Last Monday it appeared that the Democratic Party was set to rebuke freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for comments she made criticizing the influence of pro-Israel lobbies on U.S. policy, which many perceived to be anti-Semitic. While the initial resolution focused on condemning anti-Semitism, by Thursday evening the House voted 407-23 in favor of a resolution that “encourages all public officials to confront the reality of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and other forms of bigotry, as well as historical struggles against them."
The shift from a resolution that focused specifically on anti-Semitism to one that condemned all forms of bigotry came amid a huge wave of support for Omar from progressive groups and people of color. While last week’s flurry of commentary focused on whether Omar’s comments constituted anti-Semitism, less attention has been paid to the support she received, especially from the left. Congress’s final resolution and vote last Thursday should be seen as a watershed moment in the long history of black-Palestinian solidarity that is shaping how progressives understand the relationship between American foreign and domestic policies.
The backstory behind this uprising is closely intertwined with the history of black internationalism. Malcolm X visited the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian control) in 1964 as part of his tour of Africa and Asia. According to Palestinian poet Harun Hashim Rashid, who accompanied Malcolm on his visit, the black American leader “came to Gaza with a strong desire to learn about the Palestinian cause.” Moved by his visit, Malcolm reportedly told his hosts, “We shall return!”
Malcolm’s life was cut short before he could fulfill his promise but interest in the Palestinian cause grew among black internationalists over the following years. In the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led by proponents of the black power movement, published an article condemning Israel’s occupation of Arab lands and expressing support for the Palestinians as part of their larger anti-imperialist stance.
To be sure, such expressions of solidarity were on the margins of black political activism. Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin was a strong advocate of Israel, organizing full-page ads in major newspapers to rally support for Israel’s actions. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also expressed support for the Jewish state (though his views were more ambivalent than have often been portrayed).
Meanwhile, as Palestinians increasingly positioned their cause as part of a global anti-imperialist struggle, they paid close attention to black internationalists who also opposed American imperialism. When black social justice organizer Angela Davis was imprisoned in 1971 on dubious charges, the Arab Women’s League in Jordan (composed largely of Palestinian women) wrote an open letter to her on International Women’s Day expressing their support. “To all people, you represent the fighter for democracy, peace and progress,” the letter read. “To us, you represent the fighter against the imperialist state backing the Israeli aggression against our people.”
This letter summed up the core belief of early black-Palestinian solidarity: that the fight for full democracy at home required ending American imperialism abroad. Since groups like the Black Panthers saw black Americans as an internal colony, they framed their movement as an anti-colonial struggle. Palestinians, who saw themselves as living under Israeli settler-colonial rule, identified deeply with this framework.
While early expressions of black solidarity with Palestinians were limited to internationalists, the 1970s saw the Palestinian cause start to edge toward the black mainstream. As the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) moved toward tacitly recognizing Israel, some moderate black leaders questioned America’s continued refusal to acknowledge even basic Palestinian claims.
At the same time, many Palestinians who came to the United States in the 1970s were drawn to racial justice activism. In November 1982 Palestinian-American activists and their supporters were among the thousands who protested a Ku Klux Klan rally that had been planned in front of the White House.
Black-Palestinian solidarity grew further as Israel’s increasingly close relationship to the apartheid regime of South Africa in the 1980s led more mainstream black leaders to question America’s alliance with the Jewish state. Although they still clearly recognized Israel’s right to exist, their cooperation with Arab- and Palestinian-American activists on a boycott of the South African regime led them to become more familiar with — and sympathetic to — the Palestinian cause.
While the 1990s saw a dip in such organizing, over the last several years renewed conversations have been taking place between black and Palestinian activists. An important turning point came in summer 2014, when activists noticed striking similarities in the militarized policing tactics used against black American protesters in Ferguson, Mo., and Israeli military actions against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians under occupation tweeted advice to the Ferguson protesters about how to cope with police tear gas, and Palestinian-American activists joined the demonstrations in Ferguson.
The following year, over a thousand black scholars, students, activists and organizations signed the Black Solidarity Statement with Palestinian territories. The statement highlighted the parallels between state violence that both peoples face, including mass incarceration, the use of deadly force against unarmed protesters and collaboration between U.S. and Israeli security forces.
Despite these growing points of connection, black-Palestinian solidarity continues to be largely overlooked. Many black Americans believe that their struggle for full equality in this country should not be intertwined with a foreign policy issue. Others worry that they’ll be accused of anti-Semitism if they speak out too forcefully about Palestinian rights, as civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander admitted in a recent New York Times op-ed.
Those fears are not unfounded. Human rights attorney Noura Erakat recently pointed out that the United States has a long history of punishing black internationalists, many of whom have also been strong supporters of Palestinians.
But change is afoot. As Israel turns increasingly rightward, American support for Israel is falling while support for Palestinians is rising. And as more members of Congress hail from parts of the world directly impacted by American policies, they are questioning fundamental tenets of both U.S. foreign policy and American domestic policy.
More importantly, they are arguing that the two are intertwined. Omar’s platform states, “we must scale back U.S. military activities and reinvest our expansive military budget back into our communities.” It’s part of a push from the left to develop a more robust foreign policy vision that stresses peace and dignity, not just for Americans, but for all.
Those shifts have opened the door for black-Palestinian solidarity activists to gain a greater foothold in American political discourse. In the wake of the proposed resolution condemning anti-Semitism, the U.S. Committee on Palestinian Rights and other social justice groups called on the Democratic leadership to expand the language to condemn all forms of bigotry. This is part of their long-standing belief in what Angela Davis describes as “the spirit of indivisibility of justice.”
Their victory signals a growing consensus that, at least on the left, the struggle for justice is indeed indivisible.
This post has been updated.