Politics & Policy

Opposing Honors for Angela Davis Isn’t Racist

Professor and political activist Angela Davis at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival, Canada, September 10, 2012. (Fred Thornhill/REUTERS)
She was a longtime apologist for the Soviet Union and now a backer of the anti-Semitic BDS movement.

When the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute first announced that it was giving its annual human-rights award to Angela Davis, the honor attracted little attention. Academia and the mainstream media have long treated Davis, a retired professor who has taught at Rutgers and the University of California, Santa Cruz, as something of a civil rights icon.

An early exponent of black-power philosophy and a member of the violent Black Panther Party, Davis had been linked to a notorious kidnapping and murder. A member of the Communist Party USA and an ardent supporter of the former Soviet Union and the Castro regime in Cuba, she denounced those who fought for freedom in those countries. She has also been a major figure in promoting intersectional theory to link the struggle for civil rights in the United States to various third-world struggles, including the war against the existence of the state of Israel.

But like so many other elderly radicals whose Communism is now seen as a romantic fling with idealism rather than evidence of morally dubious past, in recent decades Davis has acquired a patina of respectability in which her radical activities are viewed as part of the struggle for equality in the United States. That Harvard recently purchased a collection of her papers and memorabilia, including her “Wanted” poster, signals that as far as liberal elite culture is concerned, her role as an apologist for terrorist thugs at home and totalitarian tyrants abroad is considered just a colorful and even understandable aspect of the biography of someone who fought an unjust American system.

Few may still care about the people killed by the Black Panthers. Nor are there many who remember her role as the supplier of weapons to a man who gained control over a courtroom in Marin County, Calif., in 1970 and took the judge and three jurors hostage, leading to a shootout in which four people (including the judge) were killed. If anything, the only way that atrocity is remembered is the way artists, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono and the Rolling Stones, rallied to her defense when, after a stint on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, she was apprehended and tried as an accessory to kidnapping and murder. A sympathetic jury acquitted her and she returned to academia.

So it’s likely that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which runs a museum in a city once on the front lines of that struggle, assumed that no one would seek to resurrect the old arguments dating from the 1960s or to debate the process whereby radical-chic liberal elites had transformed the perception of Davis, a Birmingham native, until the supporter of totalitarianism and terror was anointed a civil-rights icon.

Instead, it was another line on her résumé — her recent role as an advocate for the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against the state of Israel — that created a ruckus and led to the Institute’s rescinding the award and canceling the February dinner where she was to be honored.

Credit for the protest goes to the Alabama-based Southern Jewish Life magazine and its editor, Larry Brook, who published an article that highlighted Davis’s support not only for BDS but also for Palestinian terrorists who had been convicted of murders of Israeli civilians. The article led to protests from the Birmingham Jewish community and successful pressure on its leadership to back away from honoring a person who has a long record of anti-Semitism.

That in turn led to a counter-protest by Davis, who claimed she was being shunned because of her support for “the indivisibility of justice.” She and her supporters in Birmingham and elsewhere argued that her support for the Palestinian cause was inextricably linked to civil rights in the United States. That resonated with some Institute board members who resigned in protest over the institute’s treatment of Davis, as backlash against its decision to rescind the honor grew. This week the Birmingham city council unanimously passed a resolution honoring her career.

The incident has became one more front in the battle over BDS, which has recently roiled Congress, where opponents of an anti-BDS bill have falsely called it an attack on free speech rather than an attempt to curb discriminatory commercial conduct. But like that debate, in which Representative Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) resurrected the notion of dual loyalty, a traditional theme of anti-Semitism, to smear those who oppose BDS, the argument about Davis shows how intersectionalism has helped normalize anti-Semitism.

BDS is not a protest against Israeli policies or a tactic by which it can be pressured to withdraw from the West Bank in order to facilitate the implementation of a two-state solution. To the contrary, it is a movement dedicated to the eradication of Israel and to the denial of rights, including a people’s self-determination and ability to live in peace and security in their own homeland, that BDS advocates seek to deny no one else: It is an act of bias against Jews. Wherever BDS raises its banners, invariably anti-Semitic statements (like that of Tlaib) or acts of intimidation or even violence soon follow.

Moreover, this is not the first time that anti-Semitism has played a part in Davis’s career. As a radical celebrity in the 1970s as well as a prominent Communist and supporter of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes, she was asked to support the struggle for human rights in those countries. In particular, some on the left pleaded with her to aid Jews who were prosecuted by the anti-Semitic Soviet government, which refused them the right to leave for Israel or to freely practice Judaism at home.

Her response was not merely silence. She actively supported the repressive regimes in Russia, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia and opposed the activities of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other dissidents. Though she styled herself a “political prisoner” for being called to account for her role in an act of domestic terrorism, Davis was quoted as saying of Czech dissidents, “They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison.” According to Alan Dershowitz, who also asked for help for Jewish refuseniks and other prisoners of conscience, she told him, “They are all Zionist fascists and opponents of socialism.”

Davis and her defenders have sought to depict her critics as racists. But the idea that a person with a record of support for totalitarianism and consistent anti-Semitism deserves to be honored as a human rights-advocate is an insult not so much to the Jewish community but to genuine civil-rights heroes who fought for justice — and not, like Davis, to defend injustice.

One needn’t re-litigate the history of Communism or her personal role in Black Panther violence to understand that neither Davis nor the liberals who fawned over those who committed violence did nothing to make the United States a better place or to destroy the edifice of institutionalized racism that once prevailed in this country. Similarly, her support for efforts to destroy the one Jewish state on the planet and her cheers for those who shed Jewish blood to advance that despicable cause is antithetical to advocacy for human rights.

Harvard may consider Davis a figure of historical importance, but whatever one may think of that dubious designation, she supported violence and hate as well as anti-Semitism. To treat that fact as an insignificant or irrelevant detail in an otherwise blameless life is as absurd as it is morally obtuse. For Birmingham, academia, or civil-rights groups to continue to ignore or falsify her past does no service to the cause of justice.

Opposing honors for Angela Davis isn’t so much an indication of support for Israel or remembering the moral imperative of anti-Communism as it is as matter of public decency.

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