since they seem to believe this assertion is so self-evident that it need not be supported, that the term “genocide” is so outside the boundaries of acceptable thought that it cannot be uttered, it is useful to unpack the term.
The critics of MBL seem to focus on it as a tone issue – it is inflammatory language, it is hyperbole, it is, as Greenblatt said, “completely over-the-top.” What they refuse to understand is that MBL does not use the term “genocide” as a simple exaggeration to make their point. They use the term quite accurately. Israel, like the United States, is a genocidal state. Genocide is not necessarily about killing every single member of a certain national, religious, or ethnic group, but rather, it is about destroying a people as a people. It is about erasing a people not as individuals, but as a people. This can happen through several ways ranging from outright extermination to the more sophisticated and insidious assimilation. For example, boarding schools that the United States established to make Native children forget their Native languages and cultures, teach them to live and act as white people, and thereby “save the man by killing the Indian” were part of a genocidal program. The point of such programs was not to literally kill the person, but to make the person identify with their colonizer’s state rather than their own Native nation. Even the legalistic definition of genocide recognizes this concept.
The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as any one of five acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” These five acts are: “Killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Any one of these five acts qualifies as genocide if committed with intent to destroy a people as a people.
The state of Israel has at different points, and continues in different ways, to commit all five of these crimes against the Palestinian people as part of an ongoing process of extermination and expulsion. Israel is, like the United States and Canada, a settler colonialist nation. It is incrementally replacing Palestine with Israel. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the borders of Israel have been incrementally expanding into Palestinian territory as Palestinians are incrementally expelled.
One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the establishment of Israel, Britain’s Winston Churchill, recognized quite clearly that Israel would be a project of extermination and expulsion similar to the histories of the United States and Australia against Indigenous peoples. Justifying to the Peel Commission the mass displacement of Palestinian people, Churchill said: “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” To this day, Israeli society celebrates Churchill as a hero of Zionism. They have named streets and even a small forest outside of Nazareth after him. Four years ago they unveiled a bronze bust of Churchill at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in the center of the capital.
Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz quite accurately writes about the genocidal tendency of settler colonialism: “Settler colonialism, as an institution or system, requires violence or the threat of violence to attain its goals. People do not hand over their land, resources, children, and futures without a fight, and that fight is met with violence. In employing the force necessary to accomplish its expansionist goals, a colonizing regime institutionalizes violence. The notion that settler-indigenous conflict is an inevitable product of cultural differences and misunderstandings, or that violence was committed equally by the colonized and colonizer, blurs the nature of historical processes . . . . Settler colonialism is inherently genocidal in terms of the genocide convention.” (An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, p. 8-9)
It’s clear that Israel is a settler colonialist nation with the goal of replacing Palestine with Israel. Its past behavior shows that this is exactly what it has been doing. Its current behavior – expanding illegal settlements into Palestinian territory; denying some Palestinian communities access to water; denying Palestinians the freedom to build; evicting Palestinians from homes so that Israelis can move in; kidnapping and torturing Palestinian children in Israeli detention facilities; bulldozing Palestinian homes and olive trees (trees which carry both economic and cultural significance); cutting off Palestinian communities from each other through walls, checkpoints, Jews-only roads, and militarized borders; economic embargoes and blockades to control Palestinian access to food and medical supplies; military patrolling Palestinian neighborhoods; imprisoning, torturing, and assassinating Palestinian freedom organizers; outright massacres as in Gaza two years ago; and generally working to make Palestinian lives unlivable – shows that this is what is continuing to do. And it is doing so with billions of dollars a year in U.S. taxpayer money, and with U.S. military, economic, and political support. The Movement for Black Lives is accurate, not hyperbolic or over-the-top, when it states the fact that the United States “is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”
“A Vision for Black Lives,” as well as the significant growth of the BDS movement over the past few years demonstrate that in spite of the obscene amount of U.S. military and economic aid upholding Israel, it is losing the ideological battle. The main defense Zionists seem to have against the MBL description of Israel as a genocidal apartheid state is: “Well, other countries are also bad.” That’s not a defense of Israeli policy. It is a deflection. They have no defense. All they have is deflection, obfuscation, and outright lies. Another defense they are parroting is that, “well, if Israel is genocidal, it is not very effective because there are still a lot of Palestinians.” This is what Rabbi Hart argued against a Black Youth Project 100 organizer in a debate on Al Jazeera English. That is not a defense. It is an acknowledgement of Palestinian resistance, that Palestinians still survive as a people in spite of decades of U.S.-supported Israeli attempts to erase them. Survival as a people is not evidence of the absence of a genocidal project, it is evidence that people resist. It is in no way an argument against the fact that Israel is a genocidal state. Imagine if someone were to argue that Germany did not commit genocide against Jews because there are still Jews in the world. Such an argument is absurd and only makes sense through a racist logic that willfully disregards what genocide is.
A third argument Zionists are resorting to in an attempt to avoid having to discuss the actual issues MBL has put forward is that Black Lives Matter organizers are “radical,” as if that is an argument. I organize with some radicals who feel that the MBL platform if anything is not radical enough! To be radical means to strike problems at the root, so what’s wrong with being radical, and how is calling something radical an argument against a position? It’s the equivalent of when, during the Cold War, conservatives would shut down all debate by accusing their critics of being communists.
In standing in solidarity with Palestinian freedom, the Movement for Black Lives stands in a strong tradition of Black-Palestinian solidarity that includes, but is not limited to, Malcolm X, SNCC, Muhammad Ali, the Black Panther Party, and Angela Davis among several other examples. Their support for Palestinian liberation is not new or outside the pale of what Black liberation activists have done in the past. Further, they are morally, legally, and intellectually justified and accurate in using the terms genocide and apartheid to describe the Israeli state’s policies and actions against Palestine.