Black Power and Palestine
Transnational Countries of Color
Michael R. Fischbach

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PROLOGUE

SEVERAL MONTHS after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, left-wing writer Paul Jacobs invited his friend Israeli diplomat Ephraim Evron to meet with some Black Power militants in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Evron was a minister at the Israeli embassy in Washington and earlier had asked Jacobs why black nationalists had supported the Arabs instead of Israel during the war. Jacobs used his connections to find a group of about twenty blacks willing to talk to Evron. He and Jacobs then met with the men at a private vocational training school called Operation Bootstrap on Central Avenue in Watts in early 1968.

The Israeli received an earful. The men criticized Israel’s invasion of Egypt in collusion with Britain and France in the 1956 Suez war, and they told Evron approvingly that the Arabs supported peoples of color around the world. Yet most of their comments were complaints directed at the Jewish community of Los Angeles. They first complained that the money raised by Los Angeles Jews to plant trees in Israel came from profits skimmed from the city’s black consumers. It therefore should be their names inscribed on the trees, they groused. One man lashed out at the diplomat by noting that when the Jewish community staged the Rally for Israel’s Survival at the Hollywood Bowl on June 11, 1967, they invited none other than arch conservative California governor Ronald Reagan—no friend to the black community of Los Angeles—to speak.

The Israeli diplomat endured another nationalist’s rant that the funds raised by the local Jewish community to help pay for Israeli arms were funds once again taken from the local black community. Continuing on the theme of guns, another man complained that while liberal Jews helped the Israelis obtain guns, they refused to help local blacks themselves acquire guns, telling Evron that this was hypocritical and would only encourage violence. When the flustered Evron finally asked why he, and therefore Israel, should be blamed for the actions of Southern California Jews, one black replied with a classic Zionist argument: “You’re one people, aren’t you?”1

The story of the Israeli diplomat’s encounter with the Black Power activists in Watts is instructive inasmuch as it sheds light on the fact that African Americans were keen observers of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1960s and 1970s and interpreted it in ways that related to their own lives and priorities at home. Much has been written about the black freedom struggle, yet black Americans’ connection to the Middle East conflict, and the ways it affected them and their conceptualization of identity and agency, have been largely overlooked. Who today remembers that famous black activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson visited parts of Arab Palestine and issued public pronouncements on the Arab-Israeli conflict? Militants from the Black Panther Party (BPP), ministers from various Christian denominations, black congressional representatives, and even the boxer Muhammad Ali all visited the Middle East during that tumultuous period, where they met with Palestinians from all walks of life, including Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chair Yasir Arafat. Important black political conferences issued statements on Israel and the Palestinians, and men and women of the arts and letters like those in the Black Arts Movement highlighted Israel and the Palestinians in their poetry and prose.

Given the high-profile nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict after the June 1967 war in the Middle East, it should come as no surprise that militant and mainstream blacks alike found themselves drawn into taking stands on that distant conflict during the turbulent years thereafter. This was not simply because this particular foreign policy issue was in the headlines so much but also because it had such tremendous resonance with regard to their respective agendas and understandings of how black identity and black political activity should be expressed in America. The truth is that black arguments over whether to support Israel or the Palestinians mirrored much deeper intrablack debates about race, identity, and political action in the 1960s and 1970s and ended up symbiotically affecting both them and people in the faraway Middle East. How to approach the Arab-Israeli conflict became much more than just a tertiary sideshow to more important matters facing black Americans, with the result that black advocacy for one side or the other in the conflict ended up deeply affecting not just them but wider American politics and society.

For example, it was the Black Power movement in the 1960s that issued the first significant pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel viewpoints ever to reach a large American audience outside the hard Left. Stemming from their internationalist anti-imperialism, black militants latched on to the Palestinian cause as another liberation struggle waged by a people of color deserving their support. They saw themselves and the Palestinians as kindred peoples of color waging a revolution against a global system of oppression. Yet in issuing strident statements of solidarity with the Palestinians as a people fighting to be free just as they were doing, these activists also were intertwining their own identity and vision of place in America with the Palestinians’ struggle.

Given that the Black Power movement threatened their vision of the multiracial beloved community of Christians and Jews united for justice, it comes as no surprise that most mainstream civil rights advocates quickly countered by lining up solidly behind Israel during and after the 1967 war. That was a safer, more traditional “inside-the-system” attitude that reflected their more conservative visions of black identity and their wider politics: change the system; don’t overthrow it. This is why one’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict rose to such importance within the two wings of the black freedom struggle. It was not merely because blacks held different perspectives on that issue but also because it became a crucial reference point by which they created and articulated their respective visions of identity, place, and struggle in America.

Black Power and Palestine explores how the Arab-Israeli conflict became connected with the way the black freedom struggle in America evolved during the 1960s and 1970s. By 1967, the rising Black Power movement saw itself as part of a global revolutionary struggle and not merely a domestic-reform campaign. Black Power activists believed fervently that they were part of a wider battle against imperialism and white settler colonialism directed against fellow peoples of color like the Palestinians. Israel’s preemptive attack on several of its Arab neighbors in June of 1967, therefore, pushed them into embracing the Arab cause openly and passionately. The Palestinians were not the only Third World guerrillas they supported, but Palestine’s proximity to Africa, the fact that Palestinians were Muslims as some American blacks were, and the fact that they were struggling against a country aided by the United States all served to make the Palestinians’ cause near and dear to the hearts of many Black Power advocates.

Their championing of the Palestinians also said much about how black militants viewed themselves. Siding with the Palestinian national resistance became a sine qua non for radicals in the 1960s and early 1970s who perceived themselves as revolutionaries. The Palestinians also mirrored their image of themselves, the concept of identity they were creating: militant warriors, colonized people of color getting off their knees and fighting back against alien oppression. In so doing, they wanted to overturn the existing structures of power that enslaved them. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton noted in their classic 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America that Black Power advocates wanted the same thing that their comrades of color overseas wanted: “We see independent politics as a crucial vehicle in our liberation. But at no time must this development be viewed in isolation from similar demands heard around the world. Black and colored peoples are saying in a clear voice that they intend to determine for themselves the kinds of political, social and economic systems they will live under. Of necessity, this means that the existing systems of the dominant, oppressive group—the entire spectrum of values, beliefs, traditions and institutions—will have to be challenged and changed.”2

Black Power groups also keenly resented what they considered white paternalism. They sought to create vibrant, independent organizations and cultural fora controlled by themselves. They also demanded the right to speak out on matters of American foreign policy, something that historically had been the domain of well-educated white elites, and cared little if coming to the defense of the Palestinians angered white supporters of Israel, notably American Jews, who traditionally had been allies of the black freedom struggle.

For their part traditional civil rights groups also took sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1960s and 1970s in ways that reflected their own respective conceptualization of identity and political action in America. Mainstream black leaders saw themselves as prying open the door to civic equality in America, not as trying to overthrow the system. They also echoed the attitudes held by many Americans that Israel was a kindred bastion of multiethnic democracy fighting against reactionary, Soviet-backed Arab anti-Semites who also threatened American Cold War interests. Part of the civil rights struggle involved coalitions with whites, notably Jews, whose financial support and opinions mattered. Supporting causes near and dear to those allies, therefore, was a vital concern.

Traditional black organizations had other priorities, too. They wanted both to preserve their focus on working against racism and avoid engendering unnecessary criticism that could dilute their effectiveness in dealing with racial matters by speaking out on foreign policy questions. Yet when it came to the Middle East, these groups believed they were forced to release statements on the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to distance themselves from Black Power groups that were attacking Israel. These voices represented an ideological and practical challenge of the first order for civil rights groups, and the Arab-Israeli conflict became a veritable fault line separating the two approaches to securing a just future for black Americans.

In part the difference in attitude between these two approaches was generational: older, established, bourgeois civil rights leaders in coats and ties versus younger, more revolutionary Black Power militants sporting dashikis or black berets. Traditional black organizations had worked long and hard for racial justice within the very liberal, capitalist American system that was now under attack by Black Power radicals. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been doing painstaking legal spadework since 1909, the National Urban League since 1910. Activists in these organizations were integrationists working nonviolently to crack open the doors of opportunity and full equality for people of color. What they were not advocating was the revolutionary overthrow of the American government as called for by Black Power groups like the Black Panther Party. Nor did they view African Americans as a domestic colony that needed to break free and form its own nation as some of these other groups did. Their more cautious approach to the race question was also reflected in their choice of allies: labor unions, religious organizations, and fellow minorities.

With major issues like the war in Vietnam and violent inner-city disturbances casting such huge shadows over the period, what first brought the Arab-Israeli conflict to prominence in American racial and identity politics in the 1960s? The event that did so more than any other was the short Arab-Israeli war that broke out on June 5, 1967. After weeks of mounting tension in the Middle East, Israeli forces shattered the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian armies in six days of fighting, capturing a huge amount of Arab territory in the process. In many ways the real losers in the war were the Palestinian Arabs. Palestinians had already suffered as a result of the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, when Israel was born and nearly three quarters of a million Palestinian refugees were displaced. The 1967 war triggered another huge exodus of Palestinians in the wake of the fighting and the resultant Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The defeat of 1967 proved to Palestinians that the Arab states could never liberate Palestine for them; they would have to wage that struggle themselves. Palestinian guerrilla groups like al-Fateh and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) that emerged in the world’s spotlight after the war claimed that they would liberate their homeland from the Israelis through a people’s war, much as Algerian, Cuban, and Vietnamese revolutionaries had done and were still doing. The perceived impotence of the Arab states only accentuated their bravado.

The Palestinian national struggle after 1967 fit within the overall revolutionary fervor of the Global 1960s. Their faces wrapped in checkered keffiyehs and their hands gripping AK-47 assault rifles, enthusiastic Palestinian guerrillas began capturing not only the imagination of other Third World independence movements but also the global media. It was not long before they caught the imagination of the Black Power movement in the United States, setting in motion an important chapter in African American history during a period of great change in American life.

This book delves into this history by telling the story of the organizations and individuals who played key roles in the drama of black identification with the Arab-Israeli conflict during the 1960s and 1970s. In so doing, it charts how support for the Palestinians changed within a relatively short time from something expressed solely by radicals to something that became embedded within mainstream black politics. In chronicling this saga, I quote extensively from the words used and documents written during that tumultuous period in order to allow those black voices to be heard today, decades later. All the passion and conviction of that time is on full display here and tells us much about the intensity not only of that era but of the people who made it memorable.

This book is the result of many years of deep research in many states and the District of Columbia, as well as in Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. I examined documents housed in public and university archives in addition to those available online and on microfilm. I supplemented this with research into printed primary and secondary sources and with requests, via the Freedom of Information Act, to view documents from US governmental agencies such as the United States Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Unit, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Finally, I also utilized a number of interviews with American (and other) activists from the period of the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these interviews were conducted in the past and are available online; others I myself conducted in person, on the telephone, or through personal correspondence via mail and email. The interviews were crucial not only to fill in the historical narrative but also to capture the feelings and words of key players in this drama. Biographies of many of the figures mentioned in the book are available on my website:https://folios.rmc.edu/michaelfischbach/biographies/.

The 1960s and 1970s are over. Yet the shadow they cast continues to affect the United States in deep, structural ways. The fact that the drama of the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to this day is an important reason why the story of black Americans’ passionate commitment toward one side or the other in that struggle is a story needing to be told because in that story we saw African Americans doing more than just expressing their feelings about another foreign policy issue during a turbulent time, like the Vietnam War or the Cold War. In that story they also were telling the world what they thought about themselves, their identity, their place in American society, and the ways they were going about seeking change.

In his famous “Message to the Grass Roots” speech that he delivered in Detroit on November 10, 1963, Malcolm X said, “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.”3 Studying history indeed can tell us much about not just the past but how and where we stand in the present and how we can chart the future. I have written this book in just such a hope.

Notes

1. Paul Jacobs, “Watts vs. Israel: Black Nationalists and an Israeli Diplomat,” Commonweal, March 1, 1968, 649–51, 654.

2. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Vintage, 1967), 179.

3. The text of the speech is available in George Breitman, ed., Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (New York: Grove, 1990), 3–17; and at the History Is a Weapon website: www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/malcgrass.html.