From Black America to Palestine

Elaine C. Hagopian, Sunday 14 May 2023

Are there lessons to be learned for the post-Oslo struggle from the Black liberation movement in the United States? Drawing on the work of two prominent Afro-American political theorists, Elaine C. Hagopian* argues that only a reunited Palestinian people with an inclusive democratic secular state vision and leaders who can transcend ethnicity will help the Palestinians break out of the straightjacket of the peace process



From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*


There are two major traditions that have dominated African-American thinking on the issue of equality and justice for Blacks in the United States: one is the Black self-development position, and the other is the demand for immediate civil rights through integration. These two positions are usefully represented in their more modern refined versions in the works of Harold Cruse and Cornel West.

Cruse stresses the need to focus inward, in order to build up community strength. From that strength as a national group, it is then possible to confront society with the reality of injustice and challenge it to positive social change. This change would be based on the recognition that America is a plural society, not merely a society of individuals as the US Constitution would have it.

In his controversial book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual from Its Origins to the Present, Harold Cruse criticises Black intellectuals for their failure to develop a comprehensive Black strategy to bring about equality in American society. His critique focuses on four main points:

1. Blacks need to develop both a cultural sense of selfhood and a vision of society that could offer America something better than what it is and has been.

For Cruse, America is a nation defined essentially by racial/ethnic groups, both politically and socially. He does not suggest a political system based on group identity, with appointed or reserved elected positions, but rather constitutional guarantees of real equality for groups as communities, as well as individual civil and political rights.

2. The revolutionary transformation of America which Cruse felt Black cultural definition could inspire and lead, would require a comprehensive strategy combining economic resources and sustained political action. Parenthetically, it should be noted that Cruse admired Booker T. Washington's efforts to promote Black enterprise and economic success over the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People's (NAACP) drive for civil rights through integration. However, he criticised Washington's approach as one that worked within the American capitalist system as it was, rather than developing a Black, group-based economy that could support political action for the equality of all ethnic groups. Cruse decried the fact that Black leaders and intellectuals never brought the various cultural, economic and political components together into a comprehensive strategy. The relevance of this critique for the Palestinian movement cannot be underestimated, as we will see below.

3. The failure to develop a comprehensive Black strategy is explained in large part by the fact that Black intellectuals and leaders allowed themselves to be diverted from their course by white liberals and radicals, who advised them to seek individual civil rights through integration, i.e. the NAACP approach, or to merge with the labour movement to confront capitalism, i.e. the American communist party approach.

Funding for these efforts, from liberal or radical white sources, only reinforced their appeal for Black intellectuals. True, the NAACP liberal approach did bring gains for some individual Blacks, but the Black community as a whole remained in a condition of alienation, or what one Black sociologist has called "asset accumulation deficiency."

However, for Cruse, the NAACP approach failed to understand that just as it is possible to have independence without liberation, as Fanon pointed out long ago, so too, as is all too clear today, it is possible to have integration without real equality and justice. As I will note below, the Palestinians in Israel have, until recently, effectively adopted an NAACP approach, seeking equal rights through legal integration in Israeli society, and thus achieving neither integration nor equality.

Cruse also heaped criticism on the American communist party and a number of the white radicals who belonged to it for diverting the Black intelligentsia from focusing on their unique experience of slavery and post-slavery racism in American society.

They thus prevented them from developing a strategy relevant to their history, and based on Black needs, rather than on a class solidarity with labour. In fact, Blacks often met with racism from the left. The danger of well-intentioned friends -- liberals or radicals -- diverting the community from defining its own needs and strategies is also highly relevant to the Palestinians' predicament.

4. Black intellectuals also suffered from residual cultural differences among themselves. Thus, West Indian Blacks did not see eye to eye with American Blacks, who were themselves divided by the divergent experiences of Northerners and Southerners.

These differences conspired to obstruct the development of a common cultural vision that might have been able to confront American society head on with the fact of its racism. The gap between these communities still has not been bridged. This failure is relevant to the Palestinian struggle where differences have developed through the years of national defeat and through the division of the original community into three groups.

Unlike Cruse, Cornel West in his Race Matters advocates integration. But he is nevertheless critical of the liberal approach which proposes integration into the system as it is, and as the NAACP accepted. West wants the system reformed to guarantee social values respecting the rights of all in a multi-racial/ethnic democracy. He calls for a new moral leadership and moral framework for Blacks, founded on a mature Black identity, a coalition strategy and Black cultural democracy. He advocates Black perspectives that champion Black dignity and decency and which do not devalue any given group.

The quality and orientation of Black leadership and intellectuals are crucial in West's thinking. He identifies differing political and intellectual leadership styles as the major problem that Blacks have to solve, in order to assert their right to participate equally in a coalition with others in the anti-racist struggle. The three types of political leadership West identifies are: race/ethnic-effacing managerial leaders, race/ethnic-identifying protest leaders and race/ethnic-transcending prophetic leaders.

The race/ethnic-effacing manager is politically sophisticated, accommodating to the dominant white constituency, pragmatic, and as such, tends to neutralise progress and mute the prophetic voices in the black community by insisting that the mainstream is the only game in town.

The race/ethnic-identifying protester tends to confine him or herself to the black community, and serves as a power broker with nonblack elites.

The race/ethnic-transcending prophet is a rare figure in today's Black America. But it is only such leaders who will be capable of bringing into existence the new moral framework of which West speaks. The 1988 Jesse Jackson came close to being a race/ethnic-transcending prophetic leader, but as West observes, he was undone in the end by his past record of opportunism. This type of leader requires both integrity and political know-how, organisational skills allied with a moral vision and the ability to defy the pragmatism of the managers, the limitations of race/ethnic-identifying protester and to wait patiently for his moment.

The approaches taken by West and Cruse differ in emphasis more than in substance. Cruse wants Black intellectuals and leaders of quality to create the Black community first within the national and demographic context of America, and to have that cohesive community spur America as a whole towards a society based on group equality.

West, for his part, wants Black leaders and intellectuals to relate to the needs of Black street people, not use or misdirect them, and simultaneously reach out to other groups so as to promote a better life, not just for their constituency, but for all Americans. It is this reaching out towards a universal vision, grounded in a particular experience, which constitutes their common message. Nonetheless, Cruse calls for social revolution, i.e. radical transformation of American society, while West calls for social reform that will accumulate as radical change.

Can Cruse and West help us understand how the Palestinians have come to confine their struggle so completely within the terms dictated by Israel? Since 1948, the Palestinian leadership has taken Palestinians from a vision of liberating all of Palestine and restoring its Arab character, through the plan of a democratic secular state for Arabs and Jews, to the two-state solution, followed by negotiated Bantustans, and now, de facto residual enclaves.

Unable to liberate Palestine, no longer able to secure the necessary Arab support, unable to convert an international consensus on a two-state solution into real currency, and yet determined to be a player in any negotiations, Arafat has accepted Israel's terms across the board. Yet, regardless of this capitulation, he has continued to assure his exhausted people that a fully sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital will ultimately be the final outcome of Oslo.

Why has this been the case? Granted, the Palestinian struggle is set in a complex international political context, but there are still lessons to be learned from the American Black experience as we try to come to terms with the errors and setbacks of the last 50 years.

In particular, Cruse's formula for organising and bonding a community for political action, through a programme supported by a self-developed economic resource base, and a cultural vision of self and society which mobilises the community as well as being morally compelling for others, can help us to understand where the Palestinian movement went wrong.

To take the question of culture first, the PLO under Arafat was able to preserve the Palestinian sense of identity with the land. It even elaborated a set of Palestinian institutions which gave that identity a concrete form and located it on the international map. But it was a still-life identity, based on symbolic markers -- clothing, names, villages, slogans, and so forth. It held the people together, but it could not embody a vision beyond the abstract ideal of liberation and a residual status for Jews in Palestine in the original PLO covenant.

It was in this context that the notion of a democratic secular state for Arabs and Jews seemed to offer a viable model for the future. But this proposal tended to function as a slogan, rather than a well-developed and authentic social blueprint. Next came the two-state solution, which simply iterated two sovereign states living side by side in peace. Once again, there was no vision beyond the determination to salvage something of the homeland.

The diplomatic period, during which the two-state solution was in favour, saw the Palestinians at the peak of their international recognition. However, aside from one isolated 1978 article in Foreign Affairs by the distinguished Palestinian scholar Dr Walid Khalidi, defining the restrictions Palestinians would accept on their proposed state in order to satisfy Israeli and American concerns, there was no real public attempt to define the future Palestinian society except in general normative terms.

Then, finally, there was Oslo, which paid only lip-service to a mythical notion of a Palestinian state. Throughout all this protracted process of its own demise, not only was the Palestinian movement lacking in a clear contemporary cultural and ideological sense of self and society, but it had no concept of how to develop one, nor how to articulate it with the political and economic components of the movement -- a flaw which Cruse had diagnosed in the Black struggle in America.

In term of economic resources, aside from the financial aid received from Arab states, PLO investments in various areas of the world (which tended to be pocketed by individual leaders), and small businesses that developed in the refugee camps, the Palestinians had no reliable economic resource base to sustain their political action and support its people once the regimes withdrew their aid. Palestinian millionaires were able to provide some welfare help, and support small projects, but that was as far as it went. When the Arab states backed off, political action collapsed. Not only that, but the political action itself was already lacking in direction and vision.

Politically, as the American Blacks, whose intellectuals and leaders allowed their white liberal or radical friends to define their goals, Palestinians have also suffered willingly from the good intentions of others, both Arabs and non-Arabs, as well as from their own incompetent leadership. In so doing, their ideological development has been seriously stunted. This is not to recommend that they should cut themselves off from the rest of the world, but rather to suggest that they need to sift and analyse the implications of any suggestions they receive through the filter of a cohesive Palestinian programme.

Some would say that political realities forced the Palestinians into their present dilemma. However, the point being made here is that if they had had a cohesive cultural, political and economic strategy, their force as a destabilising factor for American and Israeli interests would have allowed them to persevere until a just solution was obtained. Without a cohesive strategy, they soon found themselves trapped within the terms laid down by their enemies.

Drawing on West's analysis of different leadership styles, it is clear that none of them as they stand accurately captures the character of the present Palestinian power elite. Nonetheless, Arafat and his colleagues started out rather like "ethnic-identifying protest leaders", insisting on self-reliance for liberation.

After merging with and taking charge of the PLO, they became more like ethnic-effacing managerial leaders in relation to the Arab regimes on whom they were dependent. From 1970 to 1974, when the PLO was promoting a single democratic secular state, they tried to claim the mantle of ethnic-transcending prophetic leaders. But their vision was little more than a slogan, and they were also heavily engaged in the "armed struggle", ineffective as it was. It was this slogan which should have been converted into a real political programme.

What Palestine needs are true, profound, uncompromised and inclusive-thinking ethnic-transcending leaders and intellectuals who can devise an international political strategy, supported by untainted community resources. Fortunately, there are a growing number of them to be found, of whom Edward Said has the longest and most consistent track record.

Given the failure and retreat of post-colonial Arab nationalism and socialism, and the irrelevance of Western liberalism, it was inevitable the Islamists would win some popularity not only among Palestinians, but elsewhere in the Arab/Muslim world. Their ideology is extremely narrow and exclusivist. However, not only has Hamas provided much-needed assistance to Palestinians in the territories, it has also begun to position itself as an alternative to the PLO and the PA. In this, it shows a number of similarities with the Black American movement, the Nation of Islam. Yet Hamas, like the PLO, lacks a cultural vision appropriate to the present and future. It may have an economic base to support its outreach in the community, but its "fundamental" ideology and its methods of emotional rage and violence do not off a real strategy for liberation.

The issue of the use of violence in resisting oppression has been debated by the American Black community in the past, which for the most part came out in favour of self-defence as the acceptable limit. The Zionists, for their part, have used violence abundantly, offensively and effectively to transform Palestine and to sustain that transformation. There was nothing moral about this, but it did form part of an effective and cohesive cultural/ideological, political and economic plan, which was widely understood as necessary for the establishment of a Jewish state. Today, however, violence which goes beyond self-defence is not a viable option in the Palestinian struggle to regain their national rights, nor should it be. Their best chance lies, as ever, with the forceful articulation of a persuasive, humane and inclusive vision for co-existence, as an alternative to the horrors and injustices of the present.

The Palestinians in Israel are the remnants of the population which was dispersed from the 78 per cent of Palestine conquered by the Zionists in 1948 and recognised internationally as the State of Israel thereafter. At that time, these displaced Palestinians numbered about 150,000. Today, they have grown to about 900,000, representing approximately 18 to 19 per cent of the Israeli population. A number of books have been written about the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

They clearly document the legal, cultural and social disparities which exist between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Indeed, up to December 1966, the Palestinians lived under Israeli Military Government rule. In addition to being constantly reminded that they live in a Jewish state, surrounded by Jewish national symbols, Palestinians do not enjoy equality, whether in education, land ownership, political power or social privileges. These facts are well known. Meanwhile, two liberal Israeli social scientists, Sammy Smooha and Jacob Landau, in their study of the same issues, accentuate the possibility for improvements in Palestinian status in Israel, yet in the end always come back to the idea that, to paraphrase, "They have to realise that they live in a Jewish state."

While they have resisted the Israeli takeover of their land and country as fiercely as anyone, the Palestinian citizens of Israel have also over the years sought to secure equality through participation in the Israeli system. In a sense, they had an NAACP policy of integration. Of course, they did not succeed in this endeavour.

But even if they were to be integrated, legally, culturally (in terms, at least, of state symbols and educational curriculum content) and socially, they would not necessarily be equal, since they would still be limited by the conditions of disparity imposed on them earlier. Blacks in America are discovering this fact daily, and are seeking to regroup and organise to try and overcome it.

This portion of the Palestinian population finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The PLO could at least initially claim to represent them, but as it moved towards a two-state solution -- and even before -- it came to focus primarily on the Palestinians under occupation and in refugee camps. Today, even the latter category is excluded from active PLO concern. Hence, there are really three juridical categories of Palestinians: the citizens of Israel; the diaspora refugees; and those under occupation and living within the autonomous areas.

This separation defines the challenge. The future for the Palestinians must lie in the recreation of an integrated community, politically, economically, culturally and ideologically. The new Palestinian leadership must understand that the three Palestinian groups are now divided by cultural and class differences which have grown out of their differing experiences, just as Blacks in America continue to have problems thinking and acting as a community, due to the diversity of the experiences through which they have gone.

 It has been observed that the Palestinians in Israel have absorbed many aspects of Israel's Western-oriented culture, while the Palestinian refugees, particularly those in Lebanon, have adopted some of the local norms, while also feeling increasingly embittered at the PLO and other Palestinians, who seem to have forgotten them and their plight.

As a result, Palestinians in Israel, in the diaspora and under occupation, presently experience at least some mild discomfort with each other. It will take a sensitive and well-informed leadership to bridge these gaps, and recreate a common Palestinian community based on a shared culture, an inclusive society, a reasonable economic resource base and a political strategy that can enable its members to assert their rights on an equal basis.

Only, however, if this is achieved, will the Palestinian people at last be able to press forward with the social revolution that is their true mission -- the radical transformation of life for both Palestinians and Israelis in the whole of Israel/Palestine.


The writer is a Boston-based professor emerita of Sociology and former president of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates. The text above is the second installment of a two-part article, the first of which appeared last week. An expanded version of this article was presented to the Middle East Seminar, Harvard University, Sept 1997

* This article was published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 9 July 1998

This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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