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A new civil rights movement unites Palestinians and Black Americans

April 5, 2019 at 8:30 pm

Since its launch in 2005, Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) has evolved into one of the most effective campaigns against racism. This year’s IAW kicked off in South Africa earlier this week in customary fashion, with leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), whose former leader the late Nelson Mandela was the source of inspiration for Israeli Apartheid Week, being joined by civil society groups and trade unions in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

The annual event, usually marked across the world with lectures and rallies at universities, has been a major source of irritation for pro-Israel lobby groups. Despite calls for it to be banned, the numbers of institutions supporting IAW have actually swelled. This year, Harvard University’s Undergraduate Council joined the ranks by donating $2,050 for its Palestine Solidarity Committee to hold events and the latter did not disappoint, presenting a panel on Black-Palestinian solidarity on Tuesday featuring the acclaimed American philosopher and political activist Dr Cornel West. Also taking part were Dr Marc Lamont Hill — who outraged supporters of the Zionist state in December with a speech at the UN that prompted calls for his resignation — and Dima Khalidi, an activist and director of Palestine Legal.

The discussion focused on structural racism and the parallels between the oppression of Black Americans and Palestinians. The subject has become a major talking point in the framing of the Palestinian struggle, which has undergone many dramatic evolutions over the past 70 years. Having started out as a campaign for self-determination focused on state building, the conflict has now come to symbolise the universal struggle against structural racism and apartheid, and the fight for human dignity and respect for international law. Framed as such, Palestinians are seen as having reinforced organic ties that exist between everyone involved in such struggles globally.

In the past this type of alliance-building connected Palestinians with nearly every anti-colonial movement in Latin America, Africa and Asia. For a number of reasons, not least the fact that 11 million people have for decades been denied their basic human rights, it’s now uniting Palestinians with grassroots anti-racist movements around the world.

READ: Israel Apartheid Week kicks off in South Africa

This unity was symbolised powerfully during the 2014 Ferguson protests against police brutality in the US. Palestinians resisting state violence half way around the world recognised the connection between their plight and the plight of Black Americans. Watching protestors being shot with tear gas from her home in Ramallah during one of the most violent confrontations in Ferguson, Missouri, activist Mariam Barghouti tweeted: “Always make sure to run against the wind/to keep calm when you’re teargassed, the pain will pass, don’t rub your eyes! #Ferguson Solidarity.”

Activist Barghouti is a Palestinian American writer. She explained later that she stood in solidarity with Black Americans: “The connection between the African American community and Palestine is essential for human rights. It reminds us all that oppression has no boundaries and despite the differences our struggles are united. No justice is true justice without the liberation of all.” Her words were described by the speakers at the Harvard PSC event as a sign of the growing alliance of people worldwide united in their campaign against state violence and repression.

Khalidi pointing out that the tear gas used to subjugate Black Americans in Ferguson was from the same source as that used against Palestinians in Gaza by the Israeli occupation forces: Made in the USA. She claimed that the companies facilitating apartheid in Palestine by building walls were also looking to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. “This is no coincidence,” she stressed, suggesting that the untrammelled state-corporate partnership had stacked the cards against those at the bottom of the neo-liberal global hierarchy that privileges profit and corporate gains above human rights, justice and international law.

Such observations about structural racism and oppression echoed Jeff Halper’s in his book War Against the People. The Israeli author and activist says that millions of oppressed people living under different forms of structural racism have spawned national and “transnational movements of counter hegemony”, which he said pose new challenges to the elites and the ruling class (the Arab Spring inevitably comes to mind). Halper goes on to argue that the main conflict is no longer between sovereign states but between states and their own people. Governments are seeking “securitisation” against migrants, dissidents, protestors, anybody and everybody seen as a threat to the global capitalist system.

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What’s more, Halper claims that the people of the world resisting their oppressors have been “Palestinianised” and governments have become “Israelised”. In such conflicts between people and their states, Israel is at the forefront, aiding some of the most brutal regimes to “secure insecurity”. Decades of experience against the Palestinians, he argues, has helped Israel to develop the most advanced tools and technology for political suppression. Its cutting edge developments in the high-tech security industry may have come out of necessity, but this “has now developed into a core element of the Israeli economy and placed it at the forefront of the global security industry.” Accordion to Jeff Halper, the pacification of the people is being carried out using Israeli arms, surveillance technology, intelligence and security advice, making the Zionist state indispensable to brutal regimes on almost every continent.

The strength of solidarity between Black Americans and Palestinians was also described as the consequence of moral clarity about the nature of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The Harvard panellists cited a New York Times article “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine” by civil rights advocate Professor Michelle Alexander, who prompted a media storm for suggesting that Dr Martin Luther King Jr would stand up to the “grave injustices” in Palestine just as he stood up “courageously” against the Vietnam War.

Suggesting that the Palestinian cause is at the forefront of the civil rights movement, the speakers mentioned the attack by pro-Israel groups on prominent American civil rights activist Angela Davis, who was denied a civil society award because of her support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign. The moral clarity of 74-year-old Davis, who has spent decades fighting for the rights of Black Americans, was cited as one of the reasons for the solidarity between American civil rights leaders and the Palestinians. Davies has explained her support for the Palestinian cause by noting that, “In my own political history, Palestine has always occupied a pivotal place, precisely because of the similarities between Israel and the United States.” She has also pointed out that during her own incarceration she received support from Palestinian political prisoners.

Framing the Palestinian narrative as an anti-racist movement has been such a success, according to the panellists at the Harvard PSC event, that Israeli officials are said to have targeted the Black Lives Matter movement. They mentioned Judith Varnai Shorer, Israel’s Consul General in Atlanta, who was captured on video saying that, “The major problem with Israel is with the young generation of the Black community.” According to Shorer, the support given to the BDS campaign has led to Black Americans being targeted by the Israeli government’s anti-BDS efforts.

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While there is no evidence to suggest that Hill — who was fired from CNN for his remarks at the UN — had been subjected to a campaign by the Israeli government, which Shorer admitted exists, the professor claimed that the people attacking him were guilty of hypocrisy. His use of the phrase “from the river to the sea,” he insisted, was taken out of context and did not in any way imply that he wanted Jews to be displaced from Israel. Hill pointed to the political parties within Israel, including Likud and Labor, which he said have themselves used that term to describe their aspirations for Greater Israel. He explained that he was trying to reimagine the borders and a social and political arrangement that does not discriminate against anyone because of their ethnicity.

In an evening replete with examples of moral clarity, perhaps the most powerful were those of Dr West. The Black American icon, who called himself a “revolutionary Christian”, described the current climate as one where “many of the precious liberals and centrist are full of fear to acknowledge the rich humanity of Palestinians and bring critique to bear on the vicious Israeli occupation.” He stated that it was “clear that there is a moral deficit when it comes to [addressing] the humanity of the Palestinians” and called for the world to “raise the truth to allow the suffering to speak.” Presenting his vision for a Palestinian civil rights movement he listed “three fundamental non-negotiable issues: Know the truth of 1948; reject on moral grounds [Israel’s] vicious occupation; never, ever succumb to anti-Jewish hatred.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.