Recognizing the suffering of the Palestinian people is not an act of bigotry. Neither is calling on Israelis and Palestinians to co-exist in a democratic state with equal rights.
So why did CNN fire professor Marc Lamont Hill after he did so at the United Nations last week, and why are there still suggestions that Temple University might follow suit? The answer lies in a double standard that our society applies to Americans who express solidarity with Palestinians, especially African-Americans.
To understand the nature of this double standard, consider the fact that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum once said, “All the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis. They are not Palestinians. There is no Palestinian. This is Israeli land.”
Despite denying the very existence of Palestinian territory or a Palestinian people, Santorum went on to snag a job as a CNN commentator.
During a live segment on the network last year, conservative commentator Ben Ferguson, appearing opposite Hill, grossly misquoted the Quran and criticized Islam as uniquely prone to violence. Almost two years later, Ferguson still has his job.
Just a few weeks ago, the public learned that frequent CNN guest Alan Dershowitz received $120,000 from the Gatestone Institute, an anti-Muslim group known for spreading Islamophobic conspiracy theories. Dershowitz continues to appear regularly on various networks.
That brings us to Marc Lamont Hill. During his 20-minute speech about Israel-Palestine at the U.N., the Temple University professor argued that a two-state solution is increasingly implausible due to multiple factors, including Israeli settlement expansion.
As a result, Hill believes, activists should consider seeking the establishment of a single democratic state in which Israelis and Palestinians live together with equal rights. In describing this proposal, he called for a Palestine that was “free from the river to the sea.”
Even though Hill’s full speech confirms that he was not using the phrase in a nefarious way, and even though he quickly clarified his remarks, critics accused him of everything from engaging in anti-Semitism to calling for genocide. CNN fired Hill within hours of the uproar, and a Temple University official expressed a desire to do the same, saying that Hill’s speech “blackens our name unnecessarily.” Therein lies the double standard.
You can deny that the Palestinian people exist, smear the Islamic faith as uniquely violent, accept $120,000 from an anti-Muslim hate group, and keep your job. But if you dare call for Israelis and Palestinians to live together, you will be immediately fired and smeared as a genocidal anti-Semite.
This despite the fact that Marc Lamont Hill is a respected African-American activist and academic who has vocally spoken out against all forms of bigotry, including anti-Semitism, which he condemned at length in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre.
As an African-American leader, Hill also recognizes that what Palestinians suffer under occupation bears a resemblance to what African-Americans suffered under segregation and what black South Africans suffered under apartheid.
Indeed, both the black and Palestinian peoples have at different times experienced racial segregation, mass incarceration, land seizures, the erasure of their cultural history, violence when they protest, condemnation when they boycott, and the injustice of living under two sets of laws, one benefiting an ethnic majority, the other subjecting ethnic minorities.
“African-Americans ... have the unique historical, political and moral authority to improve American policy toward Israel-Palestine.”
That’s why Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank tweeted in solidarity with the largely African-American protesters who faced a heavy-handed police response during demonstrations against the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
That’s why young leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement have regularly protested police brutality here at home, as well as the oppression of Palestinians overseas.
This relationship strengthened in 2015 when a delegation of African-American organizers met with Palestinian grassroots organizations in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Haifa to develop a deeper understanding of the parallels between their respective struggles.
This sort of solidarity is not easy. Black Lives Matter has been regularly undermined and maligned for its advocacy in support of Palestinian rights. As the former Israeli consul general in Atlanta once explained, “The major problem with Israel is with the young generation of the black community — Black Lives Matter starts there.”
Earlier this year, a conservative Israeli newspaper devoted almost 6,000 words to criticizing Cornel West and other African-American advocates in an article (condescendingly) titled, “How Palestinian Activists Manipulate the African American Community.”
Politicians like former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Rep. Donna Edwards and former President Barack Obama have also been heavily criticized for expressing relatively mild disagreements with Israeli government policy.
To be clear, African-Americans are obviously not the only people who come under fire for touching this third rail of American politics. Even Jewish-American organizations like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace have been maligned.
But African-Americans ― as inspirational leaders of a successful civil rights movement, the backbone of a political party and natural allies of oppressed people around the world ― have the unique historical, political and moral authority to improve American policy toward Israel-Palestine.
Supporters of the status quo understand this, hence the harsh attacks on those who attempt to change it.
Marc Lamont Hill is the latest victim of such smear campaigns. On the bright side, he might also be the last.
By trying to destroy Hill’s career, his critics have engendered sympathy for him, particularly in the African-American community, and forced the broader public to reckon with the merits of his message.
Going forward, the scholar-activist will likely use the spotlight cast on him to help many more Americans recognize that everyone in the Holy Land should be able to live in peace, freedom and dignity — and that no one should be fired for saying so.
Nihad Awad, a Palestinian-American, is the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. Edward Ahmed Mitchell, an African-American attorney, is the executive director of CAIR’s Georgia chapter.