Marching in a recent Ithaca, New York, demonstration in solidarity with Palestine was one of the truly gratifying moments of my life as an internationalist.
Organized by Cornell University undergraduates, the protest against Israel’s latest, massive bombardment of the Gaza Strip and assault on Palestinians within and beyond Jerusalem proved that even in Ithaca — a sleepy college town in upstate New York — one finds some of the legions of civilians around the world who have mobilized against Israel’s brutal policies of occupation and collective punishment.
The Ithaca demonstration, which featured a rally on Cornell’s campus followed by a march to the downtown commons, was heartening for another reason: The crowd of roughly 300 included a generous smattering of Black and brown faces. Indeed, almost half of the participants were people of color, most of them students.
That a critical mass of young people was willing to openly support Palestinian freedom — a cause many progressive activists once viewed as a third rail — reflects the extent to which public discourse on this issue has shifted. Even in the US, the citadel of support for Israeli might, some mainstream news outlets now supplement conventional assertions of Israel’s “right to defend itself” with forthright themes of Palestinian liberation.
In some ways, the visible presence of African Americans in many pro-Palestine mobilizations of recent weeks, including rallies in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, constitutes an equally remarkable cultural transition. While no wholesale pivot to the anti-imperialist left is underway, there are signs of a revitalization of some of the most vibrant traditions of Black internationalism.
It may be an exaggeration to suggest that the upsurge of mass resistance to white supremacy that propelled the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has also reenergized ideals of global solidarity among African Americans. But there can be no doubt that BLM, which some have dubbed the “American Intifada,” has driven to the center of Black political awareness questions of human rights and state violence — and principles of popular revolt — that are germane to Palestinian struggle.
Still, transformations of consciousness are never absolute. If Palestinian suffering is increasingly legible to some African Americans, especially those younger progressives who have radicalized the practice of domestic anti-racism, many remaining barriers must be overcome before Black solidarity with Palestine becomes a genuinely grassroots phenomenon in the US.
The Black Lives Matter movement reenergized Black-Palestinian solidarity
African American militants have long been among the staunchest allies of Palestinians. During the heyday of the US civil rights era, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee all embraced the demand for Palestinian liberation.
After the 1960s and ’70s, the strands of African American-Palestinian solidarity waxed and waned. But those bonds were strengthened in recent years when new bouts of state violence led both populations to cultivate overseas support.
Some of the most powerful exchanges occurred after the advent of BLM as a mass movement in 2014. Palestinians played a crucial role in the Ferguson, Missouri, uprising that flared that year in the wake of the police killing of Black teenager Michael Brown.
Palestinian activists used social media to share with African American protesters tactics for dealing with tear gas attacks by militarized police forces — an experience with which many subjects of Israeli occupation are all too familiar.
In 2015, more than 1,000 Black organizers and intellectuals signed a solidarity statement condemning Israel’s lopsided war on Gaza and stranglehold on the West Bank. That year also saw the release of a stylish video titled “When I See Them I See Us” that featured African American figures, from activist Angela Davis to singer Lauryn Hill, highlighting the “similarities, but not sameness,” of Black and Palestinian subjugation and resilience.
BLM, which rejuvenated mass African American protest amid the bourgeois racial politics of the Obama years, also provided a new framework for fashioning Black and Palestinian affinities.
Progressive, youthful Black organizations, from the Dream Defenders to Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, embraced Palestinian liberation as a core element of their global agenda.
Some members of these and other African American groups toured Palestinian territories as part of international delegations, then returned to the US to circulate accounts — overwhelmingly absent from Western reportage — of the barbaric conditions of life under Israeli occupation. Often, such travelers were struck by the warm hospitality of the Palestinians, who appeared eager to forge cultural and social links to Black America.
Similar acts of solidarity unfolded during the recent, bloody siege of Palestinian civilian populations by the Israeli military. Groups such as Black Lives Matter of Paterson, New Jersey, have decried the wildly uneven violence unleashed on Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and Israel, and have called on the US, which funnels $3.8 billion to Israel in military aid annually, to stop sponsoring the carnage.
Such expressions of kinship do not erupt spontaneously. Many of the latest manifestations of African American-Palestinian mutuality reflect the work of US organizations such as Existence Is Resistance that have designed political education campaigns to counter Western erasures and distortions of Palestinian socio-historical realities.
But to gain a fuller picture of African American outlooks, one must weigh such comradely efforts against deep dimensions of ambivalence. In truth, the Palestine issue generates no more consensus among Black Americans than it does among Americans more broadly.
Black people aren’t immune to the American ignorance of foreign conflicts
There will always be those African Americans who oppose, on ideological grounds, the right of Palestinians to self-determination and territorial restoration. Many such individuals belong to churches that propagate essentialist theories of “Judeo-Christian” values or otherwise promote Christian Zionist beliefs.
Some African Americans are simply accommodationists who refuse to challenge the foreign policy dictates of US elites. Others harbor real admiration for Israel, in some instances seeing the state as a model of uncompromising sovereignty and ethnocentrism that Black nationalists should attempt to emulate.
But the opposite of solidarity is not antagonism; it is indifference. Black people are hardly immune to the ignorance with which so many Americans view foreign, nonwhite populations. Victims of white supremacy, African Americans are nevertheless fully capable of internalizing and reproducing the racist, Orientalist tropes that have buttressed imperial ventures within and beyond the Arab world.
As members of a marginalized population, some Black Americans are loath to bear the social costs of open identification with Palestinians, a stigmatized group located thousands of miles away. In the end, many Black people may lack the desire or knowledge to contest framings of Israel-Palestine as a hopelessly intractable conflict rooted in ancient hostilities.
Nor has the compass of African American political conscience always pointed toward Palestine. Prior to the mid-1950s and ’60s, when events such as the 1956 Suez Crisis and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War underscored the imperialist nature of the Zionist project, many African Americans supported statehood for Jewish refugees. Like other Westerners, they tended to overlook the violent displacement of Palestinians that accompanied the creation of Israel in 1948.
Still, it is safe to say that African American perspectives on Palestine remain well to the left of those of the American majority.
Solidarity is never predetermined — it must be reconstructed by each generation
As demands for Palestinian liberation gain international momentum, buoyed by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the relative independence of social media, and the painstaking labor of countless activists, expressions of Black kinship with Palestinians may continue to expand.
But if they do so, it will not be the result of mere similarities between African American and Palestinian oppression. Connections, of course, do exist; both populations face conditions of “internal colonialism,” including racialization, dispossession, underdevelopment, and state violence. However, no perfect analogy exists between Black and Palestinian suffering. Parallelism alone cannot foster a sense of shared fate.
For African American camaraderie with Palestine to become a truly popular ideal, broad segments of the Black rank and file must recognize the global scope of white supremacy. They must see the need to form insurgent, international alliances across lines of color and culture. These principles must transcend the ranks of seasoned organizers, galvanizing those who lack firsthand experience with anti-racist and anti-imperialist campaigns.
The complexity of African American political aspirations suggests that such an awakening is entirely possible. The Black working classes have never equated their own freedom with the demise of formal segregation, or with the prospect of greater social inclusion within the apparatus of American empire. They have rarely let parochialism constrain their visions of a more just and egalitarian world.
I suspect that in the final analysis, many Black people can fully appreciate the Palestinian cause, a protracted struggle for land, autonomy, and cultural redemption that posits the total dismantling of domination as the horizon of human dignity.
Solidarity is never predetermined. It must be reconstructed by each generation. I draw hope, therefore, from the scattered evidence that, practically everywhere, an insurgent spirit is spreading.
During the recent Ithaca march, I spotted on the sidelines a cluster of young African American men. They appeared to be non-students — members, perhaps, of the town’s tiny, working-class Black community. They watched intently but did not join the throngs of chanting protesters. “Black and Palestinian liberation,” I shouted in their direction, and raised a fist. They said nothing. Yet one of them signaled his approval by wrapping me in a spontaneous hug.
Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University.