Dr. W.E.B. DuBois Visits Gaza
By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
It was very quiet, almost too quiet. There was a lull in the fighting—amazingly, the Hamas “forces”—over-testosterone’d teenage boys, really, and the wild-eyed anarchists of Islamic Jihad—had decided, apparently, not to provoke any Israeli retaliations—and I had made up to meet with Dr. W.E.B. DuBois in the ruins of what had been one of the local outdoor marketplaces. When I arrived, he was leaning against the ruins of what had been a fruit-and-vegetable stand, among which melons and oranges lay, many of the melons exploded and bleeding like so many dead bodies. He was puffing a cigar, “to clear the stench out of the air,” as he said to me. He was light-brown-colored, with a trim goatee, three-piece-suit; the clothing that an academic lecturer might wear, appearing both strangely familiar and yet, strangely out-of-place here, amid the cesspools and junkyard smells of destroyed Gaza City.
“Let us walk and talk,” he said, taking my arm, “I don’t know my way around here; I don’t speak the language, but I am familiar with Sorrow, where and how it lives; I have seen much of it, in my time.”
“Thank you for meeting me here, Dr. DuBois,” I said, “This is not a neighborhood you are familiar with; this battle is not yours, but I thought you might have something to say about it, something to share with me, and the World.”
He looked at me, sharply, and abruptly stopped walking; then, he pointed a finger; first, at the front of what had been a three-story apartment building, now with its contents sagging and near-to-falling, like a dowdy old woman losing her balance, the effects of a computerized, drone-fired “smart bomb” aimed at its basement which, from its appearance, had contained not a few Hamas rockets, and what had been the beginnings of an tunnel through which to invade and attack Israel. Then, he pointed it at me: a single, thin, brown, accusing digit.
“Never tell me, young man,” he intoned, in that deep, bass voice that made him such an effective speaker—“that any fight, any battle, between peoples brought about by a tribal, national, or—in this case—racial misunderstanding, and a centuries-old, tragic one, at that—is not my battle. The problem of the twentieth, [and now, the twenty-first, century], is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa…. The history of the world is the history not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations but of races, and he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores or overrides the central thought of all history.”
“But there are religious and nationalistic threads in this dispute, as well, Dr. DuBois,” I said, though I did not doubt the truth in his words.
“I am not a religious man, Rabbi,” he answered, speaking more gently, now, “But I am forever grateful to the members of your faith who helped us, and me personally, when we were beginning the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, which still endures, to this day, with its mission still incomplete. There was Julius Rosenwald, owner of Sears, Roebuck, Inc., who, himself an immigrant and grateful to the America that had taken him in and allowed him to prosper, gave us thousands of dollars, often paying out of his own pocket to finance the various scholarships, competitions and exhibitions for the Harlem Renaissance writers, poets, actors and artists, and academic studies, as well. And Joel Elias Spingarn, a literature professor from Columbia (which, as an Ivy League school, had its own quota system, keeping out Jews, African-Americans, and other “undesirables”) and his brother, both of whom came from a wealthy German-Jewish family, helped us as well.
“But this conflict bears the same earmarks as that which we fought in America—it is unique to the Middle East, but similar to that of my Black brothers and sisters—that which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my successor in so many ways, fought on behalf of our people. And please note, Rabbi, that I did not use the word ‘Colored’ in the title of my NAACP because it was the proper, or ‘genteel’ way to speak about Black Folks, ‘way back in the early years of the 20th Century. I meant it to include all Black, Brown, Yellow, and any folks being oppressed on account of their color, which would include poor Arab folks, too. I note also that in Israel proper, there is still a disparity between how the darker-skinned Jews are treated, though the Israelis are working on that issue, the best they can….”
“But, Dr. DuBois!” I said, “Dr. King’s fight was non-violent, and these Palestinians use rockets and terrorism to make their point. How can you justify this horrific means?”
He looked at me, and the look was enough to freeze my soul.
“Rabbi—David—you must listen to me,” he said, “You are white; you are Jewish; you are privileged. You have never known what it is to wear a black skin, or to be called ‘dirty Arab.’ Never deny that there is an undercurrent of racism in Israeli-Arab relations, and both sides are at fault. Only dialogue will cure this disease of racism. And, though I am sorry to tell you, the Occupation does not help. I can prove to you that, if you put a fox or wolf into a trap—if you put the iron jaws of a trap around that animal’s leg—it will go crazy, and it will gnaw off its own leg, in order to escape. If anyone tries to stop it doing this, it will attack them, as well.”
“But haven’t the Arab nations caused this problem? Isn’t it theirs to fix?” I said.
He went on, patiently, as if speaking to a child.
“Do you know why I became a sociologist? It was a brand-new branch of social science at the time that I started college. Because of the color bar, I was not allowed—can you imagine it?—to begin my studies at Harvard College from the beginning; no. Instead, I had to attend Fisk University, an all-Black college, and get my first BA degree there, and, afterwards, I was ‘allowed’ to enter Harvard, Bachelor’s Degree already in hand. I had to swallow my pride—how many freshmen have already graduated college by the time they enter Harvard? Of course, I did; and, of course, I graduated, once again, with highest honors.
“I had originally planned to take my Ph.D in Economics at the University of Berlin—those Germans, bless ‘em, treated me, not like a colored man, but like a human being—but my scholarship from America ran out, and, undoubtedly for racist reasons, it was not extended. It was a lucky break, in the end, because I went on to love Sociology. I believed that it would teach me why and how people behave the way they do, in groups—that is, families, tribes, states, nations. I became a sociologist because I could not fathom why any human being could hate another. I believed that, if I could analyze the reasons for racism, I could explain it away, and thereby banish it forever.”
He stopped talking, and puffed at his cigar thoughtfully, tapping his chin for a few seconds.
“Did it work?” I asked, wistfully, though I already knew the answer.
“No,” he said, and narrowed his eyes at me, “Of course not. Racism is a disease. There is no logic to having a sore throat or the common cold. Racism, like them, is caused by a germ. A man or woman has something inside themselves that they hate, and so, rather than root out the evil which they themselves contain, they project it onto someone else. If this same hatred is exacerbated by jealousy, or economic deprivation (which is certainly a factor in the Israeli vs. Palestinian debate), it cannot be cured until those conditions are relieved.
“To answer your question,” he went on, “The Arab nations may have created this problem, but it is no longer theirs to fix. They have placed it on the shoulders of the Jewish State. It is their burden; indeed, to coin an inappropriate, but still cogent phrase, Israel’s cross to bear.” He closed his eyes; he was thinking.
“And what do you see as the solution, in the end?” I asked, wondering what Dr. DuBois’s mighty mind could conjure up, to untie, or, better, cut the Israeli-Palestinian Gordian knot that had baffled so many politicians, secretaries of state, US presidents, Israeli pundits and prime ministers, op-ed writers, ad infinitum….
“Something I wrote, ‘way back in 1903, in a piece called ‘The Souls of Black Folk,’ in which I took on no less an opponent than the mighty Booker T. Washington—oh, how I despised, but admired, that stubborn, star-crossed Old Man of Tuskegee!—in our Battle of the Pens called ‘The Great Controversy.’ He conceded to the white man in all social and economic areas, he Uncle Tom’d to the greatest extent, but I met all of his arguments in print, and licked him solidly, oh yes I did—“
His eyes were shining; he closed them, and recited from memory:
“[While] the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves, there was in all leadership…the one motive of revolt and revenge…and veiling all the Americas in fear of insurrection. …[But times have changed. We] feel in conscience bound to ask of this nation three things:
1. The right to vote.
2. Civic equality.
3. The education of youth according to ability. …
By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”
When Dr. DuBois finished reciting these famous and stirring words, he opened his eyes once more, looking at me first, and then, sadly, at the ruined buildings and piles of rubble and twisted metalwork that surrounded us. On an adjacent wall, some desperate graffiti artist had sprayed a peace sign in white paint, but another had used blood-red paint to smear, in Arabic, “Palestinians! Revenge.”
“These words still apply,” he said to me, “in America, as well as here. They have yet to be fulfilled in either country. America and Israel. So different, yet so much the same. Blood, war, suffering are not the answer. Only dialogue will solve and heal the problems, challenges, and inequities. It will take time, but there is no alternative.”
“Yes, “ I said, “and both countries are dear to me; they both belong to me, and I to them. And I believe I can speak for so many of my people, and for many other Americans, both Jewish and gentile, and Israelis and Arabs, as well. There are many people of good faith in the World, Dr. DuBois. I do believe that, with all my heart.”
He touched my hand, and squeezed it, gently. His grip was warm and firm. A blood-red moon was rising above the shattered bits of what had been Gaza City. Off in the distance, a jackal howled, and we heard the sound of automatic-rifle fire. Far far off, the politicians may have stopped speaking, but the guns were still clearing their throats….
“We better go,” I said.
“Do not misunderstand me, Young Man,” he said, in that direct, no-nonsense way he had of speaking. “Never forget that I, even I who had so much hope for America, nonetheless gave it all up and moved to Ghana, Africa, in the ending years of my own life. It broke my heart to do so, and many followers and admirers never forgave me for it, but a man must live with his own conscience. The Great Work was not over, but my life’s work was, and I was tired. My spirit lives on in the leaders of my people today. Your people need courageous leaders, too. Who will they be? Where will they come from?”
“I don’t—“ I began.
“Remember me,” he said. And he was gone.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. NY: Penguin, 1981. Print.
“W.E.B. DuBois, ‘The Souls of Black Folk.’” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. Eighth ed. Vol. C: 1865-1914. NY: W.W. Norton, 2012. 883-891. Print.
NOTE: The parts in italics are direct quotations from the works of DuBois.