The respected left-wing journalist Aluf Benn recently reported in Haaretz that “When Condoleezza Rice talks about the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel, she sees in her mind’s eye the struggle of African Americans for equal rights, which culminated in the period of her Alabama childhood.”
Though Benn never cited any source for his description of Rice’s deep personal identification with the Palestinian national cause, he has interviewed Secretary Rice before and obviously felt his source was good enough for print. He went on to “guess” that Rice’s feelings were based on the similarity between the separation fence and checkpoints in the West Bank and the Jim Crow laws that prohibited blacks from exercising their most basic civil rights. For good measure Benn also threw in the suggestion that Rice often confuses Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Martin Luther King.
Benn’s article has become a favorite topic of conversation in American Jewish circles this month because it speaks aloud a painful idea that has haunted Jews on the Left and the Right for some time, which is that the world no longer sees us, as it did for perhaps twenty years between the Holocaust and the release of the movie “Exodus,” as living angels in a fallen world. It is a fact that the comparison of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank with Nazis has gained currency over the past two decades in Europe and on college campuses in America. Yet the deliberately obscene nature of this analogy makes it hard to swallow for anyone who is not eighteen years old or blinded by hate. After all, why compare Israelis to Nazis when so many other historical exemplars of badness are available – apartheid-era South Africa, say, or the Chinese in Tibet.
That many Americans no longer see the comparison between the loathsome apartheid regime in South Africa and Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as loony is due in large part to the efforts of former president Jimmy Carter, who has enjoyed a successful second career as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and freelance crackpot. Carter’s diligent efforts to stigmatize the Jewish state for not being peaceful and generous enough for his liking have been supported by the work of his fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who shares with Carter a willful ignorance of basic facts about the history of the Jewish people, Christianity and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as the physical geography of the Middle East.
The comparison of Israel and apartheid-era South Africa has also been furthered on American campuses by an endorsement by Nelson Mandela, another Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who is definitely not a crackpot. The fact that Mandela’s supposed endorsement was actually written by an Arab propagandist, and that Mandela himself has repeatedly refused to say any such thing, has done little to dampen the general enthusiasm for analogies in which Israelis aren’t Nazis exactly, but are definitely the worst kind of racists and devils.
So, to have an American secretary of state – an accomplished black woman with a Ph.D. in political science, who plays the piano, who grew up as a little girl in the South and lost a friend when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the churches in Birmingham – compare Israelis to Southern whites and Palestinians to Southern blacks is definitely news, even if the comparison is not exactly original. Benn’s off-the-record/on-the-record “hint” that Rice might be personally sympathetic to Palestinians has naturally excited Jewish right-wingers, who fear a sell-out at the upcoming peace conference in Annapolis, just as it pains left-wingers, who worry that she might think that they, too, are racists, the worst sin in the liberal “Al Cheyt.”
Sixty years after the founding of the State of Israel, it is also a fact that Jews remain uncomfortable with exercising power. Instead, we like to celebrate our moral authority, which comes out of the Mosaic tradition, is connected in our minds with our long history of martyrdom and victimhood and our sympathies with other oppressed groups. The fact that few people who aren’t also Jewish appear to care much for Jewish moral authority has little influence on our attachment to the ancient idea that the Jews were created as a light unto the nations.
Perhaps being a “light unto the nations” is easier in exile, or perhaps the meaning of the phrase “light unto the nations” is more enigmatic than our sages let on. It is no secret that many Jews in Israel and in America feel anxious and torn about the de facto segregation of the Israeli and Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza which is backed by the full force of the IDF, by extrajudicial measures like targeted killings, and by a full range of security measures like fences and passes and bypass roads which can appear to be physically indistinguishable from the landscape of apartheid in South Africa. There are good reasons to believe that many of these measures are necessary to protect the lives of Israeli citizens and that much criticism of Israeli behavior is historically ignorant and morally obtuse. But the reality – however necessary – still makes many Jews wince.
At the same time, it is also important to remember that Condoleezza Rice is not a talk show host but the U.S. secretary of state – which is not a job that leaves very much room for personal moments. Her private rhetoric (if “off the record” conversations with foreign politicians and journalists can even remotely be considered private) is simply rhetoric – that is to say, words intended for a purpose. Every word she speaks embodies the political will of the most powerful nation in the history of the planet – a nation currently having a bit of trouble in the Middle East.
Rice is a skilled political tactician who is fantastically loyal to President Bush, who has repeatedly declared his intention to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza before he leaves office. It seems wise to take the president at his word, not because he will succeed but because he has laid down a marker that a future U.S. president will be obliged to pay off. If playing the race card makes Palestinians feel loved, Israelis feel guilty, and American Jews feel that their own moral purity is being endangered by Israel – so be it.
The amount of leverage Rice can gain by a few well-placed whispers is obvious. Secretary Rice rarely hesitates to use her personal biography to her political advantage in a refined but very effective way. While the intent of Aluf Benn’s “guesses” about Rice’s innermost feelings about the Palestinian cause is clearly incendiary, I have little doubt the secretary and her aides have whispered sweet nothings into the ears of Israeli and Palestinian politicians and even to Aluf Benn himself, suggesting that she can empathize with the Palestinian sufferings under Israeli occupation by virtue of having been born black in Alabama. Benn’s dramatic embellishments should not diminish the fact that empathizing with Palestinian suffering is a minimum requirement for having a political conversation that involves Palestinians as well as Israelis.
At the same time, it seems highly unlikely that Secretary Rice’s sudden empathy for the Palestinian cause is anything more than a tactical maneuver in the service of her forthcoming peace conference at Annapolis, which itself is a tactic to help ensure Arab support for an orderly American withdrawal from Iraq and a future attack on Iran. After all, neither Mahmoud Abbas nor Ehud Olmert can command the loyalty of more than a small fraction of his own electorate. Neither man has the slightest amount of room for maneuver in negotiations, or the slightest ability to compel his political opponents to accept an agreement. A comprehensive peace agreement signed by Abbas and Olmert would have only slightly more significance than the same agreement signed by Bishop Tutu and the King of Thailand – who, as far as I know, couldn’t care less.
Based on my own interviews with Rice, and my analysis of what she has said about the conflict over a long period of time, I have concluded that Rice is an agnostic on the subject of Israeli-Palestinian peace – but she believes very strongly that the appearance of an active effort to cut a deal is important to America’s interests in the Middle East.
The paradox of Rice’s conduct is that she is taking the role of an activist secretary of state while believing very strongly on an intellectual level that events are driven by underlying historical circumstances and currents on which our actions and desires can have only a very limited effect. She has repeatedly stated that the deal cut between East and West Germany and the Soviet Union to end the Cold War would have been impossible even a few years earlier. She told me more than once that it seemed quite possible that historical circumstances may not be ripe for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Rice clearly hopes to use whatever leverage she can get to bring the two sides closer to a deal within the parameters of the 2004 exchange of letters between Dov Weisglass and herself, which should be read very carefully for what they say and what they do not say about subjects like the future of Jerusalem and the settlements in the West Bank. In the current climate, she may well believe that a failure in which America is seen as having pressed the Israelis hard and outlined the parameters for a future deal is better than nothing. Rice’s assumptions are certainly questionable, especially in view of what happened after the Arafat/Barak negotiations fell apart in 2000.
Pressuring Israel to make concessions to active terrorists in the hopes of bringing about a future peace is not a political strategy with a long history of success. Yet it might behoove Rice’s right-wing critics in the American Jewish community to stand back from their rhetorical rocket launchers for a moment and ask themselves whether the greater existential threat to Israel’s existence comes from rag-tag Palestinian militias penned up in the West Bank and Gaza, or from a nuclear-armed Iran – a threat that Israel will most likely have to meet on its own in the same way the IAF took out Saddam’s Osirak reactor. Given the nature of the Iranian threat, Israel may have little choice but to pay whatever price the Americans ask up front – and then strike.
Yet there is still something disturbing about the remarks Rice is reported to have made, however direct or vague they might have been, and however tactically clever they might seem to their author. Offhand analogies between Palestinians and Southern blacks or Israelis and Southern whites make a mockery of real pain and suffering by ignoring the specificity of actual historical experience. Comparisons of Palestinian “freedom fighters” with the American civil rights movement would merely seem ridiculous (imagine the membership of Hamas and Fatah joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome”) if they were not also part of a bullying assault on historical specificity that has come to characterize much recent political discourse in America. The determination to avoid dealing with historical reality is evident both in the angry, unreasoning assaults of the Left (9/11 was an inside job!) and the grand follies of the Right (let’s remake Iraq!).
It is ironic, or perhaps depressingly inevitable, that we are awash in this kind of 1930’s European-style gutter politics at a moment when the stakes could not be higher. Comparisons of Israelis to history’s most devilish racists and Palestinians to history’s most noble victims are hardly meant to further anyone’s understanding of a complex situation in a part of the world with no shortage of local history. Rather, the point is to shut down discussion before it begins by threatening that anyone who disagrees will be branded as a racist.
Condoleezza Rice, the political science professor and provost of Stanford University, would likely judge such bullying and divisive rhetoric harshly, as the product of a second-rate mind afraid to engage in reasoned discussion and debate. When she returns to private life, she will feel ashamed of herself.
That said, I don’t see the slightest bit of evidence that the secretary of state actually believes Mahmoud Abbas is Martin Luther King in disguise, or that she has flashbacks to her childhood in Birmingham every time she sees the Separation Fence on her way to Ramallah. But a whisper or two can’t hurt, right?