Blacks in the United States have a complicated history with the Middle East. We identify with the Jewish Old Testament history. Think how many times we’ve crossed the Jordan River or told Moses to tell Pharoah to let our people go. In Moses’ time, Egyptians — Africans — held Jews in captivity.
In the mid-20th-century civil rights era, Jews were some of our staunchest supporters when we woke up with “our minds stayed on freedom.” In the Mississippi about which Nina Simone so famously sang, the three civil rights workers lynched in 1964 included two Jewish men. After the fight for voting rights, most dramatically demonstrated by the Selma-to-Montgomery march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, blacks and Jews found less to agree upon — especially when affirmative action took center stage.
But for decades, many blacks have increasingly identified with Palestinians because they see them as underdogs in the superpower plays that cast Israel as the bully, supported by billions of dollars from the U.S. government and a very activist Jewish-American community. Palestinians appeal to many of us because of their enduring freedom struggle. We can identify with being displaced and dispersed, with having limited rights, with poverty, with being stigmatized. Even former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is reported to have privately pointed out the obvious parallels with the black experience.
Before President Obama, when blacks tried to point out that Palestinians have a freedom song that should be heard, they got into trouble. Jesse Jackson, who has committed a number of gaffes when it comes to American Jews and Israel, embraced Yasser Arafat in 1979 and again in 2002 — each time to widespread censure. Arafat, the über-Palestinian leader, died in 2004 without realizing his goal of a Palestinian state and without convincing Israel that he was a man of peace.