Caption: This is the boy in Jericho from Onleilove’s trip in Israel.
Last August I joined people of African descent from across the diaspora in Israel for a conference and trip organized by Mahaleyah Goodman who had lived in Israel for 35-years first as a member of the African Hebrew Israelite Community of Dimona and then on her own as an author, Internet show host and advocate for Black women and children living in Israel. Additionally, she kept the African diaspora abreast on how our brothers and sisters were doing in Israel. After following her work for a couple of years I was excited when she gave a call for Blacks from across the world to come together to visit Israel and see this land through the eyes of Blacks living there. Mahaleyah also wanted to host a time of spiritual unity for Blacks from across the globe as many of us (especially those of us from America) faced a year of hash tags due to police brutality and were collectively mourning the deaths of #EricGarner #AkaiGurley #SandraBland and #MikeBrown.
As a faith based organizer, speaker and author covering African and African-American Jewish communities as well as the African roots of the Jewish and Christian Faith traditions I was excited to go to Israel while being hosted by a Black woman. As someone whose career has been focused on ending systematic injustice I was also careful to travel to Israel in a way that was sensitive to the plight of Palestinians. Mahaleyah partnered with Yonis a Bedouin tour guide who was born and raised in the Judea desert and so I was able to see the land through his eyes and culture as well. As I prepared for my trip to Israel Rabbis I worked with as a faith based organizer gave me tips on traveling to Israel and a Black Jewish man I was dating told me not to wear a Star of David or anything Judaic because that may cause me to be turned away at Ben Gurion airport. I took his words seriously as I heard of stories of Black Jews who had undergone orthodox conversion processes only to be turned away at Ben Gurion airport because there was fear that they would illegally stay in Israel. With a letter from Mahaleyah and Rabbi referrals as well as my business card as Executive Director of a Faith-based organizing non-profit in New York City I entered customs at Ben Gurion and was able to get my visa with just one question about why my hotel was in the desert.
My tour included people of African descent from all parts of America as well as London by way of Ghana. We stayed in Tel Arad which is one of the most diverse areas of Israel and as we visited Black families who had lived in Israel for 10,20,30 and 40 years they were very concerned for the lives of Black Americans due to reports of police brutality. I also knew that a few months before our arrival Ethiopian Jewish women led #BlackLivesMatter protest concerning racism in Israel and so I was surprised that African-American expats felt comfortable in Israel. As we traveled through Israel I saw Sudanese refugees, Ethiopian Jews and countless other people of African descent. Towards the end of our tour Yonis took us to Bethlehem, Jericho and the West Bank and I was saddened to see the conditions Palestinians lived in but I also wanted to speak to Afro-Palestinians in the African Quarter of Jerusalem because I knew they faced discrimination not only from Israelis as Palestinians but from lighter skinned Palestinians as Blacks. My question for friends and colleagues on the side of Israel and those on the side of Palestine is who is concerned about Blacks in Israel or Blacks in Palestine?
Over the past few weeks friends from the Movements for Black Lives, Jewish Rabbis and colleagues, as well as Palestinian organizers have all weighed in concerning the #BlackLivesMatter platform and the statement about Palestine. As I read the statements and spoke to colleagues I remembered one person I met while in Jericho during my trip last August. When my group and I arrived in Jericho we were greeted by a beautiful Afro-Palestinian boy who gave us a big smile and shook our hands as if he was welcoming us to the town. I was shocked to see him there until my friend Stephen Graham author and documentary film maker who focuses on Black communities in Israel told me in Jericho there are multiple Black communities. I would later read an article that discussed the Blacks of Jericho who had lived there from time immemorial and who were mostly sharecroppers which connected to me as the granddaughter of North Carolina share croppers. I took a picture of that beautiful Black boy in Jericho and his smile was bright enough to light up any room but as we drove to the West Bank I wondered what his life would be like as a Black and Palestinian. When I returned home I heard about Black and Palestinian unity or Black and Jewish unity but no one was talking about the Black communities in Israel including Black American activist because most of us don’t even know these communities exist and have always existed in Israel. So as my friends debated online about the #BlackLivesMatter statement on Israel I remembered the beautiful Afro-Palestinian boy I met and continued to ask who is talking about him and who is talking to his community?
I want to stand with Palestinians as they seek justice and I stand against any form of discrimination including anti-semitism. As a Black womanist, however, my womb and what it can produce is central and I cannot stand for Arab-Palestinian lives or White Jewish lives without standing and centralizing the struggle of Blacks in Israel. For me the whole debate about #BlackLivesMatter, Israel and BDS could be rooted in radical justice if all sides focused on Black communities in Israel like the one the little boy from Jericho belonged to. The fact is there are Black communities in Israel who have lived there through multiple occupations some of these groups are Afro Bedouins, Afro Palestinians, the Canaanites (yes that group from Torah who Israel was always at war with actually exist), Black Jews and Black Hebrews. When I studied Black Liberation Theology with Dr. James Cone we learned that the prophets wrote about justice as focusing on the most oppressed among us the widows and orphans and that God had a preferential option for the most oppressed and in this situation the MOST oppressed in Israel are the various Black ethnic groups who face racism from non-Black Israelis and Arab-Palestinians alike. So as a Black woman who is a part of the broader Movement for Black Lives I have to call attention to my Brothers and Sisters living in Israel who in this whole debate have been deemed invisible. I have to remember the Afro-Palestinian boy who welcomed me to Jericho with a bright smile and who will face racism from Israelis and Palestinians alike. I have to remember the Black Jews who underwent orthodox conversions only to be turned away at Ben Gurion airport. I have to remember the beautiful complexity of the Black diaspora and I would challenge those who advocate for Israel and Palestine to do the same. If we are not talking about Blacks in Israel while talking about the #BlackLivesMatter statement on Israel we are missing a powerful opportunity for justice. As a Black faith leader I like many Black faith leaders are asked to stand with Israel. As a Black organizer I am asked like many Black organizers to stand with Palestine, but it is actually an insult to my humanity to ask me to stand with either side when both sides are discriminating against my Black brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine. Essentially as a Black woman when you ask me to advocate for Palestinian liberation or for Israel to exist without advocating for justice for Blacks in Israel and Palestine you are asking me to be a mammy – the archetype of enslaved and Black woman who took care of the master’s family while having to neglect her own and this will not lead to justice. I believe that by centering this current conversation around the liberation of Blacks in Israel we will all be able to find our North Star to true healing, true justice and true Shalom.