In a rather ironic juxtaposition, my wife and I were experiencing a truly profound civil rights pilgrimage through the state of Alabama just as the Jewish media was awash in articles depicting the battle between Jewish groups over the legality, appropriateness or otherwise of the various anti-BDS laws. Highlights of our trip included a visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham–a must see for anyone interested in civil and human rights–the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery–the latter a testimony to the horrors of lynching reminiscent of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin–and a stroll across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
We spent a total of four hours over two days at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, not to mention the hours spent at these other venues. I am now struggling to unravel the complex of thoughts and emotions that the flood of print media, photos, videos, audio recordings and artifacts have evoked. Two major themes emerge: 1) the horrors of Jim Crow and segregation: lynchings, bombings, shootings, Billy clubs, dogs, fire hoses and 2) the courage of the resistance together with the total commitment to non-violence.
Yet, as a Jew and a Zionist, I couldn’t help but consider the parallels to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and this is where BDS enters my thinking. I had never realized before visiting the Civil Rights Institute that one of the tactics used by the all-white city officials in Montgomery in the face of the bus boycott initiated by Rosa Parks–probably the initial spark of the entire organized mass Civil Rights Movement–was to invoke the Alabama Anti-Boycott Act of 1921, which made it a misdemeanor to hinder the operation of any business. In other words, they tried to outlaw the bus boycott. Eighty-nine people, including Martin Luther King and 23 other ministers, were arrested under the anti-boycott law. Before the law could be adjudicated, the Supreme Court declared segregation in transportation to be unconstitutional.
So it was striking to me that just as I was reading these articles relating to the attempts to outlaw BDS, I was learning about an attempt to stop the Civil Rights Movement by invoking something of the white supremacist equivalent of the current anti-BDS laws. As numerous spokespersons have indicated, anti-boycott laws violate our First Amendment right to free speech. We’re reminded that we do not have a First Amendment to protect speech that we like. Speech that we like does not need protecting. We have a First Amendment to protect speech that we hate, and the appropriate response to speech that we hate is more speech. That’s America!
But there is another important principle that was brought home to me during my visit to these monuments to Civil Rights. The resistance to the Movement was utterly brutal. In addition to the four young girls killed by a Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963, two other young boys were murdered that day, one shot by a teenage white boy with a rifle. King’s house in Montgomery was bombed, as was the home of Fred Shuttlesworth, a local pastor and civil rights activist in Birmingham. Who among us has not been exposed through video of the carnage on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965, when now Congressman John Lewis was beaten to within an inch of his life by Alabama State Troopers under the leadership of Eugene “Bull” Conner. Let’s not forget that four others were murdered in connection with this event, including 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Baptist deacon.
Despite the horrifying official brutality–indeed terrorism–that the Civil Rights protesters endured, the Movement remained unconditionally committed to non-violence, and I would suggest that it was precisely this commitment that ultimately assured the success of the Movement. After all, the Montgomery bus boycott began on December 5, 1955, and lasted for a little over a year. By August 6, 1965, less that ten years later, Congress had passed and President Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act, including the Fair Housing Act, and the Voting Rights Act. In ten years this non-violent movement, facing incredible resistance and brutality, had won its major goals.
The Palestinian resistance, by contrast, after 70 years, has achieved little, unless you consider a quasi-autonomous Palestinian Authority as any significant achievement. So my advice to BDS: if you want to help the Palestinians achieve their legitimate right to self-determination, convince them to commit themselves unconditionally to non-violence. I would suspect that a Palestinian MLK would have a Palestinian state in short order.