This month the Palestinian poet Remi Kanazi published his second book, Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up From Brooklyn to Palestine, from Haymarket. Almost all the poems are political, and all are forceful. They reckon with such issues as Judge Richard Goldstone’s report on Gaza — “you became/the report/so they could/shell you too”–to American Israel supporters — “would Hillel, J street/and university Zionist groups/come to a meeting to dialogue/on whether or not Jews should/have equal rights in America?– to the hazards of social media activism– “all damage collateral/never personal/voyeurs hop on and off/like carnival rides.” I had two phone conversations with Kanazi over a week. Here’s our exchange.
How do you describe your work?
Sometimes I’ll say I’m a Palestinian poet, a spoken word poet, a performance poet. There were a number of pieces that were written for the page in this collection and the previous collection. And then a number of the poems in the collection, I did take to the stage. Even within a performance poem, you still want the reader to be able to capture as much of the experience if not the full experience as possible.
Who do you want to read this book?
In terms of who reads my book, you know it’s traditionally the SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) crowd, the Palestinian community, folks that are social-justice minded, that are antiwar, that are against police brutality and militarism within the United States. That comprises my core audience, right? So people who can more identify with the Palestinian plight, whether it’s socially conscious people, the black and Latino community, queer folks. I think that the Palestine solidarity movement and Palestine organizing in the United States is expanding at such a rapid rate, the conversation on Palestine has opened up in such a way, that more people are hearing your voice.
Is some of that because of BlackLivesMatter and Palestine2Ferguson which you cite in poems?
I would say that there is more solidarity today than ever before. From the Palestinian perspective, in the same way that I’m against Israeli occupation, apartheid and settler colonialism, I have to stand against execution of black people in the United States, taking out of undocumented people, racist drug laws, mandatory minimums, transphobia in local communities. So I think more and more what is being articulated is that whether we’re talking about occupied Palestine, or the brutalization of Baltimore, Ferguson and Oakland, you have to be standing up against injustice. And one of the things I think especially with the the people who came out in Ferguson October last year, the Palestinian and Palestinian solidarity folks, it wasn’t to center the Palestinian cause, but to say enough is enough, stop killing black people in America. When you take the long view of history and look at the people joining the South Africa apartheid struggle against the South Africa regime, or you look at the civil rights movement, or you look at what’s sprouting up today, there needs to be kind of a form of solidarity that doesn’t just recognize one struggle, but it’s to say that we are against all forms of militarism and police brutality and state oppression, whether that’s in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether that’s in Palestine or whether that’s in our own back yards. Because we don’t need to go to Baghdad to witness shock and awe, we can see it in our own streets today, with black people being killed by the police, with 2.3 million people in jail and prison, and with the manifestations of racism and white supremacy within our own borders here.
So you’re not being tactical about it. This is a progressive movement?
I don’t think we want to be quote tactical. I don’t want to stand against the killing of black people in the United States because it might somehow benefit Palestine. I want to stand against the execution of black people in the United States because I’m disgusted by it and it’s oppression. When you look at progressives and leftists in organizing movements, that’s really how it has to be because we don’t want to use other people’s struggles as props to further our own struggle. Because at the end of the day, Palestinians aren’t more deserving of rights and freedom and justice than anyone else, it’s to say that there’s an egregious and disturbing and devastating system of oppression that no people should face, and that includes Palestinians.
Can you imagine yourself doing poems on the Colbert report?
Well it doesn’t exist anymore. And I think the last three days he had on Jeb Bush and Joe Biden so I don’t think I’m the next guest.
Is Colbert not the same guy, is that your joke?
Yes and no. I think with his new show, one of his sponsors is Sabra hummus. He’s had on presidential candidates. He’s speaking to more serious minds. I don’t know if it’s going to shift to the right. It’s only week one. But I hope that some of the punchiness stays, but you know, I’m very critical of the Colberts and the Jon Stewarts, I think it’s kind of the liberal structure within America. I don’t think that they’re ever going to be ahead of the curve. In terms of me being on those types of shows, I think, My voice might be considered too radical, too abrasive, too critical, and I’m kind of fine with that. The work that I do and the poems that I write serve a particular purpose. And hopefully it resonates with folks and some people find it useful. If you’re never on CNN or the Colbert Report or the mainstream media, that’s fine, and given the state of the media today, we couldn’t connect.
But the media are changing?
While I think the conversation on Palestine is opening up and moving forward, things are moving forward and we’re starting to see more critical analysis. I’ve written a piece for Salon, I’ve done an interview in the past with the New York Times. But I don’t think it’s going to be me and Bill Kristol at the New York Times. If it were that way tomorrow, it would be because I would be doing something wrong, selling out my principles, or conforming to the status quo.
The NYT interviewed you?
I spoke to a reporter over there on cultural boycott.
And you were quoted?
Yes. It wasn’t a Q and A, but quotes were incorporated into the piece. I do think there’s three things going on in the United States. I think there’s the advancement of boycott divestment and sanctions– BDS–, there’s more coalition building than ever before, and I think there’s a reshaping and challenging of the media landscape. So when you look at it, from Twitter and Facebook to Electronic Intifada and Mondo, the SJPs, the BDS victories and linking up struggles, it’s harder and harder for the mainstream media to ignore us.
How old are you?
A lot of folks have sold out in life, before you. Not that you will. And I’m not value judging, but they might want a late night television appearance.
I don’t look at my poetry as a stepping stone to being a council person, a mayor, or having a mainstream radio gig. If Palestine is liberated tomorrow, we’re still going to have a lot of things to write poetry about. But you know, the reason I became a poet, was I felt I wasn’t having as much impact writing an op ed, or I wouldn’t have as much impact, given my talents and capabilities, having a blog. But I did think that through spoken word, it was a way that I could get a political message across in a cultural medium, and connect with not just 18 to 22 year old’s, but hopefully folks in high school, and with older people. When you perform at a banquet or a fundraiser, and the majority of people are over 30– that’s another way of telling the narrative.
And I try to look at myself not from an individualist perspective, but–how are you contributing to the community, how are you hopefully helping to shift the conversation? I do the poetry because I hope in some small way to have some kind of impact. It’s not to say I will stop writing poetry. But I don’t need to be a poet. I don’t need to do a workshop or a talk, I only want to do those things as long as they’re respectful, ethical, and helpful to something greater.
What was the moment you began doing spoken word?
So back in 2004, my brother and sister, took me to go see Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. That was the first time I’d seen the Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad perform live and a lot of other poets talk about social justice and though they may not have been saying the word Palestine at the time, that message against oppression came through and I went home that night with my brother and sister and said, that blew my mind. And I immediately picked up a pen, and within months went to my first spoken mic. So I literally became a poet because… knowing that I could go to a 3 hour show and hear an art form I’d never heard live before that had such a significant impact on me, I wanted to go back to my friends, back to my communities and out to open mics, and express myself in a cultural way I hoped would resonate with folks.
You were 22 then.
I was 22, and it wasn’t until December of 2005 that I did my first show in New Jersey, for a Palestine Children’s Relief Fund dinner. PCRF. It took me a long time, to get up the courage to actually speak in front of people.
What were you doing for a living then?
I was working at restaurants, and I was thinking about writing. To do the New York story, I moved to New York City four months before 9/11. And when those two towers came down, there was so much vitriolic language, there was that, we got to go and turn that place into a parking lot mentality, we got to nuke them and start over. I already had my family history about Palestine and I had a sense of social justice. But I really started reading everything I could, from Edward Said to Howard Zinn to Angela Davis. I was actually writing articles in prose before I became a poet.
So 2004 was that turning point. I was thinking of different ways I could express myself and push back against that anti-Islamic, anti-Arab racism, the Islamophobia post 9/11. Then the war in Afghanistan began, the war in Iraq, that militaristic Bush era, you’re either with us or against us, we’re going to bomb everything in sight. That’s where poetry came in for me, writing about Palestine, but also against Bush adventures and Rumsfeld adventures overseas, and it was a way that I could articulate a very strong critique in a cultural form.
Things were very different back then. Ten years ago you could barely say Palestine on a college campus without being called an anti-Semite. People didn’t want to hear anything about Palestine or antiwar coming from a Palestinian voice that was seemingly political and seemingly harsh, and seemingly not willing to budge on the ethics and principles or sugarcoat their language.
Did you try and go to college campuses then?
I never tried to break through. It’s kind of odd the way it happened. I went to poetry cafes in 2005, and even in 2006, I didn’t necessarily feel that at home, because I felt the tenor within the US society was so kind of intense anti-Arab. I did want to have to prove myself; so if someone didn’t think I was a great poet, I was OK with that. And let’s be honest, my poetry in 2005, 2006, 2007, wasn’t anything to brag about. But the disdain for the message in some circles kind of shocked me. So where I actually began performing was at fundraisers.
How were you shocked?
When you’re in social justice minded spaces and you feel a kind of discomfort simply because you’re talking about Palestine or talking about war issues. Like, I don’t mind someone saying, hey I don’t think your poetry is of a good caliber. But if somebody is taking offense to the message itself– and though there was embracement of it, the tension was there, and to me, in terms of beginning as a poet, it wasn’t necessarily my scene. So where I initially started performing was at fundraisers, and then also the massacre on Lebanon in 2006– I began performing at a lot of rallies. At the time I was sort of the rally poet. I’d bounce around and perform a couple of pieces, and utilize the poetry in that way.
And one day, a university reached out to me and said, do you want to come and perform. I was like, “Unnh, sure.” There wasn’t any action of, I am going to go after the campus crowd and I’m going to try to book a tour. I was organizing at the time, I was involved with communities. I’d perform at various events. Then one day, a campus called up and asked me to do a show. When I started off as a poet, there were only a handful of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters. When you look at the trajectory of things, there was the Massacre on Lebanon and Gaza in 2006, then the massacre on Gaza of 2008-2009, then the Flotilla Massacre, then 2012 and then last summer. So you went from five or ten SJPs to 30 SJPs, to 100 SJPS, to now by some estimates there are over 150 SJP’s. I don’t know the definite number, but there are a massive amount of SJP chapters throughout the United States.
What a story. That’s what gets me as a journalist, this is a great story and they’re not covering it. It’s like that joke in your book, [in the poem Hebron] “apartheid on full display/the western media/on coffee break.” They’re missing a lot of great stories.
It’s Who gives you legitimacy, and who says you’re worthy enough. Right? If you have 150 SJP chapters, and you have organizations like MEcHa which is a Chicano organization, with 400 chapters throughout the United States, signing on to BDS, when you have more black support and queer support, and indigenous support, and you’re seeing unions signing on to BDS, and you’re seeing academic organizations signing on to cultural boycott, it’s active ignoring, and then when Palestine is covered, it’s usually done in an undermining and underhanded way. But I think our voices aren’t going anywhere, and our message is resonating with more and more people. If you could knock on the door of 320 million Americans, you’re not going to win over the Tea Party, but I think you are going to win over the majority of Americans, and that’s where you’re seeing the polls go. If you actually look at where the trends are going, the polls from people 18 to 30, from black Americans, from women– you’re actually seeing people turn away from Israel, and more in solidarity with Palestinians.
Do you think of your future going forward, as an activist, artist, thinker, poet, performer?
I’m super uncomfortable with the individual questions. To explain that, I don’t think about myself in that kind of way. I think about it like this: right now I’m a poet. And right now I try to organize as much as possible, whether on cultural boycott or other projects. If 5 years from now, there isn’t a need for the poetry in the kind of persistent sense, I don’t want to ever force myself into a show, I never want to force myself into a space, I want my work in the performance sense and in the traveling sense to hopefully add to the organizing that’s going on or the movement building that’s going on. I’ll always write poetry, but I don’t have to be a poet 5 years from now. If Palestine is liberated tomorrow– I also want to be a poet respectfully. I don’t want to just say, you know, an earthquake happened somewhere, or bombs are falling somewhere, so let me go write the newest piece, or the coolest piece. You don’t want to be appropriative and you want to think about your work ethically. So I think I’ll always be a poet in terms of organizing and activism, it’s going to be something that hopefully I’m plugged in forever. Angela Davis said this in a talk about – and I’m going to erase that reference, because I don’t want to talk about myself and then Angela Davis– but the thinking being, it’s life work. You try to figure out how this is integrated into part of your life, rather than this is simply a project you’re working on or something you do for five years. I think advocating for liberation and freedom justice and equality and against systems of oppression is part of my core, and will stay with me till the day I pass. What form that takes may shift and vary over time.
Where’d you grow up?
I grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts, at the time population 9000. We were the only Palestinian family in town, we were the only Arab family in town, it was a majority white population, not ethnically diverse. I was the brown kid kind of growing up kind of feeling like a fish out of water, having Palestinian refugee parents and growing up during Desert Storm. So there was a lot of racism, there was a lot of pro military rah rah rah Go bomb the bad guys feeling. There were a lot of working class elements in town. And so it was a small town upbringing.
When did you first go to Palestine?
My first trip to Palestine wasn’t till 2007. I was 26 at the time.
There was a lot of power in that, to judge from the poem “Layover in Palestine”?
My first trip to Palestine was with my brother, and it was really a transformative experience, it was and I’ve written about this in the last book—I have a piece about my childhood and also about going to Palestine. It was an absolutely impactful and transformative experience and the way that I kind of talk about it within the last poem, “Layover in Palestine,” that feeling about being in Palestine and it’s always being temporary. And kind of traveling from place to place, and just wanting to be rooted, wanting to feel what it’s like to be home even if for a moment.
Tell me about the poem in which some guys land on you at a show for not being light enough, or funny enough.
Sure. I was going and doing this performance and it was like almost an entertainment night, it wasn’t around Palestine, it wasn’t around social justice, it was just a set of performers and I happened to be one of the performers that night. So you have a couple of guys who have probably drunk one too many Stellas, and are looking to be entertained, and want some fun music that they can jam out to. Then this really angry guy comes up on stage and does this poetry and ruins their night! Now, they came up to me afterwards and they were really drunk so I was– do I help prop them up, do I speak back? You don’t want to get thrown up on by two drunk guys after a show. And they were like, why are you so brown and angry. Rather than expressing myself in the moment, I handled it a little differently and went home and wrote a poem about them.
The takewaway is that if you say something racist and rude to a poet, there’s a 90 percent chance that he will go home and write a poem.
What did you do in the moment?
I didn’t say much, It was so stunning. It was a “Thank you for your comment” moment. Where in my head, it was, you’re a white supremacist, leave me alone. They were so inebriated I decided engaging in some normal conversation wouldn’t be a fruitful endeavor.
Do you ever write poems about love, personal poems?
I have in the past. Look– I joke about this on stage and in the first book. I grew up in western Massachusetts as a chubby one-eyebrowed brown kid, in a kind of a racist town, feeling like a fish out of water. At the time, I wrote my fair share of love poems about girls that didn’t like me back. But I was also 11. So yeah, I’ll write personalized poems, or maybe not like the classic love poem, but I’ll write personalized poems that will be kept in a virtual diary and won’t be shared in my books. This is kind of a choice of every poet, where I think that the incredibly intimate poetry is something that some poets– it’s part of them and they want to share everything with their reader, or specifically they want to share the most intimate moments. For me, with my kind of writing, what I share is more related to Palestine and militarism and antiwar and conflict voyeurism. And I do try and tease out some of that intimacy with poems like “Layover in Palestine.” But I don’t get down to the raw visceral intimate day to day feelings.
You comment on conflict voyeurism. You make a lot of cracks at Facebook in this book. And yet social media informs a lot of people.
I don’t think it’s one or the other. First, social media has been a tremendous platform, not just on the issue of Palestine but on so many other issues in terms of amplifying voices, disseminating information, getting the word out, and I say this as somebody who –social media is an integrative part of my life. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram– so it’s not a dismissal of online platforms and not a dismissal of their power. But what we do with that. There are things that are good, things that are positive but we have to operate ethically, right? So peoples’ deaths and struggle– it’s not a spectator sport, it’s not just something we get consumed by for a week or two and move on to something else. There are people under those bombs. There’s someone on the other side of the barrels of those guns. Just because the cameras turn off or the tweets stop, doesn’t mean the devastation brought to the doorstep of 1.8 million people trapped in Gaza is any less devastating and it doesn’t mean it’s ended. When I talk about conflict voyeurism– we don’t want to just hop from subject to subject and look at people as this kind of a thrilling movie that we can tune into for two hours and then tune out. So it’s not a dismissal of social media, but because social media is becoming such a staple part of people’s lives collectively, how are we operating in those spaces and how can we do it a bit more respectively?
You know– not Palestinians, not black people, or people in Iraq– they’re not nameless faceless victims. We’re not statistics, we’re not numbers. We don’t want to just reduce people to current oppression or suffering they’re enduring. We want to see the fuller picture of life beyond the 140 character platitudes or the Facebook post. At the end of the day, the purpose of anyone, whether you’re a speaker or an artist or a Palestinian solidarity organizer, your work shouldn’t be based on how many Facebook likes you get or Youtube views you have or how great of a speech you give.
There’s a poem called Solidarity, where you come down on the professor type. [“I am not looking for you/academic savior/know-it-all solidarity activist/condescending anti-Zionist”] Don’t you need solidarity folks?
I think that the first part of the poem addresses the idea that the Palestinian voice is not palatable enough, or we’re not reasonable enough. For a long time in the United States, there was this idea that you had to have a Jewish anti-Zionist speaker, or a white voice speaking on behalf of Palestine. People wouldn’t actually listen to the Palestinian voice. So– kind of challenging that. Also, when we build certain people up, when we make people out of movements, and organize around egos, and put people on a pedestal, we don’t want to create this situation where there are these popular voices that can’t be critiqued and are basically just handing down platitudes of wisdom to the masses. So I think that whether it’s a Palestinian solidarity activist or a Palestinian– I think there’s sometimes a feeling, like I’ve done x, y and z, over a certain number of years, so I’ve put in my time and I cant be criticized. So if you’re smearing or undermining BDS, or if you’re smearing or undermining Palestinians, or you’re doing something detrimental to organizing, or to Palestine solidarity in the United States, that’s up for critique. Not because we want to tear you down and not because the left wants to eat themselves, but because we should be able to lovingly critique and push back and challenge and keep ourselves in check…. The poem talks about a few different things. The first is kind of the Palestinian juxtaposed next to the Palestinian solidarity organizers. We have to recognize whose voices aren’t heard or aren’t put on a poster or aren’t put on pedestal. And there have been folks in the past who have spoken very well on Palestine and then said very harmful things to Palestinians, to BDS, to the movement as a whole.
Are you talking about Norman Finkelstein?
I’m not naming names. [Chuckling.] And this is why. Because I think that even sometimes, the critical conversation can center around the individual, which ends up kind of reaffirming that problem and that structure, where we center around a handful of voices. Rather than thinking about, there are millions of Palestinians around the globe speaking up, there are thousands of Palestinian organizers in the US. There are 150-plus SJP chapters. Then one person who’s put on a pedestal says something completely egregious or completely unhelpful, and then the conversation becomes about them, rather than the organizing and the good and the movement that is taking place.
In the poem A Distraction, you seem to address Diaspora Palestinians who aren’t political. Is there a judgment that they’re having a good life they wanted?
No. In Distraction. “You weren’t awake to notice/A Christmas Story marathon/played in the background/debates raged while Al Aqsa burned… you were camping/as the airport was struck.” That’s about people who choose not to be engaged.
I would say, maybe it came out harsher, the poem is really about apathy in the kind of larger sense. Whether we are talking about the bombing of Gaza or whether it’s the war in Iraq and
Afghanistan. So the poem was really kind of targeting this greater apathy. And I don’t know, I have to look at the actual poem. What’s the specific question?
I felt a tension there, you were calling out other members of the Palestinian diaspora, hey, you’re leading a bourgeois American life. You want to put this behind you but you can’t?
I think that within the poem I was really kind of targeting the apathy–again not in a wag the finger type of way. But just because we choose to close our eyes, or just because we choose to turn away from something, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It doesn’t mean to take away from the business of people’s lives, or the hardship they’re going through. Within the poem, one of the stanzas is, “you were… fighting it out in your relationship.” I understand that people are in relationships, people have other things going on in their lives. But there’s also this idea of the alarm clock buzzing, it’s time to wake up. So even if we turn off the radio or TV or don’t go online, that doesn’t meant the oppression stops, doesn’t meant that the occupation ends, doesn’t meant that folks who are living under the threat of bombing– that their lives are any easier. So it was more like, We need to wake up. Rather than, Hey you bourgy Americans, stop being an asshole.
There are poems that are attacking Zionism, and settler colonialism, and US militarism. But then there are other poems that are a bit more reflective. Sometimes self critical, sometimes community critical. And again, not to say you are so wrong and I’m so much smarter and better than you. And you need to do this and that. But rather, if we want to see a stronger organizing community, if we want to see better Palestinian solidarity, If we actually want less oppression, less guns fired, less bombs dropped in the world, then we have to stand up, we have to act, we have to do something about it. And there are a lot of great ways that people are doing that. So I’d like to think that the kind of critique or the kind of pushing that is done, when talking about Palestinians or these other questions of my communities, that it’s done more with a loving critique than pushing because I want things to get better, not because I want to be right.
Are there other poems you want to talk about?
I had some more thoughts on “Layover in Palestine.” Sometimes when I get asked a specific question about a specific poem, I have to think about it. And that piece was mostly about my last trip in 2014, and I was kind of rushing around Palestine, and you know, hugging friends, snapping pictures, and there was this kind of feeling of, Is this the last time that I’m going to be allowed in? Am I going to be banned for life? I just want to be present and at home. I actually want to take in my surroundings, and feel rooted in Palestine. Then as I mentioned in the poem, having the American passport, burning a hole in my back pocket, going thru checkpoints, and dealing with that dehumanization– all these thoughts are just flowing through my head. You just want to be able to sit and break bread with people and feel rooted, just for even for a brief instant.
I felt that was very well communicated by the poem. Very successfully. How do you imagine your connection to Palestine when Palestine is free?
Again, in where I’m at, let’s say 3 years or 7 years or 10 years from now, in many ways, I have a a community, a family structure, friends and loved ones in the New York area and the tri state area. And not for all of Palestinians, but for me, the idea of return is incredibly important. Right? So not just that we have the right to return, and each Palestinian will decide on whether or not they return, but thinking about– what does a liberated Palestine mean and where do I see myself within that structure? Am I back in Haifa or Yaffa? Am I still living in New York City? But I don’t think in a liberated Palestine tomorrow, the struggle and fight is over. Or that things are going to be just perfect.
So for example, I’m an advocate for one democratic state. But even then, transitioning into that, and how that plays out, or mapping out the right of return itself, and people going back, and then building society, and decolonizing and undoing all that Zionism has done to Palestinians isn’t something that’s going to happen over night. So my relationship will be kind of structured on where things are at that time.
I’m a white bourgeois guy sitting in the woods. I’m 60. I wonder when I listen to you, Is this where the left is? Is this what Ferguson and Baltimore mean in the U.S. political culture? This movement has been marginalized on the left for a while, it won’t be now, and Palestine is part of the engine?
More people are horrified today that we’re giving 3.4 billion a year in military aid to Israel, more people are horrified that their tax dollars, their community investment and campus investments are profiting off Israeli apartheid and occupation. And increasingly more people were horrified by the massacre of 2300 Palestinians last summer over 51 days. Similarly, Palestinians were horrified by the execution of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the killing of Eric Garner and Renisha McBride and Aiyana Jones, and more folks are waking up every day to the prison industrial complex and racist drug laws and mandatory minimums. I mean I live in New York City where 5 million people were stopped and frisked by Michael Bloomberg, the vast majority of them black and Latino. Millions of undocuemtned people are being expelled from this country. So I think we’re in a very critical moment where we’re talking about standing up against police brutality and the execution of black people in the United States, and standing up against Israeli occupation and apartheid and bombs falling in Gaza.
And connections are being made between for example, G4S, which operates in prisons in the US, and also in Palestine. And companies like HP, which works with the Department of Homeland Security as well as operating to segregate Palestinians in the West Bank or enhance the Naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Or companies like Elbit systems that operates on the Mexican border, also in Palestine. The struggles are unique and the manifestations of racism operate differently in different places. But I think that a lot of folks are coming together.
If you look at Ferguson, for example, it was a spark that built on a foundation. There was organization that happened locally. I mentioned Kristian Davis Bailey in an interview with Electronic Intifada last week, talking about how the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee has been organizing with the Organization for Black Struggle. If you look at Dream Defenders and the Black Youth Project, they have been supportive of Palestine. Or you look at the historical support, with Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. So I think that we’re in a critically important time. More people are saying, Enough is enough, whether black people being killed in Baltimore or Palestinians being brutalized in Gaza– we have to be challenging these systems of oppression, and more and more people are joining together to do that.
As a liberal, when you talk about Carmichael and Malcolm X, I reflect that Martin Luther King was the gatekeeper or the bridge to mainstream. Is that happening today? There’s radical political organizing, and its effect in the end on mainstream.
The right of return isn’t radical, a one state solution with people living in freedom, justice and dignity isn’t radical. Challenging mass incarceration isn’t radical. Stop killing people every 20 hours is not radical. More principled organizing is going to move things forward. I can only speak to Palestine rights. And when you look at Students for Justice in Palestine, Palestinian communities, the pushing of the conversation on words like apartheid and settler colonialism, keeping the right of return in the forefront, keeping prisoners in the forefront when we talk about Palestine– that is going to move things forward. The issue within the United States is, our principles are there, our rights are there. And when you look at the fact that you’ve gone from five Students for Justice in Palestine chapters to 150, and when you look at the fact that you have BDS groups that are sprouting up across the country, you are starting to see more support for Palestine from academic to local communities to churches.
Prisoner incarceration is beginning to be an issue for Congresspeople. Does that mean congressmen are going to start talking about Israel Palestine? Rep. Hakeem Jeffries who talks about Israel today, Israel tomorrow, Israel forever– incarceration is a big issue for him.
I don’t want to juxtapose Palestine to Black Lives Matter and then make analysis. I don’t want to speak or misspeak or represent or speak on behalf of other people’s struggles and movement. I can answer the question of, Is Palestine moving forward in the United States, and is Congress going to start moving forward. But I wouldn’t want to do that juxtaposed to Black Lives Matter.
So on your own terms?
I don’t think that the road to freedom justice and equality in Palestine is in the White House. What we have to do is move across the spectrum, organizing within communities, to working on BDS, to coalition building, to reshaping the media landscape. Then the conversation will change nationally, and you’re basically going to drag the congress and the president and the political elite kicking and screaming.
When you look at South African apartheid, and Reagan vetoing sanctions. You have a very strong Israel lobby in the U.S. And the U.S. is an empire and sees itself fitting and working within occupation/apartheid in Palestine. We’re a militaristic nation that bombs a half dozen countries, surveils its own people. And we have rampant Islamophobia. So our relationship to Israel and the world whether corporations or politicians, very neatly interrelates with Israeli oppression of Palestinians. So I do think that it has to happen on the ground through the grass roots and build up in that type of way.
Because again, I think there’s a very strong case. We are not silent actors. We give them 3.4 billion in aid, we give them the weapons. when you have the American Studies Association, then Critical Ethnic Studies Association, then the United Electrical Workers, then Veolia pulling out of Palestine. We cant just look at one little victory and say Is that going to lead to fundamental change? I think that you have to look at the collective sphere. So when we look at BDS, there are subsets within BDS, academic, cultural and consumer BDS. Then you have sanctions that are going to move slower than the B and the D. But you have communities that are opening up, and conversations are changing.
Even if you look at the media, year after year you’re seeing more positive op eds. You see more positive coverage. Within the mainstream it’s still racist and anti Palestinian. But also you see a conversation on the Nakba, on apartheid, on right of return, on cultural boycott, on divesting from Israel being a legitimate practice. When the Boston Globe says something along the lines, why would we shut down any possible road to change, basically saying BDS is a legitimate tactic… Also this doesn’t supplant action within Palestine, right? BDS, for example, isn’t a liberation tactic. It’s international solidarity: cut their direct complicity with Israeli occupation and apartheid. All of those things work together.
When we look at the political landscape today, in some ways it’s never been worse inside Palestine, and in some ways things internationally have never been better in terms of solidarity in support of Palestinians. So we have to look at it in terms of the totality of what’s going on.