I was listening a few days ago to a riveting radio documentary (hear the audio) about the 1950s era execution of Willie McGee, a Mississippi African-American accused of raping a white woman. McGee’s niece, decades after his death, makes a deathbed promise to her mother, McGee’s sister, to get to the bottom of what happened. This sends her on a search through archives, to meetings with the judge, prosecutor, attorneys, family members all the while seeking justice for her uncle. One of my regrets is that Bella Abzug, who defended McGee, was not alive to include her recollections in this account.
A local white reporter remembers that during the trial, McGee was so terrified that he wet his pants at the defense table where he sat. All the whites interviewed noted it was a foregone conclusion that he would be condemned by the all-white jury, and he was. He was executed by a traveling electric chair that made the rounds of the rural South for just such purposes.
But was he guilty? No, not of rape. When the prosecutor asked him after the legal proceedings were over whether he’d had sex with the white woman, Willie replied: “Yes sir.” But then he added: “But she wanted it just as much as me.” So there you have it. The American South circa 1950 could conceive of and meted out no punishment for a white man having sex with a black woman. But it could not conceive of a black man having sex with a white woman under any condition except duress.
This was one of the most noxious manifestations of Jim Crow, a series of laws, customs and taboos which reigned for 100 years. It prohibited African-Americans from voting, and owning land. It sentenced them to inferior social status when using public facilities and transportation. It offered little or no public funding for education and infrastructure. It segregated areas in which minorities could live and enforced miscegenation. Jim Crow, as I wrote, was codified by law, but also included numerous extralegal provisions.
Under Jim Crow, the South was a democracy for whites which offered inferior roles and rights to Blacks. The latter’s inferiority was even codified in a founding document of the Republic, which defined a Black slave as equal for voting representation to a fraction of a white citizen.
This satisfies the definition of ethnocracy, which is how many describe Israel itself and its relations between the Jewish majority and Palestinian minority. Since Israel has no constitution, its racism is not codified. Many of the injustices suffered by Israeli Palestinians are not written into law. Rather, they are enforced de facto by government practice which offer much lower funding levels for Palestinian municipalities, worse schools and infrastructure. Communities are segregated and there is severe social stratification. Mobility in either housing or jobs is limited.
While Israeli Palestinians can vote, their votes count less since their parties are excluded from governing coalitions, another embodiment of racism. With Israel’s spoils-oriented parliamentary system, Israeli Palestinians hardly ever receive a cabinet ministry and so offer little in the way of patronage to their constituents. This is a system mastered by Israeli Jewish parties like Shas, and which the non-Jewish minority will never enjoy.
National leaders of Israeli Palestinians, whether inside or outside the Knesset, are subject to constant legal persecution by the security services. Almost every MK has been under police investigation and at least one was forced into exile while charges were pending against him which the security apparatus refused to prove at trial. Other non-Knesset leaders are subject to even harsher treatment and long prison terms. The charges against them are invariably trumped-up security related offenses which often the defense and always the public has no opportunity to review.
In short, Israel is the American South circa 1950. Both the U.S. and Israel are nations birthed in injustice: for us, slavery; for Israel, the Nakba. Israel follows the South’s example in being a nation whose laws and customs perpetuate the injustice through racism and enforced inferiority. One of the few areas in which Israel comes out ahead in comparison is that there are no traveling electric chairs for Israeli Palestinians since the country doesn’t have capital punishment (not that settlers and far-right nationalists haven’t urged an exception be made for their fellow Palestinian citizens).
While some may mistake my motives for writing what I have above, I want to make my agenda perfectly clear.
Until 1954 and even for several decades thereafter the South suffered great damage from Jim Crow. The damage went beyond what Blacks endured. The entire region suffered from a backwardness that was more than just moral. Political injustice contributed to economic and social stratification. The South had great potential which was strangled by the racism imposed on society by whites.
Look at the contemporary South, at cities like Atlanta. They are now engines for economic, social, artistic and political progress. The South is today a powerhouse especially compared to the 1950s. No longer can it be called a backwater of America.
This is undoubtedly true of Israel as well. Israel’s minorities are the weak link in the social chain. Their communities are places where dreams go to die. Imagine an Israel which unleashed the full potential of every member of society. Imagine an Israel which offered educational and vocational parity to every citizen. Israel’s apologists like to point to Israel’s economic success and say there’s nothing wrong there. But I say success compared to what? If you stood in downtown Atlanta (or any major Southern ctiy) in 1954 and then compared the landscape to how it appears today, you would think you were on a different planet the changes are so enormous.
Today, Willie McGee’s niece has documented the injustice committed against her uncle. She knows he died for a crime that does not exist in contemporary America. I long for the day when the alleged crimes of Azmi Bishara and Ameer Makhoul will be equally unimaginable. That will be an Israel of all its citizens. An Israel whose creative and financial muscle will be felt scores of times more strongly in the world than at present.