Benjamin Netanyahu’s current diplomatic mission to Africa demonstrates Israel’s determination to renew ties with some of its most natural allies. It was in Africa that the Jewish people were first enslaved, and it was in Africa that they were first freed. That ancient legacy of slavery— coupled with years of marginalization and oppression through ghettos, expulsions, forced conversions, pogroms, and finally the Holocaust—created a natural bond between black and Jewish communities, whose narratives are inextricably linked.
But today’s generation of black American activists—whose efforts are now heavily funneled through the Black Lives Matter movement—tend to identify with the Palestinian, as opposed to the Israeli, narrative. They should be identifying with both.
The rallying cry of “from Ferguson to Gaza”—meant to draw the comparison between the racially rooted tensions in Ferguson and Israel’s ongoing conflict with Hamas—is but a single drop in the ocean of the so-called “intersectional politics” often employed in modern criticism of Israel. Notice that we never hear “From Ferguson to Sderot” or “From Ferguson to Kiryat Arba”—the town where 13-year-old Hallel Ariel was stabbed in her sleep last week.
Intersectional activists essentially argue that all forms of oppression are connected. In their view, then, anyone who finds the shooting of unarmed individuals to be both a tragedy and a grave injustice must also advocate that Israel withdraw to 1967 borders, or disappear altogether.
Intersectionality simplifies every scenario into a binary of oppressor and oppressed. The oppressed must always stand together, and Israel’s military superiority relegates it to the sphere of the oppressor, thus conferring support from minorities around the world onto the Palestinian plight.
It wasn’t always this way. Jewish and black civil-rights activists once understood the bond, and Jewish involvement in the civil-rights movement was extensive from the very beginning. Jewish Americans were involved in the formative years of the NAACP, participated in the freedom rides, the march on Washington, and organized lobbying efforts to strengthen the Civil Rights Act. One of the greatest of civil-rights leaders, Bayard Rustin, was a friend of and contributor to COMMENTARY.
But as Israel grew stronger, a switch flipped. No longer the scrappy underdog destined for destruction, Israel came to be viewed in the black community not as the colonized, but the colonizer—no longer the oppressed, but the oppressor.
In successfully joining the community of nations, minuscule and Middle Eastern Israel inadvertently erased any distinctions between itself and its Western allies. Perceived as both white and privileged, Israel lost its place in the solidarity network, ceding political support of the morally-inspired variety to the Palestinians.
In March 2015, I was a sophomore at Barnard and the director of engagement for Aryeh: the Columbia Student Association for Israel. During the annual Students for Justice in Palestine “Apartheid Week,” we covered campus in fliers—some pithy and humorous, others more serious—aiming to dismiss the smear of apartheid. One such flier quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968, in which he spoke of Israel as “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.”
The Black Students Organization at Columbia responded by accusing Aryeh of co-opting the black liberation struggle “for the purposes of genocide and oppression.” It went on to explain that “from Ferguson to Gaza” is “a unifying idea against oppressive systems that subjugate Black people and people of color globally.” The group acknowledged, “black and Jewish people also share a history of oppression,” but insisted “Zionism has no place in our solidarity.”
Jewish and black communities ought to be natural allies not merely because of their shared past, but because of their shared present, their collective future. Certainly in this country, Jews enjoy a level of safety and prosperity that is atypical in the context of our history. Some argue that there has never been a better time to be born a Jew. Similarly, this country is more race-conscious than it has been for years if not decades. Anti-discrimination protections are enshrined in law. We have a black president. And yet tensions and troubles persist for both communities. One need not look any further than Donald Trump’s white-nationalist twitter fan base to see that our shared struggles are far from over.
For Jews, the answer to that struggle is Zionism—a fact crudely ignored by the Columbia Black Students Organization. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s diplomatic mission aims to heal the broken bond between Israel and the African continent. But it has the potential to be the beginning of much more. Intersectionality has designated Israel and black communities around the world as diametric opposites on the binary scale of oppression. At their joint press conference, both Netanyahu and Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta spoke of shared values and obvious opportunities for cooperation with regards to issues ranging from cyber security and terror strategy to medical services and irrigation. These priorities are only a few of the many ties that bind the countries.
Only time will tell whether this initiative will bolster Israel’s position in bodies that govern international law, and how it might affect Israel’s image abroad. But in the poignant words of Dr. King, “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”