Rain had fallen the night before in Montgomery, Alabama. We had traveled there to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, an ambitious project by the Equal Justice Initiative to give witness to formerly enslaved Black people terrorized by lynching in the South. By the time we made our way to the newly landscaped memorial site, a brilliant sun and clear skies were heating the earth. We entered the solemn space, heavy with mourning for the over 4,400 people who were executed simply because they were Black. The memorial is composed of hundreds of steel monuments. As we made our way through the memorial, we recognized a hauntingly familiar scent. Steel, as it rusts, smells like blood.
Our delegation of Palestinian human rights defenders faced the steel monuments reading the names of those dehumanized, tortured and killed, sometimes in front of crowds of white spectators who brought their children with picnic lunches to watch the killing. In the case of the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas in 1916, the victim’s fingers were chopped off and sold as souvenirs while 10,000 spectators looked on.
We continued through the memorial, the ground gently sloping down. Soon the steel monuments, each representing a county with a documented instance of lynching, were high above our heads as if hanging from trees. No one spoke.
Placards told many of these stories in short and shocking texts. The given reasons for these extrajudicial killings included a consensual marriage to a white woman, knocking on the door of a white household, and reprimanding white children for throwing stones at Black people.
Full of sorrow, as well as embarrassment about how little we knew of this history, our delegation rested for a moment together in the Ida B. Wells reflection garden, named for the investigative journalist who dedicated her gifts to documenting lynching and showing that it was used as a way to punish Blacks for their freedom.
Bryan Stevenson, the force behind the creation of the memorial and the visionary civil rights attorney who directs the Equal Justice Initiative addressed the crowd., “All of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone, and we can not be fully evolved human beings until we care about justice for all and are truly willing to confront our difficult past.”
Stevenson’s words resonated strongly on our delegation. We too believe that justice begins with confronting the past and moving towards collective historical truth.
What does facing the past mean for Israeli Jews? It starts with looking at the root cause of the problem–Zionism, the ideology that undergirds the state of Israel. It begins with acknowledging that the purpose of Zionism was to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, necessitating a Jewish majority in the land. It is this ideology that fueled the forced displacement of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948, the destruction and complete erasure of over 500 Palestinian towns and villages, and the refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Today, the 70 year anniversary of this catastrophe, or Nakba, we see the same Zionist ideology expressing itself by killing unarmed Palestinians in Gaza in their Great March of Return, civilians who are trying to cross the barrier to go back to their villages that are only miles away.
Confronting the past means understanding that the Nakba was not only an historic event—it continues today. When refugees are kept out of their homeland, justice is not possible. While Palestinians who are citizens of Israel are seen as demographic threats, justice is not possible. As long as Israel maintains its military occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, justice is not possible. Similarly, until the United States grapples with racism and the legacy of slavery, modern day lynching will continue. Bryan Stevenson said, “Slavery didn’t end; it evolved.” This is evidenced by mass incarceration, police killings and the death penalty, systems that disproportionately impact Black communities. We must find solutions grounded in historical truth.
Truth-telling about the past is a requirement to finding a path to justice. For Israelis, facing the Nakba is the starting point. The ideology of Jewish supremacy must be abandoned and replaced with a new vision based on a commitment to historical justice. The Palestinian struggle for freedom, equality and justice is interlocked with other freedom movements in this country and around the globe. We celebrate the National Memorial for Peace and Justice because it brings the the truth-telling within it brings the U.S. one step closer towards finally, truly abolishing slavery and lynching. And we celebrate it because it brings Palestinians closer to our own freedom.