Progressive Black Democrats are reviving a radical tradition of Palestine solidarity in Congress, challenging Black leaders in their own party and Washington’s support for Israeli state violence.
Black Lives Matter protest in Century City, California on June 6, 2020. (Brett Morrison/CC BY 2.0)
On May 13, something remarkable happened on the floor of the U.S. Congress: 11 Democratic representatives delivered blunt speeches criticizing Israel for its military assault on Gaza and its crackdown on Palestinian protests in Jerusalem. Perhaps the most powerful speeches came from two Black Congresswomen — Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush — who connected the Black freedom struggle in the United States to the Palestinian movement for liberation.
“When Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets to demand justice, they were met with force,” said Pressley, who represents the Boston area in Massachusetts. “They faced tear gas, rubber bullets, and a militarized police just as our Palestinian brothers and sisters are facing in Jerusalem today.” Her fellow Congresswoman Bush, who represents St. Louis, Missouri, said “When heavily militarized police forces showed up in Ferguson in 2014… our Palestinian siblings showed up too.”
The speeches signaled the growing prominence of a small bloc of Black Democrats — which includes Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Ilhan Omar, in addition to Bush and Pressley — who are drawing on their support for the Black Lives Matter movement to denounce Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians. While there have been past Black Democrats who were openly critical of Israel — figures like former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney — the current crop of Black representatives are more robust in numbers and far more influential within the party and its base.
“My heart instinctively goes out to the minority group that’s being harmed by a government that’s made clear its disdain for them, and it’s why I believe the world needs to value Palestinian life the way that we value Israeli life,” Congressman Bowman, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County in New York, told +972. “When I say Palestinian lives matter, much like when I say Black Lives Matter, I’m highlighting an unjust status quo that inflicts disproportionate harm on a specific group of people.”
‘This is about justice, humanity, and equality’
These stances, though, have also highlighted just how new their brand of politics is in Washington. The sentiments of Bush, Pressley, and Omar — shared by many supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement — remain in the minority in Congress, not only among Black Democrats, but the entire Democratic caucus.
In June, after Rep. Omar called for “accountability” for “unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban,” a dozen Jewish Democrats responded with outrage, saying that comparing the United States and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban was “offensive” and “misguided.”
The debate between Black Democrats has not grown as heated as the current fracas over Omar, but sharp divisions did emerge among the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in May as Israeli repression escalated. The 56-member body was formed to strengthen Black leadership in the legislature and push policies to assist Black Americans, who on balance lack the family wealth that white Americans have and struggle in America’s racially-stratified society.
The CBC is not always united, however, and the Gaza assault was the latest indicator of the political split among caucus members. As the Black left in Congress sharply criticized Israel’s attacks and policies, the Black Democratic establishment voiced a very different narrative on the developments in Israel-Palestine.
“Hamas is an internationally recognized terrorist organization that must cease and desist its rocket fire immediately,” said Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a prominent Black Democrat and the fifth highest ranking party member in the House. “Israel has the right to defend itself from these missile strikes, which indiscriminately target civilians, using necessary and proportionate force as would any country.”
Congressman Gregory Meeks, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was “deeply concerned” by the “heavy-handed” Israeli police response to protests in Sheikh Jarrah. But he reserved his strongest language for the Palestinian factions firing rockets, blaming them for the outbreak of violence.
“The missile launches from Gaza are nothing short of abhorrent terrorist attacks meant to kill, injure, and terrorize civilians. They must end and never happen again. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and their enablers, bear full responsibility for the violence,” said Meeks.
In May, Congressman Ritchie Torres, a Black Latino who has become the darling of the pro-Israel Democratic establishment, spoke on the House floor about how Israel was “under siege” by not only Hamas-fired rockets, but from an “endless propaganda war” led by “an overbearing Twitter mob.”
In response, Bowman authored a Twitter thread on Torres’ speech, opening a rare window into Congressional tensions on Israel. “My brother Ritchie, this is not about a Twitter mob. This is about justice, humanity, and equality,” Bowman wrote. “This is about Palestinians deserving peace, land, and self-determination, like everyone else.”
The starkly different statements from Jeffries, Meeks, and Torres on the one hand, and progressives like Bowman, Bush, and Omar on the other, showed how sharply divided Black Democrats, a group often spoken about as a united bloc, have become on Israel-Palestine. Those divisions spilled out into public view as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza reverberated in America’s Black communities.
Black radical tradition
The Black radical tradition has a long history in the United States, from the Black abolitionists who fought slavery, at times violently, to the Black Communists who called for racial equality and land for farmers, to the Black activists who supported anti-colonial struggles in Algeria and South Africa.
Black solidarity with Palestine stretches back to at least the late 1960s, when Israel’s victory in the Six Day War transformed the country’s image in the eyes of Black American thinkers. While Israel was once seen as the product of a just national liberation movement, the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula soured leading Black activists on the Jewish state. In the eyes of the Black left, Israel had asserted itself as a colonial power unjustly oppressing the Palestinian people.
Famously, in a summer 1967 newsletter, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the most prominent civil rights groups in the country, published an article portraying the Zionist movement as one that dispossessed the Palestinian inhabitants of their land using tactics of “terror, force and massacres.” Malcolm X, the renowned Black Muslim minister, visited Gaza in 1964, and penned an essay that year linking Zionism to European imperialism. In 1970, the Black Panther Party stated, “we support the Palestinians’ just struggle for liberation one hundred percent.”
“Black folks in particular are compelled [to speak out] because there’s something so familiar about the oppression and experience of Palestinians — that marginalization, what it means to be targeted as this subject population, where you’re told, ‘this would be a great country if it wasn’t for you,’” said Khury Petersen-Smith, the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. “That’s part of the Black experience and that’s part of the Palestinian experience.”
The typical Black family in the United States has a net worth ten times less than that of the typical white family. Majority-white school districts receive $23 billion more in funding than school districts with a majority of people of color. Black Americans are also disproportionately more likely to be shot by police — a reality many Palestinians find easy to understand, as they too are stopped, harassed, shot at, and killed at incomparably higher rates than Israeli Jews.
In the decades after the wane of the Civil Rights Movement, sentiments in favor of Palestinian rights were increasingly heard at the highest level of Black politics.
In 1979, former civil rights leader Andrew Young, at the time President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, called the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization “intelligent, decent human beings.” This statement was considered radical at the time because both the United States and Israel refused to recognize the PLO and considered its members “terrorists.” (After Young had a secret meeting with PLO officials the same year, he resigned as controversy over the meeting grew.) In 1988, fellow civil rights icon Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign pushed to include the Palestinian right to “self-determination” in the Democratic Party platform. The effort ultimately failed.
Push to ‘centrism’
Black leaders’ rise to influence within the Democratic Party was in great part a product of the civil rights movement’s gains. But many Black leaders did not follow the path of Young and Jackson in bringing a left-wing agenda to the halls of power. Instead, many became partners in the party’s turn to the right, supporting, for example, legislation signed by President Bill Clinton that fueled mass incarceration in the United States. Most of the CBC later refrained from harsh criticisms of President Barack Obama, even as his response to the 2008 financial crisis left the Black families whose wealth was wiped out in the cold.
While the CBC has called itself the “conscience of the Congress” — a nickname solidified by its historic work on behalf of some of the most marginalized Black people in the U.S. — they have come under harsh criticism in recent years because of their political action committee’s practice of accepting corporate donations from industries like private prisons that have significantly harmed Black communities.
“The Congressional Black Caucus has been hijacked by essentially Clinton-era, Obama-esque neoliberals,” said Robin D.G. Kelley, a prominent Black scholar and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The centrist politics of many Black Democrats has also extended into foreign policy: “There’s very little daylight [on Israel] between the Biden administration and Black Democrats,” said Kelley.
In an interview with +972, Congresswoman Cori Bush pointed out the long history of Black Democrats supporting policies that disproportionately harmed Black people. “There are Black Democrats who support more funding for police. There are Black Democrats who support the never-ending expansion of our military budget. In 1994, there were Black Democrats who endorsed the crime bill that would go on to devastate Black communities. There are decisions we make each and every day that will mark our legacy,” she said.
“I know that we are on the right side of history when we stand up for human rights across the country and the globe — and that’s only possible because of the power of our intersectional movements for justice and liberation, and because of the incredible work of activists and organizers,” Bush added.
Black Americans play a significant role in the Democratic Party. As voters, they overwhelmingly back Democrats; in the 2020 presidential elections, 91 percent of Black Americans voted for Joe Biden. They also continue to be leaders of U.S. civil rights causes, from ending mass incarceration to anti-police brutality activism to voting rights, which most Democrats support, Black and non-Black alike.
Because of their power amongst liberals, Black leaders in the United States have long been sought out by the pro-Israel lobby to deepen the Democratic Party’s support for Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), for example, has long supported Black politicians and Black student leaders, taking both groups on trips to Israel. Pro-Israel donors have poured millions of dollars into the election coffers of Black politicians. Christians United for Israel, the main pro-Israel lobby group for Christian evangelicals, has long focused on cultivating Black Christian support for the Jewish state.
‘The Ferguson-Gaza nexus’
The Black radical tradition for Palestine never went away, however. It returned to the center of American politics in August 2014, after a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, setting off what came to be known as the “Ferguson uprising” that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the same time, Israel was unleashing a ferocious assault on Gaza and repressing protests on both sides of the Green Line, sparking comparisons yet again between the suffering of Black people in the United States and Palestinians under Israeli control.
“The Ferguson-St. Louis-Gaza nexus is unique,” said Kelley. “You had the war in Gaza and the fight in the streets against state violence, and Palestinians stood in solidarity with the Ferguson struggle, and some Ferguson activists went to Palestine. Think of liberated Ferguson as a sister city to Ramallah or Gaza City.”
As Ferguson protesters faced down militarized American police shooting tear gas, Palestinians tweeted out advice to them on how to deal with tear gas’ effects. The tear gas used in Ferguson, made by the company Combined Systems Inc., is also bought by Israeli forces and used on Palestinian protesters, sometimes with deadly force.
In the aftermath of Ferguson, Black-Palestine solidarity rose to new heights. The Dream Defenders, a youth-led Black and Brown group that fights against mass incarceration, annually brought prominent Black activists to Palestine to learn about Israeli control over Palestinians. The Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella organization for Black liberation groups, released a policy platform in 2016 that endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and accused Israel of committing “genocide” against Palestinians.
The anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace built on this activist work by launching the “Deadly Exchange” campaign, aimed at exposing, and trying to end, the practice of U.S. police officers traveling to Israel for “counter-terrorism” instruction. In doing so, JVP forged coalitions with Black Lives Matter groups, fusing concerns about Israeli and American state violence into a unified campaign.
In summer 2020, another Black-led uprising erupted across the United States after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The revolt coincided with a primary season that saw two Black insurgent politicians allied with the movement — Bowman and Bush — oust hawkish pro-Israel incumbents.
In Bowman’s case, he defeated Eliot Engel in New York, the powerful chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In Missouri, Bush, an activist who participated in the Ferguson uprising, ousted Lacy Clay, an establishment Black politician whose family represented the area for a half-century.
“The Black Lives Matter movement last year took a critique of militarized police violence mainstream, so in that respect it’s not surprising that the progressive Democrats most responsive to that movement are now taking up support for Palestinian rights,” said Rebecca Pierce, a Black Jewish filmmaker and writer.
“The current crisis is revealing how one sided mainstream U.S. Democratic support for Israel has been until now, and that is running up against the values and interests of a Black progressive movement that increasingly sees our struggle as being bound up with that of Palestinians and those resisting oppressive police states around the world,” she continued.
Both Bush and Bowman, who campaigned on support for Palestinian rights, have now brought those sentiments into Congress, though their positions on Palestine remain a minority within the Democratic caucus.
“Our movement for racial justice has created space for real conversations about state violence and the role it plays in our communities and abroad,” Bush told +972. “I spoke on the House Floor about Bassem Masri, a Palestinian Ferguson activist who would tell us that the same rubber bullets and tear gas that were being fired at us in Ferguson were the same ones being used by the Israeli military in Palestine.”
She added: “When we stand up for Black lives, we’re also standing against state violence, oppression, and the militarized police occupation of our communities — no matter where it takes place. And when we stand in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for human rights and liberation, we rise in a strong tradition of Black-Palestinian solidarity to dismantle apartheid.”