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Looking to boost ties with Black community, Erdan tours US civil rights sites

Israeli envoy likens plantations to concentration camps, says ‘no comparison’ between Jerusalem’s policies and struggles for racial justice in US

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israel's Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan (center) at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama with leaders of the African American community there; February 22, 2021. (Israeli Embassy in Washington)
Israel's Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan (center) at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama with leaders of the African American community there; February 22, 2021. (Israeli Embassy in Washington)

NEW YORK — In his first official trip as ambassador to the US, Gilad Erdan toured civil rights landmarks in South Carolina and Alabama, meeting and learning from Black community leaders as part of his effort to expand Israel’s outreach to American minorities.

“I now understand their feelings much better, how they view the reality and why they insist on continuing their struggle for equal rights,” Erdan told The Times of Israel in an interview shortly after returning to New York on Thursday.

The three-day trip included stops at the McLeod and Magnolia Plantations in Charleston, South Carolina, the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in nearby Selma, Alabama, where civil rights activists were brutally beaten by police on Bloody Sunday in 1965.

He also visited the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, one of the oldest Black congregations in the South and the site of a mass shooting in 2015, and Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached until 1960.

During the visit, which coincided with Black History Month, Erdan met with nearly a dozen prominent Christian faith leaders, young Black students, as well as South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed and former Democratic lawmaker Bakari Sellers.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan visits the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 21, 2020. (Israeli Embassy in Washington)

“One of my top priorities as ambassador is to engage with the African American community as it’s very important for me to connect with all sectors of American society, particularly with minority groups who we haven’t had enough engagement with in the past,” said Erdan, who has served as Israel’s envoy to the United Nations since September and began the additional role of ambassador to the US in January.

Erdan’s predecessor Ron Dermer also visited many of the same key civil rights markers and attempted to maintain positive ties with the Black community during his 7 years as ambassador.

Erdan stressed that the goal of the trip was not to teach those he met with about Israel, but rather to listen and learn.

He avoided weighing in on recent events in the US, including last summer’s wave of racial justice protests following the police killing of George Floyd, but the envoy did give a nod of legitimacy to the ongoing struggle.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan (second from left) at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama with leaders of the African American community there on February 22, 2021. (Israeli Embassy in Washington)

He mentioned being particularly disturbed upon learning during his visit to the Mother Emanuel Church how the white gunman who shot dead nine Black worshipers was treated warmly by local police, who took him to McDonald’s after his arrest.

Erdan said he was moved by his trip to the former plantations in Charleston, where visitors learn about the history of slavery and later struggles of Black freedmen.

“I come from a family of Holocaust survivors so I hesitate to compare the Holocaust to other tragedies, but when you go to the plantations and hear their stories…in a way they were like the concentration camps,” he told The Times of Israel.

“You really learn about phenomena here that justify their struggle for equal rights,” he continued. “I feel that our cooperation, between Israel, the Jews and them, can be very powerful to fight together racism and anti-Semitism.”

Hinting at what perhaps is one of the motives for the new outreach initiative, Erdan lamented that pro-Palestinian activists “are trying to take advantage of intersectionality, [claiming] their struggle against Israel is the same as what’s happening here with Black Americans, which is clearly not the reality.”

Black lawmakers have historically been supportive of Israel, but some increasingly view the Palestinian struggle for statehood as a parallel to the US civil rights movement. In 2019, civil rights icon John Lewis voted in support of the right to boycott Israel, though he also said he strongly disagreed with the BDS movement. Some Black Lives Matter activist leaders have also been tied to pro-Palestinian activism, partially thanks to a 2016 policy platform from the Movement for Black Lives group which called Israel an “apartheid state,” alleging the country systematically carried out a “genocide” against the Palestinians.

Erdan himself has come under fire for comments made against the Arab minority in Israel, including his labeling of a Bedouin school teacher killed by police an Islamic State-linked terrorist in his previous role as public security minister, which oversees the police.

During his time as minister, there were also several waves of protests by Israelis of Ethiopian descent, who accused the police of serial discrimination and abuse. In 2019, the killing of an unarmed 19-year-old black man by an off-duty police officer sparked days of unrest.

But Erdan rejected accusations of discrimination.

“There’s nothing to compare,” Erdan asserted. “No country is perfect and it’s possible that even in Israel there [were] some mistakes that were done by police officers or the military, but we know our norms and believe in equal rights.”

He said he differentiates between the broader fight for racial justice and groups within it that support the boycott of Israel. “Of course Black lives do matter…and that cause I definitely can support and do whatever I can to cooperate with,” he said.

Erdan’s tour was organized by Philos Project, a conservative-leaning pro-Israel group that aims to promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East.

Philos Project African American Affairs Director Kristina King said she was moved when Erdan told her after the trip that he would “be a better ambassador to the US and a better person” because of it.

“As an African American, I can only wish that more American politicians would request the same trip so that we can share African American history and community with them,” she said.

“This was an extraordinary gesture on his part because he’ll find himself in places in places that many of us will never go and he’ll be able to speak on behalf of the African American community,” she said, reflecting a sentiment that many pro-Israel activists describe as one of their outreach motives.

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. (Shalom Hartman Institute)

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said Erdan’s efforts to engage with various groups should be welcomed.

“I can understand why someone who is deeply immersed in the racial justice conversation looks at this and says, ‘well you’re late to this party,’ or ‘you’re only looking at this from a self-interested lens,’ but that’s exactly what countries do,” he said.

King said the visit was an important step in revamping Black-Jewish relations, which she believed had dimmed in the decades since the civil rights movement. She compared what she said were misunderstandings around calls for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria –“if you ever visited Israel, you’d understand that the Golan Heights are a high point” — to people not understanding the Black American experience.

Many of the challenges the Black community faces today “come from a context of a history of slavery, Jim Crow, racism that’s been codified into American law,” she said. “If you don’t have that context then [there too] you have a great misunderstanding.”

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