PennBDS and the Black Community

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference. Check out this landing page to find out more.

While any discussion involving race in America can trigger some heat, debate over subject such as “BDS and the Black Community” (the next item on the PenBDS agenda), can be particularly problematical given that BDS proponents have a tendency to accuse their opponents of racism at the slightest (or even non-existent) provocation.

This phenomenon is particularly interesting, given BDSers tendency to claim that any criticism of their “movement” consists of nothing more than insincere accusations of anti-Semitism designed to shut them up (or in JVPparlance: to “muzzle” them from speaking truth to power).  So, once again, we seem to be in a situation of anti-Israel advocates projecting their own faults onto their critics.

One way to avoid such conflict is to focus on statistical information.  Unfortunately, while African Americans (and Hispanics) are appropriately represented in this professional survey, they are not broken out as a separate demographic.  However, there is some insight we can glean from aggregate data.

For example, general support for Israel in the US tends to run at around 60%, sometimes dipping a bit below, sometimes climbing to as high as 70%.  This is in contrast to support for the Palestinians which tends to rattle around the 20-25% range.  This general 3:1 ratio of support between the parties to the conflict is actually an average with Republicans falling in the 4:1 ratio range and Democrats hovering around 2:1.  If we assume that African American attitudes tend to clump around the same numbers as Democrats (or are even responsible for pulling Democratic numbers down), even numbers low enough to move the Democratic ratio from the 3:1 national average down to 2:1 imply parity of support between Israelis and Palestinians.

While partisans will occasionally try to make hay of the overall disparity between Democrats and Republicans, a more neutral observer would marvel at how this issue (unlike nearly any other political issue one could name) demonstrates such widespread levels of support for one side in a heated controversy (even if the level of intensity for this support might vary).  I’m at a loss to name any other single domestic or international issue where all parties and nearly all demographics agree at levels of 2:1 or higher.

Absent statistical evidence of support one way or another, we are left with anecdotal information and certainly the speakers who will be participating in this PennBDS panel will be making the case that certain African Americans (including, one expects, most of the ones participating in the conference) share the BDS view that Israel is the successor to Apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow American South.

The trouble is, I could provide equally compelling anecdotal evidence of black support for Israel, such as this speech by Cory Booker, the African American Mayor of Newark (and the man who gave the single most powerful speech in support of Israel I’ve ever heard).  Naturally, participants at the PennBDS event are free to ignore the existence of people such as Booker, or try to dismiss them as some kind of “sell out.”  But as with so many issues, the ignoring of inconvenient evidence is no substitute for proof of the BDSers claim that African Americans are generally in alignment with their political goals.

The reason it is so important for BDS advocates to allege such an alignment (with or without evidence) is the nature of their target audience: political progressives.  For such an audience, accusations of racism and Apartheid – especially coming from black Americans – would be particularly resonant, especially since black supporters of Israel are less likely to (1) hurl similar accusations of bigotry against Israel’s international foes; and (2) claim to speak on behalf of a black majority as a whole.  The desire to claim ownership of “black opinion” would help explain the extreme hostility that greeted news that Jewish organizations would be reaching out to the black community (a community anti-Israel activists would prefer to outreach to without competition).

In researching this topic, the most interesting quote I found was on this article where the speaker questioned what dog African Americans might have in this particular fight.  While this argument might seem self-centered, it actually demonstrates significant wisdom, especially in light of how African nations have historically been asked to join in on Arab League condemnations of Israel (funneled through the UN and other organizations), only to see their own concerns (such as stopping the oil-for-gold trade between the Arab states and Apartheid South Africa) ignored.

Given this history, it seems wise indeed for a community to focus on its own issues before agreeing to allow its history (and its voice) serve one side or the other in someone else’s political battles.

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3 Responses to PennBDS and the Black Community

  1. DrMike January 19, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

    A few other African American leaders worth noting for their support of Israel:
    Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr, who gave a very heartfelt presentation at last year's AIPAC Policy Conference (it was a conversation with one of AIPAC's leaders rather than a stump speech, but was perhaps even more moving by the fact that it was just the content of his remarks, rather than any rhetorical flourishes, that made the impact; not to mention the fact of who is father is!).
    Congressman John L Lewis from Georgia.
    Reverend DeeDee Coleman from Detroit.
    Reverend Cecil Williams of San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church, who was called a racist (really!) by local anti-Israel activists after cancelling an anti-Israel event that was to take place in his church. (http://www.bluetruth.net/2009/12/anti-israel-group-charges-glide.html)

    That's about 5 seconds' worth of memory recall. There are of course many, many more like these fine people. And of course there was the Rev Martin Luther King, whose legacy is twisted by anti-Israel activists to hide the fact that he was an outspoken Zionist.

  2. Stop BDS Park Slope January 19, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

    I don't know if you guys are old enough to remember housing discrimination and “Gentlemen's Agreements” and “There goes the neighborhood.” I bring this up, because the racist rejection by Arabs of Jews moving into the neighborhood is really the source of the conflict. Arabs objected to Jews moving to Ottoman provinces that would become parts of Israel because they didn't like Jews. Partially for social/religious reasons (think dhimmi). Partially for economic/political reasons; the Arab notables did not want the development of an alternate economic base that would impede their control of the local Arab peasantry.

  3. Ben January 20, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

    As BDS is a proudly anti-Israel movement (with genocide as their ultimate stealth goal), they should be asked a simple question: how does their attempt to recruit African Americans into their fold differ from past attempts by anti-Israel movements to forge ties with Louis Farrakhan, Gus Savage, and Cynthia McKinney? Is this another “any port a storm, no matter how disgusting” situation? Probably.

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