It took less than a week for me to become accustomed to daily interactions with Israeli soldiers carrying guns. It scared me. So did the number of Make America Great Again hats on people walking the streets of the Holy Land.
I had been traveling throughout occupied Palestine for several days on a student reporting trip last year facilitated by my school, Northwestern University, when a student’s question led to weeks of reflection.
This particular day, I was sitting in a high school classroom in the Ein Mahel local council in northern Israel. The day was focused on understanding the experience of Israel’s indigenous Palestinian minority. I was just excited for the chance to speak with young folks about their experiences growing up in the most heavily contested region in the world.
Our conversation started as arbitrarily as any. We talked about music, sports and all our favorite foods. Yet, the magnitude of the moment we found ourselves in made listing our favorite soccer players seem negligent. Then, a 17-year-old student asked me: Is it really as hard being Black in America, as they make it seem? The intonation in his voice let me know it had been sitting at the tip of his tongue since the moment I sat next to him.
I didn’t know how to answer. I was 19. I didn’t know how to enter the conversation with any grace to acknowledge our different experiences living under colonial occupations, because at the time I was caught up in the lofty neoliberal idea that I was living most freely in America.
But the question stayed with me. How truly different were our experiences?
Since the beginning of 2018, more than 450 Palestinians have lost their lives to the Israeli military state. In that time, more than 550 Black people were killed by police officers in the United States.
Thousands of Palestinians are in Israeli prisons and millions are living under a military occupation and blockade meant to invisibilize Palestinian lives. In the US, hundreds of thousands of Black folks are caged in prisons and deeply buried modes of anti-Blackness are used to delegitimize Black life.
The Zionist colonial system depends on the continued degradation of the Palestinian people through mass movement restrictions, land theft, water siphoning, incarceration and the denial of Palestinian existence.
I realize just how hard it is for people across the globe to understand they’re fighting the same battle because a majority of their lives are spent figuring out how to survive with what little they’ve been granted, but our visions must be larger and more inclusive.
The struggles from Ferguson to Gaza, both defined by murder and political oppression, are products of settler-colonialism and global capitalism. Inherently, therefore, anti-colonialism also means anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and ending all systems that thrive on illegitimate notions of Western, white superiority and mass exploitation.
I find myself constantly sitting with the question the young student asked me that day in Ein Mahel. How did he, a child, really, have the wherewithal to care for my life, when much of our country couldn’t care less about his?
These questions have helped me in the process of decentering myself and American Blackness when thinking about our world’s struggles. Of course, I want Black lives to matter. But the necessary changes to our material conditions which would necessitate Black lives mattering in an anti-Black world demand global remedies.
The American empire was founded and has been maintained by colonialism, genocide and slave labor. Black and Indigenous bodies served as America’s earliest and largest financial asset, yet this only led to the creation of white millionaires. Today, one in seven white families are millionaires, while one in four Indigneous families and roughly one in five Black families live in poverty.
The last colonial outpost
Unsurprisingly, slave labor also led to the creation of our modern policing and prison system. Policing in southern slave-holding states began as slave patrols, where white volunteers were empowered to use vigilante tactics to maintain slavery and white supremacy. Once slavery ended, Black Codes were created to criminalize Black movement, often locking up Black folks for simple things like walking on a street at the wrong time of day.
Convict labor would ultimately build the post-Civil War infrastructure in the US and lay the foundation for continued use of free labor in the country.
Even as the ongoing Black struggle in the Jim Crow era persisted, Israel was born out of a recommendation from the newly founded United Nations, which has constantly let Palestinians down.
The final vote saw 33 out of 56 countries voting in favor of creating the new state. These included all the Western colonial powers and most of formerly colonized Latin America. This came at a time when oppressed nations in Africa, Asia and the colonial mandates in the Middle East were beginning to rise up in their own national liberation struggles.
Israel has never allowed the Palestinian right to self-determination, making it one of the last outright Western colonial outposts in the world, an illegitimate apartheid regime that has physically and economically devastated Palestinian liberty and livelihoods.
Radical leaders of the past like Malcolm X and former organizations like the Black Panther Party knew our struggle was the same as the Palestinians’ – and we must not forget this on our journey to freedom.
Malcolm began to see these parallels during his trip to Gaza and Egypt. He wrote a piece in the Egyptian Gazette, titled “Zionist Logic,” drawing a link between the neoliberal practices the US and Israel have utilized to rationalize their colonization and forced assimilation of people.
The Black Panther Party, formed in 1966, drew much inspiration from the ideas of Malcolm X. Its founders knew that Black liberation meant more than just freedom for Black folks: It was a struggle for all people to unite against the oppressive and exploitative ruling class.
Israel’s own Black Panthers also saw their struggle and the Palestinian struggle as a common cause.
Today we need competent leaders. Although I don’t think our freedom will be won by talking heads, or elected officials, having those on the biggest stages advocating for worldwide freedoms is imperative.
Jamaal Bowman, Democratic Party candidate in New York’s 16th congressional district, recently made the global connections necessary to forge ahead on the path towards liberation. He wrote: “Just as the police force is a violent intimidating force in so many black communities, I can connect to what it feels like for Palestinians to feel the presence of the military in their daily lives in the West Bank.”
It is crucial that leaders continue to make these links between systemic inequality at home and abroad. As Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, recently wrote: “We must reject short-sighted, oppressive, and discriminatory policies both in the United States and abroad,” especially as “the United States reckons with its systemic inequities and engages in a national conversation about racial injustice and the value of Black and brown lives.”
Or as Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated 48 years ago, said: “The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.”
Yes, solidarity of American subjugated peoples with others across the globe exists, but Western hegemony works to deliberately center our lives, which requires those of us living under the American occupation to be stronger, louder and more strategic.
The American occupation legitimizes the Israeli apartheid regime and the continued annexation of Palestinian land we’re seeing today.
And though toppling these settler states may not eradicate anti-Blackness, we must still work to reimagine our world as a place that is not dependent on manifestations of wealth and ownership.
After all, what’s the point of any subjugated population being set free if we let others die at the hands of our oppressors?
Adam Mahoney is a journalist from Los Angeles who has reported from Palestine, Uganda and Vietnam.