Posted by on March 06, 2013 in Blog

On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden marched with African American leaders to commemorate the “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers on civil rights activists in Montgomery.

The original march in 1965 led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which forced Southern states to dismantle discriminatory impediments to African American electoral participation. Biden, the first sitting Vice President to participate in the event, spoke of the “recognition that must constantly be paid and constantly taught to our children, so they do not take for granted how hard it was to get even where we are today.”

He acknowledged that as a society, we still have a long way to go, but praised the progress we have made in combating discrimination, segregation, and racism. But in perhaps the most poignant moment, Biden expressed his dismay that so many, including himself, stood on the sidelines while the fight for civil rights raged.

"My regret has been, 'Why were we not there?' I regret and I apologize it took me 48 years to get here. I should have been here. I should have been here," Biden repeated.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the fight for civil rights is moving in a markedly different direction. On Monday, Israel launched new “Palestinian-only” buses in the West Bank, ostensibly to “improve public transport services for Palestinian workers entering Israel.” The move comes in response to “security concerns” by Jewish settlers in the West Bank, who complained about having to share buses with Palestinians.

Though the Israeli Transportation Ministry never explicitly said so, “Palestinian-only” also likely means that the rest of the buses will be “Jewish-only,” and there are already reports that Palestinians have been removed from buses and asked to take different ones. Haaretz points to a story that an entire busload of Palestinian passengers was offloaded and asked to walk 2.5 kilometers to a different bus station to proceed.

All Palestinian buses are also expected to be “searched for stolen property” on every return visit to the West Bank.

This system of institutionalized discrimination is nothing new. But the government sanction of segregated transportation – even after the recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling that settler-only roads in the West Bank are unconstitutional – has led many in Israel to make the much-maligned “apartheid” comparison.

“Everyone will start screaming ‘apartheid’ and ‘racism’ now,” said one Israeli bus driver. “This really doesn’t feel right.”

But another, closer comparison can be made, that also parallels the experience of segregated buses and the racial discrimination behind it: the American South in the 60’s.

In this context, it’s particularly appalling that our own political leaders, even ones who claim to be committed to civil rights and equality, have remained silent on the issue. Far from condemning the same type of segregation that he marched against on Sunday, Vice President Biden affirmed Monday at the annual AIPAC conference that there is “no light” between the US and Israel, and boasted that the US was “the only country on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations to vote against the establishment of a fact-finding mission on settlements.”

While Israeli officials, political leaders, and public intellectuals are increasingly calling for the state to reconsider its occupation policies, Washington has largely chosen to stay out of the issue entirely (though some politicians have praised Israeli “developments” in “Judea and Samaria”). The nomination hurdles faced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is a case in point.

It’s disappointing when civil rights icons and progressive political leaders fail to live up to their own self-professed ideals of equality when it comes to Israel. They may be frightened of the political consequences of standing up to militant right-wing groups like AIPAC, but one can’t help but wonder if Biden and other leaders, decades in the future, will not once again regret their inaction when an oppressed people needed them the most.


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