Dream Defenders Palestine delegations

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Dream Defenders delegation, Nazareth, January 2015

Dream Defenders Palestine delegations have visited the area in January 2015, and May 2016.

Dream Defenders fourth visit to Palestine, 2019

When Eli Day visited a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank with a group of activists from working-class Black neighborhoods in the United States, I was astonished to discover just how much it reminded me of home. But then it didn’t.

Traveling with the Dream Defenders in Palestine is an exercise in conquering distance. In some sense, this is just literal. Many of us, predominantly organizers of color, have traveled from across the United States to join the Florida-based movement for racial and economic justice in its fourth delegation to Palestine, with stops across the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, Hebron, and beyond.

The purpose of the visit was straightforward: to deepen activists’ understanding of Israel’s illegal military occupation, and to strengthen the chains of solidarity linking activists in the United States and Palestine. The latter reflects the old lefty dream of internationalism — the belief that the fates of all the world’s working-class people are tangled up, and thus their struggles for justice should be as well.

Over the last 50 years, a triumphant right wing has taken a sledgehammer to that idea, doing a terrific job of “atomizing us,” says Zaina Alsous, an organizer with Dream Defenders whose own family was expelled from Palestine in 1948. As a result, the most fabulously wealthy and powerful are able to tighten their death grip on the institutions that shape our lives.

The response, Alsous stresses, must include a revival of people seeing “themselves as perpetually tethered to others.” Not as an act of “charity,” but one rooted in “your own liberation.” This isn’t abstract, she tells me: the only way to dethrone the powerful is for everyday people to “credibly and concretely explain that our enemies are the same,” and to take collective action against their shared adversaries in the private and public arenas.

One Tuesday afternoon near Bethlehem, we found ourselves in the Dheisheh refugee camp. Dheisheh was established in 1949 to serve some of the 750,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed by the Israeli military during the 1948 war.

Along one of Dheisheh’s many sloping streets, a wall is ornamented with a string of names and faces, old and young alike. Hazem, our guide, explains that each of them was killed by the Israel Defense Forces, a name many Palestinians consider laughably Orwellian based on the organization’s actual record, which includes regularly rampaging through the camp in nighttime raids, toting military-caliber weapons and kicking in the doors of defenseless Palestinians.

The wall is striking not because it feels like something from an unrecognizable world. Just the opposite — it’s the type of crushing display of grief that unfailingly dots the landscape of America’s poor and working-class black communities, which many in our group, myself included, come from. I’m not surprised to find that others are also swept back to similar corners in cities they’ve called home, where the name or face of someone they’ve loved is immortalized across concrete.

“There’s so much resistance art…commemorating people that have passed,” says D'atra Jackson, who lives and organizes in Durham, North Carolina as the National Co-Director of BYP (Black Youth Project) 100. It reminds Jackson of her hometown, Philadelphia, where she says a mural “was just put up of my best friend. She was killed in 2011…That’s the thing that we do, you know? We build altars. We put candles up. We place flowers.”

Jackson traces her own awakening to the Palestinian struggle to 2014, when the Movement for Black Lives began drawing connections between “the occupation in Palestine and the war on Black America.” In 2018, Jackson’s BYP100 chapter drew that connection even closer.

Along with a web of other groups organized under the banner “Demilitarize Durham2Palestine Coalition,” they led a “campaign to disrupt the collaboration between our Durham Police Department and the Israeli Defense Forces,” making Durham the first city in the nation to ban police training exchanges with Israel. It was a clear statement of moral and strategic priorities: the forces that often make Palestinian life a dystopian hell of high-tech surveillance, harassment, and violence, and those that regularly devastate Black communities shouldn’t be sharing notes on how to do those things more effectively.

This reflects a broader drift in popular opinion in favor of the Palestinian struggle for justice. In recent years especially, the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and other fiercely dedicated groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now, have raised awareness of Israel’s internationally-recognized crimes against an utterly defenseless Palestinian people.

And, it must be said, some have greater responsibility for unraveling this ugly chapter of history than others. Professor Robin D.G. Kelley puts it well when he explains that “…as a U.S. taxpayer, it’s imperative that I take a critical stance against a U.S. foreign policy that puts the whole world in jeopardy.” This follows another basic moral principle: responsibility for one’s actions. Or in the case of U.S. citizens, actions carried out in our names, like the country’s decisive military, diplomatic, and economic support for Israel’s horrific treatment of Palestinians.

For Amjad Iraqi, an advocacy coordinator with Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the swell of support from Black activists has “rejuvenated” a movement that’s been “brutalized and suppressed” over the years. He credits a growing “understanding that [Black Americans and Palestinians] are not completely different” for this deepened sense of camaraderie.

Connecting the dots in this way has served as the basis for countless instances of struggling people linking arms around the world. Writers, scholars and activists smarter than me have carefully explained that the preventable suffering of Palestinians bears striking resemblance to avoidable misery elsewhere. There are the Indigenous victims of settler-colonial projects in Anglosphere countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia. There is India’s cruel and unfolding occupation of Kashmir. The United States’s vicious treatment of Latinx people at the southern border.

Over dinner one evening in Haifa, toward the trip’s closing moments, Marc Lamont Hill, a fierce and unapologetic critic of Israel’s cruel treatment of Palestinians, says that at some point “you realize that [focusing on similarities] is insufficient.”

“There’s something fundamentally different” between gentrification in the United States, for instance, “and actually losing your land” and “not even having citizenship.” It’s even more difficult “to compare what’s happening in Gaza to what’s happening anywhere in the United States.”

“Sameness,” then, may kick open the door to empathy. But establishing the type of solidarity that can endure and overcome the most entrenched feelings of isolation requires something more.

There’s no magic bullet, but there are clear paths to action. Hill goes on to speak about pushing past the uncertainty that comes when you realize “I don’t know what this is,” to a deeper determination to “have solidarity through difference. I don’t need us to be the same,” says Hill. “I can understand [your experience] on its own terms.”

This reminds me that internationalism, at its best, offers a clear set of guiding moral principles to follow, making it easier to navigate moments of uncertainty. The one that echoes loudest here is the most foundational, the one that binds people everywhere hoping to expand human freedom as far as humanly possible: an unshakable belief in the basic right to determine our own futures.

“This is a kind of joint, collective venture,” Hill says. “We are not advocating on behalf of Palestinians, but partners with Palestinians for the right to self-determination…and recognizing that what’s happening there is not exceptional, but rather part of a larger global process of late colonialism and neoliberalism, and that what happens in Palestine is going to have an impact on the rest of the world.”

For many, this is what Dr. King meant by everyone being “tied in a single garment of destiny,” with “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism” weaving all of our fates together.

Ultimately, Alsous tells me, the Dream Defenders hope to make the colossal stakes of solidarity less gauzy and abstract and more touchable, with visible human consequences: “A frame that we’ve been using is ‘Solidarity is not a luxury.’ It’s actually our only option to create the conditions of a tenable future where our people can live.[1]

2015 delegation

Dream Defenders Palestine Delegation toured "Palestine" and in Israel, early January 2015.

"Build real relationships"

Representatives at the forefront of the movements for Black lives and racial justice took a historic trip to Palestine in early January 2015, to connect with activists living under Israeli occupation.

Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter, journalists, artists and organizers representing Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) and more have joined the Dream Defenders for a 10-day trip to the occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel.

The trip came after a year of highly-publicized repression in Ferguson, the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as solidarity between these places.

Ahmad Abuznaid, Dream Defenders’ legal and policy director and a co-organizer of the delegation, said that the goal of the trip was to make connections.

“The goals were primarily to allow for the group members to experience and see first-hand the occupation, ethnic cleansing and brutality Israel has levied against Palestinians, but also to build real relationships with those on the ground leading the fight for liberation,” wrote Abuznaid.

“In the spirit of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and many others, we thought the connections between the African American leadership of the movement in the U.S. and those on the ground in Palestine needed to be reestablished and fortified.”

Abuznaid said the trip represented a chance to bring the power of Black organizing to Palestine.

“As a Palestinian who has learned a great deal about struggle, movement, militancy and liberation from African Americans in the U.S., I dreamt of the day where I could bring that power back to my people in Palestine. This trip is a part of that process.”

“The goals were primarily to allow for the group members to experience and see first-hand the occupation, ethnic cleansing and brutality Israel has levied against Palestinians, but also to build real relationships with those on the ground leading the fight for liberation,” wrote Abuznaid.

Over the past week, the delegation has met with refugees, Afro-Palestinians, a family that was kicked out of their house by settlers in East Jerusalem, and organizations representing Palestinian political prisoners, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors said apartheid is what immediately struck her about what she saw on the ground.

“This is an apartheid state. We can’t deny that and if we do deny it we are a part of the Zionist violence. There are two different systems here in occupied Palestine. Two completely different systems. Folks are unable to go to parts of their own country. Folks are barred from their own country.”

Charlene Carruthers, national director of BYP100 said what immediately struck her was the capacity for violence, even when it’s not immediately noticeable to foreigners.

One such example is in the narrative projected against Palestinians. Carruthers recalled their delegation crossing paths with a tour group led by Israeli authorities.

“They were clearly receiving a completely different story about the occupation. It’s deeper than just spreading lies, the false narrative is violent.”

Community organizer Cherrell Brown said she saw many parallels between state violence against Palestinians and Black Americans.

“So many parallels exist between how the U.S. polices, incarcerates and perpetuates violence on the Black community and how the Zionist state that exists in Israel perpetuates the same on Palestinians,” Brown said.

Brown also commented that the struggles are not the same.

“This is not to say there aren’t vast differences and nuances that need to always be named, but our oppressors are literally collaborating together, learning from one another – and as oppressed people we have to do the same,” she said.

“So many parallels exist between how the U.S. polices, incarcerates and perpetuates violence on the Black community and how the Zionist state that exists in Israel perpetuates the same on Palestinians,” Brown said.

For Steven Pargett, communications director for Dream Defenders, visiting the Dheisheh Refugee Camp outside of Bethlehem made these connections clearer: “A camp doesn’t have to have a fence with barbed wire all around it in order to be a place where displaced people are struggling to survive.”

Pargett said that Black people in the United States are also displaced refugees.

“Our refugee camps are lower income communities and project buildings all around the country that many would not be living in had we not been taken into slavery generations ago. Rather than having the Israeli Defense occupation in our hoods, we have the occupation of police officers who often prove to have little regard for our lives, being that they are not from these communities,” Pargett wrote.

Hip-hop was a unifying force for the delegation, Pargett said, commenting that Palestinians have been inspired by hip-hop in the U.S. and use it as a tool to amplify their own voices.

St. Louis-based rapper and activist Tef Poe said his experience in the camps connecting through hip-hop was the best day of his life.

“A refugee camp with a bunch of people fighting for their lives and using hip hop to lift their spirits and spark the minds of the children and break down gender barriers between young girls and boys,” Tef posted to Facebook. “I spent a day with these ppl .. Most amazing day of my life. Thanks be to the Most, the struggle is beautiful.”

This trip is another chapter in the recent history of Black-Palestinian solidarity. In November, a group of 10 Palestinian student activists visited Ferguson and St. Louis, meeting with people organizing in the streets.

A month later, upon their return, the students hosted a series of events at their university in the West Bank to raise awareness with the Black struggle and stand in solidarity. Dream Defenders unanimously passed a resolution to support the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in this interval.

This trip is another chapter in the recent history of Black-Palestinian solidarity.

Moving forward, delegates expressed a desire for Black and American action in support of Palestine.

“I believe the Black Lives Matter movement can benefit greatly by learning about struggles outside of the U.S., but particularly the Palestinian struggle,” said Patrisse Cullors. “I want this trip to be an example for how Black folks and Arab communities can be in better solidarity with one another.”

Cherrell Brown sees joint action as a way to global freedom.

“I want us to take back things we can do in the now, as Americans, to raise awareness and action around Palestinian liberation. I want us to reimagine what society could and will look like when we’ve dismantled this white-supremacist patriarchal and capitalist society. I want us to do it together. I want to bring back these conversations and stories in hopes that it will help add to this global struggle to get free.”[2]

List of delegates

The full list of delegates includes five Dream Defenders (Phillip Agnew, Ciara Taylor, Steven Pargett, Sherika Shaw Ahmad Abuznaid), Tef Poe and Tara Thompson (Ferguson/Hands Up United), journalist Marc Lamont Hill, Cherrell Brown and Carmen Perez (Justice League NYC), Charlene Carruthers (Black Youth Project), poet and artist Aja Monet, Patrisse Cullors (Black Lives Matter), and Maytha Alhassen.[3]

2016 delegation

Florida State Sen. Dwight Bullard, wearing a Palestinian kaffiyeh, or headscarf, at the Democratic National Convention, July 2016

Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard visited Palestine in May 2016, under the aegis of a Miami-based civil rights group, Dream Defenders. His delegation met with a founder of the anti-Israel BDS movement and were led by a tour guide identified with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a State Department-designated terrorist group.

Bullard’s trip is unusual in that it joins a lawmaker from a district with a substantial Jewish population – the Democrat represents a chunk of Miami-Dade country – with a cause, BDS, considered anathema for most of the mainstream Jewish community.

On June 3 2016, Bullard spoke at an event that explicitly linked the Black Lives Matter movement to the Palestinian cause titled “Struggles for Liberation: Injustice from Ferguson to Palestine.” Sabeel, a Christian group that endorses BDS, sponsored the event.

“As an African-American born to a mom who lived through Jim Crow and some of those things, people born in a certain place should be afforded political rights,” Bullard said Tuesday in an interview with JTA, explaining why he accepted the invitation to attend the Dream Defenders tour. “People should not be viewed in two different lights.”

Mahmoud Jeddah

His tour group met with Omar Barghouti, a founder of the BDS movement, among others. Pro-Israel groups object that BDS not only singles out Israel, but that it supports a single binational state — essentially a denial of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state.

Bullard said he did not know until after the West Bank trip that its tour guide, Mahmoud Jeddah, was affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. During the same trip Didier Ortiz, a Green Party candidate for the Fort Lauderdale City Council, posted on Instagram a photo of Jeddah and noted his PFLP affiliation. (Ortiz also said in another Instagram posting from the trip, from a checkpoint in Hebron, that “Zionism must be eradicated.”)

Bullard told JTA that he joined the Dream Defenders trip seeking facts, and was ready to engage with Jewish and pro-Israel groups as part of his constituency outreach, as well as travel to Israel with a pro-Israel group.

“If a pro-Jewish organization said if you want to go to Israel, I’d go,” he said. “I’m open to talk to anybody about my experience of what I saw.”

Bullard said he was alarmed by the vitriol he encountered subsequent to the trip.

“I want to be a public servant, open-minded,” he said.

Bullard said he traveled with Dream Defenders in his quest to learn more about people suffering from discrimination; he had once traveled to Morocco with the State Department for similar reasons.

“For people who are indigenous to an area, they deserve rights and protections they are not afforded,” Bullard said, referring both to Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

“The reality is a person born of Palestinian heritage in Nazareth does not have the same rights as someone born of Jewish heritage,” he said.

Bullard said he did not have a position on a two-state or one-state outcome, preferring to focus instead on enfranchising the marginalized.

“As an elected official,” he said, “I’m not in a position to advocate against a two-state or one-state solution.”[4]

Dwight 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.

2016 delegates

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.[5]

Delegation members

Activists from Dream Defenders Recount trip to Palestine

Friday, June 3 2016, Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, Coral Gables, Florida.

The nationally known Dream Defenders will also talk on the intersectionality of the Palestinian freedom movement and the movement here at home for African-American justice.

State Senator Dwight Bullard will speak as will Rachel Gilmer, Ahmad Abuznaid, Steven Gilliam, Jr. and Didier Ortiz. [7]