It is not necessarily what we say, but rather, what we do with what we say that will determine our legitimacy as a liberation movement in the end. How we go about exposing anti-blackness, including Israel’s racism against African refugees and asylum seekers as well as our own, will serve such a case in point.
African asylum seekers in Israel are currently subjected to extreme bigotry and hate-mongering by both establishment and society. It is a racism that is state-sponsored, incited by state-appointed rabbis, cashed in on by high-ranking politicians, and espoused through legislation that is backed, in the final instance, by brute military and police force.
Thus, the work that those of us making up the Palestine solidarity movement do in exposing Israeli racism against African refugees is crucial, and all the more so when we consider the U.S. mainstream media’s complicit role in glossing over said racism and the systematic attempts by Israel to whitewash its abuses.
But while highlighting – and fighting – Israeli anti-blackness is both vital and mandatory, the approach currently taken by many Palestine solidarity activists in addressing this issue might prove in the end to be selfish and detrimental.
The current discourse on Israeli racism against African refugees suffers from at least three flaws that we urgently need to overcome. One, it overlooks Palestinian racism against black people in general and African refugees in particular. Two, it uses the plight of African refugees in Israel solely as tool to score political points in the propaganda battle against Zionists. Three, it gives the false impression that racism and xenophobia against black people, refugees, and migrant workers is somehow exceptional to the Zionist project.
The words that follow are a plea to all of us making up the Palestine solidarity movement. They are a plea to begin constructing the foundation for a struggle that is truly anti-racist rather than simply being anti-Zionist. These words are a plea, that is, that we begin the work of creating a political project that takes as a starting point the ethic, both in thought and in practice, that nobody’s liberation can and will ever come at the expense of anybody else’s.
ONE: On “airing out our dirty laundry”
Anti-blackness is manifested in Palestinian and broader Arab popular culture, semantics, discourse, and daily exchanges. By now, it seems to have become a requirement of the global community that all societies determine the measure of beauty and charm by the lightness of the skin, and ours is no exception. Black Palestinians are the subject of extreme prejudice and social profiling as children. As adults, they find it difficult to integrate into society and be treated with respect and equality by fellow Palestinians. Suffering the brunt of it are our Black Palestinian women who, under this racist framework, find it impossible to live up to such standards of beauty. They are often shunned and declared unfit for love or marriage because blackness has become akin to ugliness.
Important as it is, delving into the details of Palestinian anti-blackness – as well as the inspiring attempts by Black Palestinians to combat it – is beyond the scope of this short essay and will be saved for another occasion. For us to have that conversation in an honest, healing, and constructive manner, we will first need to attest to the complexities of self-critique without allowing this complexity to further paralyse us.
Discussing Palestinian anti-blackness in such an honest way is apt to present us with several anxieties. For one, it is never an easy decision to “air out one’s dirty laundry,” so to speak, particularly so when said laundry belongs to a people structurally stripped of their humanity and collectively labelled with prejudices and stigmas. We battle daily against the myths and stereotypes Zionists spread about us through propaganda: they tell the world that we are an inferior, monstrous people, and that Israelis are the civilised, tolerant, queer-friendly people that have made the “desert bloom” and created “a haven of democracy” in a region filled with tyrannies. Zionist propaganda even has the “chutzpah” to portray, to the Black Israeli and pro-Israel students it recruits to speak at U.S. universities and in hasbara tours, Israel as a State that treats Black people with equality.
But the anxieties filling the dilemma of self-critique are not exclusive to us. They are faced by all colonised people, immigrants, Black people, and other groups that have been stigmatized as inferior but are fighting the fight. We would do well to learn from their experiences on how we can collect our own courage to engage in self-critique honestly and constructively.
For example, Black and indigenous women have had much to contribute on this front, having taught us that fighting “external” battles against institutionalised racism must not mean abandoning “internal” struggles against patriarchy and violence at home. They have fully understood that raising one’s voice against gender violence of Black and indigenous women by their men must not translate into collaborating with the state and white supremacists (even if the latter might try to whitewash their own racism and misogyny by pointing fingers at Black and indigenous patriarchy). Such interventions, they teach us, must also be accompanied by analyses of how white and colonial supremacy structurally oppresses these communities, often creating the conditions of, and fanning the flames for, internal conflict and the perpetuation of gender subordination.
Similarly, we should be concerned that self-critique could be exploited by Zionists to oil their propaganda machine, serve their agenda of demonising Palestinians, and use it as a guise to rationalise Palestinian oppression. But we should be similarly unyielding in our refusal to be paralysed by the possibility that they might exploit these conversations. Many Palestinians have had the courage to condemn the anti-Semitism of some supposed “pro-Palestinian” figures. Many Palestinians have also rightfully spoken up against the support that some Palestinian and pro-Palestinian figures and groups lend to the Syrian regime, even though this has caused internal divisions within the various Palestine solidarity movements. In a similar way, we should not shy away from talking about, condemning, and actively dismantling anti-blackness within Palestinian society in both in Palestine and among the diaspora.
TWO: Exceptionalising both Israel and Ourselves
When we expose Israel’s crimes and abuses, the predictable response we often hear from Zionists is that we “single out” Israel; that there are many evils much worse than Israel; and that we disproportionately focus on Israel. To be sure, these responses come from a place that seeks to shut-down any discussion whatsoever of Israel’s atrocities and inherent illegitimacy.
First, and needless to say, if other states exist that are more visibly brutal than Israel, it does not by any means de-legitimise any criticism of Israel’s brutality.
Israel indeed deserves to be singled-out in many instances, but only for its contextual specificities rather than for any ostensible “uniqueness.” Israel is a settler-colonial state that was founded on and continues to thrive on the ethnic cleansing, displacement, annihilation and exploitation of an entire people; and it does all of this while receiving unconditional and unparalleled financial, military, and political backing of the United States.
So indeed, we should be weary of singling Israel out as unique. It did not invent an exceptional brand of anti-blackness and xenophobia against African refugees and immigrants. It is important to remember that anti-blackness was not invented by Israel; it is part and parcel of the global white supremacist system. That is, anti-blackness is and has always been white supremacy’s complimentary pole. We cannot expect the United States to change its foreign policy on Israel because of its racism against African people when the United States itself is among the biggest perpetrators of anti-black racism, violence, and xenophobia.
Moreover, Israel’s mistreatment of African refugees is not unique to the region. On their way to Israel, refugees from Sudan and Eritrea face the imminent threat of human trafficking, rape, and torture in Sinai with the complicity of the Egyptian state. The record of Arab states in migrant rights issues is atrocious, particularly so in Lebanon and in the Gulf States. So while we are exposing Israel precisely for all that it is, we should not forget to speak with the same fervour and indignation against the abuses that Black people, refugees, and immigrants face everywhere, including our own backyard.
Finally, we must also refrain from continuously stating how Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is worse than what Blacks in the United States or in apartheid South Africa have ever experienced. Each case of oppression is specific and none of them need be put in superlative forms to be understood as abhorent. When we speak with such a frame, we can easily fall prey to Zionist counter-claims that other States are “worse” than Israel, opening the door for them to provide arguments in support of such claims. And when we continue insisting that what Palestinians face at Israel’s hands is worse than what Black people faced in the United Sates and what Black people faced under apartheid South Africa, we belittle the struggle of those very people whose support we not only seek but will eventually come to find as absolutely necessary.
THREE: Political points
Another recurring problem in our discourse today on Israel’s mistreatment of African refugees is that it ends up using the plight of African refugees solely as a means to point to Israel’s brutality. African refugees are human beings, not pawns in our liberation struggle. Each refugee who has fled genocide, ethnic cleansing, military dictatorship or persecution has a personal story that deserves to be heard and respected. They deserve nothing less than us orienting and broadening our struggle against whatever processes forced them to flee their own homes, breaking up their lives, families, and communities. They deserve genuine solidarity from us rather than our using their plight as an advertising campaign for our cause. We must realise how we further dehumanise African refugees when we exploit their suffering to serve our own agenda. Indeed, we fully disregard their own stories and never think to ask what their ideas are for the struggle. Indeed, we cannot think to ask them what they think about things because we do not engage them as dignified people; we see them and treat them only as victims.
Instead, we could strive to connect with each other through an analysis of how Zionism and white supremacy share a common logic that oppresses us all in our specific yet interrelated contexts. An important way to begin is by studying and taking seriously the Black Radical Tradition, an entire school of liberatory philosophies and practices devised over centuries of struggle against colonialism, oppression and exploitation. As Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa has recently pointed out, we have far more in common with Black people worldwide than we do with white Europeans and white Americans. So rather than engaging Black people as victims, we should study and learn from the long history of the Black struggle against slavery, including their struggle against the shameful history of slave trade here in the Arab world.
In exposing Israel’s vile treatment of Black asylum seekers, we should be careful that we do not treat them as objects that help the Palestinian cause expose Israel’s racism. As already emphasised above, each and every asylum seeker has a name, has a story. She or he had to flee genocide, and/or experience concentration camps, and/or human trafficking in Sinai. If they were white, we undoubtedly would make every effort to personify them. Zionists do and will continue to point to Palestinian anti-blackness as a way to suggest we are undeserving of full membership as political actors in the world. We, of course, will and must continue doing the same about them. But what we also must do on our side is to finally ask, “What are we going to do about dismantling our own anti-blackness?”
But here again, we will need to be careful. Acknowledging anti-blackness should not be done simply to claim the moral ground or to sound more righteous than the other side. It should not be done because we want to score political points and further expose to the world Israel’s immorality. We should not reject racism simply in an attempt to show the world that we are “good” and “deserving” of solidarity. We should reject it because we as Palestinians are convinced that racism has no place in any genuine liberation struggle. Speaking out against it and raising awareness to its existence is but a first step in going about dismantling it. But it is only a first step. In order to truly begin, we must create a political project that is deliberately not anti-black, one which can finally make a place for Black Palestinians right here next to us as our dignified brothers and sisters; one which can ally with African refugees and immigrants in Palestine; and one which can connect to Black struggles worldwide in a way where we finally plan out a liberation project that will not end up with our liberation coming at the expense of theirs.
It is a question of fashioning our struggle in a way that will truly work toward dismantling a world that depends on racism in order to continue functioning. It is a question of not seeking a comfortable place within such a world it as Zionism tragically chose to do. It is a question of creating ourselves anew rather than becoming somebody else’s Israelis the day after. Without a doubt, we can and need to do far better than that.