Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Memo to Condi: The Middle East Isn't Birmingham

First published on

She's done it again. In the run-up to the president's recent Middle East trip, Secretary of State Rice repeated to an interviewer from Israel's Channel 10 her comparison of Palestinians confronted with Israeli checkpoints to blacks facing Jim Crow restrictions in the Alabama of her youth.

In the past, Ms. Rice has also identified "hopelessness" as the spur to violence both among Palestinians and among those African-Americans who abandoned peaceful protest. She has seen similarities as well between Palestinian leaders seeking a Palestinian state and America's founding fathers fighting for independence from Britain.

Rice did preface her comments to Channel 10 with an acknowledgment that "sometimes one has to be careful about analogies" - this perhaps in response to criticism she's drawn for previously invoking such comparisons. She also repeated that she had lost a childhood friend, a young girl, in a church bombing in Birmingham and so can "understand a little bit" what it's like for Israeli mothers fearing their children might fall victim to a terrorist bomb.

Even a superficial look at Palestinian history, the declarations of Palestinian leaders and political organizations and the rhetoric of Palestinian media, mosque sermons and school texts, demonstrates that the Palestinian goal has been not equality - a state alongside Israel - but supremacy, a Muslim Arab state replacing Israel. This goal predated Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza, and its violent pursuit has led to Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks, not vice versa.

In addition, of course, America's founding fathers never sought the annihilation of Great Britain, never demeaned the British people as inferior beings unworthy of a state or even of life, and never urged American children to dedicate themselves to the murder of British civilians, as Palestinian parties, including that of Mahmoud Abbas, have done vis-a-vis Israel and its citizens.

Those who have pointed out the many problems in Secretary Rice's analogies between the situation of the Palestinians and her own childhood experiences have typically suggested that her error lies in uncritically applying too widely the personal precedent of African-American experience in the segregated South. But one can argue that the problem lies rather in her not applying that precedent widely enough.

Secretary Rice would arrive at a far truer comprehension of the Palestinian-Israeli, and broader Arab-Israeli, conflict, and the obstacles to its resolution, if she turned the prism of her childhood experience toward, and identified with, for example, the 2,000,000 Christian and animist blacks of the southern Sudan killed by Muslim Arab governments of Sudan in a decades-old on-and-off-again war of extermination, a war executed with broad support of the wider Arab world. Deeper understanding would derive as well from applying her personal experience to, and empathizing with, the hundreds of thousands of Darfur blacks likewise murdered by the Arab government of Sudan, and the 200,000 Kurds - another Muslim but non-Arab people - murdered by Saddam Hussein in the first stages of a campaign of extermination, again with broad support in the Arab world. Identification with the plight of the Kurds of Syria and the Berbers of Algeria - another Muslim but non-Arab people - subjected to discrimination and the suppression of their language and culture by the Arab governments of their respective states, would also cast illuminating light for the Secretary of State on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For, as has been pointed out by genuine reformist voices in the Arab world, that world is dominated by a murderous intolerance of virtually all minorities in its midst, whether religious, racial or ethnic. It is not about to make an exception for the Jews and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, whatever its borders.

Were Secretary Rice to apply her own childhood experiences of intolerance to an understanding of this broader reality, the precedent of those experiences could be usefully applied to fathoming the bias and hatred that drive the Palestinian and wider Arab war against Israel and its people and that stand in the way of movement toward peace. Her personal experiences could then be an asset rather than impediment in the fashioning of American policy - a policy whose objective would be interim steps to decrease the risks of violence until such time as changes within the Arab world allow for movement toward genuine peace.