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Israel's flag march versus the neo-Nazi Skokie affair: A study in contrasts

Support for the racist march through occupied East Jerusalem extended to Jewish organisations in the US, where decades earlier, plans for a neo-Nazi rally spurred a landmark legal battle
Israeli demonstrators prepare for the Flag March in Jerusalem on 29 May 2022 (AFP)
Israeli demonstrators prepare for the flag march in Jerusalem on 29 May 2022 (AFP)

The Israeli government, which in the eyes of international law is illegally occupying East Jerusalem, allowed mobs of ultra-racist Israeli Jews to march through the city’s Palestinian neighbourhoods on 29 May, brandishing their colonial flags and bellowing genocidal chants of “death to Arabs” and “may your village burn”.

They also cursed Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was assassinated by an Israeli sniper last month. The marchers, numbering 70,000 this year, call the annual march during which they terrorise and attack Palestinians the “Jerusalem Day Flag March”.

The Israeli occupation established “Jerusalem Day” in 1968, a year after they occupied the Palestinian city, to celebrate their conquest. During the march, more than 2,600 Israelis stormed al-Aqsa Mosque complex under Israeli police protection. 

The Israeli flag itself has become the quintessential symbol of Palestinian oppression and humiliation at the hands of the Zionists

The Israeli flag itself has become the quintessential symbol of Palestinian oppression and humiliation at the hands of the Zionists - an ongoing reminder of the colonial conquest of Palestine. The Israeli occupation savagely attacked the funeral procession of Abu Akleh under the pretext that some of the Palestinian mourners carried Palestinian flags, as the Israeli regime insists that the only flag allowed to be brandished in occupied East Jerusalem is the Israeli flag of the conqueror. Support for Israel’s genocidal racists was overwhelming not only inside Israel, but also in the US.

Given the anti-Palestinian violence and racist chants, how do some US-based organisations justify their support for the march?

The American Jewish Committee (AJC), the oldest of the US Jewish advocacy organisations, tweeted that its members “celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel and the Jewish people”. It added that “70,000 marched to celebrate Jerusalem Day, marking the reunification of the capital of the Jewish people. Violence by Palestinian rioters, hateful chants by an extremist fringe of Jewish Israelis, and clashes between the two are not what this day is about. We stand with Israel.”

Conquered and occupied

The Anti-Defamation League’s Israeli chapter opted to publicly condemn the racist chants that made “parts of” the march “extremist”, but not the attacks on dozens of Palestinians who suffered injuries or those arrested by Israeli forces.

Earlier in May, the US-based ADL, which retweeted its Israeli chapter’s condemnation, thought it proper to criticise a “significant segment” of the commemoration of Nakba Day events in US cities as “antisemitic”.

Whereas no names of the racist Jews who called for genocide were listed in the ADL’s condemnation of “parts” of the flag march, the organisation saw fit to name names of speakers at the Nakba events who condemned Israel. Despite its assertions, the ADL’s intelligence-agency-style report (and its illegal history of espionage targeting Arab Americans, among other groups, is well established) did not cite one single antisemitic remark at any of the events.

Mind you, the US Nakba events did not take place in Jewish neighbourhoods, let alone in Jewish neighbourhoods conquered and occupied by Palestinians - and participants in the events included Jews, the Palestine solidarity group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Palestinians, and other Americans who condemned Israel, not Jews. 

JVP did not mince words when it tweeted after the march: “This is what Zionism is. The Flag March embodies what is at the root of Israeli state power. Palestinians were subjected to physical violence, arrest, and harassment while being forced to watch Israeli settlers chanting for their deaths.”

As for the formidable US pro-Israel lobbying organisation, AIPAC, it celebrated the event with a tweet wishing “the Jewish people”, who allegedly have a “3,000-year connection” to the city, a “happy Jerusalem Day”.

In response to AIPAC, Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, tweeted: “AIPAC [is] celebrating today’s violent fascist march.” In another tweet, he added: “Imagine the US response if any government in the world held an annual fascist march through a Jewish neighborhood. This is what the Palestinians of Jerusalem are forced to endure and our government’s response is ‘Our commitment to Israel is ironclad.’”

American neo-Nazis

Perhaps the 1977-78 Skokie affair can shed light on Duss’s hypothetical. The National Socialist Party of America, the US neo-Nazi party, sought to march in the mostly Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois, where several thousand Holocaust survivors lived. As the Skokie village council enacted regulations in 1977 to prevent the march from taking place, the US neo-Nazi leader, Frank Collin, claimed that his group’s free-speech rights were being infringed.

A legal battle ensued, involving the US Supreme Court and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The final court ruling was in favour of the “free speech” of the neo-Nazi group, thereby allowing the march and the marchers’ right to brandish the swastika. 

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The village of Skokie insisted that the swastika was equivalent to “fighting words”, but the court did not agree. Moreover, the American neo-Nazis stated that the slogans they intended to hold while marching were “White Free Speech”, “Free Speech for the White Man” and “Free Speech for White America”, and did not include any explicit attacks on Jews, as if the assertion of white Christian power in a Jewish neighbourhood is not in itself anti-Jewish.

A huge public outcry followed the court ruling, and the liberal ACLU has since been maligned as a defender of neo-Nazis. About 30,000 ACLU members left the organisation in protest, and the union lost a half-million dollars in contributions - not an insignificant sum in the late 1970s. 

In the summer of 1978, the American neo-Nazis finally obtained permission to march, but rather than in Skokie, they staged it in downtown Chicago. An estimated 25 people marched in Nazi uniforms with swastikas. They were confronted by hundreds of counter-demonstrators. But Skokie’s Jewish residents, including Holocaust survivors who established a Holocaust Museum to educate Americans about the horrors of Nazism, were spared the pain and humiliation of the neo-Nazis marching in their midst.  

Fighting words

The stark difference between the Skokie case and the case of occupied East Jerusalem is how much smaller and less threatening the projected march of 25 neo-Nazis in Skokie would have been, compared with the horrors of the march of Israeli Jewish racists in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of occupied East Jerusalem.

Supported and defended by the entire Israeli security and political apparatus, including 2,000 police officers, 70,000 marchers invaded Palestinian neighbourhoods. Some of them attacked native residents and openly chanted genocidal calls against all Arabs, while hoisting the Israeli flag, which signifies to Palestinians much more than “fighting words”.

Unlike the ACLU, which defended the right of the US neo-Nazis to march based on its support for free speech, the support from groups such as AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee for Jerusalem Day is based on their support for the illegal occupation and conquest of the city, which AIPAC calls “the capital of the state of Israel”.

Since its celebration of Jerusalem Day, however, none of AIPAC’s more than 100,000 members has left the lobbying organisation to my knowledge - and who knows, AIPAC might even have drawn more, rather than fewer, financial contributions because of its support for the conquest of Jerusalem. Compare and contrast! 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.