Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 2018, pp. 40-41, 53
By Dale Sprusansky
“THIS IS NOT WHO WE ARE.” It’s a refrain that has been repeated ad nauseam by professional commentators and everyday Americans alike in response to the Trump administration’s decision to separate undocumented immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Such a retort to the indecency of separating families is natural, as no respectable person wants to be identified with a collective group—be it national or otherwise—that commits such an act.
This distancing of one’s self from cruelty, however, is more about personal assuagement than it is about collective reckoning. Perhaps the correct response to injustices carried out within our society is “this is who we are, but this is not who I am.” Such a reframing forces one to come to terms with the reality around them, and opens a window into both the agency and responsibilities of individuals who are appalled by the behavior of their country or group.
The boldest and most transcendent individuals throughout human history inserted rather than extracted themselves from the evildoings of their time. The likes of Bartolomé de las Casas (a 16th century priest who denounced the genocidal acts of his peers toward the indigenous peoples of the West Indies), Harriet Beecher Stowe (a 19th century American author and abolitionist whose book Uncle Tom’s Cabin directly challenged the cruelty of slavery) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a German pastor who was executed for his persistent public denouncements of Nazism), did not simply view the injustices that surrounded them as something external. Although not personally killers of the indigenous, slaveholders, or persecutors of Jews, they nevertheless internalized these realities and understood that their societies were indeed perpetrators of these things.
Such is the duty of today’s Americans and Israelis. Both countries are steeped in lofty national myths that are in direct confrontation with their actual policies and actions. Americans define themselves by the idyllic words of the Declaration of Independence and the Statue of Liberty. Israelis extol their country as a bastion of democracy and liberty in a region plagued by authoritarianism and repression. Yet, America is the land of the Muslim ban and the Abu Ghraib scandal. Israel arrests young Palestinian children in overnight raids and desperate African asylum seekers.
The good news is that confronting contradictions does not require loathing one’s country or group. History does not look at de las Casas as a self-hating Catholic, but as a champion of the faith’s deepest truths. Stowe and countless other abolitionists and civil rights champions are seen as bold challengers of a racist status quo that made a mockery of the country’s high moral ideals.
While the challenges of the past remind us of our dark collective tendencies toward exclusion, they also remind us that whenever these racist or xenophobic societal cancers reemerge, they can be conquered.
THE AMERICAN CHALLENGE
This dual message of reconciling with the dark, deep truths of what America is and maintaining hope in the collective power of people of goodwill was the crux of a powerful speech delivered by Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries for the United Church of Christ, at the June 30 “Families Belong Together” rally in Washington, DC.
“We have been here before. I know it feels brand new, but it’s not. We have been here before,” Blackmon said, as she began her fiery speech. She recalled America’s history of slavery and segregation, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the genocide of the country’s indigenous peoples and the ongoing mass incarceration of black youth. All these policies, she noted, separated children from their families. Trump’s policy at the border is thus nothing new.
“What we are witnessing at our borders with black and brown families today is not who America has become, this is who America has always been,” she continued. “This has been this nation’s response whenever its false God of whiteness is threatened,” she said, identifying the central force—racism—behind this country’s most morally decrepit moments.
Naming the rooted evil of racism, Blackmon turned to a hopeful message. “Just as all those other wrong racist decisions have been overturned, this one will be as well,” she assured her audience. Supreme Court rulings that denied citizenship to slaves (Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857) and endorsed the notion of separate but equal (Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896) are now seen as moral abominations, she noted.
The urgent, but ultimately hopeful, tone of Blackmon’s speech was given credence by the tens of thousands of people who turned out in the scorching summer heat to protest the separation of families. The marches that took place around the country on that Saturday are a testament to the fact that a critical mass of Americans are committed to defeating the latest incursion of racism into this country’s history.
History shows those who promulgate hate and fear cannot ultimately triumph, as the emptiness of their lies are eventually exposed. Just as there are dark strains through our nation’s history, as well as all of human history, there are persistently upright strains that combat hate whenever it arises. And as Blackmon noted, for people of faith, there is also the reality of divine justice that ought to give hope to the oppressed and rattle the powerful. “God, and not the empire, has the last word in human history,” she said. “There is a higher law than that made by man...and that law is love, my friends.”
ISRAEL’S DEEP-ROOTED IDEOLOGY
“We must always remember that this is not as much about safe immigration policy as it is about separatist ideology.” As Rev. Blackmon uttered these words, my initial association was with Israeli, not U.S. policy. It is Israel, after all, that many American fans of ethnic separation look to for inspiration. President Donald Trump has praised Israel’s separation walls. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who helped implement the policy of separating families, visited Israel in June and praised the country’s skills at erecting barriers. “Border security is national security. Our Israeli partners know that better than anyone,” she said following her trip to Israel’s wall in the Sinai.
There can be little doubt that Israel’s walls along the Sinai, West Bank and Gaza Strip, serve as a physical manifestation of the country’s desire to keep non-Jews out. Leaders of the self-professed Jewish state regularly speak of the “demographic threat” posed by Palestinians. This is why Palestinians displaced by fighting in 1948 and 1967 are denied the right of return to their homes within the borders of modern Israel. It’s why Israel has revoked the residency of 14,595 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem since 1967, while permitting Jews to create illegal settlements in the city. It’s the country’s separatist ideology that inclined 52 percent of Israelis polled in 2012 to agree with the statement that African migrants are “a cancer in the body” of the country.
Despite these, and many other moral shortcomings, which date back to the state’s founding 70 years ago, Israel and its supporters regularly boast of the country’s moral uprightness.
As journalist Gregg Carlstrom notes in his new book How Long Will Israel Survive?: The Threat From Within, available from Middle East Books and More, even those who are unafraid to critique Israel often fail to recognize how deeply rooted division and exclusion are to the fabric of the country. He points out that many “liberal Zionists” in the diaspora criticize particular policies, such as the occupation of Palestinian land, claiming that they are in conflict with Israeli values. Such people believe that “the alarming trends in Israeli society are blips, aberrations that can be easily undone,” Carlstrom notes.
“Their initial premise, however, is an idealized Israel,” he writes. “The diaspora, in other words, is engaged in self-projection. It views Israel as a reflection of itself: liberal, moral, committed to social justice. And thus the occupation of 1967 is viewed as a singularly corrupting force, a misstep that pulled Israel away from its true path.”
The reality, Carlstrom contends, is that Israel’s moral issues run to its very core. “The problems that alarm the ‘liberal Zionist’ intelligentsia…are features, not bugs. They are either the results of conscious government decisions…or they are inevitable outgrowths of Zionism itself.”
He notes that the first illegal settlements were built during the governance of the liberal Labor party, that the Palestinian minority in Israel lived under martial law for nearly two decades and that even Mizrahi, Sephardic and ultra-Orthodox Jews have faced discrimination since the country’s founding. “The idealized past was hardly ideal, at least for Israelis outside of the secular Ashkenazi elite,” he writes.
As in the U.S., some Israeli leaders have spoken out against what they see as a growing tide of racism and hatred. “This is not the Likud party I joined,” former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon warned during the press conference announcing his resignation in 2016. “Unfortunately, Israel and the Likud party were taken over by extremist and dangerous elements,” he said.
Such warnings help raise attention to worrisome trends, but they also fail to address foundational realities. Israel didn’t just become an ethno-sectarian state under Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud government, and the U.S. didn’t suddenly become racist under Donald Trump. Deep-seeded issues in each country have developed and metastasized over time to deliver the current reality.
Like cancer, societal evils are difficult to eradicate. The U.S., Israel and every nation on earth would be wise to conduct an honest examination of who they actually are vs. who they aspire or imagine themselves to be. Every country has its contradictions; no country is either completely pure or hopelessly corrupt. It’s the persistent striving of the just, those who confront hate as it reemerges from age to age, that keeps the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice.
Be it standing up for the dignity of immigrants and asylum seekers entering the U.S. or the rights of Palestinians to live with dignity, we must not tire of resisting hate and promoting unity. Yes, we must look at the current reality and say “this is who we are.” What we become, however, is entirely in our hands.
Dale Sprusansky is assistant editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.