I have recently had several spirited conversations with an old friend from high school over the Israel and Hamas conflict and the larger questions surrounding Israeli settlements, the Palestinian Intifadas and a dual state solution. My friend, a self-proclaimed Zionist and American Israel Public Affairs Committee member, often lamented that Israel was misunderstood and could not figure out why more African Americans were not vocal supporters of Jews (which he often conflated with the Israeli state).
He brought up typical talking points: "Dr. King was a Zionist and a supporter of Israel" and "Jews sacrificed during the Civil Rights Movement for the freedom of African Americans." Though there is some truth to the former statements, there is also history of economic exploitation (real or perceived) of black communities by some Jews, which has led to a contentious relationship.
Israel presents a complicated conundrum for African Americans, one that cannot be satisfied by looking at small isolated circumstances or particular historical figures. It is where the African American dream of nationalism and self-determination meets the nightmare of internal colonialism. It leaves progressive African Americans with nationalist leanings in a state of cognitive dissonance.
Theodore Herzl's words in "The Jewish State" could easily be mistaken for those of famed black nationalists such as Martin Delaney or Marcus Garvey. The most important element of Herzl's work is that he viewed Jews as a nation and not simply a religion. African Americans historically dreamed of making the transition from ostracized ethnic group to economic and social freedom, the way that Herzl outlined for Jews. But today, one rarely hears anyone speak of a separate state for African Americans. More often, there are local "buy black" campaigns, which are forms of economic nationalism.
There have been several proponents of Black Nationalism throughout history, however. Small groups like the Republic of New Afrika laid claim to the southeastern region of the U.S. for an independent nation-state with full sovereignty for African Americans, since the economy of that land was built on the backs of black slaves. Malcolm X called for the acquisition of land and nationhood. Garvey called for western blacks to consider making continental Africa, their ancestral homeland, the location where they could live free from oppression. While these may sound similar, Herzl's theories were in large part realized, making Israel truly remarkable and in some ways the envy of the oppressed world.
On May 14, 1948, while African Americans still suffered under the indignities of Jim Crow, the State of Israel was born after the British terminated their mandate over Palestine. Only three years removed from a mass genocide, Israel absorbed refugees from all over Europe. The oppressed Jewish people finally had what the Black Panther Party of the late 1960s longed for: the power and ability to determine their own destiny. However, African Americans have stopped short of supporting Israel en masse, and it is not because the communities are anti-Semitic (though there is an element of anti-Semitism in some parts). The opposition comes from seeing what appears to be internal colonies existing in Gaza and the West Bank. Tanks were rolling through the streets filled with rubble in the Gaza Strip mere days before they were rolling through the streets of Ferguson, Mo. In the eyes of many African Americans, just as the United States defeated its colonial rulers to become a free republic, freedom did not include enslaved Africans. It appears to many blacks in this country that Palestinians were turned over from one European colonizer to another.
The Israeli public relations machine has done a good job reporting very real security concerns to conservative media outlets, but it has failed to reach for the hands of African Americans, who comprise 45 million potential allies. To answer my friend's question, Israeli leaders should reach out to black media and explain why they are not a colonial power but an example of triumph over colonialism and then be prepared to answer difficult questions about the future of a two state solution and peaceful coexistence with their Muslim neighbors. They must articulate that their long standing conflicts are not due to religious hatred for Islam, a faith many African Americans either practice or have great respect for. If they are unwilling or worse unable to do so, they will continue to have vocal opponents and remain a racially polarizing entity here in the U.S.
Jason Nichols is a lecturer in African American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. His email is email@example.com.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.