Skip to main content

Angela Davis: 'This is the South Africa moment for the Palestinian people'

Renowned activist tells students at George Washington University that Palestinian BDS movement is reaching turning point
Activist Angela Davis spoke at George Washington University for 'Palestine Awareness Week' (AFP)

WASHINGTON, DC – The struggle for Palestinian rights is reaching a turning point similar to that seen in South Africa when the global boycott movement helped bring down apartheid, renowned academic and activist Angela Davis told US students this week.

George Washington University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter began its annual “Palestine Awareness Week” on Monday with a keynote speech by the US academic, author and activist.

“Palestinians have taught us longevity in struggle,” she told a diverse audience of roughly 200 students, as she reflected on the history of the struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which enters its 50-year anniversary in 2017.

“This is the South Africa moment for the Palestinian people,” Davis said to applause, referring to the movement in the 1980s that saw a similar boycott movement bring an end to apartheid, typically defined as a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race, spearheaded by Nelson Mandela.

The fruits of organising

Middle East Eye asked Davis how the “South Africa” moment arrived after so many years. “I believe it’s the fruits of organising,” she responded.

The speech came at an important moment for the global pro-Palestinian movement. The Israeli government is battling growing support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), a call by Palestinian civil society to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza through academic, cultural and financial boycott of the people and institutions that support it.

Davis pointed to recent moves such as the controversial travel ban on BDS activists from entering Israel, which mirrors similar attempted bans on immigrants and refugees from six predominately Muslim nations introduced by the Trump administration. She touched on other controversial issues like police violence, mass incarceration and water rights in disenfranchised communities in the US and occupied Palestine.

Kei Pritsker, a SJP student organiser, agreed with Davis’ statements. The struggles of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and present-day Israel look increasingly similar to those of disenfranchised and endangered peoples in the US, said Pritsker.

“In millennial-heavy spaces, there’s a general philosophical shift to the ways in which people of colour, Arabs and Muslim people are targeted in Israel. That has a lot of parallels to struggles in the US,” Pritsker told MEE.

SJP supports the BDS movement, and Pritsker and his colleagues in the organisation showed the audience a video calling for George Washington University to divest from companies profiting from the occupation. The university previously declined to divest from institutions that invested in apartheid South Africa.

Mainstream politicians have begun to recognise the challenges posed by BDS, with Stephen Harper, the former Canadian prime minister, saying that “BDS is the most serious threat to Israel” on Sunday at the Washington DC conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful Israeli political lobby group.

The US House of Representatives' top Republican, Paul Ryan, told AIPAC on Monday that “for all the challenges we face here and around the globe, one thing - one vital thing - remains constant: Our unbreakable alliance” with the “Jewish and democratic state of Israel”.

BDS is the most serious threat to Israel

- Stephen Harper, former Canadian Prime Minister

Jewish resistance

However, Israel is facing increased US Jewish resistance. On Sunday, over a thousand Jewish Americans led by IfNotNow, a movement in the US Jewish community that demands an end the 50-year Israeli occupation, led a protest at the AIPAC lobby event. IfNotNow protesters temporarily blocked the doors to the conference centre on Sunday.

“They had to open a secret entrance to allow people in,” Yonah Lieberman, a spokesperson for the group, told MEE the day after the protest.

Lieberman explained that the 2014 Israeli military offensive on Gaza was the breaking point for himself and many others, and they staged remembrances of the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost in the conflict in 2014.

Then, he and others in the movement had taken over a year to piece together a foundation that would “spur a mass movement” within the Jewish community to end their support for the occupation.

“For our first major demonstration, we searched for the target that has done more than any organisation to further the occupation. AIPAC is the obvious choice,” Lieberman continued.

The protest made waves, receiving widespread media coverage. Lieberman was pleased with the reception, but said it was important to remember that IfNotNow is not trying to destroy Jewish institutions. “This is a Jewish movement. We actually have a really deep love for the American Jewish community … we’re trying to bring Jewish institutions forward to a future that is good for Palestinians, Israelis and everyone else.”

‘When the revolutionary time comes’

Even as the BDS movement continues to grow, Palestinians and their allies have seen increased repression. Recently, a United Nations Social Commission for West Asia report that declared Israel an apartheid state was met with derision and demands for the UN to retract it. The UN did.

Rasmea Odeh, a 69-year-old Palestinian feminist and activist, pleaded guilty to unlawful procurement of naturalisation, which led to her loss of her US citizenship and deportation in a plea bargain that keeps her from spending 18 months in prison.

Israeli authorities are currently interrogating Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS movement, after arresting him for tax evasion.

Andrew Kadi, an organiser who has been working on BDS and other pro-Palestinian causes for years, and was on the steering committee of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told MEE that these developments were all part of an arch of turning points for the global movement for Palestinian human rights.

The more people learn about issues in Palestine, the more they understand the similarities between struggles there and in the US

- Andrew Kadi, organiser

“A lot of these moments are milestones. There are multiple turning points,” he said in an interview.

After the Israeli military offensives on Gaza in 2008 and 2012, the far-left came to realise the need for stronger support of Palestinian movements. After events like the 2014 war on Gaza and the 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders, who openly spoke about Palestinian human rights, the issue has now become central to mainstream progressives in the US.

Kadi pointed to the same intersectional issues of solidarity – water rights, police violence – as being a driving force behind this acceptance.

“The more people learn about issues in Palestine, the more they understand the similarities between struggles there and in the US,” he said.

Davis said she also believed it was a turning point for the global pro-Palestinian movement. “Sometimes circumstances beyond our control emerge,” she said, adding that it was important for social movements to be constantly organising.

“When that happens, when the revolutionary time comes, I want to be prepared."

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.