Ta-Nehisi Coates sings of Zionism

Ta-Nehisi Coates tarnishes his compelling case for reparations owed to Black Americans by holding up German compensation to Israel as a successful model. (Sean Carter Photography)

In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a compelling case for reparations owed to Black Americans for racial injuries, particularly with respect to discriminatory housing policies, that continue to affect millions today.

Published at The Atlantic, his award-winning piece sparked an important national debate. It also helped propel him into the national spotlight as a MacArthur Foundation “genius” and a best-selling author read, among others, by President Barack Obama.

Unfortunately, there is a major flaw in his argument that exposes one of his most glaring political lapses. Coates presents German reparations to Israel as a successful and moral model, ignoring the horrors Israel inflicted and still inflicts on Palestinians and other people of the region using those funds.

To make matters worse, shortly after the publication of his piece, Coates promoted reparations at a live event with his Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, the former Israeli prison guard and Obama favorite.

If the objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of reparations, then emphasizing German compensation to Holocaust victims would be completely appropriate.

But Coates focuses on the totally separate issue of German “compensation” to the settler-colonial state of Israel, portraying it as a positive development that contributed to Israel’s civilian infrastructure and economic growth.

“Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a roadmap for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name,” Coates writes.

There are some gaping holes in this narrative.

First, it relies on a total conflation of Israel and Zionism, on the one hand, with Jews, on the other. And it accepts uncritically the ahistorical claim that Israel and Zionism were the victims of the Nazis, and therefore Israel was the appropriate address for “reparations,” the delivery of which could offer Germans absolution.

It also completely ignores the fact that while other Jews were resisting the Nazis, Zionists infamously made a deal with them, the notorious Transfer Agreement of 1933, to facilitate the transport of German Jews and their property to Palestine and which, as Joseph Massad points out, broke the international Jewish boycott of Nazi Germany started by American Jews.

But even if we set these fundamental questions aside, as a practical matter, from the standpoint of Israel’s victims, German reparations were not used to repair but to destroy. The billions Germany gave Israel were an enormous contribution to Israel’s military capacity, enabling its colonial expansion, land theft, military invasions and occupations and further ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Despite people pointing out such concerns to Coates on social media and in person (I tried engaging him on the issue at one of his speaking events, to no avail), he continues to invoke Israel as a model.

Appearing on Democracy Now! earlier this month to discuss reparations, Coates again cited Israel, telling host Amy Goodman that reparations from Germany were “invested in Israel. They basically sold them goods that Israel then used to build themselves up.”

This is a shameful whitewash of Palestinian suffering that needs to be corrected.

“Indirect victims of the Holocaust”

Contrary to the fabrications of Israeli leaders, Palestinians played no role in the Holocaust. Yet they have been made to pay for it with their land and their lives in the name of Western atonement.

Germany has been sacrificing Palestinians to atone for its genocide of millions of European Jews since at least 1952, the year Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed a reparations agreement.

As the first postwar chancellor, Adenauer saw publicly compensating Israel as the most effective way to rehabilitate Germany’s image. He also spoke about payments to Israel as easing the way to a “spiritual settlement” for Germany’s “moral and material” debts.

And Ben-Gurion, facing an ailing economy, was desperate for the resources to preserve and expand Israel’s Jewish demographic majority following the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians by Zionist militias from 1947 into the early 1950s, an event known to Palestinians as the Nakba.

So against the backdrop of fierce Israeli protests, an Israeli delegation, which included no Holocaust survivors, negotiated a reparations deal despite knowledge that the West German government included many Nazis and Nazi collaborators whose pasts Adenauer was working hard to conceal.

Adenauer’s chief advisor, for instance, was Hans Globke, a man who helped draft and enforce many pieces of anti-Jewish legislation, including the infamous Nuremberg Laws, during the Nazi regime.

Since then, Germany has paid some $60 billion in reparations to Israel.

“This cash flow from Germany went directly to the Israeli occupation machine that has made the Palestinians indirect victims of the Holocaust,” observes author and journalist Max Blumenthal. “The current bloodshed is a result of this policy.”

Indeed, according to the independent Jewish magazine Moment, “As early as 1954, German reparation funds were secretly being used to buy patrol boats, tanks and arms.”

Germany itself directly supplied Israel with weapons through various channels.

The magazine cites a US Congressional Research Service report from 2007 that concluded that German-supplied arms “played a considerable role in Israeli military victories in 1967, 1973 and 1982.”

In other words, Germany played a key role in enabling Israeli violence, including the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel’s devastating invasion of Lebanon, including the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Germany’s military support for Israel may have gone beyond conventional weaponry. Last year, Germany’s Welt reported that Adenauer’s government financed Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program in the 1960s to the tune of $500 million, disguised as a development loan – an allegation Israel, which refuses to confirm it has nuclear weapons at all, has denied.

Aiding atrocities

In the early years of the state, before 1967, the Israeli army’s priority was to keep Palestinian refugees from returning to their land while subduing the Palestinians who remained with military rule.

In 1957, Germany forged a secret agreement for military and scientific cooperation with Israel rooted in the belief that Germany was obligated by its Nazi past to guarantee Israel’s security as a Jewish state.

Israel regularly exploited this sentiment.

In early 1964, after Germany began funneling tanks, submarines, artillery, mobile cannons and missile boats to Israel, details of the secret program were leaked to the media, generating public opposition across Germany. The government was pressured into halting the arms flow and it pledged not to send any more weapons into conflict zones.

Israel’s deputy defense minister Shimon Peres issued a cable to the Israeli diplomatic delegation in West Germany, shamelessly capitalizing on Holocaust guilt.

Israel “doesn’t see itself as being located in a conflict region or as involved in an armed struggle,” wrote Peres, but “as part of the Jewish people, which is under constant threat of annihilation from the dictatorial government in Egypt.”

“If the Germans want to pass a law [against selling arms to conflict zones], they must commit themselves to correcting historical injustices toward the Jewish people and not make life easier for their simplistic policy at our expense,” he added.

Germany responded by resurrecting the arms program and establishing an open military relationship that was instrumental to Israel’s future conquests.

This dynamic remains so profitable to Israel that an Israeli diplomat told journalists last year that “it was an Israeli interest to maintain German guilt feelings” about the Holocaust. Without German guilt, “we’d be just another country as far as they’re concerned,” the diplomat reportedly said.

While the US has replaced Germany as the main guarantor of Israel’s military dominance, German money continues to fuel Israel’s military might.

As part of its perceived moral obligation to Israel, Germany has delivered five Dolphin-class submarines that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Destitute Holocaust survivors

If German reparations were intended first and foremost to support victims of Nazi atrocities, then by the most direct measures, the tens of billions of dollars in payments appear largely to have failed.

According to a 2015 report by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, 45,000 survivors in Israel live in poverty – 30 percent of all Holocaust survivors in the country.

German reparations appear to have been just as unsuccessful at alleviating the suffering of survivors of its atrocities now living in the US. In the New York region, more than half of Holocaust survivors who are supposed to benefit from such funds – approximately 40,000 people – lived on very low incomes defined as below 150 percent of the federal poverty threshold, according to the UJA-Federation Jewish Community Study of New York for 2011.

In recent years, hundreds of Israeli Holocaust survivors have sued Israel and the Jewish Agency for appropriating the funds gained from Germany, ostensibly in compensation for their suffering, while they struggled with trauma and destitution.

“The money was officially given to help resettle what were termed ‘Holocaust refugees,’ but instead Israel spent the money on general public use instead of giving it to Holocaust survivors,” Gad Weissfeld, the lawyer for hundreds of survivors, said in 2011.

“A great many people benefitted from the money, but not the Holocaust survivors. They came here as ‘human dust,’ with absolutely nothing, and needed it for basic things like housing and education,” Weissfeld added.

After years of litigation, Israel’s high court ruled against two groups of survivors, in 2014 and again this month.

On the same day the Israeli government won its legal battle to deny compensation to the survivors in 2014, the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz noted, Israel’s parliament “approved funding to fly some 70 Knesset members to Auschwitz on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.”

Invisible Palestinians

It would be unfair to demand that Coates delve into the history of Palestine in an article about reparations for Black Americans had he not devoted an entire section and more than a thousand words to lauding Germany’s bankrolling of a racist, settler-colonial state as a model.

By doing so, he ignores the Nakba, erases Palestinian suffering and gives Germany a free pass for making Palestinians into secondary victims of its European genocide.

Acknowledging these shortcomings would require at the very least recognizing the existence of Palestinians, something Coates has struggled with in the past.

But Coates apparently has no problem recognizing – and maybe even identifying with – the oppressors of the Palestinians.

In an article headlined “The Negro sings of Zionism,” he once likened Black liberation leaders Malcolm X and Huey Newton to Zionists, while making no reference to Palestinians or to the fact that Newton’s avowedly internationalist Black Panther Party rejected Zionism, equating it with “chauvinism and ethnocentrism.”

On another occasion, Coates wrote about Jewish immigration to Palestine, likening the Black struggle against American racism to the Zionist colonization of Palestine.

“Should German Jews continue the fight against anti-Semitism in Europe or should they separate and give up trying to convince people who have long hated them?” Coates asks, observing that “the dilemma is familiar to some of us.”

Nowhere do the Palestinians figure in Coates’ moral or political calculations.

To his credit, Coates later tweeted an apology for writing “as though the Palestinian people do not exist.”

Yet here we are in 2016, and one of America’s most celebrated public intellectuals is still speaking as if Palestinians, and the violence Israel inflicts on them daily, are invisible.

Rania Khalek is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.

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Excellent report.

The moral blindness of otherwise enlightened American intellectuals regarding Israel remains a key component of imperialism. This contradiction isn't just a loose end in their thinking. It's critical to maintaining support for the empire itself.

It's one thing for Sanders to fault inequality in the US. To condemn the same conditions or worse in Israel would mean there's nothing left to reform, because Israel has become the repository of liberal anxieties and illusions unsustainable in America itself. It's where the white liberal imagination flees when confronted by intractable problems at home. And now, that other America is dying, that holy little nation established by G_d with a little touch of socialism (but not too much). It's wallowing in blood and roaring out a fascist liturgy, so that long-time supporters have begun to turn away, confused and hurt. Naturally there'll be a time lag, as in Coates' endorsement of Zionism. But even he can sense that something is wrong, terribly wrong.

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If it's true that Ta Nehisi conflated Malcolm X with Zionism, he needs to study Malcolm's "Zionist Logic," which he wrote in the Egyptian Gazette on Sept. 17, 1964. He compared Zionism with neocolonialism. "Zionist Israel's occupation of Arab Palestine has forced the Arab world to waste billions of dollars on armaments, making it impossible for these newly independent nations to concentrate on strengthening economies of their countries and elevate the living standard of their people," Malcolm wrote. It's quite an extensive discussion of the Israeli expropriation of Palestine and the incipient oppression of the indigenous people. Ta Nehisi check this out and revisit the issue.

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As your article stated Coates is not the only intellectual to "miss the point." This is a teachable moment and I think he would be open to learning about Israel/Palestine; so please don't attack him, but engage him.

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Reading Coats book The World And Me one would think a person so intuned with his personal suffering as he struggles with his identity would have a better sense of justice and understanding of other peoples' suffering.

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First, thanks to Ali and Rania for consistent, powerful and well supported information. I'm not exactly sure how to process this piece, so will start by writing about my feelings, which helps.

As a Proud Jew For Palestine, who recently found documents about my distant relatives, who did not escape the Nazi Regime, it continues to sicken me, whenever I see the Jewish Holocaust exploited for imperialist gain. My distant relatives, mostly "disappeared" into the sands of time, reminding me of the many who languish, as arbitrary detainees in Israeli prisons.

How convenient, and centered on white feelings is it, that Germany felt the need to spiritually heal their souls. What about my great aunt who died in a camp of Typhoid or the 400 plus years of death camps in the states, where my fellow human beings were treated like chattel, in order to build this "Great Nation". I've been spit on, spied on and called unpatriotic, even placated by legislators, who are Jewish, and once kinda stood with Palestine, then clapped during that fascist, womanizing pig's speech last summer. B.B. is a Philly native, in fact grew up in the same area I lived in as a child, where Israeli Bonds fundraisers were mandatory, for anyone, looking to make a buck in the Philadelphia Jewish Business Community. The Israeli Consulate closed in Philadelphia a few months ago - I pray that's a sign, that no one wants visas, to "claim" their dual Jewish citizenship.

Sorry for the rant. I'm tired of the bad guys getting away with it, and wondering if this Boycott, can beat the military-industrial complex, and bring the living sin of Israel down.
Thanks,
Jane Zacher - UN-apologetically Pro-Palestine, out and tired of living under the psychological fear, that my government imposes on anyone questioning their actions.

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there is a great deal to be said about Germany, re Rania's great article and your comment. I've researched for decades the history of European Jews persecution during the Nazi era, which brought me to Zionism and Palestine. This again entailed a massive amount of reading and conversations - in particular regarding the laws of dispossession then and now and Hannah Arendt's work on the banality of evil.
In the meantime - I live in Berlin - I have become entirely disillusioned with Germany's reasoning and position towards Israel. Positions of many from the left, artists, filmmakers, writers, intellectuals, the bourgeoisie, compared to Americans of the same generations are politically underinformed or plagued by disinterest. Then, of course, there are the racists, who never change.
There is something seriously disturbing here about inherited guilt combined with the need to stifle any debate on Israel's well-documented crimes, which I am presently writing about. The refusal to empathise with Palestinians 'because of the Holocaust' is depressing and makes me question the way in which Germans learn about their history and their subsequent ability to extend its lesson. For most Germans, Israel represents Jews, hence blind support of Israel. They mentally refuse to budge.
So Jewish activists are also tabu and there have been a number of incidents where they are barred from speaking or just this week, where the 'journalist' Benjamin Weinthal and the German-Israeli Parliamentary Gruppe (4 members from the Green, Socialist, Left and Conservative parties) attempted to pressure the city of Bayreuth into revoking the Wilhelmine-von Bayreuth-Preis für Humanität und Toleranz to Code Pink, using a combinination of disinformation, slander and lies (There was protest from small human rights groups and last night in Bayreuth the vote to still give the award was 23 to 18).

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Rania Khalek is perhaps even generous to Coates. I am more perplexed, because the gaping holes make little sense when one reads what Coates writes, nor do they in regard to Malcolm X and Black Lives Matter. It is difficult to imagine that ignorance of Zionism, the colonial settler movement and the dispossession and oppression of Palestinians is solely to blame.
Where did Coates get his ideas about Zionism? Even in the early 1930s when Jews were beginning to speak about leaving Germany, German Jewish professor Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary: "For me the Zionists, who want to go back to the Jewish state of AD 70 (destruction of Jerusalem by Titus), are just as offensive as the Nazis." Of course, this was before anyone could foresee the unimaginable, but Klemperer's rejection of Zionism as a regressive nationalist movement was shared then, and still is, by many Jews. In this sense, Tom Hall's comment about "the moral blindness of otherwise enlightened American intellectuals"...and "this contradiction isn't just a loose end in their thinking" hits the mark.
It is not the first time I have felt some uneasiness regarding the position Coates has had thrust upon him and which he, at least in part, seems to accept - maybe too much wisdom is expected of him.

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Keep writing like this. The young brother is like all of us, a work in progress, so keep pushing the brother. We all need to be tapped on the shoulder, or perhaps have a little more force applied to other portions of the anatomy, especially if one runs in the circles Coates probably does. I have hope for him, esp with your help.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates - A Great African-American Leader.
Who is the "electronic intifada" to dismiss and belittle this man's leadership & vision?

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The answer is in the article.

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Two things come to mind: (1) Scum Grief, by Charles Bukowski, and (2) "When I knew which side my bread was buttered/I took the knife as well" George Michael, Freedom '90. Scum Grief and Scum Guilt are kissing cousins. The song lyric speaks for itself.

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The key point the man is making is for Repatriations to "Black Americans". The "misuse" of funds by the Israel state to build its armoury and invade Palestine is not the issue as you have flogged here. Except you are trying to claim that long overdue funds to Black Americans that have suffered through oppression, slavery, racism, and gross injustice for generations will also be used to build armouries and for war purposes. The key demonstration here is to make a case for Repatriations as a penalty for such injustices as the Jews experienced. If you agitation for the Palestinian cause has made you pen this rather long piece, then imagine the agitations caused by international slave trade, lynchings, suffering, poverty and continued injustice that led the man to write his piece.

It is morally bankrupt to try to deflate the struggle of Black Americans because of Palestinian struggle. Let every struggle be on its own merit!

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Note: "misuse", flogged, trying to claim (not), agitation, rather long piece, morally bankrupt, deflate (not).
Maybe read the article again.

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"Repatriations (sic) to "Black Americans"" - (you really mean to say: bring Black Americans back to their home country? This is about reparations).

But anyway, Germany did not pay these reparations to Jews, it payed to Israel. See the difference? You think the US should pay DR Congo as The Representative State for all black people traded as slaves? And then let DR Congo invade some other country 'by right of' the slave trade?

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Was glad to hear that Coates "re-Tweeted" Rania's EI piece. I think it indicates a willingness on his part to share critical comment even if he is taken to task. Pretty impressive...we could use a few more folk like this all over the place.

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It would have been more impressive if he actually responded. Instead he got plaudits for a mere retweet.