How Obama and Netanyahu Inspired the Black Lives Matter-BDS Alliance

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A woman wears the #BlackLivesMatter slogan on her mouth to protest police brutality in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.Credit: Reuters

Last week, the Movement for Black Lives – a coalition of groups inspired by Black Lives Matter – released a 37,000-word platform. In its foreign policy section, the platform calls Israel an apartheid state, endorses the BDS and condemns the “genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” The American Jewish establishment reacted with outrage. African-American activists were outraged by the outrage. Welcome to the new black-Jewish quarrel over Israel.

The new quarrel actually represents the return of an older one. In the 1960s and 1970s, anti-Zionism was common among radical black activists. In 1964, Malcolm X wrote that, “the Zionist argument to justify Israel’s present occupation of Arab Palestine has no intelligent or legal basis in history.” In 1970, former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Stokely Carmichael demanded to know, “Who is Balfour to give the land of Palestine to a bunch of Zionists?” 

But starting in the 1970s, two factors conspired to mute African American anti-Zionism. The first was the decline of radical black politics in general. In the 1970s, African Americans – having been enfranchised by the civil rights movement – began getting elected as big city mayors, and as members of congress. To win office, these emerging black politicians – men like Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, Harold Washington in Chicago and House Majority Whip William Gray from Philadelphia – forged alliances with the Jewish community that made anti-Zionism impossible. No one better embodied the transition than Jesse Jackson. In 1979, during a meeting with Yasser Arafat in Beirut, the civil rights leader was hoisted on the shoulders of PLO members chanting, “Palestine is Arab! Our revolution shall triumph!” By 1992, after two presidential campaigns and a series of bruising encounters with established American Jewish leaders, Jackson called Zionism a “liberation movement.”

The other factor that muted African-American anti-Zionism was the PLO’s recognition of Israel, beginning in 1988. What point was there in denouncing Israel’s existence once even Arafat no longer publicly did?

What has changed to make African-American anti-Zionism relevant again? The first answer is Benjamin Netanyahu. By subsidizing settlement growth and rejecting a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines, Netanyahu has weakened those Palestinian leaders, like Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, who are prepared to accept Israel in return for a Palestinian state. With the help of Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, Netanyahu has also undermined liberal democracy inside the Green Line, leading a chorus of former top Israeli security officials to warn of incipient fascism. All this has empowered the BDS movement, whose key spokespeople denounce Zionism as illegitimate within any borders. As BDS leader Omar Barghouti explained in late 2014, “We’ve got to give credit to Netanyahu. Without him we could not have reached this far, at this time.” 

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured together in 2010.Credit: Reuters

The second reason that African-American anti-Zionism has returned to prominence is Barack Obama. The concerns that animate Black Lives Matter – police violence, mass incarceration, lack of economic opportunity – are not new. They have animated African-American politics for decades. What distinguishes Black Lives Matter is its preference for revolution over reform. That’s largely a response to Obama. Seeing structural racism persist, even as a liberal African American occupies the White House, has led a new generation of black activists to reject the American political and economic system itself. (Occupy Wall Street owed much of its revolutionary fervor to Obama too). In the words of Cornell sociologist Travis Gosa, “Black Lives Matter developed in the wake of the failure of the Obama administration. Black Lives Matter is the voice of a Millennial generation that’s been sold a bad bill of goods.” 

By rejecting the compromise inherent in party politics, Black Lives Matter has created an alternative to a black political establishment that long ago made peace with Zionism. It has instead looked to allies outside the two-party system. And there it has found a new generation of pro-Palestinian activists who have also lost faith in the electoral system. If Obama’s failure to end police racism convinced Black Lives Matter that it’s hopeless to look to Washington for real change, Obama’s failure to seriously challenge Netanyahu convinced the BDS movement of the same thing.

As a result, Black Lives Matter proudly flaunts the parameters that govern the Israel debate in Washington. It’s not surprising that when Palestinian activists took Black Lives Matter activists to the West Bank, the activists were appalled. Every African-American member of Congress I know of who has visited the West Bank has grasped the parallels between occupation and segregation too. But black politicians must weigh their outrage against the risk that criticizing Israel could imperil their careers. Just ask Hank Johnson. Black Lives Matter doesn’t care. That’s what makes it such a threat.

To be clear, I disagree with much of the Movement for Black Lives’ platform on Israel. I oppose boycotting Israel inside the Green Line. I don’t think that Israel inside the Green Line – where Palestinian citizens have the right to vote and live under the same legal system as Jews – qualifies as an apartheid state. And I think that accusing Israel of “genocide” makes nonsense of the term, which international courts have reserved for Nazi Germany, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. 

But politically, the reality is this. The activists of Black Lives Matter – like the anti-Zionists with whom they have made common cause – are revolutionaries. And the less legitimate the existing order becomes, the stronger revolutionaries grow. If you want African Americans to believe in the American political system, you must show that that system can address structural racism. If you want Palestinians to accept Israel’s existence, you must show that Israel’s existence does not preclude a viable Palestinian state. All the rest is commentary.

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