Coleman Hughes: The Struggle for Black Freedom Has Nothing to Do with Israel

Jan 11, 2024 | History, Voices

As the Israel-Hamas war drags on in its second month and shows no sign of abating, many Westerners have drawn comparisons between the state of Israel and Jim Crow-era America or apartheid South Africa. In their telling, Israelis are the white people, Palestinians are the black people, and the ethics of the conflict mirror the ethics of Jim Crow and apartheid.

Once framed this way, the correct view becomes obvious. Israelis: racist oppressors. Palestinians: noble victims.

This view of the Arab-Israeli conflict has lodged itself deeply in the Western psyche. It is why organizations like Amnesty International condemn Israel as an “apartheid state” despite the glaring differences between Israel and the canonical example of apartheid South Africa. It is why Black Lives Matter chapters across America came out in reflexive support of Hamas mere days after the terror group slaughtered 1,200 Israelis in the most gruesome ways imaginable. And it is why Ta-Nehisi Coates, considered by many to be America’s leading public intellectual on race, recently called Israel a “Jim Crow regime” and compared cities in the West Bank to Baltimore and Chicago.

But close-to-home analogies rarely explain distant events. These analogies, while convenient and easy to understand, do more to mislead than to inform. Nowhere has this been truer than in comparisons between the Israeli-Arab conflict and the West’s racial and colonial history.

[The Op-Ed from the Free Press continues]

Nor should we regard such projects as similar to the projects of Christopher Columbus or Hernán Cortés. It would be easy to stop Columbus mid-voyage and tell him to turn back to Europe. But you’d have to be heartless to tell an ex-slave sailing to West Africa in 1840 to turn around and go back to Mississippi, or to tell a Jewish refugee sailing to the British Mandate in the 1940s to turn around and go back to Europe (though the British did, in fact, do just that).

A key difference between the nature of the Israeli-Arab conflict and South African apartheid is that Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank—checkpoints, movement restrictions, and so forth—are rooted in legitimate security concerns rather than racism. Because the word security has been dulled through overuse, it is crucial to remember what it really means. Security means preventing what happened on October 7—which Hamas has promised to do over and over if given the chance. No function of the state could be more important.

Some critics of Israel will be quick to point out that defenders of South African apartheid also used “security” as a justification for the apartheid system. The difference is that in the case of South Africa, it was a false pretext. In apartheid South Africa, marriage (and even sex) between blacks and whites was punishable by prison time. South African officials would decide your race (and therefore your fate) by running a comb through your hair. If it ran all the way through without too much resistance, you were considered legally white.

These policies, which lie at the core of apartheid South Africa, were the result not of security concerns but of an ideological obsession with racial classification and a horror at the thought of “race-mixing.” Such policies would be unthinkable in Israel, where Arab Israelis are full citizens, enjoying the right to vote, serve in the Israeli parliament and the Knesset, and even sit on the Supreme Court.

[The Op-Ed from the Free Press continues]

As for tactics, there is nothing in the history of mainstream African American political activism analogous to Hamas’s use of its own people as human shields; their use of a civilian hospital as a torture chamber; their denial of resources to their own people despite billions of dollars in international aid; their system of cash rewards to incentivize suicide bombings against civilian targets; their indiscriminate rocket fire on civilians; their practice of taking children and the elderly as hostages; and the combination of millenarianism and genocidal bloodlust evoked in their founding charter.

If you’d like to defend Hamas, then go ahead. But do not take the easy way out by making farcical comparisons between the black freedom struggle and Palestinian nationalism or between European colonialism and Zionism.

View this Op-Ed from the Free Press form January 11th