Last night in NYC, the Palestinian journalist/activist Janna Jihad asked Marc Lamont Hill, “You’ve had a lot going on in your past, in your life. What about when you got fired out of CNN? How did you feel about then?”
Hill, a professor at Temple University, was fired as a commentator last November after giving a speech to the United Nations that ended with a call for “a free Palestine, from the river to the sea.”
Hill told Jihad he never expected the speech to be controversial and was “confused,” “shocked” and “hurt” by the accusations of anti-Semitism and “indignant” at the mischaracterization of his views.
How did I feel? I felt a lot of things at the same time… I went to the U.N. straight from Palestine. I was actually in Khan al-Ahmar… It’s a Bedouin village that up until a week ago was supposed to be destroyed in order to expand the settlements. There’s been daily, nightly, weekly, monthly yearly resistance efforts from the villagers to defend the village.. My work was in Jerusalem, but I always made sure to stop by there and talk to folk and learn from folk…
I thought I gave an honest speech about human rights and the violation of human rights. I was very specific, I was very careful. And I didn’t expect anything. In fact, the only person who got mad during the speech was the representative from Egypt. He got up and walked out. And so the Palestinian representative came over to me and said, “Ahh, you messed up, Egypt is pissed.” I said “Good!”
I thought the most controversial thing I said in that speech is that, as we talk about what’s happening in Gaza we have to talk about what’s happening at the border… we have to talk about Egypt and Israel.. We have to talk about leaders who don’t represent the interests of the people, etc… There’s a lot of stuff to be talked about… I walked out of the speech, “Yo, I ain’t going to Egypt no time soon!” Seriously I didn’t want that problem. And it wasn’t until the next day– that night I got tweets. I get tweets all day every day..
So I wasn’t tripping yet. But then it started to pick up. And my first thought was, you know, why is everybody responding to this, right? I was calling for freedom, I wasn’t calling for destruction, I wan’t calling for anything anti-Semitic. I was calling for freedom and justice. The speech was, We have to do what justice requires…
There was confusion first; I was confused. Then I was shocked. I said, Why is everybody mad? I ain’t say nothing crazy. I’m prone to saying crazy shit. I just didn’t do it that day! If I had known, I could have not have spent all that time writing a speech. For this– I could have watched movies!
So I was confused and then I became frustrated because… it reminded me that we live in a world where too often any call for justice and equality is seen as wrong… Because if you’re in a position of power and people call for equality, sometimes that equality now feels like oppression to you. And you know, the position that I was taking was the same position that Martin King would take, the same position that Malcolm X would take, the same position that anyone would take. Is that a Palestinian baby is worth as much as a baby in any other country and in any other region; and your chances of surviving, your chances of thriving, your chances of having joy, peace, safety, self determination and justice shouldn’t depend on whether you’re born in New York City or whether you’re born in Haifa or whether you’re born in [unintelligible] or whether you’re born in China, it shouldn’t matter. Your life chances should be the same anywhere.
And so when I’m calling out the occupation, when I’m calling out the differential treatment of citizens inside of the state of Israel, when I’m calling for justice for those who have been displaced since ’48 and who are denied the right to return. When I’m calling for international law to be followed. I’m not saying, Yo we need new law, I’m just saying follow the old ones.
If this is the call that is being made, and people are saying this is wrong, then now I’m indignant. I did talk to some Jewish brothers and sisters as well, and I thought really deeply about, again this conversation about Jewish safety, this conversation about anti-semitism. I take antisemitism very seriously. I don’t ever want to be a part of any movement that’s anti-semitic. I don’t want to ever be a part of any movement that’s homophobic, I don’t want to ever be a part of any movement that’s transphobic. I don’t want to be a part of any movement that doesn’t elevate the best parts of ourselves and see the humanity in every single person.
The next feeling I had was hurt, because I’m the last person to advocate antisemitism. And so when I started hearing, oh this is anti-semitic, I felt hurt by it. I felt very concerned for my Jewish brothers and sisters who may have been offended or concerned. At the same time I felt hurt because that wasn’t my intention. And it was one of the few times where I felt so profoundly misunderstood. But there’s a long tradition of activists and freedom fighters who say one thing and are understood differently, and it’s not until history continues on that we get a clear vision of who and what people were.
…And I’m not Martin King. I understand that. But people said Martin King was selfish, that he was vain, that he was too busy to get in the news. They said Malcolm X hated everybody. These are the things that people say in the moment.
Then I had people like Nancy to kind of remind me of what the real work is. She was like, “Fuck them bro.” So trying to balance this idea of taking critique seriously, figuring out how I can be better and more clear in my messaging, how I can be a better activist, a better ally, a better supporter on the one hand. But also realizing that if you keep chasing popularity, and you keep trying to be liked by everybody, and if you are liked by everybody, you’re probably not doing good work. And that’s it.
[Audience member asks, Why did CNN kick you out?]
So the day after the speech, CNN called me. They called me that morning, and they said, We need to talk. About what? That’s where you play the [Hill mocks innocence]… Is it time for a raise?
We didn’t have a long conversation… They said, “Your speech was not in line with our values.” I said, which part of the speech? They said, The speech. Be more specific. They weren’t more specific and I didn’t press them because I’ve been fired from enough jobs at this point to know when you’re about to get fired. And you can’t really talk to the man firing you. It’s not like the movies where you can give a dramatic impassioned speech.
So my thought process was, OK, cool… I understand the decision, I hear the decision. I want to move forward.
They said, We can’t have you on the air as a contributor anymore because of the speech you gave.
We never had a specific conversation about what I said or did or which part of the speech. I mean the part of the speech that was most critiqued wasn’t the first 21 minutes and 52 seconds… It was the last five seconds and the last six words. And when they heard from the river to the sea, not CNN, but other outlets said that was a call for violence, that was a call for the destruction of Jewish people and the Jewish state. Just to be clear, for all the infiltrators and collaborators in the room, That was not what I was doing… What I said in the speech, was… We must do what justice requires, which is a free Palestine from the river to the sea. That’s what I said. That call is not a call to destroy anybody, it’s not a call to erase anybody, it’s not a call to oppress anybody, it’s a call for justice everywhere. It means if you live inside of 48, if you live inside of Israel, I firmly believe that Palestinian citizens inside of Israel should have equal rights…. That means no nation state law that demotes Arabic… It means not believing that settlement goes everywhere including the West Bank… It means not having a Nakba law… It means in the West Bank redrawing the boundaries, redrawing the borders, and it means the right of return.
That’s not a call for violence, that’s a call for justice. Again I don’t want harm to anybody, I want everyone to have freedom, justice and self determination. But one person’s justice and self determination cant come at the expense of another’s.
We’ll have more coverage of Janna Jihad’s tour in days to come. She will speak at the Capitol on July 24th, along with Maria LaHood of Center for Constitutional Rights, sponsored by American Muslims for Palestine.