No. 3

Angela Davis: Standing With Palestinians

Reflecting on the past 60 years.

Angela Davis in Paris, France, March 2013. Photograph by Richard Dumas/Agence VU/Redux.

Solidarity with Palestinians and their decades-long struggle in defense of their land, culture, and freedom has long been a central theme of my political life. I am gratified to see so many young people — especially young Black people — supporting the struggle in Palestine today. The emotional turbulence so many of us have experienced for the past five months as we’ve witnessed the unprecedented damage the Israeli military has inflicted reminds me just how central the Palestinian quest for justice is to liberation struggles here in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, as well as to my own sense of self in our extremely complicated political world.

The state of Israel is the purveyor not only of a settler-colonial project but also of one that actively continues its violent expansion in the 21st century. Over the past months we have witnessed widespread, unnecessary death and extraordinary devastation that has led to the uprooting of practically the entire population of Gaza. Massive demonstrations all over the planet and deep collective grief about the conditions in Gaza have turned my attention back to the emotion-laden political mobilizations during the summer of 2020. People everywhere, including in Palestine, felt both rage and profound sadness at the racist police lynching of George Floyd. Some might say that the issues driving the George Floyd mobilizations and the current protests against the war on Gaza are different. But are they?

The collective mourning elicited by the racist violence that claimed the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others galvanized demonstrations aimed at the systems, structures, and histories that enabled such racist state violence. And those demonstrations were implicitly directed at the global imperialism that furthers the proliferation of racial capitalist strategies. Some of the protests also highlighted the lessons the U.S. has learned as a direct result of its close alliance with Israel, which has included trainings offered by the Israel Defense Forces to U.S. police departments all over the country. Whether or not the Minnesota police ever directly learned combat moves from the IDF, the increased militarization of policing here is directly related to global capitalism, including the economic and military ties between Israel and the U.S.

Israel’s genocidal war against the Palestinian people in Gaza — who, along with those in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and inside Israel itself, have been conscripted to serve as involuntary embodiments of the foundational enemy of Israel — has produced unimaginable grief and sorrow. Gazan families will never fully recover from the deaths of their loved ones, from the destruction of their homes (as many as 70 percent of homes and more than half of all buildings have been damaged or destroyed), from their monthslong attempts to survive without food and water, or from sleeping in the open as human counterparts of the scarred landscape, which may not recover in the foreseeable future. The vicious and dehumanizing verbal assaults by representatives of the government and armed forces have compounded this trauma. In announcing a “complete siege” of Gaza, the Israeli defense minister, Yoav Gallant, announced: “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel. Everything is closed.” He justified this action by adding, “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” The international press widely quoted these remarks in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas.

These atrocities, according to the charges South Africa brought before the International Court of Justice, have acquired genocidal proportions. But amid all of this, we have witnessed the rise of an unprecedented degree of global resistance and solidarity with Gazans and Palestinians. Like many others during these heartbreaking times, I have been encouraged by the leadership proffered by Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and other progressive Jewish organizations. Their dramatic presence in the movement is a reminder that binary constructions obscure more accurate and nuanced understandings of what it means to engage in freedom quests.

I was fortunate to witness Jewish solidarity with Palestine, however minoritized, during the early history of the state of Israel, which coincided with my undergraduate years at Brandeis University. My own lifelong sense of solidarity with Palestine is rooted in those experiences of my young political life. I learned the moral value of political solidarity and what it means to express that solidarity not only as a minority position within a larger progressive community but also through a deep identification with those who have been designated as enemies. Solidarity is never entirely straightforward, but in this situation, it requires us to reach beyond simplistic explanations that attribute positions of moral rectitude to one side and utter depravity to the other. Solidarity commands us to recognize the fallacious either/or construction that effectively forbids the proximity of positions of solidarity for Palestine and of deep and heartfelt condemnations of antisemitism.

In the process of reflecting on the meaning of solidarity, I have also learned over the years how dangerous it is to objectify one’s perceived enemies such that nothing they do or say can ever change or even challenge the qualities they are assumed to embody. It is always easy to defer to prevailing discourses that rely on these objectifications, and I think that most of us (myself included) have given in to such pressures at times. Colonialism, racism, and patriarchy all thrive on such capitulations.

But some of us have had the good fortune to have been presented with alternative ways of understanding, critical engagements that question the ideological underpinnings of what we are confronting. I am thankful to many people in the various collective movements and organizations to which I have belonged — the Communist Party USA, L.A. SNCC, Black Panther Political Party, Black Panther Party, Socialist German Students’ Union, Black Women’s Health Project, and others too numerous to name — for having pointed me and others in more productive directions, regardless of the consequences for their own lives. I have always gravitated toward those who are prepared to challenge the status quo. And I am grateful to those who have offered support when I have come under attack personally.

In 2018, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute offered me a human rights award named after Fred Shuttlesworth, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and then rescinded the honor because of my activism in support of Palestine. Before I even had the opportunity to decide what my response would be, Jewish Voice for Peace and other progressive Jewish organizations began to organize.

Their support was especially important, because it was clear that I was not being targeted as an individual. Several months after the rescission of the award, Representative Ilhan Omar was singled out by Donald Trump, who misrepresented her as he argued that she was insufficiently critical of the perpetrators of 9/11 and accused her of antisemitism because of her principled support of Palestine. Scholar and activist Barbara Ransby and others organized an outdoor convergence and protest in Washington, D.C., to support Omar, alongside her fellow representatives Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In November 2018, CNN fired academic and activist Marc Lamont Hill because he had used the phrase “from the river to the sea” at a UN meeting on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. His firing prefigured Zionists’ widespread contemporary effort to ban a rallying call that for many, in the words of Tlaib, is “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.”

Palestinian solidarity protesters in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., Oct. 21, 2023. Photograph by Christopher Lee for Hammer & Hope.

It was clear then that the Zionist lobby was stepping up its offensive because it had been losing ground. During and after the 2014 Ferguson protests, young Black activists and their supporters had begun to fiercely challenge the ideological representation of Israel as the central outpost of democracy in the Middle East, which had to be defended at all costs. The longstanding work of Palestinian activists Linda Sarsour, Ahmad Abuzaid and others to develop productive alliances that could amplify Black solidarity with Palestine and further cultivate internationalism within the Black Lives Matter movement began to resonate broadly. The Dream Defenders, founded in Florida by Phillip Agnew, Ahmad Abuznaid, and Gabriel Pendas in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder, not only brought Palestinian Americans and African Americans together in an organization that identifies as abolitionist, feminist, and socialist but also has organized a number of delegations to Palestine. I see a direct line connecting this recent history — and, of course, all the history linking Black and Palestinian movements since the Nakba in 1948 — with the rising numbers of Black people who now refuse to toe the Democratic Party line on support for Israel.

As radical advocates and activists, we don’t often have the opportunity to experience the changes for which we struggle; instead we expect that our work will affirm new starting points for generations to come. But sometimes, if we manage to live long enough, we may also have the good fortune of experiencing the transformative impact of struggles in which we have participated. When I first heard the news that the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award was being rescinded as a response to my Palestine activism, I felt unable to breathe — as if this blow had literally knocked the wind out of my body — which was why my statement at the time indicated that I was “stunned.” That feeling soon dissipated, however, as many expressions of solidarity from all over the world, including from organizations of rabbis and other Jewish formations, began to circulate. Overwhelmingly supportive responses from Black and other politically progressive organizations reminded me that freedom work, even when it may not appear to be making an appreciable difference, can lead to profound and transformative results.

Though the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s gala had been canceled, community activists, together with the mayor and other city officials, came together to organize a public event at the Boutwell Auditorium that probably attracted 10 times more people than the fund-raiser would have. For me personally and politically, this event occasioned a rare and deep-seated sense of collective triumph. In this historical bastion of racist segregation where I had been born and grew up — the Johannesburg of the South — a vast collection of people of different racial, religious, and cultural backgrounds attested to the weakening influence of Zionist ideology. When I looked out into the audience from the stage, I saw so many of my childhood friends, a number of whom had helped organize this gathering, protesting the BCRI decision, and all of whom were putting their bodies on the line by showing up en masse.

Before visiting Birmingham, I had traveled to Waltham, Mass., to participate in the 50th anniversary celebration of the Department of African and African American Studies at Brandeis. Students at Brandeis during the early 1960s were constantly reminded that Israel was founded in 1948, the same year Brandeis was established. While none of us could avoid the pervasive Zionism, I was grateful to have a Jewish roommate during my first year who constantly steered me to think critically about the representation of Israel as the only possible defense for the global Jewish community. She turned my attention to the condition of Palestinians, who were being systematically divested of their land, their rights, and their future. She also helped me to understand that standing with the Palestinian resistance was the best way to fight for a world where we could all be safe.

I invoke my own experience at Brandeis because despite its perpetuation of the claim that Palestinians embody a continuing existential threat to Israel (it was the first private university to ban a Students for Justice in Palestine campus chapter), I do not remember any major conflicts around this issue during my time there. But I do recall many subterranean conversations about the impact of this militaristic nation-building process on the Palestinian people. What I now deeply appreciate is that I retained crucial insights regarding the kinship between racism and antisemitism (violent white supremacists dynamited Black churches and homes in my natal city of Birmingham and targeted a synagogue), and these insights continued to lead me to the people I organized with and the people with whom I socialized. They were not displaced by my evolving consciousness of the dangers of Zionism.

After I graduated from Brandeis in 1965, I traveled to Frankfurt, Germany, to study with Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and others associated with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt. Shortly after arriving, I became involved with the Socialist German Students’ Union (SDS). This was precisely when SDS began to turn away from Israel and toward solidarity with the Arab states challenging Israel. A few days before the outbreak of the 1967 war, the police killed a student named Benno Ohnesorg while he attended an SDS protest against the shah of Iran’s visit to Berlin. Fascist police violence happened at the same time as the Israeli army’s aggression. This led the SDS to create an interesting connection between supporting Third World Liberation efforts (including solidarity with Palestine) and challenging police violence and other forms of state repression within what was then West Germany. That a student could be killed for participating in peaceful protests provided clear evidence that West Germany had not overcome the dangers of fascism.

Angela Davis speaks at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park in Oakland, Calif., Nov. 12, 1969. Standing next to Davis is James Burford. Photograph by Stephen Shames.

After I returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1967, I was determined to find my way into the revolutionary Black Liberation Movement, and I reconnected with Herbert Marcuse, my Brandeis mentor, who was now teaching at UC San Diego. My experiences in Germany — especially among students from Africa and other parts of what was then known as the Third World — had consolidated my embrace of revolutionary internationalism, and I gravitated toward organizations and individuals who shared that identification. At a time of growing global solidarity with Third World struggles, all of the groups I worked with — the Communist Party, the Black Panther Party, and the Los Angeles chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — were absolutely clear about their solidarity with Palestine. During that period, I participated in a series of exciting and enlightening political conversations with James Forman, who was then the international affairs director of SNCC. At that time, SNCC encouraged its members to study the situation in the Middle East; the organization insisted that making significant progress in our domestic struggles required us to embrace internationalism. In a letter Forman wrote to the executive secretary of SNCC during the 1967 war, he explained:

The class struggle in the black community will become sharper if the war continues. Obviously the “gut” reaction in many people is against Israel and for the Arabs, reflecting the black-white tension, the hardening of racism, and the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves in this country. However, it becomes very necessary for those of us in the organization, especially those of us in leadership positions, to study the historical development and the contemporary economic policies of Israel. Actually Israel represents an extension of United State foreign policy as well as an attempt by the Zionists to create a homeland for the Jews. The latter merges with the former in many countries, especially the United States, Great Britain, and France in some respects.

When the FBI arrested me in October 1970, I could not have predicted that my own political proximity to Palestine would increase exponentially. Of the many expressions of solidarity forwarded to me during my imprisonment, I was most deeply moved by the messages emanating from prisons. I can still remember how humbled I felt upon receiving a beautiful letter of solidarity signed by Palestinian political prisoners. The letter had been smuggled out of an Israeli jail and transmitted to my lawyers, who brought it into the California jail where I was being held. Some 40 years later, when I joined a solidarity delegation to Palestine of women of color and indigenous scholar-activists, I met a Palestinian activist who told me that he was one of the imprisoned people who had signed that solidarity message so many years ago. When we embraced, I experienced a profound sense of satisfaction with the trajectory of my life and how it has intersected with so many others around the world who again and again collectively generate the hope that radical transformation is being inscribed on the agendas of our futures.

Today the unceasing military assaults on Gaza are reason for deep despair, especially as we learn every day about a loss of life and community destruction that is unprecedented in comparison to all recent wars. Despite the obvious need for a cease-fire — a permanent cease-fire — the U.S. government continues to lend aid and support to Israel. Young activists today are trying to unravel this conundrum, even as the government and both major political parties remain in thrall to Zionism. Despite efforts to persuade the public that any critique or even questioning of the state of Israel is equivalent to antisemitism, astute young people, including radical Jewish activists, are pointing out that the most effective struggles against antisemitism are necessarily linked to opposition to racism, Islamophobia, and other modes of repression and discrimination. This is the first time in my own political memory that the Palestine solidarity movement is experiencing such broad support both throughout the U.S. and all over the world. Here in the United States, despite the McCarthyist strategies employed against those who call for freedom and justice for Palestine on campuses, in the entertainment industry, and elsewhere, we are in a new political moment, and we cannot — we must not — capitulate to those who represent the interests of racial capitalism and the legacies of colonialism. As June Jordan wrote in “Poem for South African Women”:

    And who will join this standing up
    and the ones who stood without sweet company
    will sing and sing
    back into the mountains and
    if necessary
    even under the sea

    we are the ones we have been waiting for

Angela Y. Davis is Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at UC Santa Cruz. An activist, writer, and lecturer, her work focuses on prisons, police, abolition, and the related intersections of race, gender, and class. She is the author of many books, from Angela Davis: An Autobiography to Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.

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