Knight Ridder/Tribune, Dec. 12, 2001--Many of us blacks find ourselves in an uncomfortable position as we watch the death and destruction in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

No one condones the violence, and certainly not that which has as its aim civilians rather than soldiers. But blacks have an affinity for people on both sides of the struggle for survival - and hegemony - in the Holy Land.

Not until I left Georgia for New York City in 1976 did I come to know Jewish people.

That's why I thought the guys at law school wearing what I took to be beanies were pledging some sort of fraternity. I didn't recognize what yarmulkes were. I wasn't aware of modern Jews, but, oh, did I know all about the biblical "children of Israel."

We black folks, identifying fully with the enslaved Israelites of the Old Testament during our own sojourn in this country, have been crossing the Jordan River and fighting the battle of Jericho for 400 years.

Harriet Tubman was "the Moses of her people" as she led hundreds of slaves out of the South and into freedom.

Actually, one of my favorite stories from Rosa Parks - the mother of the civil rights movement, we call her - is that a youngster, confused by all this historical stuff, once asked her if she knew Tubman. Old icons of freedom are, to kids, just old.

Given our identification with the biblical Israelites, it is a shock to the system to realize that Old Testament characters - who, like blacks in this promised land, suffered mightily, triumphed, behaved arrogantly, were punished, repented and at some point were redeemed - are not necessarily the people who inhabit Israel today.

Nor are Old Testament politics necessarily the word of the Lord.

Our Sunday school lessons don't resolve the dilemma of which side to be on. That is to say: The stories of old are not a useful means for understanding the waves of hatred and violence that have defined the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East since at least 1948, when the state of Israel was created.

In this country, Jewish Americans were among blacks' most stalwart allies in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

But, while Israel did business with South Africa's apartheid regime, Yasser Arafat's Palestinians were among the most stalwart allies of Nelson Mandela and others who, once denounced as terrorists, emerged as the statesmen at the helm of a new South Africa.

At various times, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have gotten into trouble for trying to publicly indicate an understanding that the conflict between Jews and Palestinians is more complex than we in the media let on, with rights and wrongs on both sides.

In this country, blacks and Jews - the closest of strangers - became estranged over issues of urban real estate and affirmative action and, in New York City, at least, Crown Heights.

At the same time, many blacks were growing comfortable with Islam, initially as practiced by the Nation of Islam (aka Black Muslims) and based on the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.
Now many more blacks have found Islam through more orthodox routes and feel a connection to Muslims throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Moreover, we understand the language of displacement and occupation and oppression - the language the Palestinians speak in making their case against the Israeli government. And we understand having one's message muddled by media looking for quick sound bites to narrate, without challenging, an old story line.

To the extent that any Americans who are not Jewish and not Palestinian are caught up in this power struggle, blacks are especially conflicted.

Which side are we on?

Neither - and both. That's why we pray that wiser heads than those now in charge will end the killing, make concessions and, finally, give peace a chance.
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