I begin this commentary by looking up the word terrorism.
One dictionary defines terrorism as “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.”
Similarly, the U.S. military says terrorism is “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”
Practically speaking, however, terrorism is defined differently in everyday American life. Terrorism is synonymous with Muslim and Arab extremism, and affiliated persons, organizations and nations. The threats they pose are either real, perceived, or purely conjured up. The terrorist-as-enemy-of-America is like the bogeyman of Red Scare fame, ubiquitous yet elusive, and you can’t quite put your finger on them because they’re tricky. The definition of terrorism itself can serve as a political weapon—a form of terrorism itself, dare I say. Call someone a terrorist, or a communist or socialist or supporter thereof, and you delegitimize everything that person has to say. You marginalize everything that person represents.
In these days of extremism at home, we cling to a narrow, selective definition of terrorism, while ignoring blatant forms of terrorism in our own midst. In doing so, we can’t see the forest for the trees.
A progressive voice for peace, Rabbi Michael Lerner, was almost certainly a victim of terrorism on the night of May 2 and early morning of May 3. Right-wing Zionists attacked his home and threatened his life. The attackers attached posters to his door and property with a strong glue. And the posters attacked Lerner personally, as well as liberals and progressives as being supporters of terrorism and “Islamo-fascism.” They posted a bumper sticker which read “fight terror–support Israel” next to a caricature of Judge Goldstone, the South African jurist who issued a UN report on Israeli human rights violations during the military campaign in Gaza. The Goldstone report called on Israel to do an independent investigation into Operation Cast Lead, and punish those elements of the IDF who were responsible. The report was denounced by rightists in the U.S. and Israel as “anti-Semitic” and “pro-terror.”
The crime against Rabbi Lerner came after a week of Lerner and his staff at Tikkun magazine receiving hate mail. These acts stemmed from Tikkun’sannouncement that if South African Zionists made good on their threat to prevent Judge Goldstone from attending his grandson’s bar mitzvah, Lerner would hold the bar mitzvah in the Bay Area instead. Tikkun is presenting an award to Goldstone next year for his commitment to human rights in Israel, and apparently some people don’t like that.
Although Lerner has received death threats and hate mail over the years, this recent attack is troubling because they targeted his home. “By linking Lerner to alleged terrorism, they provide for themselves and other extremists a ‘right-wing justification’ to use violence against Lerner, even though Lerner has been a prominent advocate of non-violence”, Tikkun said in an official statement. Lerner speaks out against violence everywhere around the world, including Palestinian acts against Israelis. But when he and groups such as J Street advocate a pro-peace solution, they are branded as anti-Israel. This comes as a group of over 3,000 European Jews signed a petition criticizing Israeli settlement policies, and warning of the dangers of systematic support for the Israeli government.
Turning the page a bit, we are witnessing state-sponsored terrorism within our borders, most prominently coming from the state of Arizona. Arizona’s legislature passed–and the governor signed into law–a bill which makes it a crime under state law to be in the U.S. illegally. The law allows police to stop anyone with a “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented, and demand proof of citizenship. Those who cannot produce the documentation face arrest, a $2,500 fine, and 6 months in jail.
I submit that Arizona’s anti-immigrant law is nothing more than Juan Crow racism, a codification of xenophobia, specifically designed to intimidate Latinos regardless of their citizenship status. Although its proponents will tell us it does not racially profile, the law is part of the mix that makes people with Spanish surnames feel unwelcome and unsafe, in an environment of heightened anti-Latino violence and discrimination. After all, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a hate group with ties to the eugenics movement and white supremacists, assisted in drafting the bill. An honest, vigorous debate on immigration and border security is one thing. Bad people passing a law with cruel intentions is another.
But Arizona did not stop there. They are banning ethnic studies in the schools, characterizing such programs as “ethnic chauvinism” and “high treason.” Under the policy, schools will lose state funding if they offer courses that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” And the Arizona Department of Education is removing teachers with heavy accents.
Ethnic Studies were part of the civil rights movement– born in the late 1960s and early 1970s at a time of increased cultural awareness among people of color– to counter a Eurocentric perspective of history. State governments in Arizona and Texas feed into white extremist antipathy towards diversity by denigrating and eliminating people of color in their school curricula, “taking the country back” so to speak, via the textbooks.
A vibrant democracy should allow for differences of opinion, free from demonization and threats of violence against those who disagree. We may differences of opinion with people, even within our own family, but we don’t resort to terrorist attacks against them.
This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.