The past month has been challenging for both our UCLA community and our nation at large. On our campus, tensions flared between the pro-Israel and anti-Israel communities as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel surfaced at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels. Concurrently, the tragic death of multiple Black men at the hands of US police officers has led to many protests, demonstrations, and riots across the country. While linking these movements is distasteful and reductionist, it has already been done, and so a deeper examination is warranted. Doing so may even help us gain a better understanding of the troubles of our time.
We can give a rough outline of the various conflicts by replacing the parties involved with the variables X and Y. X is often placed in life-or-death situations, so it has large amounts of force at its disposal. Y misbehaves and provokes X. X feels threatened, so it uses great force against Y. The force ends up killing Y. People hear that Y has died and are outraged. They don’t see the complexity of the situation but turn it into a battle between different identities, with one identity at an unfair advantage. They form mobs and agitate, demanding justice.
Replace X above with U.S. police officers and Y with Black men. Now replace X with the State of Israel and Y with Palestinians.
I am not a fan of violence, nor do I condone oppression; violence and oppression are abhorrent to me. However, I do not align myself with modern activists who claim to be fighting against them. Their tactics are often undignified, their stories are often muddled, their self-righteousness is ever-flowing, and their mob-mentality is terrifying. While I could swallow my pride and shut off my thinking brain and fit right in, I choose not to because I think modern activists are not only not helping to solve the problems, but are actually harming prospects of an equitable future.
I do not wish to vilify activists, for I do not know their intentions. Some may be egoists and others thrill-seekers, surely. But these ulterior motives are not reason enough to condemn them. Even if one gives them the benefit of the doubt and assumes they are all entirely well-intentioned, the effect is the same: these activists act too much and think too little.
The death of a single Black man or Palestinian child is a tragedy and must be prevented. Yet, in fostering an “us vs. them” mentality between “people of color” and the “white-supremacist system,” activists are only increasing the likelihood of future deaths.
When members of any group feel they are being unjustly condemned and demonized and do not have a chance to explain themselves, they are more likely to feel isolated; hence, when placed in a threatening situation, they will be more likely to respond with violence. This applies to police officers in the States, as well as the Israel Defense Forces soldiers in Israel/Palestine.
There is much that is wrong with this nation in terms of inequality between the Black and White communities. Similarly, there is a lot of inequality between Jews and Arabs living in Israel/Palestine. The Palestinian and Black American communities are both in terrible situations, which are largely a result of past racial tensions. However, the evidence that racial tensions today remain the primary factor in these conflicts is not strong. It is possible to conceive of a Black officer harassing a Black man, or a White officer harassing a White man. Similarly, if it were Chareidi Jews firing rockets and digging tunnels from Gaza, the IDF would likely respond with the same actions in order to protect its citizens. In maintaining that these conflicts are racially motivated, activists are doing an injustice to those who are suffering as well as those who fought valiantly to end racial segregation in our past.
Modern activists align themselves with activists from the recent past of the Civil Rights movement and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. These movements helped eradicate injustices that were entirely racially based and codified in the law. Not enough people recognized the oppression — let alone were willing to speak out against it — and so activists made their voices heard. They agitated until those who were perpetrating the injustice agreed to talk with the injured parties, and could claim victory after overturning the disgraceful laws.
Today, we are living in the aftermath of these movements, in which people continue to suffer. But there is no quick fix. The injustices that we see today are not entirely racially based, nor are they codified in the law. If certain laws are found to be discriminatory, then there are legal frameworks to overturn them; those who are supposedly perpetrating the crimes are willing and ready to talk in a respectful manner.
Activists claim that too many people are silent about these matters. They often quote Martin Luther King Jr., who said that “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” They claim to be the voice of the oppressed, the defenders of justice, and promoters of peace. In so doing, they imply that everyone else in the population is not on the same moral level as them. However, most educated individuals these days are familiar with the injustices that are occurring, but they recognize that the given situations are complex and cannot be solved simply by making more noise. What we need today, more than ever, is less speaking at one another and more talking with one another. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.”
When monarchs ruled the world, there was little oversight over their actions. These monarchs represented ultimate power and did as they pleased, even at the expense of others, and would surround themselves with those who agreed. In response to this behavior, the ancient Jewish prophets introduced the concept of “speaking truth to power.” They would criticize a Jewish king’s actions — often very harshly — and the king’s acceptance or rejection of the criticism would testify to his personal honor, or lack thereof.
Modern activists claim to be “speaking truth to power.” This is ironic not only because it is often leveled against Jews, who originated this idea thousands of years ago and continue to exercise it on themselves, but also because activists themselves have become the power. Modern activism is comprised of heterogeneous ideas; they are spoken and shouted and accompanied by actions which harm others but are justified for the sake of the cause. What makes this power all the more frightening is that it is completely unwilling to hear any form of criticism. Anyone who disagrees with the underlying ideology is automatically cast as privileged, or worse, a racist, and is no longer considered worthy of being heard.
The path to reconciliation and peace is a difficult one, but we can only achieve it if we work together. We can only work together if we stop demoralizing one another and are able to talk with one another and discuss and debate the intricacies of the situations we are in today. Certain activists will not talk to their fellows for fear of ‘normalizing’ the situation. I think that if this is the case, then perhaps the situation is so convoluted that it needs to be normalized. For in the end, we will remember not the shouts of our friends, but the words of our interlocutors.
The issues of police brutality are not as “black and white” as they used to be:
(“Not a black and white issue” by Eric Garner, CNN)
This video demonstrates some protesters’ preoccupation with being heard and their unwillingness to hear others, even those whose lives they are negatively affecting in a direct manner:
(“Angry driver attacks Ferguson protester blockading I-5 highway” by ABC 10 News)