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Black history month is now over. But there are still lessons for us about modern trends, even after the official recognition that black Americans actually have history has expired.

It is common knowledge that at the time South Carolina attacked Fort Sumter to start the Civil War black people in the “slave states” were not allowed to vote, or to become educated, or to own real property. What is less well known is that this had not always been the case.

During the 17th Century, blacks in the American colonies, even in the southern colonies, could run businesses, go to school, sue and be sued in court, and own property, even own slaves. By the time of the Revolution, most of these rights had been taken away. In subsequent decades, individual states took away more and more rights, until by the time of the Civil War, even marriage was beyond the legal right of most blacks.

Similarly, before the Apartheid laws were enacted in South Africa, in 1948, nonwhite citizens there enjoyed human rights. The British and the Boers were more interested in fighting with each other for colonial hegemony than crafting artificial ways of enslaving their nonwhite colonial subjects.

The desire to impose restrictions on a class, or classes of laborers grew as increasing stability of colonial governments made trade, agriculture and industry greater foci of the colonists’ activities than military defense and stabilization. Thus, as the “threat” from native populations, in both the American colonies and South Africa subsided, and great farming operations grew, the demand for cheap labor also grew. And those with the ability to buy influence with government were able to shape laws that gave them increasingly docile, controllable labor forces.

This is all history, of course, and could never happen today. After all, we struggled with our own Civil Rights history, and in 1965 finally gave even black Americans voting rights. And Nelson Mandella was freed from prison and watched Apartheid fall apart. The Boxer Rebellion didn’t succeed, but China eventually threw off colonial rule, and has now emerged as a corporate paradise. After decades of subjugation under banana dictators, much of Latin America is now learning about life under participatory governments.

Yet in 2013, five ‘justices’ of the United States Supreme Court held that black Americans should never have been given the rights conveyed in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. They dismissed the factual record establishing ongoing, concerted efforts to disfranchise nonwhite voters. These five ‘justices’ each has a long history of working for or defending corporate interests.

The economic pressures that drove the early colonial decisions have not abated. Less than a century after the Chinese Revolution ended imperial rule, Apple, Walmart and hundreds of other corporations based in colonial empires were back to using Chinese labor locked into factories, paid almost nothing, and worked past the point of human endurance, in jobsites devoid of environmental or worker safety protections. All with the blessing and protection of a corporate-friendly government.

Israel started out as a very egalitarian society. But that in the past few decades, a handful of ‘royal’ families have accumulated control of Israel’s economy, with 20 families now controlling more than half of the value of the Israeli stock market.

On March 16, economist Paul Krugman discussed another government now following the historic practice of helping businesses increase profits by reducing the rights of targeted, easily identifiable segments of its population. Krugman pointed out that Israel started out as a very egalitarian society. But that in the past few decades, a handful of ‘royal’ families have accumulated control of Israel’s economy, with 20 families now controlling more than half of the value of the Israeli stock market. And in less than two decades, 1992-2010, the percentage of Israeli children living in poverty has jumped from 7.8% to 27.4% - an almost 400% increase.

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The Israeli population has grown restive, and corporate governance leaders were fearful of a voter backlash on the March 17 election. So the governing Likud Party (analog to our Tea Bag Republicans) started whipping up fever for a war, against Iran – to be fought by U.S., not Israel. Then Israeli prime-minister, Netanyahu announced that if he were re-elected, Israel would adopt a policy that Palestinians are not human, and not entitled to the human right of self-rule. He promised his voters that upon re-election, his party will end the Palestine-Israel peace process.

And Netanyahu went further. On the eve of the election, he announced that Likud will start searching for ways to reign in the Arab citizens of Israel, and keep them from voting. He explicitly warned Jewish voters that they, like white plantation owners in the antebellum South, would be “overrun” by Arab voters if Israel continues to let Arab citizens vote. This is a warning cribbed from the fears expressed by Southern plantation owners before the Civil War.

A few years ago, commentators on all sides of the political spectrum expressed outrage when Jimmy Carter said that Israel was moving toward a system like South Africa’s apartheid racial divide. Today, every honest social scientist acknowledges that Israel is consciously creating an official system of Apartheid, to enslave Palestinian and Arab populations within rules that deny them basic human rights.

While most people think of Apartheid as having divided black and white populations, the reality was that Apartheid had gradations of discrimination. Nonwhite Indian and Asian businessmen were allowed more freedoms than black South Africans, but less than whites. In the emerging Israeli Apartheid system, Palestinians will be contained at the bottom, and Arabs will be allowed to more freedoms, but not as many as whites.

The settlements show the emerging system most starkly. The government provides lavish subsidies for all sorts of amenities in Jewish settlements. Palestinians living adjacent to the settlements are not merely deprived of amenities, Israeli law prohibits them from establishing things like electrical infrastructure, or even pipes for running water or sewer systems: PROHIBITS, on pain of suffering military attacks and destruction of infrastructure projects.

But Palestinians, if they are meek and obsequious, can still work for Israeli bosses. Just as southern and Midwestern black U.S. citizens can still work, just as long as they don’t try to vote. What the Roberts' Court and the Likud government are doing today remind us that there were blacks with legal rights in the American colonies. And that such rights are easily taken away when fear rules a population.

On March 10, Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman called for Israel to start beheading dissidents. Not people who bomb shops or busses, but people who refuse to vote for Likud. Lieberman said that beheadings should only be done to Arab voters, not all Israelis. It is a harsher response to dissent than the Roberts’ Court’s decisions to uphold voter suppression laws in all “red” states. But the intent is the same, to send a message to an identifiable minority (or even majority) that their freedom and participation is not desired and will not be tolerated.

tom hall

When asked what the new American government was, Benjamin Franklin is reported to have replied “A republic, if you can keep it.” Rights are like that republic – you have them only if you can keep them. People of power and privilege always want to take away the rights of those who might challenge their privilege. In both the U.S. and in Israel, corporatist government policy has decimated the middle class, and created economic divides greater than in any other industrialized nations.

The assault on voting rights in both nations and the attack on Medicare and Social Security in the new Tea Bag Republican budget is the effort of the economic ruling classes to solidify their positions against increasingly restive citizens at the bottom. The vote, as long as we can keep it, is the first line of defense against this assault, but only if we use it.

Tom Hall

Tom Hall