Jonathan Kaufman
Jonathan Kaufman

Fellowship Title:

Journey to Israel

Jonathan Kaufman
August 8, 1986

Fellowship Year

JERUSALEM–The jogging path from the hotel ran past a street named in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A month earlier, in January, the Israeli Parliament had held a special session commemorating King’s birthday. Leaflets had been distributed to all the schools describing, in Hebrew, the bus boycott in Birmingham in 1956, the March on Washington with its famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the 50-mile voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 with King walking arm in arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, King’s assassination in Memphis. Israeli commentators quoted a speech given by King ten days before his assassination in 1968. “1 see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”

Here in Israel this past winter, it was possible to recall an earlier age, the 1950s and 1960s, when blacks and Jews worked together for civil rights, battled against bigotry, held hands and sang “Let My People Go” and “We Shall Overcome.” But the delegation of blacks, Jews and Hispanics who were visiting Israel on this trip organized by the Anti-Defamation League–a mixture of lawyers, journalists and city officials–reflected another time, the 1980s. Issues such as affirmative action, the political campaign of Jesse Jackson, the conduct of Israel towards the Palestinians and towards South Africa, all these have divided the blacks and Jewish communities and left some barely speaking to one another.

Just as a trip away from home often clears the mind and wipes away distractions, so this trip to Israel clarified some of the root causes of the tensions that afflict blacks and Jews. Like the unexpected discoveries of a trip, the moments came in snapshots, in sudden juxtapositions of experience and events that shed light on each group’s experiences, pain and political beliefs.

The Elementary School at Shfaram


The Arab village of Shfaram lies in the Galilee, its hilly roads lined with buildings on both sides of the street.

The elementary school, at the crest of one hill, is old and shopworn. The principal says school allocations for Arab schools are generally a fraction that of Jewish schools. A teacher at the school, who is Palestinian, talks about his brother, a university student, who is increasingly drawn to radical groups because he believes his future in Israel is limited by anti-Arab prejudice.

There are about 700,000 Arabs who are citizens of Israel. This does not include the more than one million Palestinians who live in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, who are not citizens at all. Arab Israelis, are, by most accounts, treated as second class citizens. Earlier, standing outside the Old City in Jerusalem, a member of the American group looked out at an Israeli Arab village across the way and asked what the fate would be of the children playing there. “They’ll probably end up working in one of the hotels,” the guide replied.

In the course of the discussion at Shfaram, the principal says that Arab citizens of Israel have been able to vote only since 1964. That brings the blacks and Hispanics in the group up short. The Civil Rights Act in America was passed in 1964; the voting rights act a year later, ending a hundred years of political disenfranchisement for blacks but still leaving yawning gulfs in job opportunities, education, income.

Israelis point out, correctly, that Arabs in Israel have a higher standard of living than Arabs in most other countries, that they can criticize the Israeli government, that they can lobby, demonstrate, worship. They have more rights and freedoms than Jews who live in Arab countries. But the contrast here at Shfaram, and laid out by these Israeli Arabs is glaring. It is reminiscent of discrimination and the division between blacks and whites in the United States.

Kibbutz Misgav Am


In his book, In the Land of Israel, Amos Oz, an Israeli journalist, reports on his travels around the country in October and November of 1982. In one chapter he stops in a cafe in the town of Bet Shemesh, and sits down with some customers who berate him for his dovish views. “You listen carefully,” one man tells him. “I’ll tell you something, and you write it down word for word. ‘You want to know what Peace Now really is [referring to the Israeli peace movement]? (Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem) Begin is peace now. Wiped out the PLO. Clobbered the Syrians and put them on the sidelines, for ten years. Before that he hit the Iraqis in their reactor. And he had the brains to take the Egyptians out of the game….You’ll see-after they stick in a couple hundred more settlements, there’ll be quiet on the West Bank too. If you didn’t stir up trouble all the time, the Arabs would be lining up to sign, one by one, with Begin. They’d give up on the territories….What’s justice, anyway? There’s ten, maybe twenty million Jews in the world. Don’t they deserve a country hardly a quarter the size of Syria? Don’t the Arabs have enough countries?”

Such hardline sentiments unnerve liberal American Jews, who have been some of Israel’s biggest and most generous supporters. They seem outside the mainstream of Jewish thought and experience. Why do people think this way? A visit to Kibbutz Misgav Am makes it more clear.

The Kibbutz stands at the northern tip of Israel. Lebanon is on the other side of the fence. Syria sits across the valley. It was this fence several years ago that members of the PLO slipped through and broke into the kibbutz nursery and held the children inside hostage. When one of the babies began crying and wouldn’t stop, a terrorist gunman hit the child with a gun butt to quiet it. The baby died. The baby’s parents still live on the kibbutz.

Soon after arriving, the delegation breaks into smaller groups to visit individual families. One group visits the apartment of a couple and their two young children. It is a small apartment, but very well furnished, with a color television set and stereo system. Before the group leaves, the family offers a tour of the house. In a back room there is a framed copy of the genealogical family tree, with pictures representing grandparents, great aunts and uncles. A member of the group asks where all the other relatives are. They are dead, the family responds. They died in the Holocaust.

It is a vivid image: not only a country, but a people under siege. How, Israelis here and elsewhere ask, do you deal with an organization, the PLO, that kills your children? How do you maintain a just and equal society surrounded by countries that are pledged to destroy you? In America, many blacks complain, Jews cannot talk about Israel rationally. It is “off limits” in any discussion. Outsiders come to Israel and see the prosperity and obvious military strength. But here in the kibbutz, that strength is only a fence thick, and piercing it rekindles a deep-set history of fears that Jews will be annihilated.

Lunch With The Foreign Ministry


In conversations with black civil rights workers, with Jews who marched in Selma and Mississippi, with ministers and rabbis, with young blacks and young Jews, a theme which recurs is the notion of a higher moral standard.

Jews, the argument goes, should follow a higher moral standard because they know what it is like to be discriminated against. Blacks expect more of them. Jews, like blacks, have been oppressed. They see injustice and fight against it. Thus while Jews in the past thirty years have risen to be the most affluent ethnic group in the country, they still vote overwhelmingly for liberal candidates and financially support the underprivileged. Any deviation from this, any suggestion that Jews, like other whites, vote and argue their own economic and ethnic self interests is greeted with howls of protest.

Similarly, so argue many Jews, blacks should be especially upset by the comments of Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan because they know what it is like to be called ‘“n…..”’ or ‘ape’ or ‘boy’, to have groups act against them and push them to the outside. Blacks should know how quickly verbal violence can lead to physical violence. Jewish groups criticize anti-Semitism wherever it crops up, but their criticism seems to carry an extra edge, an extra dollop of indignation, when the people committing the slurs are black.

Many Jews argue that blacks should be especially upset by the comments of Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan because they know what it is like to have groups act against them and push them to the outside.
Many Jews argue that blacks should be especially upset by the comments of Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan because they know what it is like to have groups act against them and push them to the outside.

In Israel, this debate over higher standards crystallizes in an exchange over lunch with David Kimche, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Before the soup spoons have dipped into the soup, he is asked why Israel continues to maintain relations and trade with South Africa.

Israel condemns apartheid, and speaks out against it at every opportunity, Kimche answers. But at a time when so many countries have turned against Israel, South Africa has remained a loyal supporter. And why should Israel cut off relations with South Africa, Kimche asks. Arab countries trade with South Africa. African countries trade with South Africa. The United States trades and maintains relations with South Africa. Why should Israel be the one to stop?

“I understand your point of view,” says Ricardo Millett, a black official of Boston’s redevelopment authority and an active member in the city’s civil rights community. “But I am disappointed. I expected more from Israel.”

“We like being moral, we are proud to be the people of the book,” Kimche responds. “But we are in the business of survival.”

The argument ends in deadlock.

A 10-day trip to Israel is not enough time to resolve the dilemma of black-Jewish relations in America, to see how divisions can be repaired, or even if they should be. But some lessons are clear.

Blacks and Jews need to find new ways to talk about Israel. “You can’t support South Africa and avoid criticism from people like me,” says Millett, who also says that by depriving Arab Israelis of full citizenship rights Israel is “headed for a cataclysmic confrontation with universal citizen prerogatives,” similar to the confrontation that gripped the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. Jews need to find a way to talk about Israel that allows them to accept criticism of, or even hostility towards, Israeli policies without feeling foreboding that the next statement will advocate destruction of the state. Too often, especially in conversations with blacks, Jews and especially Jewish leaders immediately assume a defensive crouch.

At the same time, blacks need to recognize the emotional and historic importance of Israel to America’s Jews. Israel is not just another state, holding the same sentimental attachment for American Jews that Italy holds for Italian-Americans. The fear and memories that exist at Kibbutz Misgav Am are real. They are fears and memories that still exist for American Jews, despite their success and influence. For blacks to talk about Israel without recognizing Jewish fears and history offers little chance for success. Just as many blacks see attacks on affirmative action as covert attack on blacks, so do many Jews see attacks on Israel as a covert attack on Jews.

Several years ago, Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” wrote about her changing attitudes towards Israel. “I remember Egypt’s attack on Israel in 1967 and how frightened my Jewish husband and I were that Israel would be–as Egypt threatened–‘driven into the sea,’ ” Walker wrote. “When Israel won the Six Day War we were happy and relieved.” But over the years, Walker’s feelings changed. She became increasingly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. When her husband “insisted that Israel had a right to exist,” she writes, “I could only answer, ‘Yes, and so do those other folks.’ “

A great deal has changed in the years since the Civil Rights Movement. While Israel commemorates the achievements of Martin Luther King and the black-Jewish alliance that blossomed in the 1960s around the banner of civil rights, any hope for the future lies in a dialogue that is firmly rooted in present issues and present perceptions. The old alliance rested on a common hatred of bigotry and a common commitment to open up American society to those locked out, including blacks and Jews. Those were the old black-Jewish issues. Any new alliance must grapple with the new black-Jewish issues: Israeli ties to South Africa, its treatment of the Palestinians, the security of Israel, together with domestic issues of affirmative action and political and economic power. The discussion won’t be easy. But for the upcoming younger generation of blacks and Jews, grappling with and resolving these issues offers the only hope for future cooperation.

©1986 Jonathan Kaufman

Jonathan Kaufman, a reporter on leave from the Boston Globe, is investigating the broken alliance between Blacks and Jews in America.

Jonathan Kaufman
Jonathan Kaufman