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  • Ivor Chipkin

Does Zionism have any lessons for the 'Black Lives Matter' movement?

I had a great evening with Toby Shapshak and Justice Malala. We have launched a new show called Filling the Gap, which will explore politics and government in South Africa, unusually, historically and comparatively. In 2017 a new kind of civil-society movement began to emerge - "awkward", one academic called it - that started to see government beyond the usual tropes of corruption and ineptitude. A space, that is, was opening to analyse and engage government as a historical and institutional phenomenon. Alas, this moment has passed and 'corruption' has become the hegemonic lense for viewing government. 'Filling the Gap' will try to bring back a historical and institutional sensibility.

In this vein, the Black Lives Matter movement raises unresolved questions about the conditions of the safety, never mind the freedom, of Black people in America and elsewhere. What is the correct institutional response? Anti-colonial movements, especially after the Second World War - the periodisation is important and something that I am working on - reconciled themselves to 'self-determination' in independent states. This was not the only conception of freedom, but it is the one that stuck in the period of formal decolonisation. African Americans, unlike their African counterparts, are, however, a minority in American society. Secession or self-determination has never been a real option - even if the idea has been toyed with at various moments, especially amongst American communists. The counterpart to self-determination was idea of 'returning' to Africa. Yet secession and 'return' have both been marginal tendencies. Instead, 'civil rights' has been the dominant route to safety and freedom pursued in America. The recent killing of Floyd George and the depth of institutional racism that it reveals exposes the limits of the 'civil rights' approach.

Jews have long confronted these problems and have sought to address existential insecurity in one of three ways: integration, autonomy or independence in a Jewish state. Zionism has been catastrophic for Palestinians but in a world where the dominant measure of the equality of 'peoples' is their possession of a state, the development of Israel as a powerful state, militarily, technologically, economically, has set back anti-semitism, especially in its European homeland.

I wonder if the Zionist experience does not suggest a third path for African American politics and black politics generally. Secessionists and 'returnists', at least, saw a fundamental connection between the safety and freedom of African Americans and Africans. The hallmark of the modern era is the emergence of states as the measure of peoples sovereignty and equality. I wonder if black politics would not be well served by investing in the emergence of capable and prosperous states on the African continent? Supporting democratic state-building efforts in Africa may be the condition of freedom and equality in the US too.

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