If Israeli Tactics in Gaza Are Legal, No One is Safe: Response to Michael N. Schmitt and John J. Merriam
In their forthcoming paper, The Tyranny of Context: Israeli Targeting Practices in Legal Perspective, Michael Schmitt and John J. Merriam examine Israel’s targeting practices against the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Their purpose is to scrutinize the context in which these attacks take place as well as the Israeli Army’s relevant legal standards regulating them.
Their findings are based on two visits to Israel in December 2014 and February 2015. During those visits, the Israeli Army granted them:
…unprecedented access that included a “staff ride” of the Gaza area, inspection of an Israeli operations center responsible for overseeing combat operations, a visit to a Hamas infiltration tunnel, review of IDF doctrine and other targeting guidance and briefings by IDF operations and legal personnel who have participated in targeting. The authors also conducted extensive interviews of senior IDF commanders and key IDF legal advisers. (3)
The methodological approach should raise, at least, a few red flags. Schmitt and Merriam are aware of their problematic methodological approach and write:
Although the approach might be perceived as leading to a pro-Israeli bias, the sole purpose of the project was to examine Israeli targeting systems, processes and norms in the abstract; no attempt was made to assess targeting during any particular conflict or the legality of individual attacks. (3)
In essence, they acknowledge that this entire paper examines what IDF lawyers say rather than what IDF operators do. At best – we should read it as a supplementary report to the Israeli Army’s war manual: it is just theoretical. That may be acceptable, but the authors go on to say:
With respect to the resulting observations and conclusions, note that the authors combine extensive academic and operational experience vis-à-vis targeting and therefore were in a unique position to assess the credibility and viability of Israeli assertions. The result was a highly granular and exceptionally frank dialogue. (4)
So what they tell us at first, that this paper is just “in the abstract,” they also claim is “granular and exceptionally frank.” Moreover, they claim that their combined experience enables them to assess the “credibility and viability” of Israel’s claims. This is an arguably impossible task if they do not assess Israel’s assertions about their practices in comparisons to actual practice. In fact, the next fifty-some pages read like an estimable apology on Israel’s behalf. The authors accept nearly everything their respondents say, and even what they decline to say, at face-value. The authors assert the authoritative nature of their findings although they do not interview a single Palestinian or Lebanese civilian who has been subject to Israel’s military attacks. They do not even bother to review the reports describing Israel’s operational practices. Several of those reports have alleged that Israel’s practices constitute war crimes. The words “war crimes” appear only twice in the paper: in the titles of articles they cite in their footnotes. Their exceptional reference to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International reports are primarily to support claims regarding attacks on Israel by Hamas or Hezbollah.
As my colleague and legal scholar on laws of war explained to me, he has become accustomed to reading such reports like an anthropologist. Indeed, the value of this paper is its insightful display of the production of knowledge on national security and counter-terrorism from the US and Israeli metropolises. While this may be reason to dismiss the paper all together, it is also precisely why the paper merits response. Schmitt and Merriam are hardly insignificant. Their tremendous body of scholarship and influence means that their interventions will be taken very seriously and will inevitably bear upon the ways we come to understand, justify, and/or reject the development of the laws of armed conflict. This short piece aims to use three select examples to highlight the methodological shortcomings that give rise to insufficiently tested findings that are emblematic of the paper. For the sake of specificity and fidelity to context, I will focus just on Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 2014, 51-day attack on the Gaza Strip.
1) “The single most important facet of warfare from Israel’s perspective is the proximity of the threat.”
In this passage beginning on page 5, Schmitt and Merriam discuss the implications of proximity of the threat emerging from the Gaza Strip. They assess that such proximity denies Israel the advantage of “expeditionary force” and, therefore, it must be prepared to fight “…within minutes, and sometimes within view, of their homes.” Conversely, this spatial reality affords Israel the benefit of interior position or, “the virtue of enabling one to concentrate forces quickly and maneuver them in any direction the situation may warrant.”
Schmitt and Merriam discuss the military implications of the Gaza Strip’s proximity but fail to address its fundamental nature: Israel’s military occupation. The Gaza Strip is the western-most frontier of Mandate Palestine that Israel did not conquer in the 1948 War, which it subsequently occupied in 1967. The coastal enclave is proximate because Israel established itself in the area already inhabited by native Arabs and who were promised self-determination under the League of Nations Mandate system. This history matters for two reasons.
Firstly, this history brings into play the right of a people under alien occupation and colonial domination to use force in pursuit of their self-determination captured in Article 1(4) of Additional Protocol I. This provides the legal justification for Palestinians to use force against Israel. Notably, the authors mention this right much later in the paper where they muse whether Israel’s opposition to Article 1(4) mirrors the U.S.’s position, that national liberation movements lack the resources and accountability mechanisms to fulfill the duties and obligations of international law. While they do not resolve this issue, they note,
Although not directly bearing on the issue of Israeli targeting, note that the Israeli position deprives members of national liberation movements of any belligerent immunity for their attacks on Israeli targets, including those that qualify as military objectives. (31)
They do not raise the obvious conundrum that Israel’s position simultaneously incapacitates the Palestinian population from using force, even with weapons capable of precision-strikes, while fully and arbitrarily subjecting them to Israel’s military prowess. In fact, they qualify this condition by claiming that it does not bear “on the issue of Israeli targeting” at all. Schmitt and Merriam note this without irony as they discuss the “tyranny of context.”
Secondly, the status of the Gaza Strip, namely whether or not it is occupied, impacts Israel’s permissible use of force against it. The authors say that Hamas has been in control of the coastal enclave since 2007 but fail to probe whether that control is tantamount to the cessation of occupation under the Geneva Conventions. While Israel has insisted that its occupation ended upon its unilateral withdrawal in 2005, numerous scholars (seehere, here, and here) as well as the Office of the Prosecutor and the Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Mission to Gaza have insisted that the occupation continues and remains consequential. In sum- if the territory is occupied, Israel has the duty to protect the civilians under occupation and in cases of unrest, it can use law enforcement authority to resume order. In contrast, if it can invoke self-defense in law (UN Charter and/or customary law) then it can resort to military force. Notably, since 2001 Israel’s High Court has insisted that it can apply both the law of occupation to govern the Occupied Territory as well as the law of armed conflict (LOAC) to quell unrest. (Can’an v. IDF Military Commander). By 2005, they find that LOAC supersedes Occupation Law. (Public Committee Against Torture in Israel v. The Government of Israel). This means that it can deny Palestinians the right to govern themselves and simultaneously use military force to thwart their resistance to military rule. Israel’s High Court has been in lockstep with its Government in maintaining a military occupation and deeming it a war against terror.
Context here is consequential. The Gaza Strip is not proximate to Israel by random fortune- but because Israel established itself in Mandate Palestine by war and literally removed and dispossessed its native Palestinian inhabitants. This conquest remains contested by Palestinians and that is the root source of ongoing conflict.What Schmitt and Merriam swiftly disregard as proximate asymmetric violence is in fact the function of ongoing and unresolved claims over Israel’s authoritative jurisdiction. Obscuring this context risks creating a new body of law intended to protect a power’s colonial holdings as it gives the impression that Israel is using force to defend itself when, in fact, it is using force to squash Palestinian claims and militarily resolve the dispute over its control. Simultaneously, Israel criminalizes all Palestinian use of force in response, or otherwise, as terroristic. The authors in/advertently reify this false and counterproductive narrative without scrutiny.
2) “…[C]asualty-aversion leads Israel to liberally apply force…”
In the same section on operational context, Schmitt and Merriam explain that the Israeli Army is a conscript force. The diffuse and shared nature of military service shapes Israeli values and thus how Israel engages in warfare. In particular, the public’s aversion to soldier casualties “…leads Israel to liberally apply force, particularly airstrikes and counter-battery fire, in order to ‘guarantee force protection.’” (8) This, the authors explain, also impacts Israeli sensitivity towards captured personnel and shaped the Hannibal Doctrine- the operational doctrine wherein the mission is to rescue a soldier from captivity at all costs including (fatal) injury to Israeli personnel.
While Schmitt and Merriam do not explicitly say so, the proposition above unduly shifts the risk of warfare from soldiers to enemy civilians; an incredibly controversial position. So much so that it occupied a series of essays and responses between the authors of the proposition and other legal scholars. Proportionality in ongoing hostilities demands that a belligerent’s military advantage outweigh the harm it causes to civilians and civilian infrastructure. Under Israel’s force protection rubric, its military advantage includes heightened security afforded to its soldiers. While all armed forces consider force protection as part of its military advantage, Israel’s proposal is radical in that it considers its soldiers lives to be more valuable than those of enemy civilians. Therefore, when assessing proportionality, it tolerates greater numbers of civilian deaths and injuries so long as that spares its soldiers from harm. The outcome of this almost ensures devastating results. At the most extreme end of this proposition is that a belligerent force could carpet bomb its adversary for the sake of preserving their soldiers’ lives, thus destroying those gains achieved by anti-colonial struggles and captured in Additional Protocols I and II. Colonized and occupied peoples would thus be subject to nearly unregulated military force. Consider the testimony of sixty Israeli soldiers who fought in the 2014 Gaza Offensive testified to very lenient rules of engagement including directives to “shoot at anything that moves.” These rules of engagement may very well reflect Israel’s radical force protection proposition. Notably, Israeli forces killed approximately 2,100 Palestinians, including 504 children during Operation Protective Edge.
Schmitt and Merriam do not take serious issue with this proposition. In fact, they do not mention the implications of Israel’s force protection until some 35 pages later in their section on Proportionality. There, they simply note their surprise and then their passive acceptance for the novel approach:
Both authors were struck by the weight of accorded in the proportionality analysis to the military advantage of protecting the civilian population and individual soldiers. Although they would not label it unwarranted in light of the unique operational context in which Israel finds itself, it was clear to them that avoidance of harm to the Israeli civilian population and the protection of individual soldiers loomed large in Israeli proportionality calculations. (45)
Among the examples they provide to demonstrate the application of this approach is Israel’s deadly operation in Rafah where its Army applied the Hannibal Doctrine. Schmitt and Merriam mention that Israel’s rules of engagement “…reportedly resulted in as many as 114 deaths in Rafah.” (46) They say nothing more about the significance of these civilian losses that may put Israel’s proposition into question. For example, they do not share that the Israeli Army admitted to sealing off a 1.5 mile radius so that no one could flee. Nor did they say that according to an Israeli officer, they released 500 artillery shells onto the area over the next eight hours, nor the fact that they also conducted 100 airstrikes over the course of two days. They do not mention that the commander of the Givati Brigade said to the Associated Press "That's why we used all this force…Those who kidnap need to know they will pay a price. This was not revenge. They simply messed with the wrong brigade."
Israel’s proportionality assessment has had horrifying consequences. Schmitt and Merriam discuss nothing of this and simply state that Israel factors in “rescue and survival” into its military advantage in ways that would tolerate greater collateral damage. One of the authors agrees with the Israeli Army’s approach and the other believes that this is only significant for determining “the military feasibility of precautions in attack…” (46) Neither author critically assesses the unprecedented harm this approach would impose on civilians caught in warfare especially those civilians caught in anti-colonial struggles.
3) “The civilians are hopefully frightened into dispersing.”
In their discussion on aerial targeting practices, Schmitt and Merriam discuss Israel’s “knock on the roof” policy. This is the practice of shooting a missile at a home or building in order to warn the civilians of an impending strike. The policy is highly controversial. The relatively small rocket causes damage. A rocket in and of itself, regardless of the size has the impact of causing shock and often paralysis. When used by Israel, the larger rocket usually makes impact 45 seconds to three minutes later not providing adequate time to flee. In some instances, no rocket follows and the small rocket can constitute psychological warfare upon Palestinians. The authors discuss none of these details. In fairness, they describe the technique as “controversial.” They write
The technique involves employing small sub-munitions that impact one corner of the roof and detonates as very small explosions that produce noise and concussion, several minutes ahead of the strike. The civilians are hopefully frightened into dispersing. Once they have cleared the target area, the IDF launches the attack. (17)
The authors go to great lengths to downplay the size and scope of the rocket. They implicitly suggest that the Israeli Army waits for the civilians to leave before launching the second and larger missile, and explicitly say so in their footnote. This has hardly been the case as indicated by the numbers of Palestinians killed in their homes. The most troubling part of this passage, however, is their comment that the “civilians are hopefully frightened into dispersing” indicating an ambivalence about the efficacy of the warning technique while simultaneously acknowledging its psychological impact of creating fear. The authors characterize this practice as legal because it is incidental to a legitimate military objective. In contrast, they concur with Israeli legal advisers that the fear wrought by Palestinian rockets is illegal, even if they do not pose a deathly threat, because they intend to cause fear. (45) Reference to empirical evidence undermines these findings. Based on their investigation, for example, the FIDH concluded that “rather than minimising loss of civilian life, Israel’s warning policy fomented massive forced displacement and spread confusion and fear among the population.” (23) OCHA reported
Throughout the conflict there was a real fear among the population that no person or place was safe, as evidenced by attacks on hospitals, residential buildings and schools designated as shelters. Psychosocial distress levels, already high among the population of Gaza, have worsened significantly as a result of the conflict.
Later Schmitt and Merriam claim that the technique is used exceptionally when other warnings have proven futile- this based solely on what their Israeli interlocutors have told them. They then claim, as a matter-of-fact, that “the technique is only used when the building has been converted into a military objective through use (such as weapons storage)” again based solely on Israeli intelligence. (49) A cursory reading of any of the reports and commentary conducted on Israel’s warning system, or lack thereof, would provide a completely different assessment. (See e.g., United Nations, Amnesty International, B’tselem, Al Mezan, Human Rights Watch, FIDH).
The authors defend the fact that Israel does not always afford adequate time to flee. They explain this situation typically arises
…when the enemy is using the warnings to either know when and where to use human shields or take measures to prevent the civilians there from leaving. Such practices may leave only a narrow window of opportunity to strike before the number of individuals likely to be harmed in the attack rises. Therefore, a strike soon after a warning may in certain circumstances be the best means for minimizing civilian injury even when it does not afford civilians a great deal of time to leave or take shelter. (49)
Schmitt and Merriam are making an absolute proposition: when Israel forces believe necessary to achieve their military objective, they must strike immediately even if civilians do not have time to flee or a place to shelter. They implicitly suggest that in such a case, Israel is relieved of its duty to assess whether such harm is proportional because it issued a warning, essentially giving its forces free reign to use force. Had the authors considered operational practice it may have included a discussion of the United Nations’ Board of Inquiryfindings. That investigation concluded that Israel indeed struck seven UNRWA schools, several providing shelter to civilians, and none were storing weapons or militants. Israel responded that it was investigating these claims. How does this operational practice recalibrate the authors’ analysis? How can we take their findings seriously if they are not even considered?
The paper is rife with similar examples: explanation/apology for Israel’s rules of engagement without examining their application in operational practice. Schmitt and Merriam’s omissions merit much deeper scrutiny and engagement. Just scratching the surface reveals their flawed methodological approach and the inadequate engagement with the implications of their findings. In the best-case scenario, readers will approach their essay like a supplement to Israel’s Army Manual and read it with leisurely interest. In the worst, and more likely scenario, this work will significantly bear upon the production of knowledge regarding national security and humanitarian law and have fatal and devastating consequences. This does not only bear upon Israel’s wars but especially those waged by the United States against both state and non-state actors. For this reason, we should treat this essay with the alarm it merits.
Originally Published on Jadaliyya on 18 June 2015
Moderated by Noura Erakat
In the course of resilience against the merciless edge of state violence in the summer 2014, protestors in Ferguson held up signs declaring solidarity with the people of Palestine. In turn, Palestinians posted pictures on social media with instructions of how to treat the inhalation of tear gas. Organically, an analysis emerged highlighting similarities, but not sameness, of Black and Palestinian life, and more aptly, of their survival.
But before the violent and tragic events of summer 2014 unfolded, a critique of anti-Black racism among Arab communities in the United States and the Arab world had emerged putting into question the “natural” solidarity between Palestinians and Blacks. This often played out in competing claims in regards to Black solidarity and legacies of Black liberation struggles by Zionists and Palestinians, who among themselves are not necessarily in agreement. In turn, Black writers and activists responded to those claims withrejection, ambivalence, or affirmation based on different normative values. These interventions seemed to speak past one another for lack of a singular point of departure. Does the question of Black solidarity turn on a political commitment to combat white supremacy? Can that be done, even if victims of supremacist violence knowingly, or unknowingly, reify anti-blackness? If not, what is the proper response? If so, what is the proper response?
At the core of these exchanges is an unequivocal recognition of the value of Black solidarity and Black liberation legacies that has not been commensurate with an appreciation for ongoing struggles against structural and literal violence afflicting Black communities the world over. This dissonance thus embodies the risk of reproducing anti-blackness and occluding responsibility for it. In so doing, the critique has also given rise to interesting questions about race, race-formation, and racism in the Arab world. Could a US-based anti-racist framework be applied indiscriminately across space? Does such a question fundamentally misunderstand the thrust of anti-blackness? What could be gained by clarifying the meaning of anti-blackness, often read as a stand-in for one form of racism rather than a framework that informs how the nation-state comes to embody technologies of power, coercion, and violence that determine death and the possibilities of life? By extension, and based on these competing understandings, how does a lack of critical engagement with the meanings of solidarity also risk reifying anti-blackness? And how could a politics committed to liberation beyond the possibilities of state reformation serve as a corrective?
The controversies engendered by discussions of anti-blackness, Israeli settler-colonialism, and Black-Palestinian solidarity, have turned on multiple and interchanging axes that often obscured what was at stake. As a result, the discussion seemed to be an effective iron rod for tension but never a productive space for reflection, self-reflexive analysis, and, ideally re-orientation. The inclination amongst the most committed and strident activists has been to bury the conversation or have it in private spaces to avoid the incendiary and unintended outcomes of critical inquiry mediated by social media. In our time of the Black Lives Matter movement and the continued struggle for decolonization and settler decolonization, this Roundtable brings together public intellectuals to bring criticism, in the liberatory sense that Edward Said theorized the term, to bear on interconnected struggles.
Beyond scholarly inquiry, this conversation is happening organically across the country and globe among organizers building a movement daily. In the streets of Ferguson, in the 250-mile March2Justice from New York to DC, on the several recent delegations to Palestine (see here, here, and here), at the Color of Violence 4 conference in Chicago, on university campuses in Occupied Palestine, activists are having these discussions with one another and, sometimes, answering these questions in deed rather than in words.
This Roundtable seeks to highlight those conversations and synergies in an attempt to better understand what a commitment to anti-blackness should look like in the Palestinian solidarity movement and among Black-Palestinian solidarity efforts. The questions posed to the respondents deal primarily with the framework of anti-Blackness and its relationship to Palestine and solidarity without adequately interrogating the ways in which anti-Blackness manifests itself among and between Black and Palestinian communities. The respondents include scholars and activists who are often one and the same. Some of the responses help elucidate relevant theoretical frameworks, others use ongoing scholarly research to help provide historical depth and nuance, while others emphasize how practice informs these inquiries. Their responses are hardly uniform, as they reflect different disciplinary approaches and political frameworks for understanding anti-blackness, the Palestinian question, and solidarity, respectively. The Roundtable, therefore, does not point to a definitive answer. Instead it reflects the myriad approaches to the conversation to help provide a point of departure in ways that spark more questions, more responses, more provocation, and engender more spaces in which to grapple with them, including on these pages. It is our hope that this serves as a useful pedagogical and political instrument within the classroom and in the streets where the battle for justice and emancipation rages.
Roundtable Participants (listed in alphabetical order):
Rabab Abdulhadi is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies/Race and Resistance Studies and the Senior Scholar of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative, at the College of Ethnic Studies, San Francisco State University. Before joining SFSU, she served as the first director of the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan, Dearborn.
Ahmad Abuznaid is a lawyer and founding member of the Dream Defenders and co-organizer of 2014 delegation of Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and Dream Defenders representatives to Palestine.
Ebony Coletu is an Assistant Professor of English at Penn State University. Formerly she taught in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is an editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com, Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Justice.
Che Gossett is an archivist and activist who works to excavate queer of color AIDS activist and trans archives. They have contributed to Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex and BCRW’s Scholar & Feminist Online and Queer Necropolitics.
Sarah Ihmoud is a doctoral candidate in social/activist anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a Palestinian American Research Center Fellow, a Wenner-Gren Foundation Fellow, and is currently conducting dissertation research on sexuality, intimacy, and settler colonialism in Palestine/Israel.
Robin D.G. Kelley is the Distinguished Professor of History & Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in United States History at UCLA. Kelley is the author of seven books including Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (The Free Press, 2009).
Aja Monet is an internationally established poet, performer, singer, songwriter, educator, and human rights advocate of Cuban-Jamaican descent.
Donna Murch is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
Nadine Naber is an Associate Professor in the Department of Gender and Women's Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago and a member of the Diaspora Studies Cluster. She is the author of several books including, Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism (NYU Press, 2012).
Linda Sarsour is a Palestinian American, racial justice and civil rights activist. She is the Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York and co-founder of Muslims for Ferguson.
Jared Sexton is an Associate Professor and Director of the African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism (University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
Nadera Shalhoub is the Lawrence D. Biele Chair in Law at the Faculty of Law-Institute of Criminology and the School of Social Work and Public Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of several books including a forthcoming work entitled Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
1) What are two or three pressing questions about anti-blackness Black-Palestinian solidarity?
i) What habits of speech and practice can help shift the conversation of shared struggle from the metaphoric uses of blackness as the sign of disposability to linked fate that focuses on the interdependence of segregating, flattening, threatening institutions that distort our existence?
ii) How do we avoid bracketing blackness when it leads to contradictions in practice/analysis?
i) If we envision anti-blackness as a permanent structure of Black enslavement, and settler colonialism as a permanent structure of native elimination, what are the conditions of possibility for black and native survival and life?
ii) How might we begin to construct a theoretical perspective that, on the one hand, recognizes the pitfalls of the "people-of-color" paradigm (e.g., Sexton 2010) and on the other, is able to conceive of a set of potential political solidarities based on Black/Palestinian relationalities? Is there a basis for political solidarity between the Slave and the Native that does not mask complicity with structures of anti-blackness?
iii) If we analyze Israel as a settler colonial state, and thus, Palestinians as an indigenous peoples, how do we envision settler decolonization in terms that do not recapitulate to the very logics of white supremacy formative of the Israeli state that are inflected by anti-black animus; that is, what alternative political imaginaries might form the basis for an alternative epistemology?
2) What is Anti-blackness and how does it bear on the work of all organizers committed to combatting racialized violence regardless of context?
Anti-blackness is the tacit or explicit use of Blackness to mark what is undesirable, disposable, and not valued on a sliding scale of humanness, and it includes all of the pleasures and subtle benefits of that marking for those who do it. The impulse to deny anti-Blackness as a lived encounter and socially legitimized practice gives some clue about its acceptance and the work that goes into protecting it. Anti-blackness emerges from a robust set of interlocking legacy institutions that legitimize segregation and black invisibility, weaponized visibility, and ultimately black death to secure and prioritize white supremacy, renamed as a drive for ‘safety’. Rather than focus on a crisis of empathy for black death, anti-Blackness probes our political imagination to historicize the ways black disappearance, torture, devaluation, and the racialized optics of terror congeal into inevitability. As a result anti-Blackness reframes the question of how we die. Instead of viewing black death as a demographic issue that affects a particular population, it signals the importance of blackness as a predicate that releases those who kill black people from responsibility.
The challenge organizers face in addressing spectacularly racialized state violence and vigilantism, is to resist the urge to metaphorize slain black bodies as the master sign of disposability. We can then think of anti-blackness as a way of naming the operating assumption that Black people can be killed with impunity and instead of reinforcing that as an enduring fact, offer a broader prompt to reimagine our political futures beyond an exclusive claim to humanness premised on the disappearance or marginalization of blackness.
Women of color have been at the forefront of some of the most transformative “joint-struggle” work reflecting an analysis of the intersectionality of multiple oppressions and multiple struggles—recent examples include the Southwest Youth Collaborative’s (SWYC) work on Juvenile Justice and post-9/11 related war and racism; the interconnected anti-military recruitment campaign and Palestine Points of Unity initiated by INCITE!; the Women of Color Resource Center (WCRC) integration of Palestine solidarity within the organizing and activism for the World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001; the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association’s dialogue on difficult issues between Black and Arab women in Seattle in 1994 and their multiracial coalition building related to Palestine, the Philippines, Iraq, indigenous struggles, the prison industrial complex, and more with ADC SF(now AROC) in the Bay Area in 1999 and 2000; and the recent joint struggle against Loyola university’s administration between Black students, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Middle East Student Association.
There is a lot to be said about what can happen when movements place women of color, queer and transgender people of color’s life struggles at the center of struggles aimed at keeping people alive. At the least, masculinist paradigms that require diminishing difference and uniting and fighting are replaced with commitments to enlarging the frame for how we understand oppression; dismantling multiple oppressions and leaving no one behind; and prioritizing all forms of human dignity. As Black Lives Matters makes more clear than ever, the outcome is broader movements for dismantling many forms of racism, occupation, classism, and heteropatriarchy and their distinct intersections in different contexts.
Bill Fletcher Jr.
European colonialism introduced “race” as a method of oppression and social control, with the prototype being found in Spain and the English conquest of Ireland. Color was introduced during the slave trade as a means of creating an identifiable hierarchy to reinforce the system of colonialism and capitalism. "Black" has been used by various societies at various points to suggest a lower place in the socio-economic hierarchy, frequently associated with those who worked outside in the sun getting darker compared with those of an elite class who were inside. But "blackness" as a negative category associated with suppression and oppression is directly linked to the slave trade and colonialism. European colonization of much of the world introduced this particular variant on "color," thereby reinforcing prejudices through the construction of a system of oppression. Further, "black" is not simply a color. A very dark-skinned South Asian is not considered "black" by the oppressor in the United States, whereas a light-skinned African American is considered "black."
In the alternative, the late Steve Biko suggested a positive understanding of "blackness" that related to the conscious appreciation of the need to both take pride in one's heritage (as part of a racially oppressed group) and to engage in the struggle against racist and national oppression. This definition is incredibly important in that it helps us to understand how a South Asian in Britain or in South Africa or in Guyana will declare themselves to be "black" even if they are not directly of African origin. "Blackness," in that sense, takes on a progressive, political and internationalist framework.
Anti-blackness is a racial logic foundational to modernity and the liberal humanist framework, and thus, the very formation of the modern nation-state, shaping contemporary formations of race and gender regardless of socio-political context. Theorists of anti-blackness reveal that black intimacy with death is modernity’s condition of possibility. Despite the legal end of slavery and the formal colony, black captivity and social death endure in other forms, both discursively and as a political project, as “slavery’s afterlife”. The imagination of the white polis, and the paradigm of liberal civil society with its attendant discourses of rights, freedom, and law, relies on the exclusion of blacks altogether or their availability for gratuitous violence and premature death. Moreover, the symbolic non-value of blackness energizes the entire spectrum of human subject positions and thus, anti-blackness is the condition of possibility for the “universal subject,” or the “human”.
In this sense, then, anti-blackness is a provocative reframing of the black ontological condition that opens up our understanding of humanity as a structure of antagonisms. Moreover, the durability of blackness as a category equated with racial slavery and social death that transcends space and time, the impossibility of integration and thus, black life in the modern nation-state, raises a pointed critique of identity-based politics predicated on a politics of recognition, forcing a radical reimagining of liberatory projects for social change. Ending racial slavery would entail destroying the very category of the human, a relinquishing of desire for integration into the nation-state, a rejection of democracy itself and a radical break with Western epistemology as we know it.
3) How would you define Black-Palestinian solidarity? Is that an appropriate way to describe solidarity between Blacks in the United States invested in anti-racism work and Palestinians, generally, committed to anti-Zionism? Is there an optimal way to describe organic movement work dating back decades to the present as Black-Palestinian solidarity?
There is a sense in which we might understand “the essential blackness of the Palestinian struggle” as the interminable radicalization of every radical movement worthy of the name. I draw this phrase from a 2013 op-ed published in The Electronic Intifada by noted Palestinian American writer and activist Susan Abulhawa. There are various ways to read this phrase to be sure, too many to discuss in the present forum. But as a modest contribution, drawn from the history of express political solidarity with Palestine from black movements throughout the world, I would affirm, before specifying, what I think is the obscure truth indicated by the author of the critically-acclaimed novel, Mornings in Jenin. In a moment of friction with the editors of EI, it appears the article was titled against Abulhawa’s stated wishes: “The Palestinian Struggle is a Black Struggle.” The hope of the editorial decision was an expanded readership generated by provocation; the fear of the authorial objection was a broad misunderstanding running the risk of appropriation. The question raised thereby was symptomatic: how to tell the difference between solidarity, slight, and seizure? More precisely, the challenge is to understand a solidarity that seems to persist, in principle and in practice, despite problems of asymmetry or even antagonism; a solidarity that does not simply join the struggle, but exceeds it from within; a force of solidarity that is in the struggle more than the struggle itself?
The interconnections between Black and Palestinian struggles have been well established. Consider the framing that asserts these are “similar struggles” based on glaring evidence --about African American and Palestinian experiences with similar forms of systematic state violence, military occupation, and mass incarceration or about how many U.S. police officers brutally killing African Americans trained with the Israeli military. But asserting either “similarity” or a “shared enemy” (capitalism, imperialism, racism, etc.) cannot sustain long-term Black-Palestinian solidarity and has (intentionally or unintentionally) produced “transactional” forms of solidarity. In a U.S. context where simply asserting a Palestinian narrative (of dispossession, struggle, etc.) is a battle of its own, the transaction model establishes “solidarity” in exchange for legitimacy or visibility. And many Palestine solidarity activists have struggled with and against the opportunistic short term move of reaching out to Black liberation movements in ways that do not do much more than legitimizing our struggle or broadening our base.
This question reminds me of the work undertaken to declare Zionism as a form of racism in U.N. Assembly Resolution 3379, which was pivotal and complicated. The subsequent effort waged by Israeli and American government officials as well as proxy actors to undo the resolution (formally retracted in 1991) definitely demands critique, and we can do that while recognizing that a commitment to anti-racism does not necessarily capture the scope of anti-Zionism. Nor does it account for the varied invocations of Zionism within certain traditions of anti-racism work that have imagined freedom variously through the lens of settler-colonialism or remigration to an ancestral homeland.
Recently, I traced the movements and recruitment rhetoric of an ancestor who grew up in the Gold Coast, Alfred Charles Sam, who later collaborated with African Americans to facilitate resettlement in what is now Ghana. They invoked ‘African Zionism’ heavily throughout the movement (1911-1917). However, it eventually collapsed under the weight of questions about land ownership, local labor compensation, business development models, colonial taxation versus exemption, and indigenous rights. Later, waves of Rastafarian migration to Ghana also invoked a kind of Zionism without displacing or colonizing indigenous resources, but that does not rescue Zionism or 'blackwash' the concept. It just encourages us to look more closely at the negotiations that unfold in the wake of migration. How are desires and debates about land, distant kinship, religion, and the politics of entitlement resolved?
How can that history inform conversations within faith communities that rhetorically deploy Zionism in ways that seem to contradict the politics of solidarity? To what extent can solidarity be reframed as the work undertaken to forge connections even in the midst of contradictory commitments? And when do the contradictions nullify, or rely uncritically on a history of solidarity that has not been maintained? The answers may shift but the practice of relentless asking may help reimagine the roots/routes of Black-Palestinian solidarity.
“As a slave, the social phenomenon that engages my whole consciousness is, of course, the revolution. The slave -- and the revolution. Born to a premature death, a menial, subsistence-wage worker, odd-job man, the cleaner, the caught, the man under hatches, without bail--that's me, the colonial victim.” -- George L. Jackson,Blood in My Eye
I discovered in the course of researching George L. Jackson’s life, that the anthology of Palestinian poetryEnemy of the Sun by Naseer Aruri and Edmund Ghareeb was found in his cell after his assassination by prison guards. Jackson was so moved by the poem “Enemy of the Sun” that he wrote it down on a piece of paper. The Panthers in their eulogies for him thought it was written by Jackson – we can recall June Jordan -- “born black and now become Palestinian” -- however was authored by the Palestinian poet of resistance Sameeh al Qaseem. Yet as a social text, the poem transcends the domain of authorship, because it performs as poetics of prison abolitionist solidarity, a symbol of joint struggle and resistance to colonial prison regimes, anti-black racism and occupation, it traveled from Palestine to San Quentin. The book Enemy of the Sun was published by Drum and Spear Press, by three black women who were members of SNCC in 1969. As an abolitionist text, with an introduction that compared the Black and Palestinian liberatory poetics, it intended that this particular anthology of Palestinian resistance poetry find its way through the supposedly impenetrable walls and cages.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
I would speak of African-American/Palestinian solidarity. While there have always been Black internationalists, e.g., Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Dubois, who would speak out on the conditions of the colonially oppressed, African American/Palestinian solidarity took a turn after the June 1967 war. It is at that point that elements in the Black Power Movement (a component of the larger Black Freedom Movement), spoke out vocally against Israeli aggression and in favor of Palestinian rights.
African American/Palestinian solidarity has always been a feature of the work of the post-1967 Black Left in the United States. Whether one is speaking of the Black Panther Party, Republic of New Africa, or multi-racial/multi-ethnic leftist organizations that had roots among African Americans, it is this group that took the lead in building various forms of political solidarity. To a great extent this was provocative and propagandistic in that there was an effort to shift and organize public opinion in favor of Palestinian rights.
I would qualify this solidarity by saying that Palestinian and Black radical politics entail a commitment to struggling against racism, Zionism, Orientalism, Islamophobia, and all forms of structural inequalities, based on gender, sexuality, class, age, ability, citizenship, etc. I am arguing here against exceptionality and identity politics that oftentimes suggest that racism only affects Blacks who should fight against it; only Palestinians are affected by Zionism and should therefore struggle against it or only Indigenous people are impacted by US settler colonialism and must dismantle it. It is as if Blacks, Palestinians and Indigenous people were special interest groups. This is about principled and strategic alliances by organizers and scholar-activists who share similar politics and worldviews.
Black-Palestinian solidarity has had a long and rich history that we can trace back to much earlier times than the recent expressions in Ferguson, Baltimore, Gaza or Nazareth. This includes by Malcolm X, Robert Williams, Black Panthers Party, SNCC, Patrice Lumumba Coalition, the African and Caribbean Resource Center, the December 12th Coalition, and the 1968 Student Strikers at San Francisco State University, to name a few. The same applies to Palestinian solidarity with Black Power movement, including support for Mohammad Ali in his defiance of the US military orders to fight in Vietnam and the letter sent by Palestinian freedom fighters who were incarcerated in Israeli jails to Angela Davis, who was imprisoned at the time in US jails.
I think solidarity is active listening and creates empathy manifested in praxis. Genuine solidarity is radical love and demands of us the decolonizing of our imaginations, dismantling our programming. If we are talking about Black-Palestinian solidarity then we are talking about how those who hate us, as manifest in a logic of disdain and dehumanization, are organized and partnered in our oppression. It means we must create less “safe” spaces and more spaces of risk, spaces where we confront our internalized pain and suffering, where we make healing a necessity by personal transformation. I would define Black-Palestinian solidarity as a unified force to combat hatred and anti-blackness. When I speak of blackness I speak of an other-ing that racism has coopted in order to rationalize a deep hatred for the difference between us. Blackness is an all encompassing entity with dimensions far deeper than a mere visible color, it is the soul of any and every movement and so Black-Palestinian solidarity is not something specific to Black and Palestinian people but is simply solidarity. Solidarity is that guttural feeling of “we are in this together” and it demands that we make change towards our future a necessary demand in every area of our lives. It requires a perspective that recognizes our interconnectedness.
There is always a moral or ethical reason to stand with the oppressed, and many do so accordingly, but for true solidarity to be present there must be a common goal, for Blacks in the US and for Palestinians, we are fighting systems of dehumanization which both invoke and advance white supremacy. I often think of the heavily cited James Baldwin quote “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time”.
Although we can make argument for the moral, strategic, and passionate justification for this solidarity, there are Palestinians who are anti-black, it is difficult to name a community that is not since the subjugation of Blacks is definitive of U.S. society. Some are anti-black because of their intention to assimilate into whiteness; other factors add into this dynamic as well. In January 2015, the Dream Defenders organized a delegation to Palestine. In part, the purpose was to expose oppressed communities in the U.S. to the Palestinian struggle, and its relation to, and implications for, life in the heart of the U.S. empire. It was also also a moment to show Palestinians that these communities identify with our struggles. None of our communities can do this alone, so Palestinians should know that there are those in the belly of the beast who are just as hungry for true liberation.
In some ways, partially because of my age but also because of my scholarly focus on Black Power and Black Liberation of the postwar era (1940s-1970s) I view the current deepening of African American and Palestinian solidarity through the lens of anti-colonial struggle and anti-racism more broadly. This convergence is certainly not a new one and indeed from the fight back against the land dispossession of 1948 to the influence of Arab nationalism on Malcolm X, radical elements within the Black Freedom movement saw supporting a free Palestine as an essential part of the global politics of national liberation. In the years since the end of the Cold War and with the emergence of this new movement against state sanctioned violence in the United States, the discourse of anti-blackness has become a way to talk about the centrality of domestic repression against African Americans (and peoples of African descent more broadly) to the carceral agendas of mass incarceration, police militarization and what are increasingly understood as projects of racial genocide. I think this is an important lens for the mobilization of a new generation of activists. But I also feel that it is difficult to uncouple the history of anti-blackness embodied in enslavement, forced labor, criminalization, racial apartheid and outright murder from that of Indian killing and expropriation as well as the United States’ history of imperial violence not only on the North American continent, but throughout the world. In this sense, the historical memory of the nonaligned movement, international solidarity struggles and the transnational anti-colonial left remains essential to how we build solidarity struggle today. Moreover, just as a long tradition of African American Palestinian solidarity informs current anti-state violence youth activism, it is also instructive for strengthening ties between Palestinians and communities of African descent throughout the Arab world.
It’s really more than a competing history of oppression. Blackness is the constant creation of death in order to allow the potential of life and living power of others. And this is what we see today, it is a continuous death. Analytically if you discuss something that is dead it is no longer there; legally you have to have a death certificate, medically you need to have a dead body but it’s this fear of the living power of the Palestinian body and the fear of the Black dead body and living body that puts us in the same category. It’s a part of the necropolitical framework, one that reflects the political economy of life and death in its everydayness, in its intimacy, its sexuality, its economic gains, and its geopolitical scope.
Solidarity is about death and social death. We are talking about two groups that are globally perceived as living dead. As a Palestinian, I see clearly, that on a global level, Palestinians do not have a right to exist. Israelis have a right to exist because of a Biblical right and in that narrative we are invaders and are disturbing a world order. This is where I see solidarity between Blacks and Palestinians because the political economy of Blackness is the political economy of Palestinianness whereby there is other-ization and being perceived in zoological terms, in the Fanon sense. Consider the Balfour Declaration- therein we are not even people to be consulted. And the same can be said of Blacks- who are slaves and should not be consulted. They are not there to be consulted, we are not even people.
4) What is the place to address Islamophobia in the context of Black-Palestinian solidarity? Is it an impediment to movement building? If so, how can it be dealt with without creating false binaries between Muslim and Black communities given that the largest population of Muslims in the United States are Black?
Robin D.G. Kelley
Ideally, a principled anti-racist, social justice movement will always call out and resist Islamophobia, not to mention anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism and all forms of racist/sexist/homo- and trans-phobic tendencies, actions and behaviors. Being principled is not an impediment, but it will produce unavoidable challenges, temporarily fracture alliances, reveal contradictions, and create dissent. But we must always remember that it isthe racial regime that generates “false binaries,” not movement strategy or tactics. Our task is to expose these false binaries by resisting all manifestations of racism everywhere; to reveal how “the Muslim” is produced as a racialized subject, what the process masks (e.g., that people of African descent make up the majority of Muslims in the U.S., that there is no relationship between political violence and Islam, that the “clash of civilizations” discourse is a racist fabrication); to thoroughly grasp the changing character of anti-Black racism in a context in which a Black petit-bourgeoisie exercises significant power and influence over the very machinery of state violence, economic exploitation, and social misery.
Islamophobia is crucial for the success of the master Zionist narrative in the Black community that does not recognize that many of the Africans who were kidnapped from their homelands in West Africa and enslaved in the Americas were Muslims. Islamophobia also comes up in accounts of Malcolm X. In his “Ballot or Bullet” speech, he contrasts how US “mainstream” media refers to him as a Muslim Minister but does not apply the same logic to Christian ministers. This is obviously not accidental. In fact, Orientalist Zionists have deliberately popularized the notion that Islam was more damaging to Africa than colonialism or that Arabs and Muslims were solely responsible for the African slave trade. This is not an attempt to sugar coat the fact that Arabs and/or Muslims (and others) did participate in the slave trade. However, slave trade (among European, Arab and Africans or Christians, Jews or Muslims) was premised not on skin color but rather on war victories. Linking racism to skin color has been part and parcel of the creation and institutionalization of plantation economy at the heart of which was white supremacy. Finally, Zionism is at the heart of the US-based Islamophobia industry, from Pamela Geller and David Horowitz, to Sheldon Adelson who is hosting a big gathering at his casino headquarters in Las Vegas to devise strategies to defeat the growing BDS movement.
Bill Fletcher Jr.
Islamophobia is found in the work of the right-wing elements of the Black Church. It is a manifestation of a form of Christian Zionism. Those who argue, incorrectly, that there is a Jewish entitlement to Palestine, allegedly approved in the Bible, stoke this trend.
I have felt for a long time that there is a need for a strong theological counter-offensive, originating in the African American community, against Christian Zionism. It must challenge a certain 'reading' of the Bible, including suggestions that could lead certain people to believe that genocide against the Palestinians is somehow legitimate. In the absence of a theological wing to our movement, it may ultimately be difficult to gel a constituency to become very vocal and active. To the extent that the Christian Zionists can make arguments that seem to resonate with what many of us learned in Sunday School, there will, at best, be paralysis in the face of Christian Zionism.
5) There seems to be a conflation between the Arab-American community, the US-based solidarity community, Palestinians resident in Occupied Palestine and Arabs writ large in discussions regarding Anti-Blackness and Black-Palestinian Solidarity. For example, legitimate criticism highlights how Palestine solidarity activists “expect” Black solidarity, and even if not, they invoke examples of Black liberation struggles without adequately combatting anti-Blackness. In other instances, the critique is leveled at Palestinians in Occupied Palestine who are accused of harboring anti-Blackness as a matter of fact. Still in other discussions the question is about racism and anti-Blackness throughout the Arab world, or twenty-two Arab states without distinction for their economic, social, cultural, and political histories. How does one responsibly discuss anti-Blackness in relation to Black-Palestinian solidarity without inadvertently collapsing these distinct classes into a single one?
I definitely find that collapsing differences is problematic at best and malicious at worst. First, many advocates for justice for/in Palestine are neither Palestinian nor white; they are rather Indigenous, Black, Latina/o, and Asian and/or come from other marginalized communities, such as the undocumented or poor and working people (who might be one and the same). Secondly, we should note that Arabs, including Arab Christians, Muslims and Jews, who originate from North and East Africa, from Mauritania to Djibouti, and West Asia, from Yemen to Kuwait, come in all shades and colors, including a small African community in the old city of Jerusalem in Palestine. During the height of the Darfur crisis, Zionists tended to refer to warring Darfuris as Arabs attacking Africans in order to drive a wedge among members of the same Muslim community who looked the same and came from similar roots but were divided over resources. It was not beneficial to the Zionist, Orientalist, and racist establishment to clarify that this is the same community, lest the labeling of Arabs as racist be challenged. Third, while there are definite manifestations in the Arab (and the rest of the) world today on the privileging of a lighter skin color, this is more a function of colonial legacies by which race, class, gender and sexuality become instruments of neocolonialism rather than an inherent trait in Arab or other third world societies.
But how do we explain why Arab and Muslim immigrants to the U.S., including Palestinians, manifest racism toward communities of color, including anti-Blackness? In my view, to borrow from Adrienne Rich’s term in discussion compulsory heterosexuality, this is part and parcel of the herding of immigrants into whiteness in their unsuccessful quest to achieve full “Americanness” --a failed project no matter how hard they try precisely because settler colonial projects are inherently racist, hierarchical and oppressive.
This question already poses some of the distinctions that we need to sustain, which is to say, naming specific interventions according to the context in which they happen. But the analytic frameworks we have to make these distinctions sometimes feels limited because the pressure to understand anti-Blackness as a geographically and historically specific phenomenon—tethered to America and Europe, or as a strictly as a colonial legacy--hobbles efforts to say something more foundational. At the same time, we have to be cautious about global statements that forfeit specificity, which is why so much work has gone into understanding context-specific racialization and the places/moments when anti-Blackness functions as a political-economic tool for exploiting labor, justifying degraded forms of citizenship, and marking the boundaries of humanness.
The other challenge is to combat what Neldon Maldonado-Torres has called ‘defensive regionalism’ which declares race an irrelevant concept for a particular region. When speaking of or within Arab-majority states conversations are quickly shut down with contrary assertions that deny the presence of racism and anti-Blackness in particular while ahistorically taking racism for granted as an unchanging feature of life in these countries. Yet obviously within the ‘Arab-world’—which is in quotes only to recognize non-Arab and hybrid populations—we can look for the ways ethno-nationalism develops, how Arabization in particular occurred, and what kinds of paradoxes thrive in each cultural context. For instance, it doesn’t work to speak of blackness as a marker of ancestral enslavement in Egypt—but the urge to do so, to hail black bodies as abd/slave rests on this presumption. Nubians consistently reference their indigeneity to unsettle that logic and highlight the tandem erasure of native blackness alongside non-black migration and colonization in the production of modern Egyptian national identity. There are material and political consequences to this erasure that affect what resources are invested in their resettlement, land claims, and cultural preservation.
Bill Fletcher Jr.
First, part of building solidarity starts with mutual education. One aspect of that is the understanding of the development of the Arab World and Arab culture. It is incredibly important for African Americans to appreciate "Arab" as not equivalent to an ethnic group, in traditional terms, and, as a result understand the vast differences between Moroccan Arabs (and their relationship to the Berber/Amazigh people) and Iraqi Arabs, for example. The issue of "color" in the Arab World must be addressed in all of its complexity as with the issue of the Arab slave trade (in Eastern Africa). This is all very different, however, from the context within the United States. Arab-Americans, to a great extent, believed themselves to be "white", particularly if they were Christians. Second, African American/Palestinian solidarity is a political cause and must be treated as such. It is similar to the solidarity that existed between a certain wing of the Black Freedom Movement and the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War. This solidarity existed despite the fact that various tensions existed between segments of the East Asian population in the United States and African Americans. This is a point that I emphasized to several African Americans on a delegation taken to Palestine in early 2014. That is, the existence of racism or race prejudice among Arab-Americans, or for that matter in the Arab World, is a matter separate from the political and moral obligation of African Americans to support Palestinian national self-determination.Third, there is an important recognition that must be made of the fact that oppression does not,ipso facto, give any group an enlightened consciousness on matters of race, class, gender, religion, or otherwise. It may make them more open to a broader and more progressive analysis, but such an analysis does not appear spontaneously.
Robin D.G. Kelley
As I suggest in my response to Question 4, without a deeper analysis of the national and global/imperial operations and histories of racism, we will continue to reproduce these sorts of binaries. I see the problem partly rooted in a myopic identity politics in which “Black” people and “Palestinians” are painted as monoliths, whose shared identity presumes a shared politics. Embedded in the question is part of the answer to the problem: too often we tend to substitute a complex historical perspective with an “identity” model of the world that collapses the kinds of differences I described in Question 4 (e.g., Black people/ Palestinians are natural rebels; Arabs are racist and Black people are victims; ad infinitum). We have a lot of history to learn and theoretical and interpretive work to do in order to move to a more sophisticated and radical politics. For example, Palestinian solidarity activists (irrespective of color) are often shocked by Black Zionists defending Israel, and yet supporting Zionism has long been the default position among African American leadership at least before 1967. There is an historical logic to this apparent paradox, which many scholars have addressed. Simply put, we need to know more and engage these questions at a much deeper level. This is why recent studies by Keith P. Feldman, Alex Lubin, Melani McAlister, Nikhil Singh and others are so valuable for advancing a new, transformative antiracist politics that doesn’t descend into cartoon identities but grasps how slavery, colonialism, dispossession, the war on terror, etc., are constitutive of the current racial regimes in all of its global dimensions. While the fight to end the occupation and perpetual war against Palestinians, and to end state violence against Black and Brown people have set the stage for the latest manifestations of solidarity, these cannot be the end goals. The ultimate objective, as I understand it, is the complete dismantling of the racial regimes themselves and the elimination of all forms of oppression.
6) What does a commitment to anti-Blackness look like at least in the context of US-based Palestine solidarity organizing?
We can turn to long-standing examples where “joint struggle” work extends beyond the “already converted” solidarity activists. Consider the relationships between Palestinian, Black, and Latino communities established between 1991 and 2012 in Chicago through the SWYC. SWYC had three after school youth centers and a Community Organizing Initiative. Their vision, work, and structure had communities working together across cultural/racial/ethnic boundaries and they were intentional about centering the different surrounding local communities. Day to day connections brought about an organic coalitional consciousness whereby those involved understood and addressed the many connected forms of racism, solidarity with Palestinians, etc. Recently, members of Greater Detroit’s Z Collective have been discussing a plan for hosting private women's circles to talk within Arab American communities not only about issues impacting “Arabs,” but also about the connected issues of anti-Black racism in light of the hierarchical and fraught context of Arab-Black relations in Greater Detroit.
Yet many collaborative initiatives lack a long-term agenda; have failed to bring to life “joint struggle” on the ground; and have been short lived. Since we do not exist outside racial capitalism, this painful and exhausting work requires (for Arab Americans) challenging anti-Black racism in our own communities --in the intimate spaces of our neighborhoods and living rooms and standing up when inter-racial marriages are banned or when racial tensions become inflamed. We need to show up for each other when any of us are colonized, sexually assaulted, intimidated, brutalized, or killed. And as recipients of the racist-imperialist corporate media and education system, Black and Arab communities generally need to do something about the limited knowledge and misinformation many of us carry about each other’s histories, traditions, and politics. The “big events” and the “photo ops” are important, but while we are organizing the next rally, let’s also focus on long-term joint campaigns and analyses and let us build life-long relationships.
Combatting anti-blackness in US-based Palestine solidarity organizing requires addressing what Hortense Spillers famously described as an historical “grid of identities running at perpendicular angles: things in serial and lateral array; beings in hierarchical and vertical array.” Needless to say, it matters greatly whether one speaks to and from the X or Y axis of a global matrix established by the epochal trade in enslaved Africans from the seventh century CE onward - from the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean basin toward the later transatlantic circuit, and whose pivot entailed a deepening and intensification of the internal slave trade throughout most of the African continent. There is, buried beneath modern colonial history and its opposition, what Saidiya Hartman terms “the still unfolding narrative of captivity, dispossession, and domination that engenders the black subject in the Americas” and whose subject-that-is-not-one pursues “a politics without a proper locus.” Without a locus or a land base, this landless, baseless politics, which lacks nothing at all, sits at the vertex of every sovereign claim, putting pressure on the work of solidarity with Palestine to consider another frame of reference altogether, to interrogate the basic assumptions of the struggle for liberation as such. Slavery is the threshold of the political world and the ongoing movement for abolition is a strange attractor radicalizing through the perverse affirmation of deracination, an uprooting of the natal and the national; a politics whose demand is, as the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot said of the Haitian Revolution, “too radical to be formulated in advance of its deeds.”
Theorizations of anti-blackness produce a critique of identity politics and multiracial coalitions, as any politics of recognition ultimately claims inclusion in civil society and humanity, masking complicity with structures of anti-blackness (see for example Sexton 2010, Wilderson 2010). Similarly, settler colonialism is a permanent structure of native elimination (e.g. Wolfe 2006), but the ontological position of the Native articulates with that of the Slave only when s/he claims genocide. When the Native does not claim a radical politics of refusal, but rather, some form of liberal inclusion, s/he too capitulates to the structure of white supremacy.
Anti-blackness is formative of the Israeli settler colonial state and consequently, the structural position of the Palestinian native is shaped by anti-black animus. The settler colonial regime’s inscription of terror against the Palestinian native’s body and home space has been the precondition for the life and ‘safety’ of the Jewish settler polity since the Nakba. It is thus that Palestinian suffering and death, in both its “exceptional” and mundane forms, must not be seen as an aberration to, but rather formative of the settler colonial state.
If we take this analysis to its logical conclusion, understanding that there is no integration for the Palestinian native into the Israeli settler state (to do so, she would have to cease being Palestinian), calls for a political project that goes beyond any state solution, towards a project of settler decolonization. Engaging the logic of anti-blackness forces us to reckon with a decolonization project that is not reducible to some form of native sovereignty wedded to the nation-state form, but one that seeks a far more radical break with Western epistemology, and the construction of a new world. Anything less is merely a deferred form of genocide for native Palestinians, and complicity with the structure of anti-blackness.
Abolition speaks to the unfinished project of ending anti-Black racism, racial capitalism, anti-trans, anti-queer, patriarchal policing, colonialism, and caging. June Jordan’s and James Baldwin’s archives speak to legacies of Black queer solidarity with Palestinian struggle. It was through what June Jordan called her “embattled baptisms”—Black queer poetic struggles against war and militarization, cages and carceral violence, apartheid, and occupation from Mississippi, Attica, Nicaragua, South Africa, Palestine and Lebanon—that she found renewed life. Under pinkwashing, Israel is figured as a site of queer modernity and the Middle East and North Africa, in Orientalizing and anti-black fashion are portrayed as backwards, uncivilized, ever infantile, and outside of the temporal and spatial coordinates of Western modernity. Blackness has always figured as sexual/gender transgression and been subject to criminalization and regulation. Pinkwashing plays both on anti-black and anti-Arab sexual tropes. Queer and/or trans prison abolitionists and feminists of color, such as Angela Davis, Nadine Naber and many others, situate an anti-pinkwashing analysis within a broader vision of decolonization, carceral abolition, and transformative forms of justice. At the recent INCITE Women of Color Against Violence conference, I had the pleasure of being in a packed audience, listening to the intersecting struggles and voices of Rasmea Odeh, Reina Gossett, Andrea Smith, CeCe McDonald, and others who reminded us—as have Assata Shakur and Mahmoud Darwish—that the apartheid wall, the border wall, the prison wall are historically constructed and so, can and must be torn down.
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This quote by Lila Watson, an Aboriginal Australian hangs in my office as a reminder of how I engage in movements led by others. Organizing as a Palestinian American Muslim in the Black Lives Matter movement has been a blessing but has also brought some challenges. Building solidarity with Black communities when we as Palestinian Americans/Arab Americans have not holistically addressed anti-Black racism within our own ranks calls to question in some cases our solidarity. While we chant “Black Lives Matter”, what are we doing as Palestinian Americans to ensure that we are contributing to the creation of a society that truly embraces, respects and upholds the dignity of our Black sisters and brothers in every aspect, socially and structurally? Solidarity is not a noun; it’s a verb, its action. When I agreed to co-chair the March2Justice, a 250-mile journey on foot from New York City to Washington, DC alongside a Black American woman and a Mexican American woman to demand an end to police brutality it was to test my own leadership and my solidarity. What was I willing to risk? What example was I ready to set for my community? Along the route a Palestinian American imam hosted us at a masjid in Philadelphia. These experiences and the conversations about the clear connection between oppressed communities in the United States and Palestine are being derived through story telling and relationship building. This struggle knows no borders and we know that all oppression is intertwined. I am very proud of the progress, the friendships and allies that have been established. We must continue to organize together, share our stories and remain consistent in our presence for others. My investment in the Black Lives Matter movement is based on the belief that Black Liberation will lead to the liberation of all people, including Palestinians. Onward.
There are Black Palestinians and it would do us all good if we could talk about the dimensions to Blackness, which works as an othering category in all countries, communities, cultures, etc. Palestinians must see and embrace the Blackness in themselves; than we can begin to have a healthy discussion that can go somewhere more than theoretical words and thoughts. We must examine our traumas and how even our methods of perceived liberation perpetuate systems we are fighting against. We must examine how deeply we internalized capitalism as well as the hierarchal perspective of freedom. It is very simple, Palestinians need to reexamine their ideas about blackness as more than the “struggle porn” commodified by the United States and exported to rest of the world for exploitation. Palestinians should identify not just with our pains and injustices but also our victories, our joys, our visions, and our imaginations for a future where change is real and possible. Blackness is the embodiment of resistance, the soul of resistance, and Palestinians know resistance. In the pursuit of justice we must honor how much of our oppressors’ mannerisms and ideologies we have absorbed and internalized. If we want to be free, let it be because we know shackled and silenced is no way to be—let us know real pursuits of happiness—if we want to be free, let it not be because we want to live in the house of our oppressors, still silenced, and still shackled. Blackness is the collective voice of our protest and all that we create in the direction of our freedom.
We need to look at the psychology of the oppressed and at survival mechanisms whereby you witness your inability to keep your house, to reach places, to keep your children alive, and to live literally and all you are doing is surviving. And if you don’t see support and see that Palestinians are separating themselves from Blacks and the Black movement, it is a condition of their situation and fragility as individuals and communities in the world. I don’t support it but I can understand it.
This is where gendered violence may be helpful. In some cases, you see a girl who is about to be killed by her own family for transgressing social norms and you see her mother is approving the killing. How can a mother approve the killing of her child? But then you understand that this mother is trying to preserve the lives of the other girls in the house and if she will show her anger and pain over her daughter, she might lose the rest of her children. The power of the powerless is limited and their ability to cope for survival reflect a narrow set of choices for decision-making.
Politically, there is no question. We must be part of a Black liberation movement. The complication happens on a daily level among individuals—here support and solidarity with Blacks is imperative because we need work together. We are both in the same boat of death and need to work together. There is a pathology of self-preservation that limits these horizons and we need to be less tough on one another to allow room to breathe.
In thinking about Black and Palestinian solidarity since the 2014 Gaza bombings, one of the most exciting dimensions is how the genesis of a burgeoning movement against state sanctioned violence inside the US has intersected with the increased visibility and success of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. Aided by the coincidental timing of the Ferguson protests with Israel’s bloody assault on Gaza civilians last summer, many protestors experienced a convergence of struggles in which young people found themselves facing down military weapons, including tanks, armed assault rifles, Kevlar shod “soldiers”, and CS gas. The juxtaposition of images of human vulnerability in the face of overwhelming force, embodied by Israel’s carpet-bombing of residential areas spanning forty percent of Gaza and of armored vehicles advancing on young Ferguson teens in their own neighborhoods as they kneeled with their hands up, forged a lasting historical memory of the genocidal intent of using weapons of war against civilians. Indeed, at precisely the moment that members of Israel’s Home party openly advocated genocide through attacks on Palestinian women as “mothers of snakes,” African Americans began using the term to describe the state violence they were facing at the hands of law enforcement. In the ensuing months, genocide has become a lingua franca to express the plight of both African Americans and Palestinians. The victories of BDS have literally helped to lift the gag rule of both the mainstream press and particular arenas of social media thereby enabling much more unselfconscious discussion about the shared histories of the US and Israel as “racial states” and “settler societies.” In addition to genocide, recurrent themes are the shared experiences of statelessness, entrapment, and carcerality. This cross-fertilization of political culture and analysis is an incredibly exciting development that links both intellectual production and grassroots protest of African Americans and Palestinians.
Commitment to combating anti-blackness, first and foremost involves the support and amplification of black voices, black organizing, black lives, more importantly, inviting leaders of the Black liberation movement into traditional Palestinian spaces. There need to be more opportunities for interaction. For true solidarity, we must not only work to eliminate the many manifestations of anti-blackness, but also key is to build valued, sustainable relationships between those in the different communities.
Being a Palestinian male, in leadership of an organization dedicated to fighting systemic oppression and racism here in the US, means that sometimes there are issues that may not directly affect my family, or even if we are affected, we are not affected to the same extent our black siblings from the US are. Many times, as a non-black oppressed community member, this work involves a great deal of listening, learning and opening up of the space for others. At times, there are black-only spaces, and supporting those spaces is essential, recognizing that black liberation should be led by the very best of black movement minds. We have to make sure Palestinians understand the above, as well as the fact that terms like “Black Power” and “Black Lives Matter” do not decrease the worth or importance of our movement for Palestinian liberation, in fact they only strengthen them. In addition, Palestinians who have flourished economically here may struggle with the need for the personal implications of supporting true economic liberation for Black Americans, as it may directly affect their amassed wealth. This challenge is to be expected as white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism have often utilized the divide and conquer strategy. The goal is to be developing the analysis and requisite politics to overcome these hurdles in the pursuit of liberation for all.
Robin D.G. Kelley
Two things: first, let us not forget the LONG history of Black radical solidarity with Palestinian liberation going back at least to 1967, with traces emerging as early as 1948, and with Malcolm X in the early 1960s. These examples of solidarity and identification were not based on an expectation of reciprocity—we support your struggle so long as you support ours. Rather, it was based on the principle of resisting injustice everywhere and recognizing that Zionist logic undergirding the founding and management of the state of Israel was based on racialization and colonial domination.
Second, fighting anti-Black racism ought to be a basic principle of every social justice movement everywhere (and for a period in the 1960s and early ‘70s, this was almost the case). This shouldn’t even be a question. However, it need not be a precondition for solidarity. The Black freedom movement has long stood up against the exploitation and oppression of peoples who not only failed to reciprocate but perpetuated anti-Black racism—the white working class, certain indigenous communities, immigrants, etc. They saw no contradictions between simultaneously challenging their racism and fighting xenophobia, dispossession, labor exploitation, and the like. Of course, there were those Negroes who supported and even benefited from state policies of oppression and subjugation, but they stood outside the Black radical tradition. Perhaps I’m just old school, but I believe these principles should continue to govern our politics, and they are best summed up in Dr. Martin Luther King’s unforgettable line: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”