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Finding a path to an enduring Black-Palestine solidarity

When I visited a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank with a group of activists from working-class Black neighborhoods in the United States, I was astonished to discover just how much it reminded me of home. But then it didn’t.

By Eli Day

The Dream Defenders delegation on a fourth visit to Palestine, 2019. (Courtesy of Eli Day)

The Dream Defenders on their fourth delegation to Palestine, 2019. (Erik Paul Howard)

Traveling with the Dream Defenders in Palestine is an exercise in conquering distance. In some sense, this is just literal. Many of us, predominantly organizers of color, have traveled from across the United States to join the Florida-based movement for racial and economic justice in its fourth delegation to Palestine, with stops across the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, Hebron, and beyond.

This experience also helped narrow what can feel like another insurmountable chasm: the feeling that each of us is marooned on our own island, facing unique challenges that people in other corners of the world can’t fathom. Political activists and organizers face the difficult task of bridging the distance that leaves so many of us feeling isolated, without erasing important differences along the way.

The purpose of the visit was straightforward: to deepen activists’ understanding of Israel’s illegal military occupation, and to strengthen the chains of solidarity linking activists in the United States and Palestine. The latter reflects the old lefty dream of internationalism — the belief that the fates of all the world’s working-class people are tangled up, and thus their struggles for justice should be as well.

Over the last 50 years, a triumphant right wing has taken a sledgehammer to that idea, doing a terrific job of “atomizing us,” says Zaina Alsous, an organizer with Dream Defenders whose own family was expelled from Palestine in 1948. As a result, the most fabulously wealthy and powerful are able to tighten their death grip on the institutions that shape our lives.

The response, Alsous stresses, must include a revival of people seeing “themselves as perpetually tethered to others.” Not as an act of “charity,” but one rooted in “your own liberation.” This isn’t abstract, she tells me: the only way to dethrone the powerful is for everyday people to “credibly and concretely explain that our enemies are the same,” and to take collective action against their shared adversaries in the private and public arenas.

The thrilling thing about a trip like this is that it provides a fortune of small moments, in the form of striking similarities that one can’t unsee, to recognize this intertwining fate.

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One Tuesday afternoon near Bethlehem, we find ourselves in the Dheisheh refugee camp. Dheisheh was established in 1949 to serve some of the 750,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed by the Israeli military during the 1948 war.

Along one of Dheisheh’s many sloping streets, a wall is ornamented with a string of names and faces, old and young alike. Hazem, our guide, explains that each of them was killed by the Israel Defense Forces, a name many Palestinians consider laughably Orwellian based on the organization’s actual record, which includes regularly rampaging through the camp in nighttime raids, toting military-caliber weapons and kicking in the doors of defenseless Palestinians. 

The wall is striking not because it feels like something from an unrecognizable world. Just the opposite it’s the type of crushing display of grief that unfailingly dots the landscape of America’s poor and working-class black communities, which many in our group, myself included, come from. I’m not surprised to find that others are also swept back to similar corners in cities they’ve called home, where the name or face of someone they’ve loved is immortalized across concrete.

“There’s so much resistance art…commemorating people that have passed,” says D’Atra Jackson, who lives and organizes in Durham, North Carolina as the National Co-Director of BYP (Black Youth Project) 100. It reminds Jackson of her hometown, Philadelphia, where she says a mural “was just put up of my best friend. She was killed in 2011…That’s the thing that we do, you know? We build altars. We put candles up. We place flowers.”

What Jackson describes, of seeing her own tragic experience reflected in the lives of other people, is how the path to solidarity — across borders, oceans, and other vast expanses — often begins.

Jackson traces her own awakening to the Palestinian struggle to 2014, when the Movement for Black Lives began drawing connections between “the occupation in Palestine and the war on Black America.” In 2018, Jackson’s BYP100 chapter drew that connection even closer.

Along with a web of other groups organized under the banner “Demilitarize Durham2Palestine Coalition,” they led a “campaign to disrupt the collaboration between our Durham Police Department and the Israeli Defense Forces,” making Durham the first city in the nation to ban police training exchanges with Israel. It was a clear statement of moral and strategic priorities: the forces that often make Palestinian life a dystopian hell of high-tech surveillance, harassment, and violence, and those that regularly devastate Black communities shouldn’t be sharing notes on how to do those things more effectively.

A Palestinian woman walks through the alleyways of Dheisheh refugee camp, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, August 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A Palestinian woman walks through the alleyways of Dheisheh refugee camp, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, August 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

This reflects a broader drift in popular opinion in favor of the Palestinian struggle for justice. In recent years especially, the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and other fiercely dedicated groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now, have raised awareness of Israel’s internationally-recognized crimes against an utterly defenseless Palestinian people.

And, it must be said, some have greater responsibility for unraveling this ugly chapter of history than others. Professor Robin D.G. Kelley puts it well when he explains that “…as a U.S. taxpayer, it’s imperative that I take a critical stance against a U.S. foreign policy that puts the whole world in jeopardy.” This follows another basic moral principle: responsibility for one’s actions. Or in the case of U.S. citizens, actions carried out in our names, like the country’s decisive military, diplomatic, and economic support for Israel’s horrific treatment of Palestinians.

For Amjad Iraqi, an advocacy coordinator with Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the swell of support from Black activists has “rejuvenated” a movement that’s been “brutalized and suppressed” over the years. He credits a growing “understanding that [Black Americans and Palestinians] are not completely different” for this deepened sense of camaraderie.

The similarities can feel staggering.

There are the obvious crimes against human dignity. Palestinians, both within Israel and the occupied territories, face an entire ecosystem of domination. Adalah has cataloged more than 65 laws that “limit the rights of Palestinians in all areas of life.” Inferior schools. Contaminated water. Shredding the right to protest and freedom of expression. Ubiquitous and humiliating restrictions on freedom of movement. Rampant and ruthlessly enforced residential segregation in places like Hebron. A vast and towering apparatus of surveillance, arrest, and detention.

It’s a nightmarish picture eerily similar to the one facing Black Americans. Palestinians have been hit with a social and economic sledgehammer with a simple goal in mind: establishing a majority with special privileges and a powerless minority permanently locked into second-class citizenship.

Connecting the dots in this way has served as the basis for countless instances of struggling people linking arms around the world. Writers, scholars and activists smarter than me have carefully explained that the preventable suffering of Palestinians bears striking resemblance to avoidable misery elsewhere. There are the Indigenous victims of settler-colonial projects in Anglosphere countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia. There is India’s cruel and unfolding occupation of Kashmir. The United States’s vicious treatment of Latinx people at the southern border.

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian man following a house raid in the West Bank city of Hebron September 20, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian man following a house raid in the West Bank city of Hebron September 20, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

These experiences need not be identical for one to conclude, as so many would at some point on our trip, “Yes, we’ve seen this before.”

But what happens when that’s no longer true? When certain aspects of what others are facing turn out to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen?

Over dinner one evening in Haifa, toward the trip’s closing moments, Marc Lamont Hill, a fierce and unapologetic critic of Israel’s cruel treatment of Palestinians, says that at some point “you realize that [focusing on similarities] is insufficient.”

“There’s something fundamentally different” between gentrification in the United States, for instance, “and actually losing your land” and “not even having citizenship.” It’s even more difficult “to compare what’s happening in Gaza to what’s happening anywhere in the United States.”

And indeed, the world. The Palestinians of Gaza, 50 percent of whom are children, live under a merciless siege on all sides, boxed into what David Cameron, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, called an “open-air prison” — leaving them no way out of a territory UN officials have deemed “unlivable.”

That unlivable territory is one where 97 percent of the water is “unsuitable for human consumption.” One where Israel places trapped Palestinians “on a diet” without letting them “die of hunger” and routinely subjects them to what its officials call “mowing the lawn,” a euphemism for blowing them away by the thousands.

Palestinian protesters climb over the separation barrier in protest of it, in the West Bank village of Bil'in, near Ramallah, Friday, Febraury 17, 2017. (Flash90)

Palestinian protesters climb over the separation barrier in protest of it, in the West Bank village of Bil’in, near Ramallah, Friday, Febraury 17, 2017. (Flash90)

“Sameness,” then, may kick open the door to empathy. But establishing the type of solidarity that can endure and overcome the most entrenched feelings of isolation requires something more.

There’s no magic bullet, but there are clear paths to action. Hill goes on to speak about pushing past the uncertainty that comes when you realize “I don’t know what this is,” to a deeper determination to “have solidarity through difference. I don’t need us to be the same,” says Hill. “I can understand [your experience] on its own terms.”

This reminds me that internationalism, at its best, offers a clear set of guiding moral principles to follow, making it easier to navigate moments of uncertainty. The one that echoes loudest here is the most foundational, the one that binds people everywhere hoping to expand human freedom as far as humanly possible: an unshakable belief in the basic right to determine our own futures.

“This is a kind of joint, collective venture,” Hill says. “We are not advocating on behalf of Palestinians, but partners with Palestinians for the right to self-determination…and recognizing that what’s happening there is not exceptional, but rather part of a larger global process of late colonialism and neoliberalism, and that what happens in Palestine is going to have an impact on the rest of the world.”

For many, this is what Dr. King meant by everyone being “tied in a single garment of destiny,” with “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism” weaving all of our fates together.

Ultimately, Alsous tells me, the Dream Defenders hope to make the colossal stakes of solidarity less gauzy and abstract and more touchable, with visible human consequences: “A frame that we’ve been using is ‘Solidarity is not a luxury.’ It’s actually our only option to create the conditions of a tenable future where our people can live.”

Eli Day is a writer and relentless Detroiter, where he writes about politics, race, and class. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, In These Times magazine, Vox, The Root, Playboy, the Detroit News and the Michigan Chronicle, among others.

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    COMMENTS

    1. The True Progressive

      Here’s the best way to achieve Black-Arab solidarity: The Arabs should marry their daughters off to the Blacks and have lots of beautiful biracial grandchildren!

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Thanks for this choice little racist nugget from you, this little trivial gift on our doorstep. It says more than you could ever realize about (1) all the issues of casual Jewish and non-Jewish racism explored by Eli Day, and (2) the issue framed by Marc Lamont Hill:

        “There’s something fundamentally different” between gentrification in the United States, for instance, “and actually losing your land” and “not even having citizenship.” It’s even more difficult “to compare what’s happening in Gaza to what’s happening anywhere in the United States.”

        Reply to Comment
        • The True Progressive

          Ben: What in the world is racist about what I said? In fact, if you have an issue with what I said then YOU are the racist!

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Troll.

            Reply to Comment
          • The True Progressive

            I am a genuine progressive who actually lives up to the name. I have spent decades of my life fighting for social justice! I purposefully phrase things in a way that makes it easy to weed out people with ugly racial bias. Sir, you have been exposed! Calling me a troll won’t change that!

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Like any leftist in the living room, no one is more intolerant than Ben. He is probably a fachist of thought. Anyone who does not think like him is bad. That’s leftism. While the suicidal theories he advocates from abroad for the State of Israel have failed everywhere.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @The True Progressive and Itshak Gordine:

            How amusing and how cute. Thanks for the supplying fresh amusing nonsense, the old nonsense was tiresome.

            We have here the spectacle of the self-fancying trick question maker and weeder of racists tripping himself up in his second sentence on this page with, in response to an issue concerning Arab Palestinians, racist categorizing language about “the Arabs” and “the Blacks.” The True Progressive is truly in way over his head here.

            In response to a mature, serious essay about alliance building between Black Americans and Palestinians, your contribution as a self-advertised “social justice warrior” and “true progressive” (dead giveaways about your intentions) is a trivial, trivializing, condescending, insulting, and at bottom racist toss off about how they should mate with each other (containing as a bonus a latent obsession you seem to harbor with genetics and bloodlines). Why don’t you ask Itshak to marry off his children to Palestinians in order to solve the conflict? Didn’t occur to you? The thought horrifies you? You would never be trivializing and condescending to Jews but its ok with “the Blacks” and “the Arabs”? You’re an intermarrying enthusiast except for Jews? Which is it, True Progressive and lifelong justice warrior and all around peace lover?

            This is nothing too original, by now a standard right wing gambit: “You’re the real racists not us!” Both these excited fellows want to pin me as a desthpicable “leftist” cartoon character and yet dwell on their reductive identity politics about “The Arabs” and “the Blacks.” They do not similarly loosely categorize and condescend to “the Jews” who are presumably alone worthy of being treated respectfully, but leave no doubt that Jewish identity politics are A-OK with them, it’s only the Palestinian and Black American identity politics they can’t abide. You can’t make this stuff up.

            And yet, The True Progressive’s Kahanist sidekick here hasn’t triggered our racism beagle’s oh so sensitive nose! As I said, thanks fellows for the fresh amusing nonsense.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Itshak Gordine:

            Re: “no one is more intolerant than Ben. He is probably a fachist of thought. Anyone who does not think like him is bad.”

            Your premise is wrong. It’s not a matter of “not thinking like” me as if it were merely a matter of tolerance in the good sense. It’s not a matter of simple “disagreement” on matters we can all agree to disagree on—which, if I assented to that premise in this context, would be a way of normalizing Kahanism as a respectable position. Which is what you would like me to comply with. I take umbrage at and therefore call out (1) Kahanist, Otzma Yehudit-channeling, Lehava-supporting racism, outward contempt for human beings cruelly oppressed—which as I said you are trying to normalize right here right now with your “why can’t we politely just disagree?” gambit. And (2) your deceit, your Orwellian disinformation habit. I think, from your cynical, conniving tribal settler perspective, you just can’t believe anyone has any real integrity about justice issues and universal human rights. (Anyone Jewish who appears to have such integrity must be a Euro-taking sniveling traitor in your view—you have expressed something akin to this many times.) You are disarmingly blunt about these justice and human rights issues: You just don’t care. Whether it’s the crimes in the territories or arms for brutal dictators elsewhere. You’ve said that many times. It’s like I’m an alien from another planet (“planet of the universal human rights valuers”) with strange ways you can’t imagine. Still, I would go a lot easier on you if I didn’t see you regularly drop heartless, degrading, contemptuous, dismissive, delegitimizing comments about people outside your narrow tribal/ideological circle. I won’t abide that, from anyone anywhere, hence my approach to you. You have a coldness that I find repellent. I’m not interested in normalizing that.

            Reply to Comment
      • itshak Gordine

        Of course not. For having lived in an Arab country, I can assure you that the Arabs have the greatest contempt for blacks. The great slave traders in time were generally Arabs ..

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          This noisome reply about “the Arabs” from the Egyptian-Swiss Hereditary Overlord and Sire of Third Temple Levite Priests in waiting, champion of Lehava racism, exemplar of “the Jews” who perpetrated this against black persons:

          Provide asylum seekers with heaters, rights groups demand in court
          https://972mag.com/provide-asylum-seekers-with-heaters-rights-groups-demand-in-court/101217/

          And the same exemplar of “the Jews” who has contempt for people like the Jewish lady holding the sign in the photo captioned “An activist with “Mothers Against Holot” holds a sign reading quoting from the biblical passage, “And you shall love [the strangers] as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” January 10, 2015, Tel Aviv.”

          An incomparable fusion artist of racism, hypocrisy and snide nastiness. Each time I think you can’t possibly outdo yourself you outdo yourself, champ.

          Reply to Comment
          • The True Progressive

            Resorting to ad hominem attacks as opposed to addressing the issue being raised. How unsurprising.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Ad hominem? I think you might want to get the lay of the land first. I’m just referring to Itshak Gordine Ha-Levy in the terms he has proudly asserted. Really. So what is it, Ha-Levy doesn’t want to take ownership of that which he has boasted? Did you check with him about this? As for “the issue being raised,” would you please tell me what it is about the racist treatment of those imprisoned in Holot, and the hypocrisy attaching to it in Ha-Levy’s case, that is off topic or “ad hominem”? Please explain. Or “purposefully phrase” it if you like. I’m eager to understand.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Benyamin

      Bedouins, to a great extent, and Palestinians, to a lesser extent, kept Black African slaves in ‘Palestine’ up to 1950.

      Slavery ended in Palestine after the formation of the State of Israel.

      Reply to Comment