The Dream: Divestment from Israel

We are living in a historic time with Barack Obama being sworn in as the first person of color as President of the United States. His inauguration coming at a time we honor Martin Luther King will enviably draw comparisons. Many have used Obama’s election to validate King’s "dream" being realized in America. Others talk about a post-racial America. During the 2008 campaign, when asked "who he thought King would support," Obama answered, "Nobody." Beyond the many myths, King was involved in partisan politics on occasion. So it’s possible that King would have supported Obama.

Still, as for whether or not we now in a post-racial society or "the dream has been realized," I would hope that King, if alive, would reject such nonsense. The United States still has a very long way to go.

In a manner, King was a politician, although not so much at the time of his assassination. We love King now, but at the end of his life he wasn’t so popular. President Lyndon B. Johnson and a host of government officials – local and national, condemned him when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. King wasn’t universally cheered when he marched, to his death, with garbage workers in Memphis. Truth be told, he was jeered, even by many blacks.

Sadly, King’s mission and message have been reduced to "I have a dream" in the popular culture. It’s taught to kids in kindergarten and they carry it with them all their lives.

Even so, we rightfully honor King. And, we should ask the question – if alive, what would he say about the state of our country? Not just in its internal domestic relations, but its place in the world as well.

Yet, one thing we don’t have to think about too long is what he thought about the United States’ contribution to the world beyond culture and capitalism. And King’s critique is just as true today as it was 40-plus years ago.

Exactly one year before his assassination, King, setting aside the grave danger it brought to him, challenged his government and broke with American imperial policy. At New York City’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, King linked the domestic exploitation of African Americans with "the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long."

In his speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence", King said, "A time comes when silence is betrayal..," And, "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government."

Despite the election of Barack Obama, America is still very much at the same place King challenged a year before he died. And, "silence is betrayal." But let me take it a step beyond – non-action is betrayal as well. It’s not just about a vote in November and a celebration in January, for whatever reason. It’s about doing something to usher in a more peaceful world. And, it certainly isn’t watching on television the grotesque extermination of a people with the financial, military, religious, political and ideological support from the United States. And just being mad or numb or to not care at all.

That’s why this year I may skip many of the traditional MLK holiday events where the speakers either try to sound like King or link Obama to King or talk about "the dream being realized." This year I intend to honor King by trying to advance his work in ending America’s rightful distinction as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

This year we should honor King in an active sense by organizing against Israel’s immoral and internationally-recognized criminal acts against the Palestinian people. This King Day should mark the beginning of an organized effort for American divestment from Israel.

Divestment may be at odds with many elected black leaders (the Congressional Black Caucus included) who have opted to support a racist government bent on the subjugation and genocide of the indigenous people. But it’s not at odds with what King spoke of and died for.

I spoke with Jesse Jackson as I decided I would lend my voice to the divestment movement in the face of the then 100 to 1, now 200 to 1, Palestinian versus Israeli deaths in Israel’s latest killing spree. Jackson said divestment was "the morally right thing to do" but it was "going to be tough." I knew Jackson could not speak out – at least not yet. The first thing he would hear would be a reprise of "Hymietown."

Yet the facts are clear. The citizens of Gaza live in a virtual prison. They are surrounded by walls. They live under a blockade in which even humanitarian aid is not allowed through – where citizens can only get food, medicine and even goats, in addition to guns and weapons, through tunnels. Their water rights have been stolen. Fundamentalist Jewish immigrants from Brooklyn have more rights that the indigenous Palestinians. It is the land that the migrants have illegally settled on – in the face of international and United Nations’ resolutions against such settlements, that the Palestinians are firing mortars into for the most part.

Throughout the latest assault on Gaza, those who are apt to support Israel raise a straw man argument asking, "Who struck the blow?" Or, "Fired the first shot?" Or, "Launched the first mortar." And their answer to the question is almost certain to be, "Hamas." Even before the days that Hamas had power, the same straw man argument was employed and but then the answer was sure to be Fatah – led by PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

Supporters of Israel rarely, if ever, mention Israel’s blockade on Gaza or political assassinations or the wall or the poverty and despair. Instead, they label Hamas or anyone opposing occupation as "terrorists" and falsely lament the civilians killed as "collateral damage."

Zionism is racist as Manifest Destiny is racist as "the master race" is racist as colonialism is racism as "God’s Chosen people" is racist. Additionally, the Bible or the Torah or the Koran should be used to violate the property rights of anyone.

Take a look at the history of Zionism and Palestine. Or, look at a map of the territory lost by the Palestinian people over the past 60 odd years. Then answer the question, "who struck the first blow."

After you look at the map, what should be understood is that Israel is dealing with the Palestinians in much the same way the United States government disposed of the Native Americans. The only difference (beyond the passage of time) is that the weapons, many of which come from the United States, are better.

Throughout this latest attack on the Palestinians I have heard ridiculous, bloodthirsty suggestions from people like –"they (the Israelis) should kill them all." I’ve heard this from blacks and whites. The most common thing one hears is a comment similar to what Obama said on a visit to Israel in the summer that "If somebody shot rockets at my house where my two daughters were sleeping at night, I’d do everything in my power to stop them."

While I believe that the latest assault on Gaza will end (for a brief moment), the Palestinians do not have many friends in the US Congress as evidenced by statements and resolutions from the body. They may even have less of a friend in the White House.

When Obama reached the U.S. Senate in 2005 he selected Joe Lieberman, known informally as "the senator from Israel," as his mentor. On the campaign trail at the 2008 annual conference the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama drew criticism for declaring himself a "Zionist" and saying, "Israel should get whatever it wants and an undivided Jerusalem should be its capital," which he later recanted.

Even so, it would be hard to believe that Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel will be advocating for fair settlement of Palestinian demands. Emanuel has obvious dual loyalty as there are conflicting reports as to whether he is a dual American-Israeli citizen. When Emanuel was picked for the new administration the headline in the Israeli paper Haaretz (6 Nov. 2008) said it all: Obama’s first pick: Israeli Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff.

Emanuel is son of Benjamin Emanuel, former arms smuggler to Irgun, a pre-Israel terrorist group which carried out numerous attacks on Palestinian civilians in addition to the 1946 bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.

Emanuel also left the U.S. during the 1991 Gulf War for Israel where he became a civilian volunteer responsible for servicing military vehicles near occupied southern Lebanon. Emanuel "has a track record on Israel well to the right of George Bush." This includes signing a 2003 letter justifying Israel’s policy of political assassinations and criticizing George Bush for not supporting Israel enough. Emanuel backed a resolution supporting Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in the summer of 2006 and he called on the US government to cancel a planned speech to Congress by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki because he had condemned Israel’s actions in Lebanon.

So, in the face of what’s in place in government, what must be done?

First, we must see Israel as we saw South Africa in the apartheid years – as a racist nation deserving of international isolation and sanctions. Second, we must demand that the United States end it 30 billion dollar a year military support to the country. Third, we should organize, confront and demand that public bodies such as universities, local and state governments divest their portfolios from companies that do business in Israel. Four, we should identify and boycott those companies that do business with and in Israel. Fifth, we should call for a cultural boycott of Israel and boycott those artists and performers who perform in the country.

As for the new president we should continue to pressure him to:

1) Put pressure on Israel for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire,

2) Demand unimpeded access of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and a lifting of Israel’s siege

3) An investigation into Israel’s misuse of U.S. weapons as a first step toward ending arms transfers to Israel.

In the days to come more information will develop as to how to put some teeth into an organized effort to force the Israeli government to sit down to the negotiation table. Israel, for all intents and purposes, is an American state. The ruthless violence it rains down on the Palestinians may as well be done in our name as it is done with lots of US money and weapons.

All people have a right to exist – Jews and Palestinians. The way to peace is for both sides to respects the others right to live.

But America must be a fair player in what is now a continual catastrophe with our country on the wrong side of history. We must remember that "where you spend your money is a political act." Putting pressure on business and government is a means to force change. By "getting in their pockets" we can say no to the violence. We can say, "Not in our names." That’s what I think Dr. would say and do at a time like this.