“When I see them, I see us”: Symbolisms, Analogies, and Cross-Movement Solidarity

By Atalia Omer

In a new video released by Black-Palestinian Solidarity on October 14, 2015, in the midst of intensified violence in Israel and Palestine, feminist scholar and activist Angela Davis was featured (along with more than 60 other prominent Black and Palestinian artists, activists, and scholars), holding a sign that read, “Racism is systemic. Its outbursts are not isolated incidents.” Other celebrities and activists (such as Cornel West, Alice Walker, Lauryn Hill, Danny Glover, Dream Defenders Co-founder Ahmad Abuznaid, and Yousef Erakat) held signs underscoring analogies and interconnections between the struggles. “When I see them, I see us” is the refrain.

“They burned me alive in Jerusalem; they gunned me down in Chicago”

“We choose to join one another in resistance,” Black-Palestine solidarity echoed in an earlier statement, “not because our struggles are the same but because we each struggle against the formidable forces of structural racism and the carceral and lethal technologies deployed to maintain them.”

This viral clip was the culmination of a year of consolidating Black-Palestine solidarity. It was during the summer of 2014 that images from Gaza and the West Bank collided with images of police brutality and protest from Ferguson, Missouri. When Ferguson erupted, social media was flooded by expressions of solidarity from Palestinians with Ferguson’s black population. These Palestinians offered advice on how to handle tear gas and rubber bullets. The video merges images of the gunning down of black men in Chicago with the memory of Mohammed Abu Khdeir who was burnt alive in Jerusalem by Jewish-Israeli racist extremists allegedly as a “revenge” for the death of three Israeli boys kidnapped and shot by Palestinians. This merging is about, Black-Palestine Solidarity explains on their website, “making connections between the systems of violence and criminalization that makes Black and Palestinian bodies so easily expendable.” Abu Khdeir is every African American person who enduringly confronts institutional racism.

“They shot our water tanks in Hebron; they cut off our water in Detroit”

Shortly after Ferguson erupted, a delegation of #BlackLivesMatter and #DreamDefenders went on a trip to Palestine in the winter of 2015 and staged a much-circulated solidarity chant in Nazareth. Transcripts of that video as well as the official solidarity one certainly capture parallels between Black-American and Palestinian experiences. Although they underscore their contextual differences, violence itself is nevertheless undifferentiated, analyzed through abstract categories such as racism, settler colonialism, neoliberalism, and militarism. Hence, Palestine is represented as a manifestation of the same kind of hegemonic forces that play out in all other contexts of people’s struggles against state violence and the destructive discourses authorizing it. Consequently, water shutdowns in Detroit and water state terrorism in Palestine (by Israel) were interpreted through the same lens, leaving out many of the historical, sociocultural, and religious dimensions as to how and why such practices are authorized and how they thus might be de-authorized. Socio-culturally de-authorizing Israeli water terrorism will require different kind of analytic tools and constructive processes of decolonization and reframing than redressing water shutoffs in Detroit in 2014 (mostly affecting African American poor families), even if in both instances a general argument about a human right to water can and should be made.

Palestine solidarity activism is therefore focused on revealing global interconnectivity between, for instance, Israeli and U.S. security industries and the “Israelification” of U.S. police forces. The upshot, to reiterate, of such an epistemology from the margins is that power ends up looking the same everywhere and so Ferguson becomes Gaza and vice versa. Amplifying this with strikingly similar images of police/IDF brutality, check points, and walls—images whose circulation is now ubiquitous and instantaneous via social media—the Black-Palestine Solidarity’s video conveyed this message precisely.

“They”- there vs. “us”-here!

The struggle against institutional racism in the U.S. is not the only one that has assumed the distant cause of Palestine as a symbol of co-resistance. The Latin@ Movimento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan’s (MEChA) endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) tactics in 2012 offers another example of an intersectional expression of solidarity. The endorsement was the result of an intense awareness-raising activism by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which conducted workshops that illuminated the interconnections and common struggles revolving around “security walls” and assaults on Palestinian/Latin@ studies by the U.S. and Israel. MEChA’s eventual declaration of solidarity with Palestine, therefore, is the product of intricate relationship building through education at university campuses, where fighting against U.S. immigration policies has become a context for likewise resisting the Israeli Occupation of Palestinians. One activist’s remarks capture this turn: “’I think it’s really important as solidarity activists to look in our own communities and see that what we’re fighting against far away in Palestine is also targeting our communities here” (cited in Barrows-Friedman, 2014: 212).

Sociological accounts of solidarity with distant causes identify the indispensability of sociocultural affinities with the subjects of solidarity (Nepstad, 2001, for example). What the quotation above suggests, however, is a self-referential modality of solidarity where “they” over there become “us” here. Could it be that cross-movement solidarity traffics in narcissism that diminishes its capacity to stand in solidarity which means taking directives from those with whom one declares solidarity?

Why Palestine?

Symbolic declarations and gestures of co-resistance that expose cross-cutting matrices of domination by connecting the dots among seemingly disparate struggles for justice have indeed trended in U.S. Palestine solidarity. Palestine solidarity, which has, of course, a familiar history in Islamist global mobilization and rhetoric (where solidarity is framed by underscoring sociocultural and religious affinities) has also gained traction as a secular, progressive cause, especially since the Call for BDS in 2005 issued by a host of groups comprising Palestinian civil society (Bargoutti, 2011; Carter Hallward, 2013). It gained further traction with the World Social Forum’s foregrounding of Free Palestine (WSF-FP) since 2012. While Palestine has an even deeper history as a trope in anti-colonial national liberation movements (see Tawil-Souri, 2015), its meaning as a symbol has shifted together with the post-nationalist sensibilities of a global justice movement. Hence, the case of Palestine is now framed primarily as a human rights, not a nationalist, struggle and as emblematic of all other struggles partly because of its enduring predicament of colonial occupation and partly because of Israel’s proxy association with U.S. hegemony. As a result, the refrain “when we see them, we see us” resonates as intelligible and effective from the perspective of cross-movement mobilization. However, subsuming disparate manifestations of marginality and injustice under one mode of master narrativity offers both a thin account of power and an abstract articulation for operationalizing justice agenda. The question, therefore, concerns the tangible impacts of cross-movement solidarity born out of deep intersectional social movement work. How does solidarity with a distant cause—a solidarity that entails a monolithic epistemology and ontology of power—avoid a conflation of causes that diffuses rather than focuses their scope? There are various ways to tackle this question. Here I focus on the case of Jewish solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and U.S. local struggles against institutional racism.

The protest in the streets of Ferguson attracted many Jewish-American Palestine solidarity activists, especially those associated with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Many of those activists engage in a process of critique of the dominant discourse on Jewish-American identity and the accompanying reinterpretation of Jewishness through a reclaiming of prophetic histories and motifs. This process entails reorienting their solidarity from Israel to Palestine and the active formation of inter-tradition alliances with Muslim and Arab-American communities fighting orientalist and Arabo- and Islamo-phobic discursive formations, as well as with progressive churches’ efforts to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli Occupation of Palestinians. To this degree, Jewish activists co-resist the conflation of antisemitism and critiques of Israeli policies and try to debunk their orientalist underpinnings.

However, in the process, they too operate with a monolithic account of power that facilitates their shift from affinity with to estrangement from Israel. Israel, after all, is just another case of racist settler colonialism. Following the uprising in Ferguson, JVP launched a variety of solidarity actions with #BlackLivesMatter, including re-signifying Hanukkah as a Jewish rededication to fight for justice and against all forms of racism and oppression. My interviews with 50 Jewish-American Palestine solidarity activists interestingly brought to the foreground their sense of occupying a place of “white privilege” (regardless of the recent construction of Jews as white). They have transplanted the American meaning of white privilege onto their analysis of Zionist colonization and continuous occupation of Palestinian people and lands, their complicity with which is a Jewish legacy they aspire to overcome through activism that also participate in pre-figurative community building.

While there is much to be said about Euro-Zionism and its Ashkenazi-normativity and embeddedness within deeper orientalist and colonialist discourses, there are also significant reductive limitations to such an analysis. One crucial limitation of JVP and comparable groups is their undertheorizing of non-white Arab-Jewish counter narratives that complicate a monolithic analysis of power (in this case, Israel as the embodiment of settler colonialism and racist ideologies). In other words, if one analyzes Israeli policies reductively through the lenses of whiteness, European settler colonialism, orientalism, and racism, one misses the counter-hegemonic stories of Arab-Jews and Ethiopian Jews and other sectors whose narratives do not fit and who could participate potentially in cross-identity broad coalitional work with Palestinians and transform relations between space, identity, and narrative through intersectional social movement activism (see Omer 2015). This kind of hermeneutical work exemplifies the limits of a thin and monotonous account of power that provides no resources for, in this case, reimagining identity’s relation to space in accords with human rights sensibilities and principles. Such a monotonous account of power works against JVP’s stated objective to work for “the freedom, equality, and dignity of all people of Israel and Palestine.” Likewise, it calls to question the employment of Palestine as a trope and to what degree such employment that mobilizes solidarity is indeed about Palestine. For JVP, a reliance on a monolithic account of power and Palestine solidarity offers a path to re- and pre-figure their own Jewishness outside the Zionist paradigm. The two examples of Black Solidarity and MEChA likewise suggest that a modality of solidarity grounded in abstract principles of human rights, rather than local sociocultural meanings, can become instrumental instead of substantive and self-referential rather than “other”-oriented. “When I see them I see us” means also that I do not see them and that my solidarity with them is, in effect, about me and thus narcissistic and instrumental. Can solidarity mean, “when I see them, I see them”? My analysis suggests that cultivating a differentiated analysis of power will offer alternative strategies for cultivating critique and cross-movement resistance.

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