‘Freedom Rides’ to Resume in Palestine

copied from my Palestine Chronicle article here

Freedom Rides will protest Apartheid. (Alternativenews.org)


On Tuesday, November 15, Palestinian youth activists in the West Bank, along with Israeli and international activists, will reenact the U.S. Civil Rights Movement’s historic Freedom Rides through the American South, boarding segregated Israeli public transportation headed from the West Bank to East Jerusalem in an act of civil disobedience which attempts to highlight the apartheid policies of the Israeli occupation.

In the words of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, “Israelis suffer almost no limitations on their freedom of movement in the occupied Palestinian territory, and are even allowed to settle in it, contrary to international law. Palestinians, in contrast, are not allowed to enter Israel without procuring a special permit from Israeli authorities. Even Palestinian movement inside the Occupied Territories is heavily restricted…while it is not officially forbidden for Palestinians to use Israeli public transportation in the West Bank, these lines are effectively segregated, since many of them pass through Jewish-only settlements, to which Palestinian entry is prohibited by a military decree.”

The Palestinian Freedom Rides has tethered itself very tenuously to an event in the past, and has thereby taken a stand in a historical legacy that leaves itself highly open to interpretation. Says Palestinian youth activist and organizer Fadi Quran, “this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in the US. Apart from disrupting the segregation and challenging the oppression imposed on us by Israel, we chose this form of direct action to highlight the similarities between the Palestinian struggle and the civil rights movement to an American audience.”

What strand of resistance ties the Freedom Rides of then to the Freedom Rides of now? The Freedom Rides through 1960s segregated America were staged by citizens of a country in protest of its apartheid policies, while the Palestinian Freedom Rides will assert the rights of a sovereign people under foreign military occupation. Nonetheless, apartheid is apartheid, no matter where it rears its ugly head. To examine the link between the two movements, and shed light on the bridge of historical development that separates them, we may ask- what are the 1960s Freedom Riders’ views on the Palestinian struggle?

John Lewis, the son of Alabama tenant farmers, joined the Freedom Rides when he was 19- “he rode to Birmingham with the Nashville cohort, endured the angry mob in Montgomery, was arrested in Jackson and served jail time at Mississippi’s Parchman State Prison Farm”. He is now serving his 12th term representing Georgia as a Democrat in the House of Representatives. On January 20, 2002, in the midst of the Second Intifada and two months before Operation Defensive Shield (and, coincidentally, on the 20th anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s democratic election to the Presidency of the Palestinian National Council), the San Fransisco Chronicle published an op-ed piece by Lewis called ‘‘“I have a dream” for peace in the Middle East- Martin Luther King Jr.’s special bond with Israel’, in which Lewis emphasized Dr. King’s fervent belief that, as ‘one of the great outposts of democracy in the world…peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality’. Lewis continued-

[King] consistently reiterated his stand on the Israel- Arab conflict, stating “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is uncontestable.” It was no accident that King emphasized “security” in his statements on the Middle East…During the recent U.N. Conference on Racism held in Durban, South Africa, we were all shocked by the attacks on Jews, Israel and Zionism. The United States of America stood up against these vicious attacks.

Attempts were made at this September 2001 conference to draft legislation accusing Israel of racist policies towards the Palestinian people, and after four days of negotiations the United States, Israel and Canada withdrew. In this op-ed, Lewis clearly intends to drive home the message, as he states in the opening paragraph, that King, who “sought ways to achieve liberation and peace…thus understood that a special relationship exists between African Americans and American Jews. This message was true in his time and is true today.” Thus, in a manner similar to Israel’s ‘pinkwashing’ campaign, Lewis attempts to use his and Dr. King’s civil rights credentials to block criticism of Israel’s right to military ‘security’ as a persecuted state, and to suggest, paradoxically, that anyone who dares accuse Israel of racism is butting up against Dr. King himself (the assertion of King’s Zionism, by the way, is questionable). Lewis equates the African-American struggle against persecution not with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, but with the history of Jewish oppression that Israel carves into the wrathful sword of its state.

Henry Schwarzschild, who fled from Berlin to the U.S. in 1939 at the age of 14 and was executive of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in the 1950s, was arrested as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961. Once he was released, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote on his imprisonment forms, “Your courageous willingness to go to jail for freedom has brought us closer to our nation’s bright tomorrow.”

Schwarzschild’s own ‘bright tomorrow’ would see him write a series of articles for the journal Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. Over the years he grew progressively more critical of  the lamentable situation whereby, as he said in 1972, “Israel and American Jewry believe that the proper response to Arab claims against the State of Israel is to defeat the Arabs and reject their claims, to maintain protectorates in Gaza, Sinai, and the West Bank, to persist in the annexation of Arab Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, to manufacture legitimacy for the expropriation of Arab property, [and] to continue a military government over Arab settlements in Israel”.

In 1975 he wrote a piece called ‘Racism, the Unavoidable National Sin’, reacting to the very 1975 U.N. Zionism-equals-racism resolution that was allegedly a precursor to the 2001 U.N. conference Rep. Lewis found so appalling. Drawing on his experiences fighting racism during Freedom Rides in America, Schwarzschild insists that “the ethnic nation-state is by its nature exclusionary vis-a-vis other ethnicities…The insistence by ethnic nations upon being in the majority in their state, upon creating the state in whatever image they choose, and upon letting ethnic-national values predominate in it, is the functional equivalent of racism…The Jewish state, conceived as the solution to the Jewish problem, has become the Jewish problem. That melancholy irony proclaims the absolute end of Zionism.”

Seven years later, in response to the 1982 Israeli siege of Beruit, Schwarzschild published an open letter announcing his resignation from Sh’ma, and stating that “I now renounce the State of Israel, disavow any political connection or emotional obligation to it, and declare myself its enemy.  I retain, of course, the same deep concern for its inhabitants, Jewish, Arab, and other, that I hold for all humankind.” He continued-

the War on Lebanon has now made clear to me that the resumption of political power by the Jewish people after two thousand years of diaspora has been a tragedy of historical dimensions…I now conclude and avow that the price of a Jewish state is, to me, Jewishly unacceptable and that the existence of this (or any similar) Jewish ethnic religious nation state is a Jewish, i.e. a human and moral, disaster and violates every remaining value for which Judaism and Jews might exist in history.  The lethal military triumphalism and corrosive racism that inheres in the State and in its supporters (both there and here) are profoundly abhorrent to me.  So is the message that now goes forth to the nations of the world that the Jewish people claim the right to impose a holocaust on others in order to preserve its State.

Twenty-nine years later, fifty years after Schwarzschild’s Freedom Ride, his daughter Hannah, a Philadelphia attorney and Palestine Solidarity activist, publicly connected her father’s legacy to her own support for the 2011 Freedom Flotilla II mission and America’s ship, the Audacity of Hope. Calling the flotillas ‘a modern-day Freedom Ride’, she, like many others at the time, drew an explicit link between the two human rights missions, drawing attention to “the audacious hopes of thousands who have committed their money and time to this nonviolent mission of resistance to enduring racism and injustice…they will be armed only with a legacy of the courage of their activist forebears, the moral outrage of a growing worldwide movement for freedom and justice in Palestine, and the steadfast hopes of an illegally occupied people”.

Like Henry Schwarzschild, Rabbi Israel “Si” Dresner was another white, Jewish American who joined the Freedom Rides in solidarity with the struggle against oppression. The self-proclaimed ‘most arrested rabbi’, he was first arrested as a teenager in 1947 for protesting, with other members of the Zionist youth group Habonim (supposedly modeled after the Boy Scouts), outside of a British-owned business in Brooklyn, in response to the British government’s refusal to allow Jewish refugees to immigrate to Palestine. He was arrested in the 1970s for marching on behalf of the refuseniks, and has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians since the early 1980s.

“As long as they remain nonviolent”, he says about the new Palestinian Freedom Rides, “I’m all in favor of this, and of all demonstrations of any sort against the occupation…there are major differences [between the two Freedom Rides] of course…[but] the Israeli occupation has been not only a bad thing for the Palestinians, it’s been a bad thing for Israel. Just as slavery and segregation were bad for not only Africans, they were bad for Americans, they were bad for the south!…the occupation has led to a buildup of hatred in Israel, the kind of hatred we call racist hatred- all Arabs are bad, all Palestinians are terrorists…so the occupation has been a disaster for Israelis and for Palestinians…I’ve always been in favor of justice and peace for everybody, for the Jews and for everybody else.”

Nonetheless, following a typical path of ‘soft’ liberal criticism of Israel,  he prays merely for the reform of what he believes to be an essentially and originally morally just state. “I love Israel,” he reassured the Jewish Week in an article published in May 2011 (a mere two days after Hannah Schwarzschild connected the Freedom Rides and the Freedom Flotillas). “I’ve been there 36 times. I was married there. Israel means a great deal to me, and I just feel that their policies are self-destructive.” Dresner, who today sits on the Executive Board of Meretz USA, told Rabbis for Human Rights in 2010 that “we should know better than to have Jews persecuting someone else. I’ve been a dues paying, card carrying Zionist for 68 years, and Zionism today has been corrupted and corroded. It’s not the Zionism that I knew when I first became a Zionist….we have to correct it, we have to reform it to change the policies of the annexationist polices of annexing land, annexing people, annexing houses, etc, etc,etc…”

If we can trace a spectrum ranging from John Lewis’s pro-Israel advocacy, past Israel Dresner’s left-wing Zionism and arriving at Henry Schwarzschild’s whole-hearted opposition to Israel as a Jewish state, we would have to place Stokely Carmichael, another Freedom Rider, beyond even Schwarzschild in his through-and-through condemnation of the Zionist project. Carmichael’s well-known drift from SNCC non-violence to Black Panther militancy represents a clear departure from the peaceful civil disobedience of his Freedom Rides days, as does his later separatist belief, which distanced him from even the Panthers, that white activists needed to organize their own movements before joining the black liberation struggle. “Zionism is the baby child and interest protector of imperialism in the Middle East,” he said in the 1980s. “The Palestinian state belongs to the Palestinian people, this is a fact…Zionism took Palestine through raw and naked terrorism…Zionism is racism according to the United Nations, so at this point I won’t even hide behind the united Nations, I know it’s racism!…in no way can I be anti-Judaic, but I am anti-Zionist and will remain so until it is destroyed, because it is an unjust, illegal, immoral and racist system…the state of Palestine must be a secular state”.

The legacy of the Freedom Rides has been used by African-American Riders both to protect American-Israeli imperialism, and to call for its utter destruction; correspondingly, white-Jewish Riders have both asked Israel to be nicer and gentler, and have turned away from it entirely. This makes the stated legacy of Palestine’s Freedom Rides all the more more complex, challenging and compelling. Much has changed between then and now, and the four young civil rights activists, once united in a single cause, have in time scattered across the diffuse spectrum of the Left. Despite contextual differences between the two movements, however, and despite the shifting political ideologies of the human actors who have been pulled in different directions by the turbulent tides of history, the struggle, then and now, remains the same.

4 thoughts on “‘Freedom Rides’ to Resume in Palestine”

  1. as stokely carmichael said- “that white activits need to organize their own movements before joining the black liberation struggle.” How does the ISM view that line of thought? Do you encounter resistance from Palestinians to your presence- as many Israeli peace groups find rejection from Palestinians groups (there for different reasons of course). But more than questionin what Stokely Carmichael would say about ISMs physical presence- it’s the ideological imports that I find most retarding to the process of real peace in our land. Most no one today doubts the black and white justice ( no pun intended) of the struggle against apartheid and Jim Crow. But do you really believe that those terms describe the whole situation here? Yes there is discrimination and yes there is hatred. They have both been born out of the unique history between Jews and Arabs here in this Holy Land.. but our future is dependent upon us hearing each other. recognizing the Others story. Imports like apartheid and FreedomRides blur the complexities of our struggle and most dangerously- embolden people to feel like they have nothing to change inside. Just like how calling Israeli’s “colonialists” is never going to register with a Jew who has been living in 2000 years of prayer to come back to the land we once lost. Its a term from a different story- and any self-identifying jew (not even religious) will right off the term colonial as just misplaced. The equivelant on the other side (which should outrage you as much as this outrages me) is the story that the Palestinians all want the Jews dead. Its a story one can tell themself to become more self-righteous– exactly the opposite of what our peoples both need. The solution is going to come from us being real and straight up with each other- not denying the other. i think these kinds of tactics are ultimately dangerous… hope you can hear this…


    1. i have thought about carmichael’s statement in relation to palestine. i would say in the first place that carmichael’s quote applies more to israeli activists than international activists. he meant that ‘since white people are the oppressors, white people who want to help us should first organize their own communities, and try to change their fellows’ minds, before coming and joining us, because we, as the black community, need to organize ourselves’. so the israeli-palestine corollary would be that israelis, rather than organize directly with palestinians, need to organize within israel, and let the palestinians organize themselves. it could be argued that, as an american, i should stay in my own country and advocate (because america is basically oppressing palestine through israel), or that, as a jew, i should stay among my own people, and try to steer other jews away from the golden calf of Guns’n’Moses. and when i go back to america i will advocate for the palestinians, in the american as well as the jewish community. but at this point in their struggle, the palestinians welcome our help. neither i nor anyone else has encountered instances of palestinians closing themselves off to us, and telling us to go back to our own struggle. ISM is a palestinian-led movement, meaning we do not show up and tell the palestinians what to do, we show up and ask ‘how can we help you in what you are doing? how can we, as nonviolent internationals, be of most use?’

      and i understand where you are coming from, saying that the colonialism metaphor does not make sense for most jews or israelis. for many years i as a jew believed that, because our lineage throughout the centuries has been separate from the greco-christian western world, we cannot possibly be colonial forces like they were. however, despite what israelis think of themselves, the state of israel is a colonial project. its specific nature is unique, because unlike the europeans who just came over to america and started killing people because they were adventurous (or maybe a wee bit oppressed but not that much), the jewish immigration to palestine was born out of the pain of anti semitism across europe, and the pain of the holocaust. this lends the whole drama of the genesis of israel a tragic dimension- that such jewish pain could cause such oppression of palestinians- and unlike the europeans, who were part of an expanding empire, the jews have always been in exile until this modern nation state. i am proud of my people, that until the 1900s at least, we were never colonizers. nonetheless, it does not change the fact that jews came over to a land that was already inhabited, and drove out its inhabitants by force. that process in the first part of the 1900s continues until today as a force of modern colonialism. in addition, israel has functionally become a puppet of western imperialism.

      that is why to me, words like ‘apartheid’ and ‘freedom rides’ do not denote an abusive term hurled at the israeli-palestinian system from the outside. they are not slurs that complicate the peace process by making it more painful. these are the terms that describe the inner struggle, the inner dynamic. it is how the palestinians feel, that they are the victims of apartheid- and when you look at the situation objectively, that is what is going on. in order for there to be a level headed, honest, and mutually satisfactory dialogue, the israelis have to realize, and to face these facts. this isnt to say they should knock down their tel aviv skyrises so palestinians can return and build their villages on the exact same spots; but in order for the conflict to end, the realities of the relationship must be acknowledged and addressed. there must be some serious repentance on the israeli side. it is not a neutral conflict, ‘the history of jews and arabs in this land’, as if it boiled down to some theological clash of civilizations; it is actually a painfully simple and straightforward case of occupation. i agree that it is hard for jews, living in the mists of jewish history, to accept that the state of israel is in a colonial relationship to the palestinians- it was hard for me to see this- but if the two sides want to be ‘straight up’ with each other, this has to be addressed.


  2. thanks for replying- i appreciate your thoughts and time and investment…
    but hear what i’m trying to say- as you try to convince me of the palestinian side, and i am going to try not to do the opposite- rather point out- that for peace to come in this land, the jewish narrative- as lived and created by the jewish people here- will have to be heard by palestinians. this is the deeper side of that already banal political demand to “recognize the Jewish state.” i think there is a deep kernel of truth in that political cliche– that one must be “seen” by the Other- and real peace will be when we can really honor that contradiction to our perspecive. For those pushing against “normalization”- i get it, can appreciate it and think that at the end of the day we’re both going to have to get over it.. We’re here together. So to that end- the rhetoric of apartheid and colonialism (I’m NOT claiming they’re not part of the experience of my neighbors- that’s their reality to write) but it’s not pushing Palestnians to recognize and understand us- their neighbors. And the strong forces on both sides that seek to quell recognition of the other are the dark nights here. Those protesting outside the IPC conference this week, and those not challenging religious leaders to renounce violence, ( on both sides)…
    sorry for delayed response.. life happens 🙂


    1. i understand where you are coming from- i believe, as im sure you do, that a peaceful resolution of this conflict definitely does not involve the elimination of one party- the palestinians should not be exiled to jordan, the israelis should not be pushed into the sea. any attempt to turn back the clock is unrealistic. justice does not work itself out in history as the undoing of wrongs but the righting of wrongs, their resolution, their transcendence. so both sides will have to recognize the narrative of the other. here are the parts of the israeli narrative that will need to be recognized- that the jewish people, as a religious-cultural-maybe ethnic group, have been praying for jerusalem and eretz yisrael for 2000 years. and, in the 20th century, they came here to escape terrible persecution, especially after the holocaust. the state of israel was birthed through the tears of the ghosts of the jewish people, and that tremendous ideological import is very important to myself, my family, etc. but this does NOT mean that it can be overlooked, forgiven or in any way justified or excused that throughout the 20th century, up to 1948, and continuing until the present, the state of israel was prepared, born, nurtured and perpetuated off of the blood and the pain of the palestinians, as part of a colonial process. therefore the motif ‘we need a strong israel because we are the jewish people who are always on the brink of extinction’ must be severely criticized- not to deny the reality of the dangers of anti-semitism, but to guard against the ideological self-justifications of a military occupation. i agree that just yelling in israel’s face ‘you are a settler apartheid regime’ is not going to reach many israelis who grew up grateful that their parents survived the holocaust, and i can see how yelling ‘nakba nakba nakba’ could fall on the deaf ears of ashkenazi jews who are grateful to be for once protected by a state, and not living in poverty in a polish shtetl praying to survive the next pogrom. but recognizing the suffering of the jewish people is not the same as recognizing the necessity for israel’s separation wall; recognizing the suffering of the jewish people is not the same as justifying a right of return law that allows an american person who doesnt know the first thing about the middle east to come live in a house that was built by the grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather of a palestinian family who are now refugees in lebanon. in my opinion the israeli narrative is basically the jewish narrative- which is completely beautiful- with a modern nation state narrative of Us vs. Them light-of-reason-in-the-heart-of-a-jungle-of-arab-madness grafted onto it- which is not very beautiful. the jewish narrative of faith, suffering and love should be recognized as having historically caused the israeli narrative, as the root of a plant can be seen to have historically caused the parasitic outgrowth that now attaches itself to it; but i feel like the israeli narrative needs to be transcended. the harsh reality must be faced that, as a sign in ramallah says, ‘their independence is our nakba’, that what for some of the jewish people was a hopeful and beautiful rebirth, was for another people a terrible inhumane tragedy. most palestinians believe ‘the jews have been persecuted throughout history, they should know better than to persecute someone else!’ this shows me that many of them do recognize the validity of the jewish narrative. they do not however recognize the validity of the israeli narrative, that a predominantly jewish state must be maintained at the expense of the native inhabitants of the land. i feel like more of the burden of ‘recognition of the other’ falls on the israelis, not the palestinians. the palestinians are the victims here. to a certain degree its like asking the native americans to recognize that the european colonizers were themselves persecuted minorities before they left europe! if there are parts of the israeli identity i am missing out on, let me know; sorry for the rambly nature of this, i have had a bit to drink :). but it is my last night in israel/palestine, so i am going to go to the kotel (western wall) now! 🙂


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