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Richard Silverstein’s racially offensive attack on black congressmen visiting Israel

This is a cross-post by Adam Holland.

Seattle-based blogger Richard Silverstein has published a racially charged attack on Jesse Jackson, Jr. and several other African-American congressmen currently visiting Israel. The post bears the odd headline “Whorin’ and Shnorin’ Jesse Jackson Jr. Style”. (Read here.) That Silverstein apparently attempts to use black dialect to mock these congressmen, dropping the terminal “g” twice in the headline and twice in the post’s first sentence, shows a shocking lack of sensitivity. It seems that Silverstein is willing to make gratuitous use of a racial stereotype to mock black people whose support for Israel he finds objectionable.

The content of Silverstein’s column, which attempts to paint Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. as an ignorant opportunist willing to sell out his principles for cash, strikes a similarly harsh tone. Silverstein bases these charges on the slimmest of evidence: that Rep. Jackson purportedly received an $8,000 campaign donation from AIPAC. Based on that and on Jackson’s participation in the fact-finding tour of Israel, Silverstein writes that Jackson

knows what he’s told to know. And you know who tells him what he knows? His rich pro-Israel Jewish friends in Chicago who are filling his campaign coffers.

Silverstein also harshly condemns Jackson, who has met with a number of Palestinian leaders, both official and otherwise, for not visiting Gaza to meet with representatives of Hamas to hear directly from them their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The apparent inspiration for Silverstein’s intemperate attack was his reading a column by Rep. Jackson in the Jerusalem Post, a column which Silverstein condemns as being “fawning” and “pro-Israel”. In his column, Jackson calls on Palestinians to renounce violence in pursuing their goals, and turn instead to the non-violent resistance preached by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Silverstein argues that, while non-violence may have worked in fighting Jim Crow, it would be pointless for Palestinians to use against Israel.

The gist of the JPost piece is that the only way for the Palestinians to gain true success in their quest for justice is to swear off violence and embrace non-violence. Which is all well and good if you’re fighting for civil rights in Alabama in 1967, since the only weapons used against you were German shepherds and fire hoses (with the rare assassination thrown in for purposes of intimidation). Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson’s dad never had to face F-16 jets and Apache attack helicopters in their day. If they had, I’d guess they’d have had to adopt a different set of tactics to gain their freedom.

Thus Silverstein belittles the oppression experienced by African-Americans during their struggle for civil rights, casts Israel as being worse than the segregationist South, and disparages support for non-violence as being unrealistic. Silverstein’s throwaway comment about African-American civil rights activists “only” being subjected to “German shepherds and fire hoses (with the rare assassination thrown in for purposes of intimidation)” speaks volumes about the illogic underlying his argument against non-violence. Silverstein clearly doesn’t appreciate just how bad Jim Crow was. Moreover, Silverstein’s argument that Jackson’s consideration of Israeli views and advocacy of Palestinian non-violence show that Jackson is in the pocket of wealthy Jews is the product of a very confused mind.

By contrast, Rep. Jackson’s views about these subjects seem so much more reliable than those of Silverstein. Jackson writes in his column that Israeli leaders expect that, if the U.N. were to recognize a Palestinian state in September, the Palestinian leadership would follow this up by sending tens of thousands of civilians to storm checkpoints. They worry that this centrally planned imitation of a grassroots Arab Spring uprising would set off a confrontation unlike any yet seen in the conflict’s long and bloody history.

Jackson seeks another way. He writes:

So is there an alternative to this potential violent future? I stand in the nonviolent active resistance tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – as does my father, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson – and I believe there is a nonviolent and just path to Palestinian statehood that is also in the security interests of Israelis.

In our meeting with Netanyahu – and remembering the risk for peace that Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin took, that Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat took – I asked him what he was willing to risk for peace. He said it would make his security very uncomfortable, but that he was willing to go to Ramallah to talk with Abbas. My father challenged a “no talk” policy in the US in the late 1970s because, he argued, if you talk, you can act, and if you act, you can change things. Our delegation took that message to leaders of the PA, but not all of them agreed that the symbolic gesture of Netanyahu crossing over into their territory to meet with Palestinian leadership in Ramallah would have any profound effect. I think such an initiative could be a nonviolent step toward peace.

I also know that if the Palestinians abandoned violence, launched a nonviolent active resistance movement and established a demonstrated history of nonviolent struggle against their occupation, it would inevitability change the view of the Palestinian struggle in the court of world opinion, strengthen the cause of Palestinian statehood and speed up the day of its realization – whatever the outcome of the UN vote this September.

In Washington on August 28, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial will be unveiled on the 48th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech. When he gave that speech, he was factoring in 246 years of slavery and another 98 years of legal segregation and ongoing discrimination.

Most thought he was confronted with two limited “change” options: 1) the bloody and ineffective choice of violence; or 2) the weak and ineffective choice of gradualism and non-confrontation.

He chose a third path – a life of nonviolent active resistance and a willingness to endure unearned suffering.

He chose the nonviolent path to peace and greater justice so future generations could prosper and progress, a path that made Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. and President Barack Obama possible in 1995 and 2008 respectively. The violent path would have made both of our elections impossible in our time and created a “memory” that would have perpetuated a cycle of violence and revenge for past incidents that would have lasted into the foreseeable future.

One of the many lessons taught by Dr. King in his philosophy of nonviolence was that our means and ends should remain as close together as possible.

Clearly the historical and ongoing bad experiences of African Americans in the US, and the past experiences and continuing occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, are both wrong, but the path of hate, terrorism, rockets, missiles and even throwing rocks in hatred is not the path to a lasting peace or greater justice, or the path to statehood in the relatively near future.

Recognizing Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, renouncing violence and pursuing a path of nonviolent active resistance will gain Palestinians world-wide support and – sooner rather than later – a positive vote for statehood at the UN.

And it would be a goal that Palestinians deserve and will have earned in a manner that allows peace, justice and security between Israel and the PA to be more likely, and makes future reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians easier to achieve. Nonviolence is a way of life that will guarantee peaceful coexistence in the future and the eventual goal of a demilitarized region.

I find it very difficult to see how those who support peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians can object to Jackson’s call for a non-violent solution. Jackson’s position takes the interests of both sides into consideration, and, more to the point, provide a basis for both sides to renew a search for a mutually acceptable compromise. That a purportedly pro-peace progressive should mock those words in such offensive terms speaks volumes about his poor judgement. Those on either side of the debate who reflexively mock peace advocates for considering both Israeli and Palestinian interests should be regarded as what they are: obstacles on the road to peace.

An Afterthought:

I would like to point out to those who may object to Rep. Jackson’s comparing the Palestinian situation to that of African-Americans under Jim Crow that Jackson, in fact makes several significant distinctions in the course of making that comparison. He writes that Israelis are motivated by a desire to live in peace and security in their homeland. He writes that Israeli interests are worthy of consideration. He writes that he not only sees in Israel’s leadership a recognition of the need to compromise, he actually elicited an unconditional proposal on their part to discuss those compromises with the Palestinian leadership. The views of those who seek to demonize Israel notwithstanding, none of those points could conceivably be said to be true of the Jim Crow South.

I would also like to point out that the very obvious fact that Palestinian suffering, during the period of occupation by Jordan and Egypt, under Israeli occupation, under the PLO, and under Hamas, has been considerable. Those who would disparage that suffering in the name of supporting Israel do their cause a considerable disservice. Similarly, supporters of Israel who would reflexively condemn Jackson’s acknowledgement of that suffering as indicating his bias completely miss the point of Jackson’s column. The gist of his column is the proposition that both sides work harder to recognize the realities faced by the other in the interest of reaching a mutually satisfactory resolution. No one of good faith on either side should find fault with that.

I will admit that I consider Jackson’s concluding statement in favor of the ultimate goal of a “demilitarized region”, by which he means a region without armed forces, to be completely unreasonable. While such an aspiration shows several admirable qualities, a recognition of the realities of human nature and international relations are not among them. Maybe we can attribute this statement to Rep. Jackson’s parentage; those who have spent a great deal of time among the religious are prone to seeking utopias of various types. Thankfully, having grown up in a liberal, non-fundamentalist environment, such visions of future perfection do not distract Rep. Jackson from the realities at hand, which he shows every sign of approaching with admirable pragmatism. Lions lying down with lambs should not be a precondition to Middle East peace.