Gaza, Oakland. A Primer.
By Ryan Ariel Simon
The Current Situation in Oakland and Gaza
The situation in Oakland is clearly deteriorating. Relations between the police and poor or struggling communities had already been tense, but the killing of Oscar grant was clearly the last straw.
It is still unclear to me whether the killing was an accident, or the result of an angry cop responding to a “provocation” in anger. In other words, was it involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder. But when the jury ruled involuntary manslaughter the affected community in Oakland felt slighted, and denied recourse.
One reason relations have broken down is the Oakland police force probably don’t understand the community they police. Instead of protecting and serving when “they used to know us, now they come into our community like they ready for war” said one New Years Movement 4 Justice organizer.[i]
The police have trouble getting to know residents because community policing strategies have fallen prey to tight budgets. Along the way trust has broken down, and most officers no longer even live in the city. Meanwhile Oakland’s violent crime rate is 2.31 times the national average and when officers enter struggling, violence ridden neighborhoods, they often put their lives on the line.
The Gaza Strip is also a deteriorating situation. Following the 1967 war between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries it was under military occupation. In 2005 the Israeli government withdrew its settlers and military from the coastal Palestinian territory, but maintained control over Gazan borders, airspace, coastline, infrastructure, power, and imports-exports.
The move was supported by the US at the time. As President Bush said, “the [Israeli] Prime Minister is willing to coordinate the implementation of the disengagement plan with the Palestinians. I urge the Palestinian leadership to accept his offer. By working together, Israelis and Palestinians can lay the groundwork for a peaceful transition.”
But they did not work together. Israel instead used a purely unilateral disengagement to show it did not have to work with a Palestinian leadership it disliked, and to consolidate control over the other Palestinian territory: The West Bank.
Next, Bush pushed for an election which resulted in victory for Hamas; a radical Islamic extremist organization that drew support from Palestinians by providing the social services the corrupt Fatah party had failed to bring.
Then Bush advised Israel not to recognize a unity government between Fatah and Hamas instead of trying to moderate Hamas as part of the political process, and the violence that followed left Hamas in complete control of Gaza. Hamas refused to recognize the State of Israel and they remain at de-facto war as Hamas has smuggled weapons into Gaza.
The situation seemed to improve when Hamas and Israel agreed to a ceasefire for the last six months of 2008, which protected civilians, but Israel broke the truce in order to crush Hamas. That was the January war where both sides violated international law. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) used large bombs to target Hamas that made civilian death likely, and Hamas indiscriminately targeted the center of Israeli cities, hitting schools and homes.
I define anti-Semitism here as racism and prejudice against Jews, with all due respect to the other Semitic peoples. The term evolved from the German-nationalist equation of Jewish with Semitic regardless of its accuracy. Anti-Semitism involves hatred of Jew’s ethnic background, culture, and/or religion. In its extreme form, it “attributes to the Jews an exceptional position among all other civilizations, defames them as an inferior group and denies their being part of the nation[s]” in which they live.[ii]
Zionism is the movement for a national home for the Jewish nation, and one that Marcus Garvey used as inspiration for his black national liberation movement. In the early twentieth century the world Zionist congress decided that Palestine would be the area where Jews would seek this home. At the time a small Jewish minority lived in Palestine, the ancestral home of the Jewish people. It had accommodated a constant Jewish presence since ancient times that spoke Arabic, Yiddish and Ladino (a mixture of Spanish and various ethnic Jewish languages).
There were three key reasons why post-Enlightenment Europe witnessed the creation of Zionism. First, separate public and private Jewish identities developed because assimilation was promoted by their hosts; second, the spread of nationalism throughout Europe during the nineteenth century and; third, anti-Semitic incidents such as the Dreyfus Affair and repeated Russian pogroms, reminded Jews of a constant vulnerability to being scapegoated as outsiders.
Like many movements, Zionist views are diverse and range from xenophobic nationalist, to liberal socialist nationalist. Despite the racist Orientalism of many European immigrants, pre-state Zionism bears none of the classic signs of colonialism; indigenous labor was never exploited and indigenous people were not illegally moved, in fact land was bought so that new towns could be founded. It was only once the Arab inhabitants grew suspicious of the growing Jewish presence that tensions led to violence between Palestinian Arab and Jewish inhabitants.
This whole comparison comes in the wake of the police slaying of young Hayward father Oscar Grant following a history of excessive force and police shootings in Oakland, and other communities across the country. Organizers are cynically trying to take advantage of the outrage, and of organized pro-Palestinian energy, by linking the two issues together. In addition leftist activists like the Answer coalition tend to be both anti-Israel and anti-police, a marriage of convenience. In reality the only connection between the two issues are that they are two struggling (read-underdog) communities.
Recently when I asked someone why the comparison was being made, they replied, “Oscar Grant was killed by a paid militia, Gaza was assaulted by the military outpost of Western Imperialism.” While the claim that Oakland police are a paid militia seems more like empty rhetoric then an actual argument, there without a doubt real problems with the force. These include: corruption, racial profiling, lack of community understanding, under-staffing, among others. Police are paid to enforce law, and Oakland is an extremely high crime and violent place.
Israel was a military outpost of the Western Bloc during the cold war, and in a bi-polar world it was used to limit the expansion of the Soviet Union. Today it is still someone used by the U.S. in the “war on terror,” and to counter Iran. But Israel has its own interests and issues, and it was not acting in U.S. interests when it invaded Gaza in January. In fact Israel agree to an armistice just before the inauguration of Barack Obama, a president whose administration is still struggling to resuscitate a peace-process set back by the Gaza war.
Aesthetics Crew member Luke Aidger “draws parallels between the struggles of the Palestinians in Gaza with the communities of Oakland and Los Angeles, and across all peoples suffering around the planet” according to Indymedia, a radical left media organization that had been removed from Google news searches after containing articles where the writer referred to Israelis as “zionazi’s.” The song itself is catchy, repeats “Gaza, Oakland, LA same shit” in the chorus, but contains no evidence for a Gaza, LA, Oakland comparison. Maybe they decided to take a page from Karl Rove and repeat something enough times so it will be believed.
Nuanced analysis is definitely not the strong point of those who support the comparison, but that skill is not limited to them. Either way, it is difficult to penetrate the opaqueness of knee-jerk Israel defenders, or hard-line Oakland activists, given the intense paranoia coming from both. Bay Area personality Davey D takes it too far however and resorts to a disturbingly familiar line of blame, despite being an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University. The most egregious comments are below, in which he attacks a defender of Israel:
As this Oscar Grant situation draws steam and people start to connect the dots along comes our favorite group of people-The ‘Lying’ Zionist [blog] to try and plant seeds of division as well as put forth the notion that Black people are too dumb to frame their own issues. They seem to be upset that the African American community is associating with folks who have similar concerns…The Zionist who seemed to be concerned that people on their own are connecting the dots and realizing that the Zionist have more incoming (sic) with out of control police officers than they do with their neighbors.
In other words Zionists, like the police, are attempting to divide the black community because they oppose two peoples with “similar concerns,” Gaza and Oakland. This appears to be a generalization of all defenders of Israel, and opponents of this argument, as siding with police and against the black community they supposedly think is dumb.
He also says “folks in the border states are now making the connection between the border walls being built in Texas is being done by the same companies that built the wall in Palestine.” But he highlights the Israeli company when the Army Corps of Engineers, and presumably many others are building as well. The two communities have similar concerns insofar as real poverty, and poor social services, but those are concerns of many around the globe.
Oakland’s problems involve voters with concerns about elected officials and, ideally accountable law enforcement bodies. Gazans concerns include basic freedom of movement, freedom of political association and speech, hunger, shelter, and political instability leading to war.
The desire to directly connect all the problems in the world is unfortunately familiar from those on the political extremes. And while politics connects us all, and most world issues do have overlap, blaming “Zionists” for getting us into wars and building a fence on the southern border is a stretch, to put it mildly.
Zionism as a “fringe” movement
Another familiar tactic is to paint all Zionists as war-mongering racists. This occurs in response to advocates of justice for Oscar Grant as well, painting them as rioters. But unfortunately for those who wish the world were simplistic, no group is homogeneous.
Davey D writes “most people love Israel-they just hate the Zionist who hijacked her. Just like many people love the US but hated Bush and his neo-con friends (mostly Zionist) who hijacked her and put us in all these crazy wars.”
Unfortunately he knows a lot more about rhetoric then international politics. There were Zionists in Bush’s cabinet, and there are Zionists that are neo-conservative, but there are also Zionists that lobbied forcefully against the Iraq war. There were even Zionists who walked out of school to take to the streets of Oakland and block traffic in protest before it started (like this blogger). There were also many neo-conservatives in the Bush administration who were not Jewish. This seems like a classic case of looking for a scapegoat, and borders on racism.
He goes on to say that:
“The Zionist are upset that a connection is being made to the terrorism that killed Oscar Grant and the terrorism going on in Gaza-In botjh (sic) cases innocent people are being killed….Whats even more disturbing are the attempst (sic) the Zionist want to make to try and divide communities-mostly of color who have been coming together.”
In other words, he is saying that because innocent people died in Oakland and Palestine that constitutes a direct connection. This line of reasoning is beyond simplistic, and the attempt to pit “communities of color” against Zionists is extremely ignorant. Many “Zionists” or Israelis are of Arab, Persian, or Ethiopian decent, many of darker skin than even Davey D himself. On the other hand many Palestinians could be mistaken for European were it not for their accent.
The New England Committee to Defend Palestine (NECDP), which appeared at an Oscar Grant community organization meeting in late January of last year, said in reference to Zionists that:
They have infiltrated ruling elites in every strategically important country in the world — the US in particular. They have infiltrated the media, the entertainment industry, Wall Street, the government, the corporate power structure, human rights and civil liberties groups, and the antiwar left. They have infiltrated the places and communities where Judaism is observed, so that today one cannot go into a synagogue in the US without seeing the blue and white “Israeli” flag.
This first part that is not even worth addressing simply because its blatant and classic anti-Semitism, promoting a vast conspiracy to coordinate policy in support of Israel. But let me address the Israeli flag, the flag of a UN member nation, which this group puts in parentheses. The Israeli flag draws on Jewish tradition, the star (or literally, shield) of David has been used since ancient times obviously drawing on the story of King David. The blue stripes were modeled after the tallit worn in synagogues.
The state of Israel is incredibly important in Jewish identity. In an interview with David Grossman in an “Atlantic Monthly” article, the author says reality has made a Jewish State necessary, “since the world has failed to defend Jewish existence there is a need for a place for the Jews to implement their culture, and their values, and their language, and their history, a place in which to recover.” As Malcolm X said, “Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”
But these arguments hide their racism by attempting to mask their alleging a vast conspiracy of oppression and “genocide” behind criticism of Zionism and Israel. This charge of genocide is also worth addressing, it comes up a lot in criticism of Israel and Zionism, no doubt in an attempt to turn the tides and paint a group once known as victims as oppressors. It’s an attempt to de-legitimize the history of victimization of Jews.
Israeli and other reactionaries respond by unfortunately attempting to reclaim the victim mantle victim as well, both sides refuse to acknowledge each others suffering while attempting to dehumanize and de-legitimize the other. But these terms that are thrown around in attempts to de-legitimize actually have definitions; genocide was defined by the UN as:
Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
To be sure, in an area in a constant state of war many of these things might horribly occur. But is it the official policy of the Israeli military or government? The undeniable answer is no. The NECDP also uses classic false logic when they offer a false dilemma between “–either with the victim or the executioner–either with the Palestinians or with their murderers–either with the peoples who fight or with the imperialists.” They even go so far as to accuse Israeli organizations which acknowledge and teach about the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 of promoting injustice through reconciliation because the only true justice is a bi-national state.
A One-State Solution?
The NECDP argues on its website that “For Palestine to live, Israel must die.” Now taken by itself, while this argument is relatively extreme, it is worth refuting. Essentially they are saying the only way for the Palestinians to succeed and flourish is to have a bi-national state for Jews and Palestinians, and advocate for a one-state “solution.” Unfortunately this is not a solution at all. In a perfect world nation states and nationalism would not exist. But nationalism, a European creation, was adopted by colonized and oppressed peoples in the twentieth century to fight back. That Israel is so successful belies the fact that Jews in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe, while conditions were improved, faced vast discrimination and forced assimilation.
Martyrs, terrorists, or both?
The NECDP also offers a tacit defense, and support, of Hamas; an organization which suicide bombs civilians, banned the smoking of the ancient tradition of hookah, and relegates women to second-class status. Yet they print a laughably false statement that “the Islamic resistance movements [Hamas, Hezbollah] proved by practice that they are not interested in imposing new social norms on the population.”
One member of the University of California, Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine who speaks Arabic, studied in Palestine, and considers himself “an advocate of the Palestinian cause. Of Palestinian self determination” presented another perspective. “Gaza and Oakland are very much different situations” and “I would never compare the two,” he said, “I have seen stuff online with Grant’s name on it as well as Gaza and its ridiculous, but I understand supporting underdogs.” In addition, he doesn’t consider “what happens in Oakland to be anything of the sort of what happens in the territories,” adding “our taxes go to a lot of things people are upset about.” For instance, the Oakland activists don’t connect United States taxes to government-funded oppression and murder in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Colombia, Turkey, or any other ally.
Comparing Gaza and Oakland is tempting because things that happen there happen here also. But it is a true false analogy because of the vast differences. One Cal State East Bay student of history argues these types of:
False coat tail logical fallacies are designed to try to get people just to jump on a hot topic, not understand in the least what it means. They try, unfortunately, to draw from a body of people that learned their subject matter solely from the Prius or Volvo bumper sticker at stoplights, or an “intro to something” class at Berkeley City or UC Berkeley. I just wonder how Palestinians would feel about such an analogy. I kind of feel some support here comes from a certain want of social acceptance into the “community/scene.”
Rather then real belief in and thus understanding in such an important situation of international injustices, people are easily co-opted into movements with people that share ideologies and world views, but not necessarily issues. What is important though, is that real justice is served to a community in need of assistance and attention. For instance the By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) group includes in their demands “massive funding to Oakland for education and jobs for Oakland’s black, Latina/o, Asian, and poor and working-class white youth. Stop police/ICE racial profiling of Latina/o, black, Asian, and other minority youth with and without papers” and calls on Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums to act on the demands of the movement.
Those who compare the suffering of Palestinians in the long running conflict between two people in the Middle East to discrimination, corruption of the police, and failure of public services and internal communities of the United States do a disservice to both. Far be it for me to make suggestions to another communities leadership, but as an outside observer I think one can always take a look the failure of ones own leadership, in this case Oakland, and Palestine. Zionists are criticized for convincing others to support their cause. Maybe instead other groups need to do a better job of finding allies. It’s not as easy as blaming a vast Zionist conspiracy, but it will lead to better results. I will end with a quote that shows an unusual source for defense of Israel and commentary on activism. Ten days before his assassination at the annual convention on the Rabbinical Assembly, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:
The response of some of the so-called young militants does not represent the position of the vast majority of Negroes. There are some who are color-consumed and they see a kind of mystique in blackness or in being colored, and anything non-colored is condemned. We do not follow that course…. Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect her right to exist, its territorial integrity and the right to use whatever sea lanes it needs. Israel is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality.
[i] Mandingo. Personal Interview by Ryan Ariel Simon. 8 July 2010.
[ii] Pauley, B.F. “From Prejudice to Persecution: A History of Austrian Anti-Semitism.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. p. 1