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When It Comes to Gaza, Don’t Let Obama Speak for Black Americans

‘Like an olive tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved’

As Israeli airstrikes on the Palestinian territory of the Gaza strip rained bombs on civilian areas, President Obama reiterated his support of Israel, saying, "There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So we are fully supportive of Israel's right to defend itself from missiles landing on people's homes."  Israel took advantage of this support to kill 162 Palestinians, compared to the 6 Israeli deaths, before a ceasefire agreement was reached between Hamas and Israel on Wednesday, November 21st.

Yet when it comes to Gaza and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Obama doesn’t speak for African Americans.  A recent CNN/ORC poll found that people of color are among the segments of the population in America most likely to oppose Israeli military attacks.  

With more African American men in prison today than were slaves on plantations in 1850, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Blacks generally would sympathize with the 1.7 million Palestinians currently living in what many commentators have described as the open-air prison of the Gaza Strip—a territory that has faced a humanitarian disaster for years because of the Israeli blockade that has prevented of the movement of people, food, medical supplies, and nearly all goods. 

Moreover, with openly racist comments from members of the Israeli government about Palestinians now routine, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Blacks are increasingly in solidarity with Palestine. Take for instance Michael Ben-Ari, a member of the Knesset representing the National Union Party, who called for the slaughter of Palestinians during the recent attacks on Gaza in a message to Israeli soldiers: "Brothers! Beloved soldiers and commanders—preserve your lives!...There are no innocents in Gaza, don't let any diplomats who want to look good in the world endanger your lives; at any tiniest concern for your lives—Mow them!" With statements like that, it should be clear that African Americans who challenge Israel do so because of opposition to racism, not from anti-Semitism. 

In July of 2011 I had the opportunity to travel to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank with the Interfaith Peace Builders’ historic first African Heritage Delegation to Palestine.  The delegation included 14 African Americans from across the country, ages 25 to 73.  As we traveled from check point to check point and witnessed armed soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) check papers and harass Palestinians; as we witnessed the Israeli-only roads and schools; as we spoke with Israeli settlers who had forced Palestinians out of their homes; as we witnessed these daily humiliations of Palestinians, the members of our delegation who were veterans of the civil rights movement began describing Israel in terms of the Jim Crow segregation system they knew too well from the American south of their youth. 

One of our delegates, Gloria, had been one of the first Black teachers to integrate a school in Mississippi—only after facing down the Klu Klux Klan for many days as they surrounded the school, armed, on horseback.  Gloria remarked, after our delegation heard from an Israeli settler in Hebron about why they had a right to take Palestinian homes, “At least the Klan had to wear hoods.  These guys walk around with total impunity.”    

One of our most memorable encounters came in Sderot, the Israeli town of 24,000 that boarders Gaza and has taken rocket fire over the years—including during the most recent round of hostilities—by Gazans retaliating against Israeli occupation and war crimes. Sderot has thus often become the rallying cry for Israel’s military violence against Gaza.  While in Sderot we had the opportunity to meet with Nomika Zion, an Israeli woman who founded the organization “Other Voice” and won the Niarchos Prize for Survivorship for speaking out against the Israeli air strikes on Gaza during the “Operation Cast Lead” campaign in 2009.  As she told us, “We have lost our ability to see Palestinians as human and when you lose empathy, you lose part of your humanity.” She drove this point home when she explained how Israeli residents of Sderot would climb to the top of a hill so they could look over the apartheid wall, the so-called “security fence and separation barrier,” to cheer on the American supplied F-16s as they bombed the neighborhoods of Gaza.   Leaving Nomika’s home, our delegation climbed one of these very hills and peered over the wall into the penitentiary of Gaza, trying to imagine what life was like for its inmates. 

As we got back on our bus that day, one of the members of our delegation said, “Separate will never be equal.”  Soon the bus broke into an adapted version of an old civil rights song that had sustained some of our delegates during bitter struggles in the past: “Like an olive tree standing by the water, we shall not be moved.” 


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At the end of our trip I attended what must have been an illegal book reading in East Jerusalem by Palestinian author and activist, Omar Barghouti, who read from his just released, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket Books, 2011).  East Jerusalem, Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since its 1967 war, is illegally annexed by Israel and thus falls under the jurisdiction of the 2011 "Law for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott.” As the law reads, “Knowingly publishing a public call for a boycott against the State of Israel will be considered a civil wrong to which the civil tort law applies.”  Under this legislation, an individual or organization proposing a boycott may be sued by any individual or institution claiming it could be damaged by such a call, and evidence of actual damage will not be required for a court to order compensatory damages.  As Barghouti began speaking I grew uneasy and wondered if we would be raided by the IDF.  Then another anxiety crept into my thoughts: What if this law had existed in the United States during the 1950s?   I convinced myself that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have still led African Americans in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1955 bus boycott.

At the conclusion of the reading, I told Omar Barghouti about our African Heritage Delegation and the connections members of our group were making between Israeli apartheid and the segregation they had lived through in the American South. Barghouti responded by telling us how important it was for us to tell this truth because the Israeli state was attempting to “blackwash” its crimes by cloaking the Zionist project in the language of the American civil rights movement—offering as proof the Israeli project of planting trees over the ruins of six destroyed Palestinian villages located in the Safad region, naming it the “Coretta Scott King Forest,” after Dr. King’s wife. 

African Americans must not allow the history of our brave freedom struggle to be used in the service of—in this case quite literally—covering over war crimes and oppression. Everyone should organize their communities to oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but we African Americans have specific role to play in challenging the first Black president’s unyielding commitment to Israel and connecting our ongoing fight for equality at home with the struggles of the Palestinian people. 

When Obama attempts to give a liberal gloss to the assault on Gaza and the ongoing occupation of Palestine, Black Americans have particularly good reason to stand in opposition. Indeed, Black people will be increasingly drawn to the cause of the Palestinians as they become aware of the connections between IDF soldiers getting away with such acts as gunning down the Palestinian twenty-year-old Ahmad Qudaih in Gaza on Friday, November, 23rd (despite the cease fire agreement), and the police who go free after killing African Americans like Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. in White Plains, New York.  This Black support of Palestine can only be augmented when Israeli F-16s bomb Gaza—subsidized by U.S. foreign aid—even as politicians say there is no money to fix the schools in Black neighborhoods here at home, as they have at Rainer Beach High School in Seattle.  Civil rights icon Angela Davis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, and Harry "King of Calypso" Belafonte are a few of the prominent African Americans who are championing the cause of Palestinians today.  If they were joined by Black civil rights groups, churches, and community organizations in calling for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions on Israel—a tactic many of these groups supported against apartheid South Africa—the political impact would be enormous.  

As the African Heritage Delegation stated in the declaration we authored when we  returned from Palestine:

Because of our experience of fighting racism and exploitation in the United States, we are united in our support for civil and human rights of all peoples of the world…. The Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip are in direct violation of international laws and several United Nations Resolutions;…. The Occupation has led to the physical, psychological and spiritual oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel, as well as the forced expulsion of millions of Palestinians from their homes, farms, businesses and their homeland;…. We endorse the international campaign calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel in support of Palestinian freedom, justice and equality….

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We believe in the indivisibility of our human rights and those of Palestinians and all oppressed peoples.  We will not rest until all of humanity is free.

Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian teaches history at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington and director of  Black Education Matters. He is the editor and contributing author to the book, "More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing" (Haymarket Books, 2014) and co-editor of "Teaching for Black Lives." Currently, Hagopian serves as a national surrogate for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Follow Jesse on his blog at or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian

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