Truth Matters: A response to the Vanguard Leadership Group

"I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid. I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government." - Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Standing in opposition to moral giants like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Ronnie Kasrils — seasoned anti-apartheid activists who resisted injustice and suffered for it — a group called the Vanguard Leadership Group (VLG) has run advertisements in campus papers at Brown University, UCLA, the University of Maryland, and Columbia University, in which 16 of its members criticize Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for calling Israel an “apartheid” state.

The VLG is an organization whose cryptic website reveals little about who is involved, who it represents, what it does, and what it believes in, though the website is peppered with references to the VLG’s participation in AIPAC conferences and tours to the Israeli Knesset.

Nevertheless, under the headline “Words Matter,” this advertisement (offering little in the form of substance, but standing on a slew of bold claims about the intentions and personal qualities of students in SJPs around the country, with whom they have never spoken) boasted the signature of 16 members of the highly opaque AIPAC-affiliated organization.

Apparently that was significant enough to merit international noteworthiness. Before some campus papers like the Columbia Spectator had even had a chance to print the advertisements, the Jerusalem Post triumphantly reported on the VLG’s advertisement, trumpeting what it saw as the very important fact that these 16 signatories are so-called “black student leaders.”

It may be impossible to tell what the VLG members were thinking when they opted to sign this advertisement, since it offers little insight into the reasoning that supports their conclusions about Israel or about SJP — strange qualities for aspiring “leaders.”

What is certain, though, is that moral perspective, sound reason, and the facts of Israeli oppression were not involved in the VLG’s deliberative process. It is unlikely that each of these VLG members made an attempt to reach out to SJP students, and it doubtful that any of them ever took detours from their Israeli Knesset appearances to visit Palestinian refugee camps or witness the Israeli occupation.

Giving the VLG members the benefit of the doubt, maybe they had not bothered to try visiting Gaza for themselves because they were already aware of the fact that the people of Gaza have been under a merciless Israeli military siege since 2006, one that has given dietitians unprecedented influence and prestige in the Israeli military apparatus.

The product of such leadership, then, could not be anything more than the VLG’s incredible claim that: “the Arab minority in Israel enjoys full citizenship with voting rights and representation in the government.”

One might point the VLG student leaders to The Inequality Report, a freshly-minted report by Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which found that “Inequalities between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel span all fields of public life and have persisted over time. Direct and indirect discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel is ingrained in the legal system and in governmental practice,” and that “More than 30 main laws discriminate, directly or indirectly, against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the current government coalition has proposed a flood of new racist and discriminatory bills which are at various stages in the legislative process.” (p. 7).

One might also point the 16 VLG members to the State Department’s Country Report on Human Rigths Practices for Israel and the Occupied Territories, which in 2004, in a rare instance of candor, reported that Israel had done “little to reduce institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against the country’s Arab citizens. The State Department’s most recent report, published April 8, 2011, confirmed that 7-year-old finding, that “Principal human rights problems [in Israel] were institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against Arab citizens.” (It should go without saying that racism in Israel is not limited to the anti-Arab variety.)

Setting aside how sincerely the 16 signatories of this op-ed might have felt about their views, there is no question that the excitement of outlets like the Jerusalem Post, the Forward, etcetera, and their rush to cover the breaking story about a paid-advertisement in 4 campus papers signed by a mere 16 students, is supposed to convey an image of entrenched support by Black Americans for Israel, as if (a) such support exists at the grassroots level (an empirical question; given the VLG’s secretive and apparently exclusive nature, it is unlikely to be so representative of Black Americans) and (b) such support, if it even existed, would justify the reality of Israeli apartheid (an easily dismissed logical matter, a simple non sequitur).

The real question is not where the VLG stands on Israel, but rather where people who fight against racial injustice stand. In the experience of groups like SJP at UC Berkeley, solidarity between people who care about racism and social justice has formed a strong rebuttal to Israeli propaganda, which is directly at odds with such struggles. If the VLG believes that it participates in a struggle against racism, then it cannot remain true to its ideals while also standing on the side of racism in Israel.

In that light, it is baffling that, at a time when support for Palestinian freedom and opposition to Israeli oppression grows continuously amidst veterans of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and while racism in Israel reaches unprecedented heights, that the 16 members of VLG who issued the statement would make such an uninformed proclamation about Israeli racism and SJP.

Such striking inaccuracy is either the work of a group that is out of touch, or deliberately disingenuous. One hopes that the VLG aspires to be neither.

Cross posted at KABOBfest

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"Nothing so tires a person as having to struggle, not with himself, but with an abstraction." - Jose Saramago, All the Names