Taboo memory: The solidarity that selective history tries to erase
Last week, the Missouri History Museum justified censoring public discourse and silencing Palestinian voices by claiming that comparing Palestine and Ferguson is like comparing apples and oranges. That the museum’s director had no qualms with discussing Ferguson and Ayotzinapa side-by-side indicates that her main concern is not the difficulty of comparing different cases of oppression but the inclusion of Palestine in particular. Selectively censoring Palestinian voices and culture—from their children’s artwork, to their cuisine and especially their solidarity with Ferguson—is nothing new.
With growing ties between #BlackLivesMatter and Palestine, the Anti-Defamation League and other groups are reviving a deliberate campaign of selective history: relegating the solidarity between black and Palestinian liberation movements—past and present—to taboo memory.
The tactics of this campaign have not changed. When groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Committee of Black Americans for the Truth about the Middle East and most prominently the Black Panther Party linked Zionism to the racial capitalism of U.S. imperialism, pro-Israel organizations smeared these black activists as anti-Semitic. Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, had this to say:
“We want the Palestinian people and Jewish people to live in harmony. We support the Palestinian’s just struggle for liberation one hundred percent. We will go on doing this, and we would like for all the progressive people of the world to join our ranks in order to make a world in which all people can live.”
Transnational American studies scholar Alex Lubin has documented how the Black Panther Party approached Palestine as a touchstone around which to theorize a global revolutionary politics. The Panthers’ Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, published several solidarity statements from the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Black Panther Intercommunal News Agency. As early as the second volume, Cleaver began extending the PLO’s (initial) anti-imperialist politics to label black Americans as colonized; therefore, knitting black liberation into a global map of communities struggling against colonialism and racial capitalism—from South Africa to Algeria, Chile, Puerto Rico, Cuba and, yes, Palestine.
Meanwhile, a group of Arab and other Mizrahi Jews in Israel began referring to themselves as Israeli Black Panthers. The Israeli Panthers organized against the racialization of non-Ashkenazi Jews (of non-European descent) as “black,” meaning second-class citizens. Group members mainly protested the legacy of discriminatory housing, wage and land-ownership policies, which dispossessed Mizrahi Israelis ever since they were recruited to the settler state for demographic strength and cheap labor.
During their short-lived history, Israeli Panthers organized against white supremacy within Israel itself but never did completely extend their anti-oppression work to include Palestinian decolonization. Nonetheless, Reuven Abergel, a founding member of the Israeli Panthers, has described how in his memory (which is more radical than the group’s actual history) the Israeli Panthers connected their struggle to that of black anti-colonialists in the U.S. and, at one point, to the liberation of occupied Palestinians as well.
So when activists in Ferguson and around the world express solidarity with Palestine, they are not recklessly juggling apples and oranges. “Ferguson to Palestine” builds on a deep history of solidarity. Regardless of your opinion on that stance, it has complex roots that need to be examined and understood. Expunging that history altogether is racist. Silencing its contemporary iterations is selective. Until the (Selective) Missouri History Museum publicly acknowledges that fact, they should change their mission statement to what they really stand for: erasing the narratives of people of color from public discourse.