This is a lightly edited transcript from a live conversation that took place on May 17, 2021. That conversation was part of the Black Freedom Lectures series, a speaker and discussion series curated by Eve L. Ewing with coordination and assistance from Imani LaGrone and Siyanda Mohutsiwa with the support of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture and the Mellon Foundation.
Eve L. Ewing: Obviously, you cannot give us the entire history of the region in the time that we have. But I think one of the first things we hear from many people, especially many Black people, is, “I feel like I don’t understand the history and the context of the situation, and so I feel like I can’t intelligently speak up,” especially because we live in a very combative social context. Right?
So, people are afraid to say something and then have somebody come at them in an argumentative way and feel like they can’t stick up for their principles. I’m wondering what you would tell those people.
Khury Petersen-Smith: I so appreciate that question, and I want to begin my answer with an acknowledgement that I’m aware that I am talking about the history of the Palestinian people and I am not Palestinian. I want to acknowledge that everything that I know about Palestine, I’ve learned from Palestinians. I want to express gratitude for that.
The place to start is to look at what’s actually happening in Palestine. The US media, the US government, and certainly the Israeli government and media are focusing on rockets coming from Gaza, and what we hear about the other side is Israel bombing Gaza. But we know that those are not two equal sides. One side is a major military power that has an air force, an army, and a navy that controls the land and the sea. The other is largely defenseless, a group of people confined in Gaza. The last I heard, 200 people had been killed in Gaza, including dozens of children. This is ethnic cleansing.
But this round of violence and resistance didn’t start in Gaza. It started in Jerusalem, where Palestinians are being forcibly displaced by the Israeli state and by Jewish settlers. In the weeks leading up to this, and right now, there are Israeli police and Israeli settlers attacking Palestinians in their homes, on the streets, et cetera, et cetera. So what we’re looking at is ethnic cleansing, and I think it’s really important to say that.
The last thing I’ll say is I really encourage folks to go to a rally. Because going to a rally is not only an expression of solidarity with Palestinians, it is also a context for learning. You will hear Palestinians talk about their history. You will hear them talk about what is happening to them and their families now. You might see people come out to rep Israel and [laughs] you’ll hear that, too. And that will be an education. So go engage. You already know enough to do that, but there’s a lot of context to engage further.
Eve L. Ewing: There’s so much you just said that I want us to build on. This idea of, “You don’t know enough,” is actually a strategic deployment that is intended to silence people and to move them away from what they know in their heart.
I’m wondering if you could talk about the specific relationship between the two states currently known as the United States and Israel and why, specifically in the US context, we live in a media and political environment that reinforces the idea that we don’t know enough. Can you talk about that?
Khury Petersen-Smith: Right now the Biden administration is positioning itself as this kind of neutral actor, saying that “we have sent this envoy to the region who is going to negotiate between Israel and the Palestinians and try to reach some kind of understanding.” And the idea is that the United States can play this role of the honest broker. But in reality, the United States is thoroughly on one side, on the side of Israel.
The United States gives Israel a minimum of $3 billion a year in military aid that subsidizes not just the Israeli military, but really all of Israeli society and the whole project of colonizing Palestinian land.
Eve L. Ewing: How does that compare to the kinds of military aid or other types of humanitarian aid the US government spends elsewhere in the world?
Khury Petersen-Smith: There are many states in the world that the US gives military aid to, but the Middle East and Central Asia are the major sites of US military aid. I mean, if you look at the Middle East, Egypt for many years got $2 billion a year in military aid. Saudi Arabia gets tremendous military aid and weaponry from the United States and political support as it carries out its horrendous acts of violence in Yemen and elsewhere. In the United Arab Emirates it’s the same thing. I could go on.
So there’s a context here where the US uses these relationships to make sure that there’s a certain kind of order that the United States wants. The US invades places and does all kinds of things directly, but no empire acts alone. It always has allies and Israel is a key ally.
And that relationship has, for decades, enjoyed strong bipartisan support. US support of Israel as a key ally has been uncontroversial among the US political class. So because of that, the US media is largely unified in terms of a certain outlook that, whether you’re watching CNN or reading the New York Times or listening to NPR, you’re gonna hear the same arguments.
And it’s what you learn in school, too, in the US. What I learned in school was that Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land. That’s a classic Zionist phrase, a classic settler-colonial slogan. But that was in my social studies textbook in sixth grade. None of that is accidental, and it makes it very challenging to understand what’s going on, especially when it clashes with what you’re seeing with your own eyes.
Eve L. Ewing: We’ve seen rebellions in this country in the last few years, whether it’s in Ferguson or Baltimore or Chicago, where there are people, long oppressed people, rising up against state power. And what we see in Palestine is a long oppressed people rising up against state power. Those relationships are actually deeper than we think. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between anti-Black violence in the United States and the violence that we see happening in Gaza?
Khury Petersen-Smith: Absolutely. Black is an expansive category that extends all around the world. There are Black people everywhere. And it means that there are innumerable relations between Black people globally and the Palestinian freedom struggle. I want to acknowledge that. But I’m going to speak to what I know the most about, which is about Black America and our relationship historically to this question.
The US, which is a colonial-settler state and an imperial power, looks at Israel, which is a colonial-settler state, and, from the start, says, “Okay, well, we’ve got something in common, and we should compare notes. We should help each other out.” And that relationship is extensive. On the one hand, it involves the billions of dollars in terms of military aid that the US gives to Israel. The bombs they’re dropping on Gaza are American bombs.
So there’s that. But it’s not a one-sided relationship. American police departments in the United States train with Israel, and this isn’t like a marginal phenomenon. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every major police department in this country and a lot of police departments in small cities have relations with the Israeli military.
I’m located in Boston, on Massachusett and Wampanoag land, and there are a lot of college campuses here. Even the campus police train with Israel. The police force on MBTA, which is the transit authority here, train with Israel.
So this is a very extensive situation, and there are Israeli weapons that get deployed on the streets here against Black people rising up against racism. For example, the city of St. Louis around the time of the Ferguson uprising, bought something called a skunk truck, which is an Israeli weapon. It’s a truck that sprays this putrid liquid on people resisting in protest as a crowd control measure. You can’t wash off this liquid. It stays on you for days. This is an Israeli weapon that was developed against Palestinians, and now this American police department bought it and used it.
In so many ways, our oppressions are linked. But our resistances are also linked, and there is an incredible, rich history of Black-Palestine solidarity that goes way back. One of the more storied times was in the 1960s. Black American organizations here like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, organizations like the Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit—these groups all had relations with Palestinians in Palestine and in the US. It is a very rich history and one that continues to this day.
The Ferguson uprising in 2014 is another example of this history of solidarity. That year, Eric Garner was murdered in New York City, and then Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson—and this sparked the Ferguson uprising. In that same summer, Israel launched a brutal assault on Gaza. And there was solidarity from Palestine with the Ferguson uprising—and vice versa.
So at that time I coauthored with my comrade Kristian Davis Bailey, an amazing, militant Black fighter for freedom, a statement of Black Solidarity with Palestine. We were inspired by not one but two statements from Palestine in solidarity with the Ferguson uprising. There were Palestinians on Twitter in Palestine who said, you know, “To our rebel comrades in Ferguson, we see you dealing with tear gas. Here’s how we deal with it.”
So it was this moment, and now we’re in another moment. I mean, it really breaks my heart to think about a whole round of police murders of Black folks here, and then once again there is this massive assault in Palestine by Israel. It’s not a coincidence. It’s not a coincidence that we are having a white nationalist movement in this country where the police are on the rampage and that there is a Jewish nationalist movement in Palestine where the police are on the rampage.
Eve L. Ewing: It is not an exaggeration to say that if you see footage of Black people getting shot by the police, getting tear gassed by the police, that they are literally using technologies that are learned and borrowed from another settler state. So we have this ability to learn from each other, tactically, politically, emotionally.
Let’s talk about settler colonialism for a moment. For those who aren’t familiar with that term, when we say “settler state” or “settler colonialism,” what we mean is that there are people who have come and displaced the original inhabitants of that place and said, “We now get to build an empire here. This is our country and we dictate the terms of what that means.” And so, when we say the US is a settler state, we mean that European people came here, saw Indigenous people on the land, said, “They don’t count and this is ours now—and we get to define what a country is.”
The same thing happened in Australia. And the same thing happened in Israel. So for those who aren’t familiar with that term, that’s what we mean by it. And this is another way in which it’s important for us to be in conversation across borders because Black people in the United States, Black people in France, Black people in Brazil, right, Black people all over the world can relate to the experience of being in a place through complicated webs of colonization.
Now I’d like to change gears a little bit. One of the questions we got from a couple of people was about how the Obama administration specifically played a role in where we find ourselves politically today. Could you talk a little bit about the Obama administration and its legacy here?
Khury Petersen-Smith: The first thing is that the Obama administration was a presidential administration of the United States, which is an imperial power. Obama actually presided over the biggest aid package to Israel in US history. The Obama administration was not only not a neutral or progressive administration. Obama escalated the War on Terror. He expanded it.
When it comes to support for Israel in particular, the Obama administration was enthusiastically complicit in Israeli violence. Not only in terms of its horrendous abuses of the Palestinians but all sorts of other things that Israel does.
Eve L. Ewing: Now, one of the questions that people are going to ask is, “Well, why? Why did Barack Obama do these things?” The answer is because he was the US president, and that’s the job of the presidency, to oversee this empire. But, I think that some people are struggling with, like, “But why Israel? Like, why is it this one country?” Like, do they have incriminating photos? What is it about this particular nation state?
Khury Petersen-Smith: It’s such a good question. The right wing, and also many liberals, embrace this notion that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and the US is “the world’s greatest democracy.” Of course, the US is not a democracy. But the other thing about Israel being a democracy is not true either.
Republicans and Democrats both champion this false notion, but Democrats in particular frame support for Israel in terms of a response to antisemitism. The story they tell is that after the Holocaust the state of Israel was created to keep Jewish folks safe, and this commitment to Jewish safety grounds US support for the state of Israel.
Now, it is simply not true that the US government cared about keeping Jewish folks safe. During the Holocaust, boats full of Jewish refugees fled from Europe to immigrate to the United States, and the US government turned them away. The US knew the Holocaust was going on for a long time before it did anything about it. So the notion that the US has been on the side of the world’s Jewish population is simply false.
So if it isn’t that, you know, what is it? In the mid-twentieth century, the United States, Britain, France, and other imperial powers recognized that the Middle East was of immense strategic importance to them. They said, “This is a strategic place because this is the location of the world’s oil reserves and therefore, we need to have a permanent presence in this place in particular.”
And it wasn’t even just thought of in terms of the US population’s consumption of oil, but rather the recognition that much of the world is getting their oil from the Middle East. Therefore, whoever controls the Middle East has tremendous power in the world.
So that’s why there’s all these relationships that the US maintains in that region with various states. But Israel also needed the sponsorship of a major imperial power because it was, from the start, a settler-colonial state. And from the start of the Zionist movement to colonize Palestine, there was a recognition that “we’re going to need the most powerful states in the world to support us in order to take this land away from the people who live there.”
And so the relationship between the US and Israel is one of a certain convergence of interests. Israel says, you know, “We need backing to settle this place and to have this incredibly powerful military,” and so on, and the US says, “We want an absolutely loyal state in the Middle East where we don’t have to worry about things like you know, the population.”
There have been times, in a state like Egypt, which at the moment is a US ally, where things were unstable from a US perspective. Egypt was, at one time, a center for Arab nationalism where people rose up, where the population said, “We want a different future than the Western colonial future.”
But with Israel, US officials are less worried about that because this is a settler population that is very self-consciously involved in a colonizing project. And so this is of tremendous benefit to the United States.
Eve L. Ewing: Part of what you’re also pointing out is that faith and state don’t have to be the same thing, right? Being a practitioner of a faith, being a member of a culture doesn’t mean you necessarily have to be conscripted into participating in a colonial project, right? That has nothing to do with your faith practices or the histories of your people. I really appreciate that.
And that brings us to a point of resistance that a lot of people wanna know about. Many people may have heard of BDS, which stands for boycott, divest, and sanction. Could you tell us a little bit about the BDS movement? Specifically, we were asked by some people, “What are some accessible ways to practice BDS depending on, you know, where you may be in the world or your class background?” Another person asked, “How can I as a person stop funding Israel?” So could you just tell us a little bit about BDS and how people can participate in it and what that means.
Khury Petersen-Smith: Right, yeah. It’s a great question. But as I get into that question, I want to say just one thing about the question of antisemitism and the question of solidarity. In the US, we have not only all these resources that have been crafted by Palestinian folks, you know, but we also have probably the greatest number of Jewish folks who are part of the Palestine solidarity movement, too.
So shout out to Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now, both of which organize against Israeli colonization. JVP is one of a host of such organizations that is involved in the BDS movement.
BDS takes inspiration from other boycott movements throughout history, including the movement to boycott South African apartheid, as well as the boycott movements that were key parts of the Civil Rights Movement here and the Black freedom struggle in this place called the United States. This is an accessible, nonviolent thing that anybody can access because, unfortunately, relations with the Israeli economy and society are so ubiquitous in the United States. So if you’re on a college campus in particular, it’s worth researching, “In what ways is my campus invested in Israeli apartheid?”
And I also want to shout out another organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, which has chapters across the country. They have done this kind of research and then made use of it to campaign to say, “Here’s what we need to do to divest from Israel.” There’s all kinds of companies you know, in Boston at the moment. There’s a campaign against the company Puma which has relations with Israel. They support Israeli sports teams and therefore are part of normalizing Israeli apartheid. So there’s a campaign against that. Honestly, you can really kinda like just run a web search for BDS in your location and find these things out. If you have a retirement fund, for example, a lot of retirement funds are invested in Israel. One way or another, Israeli apartheid finds us—so we can find our entry point into resisting it and joining the BDS movement.
Eve L. Ewing: What can we do to unlearn what we have learned? By that I don’t just mean let’s go listen to podcasts and figure out what happened when. I mean psychologically too. How can we unlearn the normalization of a settler state? What are some mental, psychological, or spiritual practices that you would recommend for shifting our worldview on this issue?
Khury Petersen-Smith: That is such an important question, and you know, the answer—it’s challenging because the truth is that colonization is not just this kind of event that happened once in history. Colonization happens literally every day. It’s reiterated every day. And a certain level of consent is essential for it to work. So buying into the ideological acceptance of its values and its understandings is part of how it gets reiterated. And that means we’re colonized every single day.
So decolonization is an ongoing process. To go back to something we talked about earlier—there’s this widespread, pernicious idea that “I don’t know enough to stand in solidarity.” But the truth is that there’s no one moment where we, like, “graduate” with our degree and wind up free of colonization. I mean, until the world is free of colonization, which I believe will happen in our lifetimes, it’s an ongoing process, an “ongoing struggle” as Angela Davis so eloquently puts it.
In response to the question I think a lot about the amazing freedom fighter Assata Shakur, who in her autobiography—which I highly recommend reading and rereading—talks so beautifully about solidarity and internationalism and how she came to be in a solidarity with Puerto Rican folks and with Indigenous folks in this place called North America. She talks about how, at first, she found herself in conversation with those folks and felt embarrassed because she suddenly realized all of the anti-Puerto Rican racism, all of the anti-Indigenous racism that she had accepted as somebody who grew up in this place. And she talks about how she wants to be in solidarity, but to do that she realizes, “I need to know these people’s stories from their perspective. I need to know who their heroes are. I need to know their histories.”
And so it’s a commitment to learning those things. It’s an ongoing commitment to ever deepening our knowledge and our solidarity. It’s a constant process until we are free.