Only in a warped world would Marc Lamont Hill be forced to defend himself for asserting the rights of Palestinians, a viciously oppressed refugee population, while the perpetrators of colonial violence — the Israeli state and its apologists — claim victimhood.
Hill, the progressive activist and journalist, was dismissed from his position as a CNN commentator in November after delivering a United Nations speech in which he called for Palestinian liberation “from the river to the sea.” Critics pounced on the phrase, portraying it as an extremist cry for the eradication of Israel and the expulsion of Jews from the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
That is an absurd contention. As many conscientious figures — including Hill himself — have noted, Hill was not echoing incendiary demands for Israel’s elimination. During the address in question, he simply envisioned the replacement of the current regime, an ethno-nationalist state predicated on the racist subjugation of indigenous Palestinians, with an open, democratic society in which equal rights are enjoyed by all.
Sponsors of Israeli occupation, however, refuse to tolerate any acknowledgement of Palestinian dignity, especially by an influential Black activist. So, they engineered a scandal, branding Hill an anti-Semite and reinforcing the message that those who challenge Israel’s policies of ethnic cleansing and violation of international law risk public vilification.
Advocates of decency and human rights must reject this cynical ploy. More importantly, freedom dreamers of all creeds must recognize the attack on Hill for what it is — an attempt not only to insulate Israeli occupation, but to shrink the boundaries of radical imagination and consign supporters of Palestine to the conceptual reservations fashioned by their opponents.
Hill is quite vulnerable at the moment. Officials at Temple University, where he teaches media studies and urban education, have distanced themselves from his remarks and are reportedly considering disciplinary action. People of goodwill must come to Hill’s defense, explaining why his principled advocacy of Palestinian self-determination cannot be construed as an endorsement of schemes to eliminate Jews.
While such clarification is necessary, radical internationalists should cede no moral terrain to Hill’s inquisitors. We cannot let settler colonialism and its enablers frame the debate over sovereignty or define the geography of revolutionary desire. Only the oppressed can determine the landscape of their freedom. Agents of the security state — those who erect apartheid walls and checkpoints in Israel and build racialized prisons, militarized borders and detention camps in the United States — regiment the bodies of the displaced and despised. They must not be permitted to regulate consciousness, as well.
Aspirations for a world in which all dispossessed people are free are too expansive to obey the cartographies of ruling elites in the United States or Israel, settler states founded on putative distinctions between civilized modernity and so-called frontier savagery. Picturing Palestinian liberation in its most capacious form — not just within the confines of the occupied territories but throughout the soil once inhabited by Palestinians — is crucial if we are to visualize human emancipation in truly universal and just terms.
Today, insurgent notions of freedom and human rights are sorely needed. Almost everywhere we look — from Turkey to China to Brazil to Saudi Arabia — repression is rising and dissent is imperiled. In the United States, the trend is unmistakable. Here, authorities criminalize Black Lives Matter protesters, antifascist activists, and proponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, casting them as ideological foes against which political, legal or physical violence may be deployed. In both the US and Israel, the very security apparatus that aggressively targets civilians also marks them as menaces that require suppression.
The effort to smear Hill is emblematic of our times, an age in which sanctimonious elites, ensconced in wealth and power, manipulate reality, maligning the courageous and exalting the cowardly. The aim is to deceive, to disguise dystopia as democracy. But the architecture of lies is flimsy. As repression seeks to entrench itself, it exposes its illegitimacy. Societies that detain children, brutalize refugees, assail nonviolent demonstrators and condemn internal populations to civil death are as desperate as they are cruel. Neither bluster nor militarism will forestall their spiritual decay.
Every day, more people of conscience throughout the world comprehend the immorality of Israel’s apartheid state. The regime is losing the war of ideas, and it knows it. Bitter attacks on Hill and other righteous critics will shield Israel from global condemnation no more than the duplicity of the American power structure will forestall its own reckoning with justice. Hill will survive this manufactured crisis. Now anti-racists and internationalists must follow his example, recognizing that colonialism and occupation anywhere enable the degradation of disinherited people everywhere.