Our Eyes Witnessed: On People of Color in the United States and The Palestinian BDS Movement

Authors: Darnell L. Moore & Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz published at NewBlackMan

Colorlines recently featured a story entitled “The Israel Lobby Finds a New Face: Black College Students,” which highlighted the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee“s (AIPAC) recruitment of young black and brown college students to support their Zionist agenda.

According to AIPAC”s website, they recruit “[o]n campuses across America–from Ivy League universities, to small liberal arts colleges, to Historically Black and Christian schools,” as a means to help students, “find their voices in support of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The success of recruitment and propaganda efforts, like that of AIPAC, might be a result of Israel”s efforts to focus attention on its ostensibly progressive track record of human rights while conveniently overlooking its human rights and international law infringements as it relates to its treatment of Palestinian people and possession of Palestinian land. Some critics cite Israel”s attempt to “pinkwash”, or wipe away its violations against Palestinians by illuminating its receptivity of LGBTQI people.

In the case of black and brown students, it seems that a similar phenomenon may be occurring. The focus on Israel”s seeming stellar record of human rights and progressive practices are again used as a ploy of distraction: a means of shifting the public”s attention away from the occupation of Palestine and in the direction of its record of justice.

For instance, in an article in The Jerusalem Post titled, “Black student leaders slam ‘apartheid’ characterization,” a representative of the Vanguard Group, which is a “leadership development academy and honor society for top students,” provided the following in response to the pro-Palestine advocacy work of Students for Justice in Palestine, “[L]abeling of Israel, an extremely diverse and vibrant country, as an apartheid state is not only false, but offensive.” The representative went to state that such claims “are highly objectionable to those who know the truth about the Israelis” record on human rights and how it so clearly contrasts with South Africa”s.”

But whose truths, which truths are represented in the hegemonic discourses shaping the thoughts of students of color like those represented in the Vanguard Group?

AIPAC”s intentional targeting of black and brown college students, in particular, should raise suspicion among those who are concerned about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. As two organizers of color, who work against anti-Semitism and anti-Arab racism and who recently returned from a visit to Palestine/Israel, we are deeply troubled by AIPAC”s actions.

In fact, we believe that the occupation of Palestine is a struggle that all people of color should recognize as our own. Why?

Throughout our recent journey to Palestine as members of the first queer delegation, we witnessed the connections between what our communities have–and continue to face–in the US and those faced by Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government. And we believe that it is important that people of color in the US know what the occupation of Palestine looks like.

We were reminded in our witnessing of the brutal hands of Jim Crow segregation, the 500 years of colonization and displacement of First Nations people and land, the state-sanctioned policing of bodies and borders, the “redlining” of neighborhoods, the prison industrial complex, and multiple forms of environmental injustice as they have manifested in the US. These are daily realities of our past and present that people of color in the US are familiar. They are realities that Palestinians are quite familiar, as well.

Systems of Apartheid

We also witnessed strong parallels between the state-organized system of apartheid in South Africa and the occupation of Palestine. We rely on the stories of Palestinians and the testimonies of others like Bishop Desmond Tutu, who stated after visiting Israel, “It reminded me so much like what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about” to support this claim.

According to Leila Farsakh, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of Massachusetts Boston, the systems of apartheid formally employed by the South African government and that presently used by the Israeli government have different historical and social contexts but share striking similarities. Farsakh notes, “Despite their initial differences, apartheid South Africa and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have become similar since 1993.”

Apartheid, as it took shape in South Africa and other places throughout the globe, is a system of racial and ethnic separation that has been defined by the international community as a “crime against humanity” that include the following acts:

  • The inhumane treatment and capricious arrest of members of a racial group;
  • The deliberate conditions used to impact the living conditions of a racial group;
  • The advancing of legislative measures that are harmful politically, socially, economically and culturally
  • The measures that divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate residential areas for racial groups;
  • The prohibition of interracial marriages; and the persecution of persons opposed to apartheid.

There are many cases of acts like these committed by the hands of the Israeli government against Palestinians as evidenced through the many testimonies of Palestinians that we spoke with. To be sure, the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem (ARIJ) and the Land Research Center (LRC) maintains a log of daily reports tracking human violations as an initiative of its joint Monitoring Israeli Colonizing activities in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza program.

Recently, Israel’s Supreme Court even upheld a law banning Palestinians who marry Israeli Arabs from obtaining Israeli citizenship and/or residency rights. Many human rights groups have decried the court”s upholding of this racist law.

Striking Similarities

Much of our own first-hand accounts of witnessing this occupation will sound strikingly familiar to the dehumanizing segregationist practices used in the US and elsewhere:

  • We went to Sheik Jarrah, the site of one of the largest Israeli settlements in the Palestine territories. Most settlements are gated communities with manicured lawns, pool facilities, shopping centers, schools, light rail service and garbage collection. They are pristine and full of services like uninterrupted water and electricity. Directly cross the street from this settlement is the massive Palestinian refugee camp named Sho”fat..  The camp has 17,000 people.  It has intermittent water and electricity, almost no municipal services, two schools and one doctor.  All sides of the refugee camp are policed by the Israeli army. The contrast between these “neighboring communities” in East Jerusalem was banal


  • A 760 km (470mile) apartheid wall, gates, guns, fences, identification cards, color-coded license plates, and over 700 military guarded checkpoints are all used to control every aspect of Palestinian life and mobility. Families have been separated for decades by walls and face severe restrictions on mobility. We went to Qalandia check point, which is one of the most brutal checkpoints in Palestine.  Here is what we saw: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSIe_WbewnI&feature=related.


  • Displacement and segregation are strategies commonly used by the Israel government in Palestine. In Hebron, for instance, we witnessed the tools of Jim Crow segregation at work where a few of the main streets were lined with concrete barriers and others used solely by Israeli settlers. We watched as Palestinians were forced to walk on one side of the barrier while the Israeli”s walked freely on the other. In other villages, like Al Wallajeh, we stood on barren land where an entire community once flourished. We learned that Palestinians will demolish their own homes and communities to avoid paying fees to the Israeli government to do it; In order to avoid the severe financial penalties, many Palestinians take the situation into their own hands and demolish their own homes.

Without conflating the particularities of our experiences, it”s important for us as US based people of color to understand that the occupation of Palestine is like the system of apartheid that devastated South Africa, the racist Jim Crow system that still affects people of color in the US today and the sustained colonization of First Nations land and people. Israel will argue that such actions are security procedures. We contend that such actions are dehumanizing and create the atmosphere for violence. We must and find our common paths of solidarity. Our mutual survival depends upon it.

A Case for Supporting the Palestinian Civil Society”s Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement

On July 9, 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the primary judicial arm of the United Nations, offered an opinion on the illegality of the construction of the Israeli separation wall in the Occupied Palestine Territories. Israel continued to build its wall, despite the opinion of the ICJ, and continues to do so today.

In response to this and other violations of international law, members of the Palestinian civil society called for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as a means to apply the pressure of the international community on Israel to follow the rule of international law.

The Palestinian BDS campaign calls for three ends:

1. That Israel end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and that Israel   dismantles its Wall;

2. That Israel recognizes the fundamental human rights of its Arab-Palestinian citizens to the fullest extent of equality; and

3. That Israel respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Many will recall, that a sustained campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against the South African government was instrumental in bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa in 1994.

The history of the South African movement against apartheid is a great example of an unarmed, sustained movement against systematized oppression. We have those lessons to guide the Palestinian BDS movement.

“Palestinians and their supporters abroad would do well to take the South African resistance movement into account when rethinking their political vision and resistance strategy,” as Farsakh admonishes. In fact, Palestinian civil society has already embraced BDS as a primary strategy.

Given the dehumanizing conditions perpetuated by the occupation of Palestine by the government of Israel, we believe that the Palestinian BDS movement, which aims for the end of occupation and colonization, the full recognition of the human rights of Palestinian people, and Palestinian”s right of return as provided in UN Resolution 194, is a campaign that people of color should support.

BDS is an unarmed resistance movement of the international civil society that is anti-racist, anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist. It is a movement aligned with the struggle for liberation of people of color in US and all people.

We call upon our brothers and sisters of color in the US to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian movement for self-determination.  Our struggles against white supremacy and imperialism across the globe are linked. We must do the hard work of witnessing one another”s struggles so that we can be effective and knowledgeable allies across those struggles. Falling prey to the Israeli government”s Zionist project works against all of our interests. Let us work together to stop this occupation and the US governments long history of supporting and financing of it. As a quote from an aboriginal woman so aptly states “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine, than let us work together.”

For more information on the Palestinian fight for self-determination, please visit the following:

Palestinian Campaign for BDS: http://www.bdsmovement.net/

Statement of the African Heritage Delegation: http://www.ifpb.org/africanheritage/statement.html

Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions: http://www.icahd.org/

Jewish Voice for Peace: http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/content/jvp-mission-statement

Darnell L. Moore is a writer and activist who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Currently, he is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University.

Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz is the co-founder of intersections/intersecciones consulting with Lisbeth Melendez Rivera. Weiner-Mahfuz”s writings can be found in Colonize This! Young Women of Color and Feminism (Seal Press, 2002), Fireweed Magazine’s “Mixed Race Issue” (Issue 75), and through on a Web-based project titled BustingBinaries, which she co-authors with Ana Maurine Lara.

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