Last week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a first-of-its-kind executive order [PDF] forbidding the state to conduct business with institutions and companies participating in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS). The order, which critics call an infringement on free-speech rights, requires the state's Office of General Services to a assemble a list of BDS participants using "credible information available to the public." Groups on the list, which will be posted on the General Services web page, will have a 90-day grace period to prove that they aren't involved in the movement. The list will be updated every 180 days.
"From an American democratic viewpoint, I find it troublesome when you pass any form of legislation that limits First Amendment rights," says Florida state senator Dwight Bullard, a Democrat. In a subcommittee meeting, Bullard was the only senator who opposed a similar Florida-based anti-BDS resolution. He eventually voted "yes" to the measure due to pressure from "external folks—the donor class and political leaders." Bullard says he still believes boycotts are protectable free speech.
"We look back now in hindsight and say, '[Fighting] for the boycott and divestment movement against the South African government was the right thing to do.' How that is somehow different as it pertains to Palestinian rights is really inexplicable."
Bullard was one of 14 Latinx and Black activists, artists, ministers, students and educators who in May traveled throughout the West Bank to build connections with Palestinian organizers and see the effects of Israeli land control. The trip was the second in two years organized by the Dream Defenders and participants came from Black Lives Matter Toronto, BYP 100, Puente Arizona, PICO National Network and other groups focused on racial justice.
The trip, which took place from May 10th to 20th, dovetailed with the 68th commemoration of the Nakba, the displacement of roughly 75 percent of Palestinians during Israel’s founding in May 1948. In the West Bank the group met with artists, youth organizers and refugees living under military occupation and Israeli settlement. In East Jerusalem, they heard from the African Palestinian community and families facing eviction. Within Israel, they met with Palestinian civil rights activists and marched with Bedouin Palestinians in the Naqab Desert facing the demolition of their villages. Here, some of what they witnessed and learned.
Didier Ortiz: A wall weakened by cracks, flowers and protest art
Dream Defender and Green Party of Florida spokesperson Didier Ortiz was struck by the thick concrete wall Israel began building in 2004. Israeli officials say they contructed what they've called a "security fence" to stop suicide attackers from the occupied West Bank from entering Israeli territory during a period of armed uprising known as the Second Inifada. The wall was supposed to be on the Israeli side of the border but it cuts into the West Bank in many places—annexing Palestinian land, dividing communities and even cutting families off from land they own on the other side. The wall was 24 feet high where Ortiz encountered it.
“The wall seemed stronger than I expected in its near omnipotence—it’s unmovable. But it’s weaker because of its cracks, because of the flowers growing within said cracks, and because of the art blossoming around said flowers,” Ortiz wrote in an e-mail to Colorlines. “Anti-occupation graffiti on the wall tells us that the Israeli apartheid system has failed at its first task. The Palestinian will to live free marches on. The cracking concrete and growing flowers give testament to the Achilles' heel of all oppressive systems: The universe is always in motion.”
Maria Castro: ‘We are not foreigners in our own homes.’
The separation wall and checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers throughout the West Bank reminded Maria Castro, an organizer with Puente Arizona, of the struggles of migrants along the U.S./Mexico border.
“I want us to remember that these walls are manmade,” she said. “This means that the division is manmade and that it can be overcome by us as people. Even though the walls are trying to tell us that we don't belong here, we are not foreigners in our own homes.”
Steven Gilliam Jr.: An 'eerie' similarity between U.S. gentrification and Palestinian land loss
Steven Gilliam Jr., an organizer with the Miami Dream Defenders, saw a connection between Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian land and gentrification in the United States: “As an activist who focuses on gentrification, it was illuminating to see how the Israeli government is controlling land and investment to oppress the Palestinian people,” Gilliam said. “The Israeli government is clearing land for settlements in the West Bank in many of the same ways real estate developers gentrify a neighborhood. They create ghettos, restrict movement, heavily police and otherwise create conditions where folks cannot survive in an area. It's eerily similar.
Rachel Gilmer: Palestinian and Black struggles are connected but not identical.
Rachel Gilmer, the Dream Defenders’ chief of strategy, said the group spent the first half of the trip drawing similarities between what’s happening in Palestine and in the United States but became hyper aware of the differences as the delegation progressed.
“Living under [Israeli] state occupation is simply different than what we face as Black people in the U.S.,” Gilmer said. “This doesn’t mean our struggles are not connected. But as the trip went on it became more and more clear how important it is to be hyper-specific about the differences we face under systems of White supremacy, corporate capitalism and patriarchy. We don’t need to base our solidarity in finding and naming all the ways in which they are the same. This also made me realize how as activists in the U.S. we, too, have been indoctrinated by U.S.-centrism.”
Jonel Edwards: Refugee children are accustomed to Israeli rubber bullets, tear gas and night raids.
A Dream Defenders staff member who focuses on criminalization, Jonel Edwards said she was surprised at how normal tear gas and rubber bullets were for the children the group met in Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem.
“As we got off the bus, folks began sneezing heavily [but] not really paying attention to the possible cause. While we were there, youth came out and played on the "Train of Return" that an artist had built to commemorate the Nakba. As the children were having fun they came up to us and showed us rubber bullets that had been shot at them from a nearby Israeli military tower. They also showed us the tear-gas canisters that soldiers had thrown into the camp as they were coming back from school. They seemed unfazed and even laughed as they told us. This also explained why we were all sneezing. They were used to the tear gas as it was daily occurrence along with nightly raids.”
Nyle Fort: A people controlled in life and in death
Noting an Israeli government-approved plan to build a shopping mall on top of a Palestinian cemetery and the Israel’s practice of withholding the bodies of Palestinians killed in attacks, minister, organizer and Princeton Ph.D. student Nyle Fort was alarmed by what he called “efforts to erase and control Palestinian memory and mourning.”
“What does it mean to control a people, not just in life, but also in death?” he asked before describing the Palestinian sumud or steadfastness that he witnessed.
“You see it in the graffiti on the apartheid wall. You hear it in the voice of Mahmoud, a witty Afro-Palestinian tour guide who served 17 years in prison for resisting Israeli oppression. And in the Sub Laban family, who refuses to leave their home despite Israel's attempt to evict them. ‘I am enduring, and I won't leave my home,’ Nora, the mother of the family, told us. That's sumud.”
Janaya Khan: Reject the narrative of an ‘age-old religious dispute.’
Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Janaya Khan said that anti-occupation activists in North America should challenge the “untruths” dominant in North America about the relationship between Israel and Palestine.
“We get a lot of narratives that 'it's a land dispute' or 'it's a religious issue,' that this is an 'age old battle that's been going on between two people.' And it's none of those things. It's purely economic and it's purely military. It's the most highly sophisticated system of apartheid that the world has ever seen.”
All Interviewees: The occupation won't end unless America stops funding it.
All of the delegates interviewed noted the role of the U.S. in supporting the occupation—from $3 billion in annual military aid to Israel to diplomatic lobbying against U.N. resolutions that support Palestinian rights. “It is essential that everyone in the movement in the U.S. play a role in defunding the occupation, whether it's through BDS campaigns, lobbying, or direct actions—the tactic doesn't matter,” Puente's Maria Castro said. “The point is that we need to stop funding the occupation. People continue to fight, but they can't win against [the occupation] with our money, with our tax dollars.”
Adds Dream Defenders co-founder Ahmad Abuznaid of anti-BDS measures: "In the U.S. we have seen grassroots support for Palestinian liberation increasing. The political establishment is trying to push back. Not only are they on the wrong side, but they will lose."
Kristian Davis Bailey is a Detroit-based freelance writer. His work focuses on Palestine, Black activism in the United States, and the intersection of the two.