As the Israel-Hamas war drags on in its second month and shows no sign of abating, many Westerners have drawn comparisons between the state of Israel and Jim Crow-era America or apartheid South Africa. In their telling, Israelis are the white people, Palestinians are the black people, and the ethics of the conflict mirror the ethics of Jim Crow and apartheid.
Once framed this way, the correct view becomes obvious. Israelis: racist oppressors. Palestinians: noble victims.
This view of the Arab-Israeli conflict has lodged itself deeply in the Western psyche. It is why organizations like Amnesty International condemn Israel as an “apartheid state” despite the glaring differences between Israel and the canonical example of apartheid South Africa. It is why Black Lives Matter chapters across America came out in reflexive support of Hamas mere days after the terror group slaughtered 1,200 Israelis in the most gruesome ways imaginable. And it is why Ta-Nehisi Coates, considered by many to be America’s leading public intellectual on race, recently called Israel a “Jim Crow regime” and compared cities in the West Bank to Baltimore and Chicago.
But close-to-home analogies rarely explain distant events. These analogies, while convenient and easy to understand, do more to mislead than to inform. Nowhere has this been truer than in comparisons between the Israeli-Arab conflict and the West’s racial and colonial history.
Let’s start with the idea, which The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah has recently amplified, that Zionism is similar to European colonialism.
Whereas Europeans had no claim to belong in the New World, Jews are indigenous to the land and have lived there continuously for millennia. Just before the first wave of Zionist migration in the late nineteenth century, there was a pre-existing Jewish community there numbering between 13,000 and 20,000. European colonialists sought to expand empires and extract wealth on behalf of their home countries. Early Zionists, by contrast, were poor migrants fleeing pogroms, legally migrating to their ancestral homeland, and purchasing small tracts of land from willing Arab sellers. Once the British Mandate began, more Jews (many fleeing the Nazis) migrated and purchased land, such that by 1947, hundreds of thousands of Jews had migrated into the region. And in the years after 1948, the overwhelming majority of Jews living in Arab countries—fleeing persecution in places like Iraq, Morocco, and Egypt—migrated to Israel.
Black Americans had our own version of Zionism. In the first half of the nineteenth century, roughly 5,000 black Americans—some fleeing slavery and others fleeing Northern racism—sailed to West Africa and in 1847 founded the nation of Liberia: a black ethnostate meant to be a haven for African Americans. Another ten thousand or so black Americans would migrate to Liberia in the decades after its founding. In the 1920s, Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement—which planned to move blacks by the tens of thousands into Liberia—was at the height of its popularity with African Americans, with membership numbering in the millions.
Though in hindsight we might criticize the practicality of either project, we shouldn’t deny the appeal of returning to one’s ancestral homeland, especially in the context of fleeing persecution.
Nor should we regard such projects as similar to the projects of Christopher Columbus or Hernán Cortés. It would be easy to stop Columbus mid-voyage and tell him to turn back to Europe. But you’d have to be heartless to tell an ex-slave sailing to West Africa in 1840 to turn around and go back to Mississippi, or to tell a Jewish refugee sailing to the British Mandate in the 1940s to turn around and go back to Europe (though the British did, in fact, do just that).
A key difference between the nature of the Israeli-Arab conflict and South African apartheid is that Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank—checkpoints, movement restrictions, and so forth—are rooted in legitimate security concerns rather than racism. Because the word security has been dulled through overuse, it is crucial to remember what it really means. Security means preventing what happened on October 7—which Hamas has promised to do over and over if given the chance. No function of the state could be more important.
Some critics of Israel will be quick to point out that defenders of South African apartheid also used “security” as a justification for the apartheid system. The difference is that in the case of South Africa, it was a false pretext. In apartheid South Africa, marriage (and even sex) between blacks and whites was punishable by prison time. South African officials would decide your race (and therefore your fate) by running a comb through your hair. If it ran all the way through without too much resistance, you were considered legally white.
These policies, which lie at the core of apartheid South Africa, were the result not of security concerns but of an ideological obsession with racial classification and a horror at the thought of “race-mixing.” Such policies would be unthinkable in Israel, where Arab Israelis are full citizens, enjoying the right to vote, serve in the Israeli parliament and the Knesset, and even sit on the Supreme Court.
As with every society on Earth, there is racism in Israel. But the truth is that if you’re looking for the closest analogue to the racist propaganda experienced by blacks in European-offshoot societies, you will find it not on the Israeli side but on the Palestinian side. Consider the ghoulish, antisemitic TV programs that indoctrinate Palestinian children. There is no Israeli equivalent.
There is yet another inconvenient fact for those who want to reduce the Israeli-Arab conflict to a competition between European settlers and people of color: the majority of Israeli Jews are not European. They are Mizrahi Jews—hailing from the Middle East and North Africa. What’s more, it is not the European Jews but the Mizrahi Jews—who are difficult to visually distinguish from Palestinians—that form most of the voting base of the right-wing parties that Israel’s critics consider to be the truly racist ones.
When ideologues co-opt the African American freedom struggle and compare it to the Palestinian national movement, they do black Americans a grave disservice. Black Americans (aside from a fringe) did not seek to dominate and destroy white society, as Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized frequently in his speeches. African Americans pursued equality before the law and better economic circumstances. In black history, you can find the occasional Nat Turner, the slave who led a rebellion and advocated killing all whites. But compared to the leaders of the struggle—giants like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King—radicals like Turner amount to a footnote in the black American struggle for equality.
Even early Malcolm X, the most prominent mouthpiece for black radicalism, was not interested in a violent takeover whereby blacks would run all of America and render whites second-class citizens. When he expressed black nationalism as more than a metaphor, he made clear that he was interested in a partitioning of black and white states inside America or a black ethnostate somewhere outside of America entirely.
Palestinian leaders, by contrast, seek dominion over all the land existing between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Some, like Hamas, have even more radical ambitions: a global Islamic caliphate. Palestinian leaders have rejected every partition offer they have ever received: the Peel Commission in 1937, the UN partition of 1947, the offers made at Camp David as well as the Clinton Parameters in 2000, and Olmert’s proposal in 2008. In the Palestinian national movement, the common denominator has been the rejection of a Jewish state of any size and scope, as well as the unyielding demand for nothing less than a Palestinian Arab state to subsume Israel: “from the river to the sea,” as the chant goes.
As for tactics, there is nothing in the history of mainstream African American political activism analogous to Hamas’s use of its own people as human shields; their use of a civilian hospital as a torture chamber; their denial of resources to their own people despite billions of dollars in international aid; their system of cash rewards to incentivize suicide bombings against civilian targets; their indiscriminate rocket fire on civilians; their practice of taking children and the elderly as hostages; and the combination of millenarianism and genocidal bloodlust evoked in their founding charter.
If you’d like to defend Hamas, then go ahead. But do not take the easy way out by making farcical comparisons between the black freedom struggle and Palestinian nationalism or between European colonialism and Zionism.
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