The troubles between the two countries have an eerie, and promising, precedent.
The relationship between the Untied States and Israel is fracturing. The president and his administration are pressuring the Jewish state to make painful concessions in return for vague agreements short of real peace. The crisis is the subject of commentary on television and in newspapers. America’s involvement in a long and bloody counterinsurgency, a war not supported by most of its citizens, has weakened its standing in the world. Economic pressures wreak havoc on ordinary Americans. Israelis are still feeling the aftershocks of an unexpectedly difficult war, one that diminished public belief in the value of concessions and strengthened right-wing parties in the polls. Israel longs for the leaders of the past, and wonders how the paltry politicians running the country today replaced the titans of previous generations. The Palestinians are seeking to upgrade their status at the United Nations and enjoy breakthroughs in the General Assembly and UNESCO. And Israeli leaders worry that the support of a formerly reliable constituency—American Jews—is slipping away.
The year is 1975.
The parallel with the present may be eerie, but it is also instructive. The resolution of the 1975 crisis offers us a road map to how we might resolve today’s difficulties between America and Israel, and in a way that would advance the interests of both countries and in a time when the threat to the good working order of the world is far greater than it was 37 years ago.
At the time the crisis erupted in 1975, Gerald Ford had ascended to the Oval Office only seven months before, following the resignation of Richard Nixon. In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Golda Meir had resigned in the wake of protests following the Yom Kippur War, and, two months before Ford’s ascension, Yitzhak Rabin became Meir’s successor by a narrow margin in an internal Labor Party vote. Heading a loose coalition, beset by political adversaries from all sides, Rabin was in an extremely weak position politically. Public support for his premiership dropped from 64 percent during his visit to Washington, D.C., in September 1974, to 32 percent six months later, when he sat down with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to negotiate a second postwar interim agreement with Egypt.
The Americans had saved Israel from defeat in 1973 with a massive airlift of weapons at a key moment in the Yom Kippur War. But there was a new president and a new goal. In addition to dealing with the economic effects of the Arab oil embargo begun in the wake of the 1973 war, Ford wanted to stymie Soviet designs on the region—especially after the regime of Anwar el-Sadat had a dramatic falling-out with the Soviets that led to the expulsion of all Soviet diplomats and military advisers from Egypt. This was seen as a historic opportunity for the United States, and many in government believed the best way to regain credibility and support in Egypt would be to deliver Israeli concessions on captured territory. Henry Kissinger undertook a 15-day effort in “shuttle diplomacy,” carrying terms back and forth between Egypt and Israel in hopes of coming up with a grand bargain.
Kissinger conveyed President Sadat’s demand to Israel that the Jewish state withdraw from the critical Giddi and Mitla passes and the Um Hashiba alert station overlooking them in the Sinai. Rabin was willing to withdraw from significant portions of the Sinai won in 1967 and defended in 1973 in return for a non-belligerency agreement. But Sadat was willing to offer only “non-use of force,” not a peace treaty, and Rabin was not about to give up the strategic passes for such a tepid guarantee. Even so, he was ready to allow the Egyptians to advance to forward positions at the western entrances to the passes, and to give up the Abu Rodeis oil fields. The Americans, as declassified records of discussions between Kissinger and Ford show, supported Sadat’s position. Stalemate ensued. Finally, on March 22, 1975, after two weeks of commuting between Israel and Egypt, Kissinger gave up.
Before leaving Israel, Kissinger and Rabin met one last time. Rabin reminded Kissinger that his son was currently deployed on the Sinai front and refused the American terms. The two men attacked each other personally. Kissinger accused Rabin of failing the Jewish people, fuming: “You don’t understand, I’m trying to save you….You are making me, the secretary of state of the United States of America, wander around the Middle East like a Levantine rug merchant….Are you out of your mind? I represent America.” Kissinger boarded his plane, visibly upset, and informed his press team that Israel’s intransigence caused the breakdown in negotiations. State Department spokesman Robert Anderson made a dramatic announcement. “Unfortunately, the differences on a number of key issues have proven irreconcilable,” Anderson said. “We, therefore, believe a period of reassessment is needed so that all concerned can consider how best to proceed toward a just and lasting peace.”
Within days, Ford sent Rabin a scathing official letter: “I wish to express my profound disappointment over Israel’s attitude during the course of the negotiations….I have given instructions for a reassessment of United States policy in the region, including our relations with Israel, with the aim of ensuring that our overall American interests are protected.” This was the most threatening language an American president had used toward Israel since Dwight D. Eisenhower had flown into a rage over the 1956 Suez crisis.
Israelis closed ranks. Opposition leader Menachem Begin announced his support of Rabin’s suspension of the talks, and 92 out of the 120 members of the Knesset agreed. Meanwhile, at Kissinger’s urging, Ford froze the Israeli request for F-15 fighter planes and delayed the delivery of a promised shipment of Lance surface-to-surface missiles. “Every department should put Israeli activities at the bottom of the list,” Kissinger recommended. On March 31, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger declared the United States reluctant to enter new arms commitments with Israel.
In response to administration pressure, Israel launched a concerted campaign to appeal to American public opinion and to Israel’s allies in Congress. By March 26, days after the Rabin-Kissinger meeting, ambassador Simcha Dinitz of Israel appeared in front of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and held individual “advocacy” meetings with all of its members. Diplomatic celebrities Moshe Dayan and Abba Eban joined the official effort and embarked on worldwide speaking tours. Representatives from the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations met in the embassy with Ambassador Dinitz and coordinated a plan of action.
The effort bore fruit. On May 22, 1975, 76 senators sent a letter to President Ford. “Within the next several weeks, the Congress expects to receive your foreign aid requests for fiscal year 1976,” they wrote. “We trust that your recommendations will be responsive to Israel’s urgent military and economic needs. We urge you to make it clear, as we do, that the United States acting in its own national interests stands firmly with Israel in the search for peace in future negotiations, and that this premise is the basis of the current reassessment of U.S. policy in the Middle East.” Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, a Democrat, followed the letter with an amendment to a defense procurement bill stipulating that Israel receive potentially unlimited supplies of American weaponry at low interest rates. The Senate’s message to Ford was stark.
There was a breakthrough in the diplomatic standoff in September 1975. According to former Israeli prime ministerial adviser Yehuda Avner, then Defense Minister Shimon Peres came up with the original and unexpected idea that American military personnel, called “technicians,” man key positions in the passes. For their part, the Egyptians conceded that Israeli “technicians” would remain present in Um Hashiba, overlooking the strategic passes. The Israelis consented to the American proposal that the technicians idea be presented publicly as an American proposition. These developments allayed Israeli fears and enabled Sadat to save face, and they kept the Soviets from bringing Egypt back into their sphere.
Israel leveraged several key concessions from the United States in a separate Memorandum of Understanding. America promised not to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization until the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist and accepted Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, pledged not to push Israel into a similar process with Syria, and agreed that the next agreement between Egypt and Israel would be a full peace treaty. As Abba Eban saw it, “Israel now had a security alliance in everything but name.” The Knesset ratified the Sinai II agreement on September 3, 1975, paving the way for the eventual peace treaty with Egypt in 1979—and transforming the U.S.-Israel relationship for all time.
Now flash forward to 2009. The Obama team had hardly settled into their new quarters before they were jousting with Israel over settlement construction. Within the first month and a half of Obama’s presidency, senior officials in the National Security Council and State Department relayed four official complaints of increasing concern regarding settlement activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem. By April it was widely speculated that the Obama administration would be putting pressure on Israel to freeze its settlement activities, and, speaking at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference on May 4, Vice President Joe Biden called on Israel to “not build settlements” and “dismantle outposts.” Then, in a meeting at the end of the month with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Obama reiterated his deputy’s remarks, saying: “Each party has obligations under the road map. On the Israeli side those obligations include stopping settlements.”
By the end of May, administration officials were discussing how to get Israel to comply with U.S. demands. These included public denunciations by President Obama as well as being less responsive to Israel’s requests when critical resolutions come up in the UN Security Council. The next month, the Obama administration shocked Israel by declaring it would not be bound by the terms of a 2004 letter from George W. Bush, which assured Israel it would keep major settlement blocs in the event of a peace deal. Finally, in late November, Israel bowed to U.S. pressure and announced an unprecedented 10-month moratorium on settlement construction.
An open rift between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu erupted during Biden’s March 2010 visit to Israel to help kick-start the moribund peace talks. The following day, the Israeli government announced plans for the construction of 1,600 new homes in Ramat Shlomo, a Jerusalem neighborhood east of the green line. The Obama administration felt blindsided and embarrassed and did not hesitate to retaliate. That evening, Biden issued a statement condemning the new housing plans, saying, “The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.”
The same night, Biden kept Netanyahu waiting 90 minutes for their official dinner. When the two finally sat down together, Netanyahu tried to placate the vice president. He had had no prior knowledge of the housing plans, he said; they had been submitted three years earlier under the previous government, and their inconveniently timed approval was simply a bureaucratic oversight.
The next week, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was summoned to the State Department and berated. The following day, Oren held a conference call with Israeli consuls-general, in which he declared that U.S.-Israeli relations were at their lowest point since Ford’s reassessment. Netanyahu began standing his ground. In a speech to AIPAC, he stated: “The Jewish people were building Jerusalem three thousand years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.” He also pointed out in a speech to the Knesset that “no government in the past 40 years has limited construction in neighborhoods of Jerusalem.”
On March 23, Netanyahu held talks with President Obama at the White House. Obama did not invite Netanyahu to dine with him and denied him a perfunctory photo-op at the end of the talks. In another departure from the norm, the leaders’ meeting was closed to the media. On March 25, President Obama presented a list of concessions Netanyahu must make if he wished to de-escalate. When Netanyahu failed to acquiesce immediately, Obama left Netanyahu for an hour to eat dinner alone in the White House.
Relations between the two administrations remained low into the fall. Obama refused to back down, and Netanyahu was unable to mollify the president’s frustration. Israel continued to reject the American demand that it extend its 10-month moratorium on settlement construction.
It is at this point that the parallels between the chilly relations of 1975 and today become plain. As in 1975, when 76 senators wrote to Ford in defense of Israel, in April 2010 76 senators sent a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reminding her that we “must never forget the depth and breadth of our alliance and always do our utmost to reinforce a relationship that has benefited both nations for more than six decades.”
The United Nations also came to play a complicating role in both cases, all but compelling both the Ford and Obama administrations to ally themselves with Israel even though they might not have wished to. Only months before the 1975 crisis, UNESCO, a fiefdom within the UN, voted first to withhold UNESCO aid from Israel for “altering the historical features” of Jerusalem and then to exclude Israel from the European regional group. After the vote, Congress responded by suspending American contributions to the organization, depriving it of 25 percent of its budget. In October 2011, UNESCO members voted to admit Palestine as a full member. Again, U.S. contributions, this time 22 percent of its budget, ended abruptly. Still, the U.S. State Department is attempting to finagle funding for the organization into its 2012 budget. State has allotted nearly $79 million for UNESCO—the same 22 percent of the organization’s budget that the U.S. was paying prior to the funding freeze last October—and has indicated its desire to work with Congress to obtain a legal waiver for the proposed allowance.
In the General Assembly, the Palestinians were looking to pressure Israel and achieve recognition. In 1974, against the wishes of the U.S. and Israel, the UN had passed resolution 3327, granting observer status to Palestine. In June 1975, right in the middle of the reassessment, the General Assembly passed the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution, as well as initiatives to expel Israel from the UN. This led to UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous denunciation: “The United States does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”
In 2011, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas went ahead with his campaign for recognition of statehood at the UN, which President Obama promised to veto. Abbas submitted his application in September 2011 and delivered his argument for recognition shortly thereafter, but it has not yet reached the Security Council for a vote. Abbas had agreed with the Quartet to put off any diplomatic maneuvers at the United Nations until after a Quartet-imposed deadline of January 26 in order to take one more shot at restarting direct peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Unsurprisingly, such talks did not come to fruition, but there has still been no action on the part of the Palestinians in the UN. Also unsurprisingly, the vast majority of member states supported the bid. Israel, however, was able to convince a significant number of Western democracies to express serious reservations about unilateral Palestinian statehood. The Palestinians’ momentum seems to have petered out since the heady days of last October.
Israelis worried about their country’s reputation in the United States during both crises. At an ambassadors’ conference in July 1975, Foreign Minister Yigal Allon enumerated to his personnel the challenges of Israeli advocacy: “Sadat is perceived as peaceful and moderate, and we as occupiers, which poses a problem especially amongst the youth. We are losing the image of ‘pretty Israel,’ becoming more isolated, and are working with a new generation who does not know the history of World War II.”
Other prominent Israelis fretted about losing the support of American Jewry. Amnon Rubinstein, future Israel Prize laureate, wrote in Haaretz in September 1975, “American Jews feel deeply disappointed from certain aspects of the Israeli government. Israel reveals in her laws and ways grave religious and conscientious intolerance, part of which is aimed directly against the liberal Jewry of the United States. The idea of religious exclusivity, purity of breed…and discrimination of women…are a natural enemy to the American Jew. [For years they have] avoided openly criticizing Israel, but that has changed after ’73, and now for the first time questions are openly being asked about the relationship with Israel.”
Today, the same concerns keep Israelis and their American supporters up at night. ‘‘In sharp contrast to their parents and grandparents,” reported a 2010 study, “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders.” “Six times we have brought Jewish youth together as a group to talk about their Jewishness and connection to Israel,” pollster Frank Luntz explained. “Six times the topic of Israel did not come up until it was prompted. Six times these Jewish youth used the word they rather than us to describe the situation.”
On the face of it, the 1975 scrap was significantly more dangerous for both countries, since a real divergence of interests drove the tension. But, because it was a substantive fight over urgent interests, there was a desire and a way to find a compromise, one that fit the interests of the three parties involved. With the 1973 weapons airlift to Israel, the United States had directly influenced the outcome of the Yom Kippur War in Israel’s favor. Arab countries retaliated with the oil embargo on the United States, intended to increase their political clout. Further, some Arab members of OPEC, most notably Saudi Arabia, began nationalizing their oil supplies, further improving their petrodollar-fueled windfall. Because the Arab members of OPEC made the end of their oil embargo contingent on an equitable peace between Israel and Egypt, the United States needed Israeli concessions to win over the Gulf states while peeling off Egypt from the Soviet Union for good.
When Gerald Ford came into office, the main card Kissinger could play to woo the Arabs was pushing Israel to make concessions. Of course, withdrawing from key passes and oil fields, for no guarantees of non-belligerence or peace in return, was more than the Israelis could give so soon after the trauma of 1973. Vulnerable economically and diplomatically, the Israelis were willing to retreat only so far.
Precisely because there were real issues at play that could be negotiated, and serious consequences if they were not, a solution was attainable. None of the three players wanted the Soviets strengthened in Egypt or the region. But American support of Israel was a sticking point the Soviets might try to use to swoop in and claim important Arab allies in the Middle East. Ford did not want the Soviets to gain influence over oil and peace in the Middle East, and Rabin understood the deleterious implications Soviet influence would have as well. Sadat knew that if the Soviets returned in force to the Middle East, he would find himself quickly removed from power. Bridging the gap after initial tensions proved much easier because Ford, Rabin, and Sadat shared a mutual interest.
The Obama-Netanyahu hostility was and remains far more trivial. But it has proved more difficult to navigate because it is not about any core American interest. The decline in the relationship came about not because of any daunting gap in interests, but because Obama gave artless public statements, early in his presidency, on the need for a settlement freeze with no clear plan in mind and Netanyahu was unable to smooth over the situation. True, in Obama’s worldview the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festered at the heart of the region’s woes, and settlements were and are a prompt for Palestinian anger. To Netanyahu, a prohibition on building in Jerusalem was an affront to Israeli sovereignty. But these differences need not have precipitated a major quarrel. They have been largely set aside but not smoothed over. And unlike 1975, while there has been close military and intelligence cooperation, there was no progression to a stronger political relationship between the countries and no progress on peace negotiations.
The personalities involved added to the outcomes of the crises. Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik drove his decision-making. Kissinger was willing to threaten a weak Israel. But the players on the Israeli side knew and trusted Kissinger and were willing to negotiate under fire until they hammered out a solution. Rabin describes him in his memoir as “one whose great contribution to the safety of Israel will someday be told.” It is hard to imagine Netanyahu coming up with comparable praise about Obama or Hillary Clinton. The trust is missing.
The fact that 76 senators signed a letter in support of Israel in 1975 and did so again in 2010 is a fascinating bit of historical repetition—and an instructive one. It demonstrates that despite major changes in the world over the past three and a half decades, certain facts about Israel’s relationship with America and the international community persist. Popular support for Israel in America is unchanged; indeed, it is even stronger in many ways than it has ever been. Still, a major shift has occurred. In the 1970s, liberals generally led the pro-Israel community in America, and foreign-policy realists represented the faction who saw Israel as a strategic burden on the United States.
Now Israel faces an increasingly hostile political left. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009, House Resolution 34 expressed support for Israel against Hamas. Of the five members who voted against it, four were Democrats. They also constituted 29 of the 37 abstentions. A letter signed by 54 congressmen, all Democrats, in February 2010 asked Obama to pressure Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza. A poll taken the same month showed 85 percent of Republicans supporting Israel, compared with only 48 percent of Democrats expressing the same position. Israel occupies a unique place in the hearts of Americans, even though who those Americans are and which political party they follow have changed dramatically.
And just as alarmist predictions from the 1970s about the rise of a destructive divide between the diaspora and American Jewry got it wrong, comparable arguments are wrong today. It is conventional wisdom now, especially on the left, that Israeli policies have alienated young American Jews. They feel good about discussing Israel’s shortcomings, we are often told. If Zionism would focus less on Israel’s achievements, the moral behavior of its soldiers, and the resilience of its democracy, and more on the occupation, discrimination against Israeli Arabs, and the mortal threat the nationalist right poses, then liberal American Jews would more readily identify with Israel. But Israelis worried about the same trends 35 years ago, before widespread settlement in the West Bank or the first non-Labor government. American support for Israel did not collapse then; it did not collapse after the first Lebanon War in 1982 or the first Intifada in 1987; and the fractious policy problems of the present moment won’t break the ties that bind either.
If anything, Israel is in a much stronger position today vis-à-vis the United States than it was in 1975. It is far less susceptible to pressure. It is not facing invasion from conventional forces and has managed to build effective diplomatic and security relationships with powerful countries. Its vastly improved economy has made it more confident as well. The economic situation in Israel was dire after the Yom Kippur War, when inflation averaged 50 percent during Rabin’s tenure and the deficit skyrocketed under the strain of military reconstruction. National morale was low, and newspapers frequently ran articles on emigration from Israel. Today, Israel’s economy is the envy of much of the West. It emerged from the global financial crisis with hardly a scratch and enjoys a record low rate of unemployment. The discovery of massive natural-gas deposits only adds to its economic power. In short, Israel is no longer the needy client it was in 1975. Indeed, the fact that the Obama-Netanyahu tensions are considered a crisis at all shows how much closer the countries have become since 1975.
And yet a serious crisis is looming. If Israel decides to strike Iran without coordinating with the United States, it is possible that Obama will decide America is best served by publicly distancing himself from the attack. Some in the Obama administration will urge him to condemn Israel, leading to an explosion of public debate over the appropriateness of current levels of military aid to Israel.
But as the Israelis learned in 1975, crises can be opportunities. Both countries came out of the 1975 spat with a valuable strategic accomplishment. The Memorandum of Understanding bound America to support Israel’s redline positions before the United Nations and the Palestinians. The shared underlying interest in keeping the Soviets out of Egypt led to the ultimate agreements between Israel and Egypt and drew America and Israel closer together.
Today, Iran can play the role of the Soviet Union in bringing Israel, America, and Sunni Arab states together. Sunni Arab states, especially in the Gulf, are as concerned as Israel is about Iranian influence and its nuclear-weapons program. Their shared concern about Iran gives them something to work toward. If Netanyahu and Obama can put aside their personal differences, Israel and America can move past bilateral tensions over Iran with a closer, more balanced relationship and can put into motion a new Middle East, freed from the shadow of Iranian Shiite madness and open as never before to true American leadership.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Israel & America: The Eternal Return
Must-Reads from Magazine
hen I heard the words “you are white,” it startled me. I had heard far worse in my life, including racial epithets, but none with quite the sting carried by those three short, successive sounds. I struggled for a response, something to gain the upper hand, but I could only think: Had we really come to this point in America? Was I merely the color of my skin?
The year was 2014 and we were sitting at one of the communal tables at the White Privilege Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, where I had settled after a day of filming. It was late in the afternoon and the light coming off the frozen Lake Menona was turning blue. One of the four conference attendees at the table, a professor, gestured to my camera gear and asked me what my documentary was about. I told him that I was investigating why our nation was in the thrall of identity politics, leading to more Americans being divided into race-based groups. Why was this happening, I wanted to know, at a time when Americans were crossing the color line in record numbers?
Then I disclosed that I was multiracial—the offspring of two generations of Americans who married across the color line for love—and that I was not sold on the idea of white privilege. The latter revelation turned the temperature up on the conversation. I argued that the idea of white privilege was nothing more than a modern-day version of the white man’s burden, the racist 19th-century idea that white people had a collective responsibility to educate and modernize the black people who lived in their colonies. I felt the stare from a college counselor sitting across the table with her arms crossed over her black yoga jacket. Her patience was fading as she listened to me and, finally, her voice cut through the conversation and she declared me white.
“But my black ancestors were enslaved by whites, and my Jewish ancestors were hunted in the Holocaust by whites,” I said. “How can you ignore my history, my individuality, and see only my skin color?” Her smile was sympathetic yet she was unconvinced. This was religion to her.
At that moment, I heard an echo of a not-so-distant past. I remember my father telling stories of his childhood on Chicago’s segregated South Side in the 1950s and ’60s. He couldn’t cross certain streets, caddy the Olympia golf course, or be a ball boy for the local YMCA’s baseball team because he was black. His own father was extremely well-read and ran several businesses in addition to working at his regular job, yet he parked his Rambler blocks away from work to avoid showing up his white boss. If my father and my grandfather ever protested that their humanity should be recognized over skin color, they too got, at best, sympathetic smiles.
Never did I think that what happened to my father and grandfather would happen to me decades later. If I had been born in the 1940s, I’d have been classified as black by the white-supremacist “one drop” rule, according to which someone with even a single black ancestor was deemed black. But I was born in the 1970s, after a succession of civil-rights victories promised that we as a nation were moving away from the evils of racial orders and their social constructs. Yet here I was, being reduced to the color of my skin and being dismissed as white.
The behavior of the college counselor was really no different from that shown by the white bigots of my father’s time. Of course, she would scoff at such a comparison. After all, she saw herself as part of the effort to redeem America’s horrific racial legacy. She was doing her fair share to dismantle her “unearned” privileges as a white woman. But her act of defining me by my skin color revealed that identity politics had become the very thing it promised to defeat: a racial order.
onservative writers and academics, such as Jordan Peterson and Commentary contributor Matthew Continetti, believe that identity politics has reformulated Marxist class divisions as divisions of race and gender while keeping alive the war between victim and victimizer. It’s true that there is an undeniable Marxist influence at work, but the roots of American identity politics are racial and go back to the white-supremacist classification system that defined the eras of slavery and segregation. It could even be said that white supremacy was America’s very first form of identity politics.
Long before the American Revolution, America was a class-based society in which slaves, free blacks, white indentured servants, and Native Americans intermingled at the lower end of the economic spectrum. In 1676, these destitute individuals sought better living conditions and rebelled against the white ruling class in what became known as Bacon’s Rebellion—and they lost. To prevent future rebellions, the ruling class reorganized what existed of a class-based society into a more strictly race-based society by introducing an early variation of the one-drop rule. Suddenly, wealthy and poor whites were united simply by the virtue of their white skin. Thus the one-drop rule shaped and enforced the racial order of white supremacy.
Americans found themselves reduced to absurd mathematical equations based on racial bloodlines. Individuals such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, born to enslaved mothers and white fathers, were classified as mulattos. Those who had three white grandparents were labeled as quadroons, and those with seven white grandparents were octoroon. Yet, in the end, they were all marked Negro or colored to preserve the purity of white blood, especially that of the white woman.
Many Americans protested these dehumanizing constructs. In 1892, two years after Louisiana mandated separate rail cars for whites and coloreds, a man named Homer Plessy boarded the white-only car. As an octoroon, he could have easily passed for white. But he told the conductor that he was colored, and his refusal to move into the colored car led to the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Ultimately, justice did not prevail and the court’s ruling further embedded the one-drop rule in America’s soil through widespread segregation—de facto and de jure.
One of the forgotten lessons of the civil-rights movement is that many Americans, including my grandparents, fought to end the use of race in public affairs for any reason. They knew that classifying people by race was poison no matter the intention; the Negro box had been judged inferior, the white box superior, and both assessments were lies that had to be destroyed.
After the success of the civil-rights movement, policymakers traded in this binary paradigm for a system of five primary races to be used on official documentation: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American. While this change was intended to better identify racism in its various forms, it wasn’t long before an activist movement found a larger purpose for these boxes: America’s racial redemption. Americans from every nation on earth were forced into five race boxes, each with its own related historical grievance. The movement championing this paradigm became identity politics, a supposedly redemptive order that would lead America to racial justice.
But if classifying people by race was poison, how could it also be the cure for what ailed our country?
It was into this America that I was born a failure. The running joke began in the early 1980s when I, born to a Jewish mother and a black father, failed to fit inside any of the race boxes provided on my school forms. The joke became less funny as I grew older and made the conscious decision not to compromise my racial heritage by forcing myself into one of the provided categories.
As a child, I was fascinated by the story of my grandparents’ interracial marriage in 1944 in segregated Chicago. My parents’ own interracial marriage in 1967 in the same city wasn’t much easier; at the time, America burned with race riots. My grandparents and parents had every reason not to marry across the color line, but they chose love over their racial order. I believe that they were better Americans than the white supremacists opposing their marriages, and, from a young age, I’ve seen it as my birthright to defend the principles of freedom, equality, love, and a greater humanity beyond racial orders of any kind.
When I hit my teens, I encountered a tremendous pressure to conform to one race on school applications and in personal encounters. My identity, which I thought had to do only with the choices I made and the responsibilities I accepted, all of a sudden became currency for someone else’s political power.
But it was not until I applied to college in the early 1990s that I truly saw behind the curtain of identity politics for the first time. By the late 1960s, in hopes of leveling the playing field, universities adopted a system of racial preferences based on the five race boxes, and they gave racial preferences to certain races based on historical grievances. My grades and SATs were borderline acceptable for top-tier colleges, and my high-school counselor, along with most university officials, urged me to boost my chances of being admitted by checking the “black” box on applications. When one university official saw my reluctance, she urged me to reduce my multiple races to one race box in the name of “diversity.” In truth, those who had been freed from the box marked inferior were being objectified all over again in the form of a box now marked “victim.”
But the most troubling aspect of this sham went beyond my own discomfort. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, the percentage of all blacks on college campuses who were from lower economic backgrounds had fallen to the single digits. These students had been replaced by middle- to upper-class blacks, Africans, Caribbeans, and multiracials like me. By checking the “black” box, I was being asking to mask over the very problems and inequities that undermined the efforts of lower-class blacks—all so university administrations could claim the pretense of racial redemption through higher enrollment numbers.
Checking the “black” box on college applications would have forced me to enter what I call the minority state of mind. The word “minority” is often used generically along with the word “majority” to refer to population numbers. But the minority is also a social construct used by some on the left to enforce loyalty to the politics of a given oppressed racial group. To enter the minority state of mind therefore meant that I would divorce myself from my larger American identity in order to embrace a far narrower identity based on the politics of race. In my case, that meant embracing a victim mindset in which everything is defined by slavery, segregation, and racism.
If I had indicated “black” on my college applications, it would have opened the door to black scholarships, black-only orientations, black fraternities, black housing, black-oriented majors, black student associations, and so on. How could I have gone through these experiences without becoming beholden to the politics of blackness?
Once I graduated from college, I expected identity politics to weaken and fade away. Instead, it strengthened and became more resilient. In my lifetime, identity politics has grown so powerful that practically every government office and nearly every institution, business, and school must pledge allegiance to its versions of diversity, equality, and inclusion. After the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, there was much talk to the effect that we had finally reached some kind of utopian Promised Land known as post-racial America. No one was more threatened by such talk than the identity-politics establishment. To quash this post-racial claim, identitarians had to prove that America was still a profoundly racist country.
One way they did this was by exploiting the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. It was not the killing itself so much as the white and Peruvian identity of the shooter, George Zimmerman, that triggered a war over identity politics. Before the killing, the governing rules of identity would have encouraged Zimmerman to choose “Hispanic” on school or job applications. In the days following the killing, however, many media outlets committed to a categorization of Zimmerman’s ethnicity that could advance a white-on-black crime narrative.
The New York Times described Zimmerman with the awkward label “white Hispanic,” which kept the charge of whiteness alive. This opened up the identity-politics establishment to claims of hypocrisy. How could the rules be changed mid-game to put Zimmerman into the white box instead of the Hispanic one? That’s when proponents of identity politics began talking a lot about “white privilege,” a phrase I had first heard years ago in the halls of academia.
The concept of “white privilege” had long been viewed as academically suspect because there was nothing original in its assertion that America was racist or that whites enjoyed the advantages of power. But after Trayvon Martin was killed, the introduction of white privilege into the national conversation overtook the “white Hispanic” debate. Zimmerman’s light skin meant that he derived unearned privileges under a white-supremacist justice system, making him white by all accounts. By using literal skin color in the way that white supremacists had used the one-drop rule—as a mechanism for instantly replacing individual identity with group identity—activists on the left were able to argue that America was still a profoundly racist nation.
ince the shooting of Trayvon Martin, identity politics has strengthened its hold on power. It was this very battle for power that defined my experience at that communal table at the White Privilege Conference. Despite my attempts to humanize myself before the college counselor, she refused to back off. I was my white skin. As I watched her walk away from the table with her sympathetic smile, I felt the sting of her superiority, her conviction that she was right.
On the plane home to Los Angeles, I became deeply sad. We are once again becoming a nation that puts race before humanity, I thought. We’re betraying the very hope of the civil-rights movement. As I looked out the window, I was reminded of a story that my father told me about my grandfather. It was the early 1970s, before my birth, and my father had told my grandfather that he and my mother were thinking about joining the Black Panthers. My father’s hair was picked out into an Afro, and he was running his mouth about black this and black that. After hearing enough, my grandfather stopped him and asked, “What is black?”
This story always stuck with me, though I never quite understood it. Then I realized that I was considering it from the wrong perspective: my father’s. When I looked at the story from my grandfather’s point of view, I saw that his question revealed something about his psychology and the way he saw himself in relation to America. He lived in an age when the aim of white supremacy was to convince him that he was black and thus inferior. Though his movements were successfully limited, my grandfather’s victory over white supremacy was that he never allowed himself to be reduced to mere blackness. He became the very thing that white supremacy feared most: an individual in possession of his own mind. And he held on to that at all costs, even during the most brutal days of segregation when it would have been far easier to surrender. It was his individuality and that of many other Americans that eventually brought down the racial order of white supremacy.
It will take the same kind of courageous individuals to bring down the racial order of identity politics.q
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The true legacy of 1968
The creed of an “almost chosen people” is as vital today as it was in Lincoln’s time
An explanation for the enduring power of very bad ideas