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Nakba And Jim Crow: Mirror Images – OpEd

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I was reading an informative history of white-on-black violence in America published in The Atlantic, when one particular method of such violence struck me.  Here’s the passage:

Consider the little-known history of racial cleansing in America. Across the South and Midwest…hundreds of counties…experienced sharp and abrupt drop-offs of their black populations…In many cases there is clear evidence that whites systematically and violently drove out entire black populations, dispossessing black families of their property and rendering them refugees. Patrick Phillips recounts one such expulsion in his 2016 book Blood at the Root. In 1912, the white residents of Forsyth County, Georgia, drove out all black residents of the county, who abandoned their land and their belongings as they fled bands of “night riders” carrying torches and shooting into black families’ homes. Some black residents had enough warning that they were able to sell their land, if at a fraction of its value. But many were forced to flee in the middle of the night.

The same whites who had driven them out of the county moved quickly to take over their abandoned homes and farms, paying property taxes on land they did not own to a county clerk who was happy to ignore that there was no record of the land being sold. Whites in Forsyth enforced the racial ban violently for decades; since black refugees could not safely return to retrieve their personal property or to sell their land, the new white “owners” could assert adverse possession after the statutory period of seven years, registering deeds at the county courthouse even though the Georgia statute technically required adverse possession to be “peaceable.” The “expulsion of Forsyth’s black population had made news all over the country,” Phillips points out, “but the thefts that followed were given a legal stamp of approval by the state, and they went unnoticed by anyone but the expelled black property owners themselves.”

…Here was a highly publicized pattern of white terrorism for the express purpose of cleansing an entire county of its black population, yet less than a decade later, Phillips writes, the white leaders of Forsyth County were boasting—with a straight face—that “while other north Georgia communities [with mixed populations] continued to suffer episodes of ‘race trouble,’ there were no such embarrassments in Forsyth.” This was possible in part because they had erased evidence of just how Forsyth came to be an all-white county; officially, the transfer of property from the expelled blacks to their white neighbors was on the up and up, formalized through an accepted legal process. They had erased the racialized crime of violence-backed theft from the record books and replaced it with legal ownership.

This literal erasure enabled the ensuing rhetorical erasure of Forsyth’s history. In 1987, civil rights activists staged a protest in Forsyth County, which remained all-white 75 years after its racial cleansing. The white residents of the county seemed genuinely puzzled as to why activists were harassing them. One such resident, Bill Bolton, complained in a letter to the governor of Georgia, “we have not bothered the rest of the world, so why does the rest of the world want to bother us now?” Bolton’s implied narrative of Forsyth County’s history begins after the expulsion of its black residents. Starting with Forsyth’s whiteness as a given, he asserts a right to be left alone, a right against forcible integration by outsiders wanting to stir up trouble. Whether deliberate or not, this neatly covers up the fact that Forsyth’s all-whiteness is not, of course, its natural state—its all-whiteness is artificial, created and maintained through terrorism, and the outside agitators insisting on integration have the more historically accurate claim in that Forsyth was, previously, mixed.

White terrorists cleansed their communities of blacks in Forsyth County in 1912, and in Marshall County, Kentucky in 1908, and in Vermillion County, Indiana in 1923, and in Sharp County, Arkansas on Christmas Eve, 1906, to name just a few. If we recognized these crimes for what they were, it would be difficult to ignore that a pattern of racial terrorism had occurred across decades, and that later incidents of racial violence were part of that pattern. But a crime no one remembers cannot lead us to associate its perpetrators with criminality, so our concept of whiteness remains untouched by any association with violence.

For those of you who are sharp readers, you’ll immediately grasp the connection to Israeli history.  In the months leading up to 1948 and during the ensuing War, Israeli Jews systematically expelled the majority of the indigenous Palestinian residents through various forms of intimidation including mass violence, murder, rape, and physical expulsion.  It’s hard to know the precise number of those ethnically cleansed, but credible numbers range from 750,000-1,000,000.  David Ben Gurion wrote as early as 1937 that he foresaw such expulsions unless the Palestinian residents acquiesced in their subjugation to the Jewish majority.  In other words, ethnic cleansing was a distinct, planned, though covert policy (in the sense that their is little written evidence of its existence) instituted by the Palmach and Yishuv against the indigenous non-Jewish population.

What’s worse, after the war Israel prevented any of the expellees from returning to their former homes by passing a law that not only forbade their return, but permitted the legal transfer of their property to Jewish owners via the claim that the property had been “abandoned.”  This is precisely the same tactic as the exploitation of ‘adverse possession’ by Southern whites in the case mentioned above.

It’s vitally important that Americans, especially American Jews, understand that our racial history mirrors that of Israel.  Though many American Jews start out with a highly idealized portrait of Israel and its history, which in turns leads them to become liberal Zionists–it’s critical to know that just as our own history is steeped in what the author calls “racial terrorism,” so is Israel’s.

Israel did not necessarily have the same history of lynching that we did here in the South.  But by being able to sweep nearly two-thirds of the existing indigenous Arab population out of Israel in the Nakba, Israel didn’t need such a labor-intensive method of invoking fear and terror.  Though of course there were incidents of rape and castration which I’ve reported here (along with Benny Morris’ early writings on the violence of the 1948 War).

Today, Israel reinforces the Original Sin of Nakba by treating current Israeli Palestinian as second or third-class citizens through an ongoing de facto system of state-sanctioned racism including defunding non-Jewish municipalities, depriving them of educational, health and vocational opportunities and commercial services.  Israeli Palestinian human rights NGOs have codified at least 50 different laws and practices which reinforce this apartheid protocol.

In the Occupied Territories, the system is far more overt.  Palestinian land is simply stolen out from under the owners’ feet either through IDF declaring the property necessary for military use, or through fraudulent land sales engineered by unscrupulous settler middle-men.

While no one should make the mistake of believing the U.S. has fully addressed its racist past and made restitution for the wrongs suffered by former Black slaves and their descendants, we have gone a lot farther than Israel.  That country still maintains the disingenuous perspective held by Bill Buxton above: that the current generation has done nothing wrong and should simply be left alone.

Israelis prefer not to know, remember, or address wrongs done in their name by previous generations or their own current leaders.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Nor is there any serious internal debate that stands a chance of changing that outlook.  That is why many of us have come to believe that there must be external intervention that forces a more equitable and just outcome on Israel, no matter how long this takes.

Another extraordinary and little-known episode of American ethnic-cleansing, this time against California Native Americans indigenous to one of the nation’s most beautiful national parks: Yosemite.

This article was published at Tikun Olam


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Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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