The killing of George Floyd by a police officer just over two months ago sparked protests across his home city of Minneapolis and major cities around the world. These mainly peaceful protests inspired by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement put the topic of police brutality and, more broadly, racism at the centre of public discourse. Parallels were drawn very quickly between the plight of the Palestinians and the legacy of racism in the US and elsewhere.
To discuss the political and cultural significance of this moment, MEMO spoke to Mark Ayyesh, Professor of Sociology at Mount Royal University, Canada, and began by asking how the Palestinian academic felt watching waves of protests triggered by Floyd’s death.
His immediate reaction, said Ayyesh, was “anger”, “frustration” and a sense of “hopelessness” that he felt watching another black man being murdered by the state. “Nobody is going to be held responsible for it,” he said. The killing of Floyd highlighted the “eternal structural racism” that was “embedded” within American society.
In the half hour discussion that followed, Ayyesh answered questions about the bond between BLM and Palestine, and provided an encouraging assessment of the impact of the movement in challenging structural racism, as well as his thoughts on the campaign’s significance to the Palestinian cause.
Mapping out the reason for the bond between BLM and Palestine, Ayyesh mentioned how the movement, since its founding in 2013, has shown its solidarity with the Palestinian cause. This, he explained, was due to BLM’s key objective, which was to challenge structural racism and colonialism. Providing a historical context, Ayyesh said that at least since the 1960s a close connection has taken shape between the black liberation struggle in the US and the Palestine liberation struggle. This connection, he explained, lies in a philosophy of anti-racism and anti-imperialism. “BLM is interested in the Palestinian struggle because of its anti-imperialist emphasis,” he suggested. “Why is the Palestinian struggle interested in the BLM movement?” It is because of BLM’s emphasis on anti-racism that is embedded in the Palestinian struggle.
Acknowledging that it was too soon to assess the true impact of BLM, Ayyesh noted the progress that the movement has made over the past five years. “People who said that [BLM] was on the margins of politics will no longer say that any more.”
He pointed out that BLM has attained status within the social and political discourse and landscape such that it will no longer be easy to brush it aside. “These events have created a momentum such that its significance will continue to grow.”
Asked to reflect on whether BLM has placed a mirror in front of liberal Jews, Ayyesh said that the growing campaign has created a political environment where people are asking themselves tougher questions than they’ve asked before. “Many have been forced to face the fact that they are living in a racist society.” He concurred that it has made people look in the mirror in a more reflective way, thus creating an environment where Jewish liberals like Peter Beinart and Seth Rogen, for example, may take a harder look at Israel’s occupation and what it means for Palestinians in a way that they did not do before.
In the last segment of the interview, the discussion focused on the opposition to BLM. It was pointed out to Ayyesh that BLM has been met with strong resistance mainly from the political right and pro-Israel groups, who have tried to discredit the movement as anti-Semitic. It was suggested that this is strikingly at odds with the positive role that Jewish activists have traditionally played in advancing progressive causes, for instance in bringing down the apartheid South Africa government and in the American civil rights movement.
Amazed by the question, Ayyesh suggested that it was not a surprise to see Israel and many pro-Israel lobby groups standing against BLM. Divisions within the Jewish community are not new, he stressed, pointing out that Israel supported the apartheid government in South Africa while many Jews campaigned against it. Israel opposes BLM, Ayyesh noted, because it is an anti-imperialist movement, while many Jews offer strong support due to the Jewish tradition of supporting progressive causes.