This week’s Palestinian Freedom Rides will resemble those of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. As the American Jewish community was widely supportive of the Civil Rights movement, the event serves as an opportunity for American Jews to reflect on Israel’s system of segregration–a system that it opposed in the United States.
Rabbi Dresner and another American rabbi being arrested during the African-American Civil Rights Movement
The Palestinian Freedom Rides, which are set to begin on Tuesday, will seek to replicate those of the African-American Civil Rights movement. Palestinian youth activist and organizer Fadi Quran explains, “this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in the US. Apart from disrupting the segregation and challenging the oppression imposed on us by Israel, we chose this form of direct action to highlight the similarities between the Palestinian struggle and the [African American] civil rights movement to an American audience.”
Despite the similiarities, there are crucial differences between the Freedom Rides that were held in America during the 1960s and those that will take place this week in the West Bank. Those who participated in the American Freedom Rides were United States citizens who sought to reform the country’s discriminatory policies. The Palestinian Freedom Rides, on the other hand, is a people’s attempt to assert their rights in the face of a foreign military occupation. While the African-Americans sought merely to level the playing field with their white oppressors, it can hardly be said that West Bank Palestinians simply demand equal access to settler roads and buses. They seek to call attention to and dismantle an inherently oppressive system.
The event also holds potential for the American Jewish community–which was, by and large, supportive of the African-American Civil Rights movement–to reflect on the segregation the Jewish state enforces in their name.
Rabbi Israel “Si” Dresner was a white, Jewish-American Reform Rabbi who joined the 1960s Freedom Rides as part of the ‘Interfaith Riders’, a group of black and white clergymen and rabbis who became known as the ‘Tallahassee Ten’ after their arrest for attempting to desegregate an airport restaurant in Tallahassee, Florida.
“I became a ‘dove’ in the few years after the Six Day War”, says Dresner. “By 1970 I had already realized that the occupation was a disaster.”
Dresner was arrested in the 1970s for marching on behalf of the refuseniks, and has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians since the early 1980s.
“As long as they remain nonviolent”, he says about the new Palestinian Freedom Rides, “I’m all in favor of this…there are major differences [between the two Freedom Rides] of course…[but] the occupation has led to a buildup of hatred in Israel, the kind of hatred we call racist hatred- the kind that says ‘all Arabs are bad, all Palestinians are terrorists’…so the occupation has been a disaster for Israelis and for Palestinians.”
Nonetheless, following a typical path of ‘soft’ liberal criticism of Israel, he prays essentially for the reform of what he believes to be an originally and ultimately morally just state. “I love Israel,” he reassured the Jewish Week in an article published in May 2011. “I’ve been there 36 times. I was married there. Israel means a great deal to me, and I just feel that their policies are self-destructive.”
Dresner, who today sits on the Executive Board of Meretz USA, told Rabbis for Human Rights in 2010 that “I’ve been a dues-paying, card-carrying Zionist for 68 years, and Zionism today has been corrupted and corroded…we have to correct it, we have to reform it to change the annexationist policies…”
Dresner is not the only Jewish American Freedom Rider who would come to question Zionism. Henry Schwarzschild became a civil rights lawyer and activist who publicly declared himself Israel’s enemy after the 1982 siege of Beirut.