When the video of police officer Derek Chauvin choking George Floyd to death first circulated, Palestinians were quick to notice the similarities between law enforcement violence in the US and Palestine. Many seized the opportunity to denounce the training of US law enforcement officers in Israel, so as to foreground Israeli violence. References to the “Deadly Exchange” campaign, which seeks to expose and end the training of US police forces in Israel, popped up on many social media feeds, detracting from the present horror, the here and now of George Floyd’s murder.
This is not OK. Genuine solidarity cannot be self-serving. This moment is not about the oppression of Palestinians, and the racism of the Israeli military and police forces. This is the time when we must reach out to the African American communities devastated by US police violence, offering them the support they need and are asking for. Furthermore, it is absolutely offensive to suggest that the racist US law enforcement violence is a consequence of US forces training in Israel—as if the US police forces have not always been racist. Indeed, it is worth emphasizing that the training of US police forces in Israel did not start until 2002, shortly after the 9/11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Yes, the US police have become hypermilitarized since they started training with the Israeli military—and it is truly horrifying to realize that they train with the Israeli military, not their “peers,” the Israeli police. In fact, the Israeli police forces are less militarized than the US police, since they deal primarily with Jewish Israeli citizens, and tourists, and non-Arab foreign workers, whereas the Israeli military (“border control”) are called to deal with situations involving Palestinians, even within the 48 borders.
With their origin as runaway slave patrols—always prioritizing the “property” of whites over the lives of African Americans, the US police forces have been racist for centuries before they started training in Israel—indeed, for centuries before Israel even existed. Their behavior today, as they form a weaponized wall protecting banks and shopping malls, rather than the protestors rising up against centuries of injustice, is a direct evolution of their initial mandate—to protect the privileged and their wealth, from the violently dispossessed, those who have been looted of their land, and the fruit of their labor. In the US, the divisions between “privileged” and “dispossessed” have historically been along racial lines, as even the poorest white people enjoyed upward social mobility, and could aspire to join the ranks of the privileged, whereas centuries of institutional racism ensured that people of color were legally barred from claiming human rights, let alone civil rights.
Racism is in the DNA of US police forces, as it is in the DNA of this country, founded on genocide and slave labor. The US does not have to learn racism, and violence, from anyone else.
The US would not have allied itself so closely with Israel were it not for the much-touted “shared values” between the two countries. And the US did not learn those from Israel. As Samidoun, the Palestinian Prisoners Solidarity Network, put it: “The blatant act of police murder, in full view of multiple cameras, indicates a form of confidence and impunity that is not limited to the murderer himself, Derek Chauvin, but reflects the institutional, racist, oppressive structure of U.S. policing.” This racist structure did not begin in 2002.
Understanding someone else’s oppression through one’s experience is natural, even inevitable if we have similar experiences. But always centering one’s own experience is not solidarity, it is opportunism. Just as we ask our allies to center our voices, our leadership, and our experiences, when they are organizing for justice for Palestinians, so this is a time when we must center Black voices, Black leadership, the centuries-old African American experience, and not detract from it by drawing parallels with our circumstances, shifting the focus.
I am among the first to acknowledge that this is a difficult moment for many Palestinians, one where we are triggered by acts of violence we cannot help but associate with similar acts we have witnessed at home, and that some of us have experienced firsthand. It is all too easy to find many photos of an Israeli soldier with his knee on the neck of an unarmed Palestinian civilian, and juxtapose that with the photo of George Floyd being crushed to the ground. We have a guttural response to “I can’t breathe.” This is how trauma operates, and we are traumatized, and many of us process the oppression of others by relating it to ours. But if we are to honor the Black struggle, we must, above all, recognize not just the connections between us, but also, the specificities that make it imperative that we center Black pain today.
Fortunately, alongside the parallels being drawn between the oppression of Palestinians and African Americans, parallels that occasionally seek to redirect the present outrage towards Palestinians, there are many Palestinian voices rising up in genuine solidarity with the Black community, prompting us to focus on calling for justice for African Americans. In a statement entitled “It is our duty to defend Black lives,” the Adalah Justice Project, for example, spoke of the present moment as a “rebellion of love,” and asked people to amplify the demands and calls to action of Movement 4 Black Lives, and to donate to black led organizations such as Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block, Dream Defenders, Assata’s Daughters, and others.
Recognizing that Floyd was murdered after a phone call to the police was made from an Arab-owned store, the Arab Resource and Organizing Center also published a very useful document on Alternatives to Policing in Arab and Muslim Communities, in which it states: “We support and are inspired by the many calls to action to dismantle the power of police, and to provide reparations to those at the receiving end of the violence of policing including Movement 4 Black Lives, Anti Police-Terror Project, and Critical Resistance.”
The Boycott National Committee, among many organizations whose primary mission is to bring about an end to Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, also issued a statement denouncing the USA’s “deeply-seated white supremacist ideology,” which precedes its alliance with Israel.
I shudder to think that Palestinians would not be outraged at systemic racism in the US if they could not “relate” to it on a personal level. But there are ample indications this is not so. Instead, it seems that, after the immediate “recognition” and recoiling that most Palestinians experienced at the sight of Floyd’s murder, and the instinctive look within, Palestinians in the homeland and the global Diaspora are now expressing genuine solidarity with African Americans, respectful of the circumstances of this oppressed community crying out for justice.
As the Dream Defenders put it, “the time for action is now.” So let us take to the streets in solidarity, in a rebellion of love, to topple the violent system of racial supremacy that has too long held down an oppressed people who taught us—and not the other way round–that justice is indivisible.