African Americans, Palestine, and Solidarity

Protest in front of the Israeli Embassy in London, May 11, 2018 (Photo: Alisdare Hickson, Flickr).

The specter of Palestine haunted my spring semester Black Radical Tradition course at Cornell University. Midway through the term, the 40 undergraduates in the class began exploring African American-Palestinian solidarity, reading authors from Robin Kelley to Alex Lubin. The students welcomed open engagement with the Palestine question; most were skeptical of the mainstream narrative of a noble Israeli state defending itself against Palestinian terror.

Yet during class discussions, many of the Black students seemed equally suspicious of assertions of African American-Palestinian camaraderie. Earlier in the course we had examined political bonds forged between 20th-century Black Americans and revolutionary states like China and Cuba—sovereign nations whose condemnations of U.S. racism and support for African Americans had bolstered the fight against white supremacy. By contrast, stateless and colonized Palestinians appeared to possess little international clout to exercise on anyone’s behalf. What was the point, some students wondered, of Black folk expressing solidarity with a besieged people who are even worse off than are African Americans?

After an Afro-Sudanese woman in the class shared her personal experiences with the anti-Black racism of the Arab world, my students’ doubts about the potential for meaningful African American-Palestinian ties intensified.

Current events raised the stakes of our debate. Israel had begun its brutal military assault on unarmed Palestinians participating in the Great March of Return, a nonviolent demonstration affirming the right of Palestinians to resist their historical displacement and the occupation of their lands. Over the next several weeks, Israeli snipers would kill more than 100 Palestinian civilians—and grievously injure thousands more—who had gathered near the dividing barrier to the Gaza Strip.

While they remained sympathetic toward the protesters, my Black students saw few significant links between the Palestinian cause and the conditions of Black America. In a world awash with anti-Black sentiment, they argued, African Americans could not afford to express political solidarity with would-be allies who were unable or unwilling to offer something substantive in return.

I found this position myopic and narrowly transactional, but I should not have been surprised by the mindset behind it. Like other westerners, Black Americans are subject to a political and cultural apparatus that conditions them to ignore or deny the plight of Palestinians and to devalue the lives of Muslim populations more generally. American parochialism and the global scope of racism, moreover, have made many of the students of color I encounter leery of cross-cultural or transnational ties. Given these realities, how could I expect the young people in my class to find common cause with the inhabitants of seemingly distant and isolated Palestine?

In truth, barriers to African American-Palestinian solidarity have long existed. Early Black nationalists, including Marcus Garvey, identified with the search for a Jewish homeland, viewing Zionism as a quest for self-determination on the part of an oppressed minority group whose members had been scattered across Europe. Many Black activists saw the founding of Israel in 1948 as a blow against global white supremacy; at the time, few prominent African Americans acknowledged the suffering of the legions of Palestinians who were forcibly expelled from their homes to make room for the new nation.

Progressive Black opinion shifted toward Palestine in later years, especially after the Suez Crisis (1956) and the Six-Day War (1967) underscored the imperialist nature of the Israeli state. But even during periods of heightened African American militancy, popular internationalism oriented Black people toward Africa and its diaspora rather than the Middle East. In the 21st century, lack of awareness, the distortions of corporate media, the hegemony of “War on Terror” discourse, fear of being labeled anti-Semitic, and the provincialism of bourgeois politics have mostly relegated Palestine to the periphery of Black consciousness.

Israel-Palestine protest march in Cape Town, South Africa, 2014 (Photo: Louis Reynolds, Flickr).

There are exceptions, of course. In recent years, attempts to renew African American-Palestinian links have enjoyed some success, with Palestinians tweeting their support for Black Lives Matter campaigns and African American activists using hashtags, open letters, videos, and other means to stand with Palestinians.

Participants in such efforts tend to highlight obvious similarities between the two populations. Both African Americans and Palestinians, they point out, confront state terror in the form of police brutality and extrajudicial killings. Members of both groups are routinely denied essential provisions such as clean water and decent healthcare, and both face ethnic cleansing through policies of confinement, dislocation, and dispossession.

Yet the divergences are also stark. Racial formations have distinct historical and cultural features in Palestine and the U.S., despite overlapping elements. And though American apartheid, past and present, has been pervasive, vicious, and even genocidal, there are few modern parallels to the predicament of Palestinians, a refugee population dwelling in open air prisons, lacking citizenship or legal protection, and experiencing wholesale slaughter at the hands of their colonizers.

My students were not wrong to stress differences between African Americans and Palestinians. Rather, they were shortsighted. What they failed to understand was the larger matrix of white supremacy in which U.S. and Israeli authorities operate, and the degree to which Palestinian and African American interests align within that configuration.

It is helpful to imagine the U.S. and Israel not as separate regimes but as mutually reinforcing nodes in the global circuits of racial management. The two nations share a historical commitment to supervising darker, internal populations, including indigenous peoples and other “hostile” groups that refuse to passively accept subordination and therefore must be continuously disciplined and suppressed. Israel and the U.S. are critical partners in the exchange of technology designed for this purpose, including drones, tear gas, water cannons, special bullets, and other devices of collective punishment. Investors in both societies reap fabulous profits from this trade, thereby strengthening the marriage between finance capital and repression.

Israel is especially useful because it serves as a laboratory for the development, testing and dissemination of techniques of surveillance and control—from police militarization to methods of detention—that enable the targeting of Black and brown people within the U.S.

But the relationship between the two nations goes even deeper. As settler colonies ruled by reactionary elites, Israel and the U.S. are leading propagators of racist belief systems. They purvey both the instruments and the rationales of conquest. Picture the most retrograde trends in American statecraft—policies that criminalize immigrants and separate them from their children, incarcerate minors, flout human rights conventions, justify torture, and convert national borders into zones of violence and death. Many such practices rely on logics of racial domination that were honed in the course of Israeli occupation.

So it matters not that no perfect analogy exists between the circumstances of Palestinians and those of African Americans. The global edifice of racial capitalism has inexorably linked the two populations. Solidarity does not mean sameness or symmetry. Nor does it mean charity. It means that two peoples acknowledge the full humanity and complexity of members of the other group; that they recognize their linked fates; and that they vehemently oppose the oppression of the other.

Such awareness evolves on the field of struggle, not in the classroom. As an instructor I can challenge insularity. I can teach political economy. I can distinguish between revolutionary kinship and racial affinity. Yet to comprehend the true nature of solidarity, my students must develop, of their own accord, an abiding love for the disinherited, an expansive sense of justice, and the courage to envision the humane society that African Americans, Palestinians and other subject peoples will someday fashion together.

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Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of 'We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination.' A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.

Comments on “African Americans, Palestine, and Solidarity

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    I think it’s a shame that scholars and activists tend to either focus on black-Palestinian or black-Jewish solidarity but rarely recognizing the obvious truth: African Americans share much in common with both the traditional Jewish and Palestinian narratives. Your piece would be far more interesting if you talked about black-Jewish cooperation in the U.S. and how that influenced the pro-Israel views of black leaders — and not just Garvey, as you briefly mentioned, but the whole civil rights establishment — straight up until the six day war.

    More on black-Jewish parallels from Cornel West (interviewed by the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 2007):

    “The history of Jewish brothers and sisters and black brothers and sisters in the United States is a complicated one. There’s no doubt about it. I mean, you got the age of Europe, 1492 to 1945, where Jews actually are the degraded others. They are the internal exiles. They are the subjugated ones… Meaning what? Meaning that you had this history of a hated people, a despised people, a subjugated people, an oppressed people.

    Well, in the United States, black people constitute the symbol of the internal exile, of the degraded other. So you then, in the States, have the coming together of these two deeply despised, hated, and oppressed people, with their own paranoias, you know, with their own insecurities, but also with their own rich heritages. And you have to keep in mind, see, for black people that we, ourselves, in some way, make ourselves into modern American peoples, beneath American democracy by appropriating Hebrew scripture.”

    All these takes on black-Palestinian solidarity would be so much more interesting if they recognized the obviously complicating factor of black-Jewish relations in the U.S.

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