Why Black Americans have always stood with Israel

Meeting with Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, 1976. Courtesy Bayard Rustin Estate
Meeting with Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, 1976. Courtesy Bayard Rustin Estate

On April 3rd, 2019, I saw a tweet by Dr. Cornel West about the Black-Palestinian Solidarity discussion hosted by the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee. West shared a panel with Marc Lamont Hill and Dima Khalidi, two activists in their own right. When I saw Dr. West’s tweet, I decided to click the link and watch the panel discussion. Among the many themes that they discussed, there was an obvious one I would like to address, and that is Black-Palestinian solidarity.

Watching the footage from the event, my heart sank as West and Hill used charisma, humor and passion to reaffirm their devotion to the Palestinian cause. In his monologue, Hill went on to even say that there is a long tradition of resisting Israel, referring to prominent black civil rights activists. He went on to list prominent figures such as Cornel West, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and even leaders past like Ethel Minor, commending them all for fighting their fight “when it wasn’t popular to do.”

For decades, there has been a relatively successful campaign to unite black Americans with the Palestinian cause against the State of Israel. If there is anything that black history has taught us, it is that when black Americans unite on any issue, we have the world’s attention. This campaign is a well-oiled machine that systematically targets black college students, Black Student Unions, and black public figures, with a message that goes something like this: “We see your struggle against white supremacy in your country. We face that same white supremacy in ours at the hands of the Israelis. Let us unite in our common struggle and defeat our oppressors once and for all.” This campaign is very convincing, as it does a phenomenal job of spreading propaganda as far, wide and often as possible. It is almost impossible for a black American student to find any other opposing black view amidst the noise. It is as if that is the exact goal of this campaign: to make it seem as if for black Americans, there is no other side to be on.

For black activists, why we do what we do is rooted in our legacy. There is not a single black activist or advocate today that doesn’t point to at least two famous black leaders in history as inspiration. Even though they’re long gone, these forces for justice and equality shape the way we think and act today. Hill invokes the names of anti-Israel civil rights activists because for him, it validates his position. At the same time, Hill and others like him often criticize Zionists for invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name when speaking in support of Israel, as King was a Zionist. This is contradictory, yes. But the deeper issue is that Zionists don’t seem to have as much of a historical support system of justice as anti-Zionists. It seems that anti-Zionists have the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael, and even Malcolm X, while Zionists just have a couple of quotes by Dr. King–and even those get called into question from time to time.

Well that isn’t true.

In 1975–after Ethel Minor with the SNCC released The Palestine Problem: Test Your Knowledge–after Huey P. Newton called Israel imperialist and demanded pre 1967 borders–after Stokely Carmichael spit vitriol about Zionism saying “the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist”– after UN Resolution 3379 stating Zionism is Racism, Black Americans to Support Israel Committee (BASIC) took the world stage. BASIC was founded by civil rights activist and the late Dr. King’s right hand man, Bayard Rustin along with Civil Rights Movement leader, A. Philip Randolph. Not only was it a black Zionist movement, but it was a response to the anti-Israel sentiment rising within the black community. These were its tenets:

1. We condemn the anti-Jewish “blacklist.”

We have fought too long and too hard to root out discrimination from our land to sit idly while foreign interests import bigotry into America. Having suffered so greatly from such prejudice, we consider most repugnant efforts by Arab states to use the economic power of their newly acquired oil wealth to boycott business firms that deal with Israel or that have Jewish owners, directors or executives and to impose anti-Jewish preconditions for investments in this country.

2. We believe blacks and Jews have common interests in democracy and justice.

In the fight against discrimination, black Americans and American Jews have shared profound and enduring common interests that far transcend any differences between us. Jews through individuals and organizations have been among the most staunch allies in the struggle for racial justice, sharing with us the conviction that equality is indivisible and that no minority is secure in its rights if the rights of any are Impaired.

3. We support democratic Israel’s right to exist.

The democratic values that have sustained our struggle in America are also the source of our admiration for Israel and her impressive social achievements. No nation is without imperfections. But Israel’s are far outweighed by the freedom of her democratic society. Only in Israel, among the nations of the Middle East, are political freedoms and civil liberties secure. All religions are free and secure in their observance. Education is free and universal. Social welfare is highly advanced. Her communal farms (Kibbutzim) are models of social idealism, creative innovation, cooperative spirit. Israel’s labor movement, the Histadrut, has earned the deep respect of freed trade unionists throughout the world.

4. Arab oil prices have had disastrous effects upon blacks in America and in Africa.

The impact of the massive increases in the price of oil has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of black Americans. But we are not alone in our suffering. Millions of men, women, and children in Black Africa face starvation because the economies of their countries, already crippled by drought, were further weakened because of oil price increases. The chief cause of Black Africa’s disastrous economic situation is the price that the Arabs are exacting for oil – at the same time that they give lip service to their commitment to “African solidarity.” The Arab oil-producing states have offered only small loans to the Black African nations, and then only in return for humiliating political concessions. Israel, small and isolated as it is, has done much to aid the economic development of Black Africa through creative technical programs. Together with other Americans, we enthusiastically join in
reaffirming the rights of Israel exist as a sovereign state.

5. We support peace through mutual recognition.

All of long to see and end to the tragic Arab-Israeli conflict. We have learned from our struggle here in America that the only way to resolve a conflict of nationalities is through mutual acceptance and reconciliation. The Arabs have refused to accept the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Israel consistently demonstrated the desire to make concessions in the interest of peace with her Arab neighbors. But she has refused to accept the conditions that would threaten her existence as an independent sovereign nation.

6. We support genuine Palestinian self-determination.

We support the rights of the Palestinians to genuine self-determination, but not at the expense of the rights of Jews to independence and statehood, and not at the command of economic blackmailers or of terrorists who would force their own “solution” at the point of a gun. We have compassion for all who have suffered in this conflict, not least for the Palestinian refugees. But who can avoid asking why so many of these people continue to live in poverty in the midst of Arab wealth?

The spokesmen for the goal of self-determination for the Palestinians through the so-called Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) have been elected. They represent only themselves. The P.L.O., like all terrorist groups, have turned indulging, Palestinians, and who disagree with them. Who can forget the murder of Israeli athletes at the Olympic games, the bomb letters, the airplane hijackings and attacks on the ground, sudden massacre of the innocent civilians at the Tel Aviv airport? Regardless of what the Arab world calls it, in the horrified shock of The people it is indiscriminate murder of innocents.

7. We will work for peace.

In the months ahead we will work for a just and stable peace, a peace that will not be a prelude to a new war but the beginning of an era of cooperation and good will between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

BASIC garnered a great deal of support from hundreds of prominent black American figures, including Hank Aaron, Dorothy Maynor, Harry Belafonte, Rosa Parks, Count Basie, Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., Coretta Scott King, and Lionel Hampton, who also served as treasurer. BASIC was born just after UN resolution 3379, which declared that Zionism was racism. Bayard Rustin responded to that resolution in a column, writing:

Zionism is not racism, but the legitimate expression of the Jewish people’s self determination…From our 400 year experience with slavery, segregation, and discrimination we know that Zionism is not racism.

Rustin also condemned the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as “an organization committed to racism, terrorism and authoritarianism,” which promoted Israel hatred so that the Palestinian leaders didn’t have to “liberate their people from poverty and misery.” When Rustin saw a rise in black support of the PLO, he stated in a New York Times article entitled To Blacks: Condemn P.L.O. Terrorism that by supporting the PLO, the black community faced three risks:

First, we risk causing serious divisions within our own ranks; second, we risk the forfeiture of our own moral prestige, which is based on a long and noble tradition of nonviolence; and third, we risk becoming the unwitting accomplices of an organization [committed] to the bloody destruction of Israel —indeed of the Jewish people.

Hill and West can pretend as if history is on their side if they want to, but to be a Zionist is to stand on the side of true justice. It is to not only stand up for Israel and the Jewish people, but to take to task the Palestinian leaders who not only continue to disenfranchise their people, but have played a huge role in the crippling of African countries. It is deeply embedded in our legacy as black Americans to call out these things and to speak truth to power. Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement not only supported Israel, but had much to say about injustices taking place in the Middle East.

With some research, it is fairly easy to find that Bayard Rustin continued to be a strong supporter of Israel and committed Zionist until his death in 1987. To be black and to be a Zionist is certainly not a strange thing, nor should it be. What is very unfortunate is that there is almost no information about BASIC available, and that is one of the things that we at IBSI – Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel seek to change. We are not an anomaly; we happen to be in very good company.

To be continued…

About the Author
Joshua is the Assistant Director of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel (IBSI). He’s 28 years old and a composition graduate of the University of Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. Joshua was formerly IBSI’s Director of Special Events, and planned music performances featuring The Hebrew Project Artists (THP) across the country. Joshua is also a graduate of CUFI’s 2016 Diversity Outreach Mentoring Endeavor (DOME), where he received training in Israel advocacy for diverse audiences. He was chosen to travel to Israel twice; once as part of CUFI’s millennial outreach, Israel Collective, and again as part of a music performance with Victor Styrsky’s Wild Branches & Friends. His other musical endeavors include writing for the Boston Pops, and music directing for other artists.
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