Barack Obama’s inauguration coming as we celebrate of Martin Luther King Day predictably draws linkages between the two. Many use Obama’s election to claim a realization of the “dream.” Others mumble something about a post-racial America. I suspect that King, if alive, would reject such nonsense. Although when asked “who he thought King would support” in the 2008 primary campaign Obama made a good case for answering “Nobody,” it is possible that King may have supported Obama.
King was a politician of sorts, although not so much at the time of his assassination. We love King now, but at the end of his life he wasn’t so popular. Younger activists criticized him and called him names such as “Da Lord” - mocking his once high place in civil rights politics. President Lyndon B. Johnson and a host of government officials, local and national, condemned him when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. King was not universally cheered when he marched, to his death, with the garbage workers in Memphis striking for fair wages and respect. Truth be told, he was jeered, even by some blacks.
Sure, we love King now, but there was a time when people turned their back on him and his message.
It has always been troubling to witness King’s mission and message reduced to “I have a dream” in the popular culture. It’s taught to kids in kindergarten, and they carry it with them all their lives. But all dreams are not equal. They can be interpreted in a number of ways. And some dreams are nightmares, or turn into nightmares for other people.
Before it became a "quagmire" the war in Vietnam was a dream of the American political establishment. Exactly one year before his assassination, King, setting aside the grave danger it brought to him, challenged his government and broke with American imperial policy. At New York City's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, King linked the domestic exploitation of African Americans with "the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long."
In his speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, King said, "A time comes when silence is betrayal..," And, "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my own government."
King’s charge is just as true today as it was 40-plus years ago.
America is still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Silence is still betrayal. But let’s take it a step beyond silence. Non-action is the other betrayal. Change isn’t just about an election in November and a celebration in January. It’s about doing something measurable to usher in a more peaceful world. Sure it’s good to change one’s perspective and way of looking at things. But the trick is to make your actions match what’s on your mind.
There is an arc. People and events are linked on the arc.
So, this year we should honor King in an active sense. We should commit ourselves to organize against the American policy of violence and empire. The anti-war movement should apply pressure on Obama to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. And, just as important, particularly amid the horror that has been visited on the people of Gaza; a broader peace movement must also build real economic and political pressure against Israel’s immoral and criminal acts against the Palestinians. This King Day should mark the beginning of an organized push for American divestment from Israel.
When you think about it, US foreign policy toward Palestine has been a segregationist or apartheid policy. In his 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, former President Jimmy Carter likened Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and its repression of Palestinian people, both within Israel and in the occupied territories, to the state of apartheid, which existed in South Africa prior to the early 1990s. Apartheid means ‘separateness.’ And there is little debate that Zionism, the official ideology of Israel, is predicated on religious and ethnic separation or segregation. A self-described Jewish state -- that is, a state that operates of, by and on behalf of a single group of people -- cannot also be a secular, democratic state where persons of all religious and ethnic backgrounds are treated equally. A Jewish state that has never declared its borders, that has annexed and occupied territories, flouting international law and subjecting the indigenous population to poverty, indignity, theft, torture and death, is not only a colonialist outlaw state; it is also racist. As one Palestinian gentleman remarked to me, “While blacks in America were once considered subhuman, Palestinians are not considered humans at all."
And Israel could not have pursued any of these policies without the steadfast financial and political support of the United States. It is no secret that Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world. It receives more than $15 million every day from the United States, or $30 billion a year by most estimates. The F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters that have dropped hundreds of tons of bombs and missiles on Gaza are made in the United States and provided to the Israeli government. Every American taxpayer underwrites Israeli-style apartheid.
Divestment may be at odds with the position of many elected black leaders (the Congressional Black Caucus included), but it’s not at odds with what King spoke of and died for. It is not at odds with those he championed. He championed the locked out and oppressed.
Throughout my life, black politics has lined up with oppressed people in other nations. Malcolm X stood with Fidel Castro and the Cuban people following the 1958 ouster of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, and with him the organized crime and American corporatist mobsters who exploited the Cuban people. Harlemites greeted Castro with affection as they gathered to welcome him during his stay at the Hotel Theresa in 1960 because he wanted to be “among the workers.”
Muhammad Ali is a “national treasure” now. But he wasn’t when he dropped the name Cassius Clay and said “Ain’t no Vietnamese ever called me nigger.”
Americans love Nelson Mandela, now. But he was a “terrorist” while he was heading "Spear of the Nation” – the armed wing of the African National Congress. That’s why he was locked up at Robben Island. Mandela’s name was only recently – during the 2nd part of the Bush Administration - removed from the State Department’s “terrorists list.” In the days of Ronald Reagan it was America and Israel that supported South Africa when the rest of the world said “enough.”
But black Americans remembered the hundreds of kids who died in Sharpesville Massacre in the 60s. We were in solidarity with those who took part in the Soweto uprising of 1976. We cried and protested when the South African police killed Steve Biko in 1977.
What’s happening in Palestine is not fundamentally different from what occurred in apartheid South Africa. Kids are being killed. People have been herded into the (more deadly) equivalent of bantustans. Political leaders are targeted for assassination. Most recently Hamas Interior Minister Said Siam was killed along with nine others, when Israeli warplanes bombed a home in the Jabalya refugee camp.
Israel’s behavior demands the same response from the world human rights community as was mustered against South Africa.
The facts are clear. The citizens of Gaza live in a virtual prison. They are surrounded by water, walls, fences and watch/gun towers.
In the latest assault, at least 1,133 Palestinians have been killed, including 346 children and 105 women; at least 5,200 have been injured. People talk about "suffering on both sides," but there is no proportion in weaponry or force, which is why 100 Palestinians have died for every one Israeli.
The Palestinian people live under Israel’s apartheid blockade where even humanitarian aid is not allowed through – where citizens can get food, medicine and even goats, in addition to guns and weapons, only through tunnels.
Not just in Gaza but throughout all the occupied territories, Palestinian water rights along with their land and human rights have been stolen. Fundamentalist Jewish immigrants from Brooklyn have automatic citizenship and automatic civil and property rights, while the indigenous Palestinians lose and lose some more. Most often, it is Palestinian land that the migrants have settled on, with the blessings of Israel and the financial support of the United States via the Israeli government – in the face of international and United Nations' resolutions against such settlements. It is Palestinian land, stolen for Israeli settlements, that the Palestinians have been firing mortars onto; Palestinian land that is bisected by Israeli-only roads and a wall that exceeds the Berlin Wall in size and cruelty. (No German had his farm or homestead cut in two by the wall.) They are Palestinian orchards that have been bulldozed; Palestinian homes that have been demolished; and American-made bulldozers that have done the job. A Caterpillar bulldozer crushed 23-year-old American peace activist Rachel Corrie to death when she stood in front of a doctor's house in Gaza trying to prevent its demolition on March 16, 2003. And the same bulldozers have taken everything from Palestinian families year after year for decades.
Throughout the latest assault on Gaza, those blindly supportive of Israel raise a straw man argument asking, “Who struck the blow?” Or, “Fired the first shot?” Or, “Launched the first mortar.” Their answer to the question is almost always certain to be, "Hamas." Before the days Hamas came to power, the same straw man was raised and knocked down as the answer back then was sure to be, “Fatah” - led by PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
Supporters of Israel never mention the blockade on Gaza or political assassinations or the wall or the poverty and despair. Instead, they label Hamas or anyone opposing occupation as “terrorists” and lamely apologize for the civilians killed calling them “collateral damage,” or they claim that the women and children killed in the school or hospital or UN facilities were “being used as human shield.” No one calls the Jewish settlers human shields, though their incursions into occupied territory has been both a provocation and an excuse since 1967.
Just take a look at a map of the territory lost by the Palestinian people since 1948 and at an inexorable pace since 1967. Then answer the question, “Who stuck the first blow?”
Throughout the latest attack on the Palestinian people I have heard a few people openly make the bloodthirsty suggestion that “they (the Israelis) should kill them all.” But the most common thing one hears is something similar to what Obama said on a visit to Israel in the summer 2008 that "If somebody shot rockets at my house where my two daughters were sleeping at night, I'd do everything in my power to stop them.” The new president’s comment was one of the first things that came out the mouths of various spokespersons for the Israeli government as the Christmastime onslaught on Gaza began. But what of the Israeli rockets and bombs and bullets and bulldozers that for years have hit the homes where Palestinian children were sleeping?
Now Israel has called a cease fire in Gaza, if only for a moment. Still, we must organize and protest in an effective way beyond the moment. We have our work cut out for us. The Palestinians have few friends in high places. By a vote of 404-1 the House recently signaled its support for Israel’s apartheid regime and literally condemned the Palestinians right of self-defense. The only member of Congress to take a stand with the Palestinians was and is Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich.
On the campaign trail at a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama declared himself a “Zionist,” and upon being elected chose Rahm Emanuel, a dual citizen of the US and Israel, as his chief of staff. The Israeli paper Ha'aretz (6 Nov. 2008) said it all: Obama's first pick: Israeli Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff. Some say that Emanuel “has a track record on Israel well to the right of George Bush.” This includes signing a 2003 letter justifying Israel’s policy of political assassinations and criticizing George Bush for not supporting Israel enough. Emanuel backed a resolution supporting Israel's bombing of Lebanon in the summer of 2006 and he called on the US government to cancel a planned speech to Congress by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki because he had condemned Israel’s actions in Lebanon.
As president, where will Obama stand? More important, what is the moral stand, and what must we do to press the government to take it?
First, we must see Israel with the same eyes as we saw South Africa in the apartheid years – as a racist nation deserving of international isolation and sanctions. Second, we must demand that the United States end its $30 billion a year military support to the country. Third, we should organize, confront and demand that public bodies such as universities, local and state governments divest their portfolios from companies that do business in or with Israel. Fourth, we should identify and boycott those companies that do business with and in Israel. Fifth, we should call for a cultural boycott of Israel, and boycott those artists who perform in the country.
As for the new president we should continue to pressure him (1) to establish a fair involvement with the disputing parties, recognizing their equal humanity, not take the one-sided, Israel-first position of his predecessors; (2) to pressure the Israeli government to allow unimpeded access of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip; (3) to call for an investigation into Israel's misuse of U.S. weapons, to include the use of white phosphorous and urge the UN weapons inspectors to determine if Israel is using depleted uranium-tipped missiles on the Palestinians. This would be a first step toward ending arms transfers to Israel.
All people have a right to exist – Jews and Palestinians. The way to peace is for each side to respect the other's right to live.
But America must be a fair player in what is now a continual catastrophe with our country on the wrong side of history. We must remember that “where you spend your money is a political act.” Putting pressure on business and government is a means to force change. By “getting in their pockets” we can say no to the violence. We can say, “Not in our names.” That’s what I think Dr. King would say and do at a time like this.
Almost 40 years ago, Martin Luther King warned that "the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated." Those "triple evils" of racism, economic injustice and militarism are what we must fight – the dream of King’s was the defeat of the “triple evils.”
As we celebrate his day, let’s do it in solidarity with the dispossessed. As Vice-President Joe Biden was saying his farewell to the Senate he quoted King saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I believe Biden is right as King was right. But there’s a strong magnetic pull that has the needle still pointed on injustice. The injustice of being the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” We can help move the needle toward just by insisting that our country sees a Palestinian life having as much value as an Israeli life.