Four Freedom Riders, Then And Now – OpEd

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The upcoming Freedom Rides has tethered itself very tenuously to an event in the past, and has thereby taken a stand in a historical legacy that leaves itself highly open to interpretation. Says Palestinian youth activist and organizer Fadi Quran, “this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in the US. Apart from disrupting the segregation and challenging the oppression imposed on us by Israel, we chose this form of direct action to highlight the similarities between the Palestinian struggle and the civil rights movement to an American audience.”

What strand of resistance ties the Freedom Rides of then to the Freedom Rides of now? The Freedom Rides through 1960s segregated America were staged by citizens of a country in protest of its apartheid policies, while the Palestinian Freedom Rides will assert the rights of a sovereign people under foreign military occupation. Nonetheless, apartheid is apartheid, no matter where it rears its ugly head. To examine the link between the two movements, and shed light on the bridge of historical development that separates them, we may ask- what are the 1960s Freedom Riders’ views on the Palestinian struggle?

John Lewis, the son of Alabama tenant farmers, joined the Freedom Rides when he was 19- “he rode to Birmingham with the Nashville cohort, endured the angry mob in Montgomery, was arrested in Jackson and served jail time at Mississippi’s Parchman State Prison Farm”. He is now serving his 12th term representing Georgia as a Democrat in the House of Representatives. On January 20, 2002, in the midst of the Second Intifada and two months before Operation Defensive Shield (and, coincidentally, on the 20th anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s democratic election to the Presidency of the Palestinian National Council), the San Fransisco Chronicle published an op-ed piece by Lewis called ‘‘“I have a dream” for peace in the Middle East- Martin Luther King Jr.’s special bond with Israel’, in which Lewis emphasized Dr. King’s fervent belief that, as ‘one of the great outposts of democracy in the world…peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality’. Lewis continued-

[King] consistently reiterated his stand on the Israel-Arab conflict, stating “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is uncontestable.” It was no accident that King emphasized “security” in his statements on the Middle East…During the recent U.N. Conference on Racism held in Durban, South Africa, we were all shocked by the attacks on Jews, Israel and Zionism. The United States of America stood up against these vicious attacks.

Attempts were made at this September 2001 conference to draft legislation accusing Israel of racist policies towards the Palestinian people, and after four days of negotiations the United States, Israel and Canada withdrew. In this op-ed, Lewis clearly intends to drive home the message, as he states in the opening paragraph, that King, who “sought ways to achieve liberation and peace…thus understood that a special relationship exists between African Americans and American Jews. This message was true in his time and is true today.”

Thus, in a manner similar to Israel’s ‘pinkwashing’ campaign, Lewis attempts to use his and Dr. King’s civil rights credentials to block criticism of Israel’s right to military “security” as a persecuted state, and to suggest, paradoxically, that anyone who dares accuse Israel of racism is butting up against Dr. King himself (the assertion of Kings Zionism, by the way, is questionable). Lewis equates the African-American struggle against persecution not with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, but with the history of Jewish oppression that Israel carves into the wrathful sword of its state.

Henry Schwarzschild, who fled from Berlin to the U.S. in 1939 at the age of 14 and was executive of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in the 1950s, was arrested as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961. Once he was released, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote on his imprisonment forms, “Your courageous willingness to go to jail for freedom has brought us closer to our nation’s bright tomorrow.”

Schwarzschild’s own “bright tomorrow” would see him write a series of articles for the journal Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. Over the years he grew progressively more critical of  the lamentable situation wherein, as he said in 1972, “Israel and American Jewry believe that the proper response to Arab claims against the State of Israel is to defeat the Arabs and reject their claims, to maintain protectorates in Gaza, Sinai, and the West Bank, to persist in the annexation of Arab Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, to manufacture legitimacy for the expropriation of Arab property, [and] to continue a military government over Arab settlements in Israel”.

In 1975 he wrote a piece called ‘Racismthe Unavoidable National Sin, reacting to the very 1975 U.N. Zionism-equals-racism resolution that was allegedly a precursor to the 2001 U.N. conference Rep. Lewis found so appalling. Drawing on his experiences fighting racism during Freedom Rides in America, Schwarzschild insists that “the ethnic nation-state is by its nature exclusionary vis-a-vis other ethnicities…The insistence by ethnic nations upon being in the majority in their state, upon creating the state in whatever image they choose, and upon letting ethnic-national values predominate in it, is the functional equivalent of racism…The Jewish state, conceived as the solution to the Jewish problem, has become the Jewish problem. That melancholy irony proclaims the absolute end of Zionism.”

Seven years later, in response to the 1982 Israeli siege of Beruit, Schwarzschild published an open letter announcing his resignation from Sh’ma, and stating that “I now renounce the State of Israel, disavow any political connection or emotional obligation to it, and declare myself its enemy.  I retain, of course, the same deep concern for its inhabitants, Jewish, Arab, and other, that I hold for all humankind.” He continued:

the War on Lebanon has now made clear to me that the resumption of political power by the Jewish people after two thousand years of diaspora has been a tragedy of historical dimensions…I now conclude and avow that the price of a Jewish state is, to me, Jewishly unacceptable and that the existence of this (or any similar) Jewish ethnic religious nation state is a Jewish, i.e. a human and moral, disaster and violates every remaining value for which Judaism and Jews might exist in history.  The lethal military triumphalism and corrosive racism that inheres in the State and in its supporters (both there and here) are profoundly abhorrent to me.  So is the message that now goes forth to the nations of the world that the Jewish people claim the right to impose a holocaust on others in order to preserve its State.

Twenty-nine years later, fifty years after Schwarzschild’s Freedom Ride, his daughter Hannah, a Philadelphia attorney and Palestine Solidarity activist, publicly connected  her father’s legacy to her own support for the 2011 Freedom Flotilla II mission and America’s ship, the Audacity of Hope. Calling the flotillas ‘a modern-day Freedom Ride’, she, like many others at the time, drew an explicit link between the two human rights missions, drawing attention to “the audacious hopes of thousands who have committed their money and time to this nonviolent mission of resistance to enduring racism and injustice…they will be armed only with a legacy of the courage of their activist forebears, the moral outrage of a growing worldwide movement for freedom and justice in Palestine, and the steadfast hopes of an illegally occupied people”.

Rabbi Israel “Si” Dresner was another white, Jewish American who joined the Freedom Rides in solidarity with the struggle against oppression. The self-proclaimed ‘most arrested rabbi’, he was first arrested as a teenager in 1947 for protesting, with other members of the Zionist youth group Habonim (supposedly modeled after the Boy Scouts), outside of a British-owned business in Brooklyn, in response to the British government’s refusal to allow Jewish refugees to immigrate to Palestine. He was arrested in the 1970s for marching on behalf of the refuseniks, and has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians since the early 1980s.

“As long as they remain nonviolent”, he says about the new Palestinian Freedom Rides, “I’m all in favor of this, and of all demonstrations of any sort against the occupation…there are major differences [between the two Freedom Rides] of course…[but] the Israeli occupation has been not only a bad thing for the Palestinians, it’s been a bad thing for Israel. Just as slavery and segregation were bad for not only Africans, they were bad for Americans, they were bad for the south!…the occupation has led to a buildup of hatred in Israel, the kind of hatred we call racist hatred- all Arabs are bad, all Palestinians are terrorists…so the occupation has been a disaster for Israelis and for Palestinians…I’ve always been in favor of justice and peace for everybody, for the Jews and for everybody else.”

Nonetheless, following a typical path of ‘soft’ liberal criticism of Israel,  he prays merely for the reform of what he believes to be an essentially and originally morally just state. “I love Israel,” he reassured the Jewish Week in  an article published in  May 2011 (a mere two days after Hannah Schwarzschild connected the Freedom Rides and the Freedom Flotillas). “I’ve been there 36 times. I was married there. Israel means a great deal to me, and I just feel that their policies are self-destructive.” Dresner, who today sits on the Executive Board of Meretz USA, told Rabbis for  Human Rights  in  2010 that “we should know better than to have Jews persecuting someone else. I’ve been a dues paying, card carrying Zionist for 68 years, and Zionism today has been corrupted and corroded. It’s not the Zionism that I knew when I first became a Zionist….we have to correct it, we have to reform it to change the policies of the annexationist polices of annexing land, annexing people, annexing houses, etc, etc,etc…”

If we can trace a spectrum ranging from John Lewis’s pro-Israel advocacy, past Israel Dresner’s left-wing Zionism and arriving at Henry Schwarzschild’s whole-hearted opposition to Israel as a Jewish state, we would have to place Stokely Carmichael, another Freedom Rider, beyond even Schwarzschild in his through-and-through condemnation of the Zionist project. Carmichael’s well-known drift from SNCC non-violence to Black Panther militancy represents a clear departure from the peaceful civil disobedience of his Freedom Rides days, as does his later separatist belief, which distanced him from even the Panthers, that white activists needed to organize their own movements before joining the black liberation struggle.

“Zionism is the baby child and interest protector of imperialism in the Middle East,”  he said in  the 1980s. “The Palestinian state belongs to the Palestinian people, this is a fact…Zionism took Palestine through raw and naked terrorism…Zionism is racism according to the United Nations, so at this point I won’t even hide behind the united Nations, I know it’s racism!…in no way can I be anti-Judaic, but I am anti-Zionist and will remain so until it is destroyed, because it is an unjust, illegal, immoral and racist system…the state of Palestine must be a secular state”.

The legacy of the Freedom Rides has been used by African-American Riders both to protect American-Israeli imperialism and to call for its utter destruction. Correspondingly, white-Jewish Riders have both asked Israel to be nicer and gentler, and have turned away from it entirely. This makes the stated legacy of Palestine’s Freedom Rides all the more complex, challenging and compelling. Much has changed between then and now, and the four young civil rights activists, once united in a single cause, have in time scattered across the diffuse spectrum of the Left. Despite contextual differences between the two movements, however, and despite the shifting political ideologies of the human actors who have been pulled in different directions by the turbulent tides of history, the struggle, then and now, remains the same.

Ben Lorber is an activist with the International Solidarity Movement in Nablus. He is also a journalist with the Alternative Information Center in Bethlehem. He blogs at freepaly.wordpress.com.


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Mondoweiss is a news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective. Mondoweiss is maintained by Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz. Weiss is 54 and lives in New York state. Horowitz is 36 and lives in New York City.

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