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African Americans Show How Palestinian
Solidarity Is Done
January 2019 – The immediate and
still-growing impact of the op-ed,
on Palestine,” by the author of The
New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander,
has been breathtaking to witness,
particularly for those in the Palestine
solidarity movement. Her examination of
Martin Luther King’s legacy and how that
has finally led her to an unambiguous
declaration of Palestinian solidarity was
published on the front page of the
NY Times Sunday Review just in time for
MLK Day 2019. It should be considered required reading for all people of conscience during this week’s remembrance of Rev. King.
Coming from a civil rights leader and author of Alexander’s stature, placed so prominently in the premiere print news outlet of the US, written so beautifully and covering so much ground - some have already called it a “watershed” moment in the U.S. and global movement for Palestinian rights.
But before we look more closely at why this nuanced editorial is remarkable, Alexander’s courageous coming-out (it is her own fearful silence that she is breaking) should be viewed in the context of African American solidarity with Palestinians that extends at least as far back as the 1960s.
African American historian
Robin D.G. Kelley, in his recounting of
that history, Another Freedom Summer,
describes the fateful decision of the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC) to publish an article
in 1967 that “portrayed [Israel’s] June
1967 war as a war of dispossession,
Israel as a colonial state backed by U.S.
imperialism, and Palestinians as victims
of racial subjugation.”
Just last month, in the wake of
destructive attacks on African American professor and news commentator Marc Lamont Hill, Mondoweiss published an article describing “half a century of Black activists punished for supporting Palestinian rights.” It includes the following description by Stokely Carmichael, who was president of SNCC in the 1960’s, of the fallout SNCC experienced from their 1967 article:
“we were isolated by everybody. And I saw the power of Zionism. I came to see it. I came to know it. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee took a full position against the war in Vietnam…While we did this, Zionists supported SNCC. We spoke against the Vietnam war. We spoke against the draft. They supported us. But once we spoke against Israel, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was destroyed in three months.”
Rather than attempt to document all of Black-Palestinian solidarity history since that fateful choice by SNCC in the 1960’s, here are some notable highlights from recent years.
“Ferguson to Palestine” and revitalizing a relationship
Signs and chants including variations on “Ferguson to Palestine” and “Gaza to Ferguson” have become ubiquitous in U.S. demonstrations in recent years, particularly when those address issues of concern to communities of color. A leading Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, described the simple tweets in 2014 that offered Palestinians’ advice on how to deal with tear-gas and thereby helped to renew the sense of connection between black and brown people in the US and the Middle East.
One year later, a Huffington Post article by Palestinian and Black co-authors described how solidarity activists had built on what began with the fateful events following the police killing of Michael Brown, concluding with: “While the past year has been a momentous year for Black-Palestinian solidarity, we know that these ties have a long history. In the 1960s and 1970s, many leading Black organizations saw the Palestinian struggle as central to their own. Likewise, the Palestine Liberation Organization forged ties with pan-African liberation movements, including the Black struggle in the United States. Once again, because of our critical joint struggle, we have become close enough to feel the pain and mourning of the other. We see us.”
That final short sentence alludes to the most devastating statement produced by this solidarity movement to date: the 2.5 minute video “When I see them, I see us,” released in October 2015, and featuring more than 60 leading Black and Palestinian artists and activists. At the video’s website, a press release identifies that title – which is also a recurring line throughout the video – as “an important theme for the legacy of Black-Palestinian solidarity,” and quotes Black activist Davis-Bailey: “This is not just intellectual or symbolic solidarity. We are working on the ground together.”
Seeing is believing: delegations and movements
Several African American delegations to Palestine in recent years have introduced leading activists, journalists, academics, and artists from throughout US society to both horrifying and familiar racist conditions for Palestinians and have produced inspiring messages and actions of solidarity upon those travelers’ return.
The excellent 2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine, found at blackforpalestine.com, has been signed by 1100 Black activists, church and other faith leaders, artists, scholars, students and organizations, a virtual Who’s Who of African American leadership.
“While we acknowledge that the apartheid configuration in Israel/Palestine is unique from the United States (and South Africa), we continue to see connections between the situation of Palestinians and Black people.”
“We wholeheartedly endorse Palestinian civil society’s 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel and call on Black and US institutions and organizations to do the same. We urge people of conscience to recognize the struggle for Palestinian liberation as a key matter of our time.”
“We declare our commitment to working through cultural, economic, and political means to ensure Palestinian liberation at the same time as we work towards our own.”
“As we continue these transnational conversations and interactions, we aim to sharpen our practice of joint struggle against capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and the various racisms embedded in and around our societies.”
The trips to Palestine organized by Dream Defenders, a Florida-based movement with a high national profile, have been particularly notable for their far-reaching impact. An Ebony magazine article on their 2016 trip quotes organizer Ahmad Abuznaid: “In the spirit of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and many others, we thought the connections between the African American leadership of the movement in the US and those on the ground in Palestine needed to be reestablished and fortified.”
Those fortified connections had a direct influence on one of the biggest developments in the last decade in Black-Palestinian solidarity.
Movement for Black Lives
In August, 2016, the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 50 organizations that includes Black Lives Matter and Dream Defenders, published their comprehensive policy platform, “A Vision for Black Lives,” which has a powerful statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people. The Invest-Divest section of their platform includes the briefing paper "Cut Military Expeditures" with references to Israel as an “apartheid state” and to “the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”
Those bold declarations had people across the US scrambling to look up the legal definition of “genocide” to see if M4BL was on solid ground in using that term. Turns out they were, according to the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: THE SECTION OF THIS ARTICLE WITH INSTRUCTIONS TO FIND THE PERTINENT SECTION OF THE M4BL PLATFORM ONLINE HAS BEEN REMOVED IN 2020. THOSE INSTRUCTIONS BECAME OBSOLETE AFTER THE M4BL WEBSITE MOVED TO A NEW INTERNET ADDRESS.]
Predictably, it was one paragraph on a single subject, Israel/Palestine, among the more than 30 issues and policies the M4BL platform addressed, that earned by far the most vehement backlash. The knee-jerk reaction from old school establishment Jewish organizations also spread to criticism and disassociation by some supposedly more liberal Jewish groups.
African American leaders stood resolute in their solidarity and had some strong words in response:
“Those who have previously claimed to be allies of the Black lives matter movement have shown us that they are comfortable with our resistance so long as it fits within particular confines and restrictions. It is convenient to endorse black lives matter when it benefits you. And as long as we stay silent about Israeli apartheid, they will “stand” with Black liberation in the US. Now that our movement has taken a stand against all forms of white supremacy and oppression, Black lives no longer matter. We want no part in this quid pro quo form of politics. True solidarity does not come with strings attached.”
“We remain steadfast in our condemnation of the State of Israel and their illegal occupation of the Palestinian people’s homeland no matter the consequence. [Our solidarity]…is rooted in the basic understanding that the state violence we experience is directly tied to the violence facing Black and Brown communities in Palestine and around the world.” The statement goes on to invite readers to support BDS and links to the movement’s primary website.
Individuals in the spotlight
Bernie Sanders was able to appoint several members to the committee that would draft the Democratic Party platform in 2016, and he included three who have been highly critical of Israel. In the words of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “The standout appointment is [Cornell] West, a fiery speaker who has called the Gaza Strip “the ‘hood on steroids” and, in 2014, wrote that the crimes of Hamas “pale in the face of the U.S. supported Israeli slaughters of innocent civilians.” West is a prominent African American scholar and progressive activist who had a pivotal role in pushing for more truth-telling about Israel/Palestine in the party’s platform, reflecting the growing support for Palestinians in the party’s rank and file.
At the public DNC Platform Hearing, West went so far as to support the controversial BDS movement. Concerns about his influence in the African American community led Clinton supporters to contact 60 African American politicians around the U.S. “urging them to stick to the traditional language on Israel.”
Rev. William J. Barber
This highly respected leader of the 2018 Poor People’s campaign has consistently committed himself and his reputation to solidarity with the Palestinian people. The most recent example, also mentioned by Alexander in her Op Ed, was his speech at the 2018 national conference, Together We Rise, presented by US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), a coalition of well over 300 member organizations that span the spectrum of U.S. society. In his keynote address at the opening plenary, Barber brought to bear all of his knowledge and experience in combating racism and oppression. Connecting the intersectional justice dots for his audience, he said "The same corporate interests that used white nationalism to put Trump in the White House, and leaned into Zionist extremism to move the U.S. Embassy to Tel Aviv, also want to cut taxes for corporations, deregulate, ignore climate science, take away healthcare, deny living wages, cut the social safety net and give more and more money to the U.S. military."
Navigating the difficult subject of sometimes violent resistance, he reminded the audience that the fight against empire requires a firm commitment to nonviolence, but also an insistence that there is no moral equivalence between the tanks, warplanes, and bombs of empire and a stone in the hands of a Palestinian child.
Describing the oppression that Palestinians endure, Rev. Barber declared: “In the face of such extreme injustices, it would be its own kind of violence not to speak out. We would be committing violence if we did not speak out.”
(Read more in the UMKR report: “Seminal Conference of 2018 Makes Clear: The Future of Justice Activism is Intersectional” and political analyst Phyllis Bennis’ report: “The Discourse on Palestine is Shifting.”)
Marc Lamont Hill
This African American professor and news commentator was at the center of one of the biggest controversies of 2018 related to Israel/Palestine. He was invited to address a United Nations body on November 28, the eve of the annual United Nations International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
As described in the +972 article, A masterclass in Palestine solidarity: “Hill delivered a powerful articulation of the Palestinian struggle and how he, as a Black American, identifies with their cause. More provocatively, Hill reflected upon the history of Black resistance to “American apartheid,” which ranged from nonviolent boycotts to slave revolts, saying that true solidarity “must allow the Palestinian people the same range of opportunity and political possibility.”
Hill closed his 21-minute statement with a call for “what justice requires, and that is a free Palestine from the river to the sea.” (See the transcript and video of Hill’s UN address.)
That final sentence, taken out of the context of his address, unleashed a tsunami of opprobrium from the usual suspects, the organizations that together are known as The Israel Lobby. They claimed he was calling for the destruction of Israel, because Israel is located in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (which it should be noted is also referred to as “historic Palestine”). Hill’s very clear subsequent explanation – that he was speaking of the one-state solution, growing hugely in support worldwide, a solution whereby all the people who live now in Israel and Palestine would enjoy freedom and equality together – would not soothe the wrath of his attackers. Great pressure was brought to bear on his two primary employers, CNN and Temple University.
CNN promptly fired Hill, without ever stating why they did so, though no one really had doubts of the cause. As the prominent Israeli columnist Gideon Levy observed of this debacle, In U.S. Media, Israel is Untouchable. Statements of outrage from notable figures over this offensive muzzling of a respected African American political commentator and popular campaigns for his reinstatement were unsuccessful in helping Hill at CNN. But they did have an impact on the threat to his position at Temple University, where the President and Board of Trustees eventually confirmed that Hill would not be fired, while also publicly condemning him.
When this legendary and lifelong activist and author, currently on the faculty of UCLA, was selected in October 2018 to receive a Human Rights Award by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) in Alabama, to be presented at a gala in February 2019, some Jewish organizations and leaders expressed their dismay at her selection, due to her outspoken support for the Palestinian cause and the BDS movement.
Caving to pressure immediately, the BCRI rescinded the award and cancelled the gala, to the embarrassment of their own city, as well as some in the US Jewish community. Jewish Voice for Peace organized signatures for a letter signed by more than 300 scholars and civil and human rights leaders. The letter stated, in part, “we will not be bullied into silence. Individuals and institutions that choose to punish, censor, blacklist and dishonor anyone who dares to take a critical stand on this issue are acting in the disgraceful tradition of McCarthyism”.
Clearly Institute leaders did not expect the much greater backlash their reversal would unleash. In the midst of a firestorm of media coverage, the three top officers of the BCRI resigned, Birmingham city leaders apologized for the insult to Davis, and a coalition of organizations have organized an alternative event in Birmingham to honor Davis, which will be held on the same night of the previously scheduled gala. Jewish Voice for Peace organized the statement ’We will not be bullied into silence,’ in which hundreds of scholars and Civil Rights leaders have expressed their public support and admiration for Davis.
In her response to all these recent events, Angela Davis stated in an interview on Democracy Now: “It’s actually quite exciting to see the issue of Palestinian justice, justice for Palestine, emerge as a topic of popular discourse….I don’t know whether I enjoy being at the center of the controversy; I think I’ve had my share of controversies in my life. But I’m happy to assist in the process of encouraging more discussion on racism, on anti-Semitism, on justice for Palestine.”
Later in the interview, when asked about the BDS movement, Davis responded: “I have never concealed my support for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement… efforts by Palestinian civil society to take measures that are in the spirit of the civil rights movement… I have been a supporter of justice for Palestine almost as long as I can remember, at least since my years in college. More recently, I have been attempting to guarantee…that the issue of justice for Palestine be placed on social justice agendas more broadly.”
(See also Davis' book:Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement)
Michelle Alexander, breaking her silence
Which brings us to the extraordinary piece that appeared in The NY Times Sunday Review on January 20th. Few African American leaders could bring justice for Palestine into America’s consciousness with more credibility than Michelle Alexander. Her seminal work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has already significantly changed our national discourse and fueled a nationwide social movement.
A few early indicators of the excitement over this editorial can be found in Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept calling her 2018 hiring as a NY Times columnist “the most important in years.” In multiple tweets, If Not Now, which speaks for many in the younger generation of American Jews, thanks and defends Alexander and acknowledges the “deadly silence that still exists among too many people regarding the occupation.” Author, activist, filmmaker and educator Naomi Klein calls Alexander “a global treasure,” and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation,describes the editorial as “principled, powerful, & passionate words.”
What She Wrote
On the extended holiday weekend honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, when the public is offered so many articles re-visiting Kings’ legacy or making use of that legacy to advance personal agendas, this author, with bona fide credentials in civil rights leadership and scholarship, carefully examines King’s controversial opposition to the Vietnam War, “a lonely moral stance” that his conscience compelled him to take, and as she says, “it cost him.”
Then with refreshing honesty, Alexander reveals: “But it set an example of what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear. It’s what I think about when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.”
She goes on to describe the similar fears held by U.S. politicians, student activists, and civil rights organizations, because of the economic retribution and/or personal smears they can expect.
Alexander admits that no one can state absolutely what MLK’s position would be today on Israel/Palestine, and states: “The evidence regarding King’s views on Israel is complicated and contradictory.” But she makes a persuasive case that “if King had the opportunity to study the current situation in the same way he had studied Vietnam, “his unequivocal opposition to violence, colonialism, racism and militarism would have made him an incisive critic of Israel’s current policies.”” In the process, Alexander refers us to another illuminating work by African American historian Robin D.G. Kelley. This essay, Yes, I Said "National Liberation" probably should be read as a companion piece to Alexander’s editorial.
While there is no explicit statement of support for BDS in this editorial, Alexander attributes “moral clarity” to divestment and boycott actions in Christian denominations and celebrates the new members of Congress who support BDS as positive “change on the horizon,” all of which makes clear her appreciation for the BDS movement.
In that context - and admittedly gratifying for United Methodist activists - Alexander cites the UMC’s divestment from Israeli banks, and provides a link to the press release at the website of United Methodists for Kairos Response (UMKR).
Her appreciation for BDS action was not missed by Israel apologists who lost no time in mounting an attack. Ira Stoll, former North American editor of The Jerusalem Post, says “Alexander’s analysis is so far off the deep end that it almost doesn’t merit a response.” Of course, he goes on to make an extensive response, including calling Alexander’s praise for the United Methodist Church divestment action “perverse.” The American Jewish Committee(AJC) tweeted that her op-ed is “a shameful appropriation” of MLK’s memory. (But a skim through the responses to that tweet is a very encouraging look at the change in U.S. discourse that Alexander is counting on.) And David Harris of the AJC goes much farther, tweeting that Alexander’s piece “calls for Israel’s end.” His article in The Times of Israel cites “countless outrages in the column” and says Alexander “seeks to shamelessly exploit [Dr. King’s] memory.”
B’nai B’rith called Alexander's carefully documented and sensitively written piece an “anti-Israel rant.” The rebuttal piece by CAMERA (the sadly misnamed Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) says Alexander’s “trite headline” showed a “total lack of self-awareness,” claims that the easily documented facts she cites are “fallacious,” and blithely dismisses her fears of speaking out about Israel, as though U.S. activists in general and African Americans in particular have not paid a price for their solidarity with Palestinians.
Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and current member of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) had the most ominous response, warning that “Alexander dangerously delegitimizates (sic) us. It’s a strategic threat, and Israel must treat it as such.” (emphasis added) That sounds like validation for those fears Alexander expressed and critics have derided.
Defenders of Israel have long seen the struggle to deter Palestinian solidarity in US society as psychological warfare, a battle in which fear of retribution can be used as a bludgeon to silence those who might dare to name Israel’s settler-colonialist project for what it is, let alone express support for the most effective tools available today for Palestinian activism: BDS.
As seen in the history of Black-Palestinian solidarity, among the top targets in that warfare have been African Americans who express what they know from experience, who give voice to the undeniable commonality of their and Palestinians’ struggle for such human rights as safety in their homes and communities and true equality and freedom in their homeland.
The closing of Alexander’s op-ed could serve as a call to action for progressive activists who have earned a label well-known in the Palestine solidarity movement, PEPs, which means Progressive Except on Palestine, a label that clearly cannot apply any longer to Michelle Alexander:
“In this new year, I aim to speak with greater courage and conviction about injustices beyond our borders, particularly those that are funded by our government, and stand in solidarity with struggles for democracy and freedom. My conscience leaves me no other choice.”
M. Theresa Basile is a co-founder and the communications director of United Methodists for Kairos Response (UMKR); in 2019 she serves on the leadership team of the Western Methodist Justice Movement (WMJM), and the Steering Committee of U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
Leaders of SNCC in the 1960's
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Author and Historian Robin D.G. Kelley; his essay "Yes, I Said "National Liberation"" could be read as a companion piece to Alexander's NY Times editorial
News & Analysis by UMKR Leaders & Members
The Dream Defenders delegation to Palestine in January 2015: Marc Lamont Hill, professor and political commentator who has become a prominent speaker for the cause of Palestinian human rights (see below in this article), is standing at the top on the right, wearing a keffiyeh.
Read more about the Dream Defenders historic trip, in the San Francisco Bay View National Black newspaper.
Rev. Martin Luther King delivering his seminal speech at the Riverside Church in NY City, 4 April 1967, where he said “my conscience leaves me no other choice,” than to declare his opposition to the Vietnam War. Michelle Alexander cites King's bold and costly position on that war as inspiration for her decision to break her silence on Palestinian rights.