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Traveling Through Palestine While Black: A Firsthand Look at a Slow-Moving Annexation

Witnessing a brutal occupation, where permanent insecurity and maximum humiliation are the norm.

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In the case of both the Palestinians and the African undocumented migrants there is a demographic concern that eats away at the Israeli political establishment. They are actually quite open about this concern. Contrary to the international notion of an ethnically pluralist democracy, the Israeli establishment believes that they, and they alone, have the right to an ethnically/religiously pure nation-state. However, they face four problems: the existence of Palestinian citizens of Israel who represent approximately 20% of the state of Israel and are growing; the Palestinians in the West Bank; a Palestinian Diaspora that insists upon its internationally recognized right to return to the land that they believed that they temporarily vacated in 1948, and later in 1967; and the undocumented Africans.

For the Israeli establishment the sum total of these problems is a demographic threat to Israel. Specifically, the Israeli establishment is deeply worried that they will quickly become another apartheid South Africa or white minority Rhodesia, wherein the Jewish population ends up constituting a minority and is swamped by non-Jews. 5 Although publicly cast in religious terms, the problem really comes down to cold demographics, in that sense so very similar to the US Southwest in the period after the US war against Mexico and the white expansion into lands populated by Mexicans and those populated by Native Americans.

Since We Are Talking About Race...

There is another side to race in Israel and Palestine that gained the attention of our delegation: race within the Palestinian community.

Among Arabs, race is a very complicated matter that cannot be distilled down to skin tone or hair texture. The Arabic word that is frequently used for “blacks” is the same word that is used for “slaves” (Abeed or Abid). Yet, some who use that term—as in the case of Northern Sudanese—would be described as black in a US context. 6 It is also worth noting that there has been struggle around the very usage of the term, much as there has been in the USA around terms such as “Oriental.”

One can get different signals from within both Arab and Muslim history regarding race. One of the most important people in Islamic history was an Ethiopian slave liberated by the Prophet Muhammad, named Bilal ibn Rabah. And certainly a "black" presence can be seen throughout the Arab world and Arab history, e.g., in the recent past, Egypt’s Nasser and Sadat. At the same time there was the Arab-run slave trade and in various parts of the Arab World biases against those seen or described as black.

Arabs who migrated to the USA (pre-1980) by and large developed a relationship with African Americans that was less than solidaristic. Arab/African American tensions in the US in part reflected the economic niche that many Arabs came to occupy, that is, store owners in African-American neighborhoods, and otherwise having little constructive contact. This was compounded by attempts by Arab immigrants to assimilate into white America, attempts which grew in complexity in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

The problematic side to the relationship between Arabs and African Americans in the US contrasts with the emergence of a significant Muslim trend within black America and also with the attention that the Arab world received within progressive political circles in black America in the context of the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century. For example, the Egyptian Revolution and the Algerian Revolution were discussed in African-American political movements and frequently served as points of inspiration. The favorable feeling toward the Arab world in much of black America was aided by the outstanding assistance that Arab nations, such as Egypt and Algeria, offered to anti-colonial struggles in other parts of Africa.

 
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