By Ira Glunts
Hasbara is the Hebrew word for a particular type of pernicious propaganda first employed by early Zionists leaders to explain the unexplainable actions of the Jewish administration in Palestine. In recent years, hasbara has been disseminated by certain Christian fundamentalists who believe supporting Israel brings them closer to God, and also by many members of the United States Congress who have been co-opted by the powerful pro-Israel lobby. Now the lobby has its sights set on a new group of potential collaborators: African Americans.
A group of 18 African American local and state politicians, including the presidents of the City Councils of Atlanta and Detroit, recently enjoyed a tour of Israel courtesy of the American-Israel Educational Foundation (AIEF). AIEF was also the sponsor of the infamous 2011 US Congressional summer trip to Israel, during which 81 American lawmakers diverted their attention from the budget debate and the U.S. financial crisis in order to focus on the sightseeing pleasures of the Holy Land– and to be propagandized by the Netanyahu government. AIEF is part of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the biggest pro-Israel lobbying group in the U.S.
Also, this month, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest non-Jewish, pro-Israel organization in the United States, will hold a number of events specifically targeting religious African Americans. These events will be held in black churches in New York City during CUFI’s “Gathering of Solidarity With the State of Israel” conference on October 25 and 26.
The AIEF political junket and the CUFI church meetings are examples of the recent push to recruit pro-Israel support among the African American community, according to Nathan Guttman in a recent article in the Jewish newspaper, Forward. Both CUFI and AIPAC have been developing contacts in the African American community for at least five years, although their efforts have gone largely unnoticed until now.
The Vanguard Leadership Group (VLG) is an Atlanta- based, AIPAC-supported group that offers leadership training to students at “historically black colleges.” Its founder and executive director, Jarrod Jordan, was present at the 2008 AIPAC Policy Conference. There, he claims to have been inspired by the speech of then Presidential candidate Barack Obama which led him to create an African American organization dedicated to improved African American/Jewish relations and increased African American support for Israel.
The VLG has participated in recent AIPAC conferences and was named AIPAC Advocate of the Year for distributing an advertisement at numerous colleges and universities which was critical of the efforts of a pro-Palestinian student group that drew a comparison between Israeli policy in the West Bank to that of apartheid in South Africa. The letter, which was addressed to Students for Justice in Palestine, accuses the organization of,
“Playing the ‘apartheid card’ …[which]…is a calculated attempt to conjure up images associated with the racist South African regimes of the 20th century. The strategy is as transparent as it is base. Beyond that, it is highly objectionable to those who know the truth about the Israel’s record on human rights and how it so clearly contrasts with South Africa’s.”
This letter was published in the student newspapers at Brown, Maryland and UCLA. The Columbia University student paper rejected the advertisement.
In addition, VLG has lobbied “against divestment groups in Atlanta and the neighboring communities,” according to the Israel Campus Beat website. The VLG website claims that its members have also participated in AIPAC-sponsored tours of Israel and Saban Leadership Training, a pro-Israel seminar.
The relationship between the Jewish and African American communities has been stormy for more than half a century. At the beginning of the 60s, Jewish organizations liked to point to the alliance between the two communities, who, according to them, shared the common interest of promoting minority rights and fighting discrimination. Despite this official rosy assessment, the true relationship between Jews and African Americans was more accurately defined by conflict engendered in the not- always- healthy association of tenant and landlord, employer and employee or borrower and creditor, since many African Americans encountered Jews as retailers in their communities. When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) expelled whites from its ranks during its voter registration drive in Mississippi in the mid-60s, many Jews perceived that action as directed against Jewish activists in the organization.
Further indications of the rift between the communities were the teachers’ strike and battle over community control of schools in New York City in the late 60s, the anti-Semitic sermons of the popular Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, and the strife between Jewish and African American residents of the Brooklyn community of Crown Heights in the early 90s.
In the political world, the tension between Jews and African Americans was best illustrated by the successful attacks by Jewish organizations against the election campaigns of then Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson in 1984 and Rep. Cynthia McKinney in 2002. Both had expressed sympathy toward the Palestinians and were deemed to be not sufficiently supportive of Israel. In Jackson’s case, the antipathy of Jews was fueled by his offensive “Hymietown” remark. As a result of the these damaging pro-Israel assaults, it is now rare to hear an African American politician criticize the Jewish state, although 30 years ago African American politicians often identified with the struggle of the Palestinian people, whom they viewed as an oppressed minority like themselves. Together the pro-Israel campaigns against Jackson and McKinney can be viewed as the Deir Yassin of Jewish/African American political relations. They put a fear of Jewish power into the minds of African Americans, and caused them to flee from confrontation with the powerful pro-Israel political lobby. Surely, the irony of now promoting a group of African American pro-Israel politicians has not escaped officials in AIPAC and CUFI.
Reverend Michael Stevens will be organizing the CUFI events in African American churches this week. Stevens, who an African American pastor at the University City Church of God in Charlotte, North Carolina, first met John Hagee, the founder and National Chairman of CUFI, in 2007. Soon afterward, Stevens become “heavily involved” in the pro-Israel Christian organization. In 2010, Hagee appointed Stevens to his current position of National African American Outreach Coordinator for CUFI. Rev. Stevens stated in an interview that he had been told by God that his church should be a blessing to Israel and that he, Rev. Stevens, told his parishioners from the pulpit, “that God wants our church, as a black church, to support Israel.” In the same interview Stevens criticizes black liberation theologians for not “doing their homework” and disparages the comparison of Israeli policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Stevens incorrectly states that in Israel (here he does not distinguish between Israel and the occupied territories), Palestinians “have human rights, citizen rights just as any Jewish person would have there.”
The organized effort to bring religious African American Christians into the pro-Israel fold did not begin with CUFI and the appointment of Rev. Stevens to his present position. An African- American minister, who is identified only as Evangelist Dora, wrote an account of her 2009 trip to Israel during the Gaza War. The trip was sponsored by AIEF and called the African American Leaders Mission. The tour was led by Kristina King, the AIEF Midwest Outreach Regional Director, who according to Dora, is “a loving and kind Christian professional.” Dora reports that she and her tour mates were served “fabulous Mediterranean cuisine, prayed at the wailing wall, baptized in the River Jordan, … sat in the midst of scholars and leaders absorbing Israel’s history.” She reports that she “is eternally grateful for this has been a ‘life changing experience’ for me.” Along with the food, Dora was served a generous helping of Israeli war propaganda, which led her to conclude that “Hamas will go so far as to destroy their own, and distort the truth of its actions, so that Israel appears as a ruthless uncaring nation.”
Whether groups like AIPAC and CUFI can convince enough African Americans to become pro-Israel zealots to make these efforts worthwhile is an open to question. The Black Entertainment Network (BET) in a Web article titled, “Will African-Americans Support Israel?, ” predicts that CUFI will have a difficult time courting African Americans. It quotes from the Forward which states that,
“Some in the African-American community have a history of painting Israel as an oppressive white nation that subjugates the brown people of Palestine…. Attempts by Jewish organizations to pull back African-Americans from the left-wing perspective were mostly unsuccessful [in the past].”
Yet, the manner in which BET frames the choice facing African Americans is instructive:
“In the end, it sounds like getting more Black proponents of Israel is going to be as complex as the Israel and Palestine debate itself. But African-Americans themselves should be able to understand both sides: Palestine’s, which is fighting perceived oppression, and Israel’s, which is fighting bigots who say… [Israel]… should be decimated.”
Palestinians fighting perceived Israeli oppression? Israel fighting bigots who say it should be decimated? Is this overly cautious, defensive and obsequious analysis a product of AIPAC’s victorious assault on the candidacies of Jackson and McKinney? These attacks apparently instilled a great deal of fear in many African American politicians. McKinney bravely walked away from mainstream politics and is as pro-Palestinian as ever. She participated in one of the Gaza aid flotillas. Jackson, in contrast, who is tenuously hanging on to his more establishment appeal, has long ago ceased all criticism of the Jewish State. His son U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. was one of the “leading lights” of this summer’s AIPAC/AIEF Congressional tour.
In the past ten years, we have witnessed a growing number of African Americans from the elite class, who are willing to take public stances which oppose positions usually identified with the civil rights movement and the African American struggle against oppression. Herman Cain and arguably Barack Obama are examples of this phenomenon.
If the pro-Israel lobby can recruit even a small group of influential African Americans to enlist in their propaganda war, while recruiting a significant number of fundamentalists from the African American churches, the Jewish propagandists will be reinforced by members of an ethnic group which has unique standing in combating charges that Israel is an apartheid and racist state. These African Americans will not be believable to anyone with a bit of knowledge about Israel and Palestine, but for the average American they could be convincing. By showing strength among African Americans, the pro-Israel lobby will also have demonstrated that it has the power to co-opt members of a group which are traditionally not all that supportive of Jewish interests.
The ability of the pro-Israel lobby to cultivate a significant number of African Americans could be seen, in a very much distorted way, as an indication of racial progress. After all, look at the powerful and growing white evangelical movement and the stranglehold AIPAC has on the vast majority of members of the United States Congress. If, as the pro-Israel groups claim, being pro-Israel is as American as apple pie, why should African Americans be excluded?
Hopefully the answer is that most African Americans will understand the importance of honesty and justice.
– Ira Glunts is a retired college librarian whose articles have appeared on the Net at Truthout, CommonDreams, AntiWar, Counterpunch and Mondoweiss. He first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel. He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: gluntsi[at]morrisville[dot]edu.