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Black and Palestinian Solidarity: Beyond Conceptions of “Natural Allyship”

To become stronger, Black American and Palestinian solidarity efforts must include deeper challenges to anti-Black racism.

Pro-Palestine demonstrators hold up the Palestinian flag during a march in Montreal, Canada, August 10, 2014. (Photo: KM Foto)

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The political relationship between Black Americans and Palestinians is a historic one that emerged, most notably, from the surge of Black radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s: from Malcolm X’s support of the Palestine Liberation Organization, to collaborations between Black and Arab labor organizers, to the support for Palestinians expressed by the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. At that time, support for Palestinian liberation delineated more radical groups from Black liberal groups.

There have been a number of solidarity campaigns in 2015 alone revolving around the linked oppressions of Black American and Palestinian communities, including the delegation of Black activists from Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, the Black Youth Project and the Dream Defenders who visited Palestine in January 2015. Most recently, solidarity efforts have included a statement by Black organizations, scholars and activists for Palestine and a recent solidarity video featuring prominent artists and activists, including Lauryn Hill, Alice Walker, Omar Barghouti, Angela Davis, Boots Riley and others organized around the slogan “When I see them, I see us.”

Are all solidarities created equally? Are they solidarities simply because we label them as such?

Within the context of a particularly hectic period of aggression by Israeli forces – including house demolitions and collective punishment, state targeting of journalists and extrajudicial murders of scores of Palestinian civilians, among other brutalities – the need for solidarity and a push for deeply transformative policy change is salient. But are all solidarities created equally? Are they truly solidarities in practice? Are they solidarities simply because we label them as such?

In 2013, The Electronic Intifada published a piece entitled “The Palestinian struggle is a black struggle.” The piece highlights “the essential blackness of the Palestinian struggle” and the “natural allies” of Palestinians within the African diaspora. Susan Abulhawa orients the Palestinian struggle with global struggles of indigenous and other marginalized communities, and she locates this struggle as “spiritually and politically Black” (where “Black” controversially delineates politics of solidarity between communities of color).

She elaborates on her understanding of this “natural allyship” between African and Afro-diasporic communities and Palestinians:

With Africans, including American descendants of those who were enslaved, there is no need to preface our words. There is never a sense that we need to prove our worth or the righteousness of our struggle for liberation. This is what I mean by “natural allies.” They are people who know, viscerally, what it means to be regarded as vermin by most of the world. Those who know what it is to be the “wretched of the earth.”

The parallels specifically between Black Americans and Palestinians couched within settler-colonial structures (most noticeably through ideological and financial support, arms purchases and trainings of US police forces in crowd control and “counterterrorism” by the Israeli military) are impossible to ignore, but this construction of allyship is of questionable validity.

This leads me to ask: Who are the “natural allies” of Black people? When anti-Blackness is a universality among all ethnic groups and when non-Black communities of color are invested in anti-Blackness in order to gain proximity to whiteness, to whom can Black communities look as our “natural allies”?

If Palestinian and Black struggles are so deeply interconnected because of the inextricable linkage of the settler international, why isn’t anti-Blackness constantly on the tips of the tongues of those who would seek to utilize legacies and philosophies of Black struggles? If we recognize the similarities of US and Israeli settler colonialisms, then why hasn’t there been broader coalition building among non-Black communities of color to discuss historical and current investment in and future divestment from the anti-Blackness specifically propping up these structures?

If the Palestinian struggle against Israeli state violence is a quintessentially Black struggle, then why do we not constantly hear about Afro-Palestinians sitting at the intersection of Zionism’s anti-Palestinian sentiment and global anti-Blackness? What of a constant stream of information about Black African migrants within the state of Israel detained, subjugated and brutalized by the Israeli prison industrial complex?

Solidarity is, of course, not a tit-for-tat exchange wherein political support is selfishly premised upon the promise of scratching someone’s back only for yours to be scratched in return. But true solidarity cannot be an outpouring of political energies without receiving support in kind: True solidarity is a politic of reciprocity. This might look like, for example, a recognition of the ways in which Palestinians in the United States are complicit in structural anti-Blackness: It would be drawing parallels between anti-Black and anti-Palestinian state violence within the context of North American Palestinian solidarity work. Attending a Black Lives Matter rally or simply affirming publicly that Black lives matter is not necessarily meaningful anti-racist praxis. We have seen this demonstrated multiple times by political candidates with enough acumen to pander to Black voters but no intention to support a meaningful dismantling of the social, political and economic structures upholding anti-Blackness.

A true solidarity, a recognition of mirrored community oppressions within violent structures perpetuating them, thus demands a dynamic praxis. Otherwise, said solidarity lends itself easily to the cheap co-option and exploitation of political labor that often accompanies the hypervisibility of Blackness.

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