The Complicated History Behind BLM's Solidarity With The Pro-Palestinian Movement
Updated June 12, 2021 at 8:39 AM ET
Many Black Lives Matter activists have taken to the streets across the U.S. in recent weeks to voice their support for pro-Palestinian causes, including calls against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the U.S.-Israel alliance.
The 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas last month — the worst in the region since 2014 — left at least 256 people dead in Gaza, the United Nations reports, and 13 people have died in Israel, according to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This latest round of violence has renewed a sense of solidarity with the pro-Palestinian movement among some BLM organizers in the U.S., where sympathy with the Palestinians in the broader conflict has been growing.
Behind the connection between the two movements is a complicated history of a fissure among earlier generations of African American activists that helped form what Zellie Thomas, an organizer with Black Lives Matter in Paterson, N.J., calls a "Black radical tradition."
"What we're seeing right now is nothing new," says Thomas, who leads a local chapter of the decentralized movement for Black lives that echoes prior advocacy for Palestinian rights by the Black Panther Party and Angela Davis.
In the 1950s, Malcolm X was among the first Black activists to speak out for the "Arab cause" in the Arab-Israeli conflict, beginning during his time with the Nation of Islam when he sometimes talked up antisemitic conspiracy theories. People of color in the U.S. "would be completely in sympathy with the Arab cause," Malcolm X said during a 1958 press conference covered by the New York Amsterdam News. "The only point is they are not familiar with the true problems existing in the Middle East." Later, Malcolm X went to Gaza and visited Palestinian refugee camps months before his assassination in 1965.
It helped set the stage in the U.S. more than two years later for Black Power activists to take a divisive stance after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 ended with Israel defeating Egypt, Jordan and Syria and capturing the West Bank of the Jordan River, Gaza and other territories. That marked the start of Israel's ongoing occupation of the West Bank and a major public rift among African American activists — many of whom supported the Zionist movement and the creation of the state of Israel as a homeland for Jews, including survivors of the Holocaust.
"We need to understand that Black identification with Zionism predates the formation of Israel as a modern state," says Robin D. G. Kelley, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles who studies social movements. "It goes back to the Book of Exodus in the Bible — the story of the flight of the Jews out of Egypt, which was not only a narrative of emancipation and renewal, but it was deployed by African Americans to critique American slavery and racism."
Most Black leaders welcomed Israel's founding in 1948, Kelley adds: "You look at the Black press. There was virtually no mention of Arab dispossession. Instead, they identified with European Jews as an oppressed and dispossessed people who survive near extermination."
But after the 1967 war, a different perspective was becoming more visible.
"It was a real turning point," says Michael Fischbach, a Middle East historian at Randolph-Macon College and author of Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color.
The book details a controversial article that was published, weeks after the conflict ended, in the newsletter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most influential organizations in the civil rights movement.
Titled, "The Palestine Problem: Test Your Knowledge," the SNCC newsletter listicle of numbered bullet points described Israel as an "illegal state" and Palestinian refugees as "victims of Zionist, British, and U.S. Aggression." It represented a reframing among Black Power activists of the Middle East conflict as part of a worldwide struggle against colonialism and imperialism.
"It became much easier not to see Israel as, you know, the brave little republic farming in the desert and instead see it in their view as a Western-sponsored interloper, a colonial settler state that had dispossessed a people of color," Fischbach says.
The 1967 SNCC article was criticized for its rhetoric and drawings that evoked antisemitic tropes, including a dollar sign inside the Star of David. The newsletter's editor insisted that image was supposed to symbolize the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, an alliance that Black Power activists argued made the U.S. government a common enemy for African Americans and Palestinians.
"The present discourse that criticizing Israel or Zionism is somehow antisemitic really does, I believe, date from this time period," Fischbach says, "because it caught so many people off guard in the strongly pro-Israeli community."
A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were among the leaders of the civil rights movement to condemn and distance themselves from SNCC, saying in a joint statement they were "appalled and distressed by the anti-Semitic article," The New York Times reported. They would later help start an organization, called Black Americans to Support Israel Committee, in part to counter statements against Israel, which had the backing of many Jews in the U.S. "Jewish Americans supported us, marched with us and died for the cause of racial freedom," Randolph said during a press conference announcing BASIC in 1975. "Black people cannot turn their backs on a friend."
In 1970, Randolph and Rustin organized a full-page ad to be placed in the Times and The Washington Post under the title "An Appeal by Black Americans For United States Support to Israel." Calling out the views of "a small minority of blacks," the ad questioned whether there is "an inherent solidarity of nonwhite people," such as between Black Africans and "nonwhite Arabs," and called for the U.S. government to provide Israel "with the full number of jet aircraft it has requested."
Other civil rights leaders — including John Lewis, Jackie Robinson, the NAACP's Roy Wilkins and the National Urban League's Whitney Young — signed on to say they "support Israel's right to exist for the same reasons that we have struggled for freedom and equality in America" and "believe that only peace and economic development can bring real justice to the Arab people."
Among some Black activists during this period, however, frustration with the gradual gains of the civil rights movement was mounting. SNCC's public criticism of Israel in 1967 came during what's been called the "long, hot summer" of unrest in U.S. cities.
"This is a moment when Black identification with Zionism as a striving for land and self-determination gave way to a radical critique of Zionism," says Kelley, the UCLA historian who also serves on the advisory board of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Nonetheless, in the decades since then, support for Israel has remained strong among many Black people. "The number of African Americans in solidarity with Palestine still represented a minority," Kelley says. "It was never the majority."
In recent years, organizers have been trying to rebuild momentum. Delegations of Black activists, including Kelley, have visited the West Bank to see how Palestinians are living. Kelley also appeared in a video released in 2015 by activist groups, such as the Dream Defenders, Black Youth Project 100 and the Institute for Middle East Understanding, to highlight Black-Palestinian solidarity.
"When I see them, I see us," the video's multiple narrators repeated, comparing the Palestinian struggle to the fight against police brutality in the U.S. It's a kind of comparison that's drawn pushback from some Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League.
Still, Kelley says social media helped forge a connection in 2014, when protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after police killed Michael Brown as war raged between Israel and Gaza, leaving more than 2,200 people dead, mostly Palestinian civilians.
"That connection really, in some ways, concretized a much stronger African American and Palestinian solidarity than I think we've seen even back in '67," Kelley adds.
How The Movement for Black Lives, the coalition of Black-led advocacy organizations, expressed that solidarity in 2016 set off another controversy. Its political platform called Israel "an apartheid state" and argued that by providing military aid to Israel, the U.S. is "complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people."
"That type of rhetoric tends to ring the fight-or-flight bells of most but not all — but most Jewish Americans," says Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University professor of Jewish civilization. "They'll either run away from the conversation because they find that type of oratory so over-the-top or so offensive, or they want to contest it."
Berlinerblau, who co-authored an upcoming book called Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue, says this kind of feedback loop has been on repeat since some Black activists started speaking out against Israel and for the Palestinians.
Still, social media images and video of last month's war between Israel and Hamas brought many Black Lives Matter activists in the U.S. to the streets, including Nee Nee Taylor, who attended a rally last month outside Israel's embassy in Washington, D.C.
"Palestine's struggle is our struggle," said Taylor, who had organized with BLM's D.C. chapter before forming Harriet's Wildest Dreams, a group that's also part of the movement for Black lives. "As long as we build power in collaboration and stand in solidarity with each other, I believe that all of us will get free."
Bethelehem Yirga, another demonstrator at the rally who co-founded a Black-led, D.C.-based activist organization called The Palm Collective, said the time many spent quarantining because of the coronavirus pandemic helped boost support for the Palestinians.
"That brought people time to really dig deep into what connects us," Yirga said. "And through that, the great awakening is showcasing that oppression is oppression across the world and that we're uniting against it."
It's a conversation from the Palestinian perspective that Thomas, the organizer with Black Lives Matter in Paterson, N.J., says has often been missing in mainstream media, and now, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited an international outcry, more people are speaking up.
"This conversation is really giving space to say that, 'You know, I do not agree with what's going on,' " Thomas says. "And we created a space where now it's OK to criticize Israel. And more and more people are able to do that more freely than even two months ago."
And the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Thomas adds, has not changed BLM's solidarity with Palestinians still living under occupation.
NPR researcher Julia Wohl and producer Connor Donevan contributed to this report.
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