Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Netanyahu defeat only a breather

Eric Foner’s third course on the American Civil War is airing now on EdX, the MOOC channel. He tells this anecdote in one of the recent lectures on long-standing American attitudes toward post-war Reconstruction, molded by popular culture such as the films Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and reinforced by racist historians headquartered at Foner’s own (and mine) Columbia University:

Allen Dulles, later the head of the CIA after World War II, was a diplomat in Germany when Hitler came to power. What does this have to do with Reconstruction? Well, he went to see Hitler in 1933. And Hitler started complaining about Germany’s plight under the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War and imposed all these penalties and financial burdens on Germany. And Hitler said to Allen Dulles, “How would Americans have felt after the Civil War if the North had made the southern states sign a treaty keeping them in subjugation?”

Well, without fear of exaggeration, Dulles replied, “In fact, the way the North treated the South after the Civil War was far worse than anything France had done to Germany. The North even installed former slaves as judges.” Hitler was astonished. Black judges? He admitted the South was treated worse than Germany.

If Netanyahu loses today’s Israeli elections, we’ll hear from a lot of well-meaning, naïve commentators who will hail a new day in the intractable situation there. They will spill much ink to tell us that the reasonable people now have come into office in Israel who will promptly prepare a cozy solution for all.

Foner’s tale is a sobering rebuttal to that fantasy. He reminds us that racist attitudes, once installed, are far deeper and more resistant to change than anyone can imagine. We are amazed in retrospect at how white Southerners went nuts over desegregation during the 1950s and ‘60s, but we forget the corollary: that without federal intervention the civil rights movement didn’t stand a chance. We read about the beatings of freedom riders in the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, bus station, but without phone calls to Wallace from Kennedy and later pressure from LBJ the white vigilantes would have slaughtered them outright.

Entire generations of Israelis have been raised to dismiss the concerns of the Palestinian minority, and a vast bloc of outright racists has been empowered by the legal apartheid of the last 60 years. So a temporary rejection of the worst extremes of rhetoric and behavior that embarrass Israel internationally doesn’t mean much. Israeli liberals will continue to blink at the relentless abuse of stateless Palestinians by zionist klansmen in the occupied territories until external forces call a halt.

Today’s election may bring a temporary respite from the region’s march to catastrophe and retire a particularly heinous representative of Middle Eastern racism. But only the U.S. and its European allies can reverse the trend, and without greater pressure domestically they won’t rock the boat.

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