The same week President Obama honored Rosa Parks Parks’ 100th birthday, Israel announced two newly segregated bus lines for Palestinian workers traveling to Israel from the West Bank. The “Palestinian only” buses were introduced after Israeli settlers complained that fellow Palestinian passengers posed a “security risk.”
The timing of Israel’s announcement set the internet abuzz with moralizing references to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Jim Crow. If only Palestinians could produce their own Rosa Parks. More sophisticated Palestine analysts observed that for Palestinians, segregation is already routine. Israeli society functions thanks to a complex web of segregated highways, neighborhoods, and educational institutions. Potential Palestinian “Martin Luther King Jr’s” cycle in and out of Israeli jails.
Of course, President Obama avoids Jim Crow/Israel analogies. His administration continues to oppose international efforts to recognize Palestinian self-determination and the itinerary for Obama’s upcoming Israel trip resembles a POTUS version of Birthright. His first activity is a photo op with missile battery. Obviously, a spell of liberal indignation over bus segregation and a brief flurry of Rosa Park’s references will not translate into US policies shifts on Israel/Palestine. But in this faux-outrage, there is something valuable to be learned about the shortcomings of liberalism and its failure to fully comprehend both the plight of Palestinians and America’s own history of racial oppression.
As Samir Sonti pointed out in Jacobin last week, contemporary liberals sanitize the movement for black liberation as a fundamentally individual struggle for “civil rights,” stripped of its working class roots, revolutionary goals, and strong ties to organized labor.
For liberals, racial oppression is an uncomfortable concept because it lays the blame for inequality at the feet of society at large and implicates the very legitimacy of liberal institutions. For that reason, Martin Luther King Jr is remembered more for his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott — with its modest goals of bus integration — than for his Poor People’s Campaign and his deeper indictment of American society.
Liberals who generally support Israel, but find themselves cringing when Israeli politicians make racist remarks, seize on incidents like Israeli bus segregation because it packages the conflict in digestible terms. This impulse does signal some empathy for the Palestinian plight. But it also smacks of triumphalism. Realizing African-American civil rights, we are told, is the landmark achievement of twentieth-century liberalism — a hard but necessary journey. When we chastise Israel for segregating buses there is a clear subtext: America has come so far from the days of Jim Crow and our little sibling in the Middle East has some catching up to do.
But Palestinians know that bus segregation is merely a cosmetic feature of their oppression. Commuter discrimination amounts to a red herring. The separate buses are only significant for how they reflect on the general ideological predicament of Israeli society. In fact, many of the Palestinian workers who actually ride the buses welcome the segregation. The new routes are more direct and save the Palestinians from having to endure harassment from settlers.
The perspectives of Palestinian laborers fail to register with liberals, who are desperate to recast Palestinian oppression as an individualistic struggle for civil rights. For them, Palestinian oppression is comfortably framed as “inequality before the law,” a condition easily remedied by extending the largess of the Jewish state. This limited understanding works to reinforce the primacy of Israel — its courts, government, and military — as flawed but ultimately legitimate liberal institutions capable of reform.
If the problem is primarily a problem of civil rights, an issue of inequality rather than oppression, then the solution must be new laws, better courts ,and more sensitive politicians. This is a very comfortable position for liberals because it forecloses far reaching criticism of Israeli society at large and quashes difficult questions about the very foundation of that state.
By sidestepping the question of oppression and dismissing the potential for restructuring Israeli society, liberals do not pause to consider the claims of Palestinians. The age-old Palestinian demand for the “right of return” is considered inconceivable because it would undermine the very nature of the Jewish state. Palestinians are encouraged to set aside their historic grievances and embrace the existing “facts on the ground.” The liberal view holds that by working within the system Palestinians can overcome inequality. It does not leave much room for, in MLK’s words, “radically restructuring society itself.”
The same tendency infects the liberal civil rights mythos. In the push for a color blind society, any system-wide attempts to reach equal racial outcomes are cast outside the mainstream. The ultimate watchdog of American liberalism, the US Supreme Court, is poised to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, one of the lone vestiges of a transformative approach to racial equality. For liberals, contemporary racism is the fault of a few bad apples and any push to fundamentally alter the distribution of resources is considered in poor taste.
Rosa Parks is cast as an ordinary woman, fed up with the indignity of her commute, rather than a lifelong activist with revolutionary aspirations and ties to the American Communist Party. Thus, the sanitized perception of Rosa Parks enables people like Mitch McConnell to bask in the achievement of civil rights alongside President Obama.
As liberalism fails to offer compelling solutions to racial inequality, a growing chorus of voices on the Left are shining a light on persistent Jim Crow-like segregation in American society. Under the “New Jim Crow” one in three black men are destined to go to prison and blacks are ten times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for drug crimes.
Critical race theorists like Charles Lawrence III have long anticipated this reconfiguration of racial castes. Lawrence III warned that the dominant individualistic understanding of racial inequality would prove inadequate to reverse centuries of oppression: “Racial equality [should be seen] as a substantive societal condition rather than as an individual right.” Yet radical solutions to persistent racial inequality — more aggressive affirmative action, slavery reparations, dismantling the criminal justice system as we know it, legalizing drugs that are the overwhelming cause of black incarceration — all fall beyond the purview of liberal criticism.
Liberals bring this same limited scope to their understanding of Israel/Palestine and their range of solutions for the conflict exposes grave ideological contradictions. Of course, Palestinians deserve equal rights, liberals proclaim, but fundamental questions about the very nature of Israel and its foundation remain taboo. Those who oppose the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state are quickly labeled anti-Semites.
Liberals balk at racism within Israeli society but the roots of that racism go unexamined. Religion and State should be kept separate, say the liberals, but theocratic and overtly racist Israeli political parties continue to grow. For the foreseeable future Israeli politics will increasingly ruffle liberal sensibilities, but the liberal frame will continue to view Palestinian oppression as an understandable, if regrettable, blip in Israel’s democratic journey.