Black American solidarity with Palestinians is rising and testing long-standing ties to Jewish allies

Aaron Morrison and Noreen Nasir/Religion News Service | 12/21/2023, 6 p.m.
Cydney Wallace, a Black Jewish community activist, never felt compelled to travel to Israel, though “next year in Jerusalem” was …
Ms. Wallace

Cydney Wallace, a Black Jewish community activist, never felt compelled to travel to Israel, though “next year in Jerusalem” was a constant refrain at her Chicago synagogue.

The 39-year-old said she had plenty to focus on at home, where she frequently gives talks on addressing anti-Black sentiment in the American Jewish community and dismantling white supremacy in the U.S.

“I know what I’m fighting for here,” she said.

That all changed when she visited Israel and the West Bank at the invitation of a Palestinian American community activist, along with two dozen other Black Americans and Muslim, Jewish and Christian faith leaders.

The trip, which began Sept. 26, enhanced Ms. Wallace’s understanding of the struggles of Palestinians living in the West Bank under Israeli military occupation. But, horrifyingly, it was cut short by the unprecedented Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas militants.

In Israel’s ensuing bombardment of the Gaza Strip, shocking images of destruction and death seen around the world have mobilized activists in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Ms. Wallace, and a growing number of Black Americans, see the Palestinian struggle in the West Bank and Gaza reflected in their own fight for racial equality and civil rights. The recent rise of protest movements against police brutality in the U.S. has connected Black and Palestinian activists under a common cause.

But that kinship sometimes strains the more than century-long alliance between Black and Jewish activists. Some Jewish Americans are concerned that support could escalate the threat of antisemitism and weaken Jewish-Black ties fortified during the Civil Rights Movement.

“We are concerned, as a community, about what we feel is a lack of understanding of what Israel is about and how deeply Oct. 7 has affected us,” said Bob Kaplan, executive director of The Center for Shared Society at the Jewish Community Rela- tions Council of New York.

“Antisemitism is as real to the American Jewish community, and causes as much trauma and fear and upset to the American Jewish community, as racism causes to the Black community.”

But, he added, many Jews in the U.S. understand that Black Americans can have an affinity for the Palestinian cause that doesn’t conflict with their regard for Israel.

According to a poll earlier this month from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, Black adults were more likely than white and Hispanic adults to say the U.S. is too supportive of Israel — 44% compared to 30% and 28%, respectively. However, Black Americans weren’t any more likely than others to say the U.S. is not supportive enough of the Palestinians.

Still, Black American support for the Palestinian cause dates back to the Civil Rights Movement.

More recent rounds of violence in the Middle East have deepened ties between the two movements.

During a weeklong truce between Israel and Hamas as part of the recent deal to free dozens of hostages seized by Hamas militants, Israel released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and detainees.

Some Black Americans who watched the Palestinian prisoner release and learned about Israel’s administrative detention policy, where detainees are held without trial, drew comparisons to racial inequality in the U.S. prison system.

Rami Nashashibi, a Palestinian American community organizer on Chicago’s south side, invited Ms. Wallace and the others to take part in the trip called “Black Jerusalem” — an exploration of the sacred city through an African and Black American lens.

“My Palestinian identity was very much shaped and influenced by Black American history,” Mr. Nashashibi said.

“I always hoped that a trip like this would open up new pathways that would connect the dots not just in a political and ideological way, but between the liberation and struggles for humanity that are very familiar to us in the U.S.,” he said.

During the trip, Ms. Wallace was dismayed by her own ignorance of the reality of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. In observing the treatment of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints, she drew comparisons to what segregation historically looked like in the U.S.

“Being there made me wonder if this is what it was like to live in the Jim Crow era” in America, Ms. Wallace said.

Over the last decade, Black Americans and the Palestinians have also found growing solidarity.

In 2020, the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer resonated in the West Bank, where Palestinians drew comparisons to their own experiences of brutality under occupation,and a massive mural of Mr. Floyd appeared on Israel’s hulking separation barrier.

In 2016, when BLM activists formed the coalition known as the Movement for Black Lives, they included support for Palestinians in a platform called the “Vision for Black Lives.” A handful of Jewish groups, which had largely been supportive of the BLM movement, denounced the Black activists’ characterization of Israel as a purportedly “apartheid state.”

None of the members of the “Black Jerusalem” trip anticipated it would come to a tragic end with the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in which some 1,200 people were killed in Israel and about 240 taken hostage. Since then, more than 18,700 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s blistering air and ground campaign in Gaza, now in its third month. Violence in the West Bank has also surged.

Back home in Chicago, Ms. Wallace has navigated speaking about her support for Palestinians while maintaining her Jewish identity and standing against antisemitism. She says she doesn’t see those things as mutually exclusive.

“I’m trying not to do anything that alienates anyone,” she said. “But I can’t just not do the right thing because I’m scared.”