When the video emerged of a Minneapolis policeman pressing his knee on the neck of George Floyd as he lay on the ground, Palestinians were surprised by the image — the technique was all too familiar. Within hours of the video being made public, Palestinian supporters were able to find almost identical images of Israeli soldiers pressing their knees to control a Palestinian youth. This is not entirely surprising, as Amnesty International reported in 2016 that Israel has been a training ground for U.S. policemen from most America cities, including Minneapolis. Linda Mansour, an American immigration lawyer in Toledo, Ohio, told Al-Monitor that since 9/11, “at least 31 U.S. states have been involved in police exchange training programs of their officers in Israel. The repressive and dangerous tactics learned include the knee on the neck.”
For Palestinians, however, this is nothing new. For decades videos have captured Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers protected by them abusing and killing unarmed Palestinian protesters and sometimes even innocent bystanders or clearly identified humanitarian workers. During the first Palestinian intifada in 1988, a CBS crew captured footage of Israeli soldiers using their helmets to break the arms of Palestinians, following the directive given by senior Israeli officials to break protesters’ bones. In the ensuing years the Israeli military has become more brutal and less deterred. Earlier this year, a video surfaced of Israeli forces shooting dead a Palestinian demonstrator near the Gaza border fence and then dragging and removing his body using a bulldozer as other Palestinian locals attempted to retrieve it.
A UN commission of inquiry investigating the killing of 189 Palestinians in Gaza between March 30 and Dec. 31, 2018 found “reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at children, medics, and journalists, even though they were clearly recognizable as such.” In 2016, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem became so disgusted with the “whitewash” of the army’s own investigations into such incidents that they decided to stop cooperating with them so as not to give them credibility.
Just days after George Floyd’s gut-wrenching, eight-and-a-half-minute-long video was posted, Israeli soldiers in East Jerusalem chased down an unarmed Palestinian man with autism. Even though his caregiver shouted in Hebrew to the Israeli security forces that he was disabled, that failed to stop them from firing seven bullets into Eyed Hallaq’s frail body as he hid in a garbage room outside Jerusalem’s Lions’ Gate.
The responses could not be more different
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd, an African-American male, by police across the U.S. and around the world, and a quick scan of the crowds shows that a majority of those demonstrating are white. This strong support from most sectors of American society makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the ruling elite to simply dismiss the protests, and more importantly, makes it much more difficult to attempt to violently crush them.
But unlike the reaction to the video of police abuse in the U.S., the response among Israelis and American Jews to violence against Palestinians is quite different. Many liberal Jewish leaders and thinkers who have spoken out forcefully against the killing of Floyd are silent when it comes to the atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers. A demonstration against annexation took place on June 6 in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, but that has done little to move the needle when it comes to oppressive Israeli actions against Palestinians.
While there are a small number of true voices against anti-Palestinian racism and occupation in the U.S. (such as Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, and Americans for Peace Now) and in Israel (such as B’Tselem, Peace Now, and Rabbis for Human Rights), they are absent from the mainstream. American Jewish leaders of organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as well as all major Israeli parties (with the exception of the Arab Joint List), are not committed to equality and Palestinian self-determination.
Why is that?
What accounts for the difference?
Although Israel is considered the “only democracy in the Middle East,” and American officials often talk about shared values, in reality Israeli laws, policies, and actions on the ground do not justify such claims. To begin with, unlike the U.S., Israel has no constitution or defined borders, and it is struggling to decide whether it is a Jewish state or a state for its citizens. Indeed, 20 percent of Israeli citizens are not Jewish, and there are nearly five million Palestinians living under Israeli military rule in the West Bank and Gaza.
Whereas Americans of all persuasions can rally around the principles of equality and freedom of speech guaranteed by the American constitution and the First Amendment, in Israel there is no such binding legal text that declares all citizens to have equal rights and guarantees self-expression without restrictions. In fact, the early American protest slogan of “no taxation without representation” was invoked by Palestinians during the British mandate and the first intifada. Palestinians protest being denied the inalienable right of self-determination that President Woodrow Wilson had promoted in his “Fourteen Points” principles for peace after World War I.
While Israel doesn’t have a constitution that would guarantee the rights of its citizens, some of its basic laws and regulations are clearly racist in nature. In 1950 Israel passed the law of return, which guarantees citizenship to anyone that has Jewish ancestors, while Palestinian refugees who fled during the war two years earlier were barred from returning and their lands and homes appropriated. In 2018 Israel passed the Jewish Nationality Law, a new basic law that declared that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” thus automatically making the 20 percent of Israel’s population who are not Jewish second-class citizens. The same law not only justifies Israeli settlements in the occupied territory but “views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” Numerous international bodies, including the International Court of Justice, have ruled that settlements built in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under international humanitarian law and constitute a war crime.
For some reason this has done little to shake up the majority of Israelis, who seem to be fine with the anti-Arab racism of their laws and government policies because they feel that being Jewish is somehow “unique” — a slight difference, if not an enormous one, from the ideas of white supremacists. While the founders of Israel and many of its current leaders are not religious, they have used religion in an opportunistic way, including in their engagement with Christian fundamentalists. This has produced a dangerous messianic settler movement that insists that their presence in the occupied territories is based on the idea that Jews have an unassailable, even God-given right to the land that others, including the indigenous inhabitants of the country, who had been living on their lands for centuries, do not have.
To be fair, small groups of Israelis sometimes visit the occupied territories and even protest for an hour or two before returning to the safety of their homes in Tel Aviv or Netanya. The courageous Israeli journalist Amira Hass is treated as an aberration in Israeli society because at one time she lived in Gaza and Ramallah. Lonely voices like Hass and Gideon Levy are drowned out by the vast majority of Israeli print and electronic media, which rarely recognize that Palestinians exist, let alone that they are suffering under a decades-long military occupation maintained by brute force. American Jewish liberals who are often quoted defending human rights around the world based on international law fail to acknowledge the post-World War II understanding, so clearly articulated in the preamble of UN Security Council Resolution 242, of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”
The powerful Zionist narrative that ignores the rights of non-Jews and dehumanizes them is not so different than the way white supremacists in the U.S. approach blacks and their rights. Systemic racism in the U.S. and Israel, however, continue to be handled differently. While Americans have at long last begun to recognize the racism in their police forces and move toward taking action, in Israel the racism is institutionalized, legalized, and internalized to a degree that the majority of Israelis do not even acknowledge that there is anything wrong going on. Maybe they are afraid that if they admitted the systemic racism, it would undercut the very existence of their state, which is built on the land and rights of another people.
The Palestinians have made mistakes too
While there are differences between the U.S. and Israel that could explain the lack of Israeli and American Jewish responsiveness to the injustice toward Palestinians, it is important to reflect on some of the mistakes by Palestinians that have helped feed into the narrative of Israeli victimization. Palestinians have been unclear about their political goal. Initially, the Palestine Liberation Organization made its aim the liberation of all of Palestine and the creation of a secular democratic state for all citizens, including Muslims, Christians, and Jews. While this might have sounded good on paper, the Israelis and their apologists were successful in turning this idea around to say that the Palestinians’ goal was to destroy Israel. It didn’t help that some Palestinian and Arab leaders’ used extreme anti-Israeli rhetoric that Israeli propagandists could easily turn against them. It also didn’t help that Palestinians were never clear on what would happen to Jews living in Palestine/Israel once this utopian secular democratic state was created. Some Palestinian leaders argued that Jews who lived in Palestine before the 1930s could stay, whereas Jewish Zionist immigrants, especially those who arrived in the years after World War II, should return to the countries they came from.
While the Palestinian leadership eventually toned down its rhetoric and amended its goal to the need for an independent state living alongside Israel, there were enough radical voices, especially among Hamas and countries like Syria and Iran, to easily feed the propaganda machine and support the line that in their heart of hearts Palestinians and Arabs wanted to “wipe Israel off the map.”
The Palestinian cause was also handicapped by mistaken tactics and a general lack of discipline by some of its fighters that resulted in the injury and death of Israeli civilians. This issue was badly handled and allowed Israeli apologists to justify not supporting the Palestinian cause by citing the lack of firm Palestinian opposition to what Israel called terrorism — a label that applied to every single attack against Israelis, whether civilians, settlers, or soldiers. The more refined Israeli media machine and their apologists around the world were able to pin the label of terrorism on Palestinians and almost nothing that Palestinians could do would shake that.
When Palestinian civil society, academics, and their supporters began the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, even this totally nonviolent form of resistance was again distorted and cast as being anti-Semitic, while the absence of a political plan among BDS leaders was used to suggest that their real goal was to destroy Israel.
Mainstream media both in Israel and the U.S. have not done enough to accurately and fairly report the reality on the ground, including the systemic discrimination faced by Palestinians. The prevailing Judeo-Christian narrative that has evolved over decades and which includes sympathy for the Jews who fled the Holocaust has persistent for years. Both the Israeli and U.S. mainstream media have not focused enough on Israel’s racist and discriminatory policies. But in recent years with the digital revolution and the ability to diffuse alternative media narratives, the Palestinian reality has become much more widely known in both Israel and the United States. While young people in the U.S. have much more of an understanding of the Palestinian cause, their Israeli counterparts, who are required to serve two years in the army, continue to be kept in the dark by the powers that be. A simple comparison of the wall-to-wall U.S. coverage of the protest movement and the way the Israeli media covers the occupied territories shows this gap. Also, while black leaders and elected officials are regularly featured in U.S. media, representatives of Israel’s Palestinian citizens are rarely interviewed on Israeli media, and representatives of the five million Palestinians in the occupied Gaza and West Bank even less so.
There are no doubt both similarities and differences between the systemic racism in the U.S. and that in Palestine/Israel. Nevertheless, while the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white American policeman produced a huge reaction from white Americans, there has been little empathy in Israel or among American Jews for the plight of Palestinians and the violence they face at the hands of Israeli soldiers and security forces. The insistence of the Zionist movement on a Jewish state and their denial of the equality of Israel’s own Arab citizens and the inalienable rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories make it nearly impossible for there to be a reaction like that which followed the killing of George Floyd. While most Israelis are totally opposed to a one-state solution (which would dilute their idea of a majority Jewish state), perhaps only when it becomes clear that this is the path they are pushing Palestinians toward will it be possible to find a historic compromise. For Palestinian citizens in Israel to experience equality and those in the occupied territories to acquired statehood will require a dramatic change. A historic compromise is unlikely until Israelis and their supporters experience a major change in attitude — one akin to what white Americans seem to be going through right now. In the same way that white Americans are finally beginning to acknowledge the systemic racism in American society and discuss ways of addressing it, Israelis need to acknowledge the humanity and rights of Palestinians.
Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on twitter @daoudkuttab. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.