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Black People Won’t Be Silenced About Israel

Above photo: Mati Milstein / NurPhoto / Getty.

…the Jews were the ones that walked side by side with the Blacks to fight for their rights. And now the Black community isn’t embracing us and saying ‘We stand with you the way you stood with us’? Jews died for their cause. Where’s the history lesson in that? Who’s teaching these kids? Because the fact that the entire Black community isn’t standing with us, to me, says they don’t know, or they’ve been brainwashed to hate Jews.”

Julianna Margulies

It is a bad sign when the leader of the United States Senate sounds something like an actress with bizarre feelings of entitlement. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer pulled off this dubious feat with his statements about U.S. policy towards Israel, what he perceives to be anti-semitism, and public opinion about Israel’s attack on Gaza. His remarks resembled those of actress Julianna Margulies, whose infamous rant differed only in its lack of politesse. Of course, a senator has better political sense and more awareness than an entertainer, but aside from the manner of delivery, their thought processes don’t differ very much.

Schumer’s speech on the Senate floor began with a disclaimer that he then proceeded to refute, “This speech is not an attempt to label most criticism of Israel and the Israeli government generally as antisemitic.” Why then did he include claims such as, “The Anti-Defamation League estimates that antisemitic incidents have increased nearly 300 percent since October 7th.” ADL’s data is at best questionable. That organization categorized some protests, even those led by Jewish individuals and organizations, as being “anti-Israel rallies with support for terror.” The Senator’s words don’t mean very much if one can call for a ceasefire in Gaza or express condemnation for the wholesale killing of civilians and be labeled an anti-semite in the process.

Margulies referred to Jews as “marginalized.” Schumer didn’t use the same word but said, “But for many Jewish Americans, any strength and security that we enjoy always feels tenuous. No matter how well we’re doing, it can all be taken away in an instant.” There are people throughout the world who have been historically oppressed and who feel vulnerable as a result of this treatment. The Palestinians certainly feel that way.  Black people in this country can surely respond, “Welcome to our world!”

But it would be a mistake to engage in an oppression contest when there are other problems at hand. Underlying the remarks of both Margulies and Schumer is an idea that criticism of Israel has to be so severely proscribed as to be unspoken. One can express disagreement with Israeli policy, but not say that the state born of European colonialism is a colonizer or that acts defined as war crimes by the Geneva Conventions can be labeled as such. In effect, Israel’s critics are being told to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Schumer believes that the only acceptable comments about the events of October 7 must condemn Hamas and can express no other thought or point out that Israel is an apartheid state or that the Hamas fighters should be thought of as martyrs. “Many of the people who have expressed these sentiments in America aren’t neo-Nazis, or card-carrying Klan members, or Islamist extremists. They are in many cases people that most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers.

Not long ago, many of us marched together for Black and Brown lives, we stood against anti-Asian hatred, we protested bigotry against the LGBTQ community, we fought for reproductive justice out of the recognition that injustice against one oppressed group is injustice against all. But apparently, in the eyes of some, that principle does not extend to the Jewish people.”

If Schumer and others expect a quid pro quo for their actions they should just say so. “Black lives matter but only if you say what I want you to say for the next few decades,” would be outrageous if spoken out loud but that is the gist of the criticism. There is also an assumption of superiority, a belief that one group has the right to make itself more deserving of sympathy and is entitled to silence others or to say that disagreements amount to bigotry and hatred.

Most importantly, Black people have every right to speak on any issue that we may choose. We have a right to our own politics. We have a right to choose who we will unite within bonds of solidarity. We have a right to praise or to condemn as we see fit. Expecting otherwise is to treat us as supplicants without agency who depend on the whims of others who can then cast us aside whenever doing so is politically convenient.

The problem for politicians and actresses alike is that the world has changed. Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza and its defense of war crimes have created a sea change in international opinion. No one is tiptoeing around Schumer’s feelings. The sight of bombed out hospitals and a body count of more than 20,000 dead has awakened millions of people who once would have been silent. That time has passed and Israel and its supporters are not being afforded any special treatment.

Perhaps that is the cause of the angst. The old methods don’t work anymore. If the millions of people protesting Israel’s war crimes can all be called anti-semites, the word loses its meaning and the fear of being labeled as such is also gone. The vilification will no doubt continue but the responses will no longer be the same. The least the world can do for the dead of Gaza is to speak up on their behalf. Doing otherwise would only add to the terrible wrongdoing that took their lives.

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