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Between Montgomery and Gaza

Mainstream columnists’ justification of Israeli violence against Palestinian protesters sounds a lot like condemnations of black civil rights activists five decades ago.

Palestinians celebrate while they watch two boats from the Free Gaza protest group arrives August 23, 2008 in Gaza City, Gaza. Abid Katib / Getty Images

When a government guns down dozens of members of an oppressed group engaging in civil disobedience, it’s natural to feel any number of emotions: shock, sorrow, anger.

But if you felt any of these at the sight of Israel’s brutal repression of Palestinian protesters last week, the mainstream press has a message for you: don’t worry about it.

The Washington Post editorial board labelled the protest — which saw Palestinians try to cross the border fence between Gaza and Israel before being met with tear gas and bullets, both real and rubber — a new type of “war,” one in which Hamas deployed “nominal civilians” to carry out civil disobedience “in the calculation that many would be killed.” The endgame, according to the editorial, was “moral and political defeat for Israel.”

The New York Times’ Tom Friedman charged Hamas — Gaza’s ruling party that is widely, and wrongly, cast as the driving force behind the protests — with carrying out “an act of human sacrifice.” “When you throw thousands of your youth, the flower of your youth, against an Israeli fence, supposedly to get in Israel, some of them surrounded by Hamas fighters, it was inevitable that a lot of people were going to get killed,” he said. “Israel was not going to open the border to them, and Hamas knew that.”

“We’ll surely hear a great deal about the misery of Gaza,” wrote conservative columnist Bret Stephens. “Try not to forget that the authors of that misery are also the presumptive victims.”

Stephens questioned why there was no outrage over the fact that “Hamas kept urging Palestinians to move toward the fence” even after Israel warned protesters not to, or why women and children were apparently at the front lines. “Elsewhere in the world, this sort of behavior would be called reckless endangerment,” he fumed. “It would be condemned as self-destructive, cowardly, and almost bottomlessly cynical.”

The Times’ other conservative columnists were in agreement. David Brooks called the Palestinians’ “theatrical thinking,” aimed at creating “a martyrdom performance that will show the world how oppressed we are,” both “cynical” and “messianic.” Meanwhile, Bari Weiss complained on Bill Maher’s show that the protests appeared to have been timed to coincide with the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem in order to create the most damaging photo-op possible. “Let’s not fall for a trap that is being set by a theocratic, authoritarian group that are sending women and children to be human shields,” she said.

It’s difficult to imagine such repugnant arguments being employed against any other oppressed group. But we don’t have to imagine, because it was only fifty years ago that the forebears of Brooks, Stephens, and Weiss were using these same talking points to attack Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.

In an April 20, 1965 column for the National Review titled “The Violence of Nonviolence,” senior editor Frank Meyer charged that King’s nonviolent approach had a “violent essence,” in that it was based on the “provocation of violence.” By pushing segregationists into a heavy-handed response, King was not only guilty of “hypocrisy on a grand scale” but was ultimately aiming to “destroy the processes of constitutional government.” Just as Palestinians’ recent civil disobedience has been termed a new type of warfare, Meyer would complain that King’s Poor People’s Campaign of civil disobedience constituted “insurrectionary methods.”

Lionel Lokos, a conservative author from the time who authored an unfavorable biography of King after his death, likewise complained that King’s success depended on the threat and provocation of violence, leaving behind a “legacy of lawlessness.” When King won the Nobel Prize, the US News and World Report asserted that many Americans thought it “extraordinary that this prize should go to a man whose fame is based upon his battle for civil rights for Negroes — and whose activities often lead to violence.” Years before that, as sit-ins sprung up across the South, Georgia senator Richard B. Russell accused CORE of trying to “provoke race riots in the South” so they could bring a “terrible incident” to the Senate to justify civil rights legislation.

It’s little wonder that King’s segregationist critics sound like today’s defenders of Israel, when the civil rights marches looked so similar to the recent Palestinian protests. Black civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s were likewise walking unarmed into what they knew would be brutal retaliation from local law enforcement, and the ranks of protesters attacked by Southern police with dogs, fire hoses, and batons also included women and children.

Would any of these columnists use such language to condemn the protesters of the Civil Rights Movement, urging readers to shut off their justified feelings of outrage and injustice?

Will Tom Friedman denounce the acts of “human sacrifice” committed by King and other civil rights organizers, for sending unarmed protesters into the path of armed police? Will Brett Stephens fume at the “self-destructive, cowardly, and almost bottomlessly cynical” actions of the civil rights leadership? Will Bari Weiss urge us not to “fall for a trap” set by civil rights groups that sent “women and children to be human shields?” Will the Washington Post reflect on the way “nominal civilians” like the Freedom Riders cleverly attempted to bring “moral and political defeat” to the South? Unlikely.

The Civil Rights Movement was long ago universally canonized as Good, even among those who would have bitterly opposed it had they been there to personally watch it unfold fifty years ago. This is why the same politicians who routinely heap praise on leaders like King and Nelson Mandela for public applause also try to outlaw the very tools of resistance such figures once they’re aimed at Israel.

While conservative thinkers like William Buckley once attacked the civil rights movement and defended segregation, today’s conservatives have supposedly evolved. Columnists like Brooks, Weiss, and Stephens love to cite King to back up whatever point they happen to be making at the time. Yet it seems all they know is how to use King and the movement he represented as some kind made-to-order moral authority while ignoring their actual lessons.

In fact, King himself had a ready explanation for why the kind of civil disobedience that both he and the men, women, and children of Gaza have engaged in — which came with great peril and human cost — is perfectly justified.

“Our nonviolent direct-action program has as its objective not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present,” he explained in 1965. “We set out to precipitate a crisis situation that must open the door to negotiation . . . I deeply oppose violence, but constructive crisis and tension are necessary for growth.”

After Selma, King wrote that he wanted to “dramatize the existence of injustice.” He was well aware that “racists resist[ing] by unleashing violence against” black protesters was a key step to achieving the movement’s goals, as it would awaken the conscience of those Americans who were watching. When it became clear they would be met by a wall of police during the second march, King couldn’t allow the marchers to violate their commitment to nonviolence by breaking through, but “felt that we had to march at least to the point where the troopers brutalized the people on Sunday even if it would mean a recurrence of violence, arrest, or even death.”

The columnists who spent the past week excusing Israel’s violence while railing against Palestinian protesters would no doubt like to think they would’ve stood with those few hundred marchers brutalized with nightsticks and tear gas on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. But put them on the road to Montgomery that spring day in 1965, and it’s clear what side of the bridge they would’ve been on.