Over the last few weeks, as the stories of rocket launches, bombings, screams and pictures of babies with their heads blown off have filtered out of Gaza, I have tried to limit my exposure to such horrors. Those are the privileges of living in the West, the ability to turn off the world by turning off one’s TV and bypassing articles in ones news feed.
I commenced this turning off of horrors after being bombarded this summer with story after story of police brutality in the U.S. – of a California Highway Patrolman pummeling 51-year-old Marlene Pinnock in the face for walking on the shoulder of a Los Angeles freeway; of the NYPD choking Eric Garner to death; of Brooklyn police officers putting another pregnant woman in a chokehold, and dragging a naked grandmother out of her home; of Renisha McBride’s character being placed on trial beside that of her killer, Theodore Wafer.
It sometimes feels too much to bear. To be black in America, even when you are rich, is to live in constant awareness that you have little protection against violence, either from desperate people in your own neighborhoods or from police who see you as a body to protect themselves from rather than a citizen worthy of protection.
What does any of this have to do with the struggles of Palestinians in Gaza?
Everything. First, we have a black president, who is commander in chief of a pro-Israel state. And black people are generally not into publicly and vocally criticizing Barack Obama, despite plenty of privately whispered reservations around kitchen tables and in barber shops and beauty shops. Second, African-Americans are disproportionately evangelical Christians, and evangelical Christianity, with its love of the story of Moses leading the Israelites (almost) to the Promised Land, is rooted in a kind of conservative theology that justifies a pro-Israel position. When President Obama was elected to office, many considered him to be the progenitor of the new “Joshua Generation,” who having thrown off the Mosaic tropes of older models of black leadership, which characterized everyone from Harriet Tubman to MLK, was now poised to actually lead the nation into the “promised land.”
Israel’s origin story has had deep and profound meaning for African-Americans and our ongoing freedom struggle. And conservative evangelical preachers generally don’t invite their congregants to consider how the Israelites' ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites squares with our moral outrage against the murder of innocent people. That’s not especially surprising in white evangelical churches, given how bound up white evangelicalism is with the Western colonial project. But it always gives me pause in black churches, when preachers (my own pastor being an exception, thankfully) take this text as the subject of a sermon, with no sense of irony.
As a black person attuned to the processes of colonization, slavery and apartheid that built the West on the backs of black and indigenous people, I cannot help seeing these acts of war and terror as interconnected. There is no way to morally justify the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip or the West Bank. Therefore, I must redirect my outrage from organized resistance groups or “terrorists” toward the powerful nations that make people vulnerable to these militant extremist groups.
I place the term “terrorist” in scare quotes not because the violence and terror that Palestinians and some Israelis are enduring isn’t real but rather because the social construction of the “terrorist” performs important political work in justifying our political interests. In prior centuries, European powers constructed ideas of a savage Indigenous other and a benighted animalistic African other to justify the plunder and enslavement of the places where these people lived. Indigenous people and West Africans were not a threat, except if their land was what you wanted.
Sept. 11, 2001, became a significant touch point in a much longer U.S. project of constructing the “terrorist” as an identity that justifies escalating levels of state-based violence that kills far more civilians than armed militants. Given this long history of creating enemies that justify our political aims, while claiming that the enemies themselves necessitated the political aims, we should be suspicious of these constructions.
We can be suspicious of the construction of the terrorist as a political figure and still condemn the violence committed by militant extremist groups like Hamas. We can be suspicious of the myth of the black male criminal, which drives so much of social policy in the U.S., and still decry and disavow violent criminal activity that devastates communities. We can be suspicious of the practices of surveillance and policing that constrict the lives of African-Americans, Latinos and Arab Americans in the U.S. and still call the police when we are in danger.
What I am advocating is for us not to do as I did when the first pictures of this latest round of violence filtered out of Palestine. We cannot close our eyes and make the devastation and injustice go away. We have to look clearly. We have to begin to think about the processes that breed militancy and resistance.
Coming from a people who have had religious texts used to justify the slaughter and oppression of my people, I cannot abide the use of religiously grounded identities to justify the mistreatment of another group of people. Like the members of Jewish Voice for Peace, I believe that I can retain my religious identifications and reject some of the politics that go along with them.
So though I am Christian, I choose to approach my engagements with the Bible with what liberation and womanist theologians call a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” I invite others with similar histories and identifications to do the same.
Having come from people who have risen up, rioted and rebelled against oppressive state forces that confined us to land, restricted our movement and denied our humanity, I resist the urge to characterize all forms of resistance as terror. Especially, if we will not first be honest about the colonization and apartheid that fomented these acts of rebellion.
I recognize that what begins as resistance can devolve into terror, particularly the terrorizing of women and children, and this is especially true of nationalist movements. In this regard, Hamas deserves our strict and sure scrutiny.
On this score, I agree with Morehouse professor Marc Lamont Hill, who said that we must begin “not from the place of Palestinian resistance, but from the place of Israeli occupation.” Like him, I’m not pro-Hamas, but rather anti-occupation. Moreover, I know that our advocacy for Palestine will not necessarily improve the conditions of black Palestinians who live there under the shadow of racism.
Still, black people know what it means to live under the shadow of limited resources, constant surveillance, random acts of state-based violence that go unpunished, and fear of violence from people who look like you, because those people have become the most severe victims of systematic privation and the desperation and nihilism and, yes, violence, it breeds.
The same kind of nuance, the same hermeneutic of suspicion, the same ethic of care, that frames our understanding of black suffering and violence – unchecked policing, nonexistent economic opportunity, mass incarceration -- in this political moment in the U.S. should frame our understanding of Gaza’s relationship to Israel. America’s sordid history of settler colonialism, slavery, mass incarceration and other racially driven social ills teaches us a lot about why our country identifies with Israel and it teaches us everything we need to know about why we shouldn’t.