Michelle Alexander’s powerful New York Times essay on Saturday (“Time to Break the Silence on Palestine”), ahead of the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was arguably a milestone for the Palestine movement in the U.S.
First, for who wrote it: Alexander, the author of the seminal book The New Jim Crow, is a renowned lawyer and public intellectual respected for her activism and scholarship on racism in the U.S., who cannot easily be dismissed as “fringe.”
Second, for where it was written: in a leading mainstream newspaper, which more frequently features op-eds by Israel advocates like Bari Weiss, Matti Friedman, Bret Stephens, Shmuel Rosner, and even officials like Naftali Bennett.
Third, for when it was written: Alexander is the latest prominent Black American in recent months to vocally express — and be targeted for — her solidarity with the Palestinian people, after others like Tamika Mallory, Marc Lamont Hill, and Angela Davis faced similar public outrages and disavowals.
And fourth, for why it was written: to challenge the widespread fear of backlash, held by many progressive Americans, for publicly criticizing Israel and speaking up for Palestinian rights.
The uproar over Alexander’s essay came swiftly from Jewish establishment groups and figures. Some of them are worth reading in full, if only to witness the hysteria and chutzpah of telling a Black woman how to remember one of the most significant African-American leaders in history, or how to interpret her knowledge of injustice:
- The Anti-Defamation League (ADL): “We have great respect for Michelle Alexander & her path-breaking civil rights work, but her piece on the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dangerously flawed, ignoring critical facts, history & the shared responsibility of both parties to resolve it.”
- The American Jewish Congress (AJC): “MLK’s memory is not a moral cudgel to wield against any cause or country you disapprove of. Michelle Alexander’s op-ed is a shameful appropriation. We all have a long way to go to reach the mountaintop. There’s no need to take potshots at democratic Israel.”
- David Harris, CEO of AJC: “Michelle Alexander’s piece: in essence, calls for #Israel’s end / approvingly cites extremists / invokes support of #MLKJr w/no factual basis / ignores Israel’s search for peace since ’48; nature of Hamas; terrorism; Jewish refugees from the Arab world.”
- David Friedman, U.S. Ambassador to Israel: “Michelle Alexander has it all wrong in today’s @NYT. If MLK were alive today I think he would be very proud of his robust support for the State of Israel. An Arab in the ME [Middle East] who is gay, a woman, a Christian, or seeking education & self-improvement can’t do better than living in [Israeli flag].”
- Michael Oren, Kulanu MK and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.: “Ambassador Friedman is right but Israel has to take serious steps to defend itself. By equating support for Israel with support for the Vietnam War and opposition to MLK, Alexander dangerously deligitmizates [sic] us. It’s a strategic threat and Israel must treat it as such.”
Predictably, these establishment figures are attempting to re-enforce the parameters of “acceptable” conversation on the conflict. As far as they are concerned, there is no such thing as a legitimate moral stance in support of Palestinian rights; the only things Palestinians produce are rockets and racism, and anyone who associates with their cause are either misguided or anti-Semitic.