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Solidarity as a question of identity

By Sally Bland - Dec 08,2019 - Last updated at Dec 08,2019

Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Colour

Michael R. Fischbach

California: Stanford University Press, 2019

Pp. 278

 

At a time when solidarity with the Palestinian cause had limited resonance, African Americans were the first community in the US to reach out to the Palestinians, with the rising Black Power movement leading the way. In this fascinating and highly readable book, Michael Fischbach, professor of history at Randolph-Macon College, chronicles the people, organisations, events, and debates that made a difference.

The key point in Fischbach’s analysis is that it was not just a question of African Americans sympathising with the Palestinians but rather of seeing their situation as similar and making common cause. “African Americans were keen observers of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1960s and 1970s and interpreted it in ways that related to their own lives and priorities at home”—a precursor to the Internet-facilitated solidarity that arose between Palestinians and black Americans during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri. (p. 2) 

Such connections long predate the spread of the Internet. Fischbach gives much credit to Malcolm X for promoting a global perspective in the Black movement. On behalf of the Nation of Islam, he visited Cairo, Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem in the 1950s. “Coming as it did, during the era of decolonisation in African and Asia in the 1950s… the Nation of Islam’s internationalist emphasis did much to pave the way for Black Power internationalism and support for the Palestinians later in the 1960s.” (p. 10) 

The 1967 war was the turning point. Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the first civil rights group to publicly oppose the Vietnam War and a major component of the Black Power movement, published an article in their newsletter which strongly criticised Israel and expressed solidarity with the Palestinians. The article unleashed a debate that reverberated throughout the civil rights movement where rising Black Power militants were challenging the moderate leadership to adopt more radical stands on domestic and foreign policy issues. 

Civil rights organisations across the board faced a dilemma. Having enjoyed the support of white liberals and American Jews in particular, they were threatened with losing their funding if they did not come out in support of Israel. Fischbach meticulously documents the debate that raged in major organisations that, in many cases, were demanded by Jewish funders to take a pro-Israeli stance. Fischbach devotes an entire chapter to tracing the evolution of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., contending that “he was not a knee-jerk supporter of Israel to the detriment of the Palestinians and other Arabs” as is sometimes portrayed. (p. 72)

Despite being branded as anti-Semitic and un-American, SNCC held firm, greatly influenced by awareness of Israel’s intimate relations with apartheid South Africa, as well as insistence on their own autonomy. “The negative reaction to the stance on the Middle East convinced SNCC cadre that whites cynically thought that blacks were welcome to talk about domestic race relations at home but not to take stances on foreign policy issues… It was now not only a matter of defending a cause they supported but also a matter of racial politics and identity: defending the principle that blacks could form and articulate their own stances independently of liberal white interference.” (pp. 44-45)

The emergence of the Black Panther Party and the Black Arts Movement added new dimensions to African Americans’ perception of the Middle East, going beyond politics into a question of identity, seeing the Palestinians as people of colour like themselves struggling against “white” imperialism and Israel. Relations were forged with major Palestinian resistance organisations, facilitated by Panther Information Minister Eldridge Cleaver’s exile in Algeria. “Black Power’s stance alongside the Palestinians was… part and parcel of the very revolutionary identity it sought to create.” (p. 121)

By the mid-1970s, the Black Power movement and Black Panther Party were in decline, but not without the latter having inspired Arab Jews in Israel to form an organisation of the same name. Yet, as Fischbach points out, “black support for the Palestinians was outlasting the heyday of Black Power and becoming more mainstream”. (p. 129)

By the 1980s, “African Americans were once more travelling to the Middle East and meeting with Arafat, but this time they were far more mainstream figures…” and determined to play a positive role in US foreign policy. (p. 193)

Jesse Jackson, one-time presidential candidate, is only one example. Still, some of the same issues prevailed; racism against African Americans intertwined with foreign policy, as in the case of Andrew Young, who was forced to resign as the US’s UN ambassador for meeting with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. African American leaders contended that had Young been part of the white establishment, he would not have been dismissed. 

“The various trips to the Middle East made by mainstream blacks in the wake of the Andrew Young affair showed that the Arab-Israeli conflict remained a lightning rod for expressions of black grievances and concern about identity, place and political action in America at the dawn of the 1980s.” (p. 211)

“Black Power and Palestine” is history at its best. Well-researched and interesting to read, it attests to the long-term impact that grass-roots activists can have, though it may not be recognised at the time. Fischbach delves into the recent past to elucidate a pivotal time and issue that still has prime relevance today.

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