From Ferguson to PalestineReimagining Transnational Solidarity Through Difference
Using the genre of life writing, I explore how the praxis of Palestine delegation work spotlighted the contours, possibilities, and limits of how I understood and performed Black-Palestinian political solidarity. Focusing on three particular experiences that stem from a 2014 "Palestine to Ferguson" solidarity delegation, I examine how the trip created spaces for critical reflection, self-critique, and reconsideration of my own identity as a political ally. Such insights are critical for understanding the political possibilities of the Movement for Black Lives as a transnational (and anti-colonial) political project. They also allow us to reimagine political solidarity in ways that yield a more effective, humane, and transformative liberation praxis.
"Why are you coming into my country?" the agent at the immigration desk at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv asked me upon my arrival in Israel in January 2015. Although jarred by the woman's question, and the stern tone with which it was offered, I remained calm. I replied that I was visiting Israel on a two-week tour and that I would be visiting popular tourist sites in Jerusalem and Nazareth. I also mentioned that I was interested in seeing classic Christian religious sites like Mount Zion, the Via Dolorosa, and the Church of the Annunciation.
Although everything that I told the agent was technically true, it was certainly not so in spirit. While I planned to visit each of the places that I mentioned, my purpose in Israel was not at all religious. I was actually joining #DDPalestine, a delegation organized by the Florida-based activist group the Dream Defenders. The delegation was comprised of Black activists, artists, organizers, and journalists, all of whom were affiliated with the activist network that would later be called the Movement for Black Lives. While the delegation had been planned for more than a year, its focus became even sharper in the summer of 2014 due to the high-profile international protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, as well as Israel's fifty-one-day air and ground attack on the Gaza Strip. The delegation to Palestine was intended to provide "a chance to see the land and occupation up close, while engaging in dialogue and relationship building with Palestinians on the ground engaged in the struggle for justice" ("DD Palestine").
"Oh. A religious tour. So you will be going to Bethlehem too, no?" the immigration agent asked. [End Page 942]
Given her tone, as well as my pre-delegation training, I assumed that this was a trick question designed to see if I was planning to enter Palestinian territory while on my trip. Although I worried that it seemed implausible, I still told her that I wasn't planning to go anywhere except Jerusalem and Nazareth. "Better to be safe than sorry," I said to myself.
The agent then proceeded to ask me a string of questions to which I was more accustomed, like whether anyone had packed my bags for me and if my luggage had ever been left unattended. Just as I started feeling comfortable with her line of questioning, the agent sat up in her chair, opened her eyes widely, and leaned forward. In a voice that was suddenly deep but barely louder than a whisper, she then pivoted to an entirely different question: "Will you be seeing any Arabs?"
I probably shouldn't have been as shocked as I was by the agent's question. After all, I was fully aware of Israel's cultural, social, and juridical position toward Palestinians, whom the state officially refers to as Arabs. I understood that Palestinians, both those with "full" citizenship within the State of Israel and those living within the territories occupied during the Six Day War of 1967, were collectively viewed as "impossible citizens" (Vora) whose very existence posed a demographic and material threat to the settler-colonial project.1 Still, the disdain with which she said the word "Arabs," and the matter-of-fact manner with which she uttered it, unsettled me in ways that I was unprepared to handle.
Countless responses went through my head as I prepared to answer. I wanted to point out the absurdity of her question, given that 1.6 million Palestinians comprise 20 percent of Israel's population, not to mention the more than 4 million Palestinians living within the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza.2 How could anyone travel there and not see Arabs? I wanted to defiantly tell her that I was, in fact, going to visit Arabs: Palestinian Arabs. I wanted to turn the rhetorical tables and ask her, with unmistakable outrage, "What's wrong with seeing Arabs anyway?"
Instead of giving any of these answers, I remembered what I was told by countless activists within and outside of Palestine while preparing for the trip: Do whatever you need to do to get through Israeli security with as little drama as possible. I knew that by presenting myself as a Black American Christian visiting the Holy Land, I would allay any lingering anxieties about my being a Palestine sympathizer. Instead, I would be viewed as an acceptable visitor whose presence helps ideologically to fuel and economically fund the Zionist project. With this in mind, despite all of my anger and frustration, I calmly responded, "No. I'm not planning to see anyone in particular. I'm just going to see the religious sites." After momentarily mulling my vague but acceptable [End Page 943] answer, the agent snapped my picture and threw my passport and border control clearance back at me. As I walked away, she mumbled smugly, "Enjoy my country."
Although I felt that I had given the best possible answer under the circumstances, I still felt uncomfortable with my choice. I hated the idea of remaining silent, thereby normalizing anti-Arab racism. I felt complicit. I felt helpless. I felt like I had failed to stand up for my Palestinian sisters and brothers.
After getting through immigration, I met up with two other members of the delegation, Liana and Joyce, in the baggage claim area.3 The three of us had shared the same flight into Tel Aviv, and we exchanged remarkably similar stories about our experience at the immigration desk. I was then introduced to several other members of the delegation who informed me that Jahlil, another delegate, was being held for extended questioning. We assumed that Jahlil's full government name, which signified Muslim and Black Nationalist origins, triggered the Israeli security apparatus, an assumption that Jahlil confirmed when he finally emerged after an hour of questioning. For the next few hours, members of the delegation bonded with one another by comparing their initial experiences in Israel to the racial realities of the United States. Although the perception of racism was more overt in the Ben Gurion airport than we were used to, I immediately felt a sense of connection to the Palestinian freedom struggle through what I understood at the moment to be our shared experience of racism.
As we finally prepared to leave the airport, our assigned driver approached and informed us that the delegation organizers, Kareem and Amina, wouldn't be meeting us at the airport. The two had traveled through Amman, Jordan, rather than Tel Aviv and were still being detained at the border. Several members of the group asked, in a mildly annoyed tone, why they chose to land in Jordan and then take two buses into Jericho rather than simply meeting us in Tel Aviv. The driver calmly explained that, although Amina was an American citizen with an American passport, her Syrian heritage and last name would be seen as a security threat to Israeli officials, who would likely not admit her into the country. He also explained that Kareem, who was born in Jerusalem and whose parents have roots in Hebron and Haifa that go back centuries before the establishment of the State of Israel, was not legally permitted into Israel, much less the Ben Gurion airport. Although he had an American passport, which entitles him to movement throughout both Israel and Palestine, he was nonetheless marked as a resident of the West Bank. As a practical matter, the only identification that the state recognized was his hawiyyah (identity card), which restricted his movement to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. [End Page 944]
At this point, I realized that I couldn't relate to what Kareem and Amina were experiencing. As a Black American, I had been welcomed into Israel with relatively little trouble. The only members in our group who experienced significant trouble were those whose names or faces were read as potentially Palestinian. While it was apparent that race was a significant factor in Israel, it was equally clear that being Black within this context was far less of a social and structural demerit than being Arab. I suddenly recognized that my identity within this context was different than at home, and that any solidarity work that I engaged in with Palestinians would look and feel radically different.
This was the first of many moments on the delegation when I was exposed to the lived realities of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. Through the active praxis of delegation work, which transformed me into what Alhassen calls an "engaged witness," I had a range of experiences that spotlighted the contours, possibilities, and limits of how I understood and performed Black-Palestinian political solidarity. Using the genre of life writing, I explore how three particular experiences created space for reflection, self-critique, and reconsideration of my own identity as a political ally.4 Such insights are critical for understanding the political possibilities of the Movement for Black Lives as a transnational (and anti-colonial) political project. They also allow us to reimagine political solidarity in ways that yield a more effective, humane, and transformative liberation praxis.
black like me
The day after arriving in Tel Aviv, we began our delegation activities with a tour of the Old City in Jerusalem. As we approached the Damascus Gate, we were met by our guide, Isa, who had been patiently waiting for us. Isa was an Afro-Palestinian whose family had settled in Jerusalem from Chad at the beginning of the twentieth century and, he proudly noted, "more than fifty years prior to the establishment of the State of Israel." A former political prisoner, Isa was incarcerated from 1968 until 1985 for participating in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) resistance movement. Since his release, he has served as a professional tour guide, providing what he calls "alternative tours" of Israel and Palestine. On his tours, Isa spotlights not only the daily challenges of Israeli occupation, but also the influential role of African-descended Palestinians in the history, culture, and resistance efforts of Palestine.
"Welcome to Palestine, my brothers and sisters," Isa said to us with warm and welcoming sincerity. "I know many of you did not know that Africans were here. But we are. Let me show you the Palestine that they don't want you [End Page 945] to see." Isa then proceeded to give us a tour of the Old City, taking us to familiar tourist sites like Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Wailing Wall, as well as the lesser-known African Quarter, a small community of Palestinians largely descended from Senegel, Sudan, Nigeria, and Chad who have lived in the area long since before the Nakba.
Like the rest of the delegates, I was shocked to see so many Black and Brown faces, most of which looked like the ones I had seen while traveling through West Africa, the Caribbean, France, and Brooklyn. Isa explained that the three hundred and fifty people living in the African Quarter were a mere fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Afro-Palestinians living in areas like Jerusalem, Jericho, Acre, Gaza, and the Negev. I felt a tremendous sense of peace and comfort as I exchanged greetings, smiles, and conversations with the Afro-Palestinians. As Isa finished the tour, he vocally echoed the thought that was formulating in my head: "Brothers and sisters, I know that you are committed to justice for the Black people in the United States. I must tell you that the struggle to liberate Palestine is a Black struggle. Why do I say that? Because there are Black people here."
The choice to introduce us to Afro-Palestinians, as well as the decision to make Isa's tour the first stop on the delegation, was not accidental. In subsequent conversations with delegation organizers, as well as the leaders of other Palestine delegations for people of color, I learned that the decision to spotlight people of color was strategically intended to create personal and affective connections between Black delegates and Palestinians. As Isa later told me, "People are more likely to fight for people who look like them. When Black visitors see me, they see their own face. And they immediately pay more attention to our condition."
Isa's analysis proved accurate, as I felt more personally and directly tied to the Palestinian struggle after meeting the Afro-Palestinian community in Jerusalem. I was not alone, as the other delegates were equally motivated and engaged. For many of us, this feeling was rooted in the strong presence of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism in our individual political formations. After our tour with Isa, many of us expressed surprise and embarrassment over our prior lack of knowledge of Afro-Palestinians. We spent hours discussing the erasure of Afro-Palestinians from the Palestinian narrative and the broader public imagination, wondering whether it was not only an outgrowth of white supremacy but also an attempt to undermine the possibility of an effective pan-African political project. We also began to strategize about how to specifically address the existence of Afro-Palestinians in our solidarity work once we returned to the United States. [End Page 946]
Although helpful for heightening our engagement, our framing of Afro-Palestinians as an extension of a Black Nationalist or Pan-Africanist political project was also deeply problematic. Although the Afro-Palestinians with whom I spoke openly acknowledged their African ancestry, they were equally clear that they self-identified as Palestinians first. As Mahmoud, an Afro-Palestinian activist with whom I had extensive conversation and debate, told me, "We are from Africa like you. But our history does not allow us to be African. We are, most importantly, Palestinian first." When I (and other delegates) challenged this logic by pointing to the universal presence of white supremacy and anti-Blackness, as well as the clear existence of racism within Palestinian society, Mahmoud became frustrated with me:
Brother, you and I will not agree about racism. Islam destroyed the racism from Arab society more than a thousand years ago. The only racism that I experience is from the Israeli government. I do not have the fortune, like you, to talk about being African. I live under occupation. I am oppressed for being Palestinian. [You and I] look the same but we do not live under the same conditions. You Black Americans must learn to help us on our terms, not yours.
Although I strongly disagreed with Mahmoud's assessment of racism among Palestinians, and Arab society more broadly, I was nonetheless moved by his critique of how I (and other delegates) understood and performed political solidarity. By linking our solidarity praxis to a rigid conception of "shared Blackness," we began to fetishize "sameness" in ways that obscured key contextual and discursive differences. Specifically, we ignored how the construct of race, and more particularly Blackness, had been constituted within the Palestinian context. Also, rather than understanding Afro-Palestinian racial politics and its relationship to the Palestinian freedom struggle, we ultimately framed their political struggle on our terms rather than theirs.
By linking our support for Palestinians to the presence of Afro-Palestinians even as a strategic practice, we were also reinforcing an ethically problematic solidarity praxis. What did it mean for shared Blackness to be a precondition for deeper political engagement? Similar to men who can only acknowledge or empathize with the victims of patriarchy or sexism when they have a personal connection to them, such as recognizing its impact on their own daughters, the need to empathize with Palestinians purely on the basis of sameness ("They're Black too!") represents a troublesome political solipsism that demands sameness or personal connection as a precondition for engaged intervention. [End Page 947]
A few days after Jerusalem, the delegation arrived in Ramallah, where we met with a group of West Bank activists to discuss Palestinian water rights. At the end of the meeting, Mustafa, a twenty-five-year-old activist from Jericho, stood up and said, "I want to thank each of you for actually showing up." Reading the confused look on our faces, which reflected our literal interpretation of his words, he continued, "No. I'm not just thanking you for showing up here. I'm thanking you for showing up for us. For Palestinians." Mustafa went on to explain he was inspired by the number of Black activists in the United States who were including the occupation of Palestine in their work. Dina, another member of the West Bank group, noted that she was impressed that the founders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, made a point to highlight the occupation of Palestine as a critical issue in the contemporary Black liberation struggle. As we neared the end of the conversation, Mustafa reiterated his gratitude: "Thank you again for showing up. This is the key to our victory."
The following day, while sitting at a café in downtown Ramallah, I was approached by Sharief, a nineteen-year-old Palestinian man. After telling me that he liked my Black Panther Party T-shirt, we struck up a conversation in Palestinian Arabic about the delegation, as well as a broader conversation about global politics and the need for international solidarity movements between Blacks in the West and Palestinians. Before the conversation ended, he asked me to bring the delegates to a rally protesting Israeli state violence that was taking place in Nabi Saleh that evening. When I told him that we were unlikely to attend because of the delegation schedule, he repeatedly insisted that I try to make it, saying "Haawul ya zalameh!" ["Try, man!"]. He then continued, "Biddi iyak teeji 'ala al muZahirah 'ashan Daruri al filisTiniyin wa as-Suwd yusaaniduw b'aDhum al b'aD" [I want you to come to the rally because it's important that Palestinians and Blacks support one another].5
The importance of "showing up" was also expressed in the Black-Palestinian activist engagements that I witnessed back in the United States. A few months before the delegation, I was in Ferguson, Missouri, during the summer rebellions that emerged after unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. For the next few weeks—as a journalist covering the story for a national television network, a cultural anthropologist studying the relationships between digital media and political organizing, and a lifelong activist committed to resisting state violence—I remained on the streets of Ferguson observing and participating in a number of protest actions. As I walked through the Ferguson protests, I saw the usual mix of left-wing activist causes being promoted, from reproductive [End Page 948] justice to anti-capitalism to freeing political prisoners. What was unusual, however, was the strong presence of Palestinian activists distributed throughout the crowd.
Every day that I was in Ferguson, I saw a larger-than-usual number (based on my activist experience) of self-identified Palestinians wearing traditional keffiyah and marching the streets along with the rest of the crowd. In addition to the normal array of signs calling to "Free Palestine" and "End the Occupation," the majority of the Palestinian activists were holding signs calling for justice in the shooting of Mike Brown and shouting protest chants critical of white supremacy and racism in the United States criminal justice system. In my conversations with the Palestinian activists who attended the rally, many articulated some iteration of the phrase "showing up" to describe their presence at the Ferguson uprisings. For example, Hanan, a second-generation Palestinian-American and president of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at a local university, told me that her SJP chapter "finally realized that we need to show up for our Black family if we ever want them to support us too."
As these examples suggest, the concept of "showing up" was a central theme throughout the delegation. "Showing up" refers not only to the literal act of being physically present within a particular space but also to expressions and gestures of political solidarity on behalf of others. In contrast to our gestures of solidarity with Afro-Palestinians, which hinged on a strategic essentialism that prioritized sameness among ostensibly different communities ("we should help because they're one of us"), "showing up" begins from the premise that others are not like us in particular ways but nonetheless merit support. With regard to Black-Palestinian activism, "showing up" has a long and consistent history that includes Malcolm X's meeting with the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee's declaration of solidarity with Palestinians during the Six Day War, and Huey Newton's critiques of Zionism (see Feldman; Lubin), as well as the current pro-BDS activities of academics like Angela Davis and Robin Kelley (see Davis, Freedom; Kelley). This tradition spotlights the value of "showing up" as a moral and ethical achievement and a fecund site for producing new coalitions, global critical analysis, and transnational political imaginaries.
Despite its virtues, the discourse of "showing up" throughout the delegation was also problematic. Often, people talked about "showing up" as a solidarity practice that was commensurate with the political solidarity they received from another community; the support that they gave was directly linked to what they had already been given or what they expected to receive. For example, Hanan's acknowledgment that "we need to show up for our Black family if we ever want them to support us too" not only reflected an [End Page 949] embrace of political pragmatism, but also a transactional understanding of political solidarity. This was also evidenced in the comments of the delegates, who stated that their increased engagement with pro-Palestinian activism was directly linked to the growing number of Palestinians (and other Arabs) they saw supporting pro-Black protests. This sentiment was captured by Pat, one of the delegates:
I've been organizing and working for social justice for ten years, but to be honest, I just started really focusing on Palestine recently. Not because I didn't know about it before, but because I just felt like they were over there and we were over here. It wasn't until they started showing up for us that I really felt the need to really push hard for them.
Pat's statement reflects both the value and pitfalls of "showing up" as the governing logic of solidarity practice. Rather than "showing up" out of ethical ambition, individuals or groups often engage in a "transactional solidarity" (Sarna) that creates weak, ephemeral, or highly contingent political alliances. While these quid pro quo forms of solidarity can be used to mobilize allies and expand coalitions, they also engender forms of isolation and abandonment for vulnerable populations that lack the resources or organization to offer reciprocal levels of political engagement. Moreover, they also promote a neoliberal market logic that assesses solidarity practices not by their correspondence to ethico-political ideals but rather in terms of exchange value.
solidarity through difference
A few days after leaving Ramallah, the delegation traveled to the West Bank city of Hebron to tour the city and meet with local activists. As we entered the city, we approached a "flying checkpoint," or a makeshift Israeli military barricade randomly placed on Palestinian and Israeli roads as an ostensible security measure. Ali, one of our local tour guides, explained that Israeli soldiers would soon be boarding our bus to conduct an inspection. After obeying the soldiers' gesture to pull over, Hamid, our driver, instructed us to answer their questions as efficiently as possible and not to "look scared or guilty." Ali ordered the driver to turn on gospel music as a way of reinforcing the notion that we were both Black and American. He also told the Arabs on the bus to move toward the rear seats in an effort to "mix in" with the Black Americans. After making us wait on the side of the road for twenty minutes, five soldiers armed with machine guns took turns walking up and down the aisle of the bus. After the fifth soldier finished his inspection, he turned to our driver and said in Hebrew: "Nice music. They look like good people. They can come in."6 [End Page 950]
After arriving in Hebron, we began our walk down Shuhada' Street, the main commercial strip in the city. We were immediately stopped by two Israeli soldiers, one of whom demanded to know why we were approaching the Jewish settlement area. Ali explained that we were "American tourists looking to visit the Mosque and the Jewish quarter." The soldier then demanded to see our passports. As we started to reach for them, the soldier clarified, "Just the Arabs!" Amina showed the soldier her American passport, and after nearly two minutes of close inspection and whispering, was permitted to continue walking. Kareem, one of the trip organizers, showed them his West Bank ID while preemptively explaining that he hadn't intended to walk any further. The soldiers cracked a huge smile and said, in unison, "Good." At this point, rather than giving the soldiers the satisfaction of rejecting their hawiyyaat, Ali and his two friends turned around and walked back toward our tour bus. The soldiers smiled again.
After leaving the soldiers, we began our walking tour of the Jewish Quarter. As soon as we entered the area, we were once again stopped by IDF soldiers. As we showed them our passports, several Israeli settlers glared at us as they jogged by, wearing shorts, tank tops, and carrying assault rifles. One of the joggers stopped running, turned around, and walked back toward us. Reading the concern on our faces, one of the soldiers said to us, "Relax. He won't hurt you. He's just a resident making sure that I am okay. You have nothing to worry about unless you are a troublemaker." As he uttered the words "troublemaker," the soldier cut his eye at Amina, the only Arab who was still walking with the group. As we walked away, I asked Amina how she was feeling. She replied with a single word: "unsafe." Given that we had just left Ibrahimi Mosque, the historic religious site where Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born Israeli settler, murdered twenty-six Palestinians and wounded one hundred twenty-five others as they prayed, I assumed that the settler's intimidation tactics had proven effective. Without explanation, I asked the rest of the delegation if we could end the walking tour early and return to the Palestinian area. Everyone agreed.
After passing through another (permanent) checkpoint, we eventually arrived at Hebron market. As we passed through the market, I noticed that a wire mesh ceiling was hovering above us everywhere we went. I asked one of the juice vendors why the wire was there, and he explained that it was "there to stop the settlers from throwing things at us." Without changing expression, he matter-of-factly added that "they still pour urine and bleach at us, but it's better than rocks and glass." While in the market we met Muna, an elderly Palestinian woman whose family had lived in a home that, after more than five generations, was now adjacent to an Israeli settlement. Muna turned [End Page 951] red with anger as she detailed how settlers were constantly disconnecting her water and power supplies. She cried as she described how one of her settler neighbors had shot her husband, nearly killing him, and permanently blinded her son with a "bleach bombing." Several members of the delegation, including me, cried as we left Muna and returned to our bus, where Ali and his two friends had now been waiting for hours. When we apologized for the delay, Ali replied that he was "used to it around here." We drove back to Bethlehem, where we ate dinner and debriefed.
During our debriefing session, as well as future conversations, nearly everyone described Hebron as the most emotionally challenging stop on the delegation trip. As we went around the table discussing our experiences, many of the delegates used words like "painful" and "depressing" to describe what they had witnessed. The consistent narrative was that, more than the other cities that we visited, Hebron offered up-close and unambiguous examples of life under occupation: the injustice of unlawful military searches, the ritual humiliation of daily checkpoints, and the terror of arbitrary violence. For me, however, the emotional weight of Hebron was not only linked to seeing the tactics of a settler-colonial apartheid state up close. Although I didn't have the language to share how I was feeling at dinner, I began to unpack my sentiments later that night in my field notes:
Today was by far the most depressing day of the delegation. Even though everybody told me that Hebron would be difficult to experience, it was far worse than I anticipated. Still, I don't believe that my sadness is merely linked to the oppression that I witnessed up close. Even though it was worse than I expected, I was still mentally prepared for Israeli state violence. What I didn't prepare for, however, was the sense of "outsiderness" that I felt while everything was happening. Until now, I didn't realize just how different I would feel.
My stay in Hebron was the first time in my life, other than briefly at the airport, when I felt like my race was not the primary target of oppression. Although my identities as "male," "straight," and "cis-gendered" had afforded me a range of unmerited privileges throughout my life, and I had traveled to other countries where my American identity shielded me from certain forms of symbolic and material violence, I had never experienced a context where being Black made me feel like a more welcomed and desirable subject in the eyes of state power.7
The next morning at breakfast, I brought up this notion of "outsiderness" with several of the delegates. I expressed how disorienting it was to see the cultural tropes of Blackness (for example, gospel music) operating as a palliative, at least momentarily, to state violence. I felt ashamed as Kareem, Ali, and the [End Page 952] others were prohibited from walking around their homeland while my American passport afforded me complete freedom of movement. I felt powerless to protect Amina from the threat of violence from Israeli settlers and soldiers, whose definition of "troublemaker" was likely linked to Arab identity. I felt guilty for returning to a comfortable hotel while Muna's family and home remained under the constant threat of settler terrorism. I didn't feel like a strong ally or partner in struggle. I felt complicit. I felt helpless. I felt different.
I wasn't alone in my sentiments. The delegates with whom I had spoken at breakfast shared my sense of guilt and helplessness in the aftermath of the Hebron trip. Fred, one of the delegates, explained:
For the first time, I know what it's like to be white. I'm serious! I can walk through this country any time I want. I can go wherever I want. When I get off the plane, I'm not the one they're looking for. … [IDF soldiers] don't stop me unless I'm with a Palestinian or somebody who looks Palestinian. I'm saying, I don't like this kind of privilege. In fact, it makes me feel like shit. Still, I now know that I'm different. (emphasis added)
Although I disagreed with Fred's claim about experiencing whiteness—such an argument ignores the myriad ways that white supremacy and anti-Black racism operate as global social, cultural, economic, and psychological forces, as well as the specific ways that anti-Black racism is normative within the Israeli nation-state—I, along with other delegates, agreed with his assertion that the trip to Hebron radically reoriented our thinking by not only spotlighting our relative privilege but also the critical salience of difference.
For many of the delegates, our expressed understandings of solidarity were largely predicated on broad conceptions of "sameness." Whether we were recognizing a shared "Blackness" with Afro-Palestinians or advocating for a collaborative activist agenda by "showing up" for Palestinian comrades, our conceptions of solidarity were largely reflective of a preoccupation with political and phenomenological sameness. This preoccupation both reflected and informed many of our delegation experiences. For example, in our conversations before, during, and after the trip, many delegates frequently used terms like "shared struggle" and "common enemy" to describe the relationship between Palestinians and Black Americans. When discussing Israeli settlement expansion with a local activist group, a member of the delegation suggested that the practice was "just like gentrification in the United States," while several other delegates nodded in agreement. As we walked through various Israeli checkpoints, several members of our delegation remarked that they were "the exact same thing as 'stop and frisk' in New York." [End Page 953]
While pedagogically helpful for highlighting the global nature of systemic oppression and practically useful for developing broader networks of resistance, an exclusive focus on sameness is also problematic. By focusing on shared oppression as a means of creating networks of solidarity, we also obscure other forms of oppression that are equally significant to particular members of an oppressed group. For example, Black feminist scholars have long critiqued liberal white feminists for focusing exclusively on gender oppression while ignoring the role of race, class, and other factors as equally influential in the lives of Black women (see Davis, Women; Hill-Collins; hooks). In doing so, we not only ignore the particular modes through which Black women experience gender oppression, we also reduce our capacity to recognize and dismantle the systems of oppressions that produce it. Similarly, with regard to Black-Palestinian solidarity, we must not only focus on the shared experiences of white supremacy and settler colonialism but also the distinctive features of life under Israeli occupation that give the Palestinian struggle its distinctive character.
After the trip to Hebron, I began to reflect more on the differences between life in an anti-Black American nation-state and an Israeli settler-colonial state. Yes, as a Black American, I could relate to stories of job and housing discrimination. But I had no direct experience with the kind of de jure social exclusion that occurs for Palestinian citizens of Israel. And while Black citizens of the United States have a long history of second-class citizenship, both as a juridical construct and practical reality, I could not personally relate to the kind of legalized second-class citizenship that accompanies twenty-first century life in the occupied Palestinian territories. As unsafe as I feel when my car is pulled over by American police or when I travel through the Southern United States, I never have felt the type of vulnerability and ritualized hate that I saw in Hebron. This is not to suggest that Palestinian oppression is more or less severe than that of Black Americans, or that there is any value in drawing such a comparison. Rather, I am arguing that understanding and acknowledging difference enables us to engage in deeper forms of solidarity work.
towards a deeper solidarity work
Although I have problematized its use, I am not arguing for a wholesale rejection of "sameness" as a strategic trope or tactic of solidarity praxis. Such a rejection would ignore the range of ways that oppressed people are collectively united under global forces such as capitalism, patriarchy, or white supremacy. Doing so would also obscure how the innately human instinct to individually or collectively identify with a struggle, condition, or identity can be effectively used for political education and mobilization. As a practical matter, [End Page 954] such a rejection could also serve as the foundation for ideological purity tests, in which the intention behind one's political work is prioritized over the work itself. Rather than arguing against "sameness," I am arguing against its fetishization.
In order to engage in a deeper solidarity politics, we must embrace "difference" as the central feature of our solidarity praxis. By engaging in solidarity work through difference, we are pushed to dislodge ourselves from positions of comfort and certainty. Rather than assuming that we understand problems, we are challenged to enter a posture of "deep listening" (Schultz), where we listen to and for difference, account for acts of silencing, and attempt to understand the world through the eyes of others. Instead of merely expressing agreement and support on our own terms, we ask questions such as, "What are the historically specific dimensions of your struggle?," "What are your particular needs?," or "How can I make you feel supported?" Such questions allow for richer, stronger, and more reciprocal bonds of solidarity (Atshan and Moore).
As this article and this broader special issue demonstrate, the project of solidarity-building is also advanced through a serious engagement with the various genres and practices of life writing. By recounting our own stories, as well as deeply engaging those of others, we are better equipped to understand the various and culturally specific experiences of individuals and communities. These experiences are the foundation for producing the radical ethical transnational solidarity praxis that is the Movement for Black Lives.
Marc Lamont Hill is the Steve Charles Professor of Media, Cities, and Solutions at Temple University. He is the author of multiple books, including Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, From Ferguson to Flint and Beyond (Atria Books, 2016). His current research focuses on race in the Middle East, Black-Palestinian solidarity projects, and an ethnographic study of an Afro-Palestinian community in East Jerusalem.
1. Despite having ostensibly full citizenship within the State of Israel, Arabs remain marginalized not only through cultural practices but also through more than fifty discriminatory laws. For specific examples, see the "Discriminatory Laws Database" created by human-rights organization Adalah.
2. In this article, I make particular distinctions between Israel and Palestine as geographical and political entities. When I refer to Israel, I am referring specifically to the Israeli nation-state created in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and expanded by military occupation during the Six Day War of 1967. When I reference Palestine, however, I am making several different political gestures. When invoking Palestine in juxtaposition to the State of Israel, I am speaking specifically of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip territories that comprise the State of Palestine. This does not, however, mean that I believe in the legitimacy of these borders as a political ideal, specifically with regard to a political solution. Rather, I advocate the establishment of a singular, secular, and democratic state that offers safety, security, and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. As such, when I reference my time in Palestine, or speak of a "free Palestine," I am referring to all of historic Palestine—from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. And when I reference Palestinians, I am including those living in the occupied areas, Arab citizens of Israel, refugees, and those living throughout the diaspora.
3. I have elected to use pseudonyms to describe the delegates and other individuals mentioned throughout this article.
4. Although this article is written in the genre of life writing, its insights are drawn from traditional ethnographic fieldwork. The quotes and stories offered in this article are drawn from fieldnotes that I took while operating as a participant-observer on the delegation.
5. Although I translate Sharief as saying "support" rather than "showing up," given the colloquial (and therefore not perfectly translatable) nature of the expression "showing up," his choice of words are considerably close in meaning to the English phrase "showing up." Specifically, Sharief chose the verb saanid, which is used in Palestinian Arabic to express the colloquial American English phrases "stand up" or "show up" with respect to offering support. In my own experience, as well as that of the native speakers with whom I consulted, this phrase is distinct from da'am, which literally means "to support."
6. I do not speak Hebrew. Hamid offered a translation after we pulled away from the checkpoint.
7. Again, this is not to suggest that anti-Blackness is not a central feature of the Israeli nation-state. Rather, the ethnic and racial hierarchies within the state simply prioritized anti-Palestinian discourses over anti-Black ones.