From US South to Palestine, Freedom Rides change history

Palestinian Freedom Riders were arrested while challenging Israel’s apartheid road system.

Ahmad Gharabali AFP Photo

I grew up with two stories, two histories, and in many ways, two countries. From the age of 5 until 21, I roamed, lived in and loved Tennessee’s hills. But, in those same formative years, I lived from news piece to news piece, following with bated breath the events of my homeland, occupied Palestine.

I was blessed with role models and historians who raised me with stories of justice. Our neighbor, Mr. Miller, would tell me stories of a Tennessee and South I never saw: the Jim Crow South. He told me stories of African-Americans attacked by mobs as they drove down country roads at night, of segregated schools and towns, of redlining and ghettos, and most importantly, of the brave men and women who stood in defiance of the gross discrimination of Jim Crow.

I would go home from these stories, and listen to my father’s lessons on the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Lessons filled with settler attacks on Palestinian villagers, with checkpoints forbidding movement, with roads and land for Jews only, and again, most importantly, lessons about the brave men and women who continue to stand in defiance of the gross injustice of an illegal and unjust system of discrimination.

It wasn’t long before it became difficult to tell them apart, before the narratives echoed the same challenges and goals. This week, my histories and my homes merged in a new way.

Learning from history

Yesterday, Palestinian Freedom Riders reenacted the US civil rights movement’s Freedom Rides in the American South by boarding segregated Israeli public transportation in the West Bank to travel to occupied East Jerusalem. By nonviolently challenging the system of segregation and apartheid that governs their lives, Palestinians, already rooted in a long resistance history of their own (particularly the memory of the grassroots and largely nonviolent first intifada), took a page from the history of another rights movement that stood for justice and freedom.

Some in the Israeli peace camp or in Washington, advocates of the so-called peace process, will say this is not the way. They will be echoing those who stood on the wrong side of history. The American Freedom Riders not only defied the Jim Crow segregation laws; but they also defied many white liberals and the white citizens’ councils who said their actions were too provocative and too much, too soon.

President Barack Obama honored and thanked those Freedom Riders this past week for their courage and dedication fifty years ago. In his Cairo speech in 2009, he appeared to encourage similar initiatives of Palestinian nonviolence. Obama has an opportunity now to send a powerful message to the world by voicing strong support for the efforts of Palestinian Freedom Riders challenging segregation and daily discrimination rather than maintaining the silence he has kept since 2009.

Twenty years into the Oslo peace process it is clear that negotiating with Israel has achieved virtually nothing. Illegal Israeli settlements have more than doubled, the West Bank wall has been built (effectively physically entrenching the apartheid already present), and travel continues to be heavily restricted. What’s needed isn’t further talk with the intransigent; what’s needed is civil resistance.

Taking a risk for freedom

The American Freedom Riders began their campaign knowing they would be arrested, or worse, beaten to within an inch of their lives. They made a decision — “Jail No Bail.” People thought they were crazy, but they continued on their ride to freedom and despite the arrests and vicious beatings they prevailed.

Likewise, the Palestinian Freedom Riders recognized that their continued defiance of the system of apartheid practiced by Israel is dangerous, and in fact, an act that risks their lives. They were under threat from the violence of Israeli settlers during the rides themselves, as well as arrest and abuse from Israeli occupation forces, and yet they held true to their nonviolent act of civil disobedience.

The bus was surrounded and boarded by soldiers who demanded the Freedom Riders get off the bus. After refusing, the six riders were dragged off the bus, one by one — as they chanted slogans, including “Boycott Israel,” “Free Gaza” and “I’m a Palestinian Freedom Rider and I want to go to Jerusalem.” A journalist and local Palestinian activist were also arrested at the checkpoint.

In the 1960s in the US, the saying was “We shall overcome.” In Palestine, we say “Samidoon,” or “We are steadfast.” There is courage, perseverance, strength and a deep sense of justice that binds rights struggles around the world. The mantra of sumoud, or steadfastness, that Palestinians hold dear, is difficult to adequately convey in translation, but it is not unique to them. It is a common root from which the oppressed draw inspiration and build solidarity.

To those who stood against injustice in the 1960s, and who are proud of that moment in human history, the time has come to raise your voices again now — this time to demand justice for Palestinians and an end to rampant Israeli discrimination. The ride to freedom is long and ever-evolving. But it is also a ride that knows no geographical boundaries — whether in the Jim Crow South or occupied, apartheid-administered Palestine.

Nour Joudah grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee, received her BA in International Studies from Maryville College, and is currently an MA candidate in Arab Studies at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Tenneseean on 15 November and is republished with the author’s permission.




There are very prominent American Freedom Riders still alive. Please correspond with them. Hopefully you might convince someone like Congressman John Lewis, not only to endorse your movement, but to join you! (Perhaps best if the Israelis only find out later.) Such a person will have to know people in the American press corp. (Or you can try to do an end around the media somehow with social media. I know nothing about such things.)

Remember, it is AMERICAN public opinion you wish to shape, not Israeli. (The settlers, like the White Citizens Councils, are not going to change their minds any time soon.) King and SNCC used Southern violence to leverage NORTHERN public opinion. You need positive American press coverage.

Take courage. Remember the dogs at Birmingham. It takes the equivalent of dogs attacking children to wake up America.


I heartily endorse Mr. Winger's comment and would like to strongly suggest that this Freedom Rider initiative is exactly what is needed. Only a civil rights movement in the tradition of Gandhi and ML King can bring about the international support required. And it has to come from ordinary people like us - the powers that be, from the politicians to the mainstream media, are all captives of the Zionists - we can expect no help from them. So, if you are considering doing something to transform the situation and help bring some justice, humanity and sanity to bear, please get involved NOW.

It might be helpful to read this piece
I wrote a couple of years ago for some background if you are not already familiar with the argument for the One State Solution, or want a refresher. I'm hoping that the principal American (and international) supporters of ODS, like Ali Abunimah and dozens of others, will assume the leadership of this critical enterprise, while Mazin Qumsiyeh and his friends continue their courageous activities on the front lines.

But they will need all the help they can get. It's going to take more than a village to raise this young'un. My email address is on my website.

Roger Tucker
Editor/Publisher: One Democratic State


Freedom rides only change history if a potentially sympathetic audience that can do something about the situation hears about them. And the only potentially sympathetic audience that can do something about this situation is in the United States. And that audience is being carefully kept from hearing about it.


That's precisely the task that we face, generating awareness, the heart's blood of any political organizing. That was the purpose of the action. Rather than pessimistically predicting defeat because of the obvious obstacles, we need to come up with ways of overcoming them.

I'm in Mexico, but those of you in places where OWS is happening, make some leaflets and hand them out. Get people talking about it. It takes work, effort, but so does anything worthwhile, and this is a big one.


I commend the Tennessean for publishing Nour Joudah’s op-ed “Two roads to justice meet in Palestine.” It is time that American media presented the other side that for generations has been character assassinated for protesting the theft of their land and for resisting the denial of their civil rights. As an American Jew, who grew up believing in Israel’s innocence and the Arab world’s hatred, it never occurred to me there was an “other” side. But five years ago I took a step that is virtually unheard of in the Jewish community: I elected to conduct as thorough and objective a study of Israel-Palestine as possible. The majority of my sources were Israel’s leaders, military analysts, chiefs-of-staff and government bureaus. What I discovered didn’t just shock me, it embarrassed me because it revealed that a lifetime of indoctrination had led me to ignore and dismiss the suffering inflicted upon an indigenous people by my people. Israeli policy toward Palestinians, whatever word people choose to describe it, has no place in a decent and democratic world. For the sake of peace it is critical that President Obama stand up to the Israel lobby and that citizens demand that their elected officials educate themselves on the facts of the Israel-Palestine conflict and put human life ahead of campaign donations and political favors. It should not be difficult for anyone, even politicians, to understand that a sincere effort to rectify injustice is the only way that justice will prevail. Richard Forer. Author of Breakthrough: Transforming Fear into Compassion – A New Perspective on the Israel –Palestine Conflict.


'' Those who love peace must learn to organize as well as those who love war" - Martin Luthor King.