'We Know Occupation': The Long History of Black Americans’ Solidarity with Palestinians

In the labor movement, Arab-American organizers established an Arab Workers’ Caucus in Michigan auto repair shops in 1973, which was explicitly modeled on a series of radical black caucuses that had emerged to challenge racist practices in auto companies and the United Auto Workers. With the support of some black workers, the Arab Workers’ Caucus managed to succeed put under pressure their local union is said to be parting with Israeli government bonds. This wave of black and Arab-American activism, alongside mass protests against the Vietnam War and black uprisings in cities across the country, put the Palestinian issue on the agenda of social movements on the US left – but rarely affected the empire of the high Politics.

Until 1980 this fermentation of the black Palestinian Solidarity activism had dissolved. As with so many institutions of the 1960s, the groups that formed these links fell into disarray: many were plagued by leadership conflicts and ideological divisions or worn down by state surveillance and repression. The institutional decline went hand in hand with the diminishing appeal of political identification with the “Third World”. As the decolonization movements of the mid-20th century receded, many African-American activists no longer saw the fight for racial equality in the United States as part of a unified global struggle.

But several black politicians took on the cloak to advance the Palestinian cause. These personalities, who worked at the highest levels of US diplomacy and the Democratic Party, avoided the support of previous black radicals for a militant Palestinian revolution against the Israeli occupation. Rather, they were looking for a diplomatically negotiated solution that would give the Palestinians more autonomy. In 1979 United States Ambassador and former civil rights activist Andrew Young has been pressured to resign after meeting secretly with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The fighting in the press after Young’s resignation focused on reducing black Jewish relations domestically, but it also allowed a pro-Palestinian point of view to find a place in the national debate.

One of Young’s strongest defenders was Reverend Jesse Jackson. Jackson led a delegation to the Middle East immediately after the Young affair and met with both Israeli officials and representatives of the PLO, including Yasser Arafat. Jackson pushed for the United States to negotiate directly with the PLO, pointing out the parallels between the Palestinian and African American struggles: “We understand the cycle of terror, the cycle of pain,” he said, “and yet if America is free to talk, it can perhaps seek reconciliation. “

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