UNITED STATES NEWS

Black American solidarity with Palestinians is rising and testing longstanding ties to Jewish allies

Dec 16, 2023, 10:02 PM

Cydney Wallace poses for a photo in Chicago, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Cydney Wallace is a Black Jewi...

Cydney Wallace poses for a photo in Chicago, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Cydney Wallace is a Black Jewish woman who recently went on a trip to Israel and the West Bank through a trip called "Black Jerusalem" that was focused on exploring "the sacred geography of Jerusalem through a framework that privileges a Black American and an African lens." (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Cydney Wallace, a Black Jewish community activist, never felt compelled to travel to Israel, though “Next year in Jerusalem” was a constant refrain at her Chicago synagogue.

The 39-year-old said she had plenty to focus on at home, where she frequently gives talks on addressing anti-Black sentiment in the American Jewish community and dismantling white supremacy in the U.S.

“I know what I’m fighting for here,” she said.

That all changed when she visited Israel and the West Bank at the invitation of a Palestinian American community organizer from Chicago’s south side, along with two dozen other Black Americans and Muslim, Jewish and Christian faith leaders.

The trip, which began Sept. 26, enhanced Wallace’s understanding of the struggles of Palestinians living in the West Bank under Israeli military occupation. But, horrifyingly, it was cut short by the unprecedented Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas militants. In Israel’s ensuing bombardment of the Gaza Strip, shocking images of destruction and death seen around the world have mobilized activists in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Wallace, and a growing number of Black Americans, see the Palestinian struggle in the West Bank and Gaza reflected in their own fight for racial equality and civil rights. The recent rise of protest movements against police brutality in the U.S., where structural racism plagues nearly every facet of life, has connected Black and Palestinian activists under a common cause.

But that kinship sometimes strains the more than century-long alliance between Black and Jewish activists. From Black American groups that denounced the U.S. backing of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory to Black protesters demonstrating for the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, some Jewish Americans are concerned that support could escalate the threat of antisemitism and weaken Jewish-Black ties fortified during the Civil Rights Movement.

“We are concerned, as a community, about what we feel is a lack of understanding of what Israel is about and how deeply Oct. 7 has affected us,” said Bob Kaplan, executive director of The Center for Shared Society at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

“Antisemitism has to be seen as a reprehensible form of hate … as any form of hate is,” he said. “Antisemitism is as real to the American Jewish community, and causes as much trauma and fear and upset to the American Jewish community, as racism causes to the Black community, or anti-Asian feeling causes to the Asian community, or anti-Muslim feeling causes in the Muslim community.”

But, he added, many Jews in the U.S. understand that Black Americans can have an affinity for the Palestinian cause that doesn’t conflict with their regard for Israel.

According to a poll earlier this month from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, Black adults were more likely than white and Hispanic adults to say the U.S. is too supportive of Israel — 44% compared to 30% and 28%, respectively. However, Black Americans weren’t any more likely than others to say the U.S. is not supportive enough of the Palestinians.

Generational divides also emerged, with younger Americans more likely to say the U.S. is too supportive of Israel, according to the poll. Even within the Jewish American community, some younger and other progressive Jews tend to be more critical of some of Israel’s policies.

Black American support for the Palestinian cause dates back to the Civil Rights Movement, through prominent left-wing voices, including Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis, among others. More recent rounds of violence, including the 2021 Israel-Hamas war and now Israel’s unprecedented bombing campaign against Gaza shown live on social media have deepened ties between the two movements.

“This is just the latest generation to pick up the mantle, the latest Black folks to organize, build and talk about freedom and justice,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, the director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

During a week-long truce between Israel and Hamas as part of the recent deal to free dozens of hostages seized by Hamas militants, Israel released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and detainees. Many were teenagers who had recently been picked up in the West Bank for minor offenses like stone-throwing and had not been charged.

Some Black Americans who watched the Palestinian prisoner release and learned about Israel’s administrative detention policy, where detainees are held without trial, drew comparisons to the U.S. prison system. While more than two-thirds of jail detainees in the U.S. have not been convicted of a crime, Black people are jailed at more than four times the rate of white people, often for low-level offenses, according to studies of the American judicial system.

“Americans like to talk about being innocent until proven guilty. But Black folks are predominantly and disproportionately detained in the United States regardless of whether anything has been proven. And that’s very similar to Israel’s administrative detention,” said Julian Rose, an organizer with a Black-run bail fund in Atlanta.

Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, invited Wallace and the others to take part in the trip called “Black Jerusalem” — an exploration of the sacred city through an African and Black American lens.

They met members of Jerusalem’s small Afro-Palestinian community — Palestinians of Black African heritage, many of whom can trace their lineage in the Old City back centuries.

“Our Black brothers and sisters in the U.S. suffered from slavery and now they suffer from racism,” said Mousa Qous, executive director of the African Community Society Jerusalem, whose father emigrated to Jerusalem from Chad in 1941 and whose mother is Palestinian.

“We suffer from the Israeli occupation and racist policies. The Americans and the Israelis are conducting the same policies against us and the Black Americans. So we should support each other,” Qous said.

Nashashibi agreed, saying: “My Palestinian identity was very much shaped and influenced by Black American history.”

“I always hoped that a trip like this would open up new pathways that would connect the dots not just in a political and ideological way,” he said, “but between the liberation and struggles for humanity that are very familiar to us in the U.S.”

During the trip, Wallace was dismayed by her own ignorance of the reality of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

At an Israeli checkpoint outside the Western Wall, the Jewish holy site, Wallace said her group was asked who was Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Wallace and the others showed IDs issued for the trip, but when an Israeli officer saw her Star of David necklace, she was waved through, while Palestinians and Muslims in the group were subjected to intense scrutiny and bag checks.

“Being there made me wonder if this is what it was like to live in the Jim Crow-era” in America, Wallace said.

Kameelah Oseguera, who grew up in an African American Muslim community in Brooklyn, New York, also said the trip opened her eyes.

At the entrance to the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem in the West Bank, Oseguera noticed a massive key — a Palestinian symbol of the homes lost in the 1948 creation of Israel, referred to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” Many kept keys to the homes they fled or were forced out of — a symbol signifying the Palestinian right to return, which Israel has denied.

Oseguera said the key recalled her visit to the “door of no return” memorial in Senegal dedicated to the enslaved Africans forced onto slave ships and brought to the Americas. As a descendant of enslaved Africans, it brought thoughts of “what the dream of my return would have meant for my ancestors.”

Returning to home, she said, is a “longing that is transmitted through generations.”

Israel’s Law of Return grants all Jews the right to settle permanently in Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship — a concept that drew support from many Black American civil rights leaders, including A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Height, Shirley Chisholm and Martin Luther King, Sr., the father of the slain civil rights leader.

Over the last decade, however, Black Americans and the Palestinians have also found growing solidarity.

In 2020, the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer resonated in the West Bank, where Palestinians drew comparisons to their own experiences of brutality under occupation, and a massive mural of Floyd appeared on Israel’s hulking separation barrier.

In 2014, protests in Ferguson, Missouri, erupted after the police killing of Michael Brown, a Black teenager, which gave rise to the nascent Black Lives Matter movement. While police officers in Ferguson fired tear gas at protesters, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank tweeted advice about how to manage the effects of the irritants.

In 2016, when BLM activists formed the coalition known as the Movement for Black Lives, they included support for Palestinians in a platform called the “Vision for Black Lives.” A handful of Jewish groups, which had largely been supportive of the BLM movement, denounced the Black activists’ characterization of Israel as a purportedly “apartheid state” that engages in “discrimination against the Palestinian people.”

“There tends to be this doubt or astonishment that Black people care about other oppressed people around the world,” said Phil Agnew, co-director of the national advocacy group, Black Men Build, who has taken four trips to the West Bank since 2014.

It would be a mistake, Agnew said, to ignore significant numbers of Black and Jewish Americans who are united in their support for the Palestinians.

None of the members of the “Black Jerusalem” trip anticipated it would come to a tragic end with the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in which some 1,200 people were killed in Israel and about 240 taken hostage. Since then, more than 18,700 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s blistering air and ground campaign in Gaza, now in its third month. Violence in the West Bank has also surged.

Back home in Chicago, Wallace has navigated speaking about her support for Palestinians while maintaining her Jewish identity and standing against antisemitism. She says she doesn’t see those things as mutually exclusive.

“I’m trying not to do anything that alienates anyone,” she said. “But I can’t just not do the right thing because I’m scared.”

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AP writer Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem contributed.

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Nasir and Morrison are members of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow Nasir on social media. Follow Morrison on social media.

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Black American solidarity with Palestinians is rising and testing longstanding ties to Jewish allies