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When the fight against racism produces a conflict of interest

I was told years ago by a pro-Palestinian activist that the trouble with the people from the West Bank and Gaza was the colour of their skin. Squirming in revulsion at what I thought was going to be some racist outpouring against those with olive-coloured skins, he added quickly: "What I'm trying to say is if Palestinians were black then the injustices they face wouldn't be happening today. The discrimination would be so obvious."

He explained that all of the abuse and discrimination hurled at Palestinians by Zionists from within and without the State of Israel would cause international outrage if they were "black". The issue, quite clearly, would be regarded as one of race and racism as it was in apartheid South Africa.

I was reminded of this a few days ago following the unprecedented arrest of 76 peaceful activists who held a "die-in" with 600 others at a West London shopping centre as an act of solidarity with those protesting against the latest death of a black person in police custody in America. The disease of racism is prompting nationwide rallies, protests and demonstrations, and has even focused the attention – and support – of US President Barack Obama.

Eric Garner, a 43-year-old, died at the hands of New York police officers, following in a long line of such deaths, including Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson and Michael Brown, to name but three. The latest killings have prompted disgust among decent, ordinary Americans.

Protestors on both sides of the Atlantic have made it clear that the issue of police impunity to kill people of African descent is a serious issue. Placards stating "Black Lives Matter" were held aloft in London to protest about the fact that the institutional racism of police establishments in America is no different to that in the UK. Let us not forget that no British police officers have ever been held to account for the deaths at their hands of Joy Gardner, Sean Rigg and, most recently, Mark Duggan.

Mr Garner died after he was stopped for selling untaxed cigarettes in New York and was restrained by a police officer in a chokehold. He gasped "I can't breathe!" repeatedly during his arrest; the whole incident was captured on video. Demonstrations against his killing came shortly after violent scenes in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson earlier this year.

It would be good, though, to see the same anti-racist activists marching and demonstrating over the racism in Israel. Although it might not have been so overt to some over the years, Benjamin Netanyahu's intention to introduce a "Jewish Nation-State Bill" couldn't be clearer. In his own words, the bill provides "national rights only for the Jewish people." Israel's many non-Jews would become second class citizens, giving legal status to the sad reality that indigenous Palestinian Arab Muslims and Christians have already been treated that way since the birth of the Zionist state in 1948.

Indeed, the persecution of non-Jews has now been extended to African migrants to the Holy Land. For those among us who can only view racism through a black and white lens, Israeli discrimination is now out there for all to see.

A short film produced by Max Blumenthal and commissioned by the New York Times called Israel's New Racism: The Persecution of African Migrants in the Holy Land, would have gone some way to help, if the NYT had made it public. However, viewing the film produced by Blumenthal and Israeli journalist David Sheen was too much for the NYT executives to bear. The truth, it seems, can be too risky to tell, even for powerful and influential newspaper publishers.

"We put together some shocking footage of pogroms against African communities in Tel Aviv," said Blumenthal, "and interviews with human rights activists. I thought it was a well-done documentary about a situation very few Americans were familiar with. We included analysis. We tailored it to their style, and of course it was rejected without an explanation after being solicited. I sent it to some other major websites and they have not even responded to me, when they had often solicited articles from me in the past."

Like other Establishment figures on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems that the media's way to deal with racism in Missouri, West London or Tel Aviv is to look the other way. Similarly, Blumenthal's book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, which offers an unflinching look at the racist reality of Israel, has been largely ignored by the American and European media who simply do not have the guts to confront the pure evil that is racism.

Since people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, perhaps this could explain why the American Jewish establishment has been unusually silent about the black deaths. It has not embarked on a single major campaign to combat the institutional racism which has prompted mass rallies in Ferguson and beyond.

Benjy Cannon is National Student Board President of J Street U and a member of the Hillel Board at Maryland University where he is studying. He wrote a thought-provoking article about the phenomenon in Haaretz under the headline, "Jews, white privilege and the fight against racism in America".

The Jewish struggle against racism towards blacks in America has historically been nothing short of admirable. Jewish philanthropists helped create, and then chair, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People founded in 1909, "to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination." Jewish charities built 5,337 black schools across the south; two thirds of the white freedom riders were Jewish; and 96 per cent of American Jews supported President Kennedy's decision to dispatch federal troops to desegregate Montgomery, Alabama.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to be both vocal against events in Ferguson and Staten Island today, or similar vile episodes in Tottenham or Eltham, when black Africans and Arab Palestinians are being targeted in such an evil, racist way in Israel. Sorry, but the question has to be asked: Can you really be a Zionist and an anti-racist? I am no longer sure that you can.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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