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Israelis could take a page from Abraham Lincoln

Forty years ago there existed a large group of Israelis that didn’t want to occupy the Palestinian territories – a group which at one time was the majority; this majority has since turned into thin air. Lessons from the 19th century American South.

(Translated from Hebrew by Jordan Michaeli)

Abraham Lincoln (Photo: Mathew Brady)

In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a young and prim author from Connecticut, published one of the most influential books of the 19th century, if not history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which talks about the fate of slaves in the United States South.

The book, which didn’t age very well over the years (it is barely readable for a modern crowd and is heavily packed with Christian preaching) was a dagger in the heart of slavery. It was written so masterfully: there is one scene, that no one who has read the book will ever forget, in which the slave Eliza escapes from her traders on the fragile ice of the Ohio River, her young son in her arms. Eliza was willing to risk her and her boy’s lives to prevent him from being sold and sent to the South.

“There,” told Stowe to the good people of the North, “that’s what you support when you look the other way: tearing children from their parents’ arms and selling them to strangers.” She wrote to a generation well-versed in the Bible, a crowd that immediately knew what she was referring to: “Do not hand him [a slave] over to his master” (Deuteronomy 23:17), and the dreadful verse: “Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day; and there shall be nought in the power of thy hand” (Deuteronomy 28:32). Stowe found the crack in the shining armor of lies protecting the unjust and struck with all her might.

She was admired in the North. The book became an unprecedented bestseller – only the Bible sold more copies in the 19th century – and is regarded as one of the direct causes for the Civil War, as it led to a radicalization in the South. People who until then hid behind numerous excuses, including “it’s not as bad as it sounds” to “it will lead to a civil war,” had a hard time avoiding the truth any longer. When Stowe eventually met President Lincoln in the midst of war, the latter remarked: “So this is the little woman who brought on this great war.” I, by the way, suspect that Lincoln stole one of his best lines from Stowe’s scenes – towards the end of the decade he told the Southerners that they know slavery is injustice; they allow their children to play with the children of slaves but not with those of slave traders. For Stowe as well, the slave trader is the lowest of the low and even slave owners are disgusted by him.

It’s customary to speak about the appreciation the book received and its influence in the North as well as Britain. We can speculate on the extent to which the phenomenal success of the book prevented the British government from acknowledging the southern states, out of fear from the expected public uproar that would follow. But that is the well known story. The real story is how the South reacted.

The Southern public reacted with total shock. Suddenly an institution with negligible salience for most Southerners (most of them didn’t own slaves, the Civil War was conducted by the elite) stained the entire South with the most despicable crimes. The very active Southern press was filled with appalled articles, arguing that such things almost never happen, and if they do take place, then they are specific cases caused by barbaric and uneducated plantation owners, and one should not judge an entire culture according to a few minor events. And besides, the slaves want to be slaves, slavery civilizes them, and in any case they are in much better condition than that of the average slave in the North. In short, the South cried out: “Why don’t they show the whole story?” and next to the tuba which roared that the slaves are happy and doing just fine, a piccolo was also heard, saying we must show them who the master is here or else they will rise in the dead of the night and slaughter us all.

And those were only the polite people. The ones who write for newspapers and publish books. Other simply burned copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and ran those who dared to sell the book out of town. One psycho even sent Stowe an ear of a slave in the mail. Others bitterly wrote that the book is proof that the North hates them and won’t hesitate to spread stories about them.

In short, almost nobody in the South dared looking at the mirror that Stowe put before them.

Sound familiar?


The above use of “why don’t they show the whole story?” was, of course, intentional. Israel in 2013 is like the American South in 1852: a xenophobic mob that cannot see its own, real image.

We have been occupying another nation for 45 years and the more time passes, the more hardened our hearts become. Two generations before Stowe, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” One generation later, in his last days, he was one of the toughest of slave owners, convinced that the release of slaves will bring a fiery and bloody end to the South. Forty years ago there existed a large group of Israelis that didn’t want to occupy the Palestinian territories – a group which at one time was the majority.

This majority has turned into thin air. One reason is the savage war that our occupied population conducted. Another is that we simply got used to it. Most people living today in Israel, including the author of these words were born after 1967 (and I assume I’m older than most readers of this post). Most of us were born into a reality in which the occupation is a given, static state. They grew up with an understanding that one day they will have to spend part of their lives occupying another nation or support the occupation, strategically or militarily. Years of rigorously blurring the Green Line, with the active help of the Education Ministry, gave birth to a generation that knows nothing. A generation that doesn’t separate between the occupied territories and Israel and has a weaker understanding of the difference between Palestinian residents of Israel and residents of the occupied territories. And since this generation was brought up Jewish, and not Israeli, it does not understand the whole citizenship thing either.

Most Israelis don’t benefit directly from the occupation. The vast majority does not reside in the occupied territories or enjoy the exploitation of occupied land. Considering the very low number of combat soldiers relative to the army’s size, and the decrease in military service in general, it is okay to assume that most Israelis haven’t served in the occupied territories. Nonetheless, like in the American South, they find themselves protecting settlers and settlements, the occupation and occupiers, because the occupation has become their own black mark. It’s become like a family member.

So we don’t mention how the occupation violates 15 out of 30 principals of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So we ignore how our occupation forces regularly kill children. We don’t ask “how did we reach a point where we are shooting at children?”; we ask, “why don’t they show the whole story and what he did just before we shot him?” We search, with rage and puffy veins, for an excuse that allows us to say that the child simply made us kill him. In the process we legitimize every horror and corruption of our legal system – one that can’t find an prosecutor for the case of a dead child even 14 months after he was shot. We know, or in any case we have absolutely no excuse not to know, that children are abducted every night from their houses by armed, masked men, taking them into interrogation rooms without an adult present to protect them while they undergo abuse and torture. We also know, given that we don’t lie to ourselves, that this practice did not start yesterday. Things have always been this way.

We know that a whole nation lives without the basic right to protest, and that as far as our gunmen are concerned, the arrival of a person to a demonstration is a reason good enough to shoot at him or her. We know, given that we don’t lie to ourselves, that our gunmen exercise excessive violence towards those demonstrators, violence they will not direct towards Israeli citizens. We know that those gunmen lie to investigators, they cover for each other and bring criminal behavior home with them after the end of their service. We know. And whoever says he doesn’t know – chooses not to know.

Our armed men shoot at Palestinian youth when they break bread together, shoot at them when they stand in a field, claiming in retrospect they were assaulted with an axe, which a day later turns into a bottle, and then into a syringe. We shoot at them when they try to take cover in our cemeteries and say they were about to stab someone, a claim that turns within a day to “he picked up something from the ground and it could have been a knife so I shot him.” We know that the occupation forces will release those murderous armed men with the excuse that “they felt that their lives were endangered.”

Stowe said that her criticism was directed above all toward the legal system, and especially toward the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. She wrote her book six years prior to the Dred Scott decision, but already then it was clear who the legal system was serving. We know that the occupation turns our legal system into an accomplice to an unjust system (sometimes by force, other times by consent). We know that the investigators and legal experts will take their time with the investigation. We know that the judges themselves will look the other way, write a few hypocritical words expressing dissatisfaction from being forced into something so repulsive, but only rarely will they rule against an “an illegality that pierces the eye and outrages the heart,” since their eyes are blind and their hearts have been sealed a long time ago, sealed on the day when the cry of a family about to lose its home due to the actions of one its sons was pushed aside by explanations about the reasoning of the commander’s decision.

The South used to threaten the North that if it wasn’t allowed  to do as it pleases – that if it wasn’t allowed to expand slavery to the free states or if it were told that slavery is immoral – it would have no choice but to leave the Union or embark on a civil war. Such threats were voiced in intervals of five years starting in 1830. Israelis, too, are regularly threatened with a civil war. The South used to say, with a considerable amount of justice, that its men held an exceptionally large number of positions in the armed forces and therefore it may decide what those men should do. When crisis came, the Union found itself in a civil war with states populated by less than a third of its citizens, but who enjoyed the services of half of the army’s officers. The military service of slave owners was conditioned. The moment the country stopped fulfilling its stated purpose, they would turn their weapons and use the training they received from the government against the very same government.

Two years ago, an armed Israeli Defense Forces soldier – a member of the Kfir unit – killed Mustafa Tamimi during a demonstration in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. He shot Tamimi with a smoke grenade, aimed directly at him from five meters away, through the open door of a moving military vehicle. Tamimi was killed while demonstrating in his village, on his land, against the occupation. A clear act of a free man who refuses to be enslaved. A few weeks ago the Military Advocate General closed the case. The MAG swallowed the soldier’s tale according to which he merely shot at the ground from a moving vehicle and didn’t seen Tamimi at all, and oops, the grenade ricocheted from the ground and hit Tamimi directly in his face.

Even if this is true, and I think you have to be a clinical idiot or an evil person to accept this argument (the MAG is welcome to choose) then the soldier is not guilty of murder, but of manslaughter. Only that the MAG ruled the firing took place “according to the relevant rules and procedures and did not involve any illegality.” This is how acts of killing are covered today: they say that shooting from a moving vehicle, supposedly toward the ground “took place according to the procedures.” It doesn’t matter there is no such procedure.

And most Israelis continued sleeping. As far as they are concerned, the killing of a young Palestinian who dared to resist the occupation is nothing they should lose sleep over. They have become used to seeing this reality as a world order, only that such an order has a price. Always.

Slavery in the South was overthrown with blood and fire. It seems fit to quote Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

We better stop before we get there.

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    1. There is yet another lesson we can learn from Lincoln. In the enormity of what he achieved, it is often forgotten that his victory in the campaign against abolition was not won innocently; he bent the rules, bent the truth and twisted people’s arms. Yet it was precisely through these slightly underhand tactics that the integrity of his ultimate aim – and ideals – stayed intact. He forsook minor moral battles in order to stand a chance and last the distance in a colossal struggle. There is something we should all be taking from that.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lincoln, after election but before inauguration, supported a constitutional amendment which would have forbidden federal interference in slavery in States presently allowing it; the crisis issue was its expansion into pre-State Federal territory. Upon secession of the South, the new Republican Party found itself in control of Congress. While there were Radical Republicans who wanted slavery swept away even through war, others were content to see the South depart. What initially kept Congress on Lincoln’s side was the slow motion start of the war. Not a lot happened at first; Lincoln knew he needed a big battle, win or lose, to keep war alive. As the war went on, Republicans used their rump majority to pass economic legislation expanding rail westward, among other things, building the magnate class still echoed in that Party today (and well present among Democrats).

        Lincoln argued that his oath to “preserve” the Constitution enabled his war efforts, which focused not on slavery but secession. It was a very weak argument, one which a newly forming industrial moneyed class help sustain with no devotion to abolition. War emancipation was granted not to all slaves but to those within rebellious areas; areas loyal to the North were exempt. It was a war measure in uncertain days, even then supported only by Lincoln alone his his cabinet. And Lincoln, prior to election and sometime thereafter, advocated the voluntary deportation of freed slaves to Africa (remember Liberia?).

        The “campaign for abolition” was achieved neither innocently nor intendedly. The Civil War rewrote the Constitution, codified in the 13-15 Amendments, albeit decades down the road in implementation. About 15 years after war’s end, freed slaves found themselves in economic yoke to those who lost the War, the beginning of Southern Jim Crow.

        There is no grand movie here.

        Reply to Comment
        • Philos

          Thank you Greg! Too much whitewashing (excuse the pun) and “white savior” motifs with Spielberg’s bogus Lincoln film. The British today congratulate themselves for being the “first” to abolish slavery yet do not acknowledge that they strengthened and expanded it on an industrial scale making Britain the top slaver state of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Nor do they deign to educate their people either that the industrial revolution (which plunged British peasantry into wage-slavery) was thanks to the massive financial capital raised by the slave trade (and the industries it supported), and only then was it abolished, incrementally, and with full financial compensation to the slave owners.

          Reply to Comment
        • Natasha

          Greg, thanks for your comment. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written – Lincoln was not a paragon a virtue by any stretch of the imagination. But I stand by my belief that getting the amendment passed was an improbable feat of realpolitik, irrespective of the parallel criticisms that one can make of Lincoln (let’s not even start on his views on racial equality). My point is that it demonstrated the power of pragmatism, an approach that is all too often lacking in political debate.

          As for assuming that my comment was inspired by a movie – bit post hoc ergo propter hoc, no?

          Reply to Comment
          • Actually, I meant movie mostly generically, as in a gladiator morality. But I apologize. I think the Lincoln of 1859 would have recoiled from the accumulated deaths of 1864. There just was no campaign to remove slavery as such until war loss forced the issue.

            The 13th Amendment did fail the required 2/3 majority in the House at first, Lincoln using this as reelection issue. I think what tipped things, apart from the clear indication the South had lost, was the reality of war emancipation (you want to force them back into bondage?) and fear that a returned slave holding class would generate the same socio-economic opposition that lead to war initially. There was too the background issue of expansion into the Federal Territories, which might be seen as more probable after war devastation, small holding slavers wandering west.

            But, again, the 13th-15th Amendments were mostly shut down within 15 years of the war. The net result was a subjected agrarian black class with less accumulated wealth among whites. There is a famous USSC case, Slaughter House, 1872, decided 5-4, which held that the 14th Amendment was mostly limited to removing slavery as an institution. A change of one vote might have altered US jurisprudence significantly. As it was, one of the dissenters, Bradley, eventually shifted his view to that majority in later cases.

            Some Northerners fought and died to remove the scourge of human bondage; most did not, nor did the sacrifice of the former dominate post war. The destruction of the Nazis and rebuilding of West Germany is a much better case of political and moral resolve.

            Reply to Comment
          • Natasha

            Very interesting. I didn’t know about the Slaughter House case. But yes, the issue was propelled by war – which then leads onto a discussion of how causality is retroactively applied to contingent histories in order to serve one purpose or another. Another story for another time…

            Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      A compelling article.

      Things are different in Israel/Palestine than in the American south.

      Palestinians aren’t enslaved. In the American south, there was a strange class relationship in which it was only a small percentage of whites that owned the overwhelming largest number of slaves. A near majority owned a household servant though.

      But, the poor whites were the most violent towards blacks, like all labor struggles the second poorest fighting to retain their barely surviving role.

      Yossi conspicuously omits the second intifada in the construction of Israeli and Zionist supporting consciousness.

      I’ve come to believe in the “coming of age” analysis of when people form political worldview and assumptions. Its usually driven by a combination of basic background education (formation of worldview), then specifically applied/rejected by the first couple politically charged circumstances one encounters.

      Yossi thankfully describes the early 90’s hope of the majority, hope on the basis of actual peace and mutual recognition. 500,000 demonstrating for peace of a country of 4,800,000 in the early nineties. More than 10% of the population attending political demonstration. More than Tahrir, much much more than Teinamin, much more than the fall of the Berlin Wall, 20 times the largest day of anti-Vietnam war demonstration proportional to population.

      That was the prevailing formative events of those my age (late 50’s) and slightly younger and older.

      Two violent acts (and their aftermath) turned Israel to the right. The Rabin assassination (following right-wing fanatic agitation, including support by “middle” likudniks), and then the second intifada.

      That was the formative two events of Israelis and interested American and European Zionists in their 30’s and 40’s.

      Those that came of age, physically and politically relative to Israel/Palestine, after the second intifada, their formative experiences were crafted by the Second Lebanon war, Cast Lead, and reinforced by the documented comments of Yossi, and Max Blumenthal, Phil Weiss, etc. (Phil Weiss and Max Blumenthal are newbies, coming to political awareness of Israel/Palestine after the second intifada, parallel to those that formed their views of American politics through Vietnam, but not through the Cold War – real.

      The other lens that I assess dissent currently is through the relationship of formation of “other”.

      For European and American dissenters against South Africa, white South Africa was an “other”, utterly foreign. Foreign language, isolated, no contact, little familial connections, discredited basis of economic privilege (gold/diamonds, rather than enterprise/innovation).

      For most of the American Jews that are involved with significant dissent against Israel, Israel is similarly foreign, “other”, with permission to somehow fail to consider their needs, experience, consciousness.

      It troubles me, as the element that makes progressive views in my mind is “there is no other, we are all kin”. So, it hurts deeply to hear the assumption that Israel and Israelis are an acceptable shunnable “other”.

      Reply to Comment
    3. The focal conflict leading to secession and so Civil War was not over abolition in the South but expansion of slavery westward, into the territories under Federal control. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had created a horizontal line cutting these territories, north of which slavery was forbidden, south of which allowed. The Compromise was repealed in the Kansas Nebraska Act 1854, replacing a forbidden zone with “popular sovereignty” which allowed these two territories to decide locally whether to become slave or free. Lincoln and nascent Republicans were opposed to popular sovereignty, arguing that Congress, not locales, should determine what happens on Federal land. Nascent Republicans argued that a right of free labor (allowing one to choose and hold the fruits of one’s labor) was a moral issue of rights which should be decided constitutionally through Congress; they did not say the right was absolute (although some did), but, minimally, its possible expression was not a local democratic measure. Kansas Nebraska said democracy, as a local matter (here in territorial convention/legislature) should determine local economy.

      The Democracy (the Democrats) sound much like the national right Knesset coalition (“the democratic will of the people”) while then Republicans sound more like advocates of human rights (Republican as representation in deciding Congress opposed to Democrats/Democracy as local will of the people, which indeed is how the new party got its name), rights seen as free standing against the West Bank occupation. Free standing rights need institutional support, and the only counterfoil to local will in Israel is the High Court, which is why, I think the Knesset is presently fighting the High Court’s detention camp decision so forcefully; there is a visceral sense in which Court success on this issue might expand elsewhere later. Contention over the camp decision is, I think, a clear instance of occupation ideology seeping back into Israel proper. As often happens in constitutional politics, the asylum claimants (if they ever get to claim) have taken on an importance far removed from their difficult lives.

      Slave rebellion and murder (by slaves, of course much more of slaves) did happen in the South. Similarly, violence is imported into Israel via bombings (a nonfatal bombing on a bus just a day ago). Southerners felt trapped: apart from the direct instability of collapsing the slave economy, freed slaves would have been among them, enhancing the threat of violence (the same argument must have been common in South Africa). Ending the West Bank occupation is not like this, except in so far as the settlements are manned by Israelis and so seen under similar threat. Yet national right ideology has managed to capture more of the slave Southern fear of violence via the Palestinian Right of Return, which, stated as rhetorical principle, portents the same socio-economic collapse as emancipation in the South; consider that post Civil War much effort focused on keeping freed slaves under economic and social servitude. There is a strange abstract sense in which the fears of the antebellum South are being played out in Israeli ideology and politics, significantly in the bombings and Right of Return. The latter might not be so resilient if Israel’s founding did not also employ a right of return; having done so, the Palestinian analog takes on additional threat. Here liberating ideology produces its own trap in the mirror of the other.

      An impressive article, with no easy answers, only gambles to be made.

      Reply to Comment
    4. 100 years ago most Jews who had any knowledge of Palestine, predicted that political Zionism would lead to disaster.
      The occupation is both expansionism and economy. Palestinians are being used to test weapons, security systems, and are unwilling participants in an experiment in mass psychology. They are products, not producers. In that sense it’s worse than slavery.
      The Israeli population is kept silent by continous warfare, since fear leads to narrow nationalism.
      The end of Zionist aggression would lift the fear and open the archives, which could lead to a civil war, or collective suicide out of shame.
      It’s an impressive article, as Greg said. But is has a strange, almost baleful atmosphere, as if it could be the last warning.

      Reply to Comment
      • Vadim

        Ah, what a great place the world will become when Zionist aggression will finally come to an end.

        Not Syrian atrocities, not the African horrors, nor the North Korean treatment of its citizens, not Egyptians that kill hundreds of protesters, nor the Iranians that silence opposition and make their people starve to create nuclear weapons.

        A day will come when people like you will consider a “collective suicide out of shame”.

        Reply to Comment
        • rose

          Vadim, in no 1 of your examples there is 1 occupying power that keeps under occupation, and for decades, millions of people without giving them any right but exploiting their natural resources. In Syria is now taking place a shameful civil war between a Syrian dictator (and millions of his supporters) and a syrian population (supported by a big number of fanatic infiltrators).
          Stop putting your head under the sand.

          Reply to Comment
      • So, Engelbert, by using “collective suicide out of shame” you have stifled all reasoned discourse. In the case of the American South, shame never dominated, I think. A better case might be Germany. I recall a 20 something German saying “I once again feel I must apologize for what happened.” I replied, “No, you’ve kept the camps as reminders; who else has done that?”

        Reply to Comment
    5. Abraham Lincoln was no Nelson Mandela. He kept his Black slaves even after he banned slavery.

      “Slave auctions were postponed if they fell on a Jewish holiday. In Curacao in the seventeenth century, as well as in the British colonies of Barbados and Jamaica in the eighteenth century, Jewish merchants played a major role in the slave trade. In fact, in all the American colonies, whether French (Martinique), British, or Dutch, Jewish merchants frequently dominated,” Rabbi Marc Lee Raphael in ‘Jews and Judaism in the United States: a Documentary Work‘.


      Reply to Comment
    6. Forty years ago most Israelis were satisfied with occupation of 75% of Palestine and were afraid that the consequences of grabbing of the rest of it will jeopardize the previous grab.

      Reply to Comment
    7. badu

      Which are the societies that keeps slaves today. Muslim societies or Jewish societies

      Reply to Comment