The respected left-wing journalist Aluf Benn recently reported in Haaretz that “When Condoleezza Rice talks about the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel, she sees in her mind’s eye the struggle of African Americans for equal rights, which culminated in the period of her Alabama childhood.”
Though Benn never cited any source for his description of Rice’s deep personal identification with the Palestinian national cause, he has interviewed Secretary Rice before and obviously felt his source was good enough for print. He went on to “guess” that Rice’s feelings were based on the similarity between the separation fence and checkpoints in the West Bank and the Jim Crow laws that prohibited blacks from exercising their most basic civil rights. For good measure Benn also threw in the suggestion that Rice often confuses Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Martin Luther King.
Benn’s article has become a favorite topic of conversation in American Jewish circles this month because it speaks aloud a painful idea that has haunted Jews on the Left and the Right for some time, which is that the world no longer sees us, as it did for perhaps twenty years between the Holocaust and the release of the movie “Exodus,” as living angels in a fallen world. It is a fact that the comparison of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank with Nazis has gained currency over the past two decades in Europe and on college campuses in America. Yet the deliberately obscene nature of this analogy makes it hard to swallow for anyone who is not eighteen years old or blinded by hate. After all, why compare Israelis to Nazis when so many other historical exemplars of badness are available – apartheid-era South Africa, say, or the Chinese in Tibet.
That many Americans no longer see the comparison between the loathsome apartheid regime in South Africa and Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as loony is due in large part to the efforts of former president Jimmy Carter, who has enjoyed a successful second career as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and freelance crackpot. Carter’s diligent efforts to stigmatize the Jewish state for not being peaceful and generous enough for his liking have been supported by the work of his fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who shares with Carter a willful ignorance of basic facts about the history of the Jewish people, Christianity and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as the physical geography of the Middle East.
The comparison of Israel and apartheid-era South Africa has also been furthered on American campuses by an endorsement by Nelson Mandela, another Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who is definitely not a crackpot. The fact that Mandela’s supposed endorsement was actually written by an Arab propagandist, and that Mandela himself has repeatedly refused to say any such thing, has done little to dampen the general enthusiasm for analogies in which Israelis aren’t Nazis exactly, but are definitely the worst kind of racists and devils.
So, to have an American secretary of state – an accomplished black woman with a Ph.D. in political science, who plays the piano, who grew up as a little girl in the South and lost a friend when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the churches in Birmingham – compare Israelis to Southern whites and Palestinians to Southern blacks is definitely news, even if the comparison is not exactly original. Benn’s off-the-record/on-the-record “hint” that Rice might be personally sympathetic to Palestinians has naturally excited Jewish right-wingers, who fear a sell-out at the upcoming peace conference in Annapolis, just as it pains left-wingers, who worry that she might think that they, too, are racists, the worst sin in the liberal “Al Cheyt.”
Sixty years after the founding of the State of Israel, it is also a fact that Jews remain uncomfortable with exercising power. Instead, we like to celebrate our moral authority, which comes out of the Mosaic tradition, is connected in our minds with our long history of martyrdom and victimhood and our sympathies with other oppressed groups. The fact that few people who aren’t also Jewish appear to care much for Jewish moral authority has little influence on our attachment to the ancient idea that the Jews were created as a light unto the nations.