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‘It was clear to me as a black person just what I was seeing around me’: Report from an African-American delegation to Israel/Palestine

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Bill Fletcher, Jr. speaking at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ on Feb. 26, 2014.  The event was moderated by Rev. Carolyn L. Boyd. (Photo: Bill Simonds)

Bill Fletcher, Jr. speaking at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ on Feb. 26, 2014. The event was moderated by Rev. Carolyn L. Boyd. (Photo: Bill Simonds)

Last week two members of a delegation of African American journalists and artists who traveled to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in January spoke of their experiences at a public forum held at the historic Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ (PCUCC) in Northeast Washington, D.C.  The speakers were PCUCC Senior Minister Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, and Bill Fletcher, Jr., labor activist, Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and past president of TransAfrica Forum. Fletcher was leader of the January delegation.  The public forum was moderated by Rev. Carolyn L. Boyd, Minister of Organizational and Ministry Development of PCUCC.

Rev. Boyd invited Rev. Hagler to speak first.  Hagler recounted an encounter he had in the occupied city of Hebron on the West Bank with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that triggered unpleasant memories from his adolescence in Baltimore:

It was clear to me as a black person just what I was seeing around me, like this police state, this militarized zone, that they were there to enforce really the kind of dehumanization that was going on.  So in this particular incident we were walking down the road towards one of the Jewish settlements, and so these two young IDF soldiers come running at us, asking to see our papers… It’s sort of all the stuff that happened to me growing up in Baltimore where cops stopped you all the time to make that demand, that just bristled up in me, and even though I had my hand on my passport in my pocket, I just found that I could not produce it for them.  And so as they got a little more frantic about seeing the papers, seeing the papers, and I wasn’t aggressive, I was just standing there non-responsive, and then I asked the question “What for?”  One of the soldiers who was from Chicago originally, and I emphasize from Chicago originally, says to me “Because Arabs are not allowed on this road”.   And with that I wasn’t going to show my passport, and I didn’t have any interest in walking down that road…  But it was one of those times where your experiences as a teenager sort of come back at you very quick, I don’t know whether you call that post-traumatic stress or whatever you call that, but the reality is I just could not, for the life of me, produce some papers on demand for some kids pointing some assault weapons at me.

In her first question for Bill Fletcher, Jr., Rev. Boyd asked about the significance of the trip to him as a black American.  In his response, Fletcher compared conditions in the West Bank to Gaza (where the delegation did not go) and also drew parallels with the history of the United States before the Civil War:

You’re in prison. That’s actually all you need to know.  The description of Gaza-we did not go to Gaza- but a very popular description of Gaza is as the largest open- air prison on the planet. Actually I don’t think that is true anymore.  I think that the West Bank, which is actually larger, is nothing short of an open-air prison.  But I want to link it with our own history.  In the 1850’s there was the Dred Scott decision that said that black people had no rights that whites were bound to respect.  The Israelis have taken the Dred Scott decision and essentially made it a national mandate- that Palestinians have no rights that the Israeli authorities are bound to respect- and this is something that you are confronted with at every moment that you’re there.

Rev. Boyd challenged Fletcher to explain the designation of Israel as an Apartheid state.  Fletcher first explained that the designation of the crime of Apartheid refers to a particular form of racial oppression, and that Apartheid in South Africa was but one example:

I think it is important that when we talk about Apartheid and the designation, that we understand that when the United Nations made that designation, created Apartheid as a crime against humanity, they cited South Africa as an example of Apartheid.  They did not say that South Africa was the only form of Apartheid.  This is really important for us to understand, because Apartheid itself was constructed to a great extent looking at Jim Crow segregation in the United States.  What the United Nations understood is that there’s a phenomena, a particular form of racial oppression that exists- I would argue that it also exists in Northern Ireland- that a very particular form of racial oppression exists, and one manifestation was in South Africa.  Another related manifestation was in then Rhodesia, in the U.S. South in Jim Crow segregation, and then we see it in Israel…

Fletcher went on to argue that, based on the delegation’s observations in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, he would apply the Apartheid label more broadly than former President Jimmy Carter did.  Referring to Apartheid, Fletcher said:

[I]t’s not simply in the Occupied Territories, even though in Jimmy Carter’s book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid”, which I think overall was a very important book, and one of the most important things about the book is its title.  Carter talks about Apartheid as a system in the occupied territories, but it’s clear when you are traveling within Israel and the occupied territories, that you see the manifestations of the Dred Scott decision.  You see the manifestations in terms of the ability to seize land, which was one of the most remarkable things that we found… The roads that Palestinians can literally not travel on, the fact that Palestinians have to go through these checkpoints, and they have to walk through them, and sitting behind these polarized windows are these Israeli guards, and it’s very surreal, the whole experience.  There are differences when it comes to education, in terms of resources for education, there’s issues about who gets water and who does not, so it is absolutely in correspondence to what the United Nations was describing as an Apartheid situation.

The January delegation of African American journalists and artists who traveled to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories was sponsored by the Carter Center, and facilitated by Interfaith Peace-Builders.  Rev. Hagler posted some of his observations and videos related to the trip on the PCUCC website that can be found here.  Mr. Fletcher was recently interviewed about the trip on the Tavis Smiley Radio Show and that interview, as well as an essay Fletcher wrote about this trip, can be found here.    A previous Mondoweiss entry about delegation members word artist Jasiri X and writer Ferrari Sheppard from Adam Horowitz can be found here.

Senior Minister Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler (R) and scholar Bill Fletcher, Jr.(L). (Photo: Bill Simonds)

Senior Minister Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler (R) and scholar Bill Fletcher, Jr.(L). (Photo: Bill Simonds)

Bill Simonds
About Bill Simonds

Bill Simonds is a concerned US citizen, physician, and lapsed Presbyterian from Maryland.

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16 Responses

  1. ritzl
    ritzl
    March 3, 2014, 12:54 pm

    Great article.

    I hope Carter Center trip alums can get together with non-Jewish “Birthright” trip alums and compare experiences.

    http://mondoweiss.net/2014/03/pushes-birthright-students.html

    Maybe go on a speaking tour together.

  2. adele
    adele
    March 3, 2014, 1:08 pm

    I have read many many articles and books about the occupation, and witnessed it firsthand, and still Rev. Hagler’s and Mr. Fletcher’s descriptions of what they experienced just blew me away. Very powerful. I have nothing but deep respect for these gentlemen.

  3. Cliff
    Cliff
    March 3, 2014, 1:53 pm

    Oh no! Paging Abe Foxman, antisemitism is at critical mass!

    Pogroms! Holocaust! Hitler!

  4. Citizen
    Citizen
    March 3, 2014, 2:04 pm

    So, what does the Black Caucus have to say about this? Never hear them say anything about it…. Hard to believe Obama does not nurse a grudge here he can’t ever tell Penny Pritkzer….

  5. Marco
    Marco
    March 3, 2014, 2:51 pm

    I used to wonder how it was that African American leaders are not, as a group, at the forefront of the struggle in this country against America’s support of Israeli apartheid.

    But, to be honest, you don’t get the sense that the black community in the U.S. is interested in foreign conflicts and crises in general. This isn’t the Cold War or era of decolonization – even African affairs do not loom large in black America. Seen from that point of view, it’s not very surprising at all. If you’re interested exclusively in your local community, city, or congressional district, it makes sense to play with the power brokers and take their line on affairs of seemingly remote import.

    • SQ Debris
      SQ Debris
      March 4, 2014, 6:23 pm

      Black America is dealing with the largest mass incarceration in “closed air” prisons in human history. [Read The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander]. Your post is like asking why Japanese in internment camps weren’t concerned with apartheid in South Africa. Yes it would be nice if all oppressed people stood up for all other oppressed people. But oppression has a funny way of capturing the attention of the oppressed.

      • Marco
        Marco
        March 5, 2014, 9:15 am

        Like I intimated, black America was more interested in foreign affairs in the past. In the era of decolonization, black intellectuals turned their eyes to people like Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, and Julius Nyerere. Likewise, black militants saw parallels between their struggles and revolutionary movements beyond Sub-Saharan Africa in Asia and Latin America. These trends all occurred when black America was much poorer and marginalized under segregation than today. Maybe these were elite phenomena, but that only begs the question why black leaders aren’t speaking up much more on behalf of Palestine today.

  6. Hostage
    Hostage
    March 3, 2014, 3:15 pm

    The Israelis have taken the Dred Scott decision and essentially made it a national mandate- that Palestinians have no rights that the Israeli authorities are bound to respect- and this is something that you are confronted with at every moment that you’re there.

    Years ago I was shocked when I made that same discovery. I was reading the Israeli reply to requests from UN treaty bodies for information about the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel replied that, so long as it chooses to engage in armed conflict with the Palestinians, the inalienable rights that accrue to all human beings do not apply to the Palestinians.

  7. mcohen
    mcohen
    March 3, 2014, 3:41 pm

    Bill Simonds on March 3, 2014 4 says

    ” This is really important for us to understand, because Apartheid itself was constructed to a great extent looking at Jim Crow segregation in the United States.”

    is that right bill simonds,you mean like the caste system in india,

    you went to israel and the black/ white racial apartheid clearly does not exist,especially to the extent it did in america and even today in some areas,so you have decided to change the definition of apartheid to fit the narrative to support the boycott …………..propaganda is what it is called

    where were you bill simonds,rev boyd,rev hagler of the Presbyterians

    where was the church when jews faced apartheid and genocide?

    Rev. Boyd challenged Fletcher to explain the designation of Israel as an Apartheid state. Fletcher first explained that the designation of the crime of Apartheid refers to a particular form of racial oppression, and that Apartheid in South Africa was but one example:

    racial oppression ? hasbara fail

    Rev hagler says ………”some kids”………you must be kidding

    ” I don’t know whether you call that post-traumatic stress or whatever you call that, but the reality is I just could not, for the life of me, produce some papers on demand for some kids pointing some assault weapons at me.”

    gentlemen

    interfaith peace is a good thing

    faith is what the conflict is about….stick to that …..work with it ….peace will come ,a great victory for the 3 companions of abram

    • kalithea
      kalithea
      March 4, 2014, 9:44 am

      “you went to israel and the black/ white racial apartheid clearly does not exist,especially to the extent it did in america…”

      But you do agree that white on black racism exists in Israel much more than you care to admit, and then much more so against the Palestinians.

      “faith is what the conflict is about”

      Oh, you mean “faith”, as in using oppression to enforce Jewish supremacy! Quit using your version of faith as a pretext for evil.

      I wish I could say as Jesus would: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. But I just can’t, because you Zionists know perfectly well what you’re doing!

  8. just
    just
    March 3, 2014, 5:38 pm

    Thank you for this article. The experiences of these travelers stands in stark, painful contrast to this AA pastor from Richmond VA:

    “From the 1909 founding of the NAACP to the success of Jewish scholars teaching at African-American colleges in the 1930s and ’40s, black-Jewish unity has deep roots in this country. During the civil rights era, Jews stood, marched, and were assaulted and arrested alongside blacks. But in recent decades a rift has emerged between our two communities.

    The black-Jewish alliance suffered when black nationalism and black power replaced integration as the major focus of our movement. Polarization abounded as black militant leaders supported Israel’s Arab attackers during the 1967 Six-Day War and some members of the Jewish community argued against affirmative-action programs. This split reached its tragic apex during the 1991 Crown Heights riots.

    The time has come for the black-Jewish alliance to be reborn.

    Recently, I visited Israel with a group of 25 African-American ministers led by Christians United for Israel, the nation’s largest pro-Israel organization. The intent of the trip was to familiarize black clergy with the Jewish state in the hope that we would become informed, transformed and supportive. It achieved just that.

    This was more than just a trip; it was a pilgrimage. Seeing firsthand the land of the Bible was nothing short of incredible. The thought of walking on the same ground where my Lord and Savior walked was both humbling and awe-inspiring. And I came to the realization that I am a Zionist. I believe that the Jewish people were granted by God the land in which they live.

    One of the most impactful moments of my visit occurred at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. The memorial gave me new insight into the depths of human depravity. I was moved by the stories of the righteous gentiles, but no words can describe how disturbed I was by the scope of the Holocaust’s inhumanity. I could not help but continuously wonder how such a tragedy was possible. And the truth is uncomfortably simple: Silence allowed the Holocaust to happen.

    Though two unique peoples, African-Americans and Jews have much in common. We have both suffered, endured and survived. Our peoples’ experiences alone should have been enough to form a meaningful and lasting bond between us. At one time they were — but we have forgotten the importance of standing together.

    It was the silence of the world during the Holocaust that allowed that tragedy to happen. It was the voice of the people that advanced the civil rights movement. As Proverbs tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”

    We must stand together and use our collective voices once more. We must stand up to those who would wish for the Jewish State of Israel to cease to exist. Any seeds of peace that can be sown should be planted and harvested. Any hope, pride and promise that can be instilled in our coming generations must be pursued. We simply must stand up and speak up together again.

    Stephen Towns is a pastor in the East End of Richmond. He can be reached at [email protected]. To learn more visit Christians United for Israel: http://www.cufi.org.”

    It’s so obscene– zero mention of the indigenous Palestinian people.

    • kalithea
      kalithea
      March 4, 2014, 9:32 am

      I almost kind of wish you hadn’t repeated in length all that Zionist Christian propaganda. Yes, it’s obscene but not just because there’s no mention of the Palestinian people and their decades-long suffering under the Zionist Apartheid Regime. It’s obscene because it uses three tragic references in history: Christ’s experience, the tragic Jewish experience and the painful and also tragic Civil Rights struggle as manipulation to glorify and justify an Apartheid regime.

      I was so offended reading that manipulative piece of garbage cooked up by someone who calls himself a Christian, mostly because it felt like I experienced an assault on my consciousness and what I value most – the truth.

      • UpSIDEdown
        UpSIDEdown
        March 4, 2014, 11:55 am

        kalithea.
        I couldn’t agree with you more I felt the same sensation sickening me.

  9. peter hindrup
    peter hindrup
    March 3, 2014, 6:31 pm

    ‘I could not help but continuously wonder how such a tragedy was possible. And the truth is uncomfortably simple: Silence allowed the Holocaust to happen.’

    The very reason that the Palestinians suffer —- is it apartheid? hell, they have Jews only, roads! — the very reason that the Israelis get away, and have gotten away with genocide 70 or 80 years — yes, it started long before 1948.

    For evil to flourish, it takes only good people to remain silent.

  10. kalithea
    kalithea
    March 4, 2014, 9:50 am

    Glad to see Christians behaving like real Christians: acting as witnesses to injustice, condemning it, and offering much needed compassion and hope to the oppressed. It also gives me hope.

  11. kalithea
    kalithea
    March 4, 2014, 12:20 pm

    Just need to add one more thing: I will never side with any Christian on such flagrant deception and injustice as is being waged against Palestinians, and I will not hesitate to forcefully condemn any Christian, even family, that support and enable Zionism. And furthermore, I seriously question the integrity of Zionist Christians in distancing themselves to such an extreme from truth and the compassion that Jesus taught by example.

    I ask that all Jews of conscience do the same within their community. If everyone is honest with themselves and views this matter in the light of true faith, it becomes impossible to justify support for Zionism.

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