Almost simultaneous with the news that Marc Lamont Hill, a CNN commentator and professor of media studies at Temple University, had been fired by the US cable network shortly after delivering a speech at the United Nations on the occasion of its International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, I received a book, Black Power and Palestine—Transnational Countries of Color, from a former university colleague.
During his speech Professor Hill, in a reference to the geography of Israel or historic Palestine, called for a “free Palestine from river to sea.” This prompted an immediate response from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the group interpreted the words as the extermination of the state of Israel. Later, Hill apologized for the comments and insisted that he wasn’t calling for the destruction of Israel.
Hill’s situation would have been perfect fodder for Michael R. Fischbach, the author of Black Power and Palestine. Hill’s comments, however, he meant them, evoked a longstanding issue between Blacks and Jews, and Fischbach, with a focus on Black Power, traces the origins of the problem. In his Prologue, the author notes that, “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 largely been overlooked.”
With Fischbach’s thorough probe and analysis, that oversight is no longer neglected, and his merging of Black Power and the Middle East crisis adds an additional perspective on the relationship among Blacks, Arabs, and Jews. Essential to Fischbach’s search for seminal moments in this scenario is the role of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Most are informed of Malcolm’s affinity to Muslims and that plays a critical role in countless number of Black Americans identifying with the plight of the Palestinians.
Malcolm’s influence and his ideas of self-determination were adopted by the Black Panther Party, and Fischbach carefully charts this evolution, with a very engaging discussion on Huey Newton and how his views on the Palestine struggle changed over time, modified by global and internal party developments. Politics, color, conditions, and the general revolutionary fervor of the 1960s had a great impact on African Americans identifying with the Palestinian struggle for liberation. They saw the oppression and brutality in Israel as very similar to their own, and this made it easy for the members of SNCC to align the civil rights movement with the situation in the Middle East.
No discussion about Blacks and Jews is complete without considering those in the Black community who have been unwavering in their support of Israel. And Fischbach is equal to the task as he chronicles the role of the NAACP and other African Americans, who have worked in concert over the years with their Jewish brothers and sisters in the fight for civil and human rights. Obviously, these members of the Black middle class and bourgeois organizations were opposed to the more radical and militant elements of the race and placed their resources and commitment to mainstream Jewish organizations, given their financial and moral support. As Fischbach concludes, the division between these segments are like “a veritable fault line separating the two approaches to securing a just future for black Americans.”
Black Power and Palestine, as the title suggests, is centered primarily on the 1960s and the 1970s when the contention was extremely intense with the war in Vietnam and the Six-Day Arab-Israeli conflict solidifying the ideological tendencies among Black Nationalists and radicals. But, in his Epilogue, Fischbach brings the ordeal up-to-date when a young African American activist visits the West Bank, and despite the terrible conditions the Palestinians were enduring, she witnessed evidence of their concern about the racial atrocities in America—she saw a painted sign in tribute to Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch guard.
Professor Hill’s situation is a current indication that Black Americans must tread carefully when taking a position on the turmoil in Israel. I will never forget my trips to Israel and Lebanon with Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) in June 1979, with Jack O’Dell and Jackie Jackson, Jesse’s wife. Fischbach in his recounting of this trip brought back memories of meeting with Yasir Arafat and our travels to Beirut and to the camps in Tyre. I would make a similar trip with the Rev. Al Sharpton and while in the Gaza Strip we met with Arafat and later with Israeli leader Shimon Peres. Unlike the militants of the 1960s, it was necessary for us to meet with both sides.
I’m submitting this article to the Neworld Review whose publisher was my editor, who assigned me two stories on Blacks and Jews in 1989 and 1995, each of which induced a number of letters, pro and con to The Crisis.
If Black Power and Palestine fails to stir up things, it will be due mainly to Fischbach’s fair and balanced discussion. Throughout the book he maintains a clear-eyed approach to an often complicated and provocative issue. This book should be a worthy addition to the growing canon of African American literature because it presents a lens through which to view a topic that heretofore has been practically ignored. Fischbach has framed the subject in a passionate and meaningful way for anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the relationship between Blacks and Jews, whether at home or abroad.
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