By Benay Blend
Several years ago, I went to hear a rabbi speak about her trip to “Israel” with Rabbis for Human Rights. During the course of her slide show, she made reference often to one revealing phrase: “Those are armed settlers, and they are dangerous.” I understood then, perhaps more so now, that she was shifting attention away from the Occupation by focusing on one certifiable villain: The Settlers.
In the same way, liberal Zionists and others often cast their ire on Netanyahu, as if life was good until he came along and stirred things up. Like the above example, this is an ahistorical way of thinking that denies Palestinians their place in the region’s history.
In the United States, this same paradigm applies to Trump, particularly in the ways that he elicits shock and awe from liberal Democrats each time that he affirms support for white Nationalists. By removing Trump from office by any means possible, voters hope, fascism will go away with him.
During the Presidential debate two days ago between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, remarks from the sitting President drew fear. By appearing to give fascist militias their marching orders, he signaled how he planned to address racism if given a second term. Trump’s refusal to respond directly to that issue “poses a real and grave threat to Black and Brown people in particular in our country who are often the victims of racial violence,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, during an interview on Democracy Now.
Clarke went on to note the ways that Trump has “promoted militarization of the police.” By so doing, she continued, he has “emboldened federal law enforcement to be used as a weapon against peaceful demonstrators.” This combination, she concludes, has created a “toxic situation” that has been repeated in city after city across the country.
While not underestimating the dangers that Trump’s re-election might pose for Indigenous and people of color, the roots of Trump’s embrace of fascism are complex, involving not only a long history of police violence in this country but also its ties with Israel.
Significantly, both candidates bear responsibility for the increasing militarization of the police. For example, Joe Biden not only promises to increase funding for the forces. He also declares that “the relationship between Israel and the United States is not about weapons systems and security assistance. It’s about the shared soul that unites our countries, generation upon generation.”
Here Biden is assuming that settler-colonial countries have a soul. In reality, both countries practice displacement of certain populations by using shared weapons to carry out that goal. By means of tools supplied by Palestine is Here, a project of Researching the American-Israel Alliance (RAIA), it’s possible to track Israeli military ties to specific American local governments, police departments, corporations and academic institutions.
By exposing what Jewish Voice For Peace has labeled Deadly Exchange, Palestine is Here hopes to raise awareness about the ways that collaboration between the US and Israeli governments, promoted by both Biden and Trump, enables control of social movements, communities of color, and other marginalized populations, all of which we are seeing every day.
“The ongoing colonization of Palestine serves as the foundation of Israeli security expertise,” the website reads, “which plays a leading role in the current process of global militarization.” The term “ongoing” is important, because it acknowledges that state-sponsored violence towards Palestinians as well as marginalized groups in the US occurred long before Trump and Netanyahu, and will most likely continue after they are gone no matter who replaces each.
In 2015, Aaron Turgeman wrote about what he called “Israel’s ‘blame the hand’ excuse for settler violence.” According to this view, Turgeman explains, it is the settlers who, by engaging in excessive bloodshed, are preventing peace. While these charges have a modicum of truth, he concludes, it is the “head” who controls the hand, and that would be the Israeli government, representing not just settlers but the entire population of Israel.
Moreover, he concludes, the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 was not a singular event, but is in fact ongoing. According to B’Tselem, state-sponsored settler violence has long been a part of Palestinian’s daily life under occupation. Enabled by Israeli security forces, such actions make it easier for Israelis to take over Palestinian land and badly needed resources for themselves.
In the US, too, there is a long history of extremist groups working closely with police and government officials to terrorize the oppressed. As Mara Hvistendahl and Alleen Brown observe, such collaboration goes back to the founding of the country when European Americans massacred Indigenous people in order to appropriate their land.
When Donald Trump appeared to call on white nationalist militias to “stand down and standby” during the recent presidential debates, he was voicing nothing new. As historian Eric Foner notes, the bloodiest instance of “racial carnage” during the Reconstruction era occurred on April 13, 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana. There on Easter day 300 armed white men murdered Black defenders of the local Courthouse in an attempt to regain white supremacist authority.
From there the killing spread as white militia units randomly fired on African Americans throughout the night. Although federal charges were brought against several white terrorists, the Supreme Court declared in United States V. Cruikshank that the 14th Amendment did not apply to state actions thereby ruling out protection against acts by individual citizens.
These actions are relevant today as Americans are concerned that Trump’s rhetoric will result in violence at the polls. “He wants chaos in the streets, he wants violence in the streets, he wants chaos at the polls,” warns Marc Lamont Hill, “because he wants Americans to feel a sense of unsafety. It’s its own kind of diplomatic terrorism.”
Hill’s audience should take his words to heart, not because he is talking about a singular event in American history, but because voter intimidation is very much a part of the country’s past. Like state-sponsored terrorism in Israel on the part of settler militias, similar collaboration between white militias and the state has a long, inglorious past.
The practice of sending American police to Israel for training ramps up the militarization of the force. However, state-sponsored violence was rampant long before there was an Israel to make matters worse, and long before Trump took office. In Israel, too, the Nakba is ongoing, not a product of the Netanyahu regime.
As B’Tselem concludes, settler violence against Palestinians are “not exceptions to a rule.” Instead, they are part of a larger policy in which the state hopes to benefit by driving Palestinians from their land. Similarly, Trump’s call for white nationalists to intimidate voters at the polls is not a singular potential event. As part of a very long history of collaboration between government, police, and civilian militias, it calls for serious awareness but not the kind of shock that Trump elicited by his statement. Exceptional violence is the norm in both America and Occupied Palestine, not unconnected, occasional malfunctions in otherwise smoothly running states.
Responding to an Op-Ed in the New York Times, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz acknowledged that she respected Kathleen Belew’s tracking of the white nationalist movement. Nevertheless, her account, she warns, “falls into ‘the threat to our democracy’ rhetoric” that denies the historical roots of these militias are in fact “as American as cherry pie.” By refusing to see connections between contemporary militias and those established by the Second Amendment, Dunbar-Ortiz concludes, their presence will remain a clear and present danger. As a means to meet that challenge, she suggests
“develop[ing] strategies to deconstruct the white nationalist institutions, such as the electoral college and the Supreme Court, the monarchical presidency, the lack of a parliamentary system that allows multiple parties rather than winner take all, federalism that is the ideology of white nationalism, and the constitution itself, which established the fiscal-military state, a state designed for war.”
By recognizing that the current violence in America (and though she doesn’t say it Israel, too) is top-down, trickling downwards to genocide at home and then on to imperialist wars abroad, Dunbar-Ortiz suggests that a decolonized US (and perhaps Israel, too) might go on to a better future.
– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.