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Israel-Hamas Fighting Renewed Support For Palestinians Among BLM Activists

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The recent fighting between Israel and Hamas came amid shifting opinions here in the U.S. about the broader conflict there. Support for the Palestinians here in this country has been growing, which has been a goal for activists in the pro-Palestinian movement. And for years, they have had support from Black Lives Matter organizers. As NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, these two movements are connected by a complicated history.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In streets across the U.S. in recent weeks...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Free, free Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Free, free Palestine.

WANG: Many Black Lives Matter activists have joined calls against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the U.S. alliance with Israel, including Zellie Thomas.

ZELLIE THOMAS: What we're seeing right now is nothing new but carrying on the Black radical tradition.

WANG: Thomas is an organizer with Black Lives Matter in Paterson, N.J.

THOMAS: We've known Malcolm X speak in support of the Palestinian liberation movement, the Black Panther Party, Angela Davis.

WANG: In the 1950s, Malcolm X was among the first Black activists to speak out for the Palestinians and against Israel. It began during his time with the Nation of Islam, when he sometimes talked up antisemitic conspiracy theories. Later, Malcolm X went to Gaza and visited Palestinian refugee camps months before his assassination in 1965. It helped set the stage in the U.S. for Black Power activists to spark a major flashpoint more than two years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: War in the Middle East. Israeli forces drive...

WANG: After the 1967 war ended with Israel defeating Egypt, Jordan and Syria and as this "Universal Newsreel" reported...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Capturing the West Bank of the Jordan River and occupying the Old City of Jerusalem.

WANG: That marked the start of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and other territories. And it marked a shift among African American activists, many of whom supported Israel's founding as a homeland for Jews, including survivors of the Holocaust. But after the 1967 war, a different perspective was becoming more visible.

MICHAEL FISCHBACH: It was a real turning point.

WANG: Middle East historian Michael Fischbach is the author of "Black Power And Palestine." The book details a controversial article that was published in the newsletter of one of the most influential organizations in the civil rights movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The SNCC article described the Palestinians as, quote, "victims of Zionist, British and U.S. aggression." Fischbach says it represented a reframing among Black Power activists of the Middle East conflict as part of a worldwide struggle against colonialism and imperialism.

FISCHBACH: It became much easier not to see Israel as, you know, the brave little republic farming in the desert and instead see it in their view as a Western-sponsored interloper, a colonial settler state that had dispossessed a people of color.

WANG: The 1967 SNCC article was criticized for its rhetoric and drawings that evoked antisemitic tropes, including a dollar sign inside the Star of David. The newsletter's editor insisted that image was supposed to symbolize the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel. That alliance, Black Power activists argued, made the U.S. government a common enemy for African Americans and Palestinians.

FISCHBACH: The present discourse that criticizing Israel or Zionism is somehow antisemitic really does, I believe, date from this time period because it caught so many people off guard in the strongly pro-Israeli community.

ROBIN D G KELLEY: This is a moment when Black identification with Zionism as a striving for land and self-determination gave way to a radical critique of Zionism.

WANG: Robin D.G. Kelley is a historian at UCLA who studies social movements and is an advisory board member of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Kelley says there were other factors for public criticism of Israel in 1967. It came out of a summer of unrest in U.S. cities and growing frustration with the gradual gains of the civil rights movement. In the decades since then, Kelly says...

KELLEY: The number of African Americans in solidarity with Palestine still represented a minority. It was never the majority.

WANG: In recent years, organizers have been trying to rebuild momentum. Kelley and other Black activists have visited the West Bank to see how Palestinians are living.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When I see them, I see us.

WANG: In 2015, a Black-Palestinian solidarity video compared the Palestinian struggle to the fight against police brutality in the U.S. It's a kind of comparison that's drawn pushback from some Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League. Still, Kelley says social media helped forge a connection when protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after police killed Michael Brown as war raged between Israel and Gaza, leaving more than 2,000 people dead, mostly Palestinian civilians.

KELLEY: That connection really, in some ways, concretized a much stronger African American and Palestinian solidarity than I think we've seen even back in '67.

WANG: How the Movement for Black Lives expressed that solidarity in 2016 set off another controversy. Its political platform called Israel, quote, "an apartheid state" and argued that by providing military aid to Israel, the U.S. is, quote, "complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people," unquote.

JACQUES BERLINERBLAU: That type of rhetoric tends to ring the fight-or-flight bells of most but not all - but most Jewish Americans.

WANG: Jacques Berlinerblau is a Georgetown University professor of Jewish civilization.

BERLINERBLAU: They'll either run away from the conversation because they find that type of oratory so over-the-top or so offensive, or they want to contest it.

WANG: Berlinerblau says this kind of feedback loop has been on repeat since some Black activists started speaking out against Israel and for the Palestinians. Still, social media images and video of last month's war brought many Black Lives Matter activists in the U.S. to the streets.

NEE NEE TAYLOR: We're all in this together, all intertwined.

WANG: As Nee Nee Taylor of Washington, D.C. told NPR producer Connor Donevan outside Israel's embassy.

CONNOR DONEVAN, BYLINE: You've been to a bunch of pro-Palestinian solidarity protests before.

TAYLOR: Yes. Since it's been going on down at the White House, here at the embassy, I mean, because I've been organizing with Black Lives Matter D.C. for six years.

WANG: Taylor has since formed another group that's part of the decentralized movement for Black lives. Bethelehem Yirga, another demonstrator, says the time many spent quarantining because of the pandemic helped boost support for the Palestinians.

BETHELEHEM YIRGA: And that brought people time to really dig deep into what connects us. And through that, the great awakening is showcasing that oppression is oppression across the world and that we're uniting against it.

WANG: It's a conversation from the Palestinian perspective that Zellie Thomas of BLM in Paterson, N.J., says has often been missing in mainstream media. And now after the police killing of George Floyd, more people are speaking up.

THOMAS: This conversation is really giving space to say that, you know, I do not agree with what's going on. And we created a space where now it's OK to criticize Israel. And more and more people are able to do that more freely than even two months ago.

WANG: And the cease-fire, Thomas says, has not changed BLM's solidarity with Palestinians still living under occupation. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.