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Jewish-Only Communities, Imprisoned Palestinians: What an African-American Delegation Witnessed in the Holy Land

What happens when people who grew up in the segregated south with fire bombings and lynchings engage with Palestinians living in the West Bank?

Protesters supporting Palestinian statehood confront Israeli soldier in a demonstration in Al-Walaja, Sept. 16, 2011.
Photo Credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler /


The recent war between Hamas and Israel was fought not only in the bloodied cities and refugee camps of a huge civilian population and in vulnerable cities and towns of Israel, but also on newsfeeds and social media. In the papers, the websites and twitter feeds, reports and analysis of the Gaza war rarely revealed any context and no reports of the deadly siege and frequent incursions that have crippled Gaza for years. Reporters and politicians often spoke with a level of racism and disregard for Palestinian civilians that should be disconcerting to anyone who values human life and the right of people to resist oppression.

The Israeli attack seemed triggered by an increasingly belligerent Prime Minister Netanyahu threatening to extract a “heavy price” if Palestinians renewed their bid for observer status at the UN as he also positioned himself for reelection. Post-UN vote, this threat was followed by the promise of renewed settlement building, particularly in the critical area of E1 which would effectively cut the West Bank into two noncontiguous segments, and the withholding of tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

All this raises serious questions in the Jewish community and for our allies. For instance, for decades, African Americans and Jews in the US have united in the long battle for equality and civil rights, stood together fighting racism and anti-Semitism, and also proudly supported the State of Israel. At the same time, African Americans are feeling increasing pressure to stand with their Jewish brothers and sisters, despite difficult concerns about the policies of the Israeli government towards Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Case in point, Stevie Wonder’s booking at the Friends of the IDF event sponsored by Haim Saban, an Israeli-American TV and media mogul on the West Coast, stirred up enough controversy that Wonder canceled his appearance after major public pressure.

So what happens when a delegation of African-American civil rights leaders, theologians, scholars, and activists, (many of whom are Jewish,) under the leadership of the Dorothy Cotton Institute (DCI)and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., travels to the Holy Land? What happens when people who grew up in the segregated south with fire bombings, lynchings, as well as bus boycotts and nonviolent marches, engage with Palestinians living in the West Bank?

Together we witnessed the Jewish settler-only communities, roads and buses, the system of permits and closures that imprisons the Palestinian population, the racially based zoning practices and house demolitions, the confrontations between unarmed protesters tear gassed and beaten by heavily militarized soldiers. Together we also met with Palestinians and their Israeli allies steeped in the spirit of Gandhi and King and deeply committed to nonviolent resistance against occupation, segregation, and discrimination. Beyond Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, the churches of Bethlehem, the breathtaking West Bank hills, (also known as the Judean hills), and the upscale Tel Aviv beaches, a world was revealed that raised troubling questions about racism, colonialism, and apartheid, a world that resonated deeply with people who had lived it all before. While national leaders and the US media paint a picture of an Israel under siege and a Palestinian population committed to violence and terrorism, the DCI Palestinian/Israeli Nonviolence Project found this to be a deeply inaccurate picture.

Take the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, currently struggling to keep its rocky terraces, olive trees, and access to water while the nearby Jewish settlement of Halamish continues its relentless expansion. Since 1967 villagers have watched their lands and their water, their ability to travel, farm, raise their growing families, attend university, not to mention lead a normal predictable life, constricted by continued land grabs, military incursions, home invasions, arrests, and detention.

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