Fifty years ago, Freedom Riders braved beatings and arson by supremacists intent on maintaining apartheid in the Jim Crow South. By challenging segregated transportation through nonviolent action, these African American and white activists set in motion a process that ultimately dismantled segregation. While the struggle for racial justice continues, at least this shameful chapter of formal racial discrimination is history.
Reflecting on this anniversary, Rep. John Lewis, one of the main organizers of the Freedom Rides, noted that they “changed America. Before the movement … people were afraid. … That fear is gone. People can walk, live, work, and play with a sense of dignity and a sense of pride.”
Fired by the same drive for dignity and pride, six Palestinian nonviolent activists boarded an Israeli settler bus last week to draw the world’s attention to the segregated transportation systems and apartheid conditions they endure living under Israel’s brutal 44-year military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem. Channeling Frederick Douglass, spokesperson Hurriyah Ziadah asserted, “Our rights will not voluntarily be handed to us, so we are heading out to demand them.”
While the activists were attempting to ride from the occupied West Bank into occupied East Jerusalem, nonviolently demanding their right to benefit from infrastructure created by Israel on their land, the Israeli military stopped the bus and physically removed and arrested the riders, who held signs reading “Freedom,” “Dignity,” and “We Shall Overcome.”
For the benefit of 650,000 Israeli settlers living in Israel’s illegal settlements in these occupied Palestinian territories, Israel has constructed — in violation of international law — a vast alternative infrastructure of roads and bus lines from which 2.5 million Palestinians are all but effectively banned. Palestinians are often confined to their village or town by hundreds of temporary and permanent Israeli roadblocks, checkpoints, walls, and other barriers that prevent Palestinians from exercising their right to freedom of movement. When Palestinians are allowed to travel by their Israeli occupiers, they must do so on circuitous, inferior roads to bypass Israeli settlement infrastructure, making even the most mundane trip a grueling trek. Separate is never equal.
Looking back on his achievements since the Freedom Rides, Rep. Lewis is not yet satisfied. “I would like to, before I leave this little piece of real estate, do a little more for the cause of peace. To end the violence here at home and violence abroad. We spend so much of our resources killing each other.”
To do a lot more for the cause of peace, Rep. Lewis and his congressional colleagues should end U.S. weapons transfers to Israel and redirect those resources to better uses at home. Between 2009 and 2018, the United States is scheduled to provide Israel with $30 billion in taxpayer-funded weapons, which will be used by Israel to perpetuate the apartheid system that the Palestinian Freedom Riders are challenging.
Not only do U.S. weapons to Israel entrench its illegal military occupation of Palestinian territories, allow Israel to expand its illegal settlements, thwart efforts to establish a Palestinian state, and injure and kill Palestinian civilians on a horrific scale (according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, Israel killed nearly 3,000 unarmed Palestinians during the 2000s); they also deprive our communities of funds for unmet needs.
Of this $30 billion, residents of Atlanta, many of whom are represented in Congress by Rep. Lewis, are expected to provide Israel with nearly $110 million of their hard-earned money to finance U.S. weapons for Israel. This same amount of money could fund instead each year more than 1,300 low-income Atlanta families with affordable housing vouchers, or provide more than 3,200 at-risk Atlanta school children with early reading programs.
Palestinian Freedom Riders are seeking their rights to be treated as equal human beings free to move about in their own land. They are not seeking the type of “charity” provided by U.S. economic aid that often functions to entrench the very system of Israeli apartheid against which they are protesting. A 2010 report by the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem found that one-third of roads funded and built by the U.S. Agency for International Development reflect Israel’s priorities for constructing an inferior and segregated transportation system for Palestinians.
Rep. Lewis helped end the immorality of segregation in the United States; half a century later he can also contribute to ending discrimination in Israel/Palestine by stopping U.S. weapons transfers that sustain Israeli apartheid toward Palestinians.