"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." ~ James Baldwin
No system of power maintains itself forever and the fight for freedom knows no borders. Ideas such as these are uniting Black Americans and Palestinians.
Admittedly, their experiences are distinct. Through the presentation of parallels, however, the depth of the pain and grievances of the two peoples may become comprehensible.
African American solidarity with Palestinians is rooted in the realization that the state violence they experience is directly tied to the violence that Palestinians face daily in Israel, the Gaza Strip and in the Occupied Territories.
Racism undergirds US-Israel relations. The two countries reinforce each other in their commitment to controlling people and groups they see as hostile to their interests.
How else to explain America’s military and financial commitment to Israel, one of the richest, most technologically advanced, oppressive countries in the world. And what explains Washington’s validation of Israel’s apartheid laws, walls and military checkpoints throughout the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, its war crimes in Gaza and numerous violations of international law. And what accounts for Washington’s deafening silence and indifference to the suffering of the Palestinians.
The struggle for control of already inhabited lands is paramount in the histories of the United States and Israel.
European Zionists poured into already well populated Palestine, as did British colonists onto indigenous lands in America. Racism would inevitably be introduced into a state that was created for Jews alone; and in the American colonies, for white Christians only.
From their earliest days, the United States and Israel relentlessly pursued
land acquisition and settlement policies that led to the violent displacement of the
indigenous populations. The driving force behind these aggressive policies was the myth of election. American and Zionist colonizers believed that they were God’s chosen people and as such had God’s blessing to steal and occupy the land.
To justify the land theft, they developed the specious premise of nonuse, the "emptiness theory" – an empty land, ripe for the picking.
The ideology of domination produced a sense of entitlement and superiority among the Jewish population and among whites in America. Israel’s methodical, gradual annihilation of the indigenous Palestinian population has been labeled by some as ethnic cleansing, but should more accurately be described as genocide.
The 1948 UN Genocide Convention defined genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Acts of genocide include killing and causing serious physical or mental harm to members of a group.
Central to the Zionist plan to build a Jewish state in Palestine has been the ongoing effort to remove the Palestinians from their land, deliberately inflicting on them conditions of life to bring about their physical destruction.
Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has been trying to fulfill the 1969 claim of its fourth prime minister, Ukrainian-born Golda Meir, that "There was no such thing as a Palestinian; they never existed."
In America, the objective was to profit from the free labor of African Americans, while dominating every aspect of their lives. Racist stereotypes and caricatures were contrived to render Black Americans invisible and to deprive them of their history, identity and humanity.
The history of exploitation and domination of African Americans and Palestinians has led to institutionalized racism in both societies. Americans are beginning to awaken to the legacy of the country’s settler-colonial and racist past. While in Israel, violence against Palestinians and theft of their land continues unabated.
Many white Americans, Europeans and Israeli apologists were ruffled when in 1975 the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 3379 which determined that, "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination." Intense US-Israeli pressure led to its revocation in 1991.
Since the 1975 resolution, racism and ethnic cleansing by the Israeli state and Zionist settlers have increased systematically. After years of evasion, the global community has finally stated unequivocally that Israel’s racist practices against Palestinians is apartheid. For over 50 years, apartheid has been treated as a crime against humanity and prohibited under international law.
Apartheid in Israel mirrors but does not precisely replicate that of South Africa.
Divisions in Israel are based on religion and ethnicity, not skin color. National identity and privilege in Israel are based on religious beliefs. The government has been very careful to segregate and dominate material resources to preserve advantages and rights for Jews alone.
In January 2021, B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, issued a position paper titled, "A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid." They concluded that: "…the Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians."
In April 2021, Human Rights Watch, for the first time, referred to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories as "apartheid."
Jewish superiority was enshrined into Israeli law with the enactment of the 2018 Nation State basic law. The law essentially states that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people alone, and institutionalizes discrimination in favor of Jews in all areas of life.
Unlike Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Gaza, Black Americans have citizenship and the vote. Institutionalized racism, however, is explicit in the criminalization of Black Americans.
The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution states that all persons should enjoy due process and equal protection of the laws. However, tens of thousands of African Americans have been imprisoned and disenfranchised – made second class citizens – because they have been denied this right.
Palestinians and African Americans confront state sponsored violence in many forms, including police harassment and brutality, extrajudicial killings and mass incarceration. Denied resources, rights and over-policed both communities are in effect occupied societies.
On April 27, 2021, The International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States issued a report on racist violence perpetrated by law enforcement.
The commission concluded that the systematic killing by police of Black people constitutes a "prima facie case of crimes against humanity," that should be investigated and prosecuted under international law. The real problem, it judged, is the structural racism that is embedded in US policing and the legal system.
The report also determined that police violence traumatizes families and communities generation after generation.
African Americans are stopped, searched and arrested at rates higher than other racial groups. They are often targeted for low-level offenses or for minor misbehavior, which pose little or no harm to the community. It is not unusual for police to charge Black youth with loitering, trespassing or disorderly conduct. Minor traffic stops and other petty offenses have frequently escalated into deadly police violence.
A recent example of how young Black men become entrapped in the criminal justice system is the case of Andrew Brown, Jr., killed by sheriff deputies in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on April 21. At age 16, Brown was first charged with trespassing. From 1996 on he had accumulated 54 criminal convictions; seven were drug related, while all the rest were misdemeanors or traffic offenses. None could be described as violent offenses.
The Israeli government’s widespread, arbitrary imprisonment of Palestinians evokes the mass incarceration of Black Americans. B’Tselem reports that Palestinians have languished in prison without charges; and that each year, 500 to 700 Palestinian children are detained and prosecuted in Israeli military courts. The most common charge is stone throwing, which can carry a sentence of up to 20 years.
In the United States, unequal treatment based on race persists at every level of the criminal justice system from misdemeanors to executions. According to a 2020 Brennan Center for Justice report, 35 percent of African Americans have been formerly imprisoned, although they make up only 13 percent of the population.
A year after George Floyd’s death in May 2020, the families of 165 victims of police brutality have requested the UN commissioner for human rights to investigate police violence against Black Americans. They hope to hold the United States to the same human rights standard it demands of other countries.
This is not the first time Black citizens have attempted to enlist the help of the United Nations in their struggle to dismantle racism.
In 1951, the Civil Rights Congress engaged in a campaign to hold the United States accountable for creating the conditions that contributed to the premature death, disease and poverty of Black Americans. Their petition and report to the United Nations was entitled, "We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People."
Among the report’s conclusions was the statement that, "Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet….We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy."
Decades of US and Israeli policies have trapped Black Americans and Palestinians in segregated, poorly resourced and tightly policed communities, with little hope of escaping poverty.
After more than 73 years of conquest and forced removal, Palestinians now live on two small parcels – the West Bank and Gaza Strip – about 22 percent of historic Palestine, over which they have no real authority; with Gazans imprisoned in an impoverished, squalid strip of land.
Israel’s ongoing measures to colonize Palestine rarely receive media attention. From 1967 to 2020, Israel demolished an estimated 5,350 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. Recent attempts in 2021 to forcefully remove Palestinians from their homes in the Al-Bustan and Sheik Jarrah neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to make way for Zionist settlers and to build a biblical theme park drew national attention after fighting erupted.
Demolitions and evictions are not unknown to Black Americans. In the 1960s,
many Black and poor communities were demolished to build highways and other "urban renewal" projects that largely benefited the cities’ white citizens.
Linnentown in Georgia is a case in point. The city of Athens and the University of Georgia, under the guise of urban renewal, forced 50 Black families from Linnentown to build three campus dormitories.
The confluence of events in the summer of 2014 forged a bond of solidarity between Black and Palestinian activists: the police killing of Eric Garner in New York in July and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. in August and Israel’s massive, seven-week bombing assault on the Gaza Strip beginning in July of that year.
The militaristic police response to the Ferguson protests after Brown’s death was reminiscent of the tactics used by the Israeli Defense Forces in the West Bank. In Ferguson, demonstrators held up signs declaring solidarity with the people of Palestine, with one Black marcher waving a flag that said, "this is our Intifada."
African American-Palestinian solidarity has historic roots. In his 1964 essay, "Zionist Logic," Malcolm X called for the liberation of Palestine, writing:
"…The ever-scheming European imperialists wisely placed Israel where she could geographically divide the Arab world…."
In 1966, the founders of the Black Panther Party stated the party’s opposition to all forms of racism, Zionism, colonialism and imperialism and called for the decolonization of Palestine. Party leader Huey P. Newton wrote: "Israel was created by Western imperialism and is maintained by Western firepower."
The US media has failed to give historical context to the struggle of Black Americans and Palestinians and has failed to hold their oppressors accountable.
It took a 9-minute video of the murder and dehumanization of George Floyd for the world to see the structural racism embedded in American society.
Sadly, the countless images of Israeli soldiers and armed Jewish extremists injuring and abusing Palestinian men, women and children has yet to stir
condemnation from the global community. Rather, their suffering continues to be buried under the false narrative of a democratic Israel under siege.
Israel’s apartheid practices have grown ever more institutionalized and cruel.
And in the United States, the incidents of police brutality and the killing of Black citizens – Black men in particular – have become all too frequent and deadly.
The United States cannot claim to be a champion of human rights when institutionalized inequality and police violence against Black Americans persists. And it cannot be at the forefront of human rights when it has chosen the side of the oppressor.
The historic struggle of Black Americans for racial justice has inspired freedom movements around the world. Black and Palestinian lives are tied together by their opposition to state oppression and by their desire to build societies based on political and economic equality.
(c) 2021, Dr. M. Reza Behnam
Dr. M. Reza Behnam is a political scientist specializing in the history, politics and governments of the Middle East.