Some 300 academics, activists, community leaders and students from all across the United States of America assembled on the University of Pennsylvania to hear panel discussions, attend workshops, listen to keynote addresses and learn of how we all may coöperate in expanding the boycott, divestment and sanction movement (BDS), directed at Israel’s apartheid system; the PennBDS conference was meant to be a force of unity, a vast group of artists, students, activists, writers, professors et al., allied in order to build an alliance against the occupation in Palestine.
There were an assortment of breakout sessions spread out during the day; from “The Economics of Israeli Occupation” to “Queer Organizing and BDS” – I attended at least six breakout sessions during the conference, one of the most striking for me being “BDS and The Black Community” featuring Bill Fletcher, Jr., Rev. Graylan Hagler and Rev. Carolyn Boyd. The panel’s humble community leaders, church leaders and activists discussed the role of the black community and Palestine.
The “BDS and The Black Community” session meant to answer the following questions:
1. What are the prospects for mobilizing the American black community around the issue of Palestine?
2. How can the ongoing black struggle in the U.S. forge links with Palestinians struggling under Israeli apartheid?
Rev. Carolyn Boyd, adjunct minister of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, began the session by discussing her life-changing encounter with the occupation in Palestine, that she had first traveled to Palestine as a part of an African heritage delegation and “witnessed oppression first-hand”:
“I saw oppression, colonization and apartheid in Palestine. I saw the very ugly, uncompromising truth. I saw the systematic ethnic cleansing of a people; the expansive and unjust military rule. I understood at a personal level the struggle against oppression [in Palestine]. It reminded me of the struggle of Blacks/Latinos in the U.S. Remember, justice in the United States is not divorced from justice in Palestine. “
All three speakers, from Rev. Boyd to Bill Fletcher, put the occupation in the context of minority oppression; framing the ill-treatment of African-Americans, Latino’s et al. in the United States of America alongside the subjugation of Palestinians and Blacks, who also suffer tremendously, dubbed “third class citizens” by Rev. Boyd, under Israeli apartheid. The degradation of the Black community in Israel is just as institutionalized as that of the Palestinians; though in the case of Israel’s Black inhabitants the pro-Israel lobby courts African-Americans abroad, seeking out new collaborators. But, as racial justice activist Bill Fletcher, editor of BlackCommentator and a Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, indicated during the “BDS and The Black Community” session by the late 1960s, African-American leaders such as Malcolm X, began to openly criticize both Israel and the oppressive, ethnocratic philosophy of Zionism:
“The emergence of support within the black community for Palestinians rose after 1967 and this is still a legitimate view. We must show that the struggle of Palestinians is similar to Black struggle; it is not an abstraction, it is there. The Israeli Government has active programs that reach into the black community; we counter this through organization, criticism.”
Rev. Graylan Haglar, Senior Minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, a long time advocate for racial, economic and social justice, who led the Free South Africa Movement and called for divestment from the former apartheid regime, stood, much like he would in church and passionately made the case for boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel:
“It is hard to communicate the Palestinian issue to the black community and black church due to terminology: Zionism. Most who attend church don’t even know there are such things as Palestinian Christians in Palestine.”
Rev. Haglar went on to say that “…there is an empire-theology that is protected by the media; we seek liberation-theology.” The word empire struck a very strong chord with me personally, as the occupation in Palestine has long been associated with the unwavering push for militarism in both apartheid Israel and the United States.
During Operation Cast Lead, the most recent assault on the people of the besieged Gaza Strip wherein over 1,300 innocent civilians, including over 300 children, were slaughtered by Israeli Forces, the Blacks Against Genocide Coalition issued a statement that read in part:
“We, Black people in the United States, condemn the criminal Israeli attacks on the people of Gaza. These war crimes are being conducted with the overt material and unapologetic political backing of the U.S. government.
Most importantly, we have learned the lessons of four centuries of racist oppression in the Western hemisphere: that the liberation struggles of the oppressed must not be divided by language, geography, gender, religion or race; that if they come for Gaza in the morning, they will most certainly come for Harlem at night.”
The published statement concluded with the following paragraph, which mirrored much of the context of the “BDS and The Black Community” breakout session at PennBDS:
“We demand that our elected officials, especially the Congressional Black Caucus, stand in opposition to the Israeli assault. We demand that sanctions be brought against Israel as they were brought against the racist apartheid regime of South Africa. We demand disinvestment in U.S. corporations which support Israel.”
Solidarity with Palestine and the people of Palestine among members of the Black community, internationally, has only grown since the rise of the civil rights movement and it shows no signs of abating. The determination of the people of Palestine to push against the occupation, in the face of undeniable oppression, reminded one attendee of a civil rights song, its empowering lyrics reading: “like a tree that stands by the water, we shall not be moved.”
Indeed, the people of Palestine and those who stand, heads held high, in solidarity with their struggle will not be moved.