Michael R. Fischbach, Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Michael Fischbach (MF): For years, my academic research and publishing dealt with issues relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet for a long time I have maintained a great personal and professional interest in American history during the 1960s and 1970s. While conducting some research about ten years ago for a course I teach on the 1960s, I discovered quite by accident that noted LSD activist Timothy Leary traveled to the Middle East in 1970 to meet with Palestinian revolutionaries. I thought: “why in the world would Timothy Leary want to meet with Palestinians?” Stunned by this, I began finding other noted figures from 1960s America who somehow had a connection with Palestinians and the Arab-Israeli conflict at that time. Noteworthy among these were African Americans like Malcolm X, whom I discovered visited East Jerusalem in 1959 and Gaza in 1964, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who visited East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1959 and was treated by a local doctor when he fell ill there. Then I discovered that the gun-toting Black Panthers were strong supporters of the Palestinian cause. I never before had known of such connections between my two areas of interest: 1960s America and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Intrigued by the fact that practically nothing had been written about how black Americans viewed the Middle East during that tumultuous time period, I decided to explore how the two “wings” of the black freedom struggle—the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement—approached the Arab-Israeli conflict differently and interpreted it in ways that reflected their own respective visions of identity, place, and political action in America.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MF: The book sheds light on the strong degree to which black Americans in the 1960s and 1970s were making connections between their own lives, identities, and political strategies and those of faraway people in the Middle East. It documents how Black Power activists identified with the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel, seeing in the former a kindred people of color fighting for freedom against imperialist domination. This fit in with their own vision of identity and political action: an internally colonized people fighting to overturn a racialized system of oppression. By contrast, more mainstream civil rights leaders generally supported Israel, which they saw as a progressive American ally in a region replete with Soviet-backed dictatorships. This was a safer, more “within the system” choice that reflected their own respective vision of self and political action: working toward reform, not revolution, in conjunction with liberal white allies.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MF: In the first instance, this book is aimed at those Americans who are interested in the history of the 1960s. Now that we are witnessing so many “fifty years since …” commemorations about the 1960s, I would like such readers to discover that this particular foreign policy issue in fact played a tremendous domestic role for Americans of color during that intense period of time. The national discourse was not just focused on Vietnam, but also the Middle East. The second audience I hope will read this book are young African Americans, whose twenty-first-century activism on issues related to imperialism, race, and intersectionality may have led them to look at how these issues relate to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I would like to show them that their present-day interest in the Palestinians and Israel have deep roots that stretch back decades. Finally, I hope that Palestinians themselves can learn more about the long history of black American support—and opposition—to their cause.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MF: The same publisher, Stanford University Press, just released a companion book of sorts that I wrote that deals with how the (white) American Left dealt with the Arab-Israeli conflict during the same time period. Titled The Movement and the Middle East: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Divided the American Left, it details the divisiveness within the New Left, left-wing parties, the student movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and so forth, over which side to support in the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s. The fact that Jewish Americans were strongly represented within these left-wing movements added an extra degree of angst and bitterness to discussions over which side, Israel or the Palestinians, deserved the support of American leftists. This divisiveness ultimately weakened the Left precisely at a time when it was in its strongest position in decades.
J: What surprised you the most in your research?
MF: I was most surprised discovering the degree to which Black Power militants and writers expressed themselves in such an ideologically sophisticated and strident fashion at that time. Reading some of their statements and manifestos fifty years later, I was struck by just how revolutionary their worldviews and political programs were. They really wanted to overthrow what they saw as a racialized capitalist system at home and abroad. No wonder the FBI was afraid of them! I also could not help but contrast that with how absent such talk is from our political discourse today. One obviously can find revolutionary ideas on the internet, but at the same time one cannot escape the fact that the overall discourse of the black freedom struggle today, not to mention that of other movements for change in America, is expressed so differently, and seeks to realize such limited objectives within the system rather than to change the system altogether.
Excerpt from the book
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?”
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. 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.
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.
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 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. Black Power groups also keenly resented what they considered white paternalism, and 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 the Black Power movement’s rivals in the 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 like Black Power activists were. They therefore 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 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 and the scorn of civil rights leaders, setting in motion an important chapter in black 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.