A few months ago, while doing online research, I came upon Frederick Douglass’ famous 4th of July speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, which he delivered on July 5 1852. As I began reading it it electrified me. Not so much the speech itself, which is indisputably one of the great artifacts of American political oratory, but its piercing relevance to the origins of Israel’s Original Sin, the Nakba. I resolved to write this post before Israel Independence Day, but for some reason, I didn’t. So I’ll take advantage of this year’s July 4th to write it.
Colin Kapernick today also highlighted the importance of Douglass’ speech.
“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? This Fourth of July is yours, not mine…There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.”
– Frederick Douglass pic.twitter.com/IWLujGCJHn
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) July 4, 2019
Douglass, in his address, grappled with his profound ambivalence on America’s National Day, as an African-American, in the face of the enslavement of his people in his homeland. While all around him were celebrating the independence of their nation from their British colonial overlords, Douglass and his brothers and sisters remained enslaved by theirs:
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day.
How could he possibly reconcile his Americanness as an African-American, with that of his white fellow citizens? How could he make those whites, even those sympathetic to his people’s plight, aware of the dissonance that raged in his heart?
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful…Who [is there] so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man.
Here he lays bare the fundamental contradiction at the heart of America of his day, which alienated him so profoundly from his fellow Americans:
This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?
…I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.
…Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them…To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY.
I shall see, this day…from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;” I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
Here is the most famous and stirring passage in the speech:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
In the later parts of his address, Douglass affirms the radical nature of his stance toward slavery. He rejects the incremental approach of educating white people so that they eventually come to understand the need for change. Instead, he says fire and fury is what’s needed:
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
I join him in my view of Israel’s current predicament. Many liberal Zionists (among them Israelis) believe hands must be held, Israelis must be led gently to the truth, that moral suasion is the key to change. The problem is, as Douglass suggests, that this has been tried for years, if not decades. It doesn’t work. If Israelis do not by now understand the fundamental moral flaw underpinning their society, they never will. They will always ask for a bit more time, a bit more understanding. They will always be shooting while crying.
Douglass here adds words that echo the sins accompanying the founding of the State of Israel:
Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster…!
Despite the greatness of much of the founding documents of our Republic, there is a glaring Original Sin at the heart of this nation: slavery. The founding fathers debated mightily over the issue. They could not bring themselves to outlaw slavery from the beginning. And in fact, they offered the South a huge political advantage by counting slaves as 3/5 of a human, while denying these same individuals the right to vote. In effect, Southern whites assumed the votes of Black slaves on the latter’s behalf. Thus, race became the one factor that has remained unresolvable from the first day till today.
The same is true of the State of Israel. It was founded not just in a war of liberation as the common Zionist narrative has it. It was founded on the mass expulsion of nearly a million of its indigenous Palestinian residents. The sin was further compounded by the new “Jewish state” when it criminalized the act of return by those who had been forced into exile (and even murdered them in the attempt), and when it confiscated their homes and offered them to Jewish immigrants, many of them fresh off the boat from Europe.
This, like slavery here, was a fundamental crime that underpinned the creation of the nation. Israel cannot become a nation like all other nations until it addresses this and rights this fundamental wrong. If it does not, as it has refused to do for the past 75 years, it will continue along the path to ruin being trodden by the country’s far-right racist leadership. Ultimately, a nation conceived in such profound injustice cannot sustain itself.
Lincoln said it best:
A house divided against itself, cannot stand…I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it…in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States…
That’s why on Israel’s Independence Day, Palestinian citizens of Israel are like Frederick Douglass in 1852. They cannot join their fellow Jewish citizens in celebrating it as a national day of jubilation. For him or her, it is a day of mourning; the day his people were banished from their land and sent into exile like the Israelites wandering forty years in the desert, before they returned to their homeland. Only with the full right of return of all these refugees to their former homes can this sin be expiated and Israel become a state for all its citizens, regardless of religion. Only when Israeli Palestinian citizens are offered the full rights conveyed to Jewish citizens, can the country realize its full potential.
Remember these stirring words from the Book of Deuteronomy:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.
Israel has a stark choice: it may live if it renounces the crime of Nakba and rectifies it through the Right of Return and a transformation of Israeli society. Or it will choose death in the form of apartheid, racism, mass violence, and ethnic cleansing.