Navigate to News section

How Palestine Hijacked the U.S. Civil Rights Movement

A new generation of progressives has stumbled on old Soviet antisemitic propaganda

Gil Troy
February 01, 2024
Yasser Arafat, right, and Rev. Jesse Jackson embrace before their meeting in Beirut, September 1979

AP Photo

Yasser Arafat, right, and Rev. Jesse Jackson embrace before their meeting in Beirut, September 1979

AP Photo

For over 50 years, the American left has tried rebranding the Palestinian cause by camouflaging Palestinian terrorism with the slogans of America’s civil rights movement. Today, a new generation of would-be radicals has stumbled onto this zombie corpse of ahistoric sloganeering with the confident excitement of college freshmen on their first beer run.

Using pseudo-intellectual jargon like “intersectionality,” multiple identity groups and astroturfed leftist political organizations have made fealty to the Palestinian cause a litmus test for belonging to the wider left. That is why many progressives were “exhilarated” by Hamas’ massacre of innocent people, and feminists remained silent about the Gazans’ mass rape of Israeli women. The artificiality, or often absurdity, of the supposed “intersection” between Palestine and the fashionable cause of the moment matters not at all. Hence, Palestine is a queer issue, as much as it is a feminist issue, and a social justice issue. The common thread remains supposed shared oppression—regardless of how homophobic, sexist or dictatorial Palestinian society might be.

But most group identities, no matter how politically fashionable, lack the social, cultural, and political heft to integrate the Palestinians into the new hierarchy of American victim groups and protected minorities. In America, only race has that valence. That is why other identity groups keep trying to graft their victimhood onto the story of the Black civil rights movement to cement their legitimacy.

The Palestinian cause has gained a seat in the progressive sectarian tent by piggybacking off the historical experience of American Blacks. Especially since 2020, Palestine has become thoroughly incorporated into Black Lives Matter sloganeering and visual aesthetics. As a result, an Arab nationalist movement fighting a battle 6,000 miles away from America’s Atlantic coast has become a central component of America’s “anti-racist struggle,” regardless of its lack of even the slightest connection to the historical reality of race-based discrimination in America, or to the values of the American civil rights movement.

The differences between the Palestinian national movement and the American civil rights movement are obvious and fundamental. Palestinians have played no role in American history or the history of slavery. Palestinians played no role in the civil rights struggle. The Palestinian-Israeli clash, which is occurring a world away from America, is national not racial. Most Israelis are dark-skinned, while some Palestinians are light-skinned. Nonviolence fueled the civil rights struggle, while the Palestinian movement keeps perfecting new forms of political violence and terror-porn, from hijacking to suicide bombing.

As this brief history suggests, the identification of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with America’s race problem was hardly made in America. It is a recent foreign import. Long before the “globalization of the intifada,” Soviet communist propagandists “internationalized” the Palestinian “struggle.” In the mid-1960s, under Soviet patronage, Palestine became a global cause for the international left, earning a privileged spot in the constellation of Soviet-backed Third World anti-colonial and anti-imperial “liberation” movements through their use of terror. Today’s movement toward the “Palestinianization” of the Black struggle in America therefore mirrors Soviet propaganda efforts that are now more than half a century old—30 years after Soviet communism imploded. Today’s campus commissars and progressive fanatics use very similar methods toward similar aims. If one wants to understand current rhetorical political alignments, understanding that history is therefore crucial.

As the late Palestinian academic, and member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Palestinian National Council, Edward Said, put it in The Question of Palestine (1979), the Palestinian movement moved to situate “their struggle in the same framework that includes Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba, and black Africa,” joining “the universal political struggle against colonialism and imperialism.”

The turn toward worldwide anti-colonial revolution and “Third World solidarity” pivoted Palestinian rhetoric around race. As Said explained, “The Zionist settler in Palestine was transformed retrospectively and actually from an implacably silent master into an analogue of white settlers in Africa.”

In the mid-1960s, under Soviet patronage, Palestine became a global cause for the international left, earning a privileged spot in the constellation of Soviet-backed Third World ‘liberation’ movements.

Working with Soviet propagandists to delegitimize America’s ally in the Middle East, PLO leader Yasser Arafat jumped at the opportunity to brand Zionism as racism, binding the Palestinian cause to what in his infamous speech at the U.N. he called the global “struggle” against “colonialism, imperialism, neo-colonialism, and racism in all its forms, including Zionism.”

Still, after Israel won the Six-Day War in 1967, most Black American leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., continued to support Israel passionately. Their identification with Zionism drew on powerful, historical bonds with Jewish leaders and organizations, cemented by decades of joint struggle.

Nevertheless, although aimed at the developing countries, the Soviet strategy made headway in America, too, where Maoist China had built strong relationships with radical Black activists like Robert Williams. Groups like the Black Panthers and other extremists fused Black Nationalism with Marxist-Leninism and Maoism. Also seeing themselves as advancing a global struggle, Black Power activists fed off Soviet communism, Maoist China, and Fidel Castro’s and Che Guevara’s Cuba in their search for external sponsors. As the rise of identity politics in the 1960s and 1970s paved the way for America’s grievance-based politics, sectarian activists gained cover to sacrifice individual rights on the altar of collective resentments.

These Maoist Black American figures detested the Constitution-positive, patriotic, liberal-left mainstream Black leadership of Dr. King and his circle. Shut out from the U.S. liberal power structure, these radicals began traveling to the Middle East and Africa and meeting with members of the PLO. In 1970, the “Committee of Black Americans for Truth about the Middle-East” took out an ad in The New York Times in “solidarity with the Palestinian people’s struggle for national liberation.” It declared that “Zionism is a reactionary racist ideology that justifies the expulsion of the Palestinian people from their homes and lands.” Marginal then, such rhetoric is common now on U.S. college campuses.

In defying Dr. King and other civil rights liberals they found insufficiently militant—and by defining themselves against Zionism, by extension—a new generation of Black radicals staked their claim to being the “true voice” of angry young men in the cities. They demanded “revolution,” nothing less. While the language of global Marxist radicalism alienated Black churchgoers in the civil rights heartland, it provided Black Power activists with allies and street cred among white Marxist campus radicals who likewise celebrated “revolution” and established trust-fund terrorist organizations like the Weather Underground.

The distance from anti-Zionism to antisemitism was predictably brief. One Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) newsletter portrayed the Jewish state as a tool of “white western colonial governments … helping white America to control and exploit the rich oil deposits of the Arab nations.” The pamphlet included a cartoon with a puppeteer’s hand marked with a Jewish star and a dollar sign, pulling on a rope hanging Egypt’s dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali; greedy Jews were lynching an iconic Black figure and an Arab leader, side by side. SNCC’s program director Ralph Featherstone denied charges of antisemitism, as would his comrades in their 1970 New York Times ad, claiming the cartoon “only” targeted Jewish oppressors—in Israel and “in the little Jew shops in the [Negro] ghettos.” Featherstone explained that the SNCC supported the Palestinian cause because it was working toward a “third world alliance of oppressed people all over the world—Africa, Asia, and Latin America.”

Cartoon appearing in SNCC Newsletter, June-July 1967. Civil Rights Movement Archive

When the United Nations branded Zionism to be a form of “racism” in 1975, most mainstream African American leaders openly objected. Martin Luther King’s friend Bayard Rustin wrote a column invoking King’s famous comment that “when people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism.’” Vernon Jordan, the National Urban League president, wrote: “Black people, who recognize code words since we’ve been victimized by code words … can easily smell out the fact that ‘Zionism’ in this context is a code word for anti-Semitism.” Other civil rights leaders signed an ad proclaiming, “We have fought too long and too hard to root out discrimination from our land to sit idly while foreign interests import bigotry into America.” Nevertheless, by singling out Jewish nationalism as “racism,” the U.N. assisted in the effort to frame the Palestinian struggle as a racial conflict.

The equation of Zionism and racism, no matter how obviously ahistorical and unfair—no other form of nationalism is accused of being inherently racist—resonates and contaminates, inasmuch as race continues to have a hold on American emotions. The purpose of the slur is obvious and toxic: It aims to place American Jews, the vast majority of whom identify as some form of Zionist, outside the bounds of normal American morality, while stigmatizing Israel with America’s own historical guilt over race relations.

In the 1980s, the international left’s crusade focused on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Palestinian propagandists quickly appended the term “apartheid” to the Palestinian cause, further entrenching the racialist approach.

The Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s deprived leftists of their ideological glue, while the end of South African apartheid deprived leftists of a favorite cause. Yet paradoxically, in the vacuum, these historic breakthroughs cleared the way for “Palestine” to become the paramount cause célèbre on the activist left. Wearing a kaffiyeh proved to fellow progressives that you passed a default ideological litmus test. Throughout, spearheaded by its Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, established while passing the 1975 Zionism-is-Racism resolution, the United Nations kept amplifying the Soviet-Palestinian antisemitic project.

Since 2010 or so, when progressive Third World sectarianism became quasi-official ideology among all right-thinking people, the Palestinian cause has become increasingly central in left doctrine, bounding to the top of the American left’s “anti-racist” agenda. Time and again, the Palestinian cause gets a free pass other movements somehow don’t merit. When the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, its activists policed any attempts to broaden their slogan to include other identity groups. Yet pro-Palestinian activists were allowed to appropriate the slogan “Palestinian Lives Matter” and to embed themselves in an internationalized framework against “oppression” that extends “from Ferguson to Gaza.”

BLM has helped Palestine activists repackage their predecessors’ racialist slogans and tailor them to fit America’s current pathological zeitgeist. In addition to run-of-the mill charges of “racism” and “apartheid”—the new hot items, in line with the broader political agenda and official terminology of the Democratic Party, are “white supremacy” and “white nationalism,” resulting in the charge that American Jews and Israelis are beneficiaries of “white privilege,” a statement that casually erases nearly all of Jewish history up to and including the Holocaust. Apparently, Jews—whether American or Israeli—are so privileged that not even centuries of exclusion and pogroms, culminating in the worst genocide in human history, can detract from their inherent status as “privileged,” i.e., evil.

During the George Floyd riots in 2020, Palestinian activists commandeered “I can’t breathe” as part of their transnational campaign painting Blacks and Palestinians as fellow victims of the same “structural violence, occupation, and colonial oppression” inflicted by “whites.” In what was dubbed the “deadly exchange,” intersectional propagandists for Palestine charged that the “Israeli military trains U.S. police in racist and repressive policing tactics, which systematically targets Black and Brown bodies.” This lie transformed some police junkets into nonexistent IDF boot camps where innocent American cops were systematically reeducated into specialized Israeli techniques of racial brutality.

The point of this bizarre accusation was not just that the Jews are oppressors. It was that “the Jews” are guilty of the most heinous crime in the American cosmos. Eerily echoing traditional blood libels, Jews became racist oppressors, complicit in, even responsible for America’s original sin, racist oppression. After all, it was the IDF that “perfected” the chokehold “used to murder George Floyd,” hundreds of academics and students in the University of California system declared. In other words, it was “the Jews” who had actually killed the 21st century’s leading American Black martyr.

In a way, this trajectory was inevitable, once progressives decided on a vision of social justice in which America would be run according to a sectarian quota system, in which they defined which groups would be worthy of everything from university admissions to political power. According to this logic, success and failure is—and should be—a function of group identity, which pigeonholes individuals as either “oppressors” or “oppressed.” Within this new taxonomy, American Jews have been defined as the quintessential “white oppressors,” since “Jew” is defined as being synonymous with “white” and “successful.” The Jewish connection to Israel makes the Jews doubly or triply as oppressive as other “white people.”

It is no coincidence that at its core the Palestinianization of the U.S. civil rights movement is an anti-American project. The intersection of the Palestinian cult of victimhood with the “anti-racist” progressive ideology being pushed institutionally by DEI regimes, not only declares that Israel is inherently racist, it also maligns America as systemically racist. The implication is clear: Both projects should be dismantled. That a generation of young American radicals chooses to ignore the real-world implications of these insane slogans is scary enough. That many of them, their professors, and other influential politicos in fact embrace the broader message, is terrifying.

Professor Gil Troy, a Senior Fellow in Zionist Thought at the JPPI, the global think tank of the Jewish people, is an American presidential historian, and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.