Letter from a West Bank Refugee Camp
Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian stone throwers at the al-Arub refugee camp North of the West Bank city of Hebron on April 3, 2013, The Daily Beast / Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images
[Moderator's Note: The original Portside post that prompted this submission was Alice Walker Open Letter to Alicia Keys - Don't Perform in Israel; Roger Waters Also Appeals to Keys (May 30) . The Portside reader responses were 1) Tidbits - June 6, 2013, and 2) Tidbits - June 13, 2013 - From Israeli citizens - A response to Christopher T. Hexter's remarks to Alice Walker's and Roger Waters' appeals to Alicia Keys - Tidbits - June 6 (Dorothy Naor and Ofer Neiman)
Prof. Kelley's Open Letter, "in the style of Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail", (which was directed to African American clergy who questioned the non-violent protests), is directed at the best known African-American lobbyist organization for Israeli policies - the Vanguard Leadership Group." The Vanguard Leadership Group, is comprised of future student leaders from historically Black colleges in the south, particularly the Birmingham, Montgomery and Atlanta area. Many of it's activities are funded and supported by AIPEC - The American Israel Public Affairs Committee.]
Like many readers and contributors to Portside, I've been following the attacks on Alice Walker for her compelling and incisive open letter to Alicia Keys, prevailing upon her to respect the cultural boycott of Israel. The vicious assaults on Alice Walker, sadly, do not surprise me at all. They are part of a broader strategic effort to silence critics of the occupation, and of what the UN clearly defines as apartheid policies in the occupied territories and in Israel itself. It does not require much work to discover that the Jim Crow analogy is not only appropriate, but in some instances conditions in the West Bank are worse than Georgia in the 1950s. But again, this is not a matter of "knowledge" or "misinformation," but a systematic campaign to legitimize or render invisible Israel's policies toward, and treatment of, the Palestinians.
I spent some time in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in January of 2012, and was so moved and shocked by what we saw that I wrote a letter, in the style of Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, directed at the best known African-American lobbyist organization for Israeli policies - the Vanguard Leadership Group. They were not the only focus of my critique, just the most visible. In that letter I detail the conditions of apartheid occupied territories and in Israel, and the ways in which Israeli policies violate international law and the Geneva Convention. I've tried to publish this letter in several venues, but failed each time, despite praise from editors (or excuses that the question of Palestine isn't really newsworthy).
I've been sitting on it for months, but after Alice Walker's bold and principled open letter to Alicia Keys, I thought I should post it here and now. If anything, I submit this letter to Portside because it proves two points: 1) that Palestinians - under occupation and within official Israeli borders - live under an apartheid system; 2) that the Israeli lobby employs its own army of black apologists to cry foul whenever anyone compares the oppression of Palestinians to the oppression of black people. The idea is to silence critics. But it won't work.
Dear Members of the Vanguard Leadership Group (and African American "leaders" everywhere),
While visiting the Aida Refugee Camp in the Occupied West Bank, I came across your recent statements defending Israel against charges that it is an "apartheid" state. You accuse Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for spreading "misinformation" and invoking an "illegitimate analogy" that anyone familiar with "the truth about the Israeli's record on human rights" would find "patently false." The evidence? Unlike black South Africans, the "Arab minority in Israel enjoys full citizenship with voting rights and representation in the government."
As I reflect on your words, I take in the landscape from the rooftop of a deteriorating housing complex inside the refugee camp. On this extraordinarily clear, crisp day, the illegal "apartheid wall" dominates the terrain, abutting the camp and snaking in both directions as far as the eye can see. Rising above the 20-foot wall is the notorious Bethlehem checkpoint, where Palestinians entering Jerusalem are subject to frequent interrogation, harassment, and delay. Beyond the wall atop a low-sloping rise sits the illegal Jewish settlement of Gilo. In the valley adjacent to the camp are the remains of what was a Palestinian village - a couple of small dwellings occupied by families who refuse to be driven off by settler violence. We learned that the children attend the camp's UN-run school, but the wall has turned a ten-minute walk into a two hour ordeal each way.
Your statement reveals a woeful ignorance of Israel's history and a basic understanding of apartheid. First, apartheid did more than strip black South Africans of voting and civil rights. The regime dispossessed Africans from their land, and through legislative and military acts, razed entire communities and transferred Africans to government townships and Bantustans. It was a system of racial classification and population control that limited the movement of Africans in towns and cities, and denied them social and economic privileges based on race. And it outlawed every organization that challenged the right of an apartheid state to exist, i.e., a state based on racial or ethnic hierarchy, and used state violence and detention to suppress opposition.
Israel has been practicing a form of apartheid since its inception. After destroying some 380 Palestinian villages, and ethnically cleansing Palestinian towns and neighborhoods in mixed cities in 1948, confiscating land without compensation - what Palestinians call al Nakba (the catastrophe)--Israel passed The Absentees' Property Law (1950), effectively transferring all property owned or used by Palestinian refugees to the state, and then denied their right to return or reclaim their losses. The land grab continued after the 1967 war and military occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem - which comprise merely 22% of Western Palestine to being with. In violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories have expanded exponentially since 1967. Currently, there are over 500,000 settlers living in the West Bank, and at least 43% of the land has been allocated to settler regional and local councils, and therefore is off-limits for Palestinian use. And so are certain roads. Israel has built an elaborate system of paved settler-only roads that cross over crumbling, often blockaded Palestinian roads. Special licenses are required to travel on the settler roads. Unauthorized vehicles could be confiscated and their drivers detained.
Your statement ignores the four million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and the millions living abroad or in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Instead, you refer only to the alleged citizenship rights of the 1.5 million "Arab Israelis" (roughly 20% of the population) living within Israel. Yes, they have voting rights and, yes, a small minority has been elected to office, but Israeli law is very clear: the only "citizens" who enjoy full rights and nationality are Jews. Under the Law of Return, Jews from anywhere in the world can obtain automatic citizenship and residency in Israel, whereas the Citizenship Law abolishes the rights of the Palestinian citizens' relatives to return to their homes and land. The "non-Jew," namely Palestinian citizens of Israel, are legally denied equal access to property, social and welfare services, and material resources administered by the state - including 93 percent of the territory of the pre-1967 borders administered by the Israel Lands Administration. And then there are Palestinian citizens who live in Israel but are bizarrely classified by the Absentees' Property Law as "absent" because they allegedly "abandoned" their property. They have no rights to lands, houses, bank accounts, bank safes, other property they had owned prior to 1948.
For Palestinian citizens in Israel, however, discrimination defines their daily reality. Most are obliged to live in exclusively "Arab" villages that have been prohibited from expanding, are legally excluded from residing in non-Arab communities based on their "social unsuitability," attend severely underfunded schools, are denied government employment, and are prohibited from living with their spouse if she or he is a Palestinian from the Occupied Territories. Little wonder that more than half of all Palestinian families in Israel were classified as poor in 2009. And every Palestinian citizen of Israel traveling through Tel-Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport endures systematic racial profiling, are subject to interrogations, manual bag checks, issued different passport stickers and luggage tags to signal their "Arab" ethnicity and higher "threat level." Palestinian Israelis can expect their check-in process to take about twice as long as their fellow Jewish citizens.
Members of a Palestinian youth orchestra from a West Bank refugee camp performed for an audience of Jewish Holocaust survivors in Holon, Israel.
credit - The Christian Science Monitor / Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters
What about their precious political rights? Palestinian citizens of Israel, including minors, are routinely arrested for participating in protests critical of the state. Political organizations advocating boycott of Israeli products, or calling for a secular state with equal rights for all, are essentially illegal. The Knesset even passed a law forbidding the commemoration of the Nakba or even mentioning it in school textbooks. You praise Israeli democracy and its record on human rights, and yet several Palestinian members of the Knesset have been indicted or had parliamentary privileges revoked for legitimate political activities and speech.
Just taking these laws and practices alone meet the U.N.'s definition of apartheid, i.e., any measures designed to "prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country," including "the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression." Even if you find the U.N. definition of apartheid "illegitimate," how do you respond to Shulamit Aloni, former Minister of Education under Yitzhak Rabin, who declared: "The state of Israel practises its own, quite violent form of apartheid with the native Palestinian population"? Or Michael Ben-Yair, Israel's attorney general from 1993 to 1996, who observed, "In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture."
While your statement deplores the apartheid analogy, it fails to express any concern for the conditions of Palestinians. You say you want "justice, and the hope of peace and reconciliation," but until you've seen Palestinian homes demolished and their olive trees uprooted by the IDF; walked through the souk in Hebron littered with bricks and garbage and human feces thrown at Palestinian merchants by messianic settlers; negotiated the narrow, muddy pathways separating overcrowded multi-storied shacks in the refugee camps in Nablus or Jenin or Bethlehem; met mothers who had to give birth on the side of the road or watched their severely ill children die for want of emergency care because they were held up at an Israeli checkpoint; or spoke with parents whose boys had been detained, maimed, or even killed for throwing rocks at tanks; or have to explain to a child why her family has to ration water while the Jewish settlement a couple of miles away maintained swimming pools - you will never comprehend what is required for a just peace and genuine reconciliation.
But is a just peace in the Middle East your real objective? Your founders, Darius Jones and Jarrod Jordan, both graduates of Clark Atlanta University, claim that the mission of the VLG was to nurture a new generation of African-American leaders "possessed of a more expansive and inclusive world view." And yet, you've foreclosed an "inclusive world view" for the tunnel-vision of your primary financial backer: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). For at least the past four years, VLG members have participated in AIPAC-sponsored tours of Israel and developed its talking points through its Saban Leadership Training seminars. AIPAC not only honored Jones and Jordan with its Jonathan Barkan Israel Advocacy Award in 2009 and named the VLG its AIPAC Advocate of the Year for its attack on SJP, but rewarded Jones with a lucrative gig as its Southeast Regional Outreach Director.
Let's be clear. You do not speak for African-Americans, nor does AIPAC speak for most American Jews. And you certainly do not embrace the principles of social justice and liberation, despite your identification with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You speak for the state of Israel - which is not the same as speaking for Israelis, many of whom want an end to the occupation and the apartheid system in their country. And the fact that you do speak for AIPAC reveals a lobby so desperate for black allies that it is willing to overlook your own leaders' problematic comments. Mr. Jordan, for example, compared the SJP's decision to hold its 2011 national conference at Columbia University "to the Ku Klux Klan holding a conference at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a total affront to Jewish culture and identity." In other words, whereas Morehouse is an historically black college, Columbia University ergo is an historically Jewish institution in an historically Jewish city! Reeking of Jesse Jackson's "hymietown" slur, it not only ignores Columbia's anti-semitic past, and paints "Jewish culture and identity" as a monolith, but it equates a student solidarity movement with the Klan - an organization whose anti-semitism rivaled its anti-black racism.
And then there is the curious case of Darius Jones who, just two years before his involvement with AIPAC, wrote a blog called "9Ether News" that reads like a cross between Oswald Spengler, Herbert Spencer, and Mein Kampf. "Our race," Jones wrote on October 4, 2006, "would be wise to learn from nature. We would be even better served to harmonize with its evolutionary designs. Clearly, survival of the fittest is the moral of the story. However, we continually ignore what is patently obvious. . . . Social dynamics move more in accordance with biological prerogatives than humanistic ideals." Perhaps Mr. Jones also sees Israel-Palestine in Social Darwinian terms. Israel prevailed because Palestinians could not compete. Expansion of the fittest?
None of this is surprising. AIPAC, through the American-Israel Educational Foundation, and Christians United for Israel (CUFI), founded by the controversial Rev. John Hagee, have been working overtime to recruit black students, elected officials, and religious leaders to serve as moral shields for Israel's policies of subjugation, settlement, segregation and dispossession. CUFI's coordinator of African American outreach, Michael Stevens, invokes the ghost of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the cause, declaring in a recent interview, "King was a strong African-American Zionist." King certainly dissuaded black militants from criticizing Zionism, and he avoided taking a public stand on the 1967 war, but had he lived long enough to see the crippling effects of the occupation, his unequivocal opposition to violence, colonialism, racism, and militarism would make him an incisive critic of Israel's current policies. He would probably join Bishop Desmond Tutu in his support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Indeed, I can envision Dr. King in Palestine, waging a non-violent campaign to bring down the wall, perhaps writing another memorable letter to those who remain silent in the face of such egregious violations of human rights. This time around, he would probably address his letter to black leaders rather than clergy. Except for the usual suspects among the black Left - Bill Fletcher, Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Cornel West, Ron Daniels, Barbara Ransby, Danny Glover, Alice Walker, Reverend Graylan Hagler, among others - mainstream African-American leadership has been eerily silent on Palestine and virtually absent from the BDS campaign. Even veterans of the U.S. Free South Africa Movement have been slow to join their South African counterparts in opposing Israeli apartheid.
Ironically, while you, CUFI, and like-minded black organizations claim Dr. King's legacy, I am witnessing King's vision in practice - his vision of non-violent resistance, creative tension, love - right here in the Aida Refugee Camp. Aida is home to the Alrowwad Cultural and Theater Society, a genuine community center and youth theater founded by director, poet, playwright, and educator Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour. For him theater is a "nonviolent way of saying we are human beings, we are not born with genes of hatred and violence, we do not conform to the stereotype of Palestinians only capable of throwing stones or burning tires." Having grown up in the camp, Abusrour gave up a promising career in science to devote his life to creating a "beautiful theater of resistance" aimed at releasing the creative capacity of young people to turn their stories into transformative experiences. In Abusrour's play, "We Are Children of the Camp," children speak from personal experience about Israeli soldiers invading the camps, shooting parents and denying them access to hospitals on the other side of the wall. They long for human rights, a clean environment, freedom, a right to return to their land, and the right to know and own their history. They encapsulate this history in the play's title song, in which they sing of being made refugees in their own land, colonies built, and villages demolished.
The children at the Aida Camp remind me that what is most apt about the South African analogy is not the litany of laws and abuses but the struggle - the optimism of the will, the prefiguring of a post-apartheid/post-Zionist society. As one song from "Children of the Camp" put it: "Occupation never lasts . . . The government of injustice, vanishes with revolution." Let us all hope that as more and more young Palestinians create democratic alternatives to settler colonialism and its racist, anti-democratic ideology, and more Israeli's come to see how occupation and apartheid distort their own lives and dreams, and more people around the globe join the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and refuse to invest in Israel's regime of occupation and apartheid, injustice will give way to something beautiful.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Justice,
Robin D. G. Kelley
[Robin D. G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of U.S. History University of California at Los Angeles. His books include the prize-winning, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009);Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Harvard University Press, 2012); Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (University of North Carolina Press, 1990);Race Rebels: Culture Politics and the Black Working Class (The Free Press, 1994); Yo' Mama's DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Beacon Press, 1997); Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor's Last Century, written collaboratively with Dana Frank and Howard Zinn (Beacon 2001); and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2002). He also edited (with Earl Lewis), To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (Oxford University Press, 2000), and is currently completing a general survey of African American history co-authored with Tera Hunter and Earl Lewis to be published by Norton.]