Black Lives Matter & Israel-Palestine: Learning From Ralph Bunche

by Asher Kessler

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska. Photo credit: Seka Hamed

Over the past months, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement re-erupted in America, with the urgent demand to dismantle the racism that seeps through society and to defund the police forces that, for many communities, have become the militarised face of that racism.


We have seen the protests, which began in Minneapolis, spread across much of the world. This is not simply because protesters in other countries want to show solidarity with activists in the United States, but because the issues raised by BLM in the US are similarly urgent elsewhere. It is also because the clear vocalisation of these issues in the US has given people a renewed energy to tackle racial injustices in their own countries.


When these political movements and ideas spread from one country to another, they also shift and adapt to the specific context of their new location. For example, in Britain there is a greater focus on the legacy of empire, decolonising our education system, and fighting contemporary injustices like the Windrush scandal and the horrifying “hostile environment“ immigration policy more generally.


In Israel, the issues raised by BLM also have a powerful resonance. Black Israelis, particularly Jews from Ethiopia, face the institutional racism of the Israeli state, which manifests both in police brutality and threats of deportation. The BLM movement in the US has helped give momentum to protests against police brutality towards Black Israelis, both in 2019 and in the past months.


Ethiopian Jews protesting against racism and police brutality faced by the community in Israel. Photo by Oren Rosenfeld

In the same week that George Floyd was murdered by American police, Eyad Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian man, was shot by Israeli Police at close range as he walked through the streets of Jerusalem. Eyad Hallaq had the mental age of an eight-year-old and was simply heading to the special needs centre he attended. It is difficult to imagine this tragedy occurring if he had been Jewish.


BLM’s focus on fighting systemic injustices can also help give a voice to the disenfranchisement and oppression experienced by the Palestinian people, whether they have Israeli citizenship, live in the occupied territories, or are refugees elsewhere. It can also serve to highlight how Palestinians have become racialised within Israeli society.


This is of course not the first time that a civil rights movement or anti-racist movement originating in the US has influenced Israel and Palestine. In the 1930s, a civil rights movement was brewing in America, with a new set of ideas to take on institutional racism and segregation. It was, in some ways, the BLM of its generation, and it ended up influencing Palestine through the actions of one man: Ralph Bunche.


In 1947, Bunche was tasked with finding a solution to the violence that was growing in Palestine, and he brought with him ideas that he developed as a key figure in the 1930s American anti-racist movement, such as a socialist understanding of racial struggle, an anti-colonial worldview, and a deconstructed understanding of race. The impact of these ideas on Palestine and eventually Israel is worth delving into. And it should help us understand the power and the pitfalls of applying the lessons and ideas of BLM onto Israel-Palestine today.


1930s Radical Anti-racism


In the 1930s, a new generation of activists were challenging the accepted racial norms of an intensely racist America. A new “vanguard of young, progressive Black American intellectuals” was rising up and challenging “the biological paradigm” of race. This is the idea that each “race” could be categorised into neat groups, with each group holding specific innate traits. Racists, trying to intellectualise their racism, would then place these “racial groups“ into a hierarchy. One of the key figures in this anti-racist movement was Ralph Bunche.


Bunche, along with his colleagues, argued that “race“ cannot be reduced to biology. There is a reason why no one can ever find “racial traits“ that link all the people of a supposedly same “race.“ And there is a reason why any traits that are associated with one race can invariably be found existing among individuals from a different race: “Race“ is a social construct. As Bunche put it, the “mongrelisation of Homo Sapiens frustrates at some point every possible scheme of racial classification.”


But even if “race“ has no biological meaning, it does have a meaning in popular usage, a meaning that exists as a result of social formation. Bunche argued that race was a tool through which political and economic grievances could be legitimised and violence justified.


This generation of activists focused on the importance of economic factors in explaining racism and also overcoming racial conflict. They called for inter-racial class solidarity and argued that this was the most important tool in fighting racial exploitation. For this generation, the only way to overcome racism was by working to unite White and Black members of the working class. This was a perspective of racism that greatly relied on socialist ideas that dominated left-wing activism. Today, this analysis of racism as being wholly a result of economic competition is widely rejected.


Bunche didn’t limit his analysis of race and class to the US. He sought to internationalise it and argued that economic greed was the predominant motive of imperialism. But like many Western anti-colonial activists of his time, Bunche still subscribed to the idea of modernisation and the Enlightenment notion of progress. Essentially, the West was still associated with progress and modernity while the “Third World“ remained backwards. Bunche’s critique of colonialism, like many of his generation, never escaped the mindset or language of his era, when Western modernity was still seen as a superior universal value.


In the first years after World War II, Bunche had worked for the UN on their decolonisation programme. But in 1947, he was sent as part of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to Palestine to try and find a workable plan for the future of the region. Within a few months, Bunche almost single-handedly wrote the UNSCOP plan for Palestine, which shaped the eventual partition plan adopted by the UN on 29 November 1947. And in these months, it is clear how the anti-racist ideas developed in 1930s segregated America influenced how Bunche viewed the conflict in Palestine and, consequently, the UN’s actions in the region.


David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 in Tel Aviv. National Photo Collection of Israel

Anti-antisemitism


In the 1930s and 1940s, leading African American figures linked the experience of Jews in Europe to their own struggle in the United States. W. E. B. DuBois in particular sought to fight antisemitism in wider society and within his own community. The rise of Hitler led to more African American leaders, such as Marcus Garvey, linking the plight of the Jewish people and that of African Americans.


In his early work, Bunche also made this connection. As an African American himself, this was not simply an academic analysis of similarity; it acknowledged his ability to personally understand the experience of the Jewish people.


Bunche brought this empathy with him to Palestine, repeatedly telling Zionist figures that he, more than anyone else, could understand their struggle. After interviewing Menachem Begin, who would later become Prime Minister of Israel, Bunche was reported to have told Begin “I can understand you. I am also a member of a persecuted minority.


Ralph Bunche with Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, 1966

Bunche’s experience of discrimination as an African American made him wary of instances of antisemitism and particularly saddened by antisemitism within the Palestinian leadership. His visits to Palestinian-controlled land were only accepted by Palestinian authorities on the condition that no Jewish staff or journalists could attend. UNSCOP accepted the condition, and Bunche “was visibly upset” when he had to tell his Jewish colleagues. For Bunche, his own personal experience of racism and fighting segregation led him to be a determined critic of antisemitism, whether that be within his own community, in Europe, or in Palestine.


In the past months, when some BLM figures have sought to link their movement with that of the Palestinian people, they have fallen into antisemitic tropes. In the UK, the official BLMUK Twitter account posted a thread on Israel-Palestine, which contained language that was considered by some to have antisemitic undertones. In Washington DC, a BLM protest organised a day of rage in solidarity with the Palestinian people. But the protest included a speaker who described Israel as a “puppet-master of continents“ and chants of “Israelis, we know you murder children too,“ which, for many Jews, sounds uncomfortably similar to a thousand-year-old blood libel conspiracy that Jews steal children and let them bleed to death.


Several prominent left-wing cultural figures from the UK, such as Roger Waters and Maxine Peake, have made the argument that Israel was behind the George Floyd murder. They claim that Israeli security forces taught American soldiers the neck chokehold that killed George Floyd. This is untrue and may be seen as motivated by an antisemitic worldview that identifies Jews as being behind all of the world’s ills. American police forces were murdering Black people long before Israel existed as a state.


This has led some commentators to ask whether BLM is antisemitic. But such a question doesn’t really make sense. There is nothing antisemitic about the idea that Black Lives Matter; in fact, it should be at the core of what it means to fight all racism. BLM is not a single political organisation but rather a set of ideas and a movement that encompasses a huge variety of different activists, political groups, and people. So to label the whole movement antisemitic, due to the actions and words of a minority, is a fundamental error.


But those who do expound antisemitism in the name of the Palestinian people don’t make things better for them. Instead, doing so serves to increase the divide between Jews and Palestinians in the region, as well as Jews and left-wing movements around the world. Ralph Bunche saw “race“ as a social construct and racism as a means to divide people. This is the fundamental starting point for fighting racism even today, and it should be at the core of how we interrogate the contemporary inequalities and injustices that exist in Palestine and Israel.


A Colonial Mindset


Bunche also brought with him a critique of colonialism, which he developed in America and Africa. Unsurprisingly, Bunche was vehemently opposed to any future British influence in the territory. Yet alongside this anti-colonial conviction, Bunche also brought with him the perspective of progress, defined by the Eurocentric parameters, as a universal good. On visiting Arab society, Bunche was shocked by what he considered its “backwardness.” Although Bunche wanted Palestinians to be in control of their own land, the more he visited it, the more he accepted that the “the demand that the Palestinian Arabs be allowed self-determination seemed unrealistic.” As an intellectual, Bunche had accepted the idea that some African societies must be led into modernity; as a UN representative, he perceived Palestine in a similar way.


Meanwhile, Jewish Palestine worked hard to impress the UNSCOP team and convince them of the Zionist potential to bring modernity to the territory. Bunche was moved by Chaim Weizmann’s assurance that the Jewish people were bringing with them “the highest values of European Spirit” to Palestine. In his visits to Jewish settlements, Bunche expressed his admiration for what Jewish-led Palestine had already achieved. Yet, he never properly questioned why the successful Jewish cities and socialist Kibbutzim had failed in bettering the position of the Palestinian Arabs. Instead, Bunche accepted the conclusion that this was evidence that Palestinian Arabs were potentially not ready for self-determination.


Ralph Bunche as Chief of the UN Secretariat for the Palestine Commission, December 4, 1947. United Nations

Today, Bunche’s acceptance that much of the world needed to follow the Western notion of modernity would be deemed an extension of neo-colonialism. Yet, this view reflected the times he lived in and was widely accepted by many Western anti-colonial activists. The norms that Bunche developed in America therefore led him astray from the fact that Palestinians should have the unequivocal and intrinsic right to self-determination.


What the case of Ralph Bunche teaches us is to be wary of when outsiders project norms and ideas on Israel-Palestine, even if those ideas seem, at the time, radical. Bunche brought with him widely accepted anti-racist and anti-colonial ideas. And yet, one cannot look back and think that he would have been better to listen more and give greater account to the perspective of the Palestinian people. Similarly today, those in the West who have been inspired by BLM and want to be part of the solution in Israel and Palestine would do best by listening to people’s lived experience in the region, ensuring that members of all religious and racial identities are heard.


BLM & Israel-Palestine


The ideas that drive BLM can help highlight the complex ways in which race and racism interact with other deep-rooted issues in Israeli society. Most pressingly, they can give another insight into how Palestinians have been oppressed under Israeli control, and how racialisation and racism play a part in that. The focus on the complicated relationships between race, racism, and other entrenched societal issues also serves to increase the conversation on how Mizrahi Jews, who came from Arab-majority countries, have had their voice suppressed by Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, who generally came from Europe. And of course, the parallel between George Floyd and Eyad Hallaq is depressingly clear. It should demand that liberal Zionists take a moment to stop and think about whether they truly believe that the Israeli state acts as if Palestinian lives matter as much as Jewish ones.


But it is important not to think of the deaths of George Floyd and Eyad Hallaq as identical. The political structures in place that lead to the oppression of the Palestinian people, and the historical context that has led to them, are different from the institutional racism and historical context of the US. In Israel and Palestine, race intertwines with religious fundamentalism, complex histories of persecution, geopolitical tensions in the region, and the influence of global superpowers. The ideas that drive BLM can help us tackle inequality and oppression in Israel-Palestine, but they cannot and should not serve as a framework to totally understanding the issues in this region.


When Ralph Bunche went to Palestine, he brought with him a set of ideas that he developed in America during his fight against racism and colonialism. These beliefs allowed him to have a unique insight into the conflict in Palestine. Unlike many of the other UN representatives, Bunche was able to feel empathy for both Jews and Palestinians and tirelessly sought the best means of bringing different communities together. But one of the lessons of this period is that ideology and ideas do not always easily travel across borders. It is always better to prioritise listening to the lived experience of people in the region, rather than imposing ideas that were formed elsewhere upon it.



Asher Kessler is a journalist based in London, covering British and Irish politics. He has previously focused on migration in Europe, critical race theory, and technology.

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INTERZINE | 2020