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Black activists began traveling to Palestine in the 1960s. They never stopped

This article was originally published by Mother Jones.

In the midst of the the Israeli government’s war on Gaza, Mother Jones reporter Nia T. Evans explains how Black and Palestinian liberation are intertwined matters of human rights, and how multiple generations have dealt with them.

As a teenager, Rachel Gilmer, a Black and Jewish activist, was recruited to join Young Judaea, a Zionist nonprofit for Jewish youth. “They were offering scholarships to go to summer camp and I’m one of six siblings, so my mom was like, ‘Great, let’s get the kids out of the house.’” When she reached high school, the program sent her to Israel for the summer. “It was very politicizing,” says Gilmer. “I was there for six weeks. We didn’t meet a single Palestinian person the entire trip. They never explained anything about the occupation. They had us join the Israeli army for a week and one of the rites of passage was shooting an M16 at a cardboard cutout shaped like a human.”

In the spring of 2016, she was in the region again. This time, she was in her twenties and visiting Palestine with a delegation of Black and Latine activists who were all organizing under the banner of Black Lives Matter. For 10 days, they traveled throughout the West Bank, meeting with Palestinian civil society groups and advocates working on behalf of political prisoners and LGBTQ+ communities. 

For Gilmer, going to Palestine exposed the depths of what she began to see as Israeli propaganda. “It was just clear that these were apartheid conditions,” she said. “Seeing homes being demolished, native plants being destroyed to erase the history of Palestinians, the way Palestinian food has been rebranded as Israeli food, it just felt like the complete annihilation of a people.”

That exposure was part of the plan, according to Ahmad Abuznaid, who organized six delegations to Palestine for members of the Black Lives Matter network between 2015 and 2022. Many of the trips were free of charge to participants thanks to funding from groups like the Hasib Sabbagh Foundation, which promotes educational opportunities for young people living in the West Bank and Gaza. During the first trip in January 2015, Abuznaid and his tripmates traveled through Israel and Palestine, visiting Haifa, Ramallah, and Hebron. The group met with Palestinians displaced by Israeli settlers, and leaders within the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which works to end international support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine. They stayed with families and friends whenever possible and cheap hotels when it wasn’t. “This wasn’t one of those corporate-funded AIPAC delegations. It was a grassroots and Palestinian-led effort.” During one stop, in East Jerusalem, they met with Ali Jiddah, a 73-year-old Afro-Palestinian who was imprisoned for his activism. Jiddah, who planted hand grenades in Jerusalem in 1968 as a part of the Palestinian national struggle and spent 17 years in an Israeli prison before becoming a journalist, saw the group and wiped tears from his eyes before jokingly introducing himself as “the Denzel Washington of Palestine.” 

Abuznaid, who runs the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, was born in East Jerusalem and has an Israeli-issued ID from the West Bank, where most of his family still lives. After leaving Palestine as a child, he grew up in South Florida. By 2012, he had co-founded Dream Defenders, a grassroots racial justice organization, where he worked with Gilmer and others in the aftermath of the shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to bring attention to Florida’s gun laws. For Abuznaid, there were strong parallels between the United States’ criminalization of Black people and Israel’s policing of Palestinians. Israeli law enforcement, like their US counterparts, frequently engage in illegal and discriminatory policing. Black and Palestinian organizers have responded to these parallels by actively strategizing to change that treatment.  

“There’s a difference between reading about something and meeting people, eating off their plates, and hearing their stories,” Abuznaid said.

Abuznaid is just one of a constellation of political activists who have long seen in Palestine one of the world’s most pressing examples of US-backed oppression. Since the 1960s, Black leaders have traveled to the region to see the occupation up close and build relationships with people resisting it. These trips, which some activists have called solidarity delegations, have popped up over the decades, all part of an ecosystem of activists and scholars who see freedom for Black people as inherently linked to the struggles of oppressed people around the world. A new generation of Americans are challenging longstanding US support for Israel and its war on Gaza. The New York Times found that 46% of young voters sympathize with Palestine, while 63% of older voters identify with Israel. Some activists credit these numbers to the work of Black and Palestinian resistance movements. 

“The entire left owes a debt of gratitude to Black and Palestinian leaders.” says Stefanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a grassroots Jewish anti-Zionist group leading anti-war demonstrations around the country. “The power of what is happening in the streets is a testament to their alliance.”

In the aftermath of World War II, many Black leaders supported the creation of a Jewish state, seeing the pursuit of a Jewish homeland as analogous to their desire to establish a homeland for the African diaspora. (Malcolm X, one early exception, visited Gaza with the help of the Egyptian government in 1964). But the summer of 1967 challenged Black Americans’ support. The Six-Day War killed an estimated 20,000 Arabs and 800 Israelis, while Israel radically expanded its borders. Less than a month later, Harlem went up in flames as Black communities rebelled against the murder of a Black teenager at the hands of the New York Police Department. The summer of ‘67 went on to be known as the “long hot summer,” as hundreds of cities erupted over the deadly effects of police violence and segregation. 

As the National Guard descended on American cities, some Black scholars and activists saw reflections of their unequal society in Palestine, scenes of which were flooding the news at the time. Some went to see the occupation and meet its resistors for themselves. Black Panther Party leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton traveled to Lebanon and Algeria to meet with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1969 and 1980. Muhammad Ali, June Jordan, Jesse Jackson, Angela Davis, and Alice Walker followed their example, traveling to the West Bank and Lebanon to meet with Palestinians living under occupation and in exile.

Nearly 50 years later, the summer of 2014 would unite a new generation of Black and Palestinian activists. In July of that year, Israel laid siege to Gaza in a war that would kill more than 2,000 people. The next month, the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri erupted in protests after an unarmed Black teenager named Mike Brown was killed by police. Officers left his body in the street for hours. 

“It was a summer of mass atrocities,” says Kristian Bailey Davis, founder of Black for Palestine, a national network of more than 6,000 activists established in the aftermath of the Ferguson uprisings. “Between the war on Gaza and the flagrant disrespect for the life and body of Mike Brown, it wasn’t hard to draw material and metaphorical connections between our experiences.” 

Palestinians sent advice to Black protesters battling military-grade weapons in Ferguson. “Always make sure to run against the wind /to keep calm when you’re teargassed,” wrote West Bank journalist Mariam Barghouti on Twitter, “don’t rub your eyes! #Ferguson Solidarity.” 

dream hampton, filmmaker and executive producer of the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly, traveled to Palestine in 2014. For hampton, the trip was a natural progression in her political identity. She grew up in Detroit, next to a suburb with the largest Arab population outside of the Middle East, and has been a Muslim for most of her life. Early in her career, hampton worked as a hip-hop writer for The Source and Village Voice while organizing with a racial justice group called the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, becoming a defining voice for her generation on how institutions use power to dominate marginalized people. Bill Fletcher Jr., a prominent labor activist, invited her on a delegation to Palestine organized by the Carter Center. On the ground in the West Bank, she saw examples of state violence and abuse everywhere. 

In Hebron, her trip mate, the Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi, was made to get off the bus and go through separate checkpoints than the rest of the group. “It wasn’t a Black versus white issue like we’re used to in America,” hampton says. “It was if you’re Palestinian, and they are trained to know Palestinian last names, even if you have a US passport, you’re separated from the group and forced to go through a checkpoint.” 

In solidarity with Kanazi, her group would leave the bus and go with him through every checkpoint. The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) waved them all through, but for dream the situation hit close to home. “That’s the kind of thing that resonates with Black people,” she told me. “We know what that humiliation feels like.” 

Gilmer, who is an organizer with Dream Defenders and sits on the board of Jewish Voice for Peace’s political action arm, was one of dozens of Black activists who traveled to Palestine on trips organized by Abuznaid in the aftermath of the Ferguson uprising. After visiting Palestine in 2016, she returned with the Dream Defenders in 2018 and 2019. Like Abuznaid, she looked to the history of Black radicals visiting Palestine for inspiration. “Learning that Angela Davis isn’t just a prison abolitionist, she’s also an internationalist, and realizing that was true for Malcolm X and SNCC and all these other organizations, that laid a really strong foundation for the Movement for Black Lives. We have a rich legacy of solidarity.” 

The delegations not only opened her eyes to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but also influenced how she approached organizing at home. “It made me realize that when we’re fighting for our liberation in the US, it has implications for oppressed people all around the world,” she told me. “If we are able to transform this country, it’s going to transform the rest of the world.” In the summer of 2016, after she had returned to the US, she joined a national coalition of Black activists who made Palestinian liberation a key part of the Movement for Black Lives’ (M4BL) first-ever policy platform. The platform, which described Israel as an apartheid state guilty of committing genocide, drew criticism from the right as well as prominent Jewish leaders, but became instructive for many who are now publicly challenging US support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza in the face of intense backlash. 

“I don’t think any of us were expecting the level of backlash that we received,“ says Gilmer. “Funders pulled resources, fundraisers were canceled because people didn’t want to host us, we were publicly called anti-Semitic. It was a scary moment for all of us.” 

When things got bad, she thought back to her time in Palestine. “We just had to remember what we saw and know that this isn’t about being for one group or against another. It’s about basic human rights.”

As the death toll from Israel’s assault on Gaza surpasses 23,000 and global support for Palestine grows louder, Gilmer sees the impact of M4BL’s platform. “Solidarity is the antidote to violence,” she told me. “That was the vision behind the M4BL statement and we’re seeing that message in protests around the world.” 

Many Jewish Americans, she says, are now embracing a vision of safety and solidarity that Black Americans have been advocating for decades. “Seeing Jewish people of all ages saying that Israel and Zionism doesn’t reflect their Judaism, that both are a failed project around Jewish safety, gives me a lot of hope.” 

One reason for that hope was on display at an event in Harlem last November. Inside a spacious community hall in the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center, around 175 people gathered to write letters to Palestinians living under Israeli bombardment. Surrounded by painted murals depicting Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and scenes from civil rights marches and the Harlem jazz scene, a diverse crowd of attendees greeted one another like old friends. Older men and women with walkers kissed their younger comrades on the cheek and everyone helped themselves to a hefty buffet of Middle Eastern food.

After a warm welcome by our MCs for the evening, the participants were given 20 minutes to get to know their neighbors. When the time came to write the letters, which would be distributed through human rights partners to Palestinians living in Gaza, we were reminded of the history that brought us to this point. But when the sound of a crying baby cut through the room, the hosts became emotional. Beaming, they thanked the mother for bringing her child to the event. It’s important, they said, to be reminded that the future is worth fighting for.

© Mother Jones

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