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.
Think of Andrew Young's loss of his United Nations ambassadorship after it became public that he had met with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization — ironically, to head off a confrontation at the U.N.
Think of former Rep. Cynthia McKinney's checkered political career, defined and thwarted mainly by her willingness to embrace the Palestinian cause.
Those incidents may explain why so few black voices are heard on the Middle East today. It's been wrenching to see President Obama left swaying in the wind for saying in public speeches what other presidents have long said behind closed doors: Israel needs to move toward a peace that includes Palestinians living in their own "nonmilitarized" state.
"For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region," the president said last week. "For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.
"For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of work by previous administrations. Yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now."
Obama wants negotiations to start with the borders that existed in June 1967 — before there was a war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Negotiations would involve land swaps so that Israel could keep some of its settlements in the West Bank. This is what the president said: "Precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel must act boldly to advance a lasting peace. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation."
Attempts to give peace a chance have been risky. More than 30 years ago, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for their efforts to bring peace to the Middle East under the guidance of President Jimmy Carter.
In his acceptance speech, Sadat said, "Let us put an end to wars, let us reshape life on the solid basis of equity and truth. And it is this call — which reflected the will of the Egyptian people, of the great majority of the Arab and Israeli peoples, and indeed of millions of men, women and children around the world — that you are today honoring. And these hundreds of millions will judge to what extent every responsible leader in the Middle East has responded to the hopes of mankind." Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Muslim fundamentalists. The PLO did not mourn his death.
As an acquaintance told me, even when President Obama is right, he'll be seen by many folks as wrong. That's why I say this is a complicated story. But we should support the president's courage and determination to tackle one of the most sensitive topics on his agenda.
E.R. Shipp is a frequent contributor to The Root.