One of the great failures of my professional life is an inability to convince Israeli Arabs (or Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) to adopt the model of African-Americans as a way of political and social advancement.
Arab intellectuals and political activists are well schooled in good reasons to reject the comparison. History never repeats itself. Details are important, and they differ between the African-American and the Palestinian experience.
All that is true, but there are better reasons to consider the African-American model, and to employ it in a mode of self-criticism. It is clear to me, if not to the Arabs of Israel, that the model of rejectionism followed until now has not served them well.
It is hard for me to avoid the conclusion that among the reasons for the rejection of the African-American model is at least a bit of racism. Or it may be better to phrase it as a sense of cultural and religious superiority. Arabs, and perhaps especially the Muslims among them, are convinced that they deserve better than what they have received.
Did I really hear the man accurately when he said that the African-American experience could not be compared to the far greater suffering of Palestinians? I made no impression with my response about "Whites Only" drinking fountains, rest rooms, and park benches, and the killing of African-Americans who dared to vote.
African-American progress to corporate board rooms, good neighborhoods, and the White House owes something to decent Whites, but at least as much to the hard work of African-American politicians. Climbing the ladders of political activity from local wards and Congressional elections to heading cities, acquiring seniority and chairing Congressional committees, and using voting clout to influence the selection of judges served to expand voting rights, affirmative action, and further progress up society's ladders.
The vast majority of the Arabs living in East Jerusalem refuse to vote in municipal elections in order to avoid participation in Israeli occupation. They give up the opportunity to select between a quarter and a third of the city council, and to be the deciding factor in mayoralty contests that--for the foreseeable future--are likely to pit an ultra-Orthodox candidate against a secular Jew. Without the political power that they surrender for the sake of nationalist dreams, the Arabs of East Jerusalem are left to complain about poor schools, unpaved streets, a lack of sidewalks and garbage collection, the lack of responses to their calls for an ambulance, or the delay of the ambulance until the crew receives police protection against the prospect of stoning or some other unpleasantness.
An Arab response: participation in the politics of Lod, Ramle, Acco, and Tel Aviv-Yafo has not produced results. The Jews on the city councils gang up against Arab members, so why should we try in Jerusalem? The Arabs in the Knesset do no better.
I do not know what happens in those other cities with substantial Arab minorities. The Knesset story is simple. The Arabs have not adopted the African-American model of participating in the major parties, and trading their votes for material benefits provided to their constituents. Most Arab Knesset Members affiliate with Arab parties that spend all their energy criticizing the Israeli establishment and distinguishing themselves from the major parties, rather than cooperating for the sake of payoffs.
Politics is hard work. Failure is more frequent than success. "Every day you have to eat -----" was prominent in the lessons I taught my students.
Explanations of Arabs' political impotence may begin with all those Muslim governments anxious to help. Multi-generational status as refugees, living on the dole of the United Nations and occasional contributions by Muslim governments (along with the provision of munitions) has reinforced a posture of suffering from Jewish injustice. To go along with the Zionist state would be to go against the international coalition that claims to support the cause of Palestine.
The Jews' experience as a weak minority began differently. According to the Prophet Jeremiah, the Jews exiled to Babylon should
"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." (Jeremiah 29:6-8)
For most of the later Diasporas, the Jews lacked political influence. They resembled African-Americans in their complete dependence on others. The Jews of the United States, and those of other democracies, have lifted themselves to economic and cultural heights not by rebelling or relying on others, but by learning the play the game, and taking advantage of opportunities in business, politics, and other fields. Until well into the 1960s, American Jews faced resistence by universities and corporations in acceptance as students or employees, municipalities in residential restrictions, and government departments in the favortism shown to WASPS.
The Golden Rule of Doing Unto Others as You would have them Do Unto You does not assure success in politics. Claiming a monopoly of having suffered, and expecting others to help is a fatal poison, self-administered.
Going along to get along, or Log-rolling (I'll roll your log if you roll mine) is the game that produces results.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at November 26, 2011 02:36 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem