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.