An Impressive Ignorance of History

Published on Haaretz

In an opinion piece published last week in Haaretz (“Just like Rosa Parks,” Dec. 29, 2009), columnist Karni Eldad compared the government’s 10-month freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank with institutionalized discrimination against blacks in the United States.

She called on her fellow settlers to ignore the freeze, equating such proposed civil disobedience with Rosa Parks’ refusal to “move to the back of the bus,” in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 – one of the touchstone incidents in the civil rights movement.

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Assuming Eldad intended this comparison to be taken seriously, it is worth highlighting some of the moral and historical differences between the two situations

b Rosa Parks was a member of a beleaguered and persecuted minority.

An Israeli settler is a member of a dominant and powerful majority.

b The laws of the land at the time discriminated against Rosa Parks on the basis of her skin color, as they did against all African Americans.

The laws of the land favor settlers on the basis of their national identity, but discriminate against another people: Palestinian residents of the territories.

b Rosa Parks was poor, and represented a disempowered people subject to the often violent whims of law enforcement agencies.

Most settlers are not poor. The physical infrastructure of their settlements and their network of bypass roads is paid for by all Israeli citizens, and their protection is provided by our nation’s military, one of the most powerful armed forces in the Middle East.

b Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience took the form of nonviolent protest.

Settlers attacking building inspectors are breaking the law and engaging in violence in their attempt to thwart a political decision they do not like. Threats against the defense minister are likewise illegal attempts at intimidation.

b Rosa Parks fought segregation.

Settlers actively or passively promote segregation. Think of roads for “Jews only.”

b Rosa Parks risked her life to fight a discriminatory system.

Settlers risk their lives to preserve a discriminatory system.

b The laws used to discriminate against Rosa Parks were based on an immoral social code, which was justified by various baseless claims of racial inferiority and contamination.

The decision to freeze settlement building is based on the momentary political calculus of a right-wing government trying to appease its American ally, and has little moral weight. The laws that favor Israeli settlers at the expense of Palestinians are indeed immoral, and use our very real security problems as an excuse to nibble away at Palestinian land and to limit Palestinian freedom and development opportunities.

b Rosa Parks’ call to end segregation was intended to correct the basic injustice that had marred American democracy since its founding, when the institution of slavery was left intact, and which continued in its most extreme form in the South almost a century after emancipation.

The settlers’ call to continue construction to meet the needs of “natural growth” is a form of double-speak, employing a term originating in political spin to justify further expropriation of Palestinian land. Settlement expansion has little to do with “natural growth” – as evidenced by the marketing campaigns to sell new housing units to buyers with no family ties to settlers. The demand for financial compensation for losses incurred by the government-mandated construction moratorium establishes a new benchmark in greed and gall from some in the settler community, who have grown too used to drinking from the national trough.

b Rosa Parks did not lead or found the civil rights movement, but the publicity around her action developed enormous symbolic significance.

As Israeli citizens, settlers have the same rights as all other citizens of the state, but their central symbolic significance in the civil rights arena is in the denial of civil rights to their Palestinian neighbors, who are routinely displaced, have their freedom of movement curtailed, and are left with almost no legal recourse when they or their property are abused by settlers or our state agencies.

b The laws that were used against Rosa Parks are today universally considered to be morally invalid and despicable.

The laws that favor settlers but encroach upon Palestinian life are today considered to be morally invalid and despicable across the globe, in much of Israel and among a majority of the Jewish people around the world. Only our government and some settlers remain unaware of this.

To suggest that the situation of a settler enduring a temporary settlement freeze is parallel to the circumstances facing Rosa Parks is obscene, and reflects an impressive ignorance of history.

Furthermore, one would be advised to read “1984,” by George Orwell, with special attention to “newspeak” – aka doublespeak – when making the “natural growth” argument. (Nota bene: “1984” was intended as a critique of totalitarian and fascist tendencies in a democratic society, not as a how-to book.) This is simply another attempt to change the public discourse in Israeli society by portraying settlers, rather than the Palestinians, as the victims of our policies in the West Bank.

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