What the Israel-Hamas War Means for the Black Community

Elgin Nelson & Gerald Bell

      The rapid escalation of violence in the Israel-Hamas war has sent shockwaves throughout the world igniting passions, hostility and chaos. Right here in Los Angeles thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered near the Israeli Consulate in West Los Angeles to condemn the bloodshed in Gaza as the death toll surpassed 7,000, according to published reports. 

      The next day, thousands marched to the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in solidarity with Israel, remembering the more than 1,300 innocents massacred on October 7, 2023, in what has been dubbed as the bloodiest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.

      With the humanitarian crisis in Gaza spiraling out of control, tensions have exploded onto college campuses across the state and nation. In a pro-Palestinian protest, over 400 UC Berkeley students walked out of class, and in a separate protest at UCLA, students chanted, “Israel! Israel! You can’t hide! We charge you with genocide.” In a related incident, a Cornell student was arrested on federal charges for posting threats towards Jewish students online.

      The hostility, however, is not limited to college campuses, but has spilled out into local communities. Case in point, an 11-year-old student from Manhattan Beach Middle School stirred community tensions after allegedly hurling anti-Semitic slurs at four Jewish students, including disturbing statements following the October 7 attack like “revenge is beautiful” and “all Israelis and Jews must be killed.

      In Brooklyn, NY, two young men asked if a 14-year-old boy was Jewish before shoving him to the sidewalk. Cameras then revealed the same young men confronting a traditionally dressed Jewish man and kicking him in the stomach. And in Chicago, six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume died after being stabbed 26 times along with his 32-year-old mother, Hanaan Shahin. Shahin was stabbed over a dozen times inside their home by their 71-year-old landlord. 

      Former President Obama emphasized the importance of upholding core values and opposing anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments in the context of the ongoing conflict. 

      “In dealing with what is an extraordinarily complex situation where so many people are in pain and passions are understandably running high, all of us need to do our best to put our best values, rather than our worst fears, on display.” Obama wrote. “That means actively opposing antisemitism in all its forms, everywhere—It means rejecting anti-Muslim, anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian sentiment. 

      “If,” he continued, “we care about keeping open the possibility of peace, security, and dignity for future generations of Israeli and Palestinian children — as well as for our children — then it falls upon all of us to at least make the effort to model, in our own words and actions, the kind of world we want them to inherit. Still, the world is watching closely as events in the region unfold, and any Israeli military strategy that ignores the human costs could ultimately backfire.’

      Biden has found himself between a rock and a hard place. Despite maintaining his stance on Israel’s right to self-defense and his public support for the Jewish nation, apparent fractures are emerging in what was once unwavering support as the death toll in Gaza soars and the city descend into utter chaos.

      Biden’s stance is not unique. The sudden Hamas attack initially jolted Black Americans. However, as the Gaza crisis escalated, a major divide emerged within the community as groups like Black Lives Matter openly sided with the Palestinians, while others have expressed support for Israel.

      BLM activists contended that an alliance with Palestinians is only natural and condemn Israeli police for brutalizing Palestinians, much like how American officers mistreat unarmed Black people and protesters.

      “Being in solidarity with the Palestinian people is something that’s been part of our work as Black Lives Matter for almost as long as we’ve been an organization,” states Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles BLM chapter. She further argues that the organization is not standing up not for Hamas but for the numerous Palestinians who have long been “evicted, terrorized, and treated like second-class citizens.”

      “There are segments of the Black population that have bonded with both the Jewish and Palestinian community through Black internationalism,” said national security expert and U.S. Army veteran Asha Castleberry-Hernández.

      “We need to understand that Black identification with Zionism predates the formation of Israel as a modern state,” Robin D. G. Kelley, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles who studies social movements told a National Public Radio reporter. “It goes back to the Book of Exodus in the Bible — the story of the flight of the Jews out of Egypt, which was not only a narrative of emancipation and renewal, but it was deployed by African Americans to critique American slavery and racism.”

      Pastor Ron Hill of the Love and Unity Christian Center, located in Compton, noted that his profound support for the Jewish community is rooted in his interpretation of religious text.

      “I wouldn’t dare to say that the Jewish people are always right in everything they do, but I believe they are God’s chosen people, and I approach it from that standpoint,” Hill said. “I think Christians have to stand with the Jewish community based upon the fact that according to Scripture, the Jews are the chosen of God.”

      Some Black faith leaders like Pastor Michael J.T. Fisher of the Greater Zion Church Family, cite the deep-rooted connection between African Americans and Israel has existed for decades, with the two communities finding common ground in their struggles against oppression and discrimination, dating back to the support of many in the Jewish community in Black America’s struggle for civil rights.

      Said Fisher, “We owe it to the Jewish community to rebuild the bridge that I believe has been systematically put on fire, because every single time we have advanced this country forward morally, it has been with the Black community and the Jewish community standing arm in arm, hand in hand.”

      Others like recently retired First AME Pastor J. Edgar Boyd have compassion for both sides.

      “War at any stage [and at] any place in the world is a conflict between an oppressor and the oppressed, Boyd said. We simply wish, hope, and pray to see a cessation of the war, the deaths, the killings, and the loss of blood.”

      “We wish nobody to be oppressed. We wish oppressors to find the capacity of love in their heart, to allow everybody, some space, and some ability to live and to exist. And that’s across every land.” 

      The National Newspaper Publishers Association representing the Black Press of America, forthrightly condemned the brutal, fatal terrorist attacks, and said that they stood firmly in solidarity with Israel.

      However, many are discovering that support for Israel is not unconditional.

      Comedian Amy Schumer found that out first-hand. Having challenged individuals on social media who support a ceasefire and branding such viewpoints as antisemitic, the comedian posted a video on X (formerly known as Twitter) of Dr. King defending Israel’s right to exist, insinuate that King would have supported Israel’s military actions in the ongoing conflict.

      The comment evoked a stirring rebuke from Bernice King, the daughter of the civil right leader to clarify what she was sure her father’s stance would have been.

      “Amy, certainly, my father was against antisemitism, as am I,” King posted. “He also believed militarism (along with racism and poverty) to be among the interconnected Triple Evils. I am certain he would call for Israel’s bombing of Palestinians to cease, for hostages to be released and for us to work for true peace, which includes justice. He said, ‘Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.’”

      Regardless of the divide within the Black community, the Israel-Hamas conflict holds significant implications for Black Americans, including political polarization, potential military vulnerability, and economic disruption, resulting in financial implications for all American taxpayers. 

      “As an American, my tax dollars go to this occupation [in Gaza],” activist and author Marc Lamont Hill said in a recent Breakfast Club interview. “We should be focused on injustice everywhere. We don’t give everyone $4 billion a year.” 

      Hill went on to criticize the U.S. for misrepresenting those in the Middle East. 

      “We’ve always shown them as uncivilized, violent, and unprepared for democracy but never in ways that show their humanity.”

      However, the stark realities of mothers and children dying on Gaza’s streets having been crushed under Israel’s brutal bombardment, hospitals and doctors bereft of crucial life-saving supplies, and a nation devoid of basic necessities like food and water have poignantly highlighted the Palestinians’ struggle and humanity.

      The Global Project Against Hate and Extremism collected data from unregulated social media platforms showing a whopping 479% increase in the use of explicit antisemitic and anti-Muslim slurs, along with calls to kill both groups between October 6 and October 8. 

      “Unregulated, hateful content online can translate to a real risk offline,” warns Wendy Via, co-founder of GPAHE. “When you have a conflict like this, we almost always see a rise in incidents against the communities that are involved in the conflict. People see it on the news, and they needed to harbor their hatred and act on it.” 

      FBI Director Christopher Wray stated that antisemitism has reached “historic levels” in the U.S. He attributed this to the Jewish community being targeted by various types of terrorists, including homegrown extremists, foreign organizations, and domestic extremists. Additionally, he noted that Jewish Americans, comprising about 2.4% of the population, account for around 60% of all religious-based hate crimes. The FBI is addressing this through law enforcement efforts, joint terrorism task forces, hate crime investigations, and intelligence sharing.

      Last month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta convened locally elected officials, law enforcement officers, and community leaders for an anti-hate roundtable discussion to explore best practices in addressing hate crimes. 

      “There is no place for hate in California’s communities and cities,” said Bonta. “As our communities feel the ripple effects of the heart-wrenching violence in Israel and Palestine, we must recommit to standing united against hate wherever it occurs in our state. An attack on one of us is an attack on all communities. I am proud to stand with our local partners and leaders to identify best practices, foster community involvement, and work toward community-driven solutions to eliminate hate and extremism.”

      To that end the LAPD and County Sheriff’s Department remain on high alert.

“We have no information of any specific or credible threats to the city of Los Angeles, but we are continuing to assess the situation for any potential impacts to our communities,” the LAPD said in a recent statement.

      “We are conducting extra patrol checks and supplementing additional personnel from detective division and specialized units to have high visibility in strategic locations throughout the county. Additionally, we are reaching out to our local religious communities to reassure them during this tumultuous time. We remind residents to stay vigilant and report anything suspicious to local law enforcement officials.”

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