Jim Crow in Palestine: parallels between US and Israeli racism

There are no shortage of parallels between oppression of blacks in the Jim Crow South and Israel’s present-day oppression of Palestinians.

Issam Rimawi APA images

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama does a good job of showing what blacks endured before the civil rights victories of the 1960s. I visited there last fall and was especially struck by one particular image — a 1926 map of the small and isolated patches of Birmingham where city zoning regulations allowed blacks to live.

What struck me was the similarity of this map to maps of the isolated patches of the West Bank including East Jerusalem where Palestinians are allowed to live. The map then made me think about other similarities between the oppression of blacks in the Jim Crow South and Israel’s present-day oppression of Palestinians.

The methods for keeping blacks within their enclaves in Birmingham were more direct and brutal than the redlining agreements among banks and realtors that maintained a de facto segregation in the North. Municipal zoning laws in Birmingham prevented sales to blacks outside designated areas, and if a black person somehow acquired a house outside the designated area, even if just across the street, the house would be blown up.

Similarly, the Israeli legal system keeps Palestinians within restricted areas of East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank. Palestinians living outside those areas have been evicted and their homes destroyed or occupied by Jewish settlers. Eighteen thousand Palestinian homes have been destroyed by Israel since 1967, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

The black areas and white areas of Birmingham were very different physically. The black areas often lacked municipal amenities or services such as street lighting, paved streets, sidewalks, garbage collection and sewers that the white areas had. Similarly, the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem often lack these same basic facilities and services, and the differences between Palestinian areas and those reserved for Israeli settlers are clear to all.

Arbitrary arrests

Suppression of the human rights of blacks in the South was maintained by both “legal” and extralegal means. State and municipal Jim Crow laws restricted residence, use of public facilities, use of public transport, interracial marriage and other aspects of life in the South. White courts and police forces enforced these laws and the whole system of segregation. Arbitrary arrests under vagrancy laws yielded large numbers of black prisoners (who were often forced to do hard labor). Nonviolent civil rights marches and protests were met with police and state National Guard violence.

Similarly, Israeli control over the lives of Palestinians is maintained by a system of laws, courts, police and Israeli military that discriminates against Palestinians. Laws restrict where Palestinians can live, where they can travel, what roads they can travel on, and whether they can live with their spouse in another part of the country. Permits to travel from the West Bank to East Jerusalem for work are tightly controlled and dependent on “good” behavior.

Administrative detentions” have led to the indefinite incarceration of thousands of Palestinians without trials. The Israeli military meets unarmed protests against the separation wall and the taking of Palestinian land with violence.

Black compliance with the system of segregation in the South was ensured by extralegal as well as legal means, including economic threats, harassment of various sorts, and extreme violence. More than 5,000 lynchings were recorded between 1882 and 1959, and many beatings and killings went unrecorded. Violence against blacks increased as the civil rights movement grew in strength during the 1950s and 1960s. In one year alone 30 black homes and churches were bombed in Birmingham. The white-controlled legal system only rarely prosecuted white-on-black violence.

Daily violence

Similarly, harassment and violence against Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the West Bank including East Jerusalem occurs almost every day. The settlers try to force Palestinians off their land or to leave the region entirely. The settlers threaten or attack children on their way to school and shepherds in the fields. Palestinian land, wells and olive groves are occupied. The Israeli military protects the settlers, and the Israeli legal system only rarely prosecutes settler harassment or violence.

Blacks in the Jim Crow South had no control over the governments that oppressed them and denied them their share of common resources. The 15th Amendment of 1870 gave blacks the right to vote, but that right was progressively taken away in Southern states following the failure of reconstruction. Discriminatory registration procedures were introduced and were enforced by violence. As late as the 1960s, many counties in the South, even those with black majorities, had no registered black voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally changed that.

Similarly, the four million or so Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, have no say in the government that in fact controls them. They cannot vote in the Israeli elections.

Palestinians did vote for a virtually powerless Palestinian government in 2006 in which a majority of seats in the parliament went to Hamas, a political party. The Hamas legislators were immediately arrested and jailed by Israel. Many were kept in prison for more than five years and the elected parliament has never been able to meet. Even if the parliament could meet, it would have only limited control over limited enclaves of the West Bank. Israel controls the water, electricity, borders, airspace, exports and imports of the enclaves, and the Israeli military enters the enclaves and arrests Palestinians at will.

Nonviolent methods such as marches, boycotts and direct actions are a critical tool for the success of any human rights movement, such as the American civil rights movement, that confronts a power structure with a monopoly on physical force. The civil rights movement in the United States maintained the practice of nonviolence to a heroic degree over many years, even in the face of violent repression from the Southern white power structure. Participants aroused the conscience of the rest of the nation and the world.

Tactics of resistance

Similar methods are now of central importance for the Palestinian rights movement. Protest marches against the separation wall, “Freedom Rides” on Israeli-only public transit, and “camp-ins” on land illegally expropriated for Israeli settlements are becoming common now in Palestine. Internationally, boycotts of all sorts and divestment from companies that maintain and profit from the occupation of Palestinian land are taking hold.

The blacks in the American civil rights movement made their appeal to the federal government for redress of wrongs committed at the lower levels of state and local governments. The federal government was already formally committed to the rights of blacks through the 14th and 15th amendments as well as various Supreme Court decisions. They also had authority and power over local governments.

The aroused conscience of the nation and of the world finally forced the United States federal government to act. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could not continue to present the United States to the world as the land of freedom and democracy when its own citizens were being beaten for asserting their freedom and their right to vote.

Here too there are parallels between the civil rights movement in the American South and today’s movement for Palestinian rights. Israel cannot indefinitely present itself as a law-abiding, humane and democratic state when it denies the human rights of the four million or so Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

The federal government of the United States shares responsibility for the continuing denial of Palestinian human rights, just as for many decades it shared responsibility for the denial of human rights to blacks in the Jim Crow South by not enforcing federal law. Now, and for many decades, United States diplomatic support has allowed Israel to violate international law with impunity.

The United States has blocked United Nations sanctions against Israel for such violations of international law as the occupation of Palestinian land, the colonization of the West Bank by placing settlers on that land, and the annexation of East Jerusalem, the historic home of Christian and Muslim Palestinians.

America breaks own law

In addition, the United States federal government provides about $3 billion in military aid to Israel every year, and may be violating its own laws in doing so, as pointed out by a recent letter to Congress from 15 leaders of major American Christian churches (“Religious leaders ask Congress to condition military aid to Israel on human rights compliance,” Presbyterian Church USA, 5 October 2012).

The letter urged an “investigation into possible violations by Israel of the US Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act, which respectively prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of US weapons to ‘internal security’ or ‘legitimate self-defense.’” The letter cited evidence for human rights violations on the part of Israel and for Israel’s use of US arms against Palestinian civilians.

The tactics for resisting segregation brought significant changes for blacks in the South. Hopefully, with commitment and perseverance, similar methods may someday accomplish the same for Palestinians.

Curtis Bell is a peace activist in Portland, Oregon. He is a member of the board of Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East, an organization that works for Palestinian rights within the Unitarian Universalist denomination.




Our Civil Rights Act passage was preceded by non violent protest which gradually undermined the opposition arguments for segregation. Our lawmakers were offered the choice of perpetuating the immoral apartheid system or accepting blacks as citizens with full rights and privileges as American citizens. The morality of our political system was tested.
In Israel, there is no such sense if of urgency to undo the current criminal treatment of the Palestinians. The Zionist are racists by definition so any appeals to their morality are meaningless. Their goal (the Likud's party by laws prohibits a two state alternative) is to take ALL the land from the Med to the sea and Palestinians can stay and "live like dogs'(Moshe Dayan) or leave. Netanyahu's mentor was Menachim Begin the war criminal (Deir Yassin, King David hotel bombing) he has no intention of giving one inch of land to the Palestinians. Non violent protest only gives him pretext to commit more atrocities(targeted assassinations--operation Cast Lead). If you are not a Zionist then you are a goyim--an object of scorn.


Let me get this straight...

You said:
"The Zionist are racists by definition so any appeals to their morality are meaningless."

Which obviously makes you quite bigoted yourself, by admission. Applying cultural traits monolithically to an entire group of any kind is pretty much a lock for bigotry.

Worse you think:
"Netanyahu's mentor was Menachim Begin the war criminal (Deir Yassin, King David hotel bombing) he has no intention of giving one inch of land to the Palestinians"

The very Begin who returned the whole Sinai to Egypt after removing every last israeli settlement that had been camping out there, making peace with Sadat in 79? That Begin? Because he gave a LOT of land to the Arabs.

Are you sure you've got your propaganda straight?


It is a fantastic myth, which this article perpetuates, that the oppression of Blacks in the USA ceased with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the ending of Jim Crow segregation. I've seen too many activists in the United States derailing the oppression of Palestinians, while simultaneously refusing to bear witness to the condition of Blacks in the US.

There are more people, mostly Blacks, living in prisons today than there were people living under slavery. The city of Philadelphia alone has more Blacks incarcerated (8,500) than the state of Israel has Palestinians (~7,000), and slavery persists in the US under the exemption in the 13th amendment.

During the decade of 1990-2000, there were over 800,000 Black women who died because of unequal and inadequate access to health care in the US. Yet this is just one consequence of the drastic inequality of wealth distribution in the US.

According to the 2010 US Census, the median net worth of Whites in the US is $110,000. The median net worth of Blacks in the US is $4,990.

Do you really want to talk about comparisons between Blacks in the Jim Crow South with the contemporary condition of Palestinians, while disregarding the contemporary condition of Blacks in the US?

What we then sacrifice is the conceptualization and the striving for Black liberation in the US. Please, I implore you, Curtis, recognize and fight for Black liberation in the US. You will find that to engage in the struggle against White supramacist settler-colonialism, you needn't go to the Middle East to find the perpetrators, or to find the tools to dismantle their rule.


I have always said that I can't find two countries so similar to each other than Israel and the US. That's why unconditional support to Israel is just a natural part of US politics, deeply rooted in its core political culture and foundations.


As a white (minority) participant myself in the civil rights movements in North America in the mid-twentieth century, it is true that many thousands of us
believed that the end of "segregation in the south" would mysteriously solve
the problems of social justice in the US. We neither ended segregation (even
limiting that to "the south") nor fundamentally solved problems of social justice
in this nation. Examples are too many to mention in this space.
I have no regrets for my participations whatsoever. I am confident that today's
communities of color have spokespeople who address problems from a
contemporary perspective. And these problems are as alive as ever. Meanwhile
few speak or support Palestinian rights. Few oppose Zionist oppression.


You leave out one important truth that undercuts your entire point about racism being the driver:
Israel has many Arab citizens that don't face these restrictions. Palestinians in the West Bank are not citizens of Israel and thus would not be afforded the rights of a citizen (freedom of movement, etc.), as would be the case in any other country.


Palestinians in Israel do not have equal citizenship and the author does in fact cite some of the discriminatory laws that affect them (i.e. prohibitions on marriage, housing demolitions and land confiscations). Indeed, Israeli apartheid is unique; it is not a carbon copy of US racial segregation nor Apartheid in South Africa. Israeli apartheid deploys a multitude of means to implement settler colonialism throughout the region. The fracturing of the Palestinian society into bantustans and apportionment of rights according to race, religion and geography are part and parcel of this system and extend throughout Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.


The palestinian may not be citizens of israel but this does not give the right to israel to control palestinians water, electricity and border checkpoints does it? If this is not apartheid what is it? The apartheid has no difference what so ever to the apartheid in africa, it is same double standards and dicriminatory


For years I have been saying the same thing. There is a similarity to the Civil Rights movement and the Palestinian issues. I have asked activist in this country to start to study these things to get a better understanding of what is going on in Palestine and how it can eventually play out. I think its time black people and Palestinians come together to work.


Basic put area A and B under Palestinain control. Israel basic turn security fence borderline. That hardly Jim cow laws.