The murder of George Floyd, videotaped and broadcast to the world, drove millions of people into the streets, and caused a crisis of conscience among a large subset of Americans who had previously turned a blind eye to state violence.
Many of these Americans had doubted the accounts of those targeted by police or sympathized with those who responded to the Black Lives Matter slogan with the deflective mantra “All Lives Matter.” But after seeing Floyd’s final moments under Derek Chauvin’s knee, support for BLM spiked. Even Mitt Romney marched in solidarity.
Last month, as we commemorated the anniversary of the Floyd killing, it was against the backdrop of renewed conflict in the Middle East, replete with state-sanctioned violence against Palestinians in Gaza, more than 200 of whom lost their lives. The devastation there raised a profound question for all Americans, but particularly those who’ve been swayed to action in the past year. If police violence in America is enough to shock the conscience, shouldn’t this be too?
Many Americans dismiss the experiences of Black people like Floyd because the threat of police violence doesn’t run constantly in their minds. That lack of shared experience also explains why some Americans are unsympathetic to the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. I know because I was among them, until I traveled to the region myself.
In 2017, I visited Israel and Palestine after working on Capitol Hill for six years, where I saw firsthand the tremendous influence the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had on most Members of Congress. I was genuinely interested in what I referred to at the time as the other side of the story. However, when I returned from the trip, I recognized my previous view as naive. I lacked an understanding of the asymmetry of power and violence, much like American lawmakers who’ve invested in decades of human-rights violations against Palestinians perpetrated by Israel’s political leaders.
On one of our first days in the region our guides took us through parts of Israel where Israelis and Palestinians drive on different streets. These streets go to the same places, but they’re constructed in parallel to ensure the people remain separate. As we departed the area, an Israeli man blocked our bus with his car and yelled at us in Hebrew. Our guides said he called us Nazis and liars for traveling with a group that refused to whitewash these inequalities.
Days later at a refugee camp for Palestinians displaced by Israeli settlements, our hosts were still grieving the death of a 13 year-old boy. Our guide explained that he’d been killed by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who shot into the camp. Underscoring the disparities in violence, she added that soldiers often launched tear gas into the camp for practice, but Palestinians who throw rocks have faced deadly reprisals.
Throughout the trip I tried to remember we were being presented with what could be a biased view, but the Israeli government kept confirming everything we heard. We saw it first hand when members of our group with Arabic last names were subject to enhanced checkpoint screenings. And again passing a checkpoint, where an Israeli soldier pointed a gun at the back of the head of a kneeling Palestinian child, no older than 13. We also heard it directly from former IDF soldiers during our visit to Hebron.
The trip was organized by Breaking the Silence, an organization of former IDF soldiers that served in occupied territory, and included a tour of a settlement within the Palestinian territory.
The former soldiers shared the stories that pushed them to speak out. It was difficult to hear these seemingly nice men describe how they terrorized Palestinian families by raiding their homes in the middle of the night. They’d pretend to force the families out, only to leave them at the mercy of future soldiers who might never let them return.
When we arrived we were met by Israeli police who forced us to wait on the bus for more than an hour. At our next stop, more police and military guards awaited us and eventually a civilian began circling our bus in an emergency vehicle, honking and yelling, before more law enforcement arrived. Our visit ended up being cut short, despite taking up most of our day.
Each day of the trip further revealed to me that Palestinians are living under inescapable subjugation with no promise of freedom, and very few allies. But it took something even more extraordinary for me to grasp my own measure of responsibility.
Toward the end of our trip we visited an unrecognized community of Palestinians living in a field in Israel.
The community is not recognized because its occupants live there in defiance of the Israeli government, which is why they don’t receive basic services like road paving, electricity, or running water.
Unlike our other hosts, the family who hosted us was Black. They explained how Black people ended up in Palestine and that the people living in this community did so by choice to maintain land they claim as their own.
As I listened I caught a young girl staring at me; I imagined that she and her family didn’t get many Black visitors. I smiled at her and held her gaze for a bit, and as I continued listening, I finally understood that empathy wouldn’t absolve me. As long as my government enabled these circumstances, I was complicit.
As a Black woman in America, systemic racism and other forms of oppression affect me every day; but in Palestine, I was just an American. My Blackness would never separate me from the actions of my government. But in that moment I also resolved that none of the historical and present injustices exacted upon Black Americans would ever lead me to subjugate others.
Jews have faced a long history of persecution and violence, too, and the U.S.-Israel alliance should be rooted in assuring the world’s Jews have a place that welcomes them and where they are safe. As a Black American with no known ancestral or geographical history beyond slavery, I empathize with this purpose deeply. But my resolution stands; and since the alliance promotes the idea that past oppression can justify the oppression of others, it must change.
Until Palestinians are free from the constant threat of state violence, the United States must stop providing unconditional support to Israel. Our leaders should hold Israeli leaders accountable and reduce, possibly refuse, aid until Palestinians enjoy the same freedoms we are protecting for Israelis.
Israelis must be safe from organized violence, too, but it is no more acceptable to advance that goal by meting out disproportionate death and destruction on Palestinians than it is to fight crime in America by brutalizing Black citizens.
Unfortunately the Biden Administration, like its predecessors, and many members of Congress has refused to examine America’s complicity. But we can’t expect the rulers of a country that continues investing in police forces that terrorize its own citizens to recognize a human-rights crisis when they see it. So it’s on us, but it won’t be easy.
The horror of the Floyd murder initially led to a groundswell of support for police reforms and forced many to begin critically examining the police and our investments in them.
But over the course of a year very little has changed.
White support for BLM is now only slightly higher than it was before Floyd’s killing, and Congress has yet to advance any major police reform. In fact, it has remained committed to continued investments in law enforcement as police budgets around the country increase. Our leaders have left the impression that state violence is not only tolerable, but encouraged, as long as it’s not embarrassing them on the nightly news.
In the same vein, the heightened violence between Israel and Palestine ignited unprecedented criticism of Israel and calls for the United States to end its support of the Israeli occupation. Now as the violence has subsided, many American political leaders will try to move on. We can’t let them.
We have not accepted silence and inaction for ourselves, and we shouldn’t accept it for anyone else.