Why black voices matter on Palestine

In 1979, Andrew Young, the first African American ever appointed as a US ambassador to UN, was forced to resign due to the pressure mounted by pro-Israel groups on then President Carter. The Andrew Young episode demonstrated the increasing power of AIPAC and the centering of US-Israel relations at the expense of all other considerations including the career of an African American civil rights icon.  The recent entanglement of Ilhan Omar with AIPAC and pro-Israel organizations is not new, but the outcome points to a rapidly changing socio-political and socio-religious landscape.  In 1979, Andrew Young did not advocate or speak of Palestinian rights; instead, a simple meeting was the sufficient cause for losing his post as UN Ambassador.

Indeed, AIPAC’s targeting of Ilhan Omar and attempts to silence her voice on Palestine adds to a long list of African American leaders who faced a similar backlash from pro-Israel groups for daring to speak out for Palestinians human rights and expressed readiness to challenge the power of the Israel lobby.  Just in the past six months alone, Michelle Alexander, Marc Lamont Hill and Angela Davis became targets of pro-Israel organizations, which led to Hill’s firing and the rescinding of Davis’ award. Critically, the attempts to silence African Americans and Black voices, in general, has been a normative pattern in US and European political, social and media discourses but a shift is underway despite the difficult cases mentioned earlier.

Critically, African Americans and Blacks around the world carry a moral and ethical voice for being the custodians of the historical legacy of modern anti-colonial, human and civil rights struggles.  The contributions of African Americans and Blacks is readily evidenced in challenging and terminating slavery around the globe, the civil rights movement that brought Jim Crow laws in the US to an end and the transnational contributions that challenged and won against colonialism and Apartheid (Black Americans and black South Africans, it should be noted, were supported in their struggle by many Jewish activists, some of whom also lost their lives).  Every human right and human dignity struggle in the past two centuries have had a significant African, African American and Black imprint on it.  Other groups, including many Jewish activists, played important roles in these struggles, but this article focuses on the consistent omissions. The re-emergence of African American and Black internationalism in relations to Palestine is a significant development that is worrisome to AIPAC and pro-Israel forces in the US and Europe.

In his book, Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color, Michael R. Fischbach, Professor of History at Randolph-Macon College, maintains that Black sentiments and expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians deepened in the aftermath of the 1967 war.  Even before 1967, Black leaders like Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Amiri Baraka took to opposing Zionism, and the Black Panther Movement, the Black Muslims, SNCC and the NAACP all took positions supporting the Palestinians struggle and seeing it a reflection of their yearning for freedom.  At the same time that African American and Black voices, in general, have attempted to break away from the unquestionable support for Israel and the national choir of both political parties, the consequences to speaking out and censorship was always lurking in the back and always heavy-handed.

Can the black and brown subject speak on Palestine, is a serious question with far-reaching consequences if addressed holistically!  Can Ilhan Omar, Marc Lamont Hill, and Angela Davis speak freely or are they targeted, demonized and marginalized because they tested the constructed racial and structural epistemic walls set in place for the black and brown subjects on Palestine!  “Solidarity demands that we no longer allow politicians or political parties to remain silent on the question of Palestine,” commented Marc Lamond Hill after CNN fired him as a commentator.  Lamont further insisted, “We can no longer, in particular, allow the political left to remain radical or even progressive on every issue from the environment to war to the economy. To remain progressive on every issue except for Palestine.”

Ilhan’s “offense” is she spoke of AIPAC’s immense power on Capitol Hill, which shapes US policies related to Palestine and the Middle East, a topic that many others before and since have written or spoken about. What Marc Lamont Hill faced and Angela Davis was the script that AIPAC pursued in the orchestrated attacks on Ilhan Omar, which continues up to this present day.

The intense campaign direct at Congresswoman Ilhan Omar after taking-on AIPAC directly and supporting Palestinian civil society’s call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions was directed at marginalizing and silencing her voice, a normative pattern for black and brown subjects that dare to speak out.  Ilhan’s retort back to a reporter question, “it’s all about the Benjamins baby,” a quote from Puff Daddy’s ’90s paean to cash money, was used by Republicans to launch a campaign to oust Representative Omar removal from the House Foreign Relations Committee after critiquing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and expressing open support for BDS.

The context of what Representative Omar said is crucial since it came in response to Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy who was seeking a formal sanctioning of Representative Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib due to their criticism of Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine and readiness to break away from the constructed boundaries.

Shortly after Congresswoman Omar uttered the phrase, the Republicans, American Zionist organizations and rightwing media outlets mounted a relentless public attack on Ilhan. The rapid news cycle and intense attacks pointed to a possible quick victory for AIPAC, as democratic leadership buckled and introduced a resolution to condemn Ilhan on the floor of the House.   In an attempt to take control of the narrative, Omar issued an apology but refocused her statement to reference the political spending and lobbying efforts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful DC-based pro-Israel lobbying organization.

The grassroots push back, which forced the Democratic leadership in Congress to change the text and focus of the resolution and include Islamophobia, was a significant defeat to AIPAC and the major American Zionist organizations.  Before Ilhan’s showdown, AIPAC and important American Zionist organizations have been successful in mounting pressure to have Professor Hill fired, and the award to Angela Davis rescinded, but the swift grassroots response to the attacks on Omar created the shift in the balance of power.

What made this clear shift possible is a slow process that culminated with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the immediate Palestinian connections made across continents.  Here, the extensive historical links dating back to the 1960s and 70s, between the Palestinian movement and African Americans activists got fused back after a decade or two of distance and lack of systematic organizational development on both sides.  Connecting the struggles and voices was cemented when a group of “Black journalists, artists and organizers representing Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), and more have joined the Dream Defenders for a 10-day trip to the occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel.”

Zionist groups in the US have often positioned themselves as progressives on many domestic and international issues and often have followed through with meaningful support.  However, the carefully crafted American Zionist façade began to crumble around Israel’s relations with South African Apartheid White Supremacist government, which made it very difficult to maintain a progressive or liberal standing.  Consequently, the building blocks for the BDS movement and the eventual embrace of the Palestine cause by a sizable segment of the African American leadership can be traced to the alliances that were formed around the South African anti-Apartheid struggle.

The attacks on Ilhan Omar has an Islamophobic dimension as well, which is centered on her wearing the hijab and being visibly Muslim.  It is not a secret that over 70% of the Islamophobia Industry funding comes from pro-Israel sources and Ilhan’s presence in Congress funnels all the Islamophobic venom into a single target.  For the pro-Israel and the Islamophobes, Ilhan’s combination of being Muslim and Black makes for a combustible target, and once you add her readiness to speak and challenge AIPAC’s power, then they lose their mind and treat her as a nuclear device undermining Western civilization itself.  Precisely, AIPAC’s and its pro-Israel allies use of Islamophobic discourses conveniently target Ilhan because it represents the crystallization of a future horizon whereby the new emerging leadership is no longer beholden to Israel and is ready to express solidarity with the Palestinians.