[News] Time to Break the Silence on Palestine - Martin Luther King Jr. courageously spoke out about the Vietnam War. We must do the same when it comes to this grave injustice of our time.

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Mon Jan 21 11:05:39 EST 2019


  Time to Break the Silence on Palestine

By Michelle Alexander <https://www.nytimes.com/by/michelle-alexander> - 
January 19, 2019

    *Martin Luther King Jr. courageously spoke out about the Vietnam
    War. We must do the same when it comes to this grave injustice of
    our time. *

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, the Rev. 
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the lectern at the Riverside 
Church in Manhattan. The United States had been in active combat in 
Vietnam for two years and tens of thousands of people had been killed, 
including some 10,000 American troops. The political establishment — 
from left to right — backed the war, and more than 400,000 American 
service members were in Vietnam, their lives on the line.

Many of King’s strongest allies urged him to remain silent about the war 
or at least to soft-pedal any criticism. They knew that if he told the 
whole truth about the unjust and disastrous war he would be falsely 
labeled a Communist, suffer retaliation and severe backlash, alienate 
supporters and threaten the fragile progress of the civil rights movement.

King rejected all the well-meaning advice and said, “I come to this 
magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no 
other choice.” Quoting a statement by the Clergy and Laymen Concerned 
About Vietnam, he said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal” and 
added, “that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”

It was a lonely, moral stance. And it cost him. But it set an example of 
what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of 
crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or 
the communities and causes we hold most dear. It’s what I think about 
when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me 
largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the 
crisis in Israel-Palestine.

I have not been alone. Until very recently, the entire Congress has 
remained mostly silent on the human rights nightmare that has unfolded 
in the occupied territories. Our elected representatives, who operate in 
a political environment where Israel's political lobby holds 
well-documented power, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/> have 
consistently minimized and deflected criticism of the State of Israel, 
even as it has grown more emboldened in its occupation of Palestinian 
territory and adopted some practices reminiscent of apartheid in South 
Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States.

Many civil rights activists and organizations have remained silent as 
well, not because they lack concern or sympathy for the Palestinian 
people, but because they fear loss of funding from foundations, and 
false charges of anti-Semitism. They worry, as I once did, that their 
important social justice work will be compromised or discredited by 
smear campaigns.

Similarly, many students are fearful of expressing support for 
Palestinian rights because of the McCarthyite tactics of secret 
organizations likeCanary Mission 
which blacklists those who publicly dare to support boycotts against 
Israel, jeopardizing their employment prospects and future careers.

Reading King’s speech 
at Riverside more than 50 years later, I am left with little doubt that 
his teachings and message require us to speak out passionately against 
the human rights crisis in Israel-Palestine, despite the risks and 
despite the complexity of the issues. King argued, when speaking of 
Vietnam, that even “when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they 
often do in the case of this dreadful conflict,” we must not be 
mesmerized by uncertainty. “We must speak with all the humility that is 
appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

And so, if we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we 
must condemn Israel’s actions: unrelenting violations of international 
law, continued occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, 
home demolitions and land confiscations. We must cry out at the 
treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, the routine searches of their 
homes and restrictions on their movements, and the severely limited 
access to decent housing, schools, food, hospitals and water that many 
of them face.

We must not tolerate Israel’s refusal even to discuss the right of 
Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, as prescribed by United 
Nations resolutions, and we ought to question the U.S. government funds 
that have supported multiple hostilities 
and thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza, as well as the$38 billion 
the U.S. government has pledged in military support to Israel.

And finally, we must, with as much courage and conviction as we can 
muster, speak out against the system of legal discrimination that exists 
inside Israel, a system complete with, according to Adalah, the Legal 
Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, more than 50 laws that 
discriminate against Palestinians — such as the newnation-state law 
that says explicitly that only Jewish Israelis have the right of 
self-determination in Israel, ignoring the rights of the Arab minority 
that makes up 21 percent of the population.

Of course, there will be those who say that we can’t know for sure what 
King would do or think regarding Israel-Palestine today. That is true. 
The evidence regarding King’s views on Israel iscomplicated and 

Although the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee denounced 
<https://www.crmvet.org/docs/670815_sncc_palestine.pdf> Israel’s actions 
against Palestinians, King found himself conflicted. Like many black 
leaders of the time, he recognized European Jewry as a persecuted, 
oppressed and homeless people striving to build a nation of their own, 
and he wanted to show solidarity with the Jewish community, which had 
been a critically important ally in the civil rights movement.

Ultimately, King canceled apilgrimage 
to Israel in 1967 after Israel captured the West Bank. During a phone 
call about the visit with his advisers, he said, “I just think that if I 
go, the Arab world, and of course Africa and Asia for that matter, would 
interpret this as endorsing everything that Israel has done, and I do 
have questions of doubt.”

He continued to support Israel’s right to exist but**also said on 
national television that it would be necessary for Israel to return 
parts of its conquered territory to achieve true peace and security and 
to avoid exacerbating the conflict. There was no way King could publicly 
reconcile his commitment to nonviolence and justice for all people, 
everywhere, with what had transpired after the 1967 war.

Today, we can only speculate about where King would stand. Yet I find 
myself in agreement with the historian Robin D.G. Kelley, whoconcluded 
that, if King had the opportunity to study the current situation in the 
same way he had studied Vietnam, “his unequivocal opposition to 
violence, colonialism, racism and militarism would have made him an 
incisive critic of Israel’s current policies.”

Indeed, King’s views may have evolved alongside many other spiritually 
grounded thinkers, like Rabbi Brian Walt, who has spoken publicly about 
the reasons that he abandoned his faith in what he viewed as political 
Zionism. To him, he recently explained to me, liberal Zionism meant that 
he believed in the creation of a Jewish state that would be a 
desperately needed safe haven and cultural center for Jewish people 
around the world, "a state that would reflect as well as honor the 
highest ideals of the Jewish tradition.” He said he grew up in South 
Africa in a family that shared those views and identified as a liberal 
Zionist,**until his experiences in the occupied territories forever 
changed him.

During more than 20 visits to the West Bank and Gaza, he saw horrific 
human rights abuses, including Palestinian homes being bulldozed while 
people cried — children's toys strewn over one demolished site — and saw 
Palestinian lands being confiscated to make way for new illegal 
settlements subsidized by the Israeli government. He was forced to 
reckon with the reality that these demolitions, settlements and acts of 
violent dispossession were not rogue moves, but fully supported and 
enabled by the Israeli military. For him, the turning point was 
witnessing legalized discrimination against Palestinians — including 
streets for Jews only — which, he said, was worse in some ways than what 
he had witnessed as a boy in South Africa.

Not so long ago, it was fairly rare to hear this perspective. That is no 
longer the case.

Jewish Voice for Peace <https://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/>, for example, 
aims to educate the American public about “the forced displacement of 
approximately 750,000 Palestinians that began with Israel’s 
establishment and that continues to this day.” Growing numbers of people 
of all faiths and backgrounds have spoken out with more boldness and 
courage. American organizations such as If Not Now 
<https://ifnotnowmovement.org/> support young American Jews as they 
struggle to break the deadly silence that still exists among too many 
people regarding the occupation, and hundreds of secular and faith-based 
groups have joined the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights 

In view of these developments, it seems the days when critiques of 
Zionism and the actions of the State of Israel can be written off as 
anti-Semitism are coming to an end. There seems to be increased 
understanding that criticism of the policies and practices of the 
Israeli government is not, in itself, anti-Semitic. 

This is not to say that anti-Semitism is not real. Neo-Nazism 
in Germany within a growing anti-immigrant movement. Anti-Semitic 
incidents in the United States rose 57 
percent in 2017, and many of us are still mourning what is believed to 
bethe deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history 
We must be mindful in this climate that, while criticism of Israel is 
not inherently anti-Semitic, it can slide there.

Fortunately, people like the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II are leading 
by example,pledging allegiance to the fight against anti-Semitism 
while also demonstrating unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian 
people struggling to survive under Israeli occupation.

He declared in ariveting speech 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mg63AYzPwN0> last year that we cannot 
talk about justice without addressing the displacement of native 
peoples, the systemic racism of colonialism and the injustice of 
government repression. In the same breath he said: “I want to say, as 
clearly as I know how, that the humanity and the dignity of any person 
or people cannot in any way diminish the humanity and dignity of another 
person or another people. To hold fast to the image of God in every 
person is to insist that the Palestinian child is as precious as the 
Jewish child.”

Guided by this kind of moral clarity, faith groups are taking action. In 
2016, the pension board of the United Methodist Churchexcluded from 
its multibillion-dollar pension fund Israeli banks whose loans for 
settlement construction violate international law. Similarly, the United 
Church of Christ the year before passed aresolution 
calling for divestments and boycotts of companies that profit from 
Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

Even in Congress, change is on the horizon. For the first time, two 
sitting members, Representatives Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, and 
Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan,publicly support 
the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. In 2017, Representative 
Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, introduced a resolution to ensure 
that no U.S. military aid went to support Israel’s juvenile military 
detention system. Israel regularly prosecutes Palestinian children 
detainees in the occupied territories in military court.

Relatives of a Palestinian nurse, Razan al-Najjar, 21, mourning in June 
after she was shot dead in Gaza by Israeli soldiers.CreditHosam Salem 
for The New York Times

None of this is to say that the tide has turned entirely or that 
retaliation has ceased against those who express strong support for 
Palestinian rights. To the contrary, just as King received fierce, 
overwhelming criticism for his speech condemning the Vietnam War — 168 
major newspapers, including The Times,denounced 
<https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125355148> the 
address the following day — those who speak publicly in support of the 
liberation of the Palestinian people still risk condemnation and backlash.

Bahia Amawi, an American speech pathologist of Palestinian descent, 
wasrecently terminated 
<https://theintercept.com/2018/12/17/israel-texas-anti-bds-law/> for 
refusing to sign a contract that contains an anti-boycott pledge stating 
that she does not, and will not, participate in boycotting the State of 
Israel. In November, Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN for giving a 
speech in support of Palestinian rights that was grossly misinterpreted 
as expressing support for violence*. *Canary Mission continues to pose 
aserious threat 
to student activists.

And just over a week ago, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 
Alabama, apparently under pressure mainly from segments of the Jewish 
community and others,rescinded an honor 
it bestowed upon the civil rights icon Angela Davis, who has been a 
vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and supports B.D.S.

But that attack backfired. Within 48 hours, academics and activists had 
mobilized in response. The mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, as well 
as the Birmingham School Board and the City Council, expressed outrage 
at the institute’s decision. The council unanimously passed aresolution 
in Davis’ honor, and an alternative event is being organized to 
celebrate her decades-long commitment to liberation for all.

I cannot say for certain that King would applaud Birmingham for its 
zealous defense of Angela Davis’s solidarity with Palestinian people. 
But I do. In this new year, I aim to speak with greater courage and 
conviction about injustices beyond our borders, particularly those that 
are funded by our government, and stand in solidarity with struggles for 
democracy and freedom. My conscience leaves me no other choice.


Michelle Alexander became a New York Times columnist in 2018. She is a 
civil rights lawyer and advocate, legal scholar and author of “The New 
Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 19, 2019, on Page SR1 
of the New York edition with the headline: Time to Break the Silence on 

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