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Why black voices matter on Palestine

Prominent black voices expressing solidarity with Palestinians has riled the pro-Israeli lobby
An Israeli flag is flanked by US flags as an attendee listens to US President Mike Pence speak at AIPAC in Washington, 25 March (REUTERS)

In 1979, Andrew Young, the first African American ever appointed as a US ambassador to the UN, was forced to resign because of pressure mounted by pro-Israel groups on then President Carter following Young's meeting with a representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

The Andrew Young episode demonstrated the increasing power of America's pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, and the centring of US-Israel relations at the expense of all other considerations including the career of an African American civil rights icon.  

Rapidly changing landscape

The recent entanglement of Ilhan Omar with AIPAC and pro-Israel organisations is not new, but the outcome points to a rapidly changing socio-political and socio-religious landscape. In 1979, Young did not advocate or speak of Palestinian rights; instead, a mere meeting with the PLO was the sufficient cause for losing his post as UN ambassador.

Indeed, AIPAC’s targeting of 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 who have expressed readiness to challenge the power of the Israel lobby.

AIPAC’s targeting of 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

Just in the past six months alone, Michelle Alexander, Marc Lamont Hill and Angela Davis became targets of pro-Israel organisations, which led to Hill’s firing by CNN and the rescinding of Davis’s award by Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

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 under way despite the difficult cases mentioned earlier.

Historical legacy

African Americans and blacks around the world carry a moral and ethical voice for being the custodians of the historical legacy of 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, in the civil rights movement that brought Jim Crow laws in the US to an end, and the transnational contributions that challenged and won out 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).

Marc Lamont Hill was fired for his speech at the UN (AFP)
Marc Lamont Hill was fired for his speech at the UN (AFP)

Every human rights 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 relation to Palestine is a significant development that is worrisome to AIPAC and pro-Israel forces in the US and Europe.

Omar's "offense" is that she spoke of AIPAC’s immense power on Capitol Hill

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 such as 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 as 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 of speaking out and censorship were always lurking in the background and always heavy-handed. 

A serious question

Can the black and brown subject speak on Palestine? This 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, demonised and marginalised because they test 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,” stated Marc Lamont 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.” 

Omar's "offence" is that she spoke of AIPAC’s immense power on Capitol Hill, which shapes US policies relating to Palestine and the Middle East, a topic that many others before and since have written or spoken about.

What Marc Lamont Hill and Angela Davis faced was the script that AIPAC pursued in the orchestrated attacks on Omar, which continues up to this present day. 

What Marc Lamont Hill and Angela Davis faced was the script that AIPAC pursued in the orchestrated attacks on Omar, which continues up to this present day

The intense campaign directed at Congresswoman Omar after taking on AIPAC directly and supporting Palestinian civil society’s call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, was aimed at marginalising and silencing her voice, a normative pattern for black and brown subjects who dare to speak out.

Omar's retort back to a reporter's 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 demand Omar's removal from the House Foreign Relations Committee after she criticised Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and expressed open support for BDS.  

The stage of the 2018 AIPAC conference (Reuters/File photo)
The stage of the 2018 AIPAC conference (Reuters/File photo)

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 Omar and Rashida Tlaib because of their criticism of Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine and readiness to break away from the constructed boundaries. 

Significant defeat

Shortly after Congresswoman Omar uttered the phrase, the Republicans, American Zionist organisations and right-wing media outlets mounted a relentless public attack on her. The rapid news cycle and intense attacks pointed to a possible quick victory for AIPAC, as the Democratic leadership buckled and introduced a resolution to condemn Omar on the floor of the House.

The grassroots push back over Omar was a significant defeat for AIPAC

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 AIPAC.

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 for AIPAC and the major American Zionist organisations.  

Before Omar's showdown, AIPAC and important American Zionist organisations 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.  

Connecting the struggles

What made this clear shift possible is a slow process that culminated with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement several years ago and the immediate Palestinian connections made across continents.

US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) and US Representative from Michigan Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) (REUTERS)
US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) and US Representative from Michigan Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) (REUTERS)

Here the extensive historical links dating back to the 1960s and 70s, between the Palestinian movement and African American activists reconnected after a decade or two of distance and lack of systematic organisational development on both sides.

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Connecting the struggles and voices was cemented when a group of black journalists, artists and organisers representing Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and others joined the Dream Defenders group 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 facade began to crumble around Israel’s relations with South Africa's apartheid white supremacist government, which made it very difficult to claim a progressive or liberal standing.

Consequently, the building blocks for the BDS movement and the eventual embrace of the Palestine cause by a sizeable segment of the African American leadership can be traced to the alliances that were formed around the South African anti-apartheid struggle.

An Islamophobic dimension

The attacks on Omar has an Islamophobic dimension as well, which is centred on her wearing the hijab and being visibly Muslim.

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It is not a secret that more than 70 percent of the Islamophobia industry funding comes from pro-Israel sources and Omar's presence in Congress funnels all the Islamophobic venom into a single target.  

For the pro-Israel Islamophobes, Omar'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 civilisation itself.

AIPAC and its pro-Israel allies use Islamophobic discourse to target Omar because she represents the chrystallisation of a future horizon in which the new emerging Democratic leadership is no longer beholden to Israel and is ready to express solidarity with the Palestinians.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hatem Bazian
Hatem Bazian is co-founder and Professor of Islamic Law and Theology at Zaytuna College, the 1st Accredited Muslim Liberal Arts College in the United States. Also, Bazian is a teaching professor in the Departments of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Founder and Director of the Islamophobia Studies Center and Founder and National Chairman of American Muslims for Palestine.