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“Born Again” in Deir Nidham: Against the Illegal Military Occupation, from a Black-American Prophetic Christian Perspective

May 17, 2017

We had just left Ofer Prison. My work as a scholar-activist, committed to Palestinian justice, placed me there. We had been journeying all day with two of our Israel-based colleagues who specialize in advocating justice within a profoundly unjust Israeli carceral system. The detention facility, which is at once a juvenile prison and a courthouse, was an incomparable spectacle. The courtyard, a “holding area” for families waiting to enter the “courtrooms” where their adolescents would be tried, was heavily surveiled. The hearings took place within trailers, the inside of which felt more like cluttered cages than courtrooms. And the Palestinian youth were herded into and out of the run-down rooms, bound like cattle. They signed documents and were quickly shuttled away. Then the next group of detainees was guided in. As the imagery suggests, Ofer Prison represented the depths to which a society can descend when it views segments of its population as chattel. As a Black American situated in the United States, something about this moment felt eerily familiar.

Ofer is a state mechanism of fear and control that exists precisely to herd, process, and detain Palestinian youth pipelined into the Israeli penal system, overwhelmingly because of low-level, nonviolent “offenses” like throwing stones in protest at armored Israeli military tanks. Consequently, a detainee could be held eight or nine months, while spending six of those months in isolated confinement, as one Palestinian woman remarked about her mentally disabled nephew. Precisely because anything is within the realm of possibility, Ofer exudes every bit of the fear, terror, and intimidation that it seeks to impress upon detainees. It is surely a linchpin of the military occupation.

But this experience, as well as every experience during this first time in Israel and the occupied West Bank, was most profoundly framed by a moment that arrived upon me as I drank coffee, sitting in a family’s living room in Deir Nidham. Two weeks prior, the Israeli military unjustly abducted the family’s eldest son—seventeen—in the middle of the night.

So there we were together, this unlikely group—two white US American men, an Australian man, a Black US American man and a Palestinian woman who brilliantly facilitated and translated the experience—sitting, fully observant as the mother recounted the family’s story:

It’s 2:30 in the morning; everyone is asleep. Suddenly, the front door is broken down, as approximately twenty Israeli military soldiers storm inside. They are outfitted in full military attire, automatic weaponry, and camouflage face paint. They overturn furniture, shatter keepsakes and destroy property, as they drag everyone out of their respective bedrooms.  Military dogs accompany the men. Eventually, soldiers drag the eldest son and his younger brother into the living room. They stay for hours.  So long, in fact, that another military truck arrives around 6:30 AM, bringing food to the soldiers who carried out the initial raid.  When they finally decide to leave, they blindfold the eldest son and carry him away, telling no one where they would take him. Three days later, the family hears that he is detained at Ofer.

When we inquired about why any of this happened, the boy’s mother informed us that it was merely because of an allegation that some unidentified Palestinian boy, supposedly from that village, had thrown a small stone at an Israeli military truck the day before. To be clear, these home night raids are unmitigated acts of terror; and they are deployed not for security, but to instill fear and command control.

The Griots of other Traditions

There is something impactful and potentially revolutionary about the power of storytelling. Not only does storytelling allow the teller to proclaim their truth(s), but it also allows the hearer an opportunity to experience others in a more empathic and affective way. Journeying through hearing others’ stories allows us room to experience the teller on the teller’s own terms. And for those situated within the Christian faith tradition, we know that it is partially through the stories of others that we gain strength to endure our own journeys.

The word “griot” is West African in origin, meaning “poet, musician, or oral historian.”  Quite simply, they are storytellers, passers of knowledge, from one generation to another.  There is profound value in journeying alongside others as they tell their own stories. A process that is both faith-full and cultural—both Christian and inherently African—the process of truth-telling through storytelling connects us to our ancestral tradition as well as the divine energy present across humanity.

Something of that energy was imparted to me on that January afternoon in Deir Nidham.  There was something psalmist-like about this mother’s account of her family’s story, particularly at the end when someone said, “My goodness; you must hate them?” Her response: “It’s not hate; they demean us. They disrespect us.  But we believe in our ability to survive and in their ability to change.” This resiliency deeply touched my own sensibilities of a being both Africa-descended and Christian—at once, a Black American in the US and a devout believer in a faith tradition often used to assault the hopes and aspirations of my ancestors. It was almost as if I was “born again” in this living room—re-baptized in this occupied village. In other words, the power of this mother’s testimony (and her allowing me access into it) facilitated me encountering divine energy anew.

In the African and African American tradition(s) of oral history, the griot is critical for sustaining a people and their collective identity. It is a sacred office. And I often wonder about the potentially transformative power in our (African/African American/Black American) ability to recognize and invest into the sacred griots of other cultural, historical and/or religious traditions. Our Palestinian host was neither African/African American nor Christian, but she was no less the critical “carrier” of a transformative collective story and justice struggle.

In the prophetic African American imaginary, both Christian and secular, much value is given to the many ways in which resistance against oppression surfaces. One of those ways, I suggest, is within the process of “truth-telling through storytelling.”

The Limits of Intersectionality

Presently, as US Black Americans, it is no coincidence that we are actively forging new human rights-human dignity agendas and group identities as we are simultaneously passing through a moment that hearkens back to the Black human rights struggles of old. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as the hallmark Voting Rights Act, Bloody Sunday march and assassination of Malcolm X, all in 1965, helped define a century. And particularly germane to our present context of justice struggles against hyper-militarized police violence, the 1965 Watts Riots and 1967 Detroit Riot rose to national notoriety as Black and Latino/a communities stood prophetically against state brutality and discrimination in their own age. At long last, the ebbs and flows of history have brought us to a moment similar to one foregone. They have brought us to a moment, separated from the last by a half-century, yet conjoined to it by familiar cries for peace and justice. Architects of the Black justice struggles that have recently captured our national and international imaginations remind us that no one exists in a vacuum. Present-day Black justice struggles are part of a broader continuum that not only stretches across historical time and place, but also binds the globally marginalized together. And for some, this binding has led to renewed cries for solidarity and intersectionality between global movements.

While recognizing this intersectionality is critical, alone it is insufficient. Intersectional justice work increasingly requires the deepening of relationships rather than the tokenism of intermittent collaborations on rallies, protests or panels here and there. It requires the sharing of personal stories, the deep exchange of histories and the abiding commitment to journey alongside communities for reasons other than self-benefit. Without these signposts—history teaches us—coalitions disintegrate.

Prophetic Black Discourse and Evacuating Christian Paternalism

There is a voice emerging from the prophetic Black Christian faith tradition, called to speak directly against the evil(s) of this illegal military occupation. The prophetic Black Church—cohorts within the Afro-Christian community that understand themselves as firmly rooted in the tradition of the biblical prophets, speaking truth(s) to systems of power and injustice—stands within an important tension. This tradition understands Jesus’s work as significantly political; not “political” in an electoral sense, but “political” in terms of speaking against settler-colonialism, imperial conquest and the death-conditions of empire. Contrary to what some might assert, this prophetic claim is absolutely not advocating the destruction of a people-group.

Unfortunately, the current socio-political milieu makes it difficult to critique the State of Israel without eliciting counter-criticisms of being anti-Semitic and allegedly “advocating destruction” of the sovereign state. But it is precisely the love for all Divine creation—not the desired destruction of a segment of it—that motivates the prophetic Black faith claim against illegally and militarily occupying, displacing and devastating entire racial-ethnic groups labeled “other” merely because of the State’s core commitment to maintain an ethnically homogenous Jewish politic.

For the prophetic Black faith tradition, this claim is a moral and ethical one. It is also a claim that could potentially allow the Black Church to reclaim a critical part of its sacred history: standing firmly upon its moral imperative. Although not a majority, a critical cohort within the African American Christian tradition (during the US “Civil Rights Era”) stood upon claims grounded in an ethic of justice and a conviction that all persons were created wonderfully by the mechanisms of Divine craftsmanship. These claims ranged between indicting a US nation-state that did not live up to its alleged creed to critiquing an unjust international wartime atmosphere that wrongly assumed the United States to be the moral leader of the democratic free world.

Retuning to this justice ethic is no easy feat, significantly because the mainstream US Afro-Christian tradition has failed to evacuate the hetero-normative paternalism that has gradually progressed (within it) since the earliest days of Black Church inculcation of white supremacist thought. Stated plainly, the Black Church standing upon its history of moral justice and outrage does not mean that it has a monopoly on moral truth(s). It does not mean that the church is necessarily effective in its efforts to advance good, offer correctives or spread kindness. And it certainly does not mean that the Black Church can get “off the hook” for the ways in which it continues to imbibe logics of “racial reconciliation” and “religious tolerance” that veil many longstanding assumptions about its own assumed piety, at the expense of others. Such pitfalls are part and parcel of being saturated within a cultural context that is profoundly colonial and paternalistic. They require the Black Church, indeed the prophetic Black Church, to remain vigilant.

Part of the vigilance should involve calling things by their rightful names. For purposes of political correctness and social acceptability, Black Americans tend not to use language of “colonialism,” “imperialism,” and “white supremacy.” But the State of Israel, much like the US, is facilitating a white supremacist racial caste. There is a deliberate internal ordering and hierarchizing of society, based on who is designated the “most and least valuable”—all en route to perpetually creating and maintaining an ethnically homogenous nation-state.  This does not mean that facilitators of the racial ordering should be destroyed, but that structurally, the politic was established to ensure equality, fairness, love, justice and security only for some and not others.

Finally, the vigilance of this significant work must consist in the prophetic Black church (and the Black Church, generally) more robustly knitting together the diverse fabrics of human experience. The moral voice of the church, if nothing else, ought to remind us all that everyone has been made within the maelstrom of divine energy. This very making binds us together.  So often when this language surfaces, it is undergirded with secretly held contempt, sprinkled with tokenism. But beyond the place where “valuing diversity” is merely the cool new thing to say, perhaps we are within a moment ripe with possibility. Perhaps we can learn how to better sit with others—those with whom we agree and disagree, and those whom we have failed or refused to understand—and journey with them through their stories so that we can resurface differently.  Perhaps idealistic, but there is something hopeful about the gift of speaking one’s truths (no matter how painful, bitter or ugly) and inviting others to share their own. The beauty of it was wrapped up, for me, in our host’s final words. After she gave account of her family’s life under occupation, she concluded, “Our oppressors treat us like we’re their servants. They do. But, nothing lasts forever…”

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