The news that a grand jury has decided not to indict the police officer who shot and killed a young, unarmed Black man in Ferguson, Missouri has divided America once more. In addition to my own personal reasons for interest, many of my friends live in nearby St. Louis, and so I have heard more about the civil unrest that originally occurred in the wake of the shooting, and which has now resumed following the exoneration than I otherwise might have, living here in Israel. Still, I think the situation offers clear analogies to the relationship between Jews and Arabs in this country, which is why we should all be paying attention.
First, how the local police is being allowed to handle the rioters is a study in hypocrisy. President Obama has given a carefully worded speech in response to the grand jury decision advising that violence is not the answer when you find fault with the system. I agree. This is the message I would hope to hear from the leaders of the Palestinian people, and rarely do. Instead, the Palestinian people continue to destroy their own neighborhoods, and celebrate attacks on Jewish targets when faced with disappointment. And efforts to contain this violence on the part of the Israeli government are condemned as racist and misguided.
To the contrary, how are the rioters being dealt with when they run through the streets destroying property and endangering lives? The local police employed standard riot control procedures, including curfews, tear gas,and arrests. Can you imagine what would have happened if the protesters had also been calling for the destruction of America and throwing Molotov cocktails at the police? Time to bring in the National Guard, the latest in “non-lethal” crowd suppressants, and a strong right hand.
Official American policy seems to expect Israel will react to violent uprisings with a restraint that it doesn’t even expect of itself. Not only will the American public condone martial law against its own citizenry (if said citizenry happens to be dark, that is… if you’re White and happen to be stocking guns, the government better not mess with you), but America will also send its military to put down civil unrest in countries that haven’t even threatened it directly, if there is the right combination of philosophy, oil reserves, and likelihood of nominal success. I guess you can’t fight violence with violence, except when you can.
Second, although I don’t suggest that people riot in the streets, I think Ferguson shows what can happen when a group of people lose all faith in the legal and political system. A 2013 study of data collected from the Ferguson police department showed that in a town that is 67% Black, that demographic accounted for more than 86% of the stops and 92% of the searches, even though Whites who are stopped are more likely to actually be found to have contraband in their possession. When you live in the equivalent of a police state, where any action by law enforcement is approved by the powers that be, it becomes difficult to hope that the system will eventually right itself.
How is this relevant to Israel? Let’s look at the calls to stop hiring Arab labor that were heard after the Har Nof tragedy in which four worshippers and one policemen died during a terrorist attack. Little distinction was made between Arabs who are Israeli citizens and those living in the West Bank who come in to find work. The mayor of Ashkelon even publicly demanded that kindergartens cease using Arab labor and halted construction on buildings who did not meet his requirements. I personally watched as, in Hadera, one rider asked another of Arab descent if he was an Israeli citizen as he got on the bus, to which the Arab-Israeli replied in the affirmative, but not without a visible display of annoyance. Here, Arab is the new Black, and I only have to think back to how it feels to be followed through a department store to get a sense of how even a non-militant might be ready to explode after years of suspicion.
It is imperative that in places both like Ferguson and in Israel, we learn how to include minority populations into the overarching culture, without demanding that they simply learn how to act like the majority. It is fair to expect that people will listen to unfavorable legal decisions without setting their own neighborhoods on fire. It is also fair to expect that those same people would be able to go about their day without being harassed, or having their sources of livelihood threatened. Anger at a system that has let one down is universal, and we may yet find answers to the problems of Israel’s demographic time bomb in unexpected places. That is why Ferguson matters.