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Palestinian Freedom Rides and the US Civil Rights movement

In last week’s Freedom Rides, West Bank Palestinians demanded equal access to settler roads and buses. Like African-Americans in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, they seek to call attention to an inherently oppressive system and demand that it be dismantled.

By Ben Lorber

The “Freedom Rides” held last week in the West Bank to protest restrictions on freedom of movement of Palestinians, have a complex and contested historical legacy. As Fadi Quran, a Palestinian youth activist who was one of the organizers, said: “This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in the US. Apart from disrupting the segregation and challenging the oppression imposed on us by Israel, we chose this form of direct action to highlight the similarities between the Palestinian struggle and the civil rights movement, to an American audience.”

Those who participated in the American Freedom Rides were United States citizens who sought to reform the country’s discriminatory policies. The Palestinian Freedom Rides, on the other hand, represent a people’s attempt to assert their rights in the face of a foreign military occupation. While the African-Americans sought to level the playing field with their white oppressors, West Bank Palestinians demand equal access to settler roads and buses. Like African-Americans, they seek to call attention to an inherently oppressive system and demand that it be dismantled. How deep is the connection?

John Lewis, the son of Alabama tenant farmers, joined the U.S. Freedom Rides when he was 19. He is now serving his 12th term representing Georgia as a Democrat in the House of Representatives. On January 20, 2002, in the midst of the Second Intifada, the San Francisco Chronicle published an oped by Lewis called ‘“I have a dream” for peace in the Middle East – Martin Luther King Jr.’s special bond with Israel’, in which Lewis emphasized Dr. King’s fervent belief that, as “ ‘one of the great outposts of democracy in the world…peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality’…. During the recent U.N. Conference on Racism held in Durban, South Africa,” Lewis continued, “we were all shocked by the attacks on Jews, Israel and Zionism. The United States of America stood up against these vicious attacks.”

The UN conference he referred to was held in September 2001. When participating countries attempted to accuse Israel of racist policies towards the Palestinian people, the United States, Israel and Canada withdrew. Lewis, by emphasizing that King “understood that a special relationship exists between African Americans and American Jews,” sought to deflect an implicit identification of the Palestinian with the African-American civil rights movement (the assertion of Kings Zionism, by the way, is questionable).

Henry Schwarzschild, executive of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in the 1950s, was arrested as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961. Once he was released, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote on his imprisonment forms, “Your courageous willingness to go to jail for freedom has brought us closer to our nation’s bright tomorrow.”

Schwarzschild’s own ‘bright tomorrow’ would see him write a series of increasingly Israel-critical articles for the journal Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. In response to the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut, Schwarzschild published an open letter announcing his resignation from Sh’ma, claiming further that “I now renounce the State of Israel, disavow any political connection or emotional obligation to it, and declare myself its enemy…the lethal military triumphalism and corrosive racism that inheres in the State and in its supporters (both there and here) are profoundly abhorrent to me.  So is the message that now goes forth to the nations of the world that the Jewish people claim the right to impose a holocaust on others in order to preserve its State.”

Fifty years after Schwarzschild’s Freedom Ride, his daughter Hannah, a Philadelphia-based attorney and Palestine Solidarity activist, publicly connected her father’s legacy to her own support for the 2011 Freedom Flotilla II mission, calling America’s ship, the Audacity of Hope, ‘a modern-day Freedom Ride’.

Another one of the original American Freedom Rider, the self-proclaimed ‘most arrested Rabbi’ Israel “Si” Dresner, was first imprisoned as a teenager in 1947 for protesting the British government’s refusal to allow Jewish refugees to immigrate to Palestine. Years after the Freedom Rides for the American civil rights struggle, Dresner was arrested in the 1970s for marching on behalf of Israeli citizens who refused to perform military service in the occupied territories, and has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians since the early 1980s.

Asked about the new Palestinian Freedom Rides in a phone interview, he says: “As long as they remain nonviolent, I’m all in favor…there are major differences [between the two Freedom Rides] of course…[but] the occupation has led to a buildup of hatred in Israel, the kind of hatred we call racist hatred- the kind that says ‘all Arabs are bad, all Palestinians are terrorists’…so the occupation has been a disaster for Israelis and for Palestinians.”

But Dresner generally expresses  a ‘soft’ liberal criticism of Israel, praying  for the reform of the state, which he ultimately believes is a morally just entity. Dresner, who today sits on the Executive Board of Meretz USA, told Rabbis for Human Rights in 2010 that “I’ve been a dues paying, card carrying Zionist for 68 years, and Zionism today has been corrupted and corroded…we have to correct it, we have to reform it to change the annexationist policies…”

Perhaps the Freedom Rider most radically opposed to the Zionist project was Stokely Carmichael. By the time Carmichael had become a Black Panther and changed his name to Kwame Ture, he was adamant, as he said in the 1980s, that “Zionism is the baby child and interest protector of imperialism in the Middle East…the Palestinian state belongs to the Palestinian people, this is a fact…I am antiZionist and will remain so until it is destroyed, because it is an unjust, illegal, immoral and racist system…the state of Palestine must be a secular state.”

The different opinions of these original Freedom Riders, scattered across the spectrum of the American left, reflect the complex relationship between the Palestinian struggle and the U.S. Civil Rights movement. How will America, and the world, perceive the Palestinian Freedom Rides in the future? Fifty years from now, will the Palestinian initiative be viewed, like the African-American Freedom Rides, as a civil rights milestone?’

Ben Lorber is an activist with the International Solidarity Movement in Nablus. He is also a journalist with the Alternative Information Center in Bethlehem. He blogs at: freepaly.wordpress.com.

A longer version of this post originally appeared in PalestineChronicle and Mondoweiss.

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    1. Max

      the Durban resolution that caused the US and others to withdraw equated Zionism itself with racism. make of that what you will, but please don’t pretend that it was merely the suggestion of racist policies toward Palestinians that caused the withdrawal.

      Reply to Comment
    2. You’re right, Max, my mistake. The gist of the Durban accusation struck deeper than accusing Israel of racist policies, it pointed to the Jewish state itself as intrinsically racist. It highlights another difference between the coordinates of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. and in Israel/Palestine- while some surface-level structural adjustments might suffice for the former, the latter needs a complete rewiring of the very foundation-stone of the country’s mythology.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Sinjim

      Actually, it was only a preliminary draft of the resolution that included bracketed language linking (not equating) Zionism to racism. This was not a part of the final draft.
      It’s really not that hard to imagine the US reacting the same way it did had the Durban conference simply called attention to racism against Palestinians, without linking it to Zionism.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Nonviolence requies a continuous micro social structure to, well, endure, if not succeed. Gandhi and King may turn events, but they do so on the shoulders of uncounted others, others sustaining action locally (some of these noted in the piece, above). I have had the impression for some time now that such “continuous” local action fails in the West Bank. I do not say this to decry West Bank activists. Rather, it seems that something is still missing, something which can sustain action after arrests, after repeated losses.
      Consider Gandhi’s salt campaign. The British had a monopoly on salt production. Gandhi asked people to make their own and ship it arround. At first the British refused to arrest Gandhi, seeing this, rightly, as a political trap. So they arrested those making and selling the illegal salt. Others immediately replaced these; they were arrested in turn. Again, replacements appeared, and were arrested. Finally, it seems, the jails became full. Then Gandhi was arrested.
      My point is that there was a local process the British could not stop. People watched how salt was made, how it was sold, distributed, and were ready to assume these tasks. This worked partly because of the high underemployment in India then. Social networks were a means of survival, and people would attach to the Gandhian salt networks.
      So I suggest, maybe just ask, that it is not the first series of Freedom rides, or the second, even third that one should focus on. What will produce the tenth? There has to be something in Palestinian West Bank life that can enable this, or it will die out. The Israeli occupation seems to be good at shorting out such processes. This is just conjecture, but it is all I have.
      One last note. The people selling salt back then got something for it. They supported themselves and others, a bit (“Gandhian social networks,” above). It is not true that nonviolence is completely selfless. To keep local action going, you need a return. That may lead to great instances of selflessness, but only because an admittedly selfish component keeps the engine running. I wonder if mass action in the West Bank has trouble sustaining itself because this self helping engine is lacking. I do not know.

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