The War on Jews vs. The War On Coal

I have about ten minutes to write this, so it’s going to be unpolished. But these things need to be said and I want them to be written now, while my memory is still fresh. 

Yesterday, I attended a rally in Baltimore that had been organized in solidarity with the people of Gaza. We weren’t alone: buses of “pro-Israel” supporters had come in from the county to protest us. Apart from a few nasty words, there weren’t any altercations that I know of other than people shouting at one another.

I’m no stranger to counter-protesters. Having been a part of the movement to stop mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, I’ve noticed a lot of similarities in the narratives I’ve encountered in both issues that I wish to share with you. I will add the caveat that I'm an outsider to both Appalachia and Israel/Palestine, and this should be worth less consideration than the words of the movement leaders that I have stood in solidarity with.

Rhetoric over figures and facts

Dirty tree huggers want to take our jobs. Dirty terrorist-huggers want to smash Israel. Both arguments are, I would argue, a conservative backlash against change coming from people who need scapegoats to lash out at. If Hamas (Palestine) is the problem; if tree huggers (the EPA) are the problem, all you have to do is eliminate it and the problem goes away.

But in both cases, there’s very little evidence to suggest that this is the case. The 2009 study by the UN that showed that Hamas does not use people as human shields (rather; living in one of the most densely populated areas in the world means that you can’t fire a rocket without somebody being nearby). Nor do you have to dig very deeply to find an example of an oppressed population resisting occupation. In US history, Native American resistance to the theft of their lands was the cause of many genocidal acts by settler militias and the US government. The formula is simple: you push and push people; then, blaming them for bending, break them.

Likewise, in recent years, we’ve seen countless studies and industry reports showing that Appalachia is running out of cheap coal. There are many reasons for this: the rise of natural gas, EPA standards, market forces, cheaper sources of coal in the Powder River Basin out west, and widespread community resistance to coal power. And a large body of research has demonstrated that the overall economic effects to small communities of MTR are actually negative (and have been since its introduction in the 70s).

Outsiders and self-hating Jews/mountaineers

I’m not a Jew or a Muslim and have no personal ties to Israel/Palestine. I also don’t have any claim to represent Appalachians. I participate in both movements at the invitation of civil society organizations in Appalachia, Israel, and Palestine. The inclusion of outsiders is, I think, a good strategy overall, but it does come with the drawback that it further entrenches the conservatism of the other side, allowing them to paint your whole movement as a bunch of trouble-seeking outsiders who wish to destroy their way of life.

These “outsiders” include family members and acquaintances who call for ceasefires and lock themselves to coal barges. Because that’s what a conservative backlash looks like: it creates arbitrary divisions between those who are stuck in the past (and/or who are dependent on such a mindset) and those who want a better future. And so the “logical” conclusion is that people who protest are terrorist sympathizers and traitors to the sweat, blood, and sacrifice endured by their ancestors.

I think that what this all comes down to is a refusal to accept that the foundations (moral, economic, secureness, whatever) of your chosen way of life is crumbling. This isn’t to say that all forms of tradition are bad or not worth celebrating. But in order to survive as a people (to paraphrase the words of Israeli/Palestinian and Appalachian civil society groups), it is necessary for these populations to rebuild some of these foundations in a way that offers support for everyone.

Anti-semitism and the racist stigmatization of mountain culture have no place in these movements.

I've seen individuals participate in rallies and other events for both issues who come with a hateful agenda, spewing toxic bullshit like the pro-coal camp just doesn't know any better because they're poor and ignorant, or that oppression from the state of Israel is in any way "Jewish". The anti-MTR movement has done a really good job at kicking assholes out, and I was really pleased that I didn't encounter any similar nonsense at yesterday's rally. But I have seen this sort of stuff at DC and London protests, and the zero tolerance policy of the Baltimore coalition of solidarity activists towards anti-Semitic statements is a welcome step that needs to be implemented elsewhere.

I’m a stakeholder, too.

While I’ll never know what it feels like to depend on the coal industry to support my family or to walk the streets in fear of bombs or rockets, I can speak out as someone who has benefited greatly from the displacement of the indigenous inhabitants of “my” part of the world, where the old names of the places I love were first replaced and then forgotten. I can speak out as a citizen of a city that was built on cheap coal that came from regions where some people didn’t have electricity until the 1960s.

I can speak out as a citizen of a country that deliberately barred Jewish refugees from immigrating out of pure racial and religious prejudice, and as a resident of both the UK and the US, countries that share a responsibility for their promotion of Zionism as a key part of their imperialist policies, in order to send the Jews away. We should have learned from the history of Liberia (another project at least partly promoted through the white supremacist desire to send the “other” somewhere else) that this could never go smoothly.

It’s complicated, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight for a better option.

Such is the case with both issues. Exactly how we’re going to see a new, resilient and sustainable economy to provide jobs in Appalachia is a challenge that many are taking on – the Appalachian Transition Fellows program of the Highlander Center is a good example of this. But a lot remains to be demonstrated. There’s a great deal of uncertainty, too, in the concept of a two-state solution, of ending settlements, and of ending the occupation. These uncertainties are predictably unsettling (pun intended) for people who don’t want to sacrifice privileges when their ancestors had so little, and there is definitely a class war (albeit an odd version of one) element to both the Israel/Palestine conflict and to the War on Appalachia.

I can only hope that civil society groups in Israel, Palestine, and Appalachia will continue to create and articulate a more hopeful vision of collective prosperity. 

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