We are in this together
A report on the conference
“A Call to Action: Black and Palestinian Liberation”
By Judith Polson, UMKR Political Action Committee Member
In April this year, I drove over 100 miles from Anderson,
South Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia, to attend
“A Call to Action: Black and Palestinian Liberation,”
an event that organizers promised was “not just
another conference.” And it did not disappoint!
Which should not be surprising, considering the range
of participating organizations, including Black Lives Matter,
Jewish Voice for Peace, Friends of Sabeel (FOSNA), the Fellowship of Reconciliation, local churches of several denominations and more [see the full list here; scroll down the page].
The conference was hosted by First Iconium Baptist Church. Welcoming us and introducing the dominant theme of the conference of building relationships, the church’s pastor, Rev. Tim McDonald, told us that “an event is not a movement.” Even a series of events is not a movement. Movements are based on relationships. If we want both Black liberation and Palestinian liberation to happen, we have to join together in activism. We build a relationship when we work together. We must ask ourselves: Who am I in the trenches with? How do we transform what matters to people?
Rev. Kimberly Jackson, Associate Rector at All Saints Episcopal Church
in Atlanta, read from the famous Riverside sermon delivered by Rev.
Martin Luther King, fifty years ago on April 4th, an address that
Vincent Harding of Atlanta’s Spelman College helped write for King.
That landmark sermon still rings true today: “We need a
radical shift from a thing-oriented society to a people-oriented
society. War is not just. It cannot be reconciled with love and justice.
It leaves us spiritually dead. But now the “weak” force of love has
become a necessity. Might without morality is destructive.
Let us re-dedicate ourselves and choose a new world.”
One of the notable keynote speakers during this weekend was
Reuven Abergel, an Israeli Jew originally from Algeria, who was
on a speaking tour in the U.S. He speaks Hebrew and Arabic and
addressed the conference through an interpreter. Abergel was
first arrested when he was nine years old and has been in prison
many times, as a result of his work for justice for both Arab Jews
and Palestinians. He formed a freedom group he called the
Black Panthers, because he admired the efforts of the US group
by that name, and also because he is African. He has worked for
50 years for just treatment of the Mizrahim – African and Middle Eastern Jews in Israel – and feels the situation for them has only gotten worse. But he will never stop resisting. “If you believe in the human spirit, you can’t get depressed.” “I can’t sit still when I see Palestinians suffer.”
[Read more about Abergel’s address below.]
Another powerful speaker we heard was Noura Erekat, a Palestinian
woman who teaches International Law at George Mason University.
She explained her slogan “When I See Them I See Us.”
[Editor’s note: See the video with that title at
Erekat believes that Black liberation and Palestinian liberation
should go hand in hand. She read a poem found in the prison cell
of George Jackson (a leader of the Black Panthers) after he was
killed by prison guards in 1971. The poem is by Palestinian Samih al-Qasim, titled “Enemy of the Sun,” and has the repeating refrain: “With the last pulse of my veins I shall resist, O enemy of the sun.”
[Read more about Erekat’s address below.]
We also were addressed by Lucas Johnson, who was born in
Germany, has family roots in Atlanta and now works in Amsterdam
as International Coordinator for the International Fellowship of
Reconciliation (IFOR), spoke about his family’s involvement in
the U.S. civil rights movement. He explained that he had never
given much thought to the matter of Palestinian rights, because
it did not seem like a primary issue to him. Then his mentor,
Vincent Harding, an African American scholar and social activist,
urged him to visit to Israel/Palestine with Dorothy Cotton, then
the Education Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), so he joined that delegation. Once there, Johnson described feeling a familiar anger when he encountered the Israeli Defense Forces and his realization that “we all need to get free for any of us to get free.” Since that trip, Johnson has personally organized several delegations to Palestine so that others may see the situation for themselves.
Appropriately, Johnson co-led a workshop this weekend with Ilise Cohen on Participating in Delegations to Palestine: Experiencing the realities of life under occupation. They discussed the value of going on a delegation and the importance of becoming active in the movement for Palestinian human rights when you return home. They encouraged people to consider an upcoming delegation organized by Interfaith Peace-Builders.
I also attended a workshop organized by Black Lives Matter: Policing and Police Exchange in Georgia, led by two young adults: Miriam Areta whose parents are Ethiopian Jews, and Suhaib Abaza, whose parents are Palestinian. Miriam attends Spelman College and Suhaib is also in college.
They talked about their chapter’s work in Atlanta to address the issue of policing in Georgia. Most notably, a successful protest that included 2,000 people on the streets and lasted for a week. They occupied the governor’s lawn and were able to communicate their demands:
• Disband the Georgia International Law Enforcement program, which goes to Israel to learn law enforcement techniques; in return, Israelis get our technology. De-escalate rather than militarize the police.
• Immediately cease Operation Whiplash, which uses police to target immigrants. Instead build community power for positive change. Rights for all is the end game. Invest in community spaces and shelters.
• Expand the mechanism to punish errant police officers and deter them from overstepping their duties.
• Divest from the police department and invest in education and people, particularly low economic areas.
This weekend was enriched by two powerful exhibits. Through the Checkpoint by Katie Archibald-Woodward is a multi-media project that uses photography, video, and text to provide many examples of checkpoints in Israel/Palestine, both literal and figurative ones. Visitors can experience some of life in this region and hopefully will then be moved to take action by challenging and changing the current situation. You can see her work and a blog for this exhibit at http://www.lifeilluminated.com/through-the-checkpoint
[Editor’s note: Find a detailed description of this project, including the places Archibald-Woodward visited, the people she met with, and more: https://creativevisions.networkforgood.com/projects/16418-creative-visions-fiscal-sponsorship-through-the-checkpoint
This exhibit will be on display at The Jerusalem Fund gallery in Washington DC, Oct 13-Nov 3, 2017: http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/13709/october-13-november-3-checkpoint]
We also saw Carton Mackey’s exhibit Freedom Bound, another multi-media experience. It depicts the shared struggles of Blacks and Palestinians, with art, historical records, data visualizations and more. Visitors see vividly the inherent connections between movements of resistance to oppression. Mackey’s project includes contributions by poets, visual artists and others from Palestine/Israel and the US. It can be found at freedom-bound.org.
It was such a pleasure and a privilege to attend this event, which had a profound impact on me. Truly, as promised, this was “not just another conference.” I came away convinced that we must all be in this together and that, as an activist for justice in Palestine, I want to be active also in the Black Lives Matter movement.
MORE ON REUVEN ABERGEL’S ADDRESS
Speaking on conditions in Israel for Arab Jews, Abergel said: “Arab Jews who come to Israel have their Arabness stripped away. They must speak Hebrew and become European-like.” He had to learn to speak Yiddish, he said. “Jewish history is only of European Jews. Other ethnicities are erased.” He explained that the Jewish government never calls itself an occupying country. As they increasingly move into the West Bank, Arab Jews are used to translate, and often they are promoted in the military. Yet the Israelis say they cannot work with the Palestinians. They say, “That time has passed.”
He said that his group has been working with young people in Israel, but he cannot compete with the Zionist movement, which designed systems in Israel from the outset to oppress and enslave. In their own words, Israelis have said, “We came to build a beautiful house in the jungle” and “We will build a Western-values haven. We are like a battleship and we need workers and parts to man it. Jews were encouraged to leave their homes to be the spare parts and to make the desert bloom.”
Regarding the history of internal racism within Israel, Abergel said that the European Jews, the Ashkenazi, came first to Israel, and the Arab Jews that came later were always settled near the borders, so that if attacks came they would serve as buffers. He told of the experiments performed on Arab Jews in Israel as the X-ray machine was being perfected, in which thousands died. He also spoke of the widely reported Yemenite Children Affair, in which Yemenite Jewish immigrants to Israel have accused Israel of kidnapping and selling thousands of their children.
Abergel reminded us that often, if we are liberated, we forget about those in chains. We must help others become free. He spoke of the many protesters in Hebron, living under the most extreme example of the apartheid regime in occupied territory, who are getting arrested and cannot raise bail for their release.
An audience member asked how does his work for Black liberation not diminish his work for Palestinian rights? He answered, “One informs the other. Liberation is liberation.”
Abergel believes that American Jews who helped the civil rights movement, if they are now Zionists, are making a mistake. He also said that many Blacks in the U.S. are too often blind to injustices elsewhere in the world. Nationalism is harmful. The U.S. empire is everywhere and Black Christians are complicit in that, perhaps unknowingly. Martin Luther King said that we must seek justice and freedom everywhere. To know and do nothing is wrong. Black liberation is worldwide, and we have to fight together.
MORE ON NOURA EREKAT’S ADDRESS
Regarding examples of solidarity, Erekat shed tears as she explained that Angela Davis had tried to help George Jackson when he was sentenced to the death penalty and later Davis herself was sentenced to the death penalty, but due to protests by American citizens, Davis was released. In an example of the lack of such solidarity for Arab women in America, the Palestinian woman Rasmea Odeh, who was tortured for ten years in an Israeli prison and was released in a prison exchange, came to live in America. When immigration officials asked her if she had ever committed a crime she said “No.” Decades later Odeh was arrested here in the U.S. for lying about her arrest by Israelis, and she is being deported now. Erekat said that if Arabs in America had stood up for Odeh, they themselves would have been targeted by the American government. In Palestine we are being concentrated, she said. Erekat refers to the West Bank and Gaza which are places of containment and imprisonment. Fifty years of military occupation is not occupation; occupation is meant to be for a short time. What exists now is apartheid. She said that the Palestinian Authority aids Israel in its oppression. One man carried a sign on a bus that said “Boycott Apartheid.” He was arrested by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and his father was beaten by the PA. He was killed trying to defend himself from them, and now the PA wants to try him posthumously for having a gun.
Erekat described how, in the United States, the FBI entraps young Arabs. It plants men in Arab groups and urges them to take violent action. If they decline, the agent persists and says “Aren’t you angry? Why don’t you act? I’ll bring the weapons. Let’s do this.” After a year of this talk, they give in; they get in a car with an agent who has given them a plan and a destination, and then they are arrested.
She declared that, although Palestinians and Blacks do not have the exact same issues, they want to unite in liberation - liberation for all, beyond borders and states.
I asked Erekat to speak on gender liberation, especially for Muslim women. She said that is a goal, but she also suggested looking at the experience of American women and the rates of domestic violence here. To which I responded, “You’re right.”
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