Is the Gaza Conflict Making Black Folks Uncomfortable?

Long-standing political and economic alliances between blacks and Jews could be strained by the growing African-American opposition to Israeli aggression.

Palestinians who were displaced from their houses because of fighting between Israel’s army and Hamas fighters return to check their homes in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood in the Gaza Strip Aug. 1, 2014.
Palestinians who were displaced from their houses because of fighting between Israel’s army and Hamas fighters return to check their homes in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood in the Gaza Strip Aug. 1, 2014. MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

As an unconditional 72-hour cease-fire collapses, the New Jersey-sized Middle Eastern powerhouse called Israel is not in a good place. A bloody cage match with Hamas has created a scary, nonstop loop of grief-stricken Palestinian civilians on 60-second, 60-minute blast. As a result, the Jewish state is now faced with an unprecedented barrage of global inquiry, its public relations narrative as an oasis of democracy run by the most religiously persecuted population on the planet shattered to pieces by visuals of unmitigated Israeli military violence.

Israel has always been hampered by an almost claustrophobic lack of “strategic depth” as defense analyst Robert Beckhusen notes. The border with Gaza, itself a tiny overcrowded strip of 2 million people, is only a skip from bustling Israeli metros like Tel Aviv. The Israeli Defense Forces possess massive military bite, but there is very little space to exercise it, inevitably causing chaos and lots of bloodletting as they race against the clock to destroy a terrifying labyrinth of Hamas tunnel networks.

Tragically, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like Groundhog Day. We’ve all grown used to it. But the differentiator in this round is in a hard-to-ignore inflection point. There was a time when Israel was never seriously questioned or finger-pointed as an aggressor—not the case today. Even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoys intense public support at home for the offensive, there are some Israelis, like the 40 IDF reservists who went AWOL in a defiant and bruising public Washington Post op-ed against the war, openly doubting it. Clear disparity between the rising number of Palestinians killed versus the small number of Israeli casualties triggers global outrage and condemnations of disproportionate use of force, most notably—and, perhaps, naturally—from African Americans.

For the most part, Americans overall still blame Hamas for the violence, overwhelmingly at 40 percent according to a recent Pew Research poll (pdf). And Gallup shows 42 percent of Americans believe Israel is justified in its actions.  

But African Americans, along with Latinos, are more likely to blame Israel for the violence than Hamas, 27 percent and 35 percent respectively, compared with only 14 percent of whites who blame Israel in the Pew poll. A YouGov survey also shows 31 percent of African Americans believing Israel is using too much force, compared with 22 percent of whites and the same number of Latinos.

This should be rather distressing to the American Jewish community, particularly within the context of a once tight black-Jewish civil rights era bond that’s been under a serious amount of strain for some time now. Both communities found fierce allies in one another during the social justice movements of the ’60s, personified by the gruesome 1964 murder of three Freedom Summer workers in Philadelphia, Miss., by Klansmen. Two of the victims were Jewish and one was African American.

Over the years, that relationship has suffered deeper socioeconomic and racial wounds, from the 1991 Crown Heights riots to the ongoing vilification of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as a brazen anti-Semite. More recently, those tensions were put back on display as former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who is also Jewish, was caught on tape engaged in a bigoted anti-black diatribe.    

The conflict in Gaza, however, makes it that more complex. It’s downright awkward: Black elected officials and high-profile organizations such as the NAACP, the National Urban League and the National Action Network could fear any disruption to a delicate black-Jewish balance, heavily reliant on Jewish-American spiritual, political and financial support. Longtime black political-establishment critic Bruce Dixon can’t contain himself when pointing it out.

Still, this is proving too difficult to avoid because we now live in a news cycle spitting out an infinite stream of disturbing images. And the racial contours of the conversation are really nothing new. Arab and Muslim geopolitical movements and terrorist organizations have long attempted alignment with black Diaspora causes (like South Africa’s African National Congress, for example) or have used the history of racial injustice in the West to bolster their case.