In the months leading up to the annual Palestinian Land Day commemoration on March 30, 2018, Palestinian activists living in the Gaza Strip came together to sketch out plans for extended peaceful and non-violent mass demonstrations near the fence demarcating the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. The protests would begin on Land Day, and end on May 15th, or what Palestinians refer to as al-Nakba (the catastrophe), the anniversary of the formation of the state of Israel on May 15, 1948. This campaign, dubbed the Great Return March, was designed to protest Israel’s longstanding blockade of the Gaza Strip and to assert the right of return of generations of Palestinian refugees to Israel, a demand that Israel has repeatedly rejected. The Land Day protests happen on an annual basis, but this year, with the United States’ decision to move their embassy to Jerusalem, the stakes are particularly high and the tensions especially elevated.
The grassroots activists that organized the campaign and Hamas, the Islamist group currently controlling the Gaza Strip, had repeatedly maintained that the protests would be peaceful. Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), however, had consistently held that the protests were simply a ploy by Hamas to provoke the Israeli military into attacking Palestinian protestors. On March 30, after the IDF stationed 100 snipers on the border between Gaza and Israel, the IDF opened fire and used tear gas on protesters. Reports indicate that some protesters began hurling stones, throwing Molotov cocktails, burning tires, and attempted to breach the security fence. On April 20, 2018, the New York Times reported that thirty-seven Palestinians had been killed and “hundreds more” injured. But by May 14, 2018, as Ivanka Trump stood beaming over an engraved pillar with her father’s name etched it at the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, thousands of Palestinian protesters stormed the border fence in Gaza. They were met with bullets.
On May 14th alone, approximately 60 protesters were killed by IDF sniper fire. At the time of this writing, the violence in Gaza has escalated with the rising death toll at over 100 with thousands more injured. The New York Times reported that May 14th reflected the single deadliest instance of violence in Gaza since the invasion of the Gaza Strip by Israel in 2014. To date, despite insistence that it was acting in its own self-defense against “known terrorists”, the Israeli side has not reported any injuries. Protests has resumed on a small scale, and the situation is changing rapidly.
Since the initial protests began on March 30th, American activists, including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have come to the Palestinians’ defense, expressing “horror” and calling for solidarity between American activists protesting against repressive government policies and the Palestinian struggle. On May 14th, the organization published another statement condemning the marked contrast between the scenes of celebration at the U.S. Embassy and the grief over the carnage in Gaza.
One group that has remained almost entirely silent, however, are Black American radical activists. This silence has persisted even as the death toll in Gaza reached over a hundred by May 15th. This silence persists even though these groups have increasingly maintained solidarities with Palestine and the plight of Palestinian refugees in recent years.
Organizations like Black Lives Matter (BLM), which came to national prominence in 2014 following the murder of Michael Brown, and Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a collective of over fifty Black and brown activist organizations, including BLM, have previously taken an anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian stance. Both platforms have unequivocally condemned Israel’s policies, arguing that they are settler colonial in nature and fundamentally unjust. M4BL was publicly condemned in 2016 after their six-point platform characterized Israeli policy as genocide and accused the United States government of complicity. In their first platform, which called for an end to the “war against Black people,” BLM expressed support for the global Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, similarly characterizing Israel as an “apartheid state” engaged in “genocide against the Palestinian people.” Despite these previous condemnations, neither of these collectives has put out a statement since March 30 on the current situation in Palestine. Only one Black activist organization, Black For Palestine (B4P), organized specifically for the purpose of promoting Black–Palestinian solidarity, has put out a public statement on their Facebook page.
The silence of these organizations on the latest events in the Gaza Strip is exceedingly unusual, and not just because of BLM’s and B4BL’s support of Palestine in the last few years. It is also curious because of the long history of Black activist solidarity with Palestine itself and the historic relationship between these movements. Before and after World War II, the Black American relationship with Palestine was ambivalent, vaguely defined, and often tinted with Orientalist and Zionist overtones. Although Black radical intellectuals like Malcolm X expressed strongly anti-Zionist ideas, connecting Jewish settlement in Palestine with European colonialism and capitalism as early as 1964, the turning point in Black radical consciousness was 1967. As historian Alex Lubin has argued, after the Israelis defeated Arab forces in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and annexed the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Golan Heights, and portions of the Sinai Peninsula, Black radical groups–including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party (BPP)–began to develop an “intercommunal political imaginary” linking Black Americans, Palestinian nationalism, and even the struggles of Black Arab Jews inside of Israel.
In forging this intercommunal imaginary, they made explicit comparisons between Israeli expansion, Palestinian struggle, and the anti-imperial politics then occurring in Southeast Asia and Africa. As journalist Kristian Davis Bailey has noted, this support continued into the 1980s, when attorney and human rights activist Adrien Wing was invited to attend the Palestinian National Council in Amman, Jordan. Wing gave a speech noting that Black Americans and the Palestinian people are linked in a struggle “symbolized by the U.N. General Assembly 1975 resolution which identified Zionism as a form of racism,” and then chanted, “Revolution! Revolution until victory!” Those connections continue to the present day, as evidenced by BLM and M4BL’s platforms. Black activists continue to engage with Palestinians, finding common ground over access to clean water, issues of police brutality, the annexation of land and property, unemployment and economic insecurity, and the experience of racism.
If the struggle for Black and Palestinian rights has already been identified as intertwined by these communities, then why the current silence? I have not reached out publicly to any of the organizations mentioned in this piece, and I am making the assessment and determination of silence based entirely on a lack of written statements and press releases available on their organizational websites and social media accounts. I could speculate as to reasons for this silence, but I am reluctant to do so based on the absence of information, and without the benefit of further documentation.
As historians, we know that silences are notoriously hard to read, and reading these silences may become even more difficult in the twenty-first century. Real-time tweets, constantly updated Facebook messages, and twenty-four-hour press releases in our constantly connected world give the appearance of institutional priorities, of obvious solidarities, and appear to make a statement about where loyalties lie. But the speed at which these statements are expected—often immediately—can often obscure underlying motivations. Black activists have always maintained a global outlook, linking their struggles to those of marginalized people of color everywhere. These linkages lead to the expectation, therefore, that they will necessarily continue to do so into the future.