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Black Reconstruction in Palestine

From the Combahee River to the Caribbean Sea

March 29, 2024

In the spirituals sung by many Black Americans, the Jordan River meant freedom. These were what W.E.B. Du Bois famously described as “sorrow songs,” but never only that. They were also calls to resist, maps of escape routes, cunning communiqués floating on the breeze just under the master’s nose. Thus it was with “Roll, Jordan, Roll”—which Du Bois deemed “the song of many waters”—or “I’m Going Down to the River Jordan… to feast off milk and honey.” And they were visions of a new world, despair oscillating with a resolute hope for “boundless justice in some fair world beyond.”

For most whites, the meaning of these songs remained a mystery until the Civil War, when they were first collected from in and around the vast, mobile encampments of newly freed people who quickly gathered around the Union Army. Little surprise that the camp itself figures prominently in some as a way station on the path to freedom:

Deep river, my home is over Jordan.
Deep river, I want to cross over into campground.

For Thulani Davis, it was here in these encampments that an impromptu Black public sphere began to emerge, finding expression in songs like “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” one of many that fearful slavemasters had heard drifting over the waves from South Carolina’s Sea Islands just south of the Combahee River:

Jordan’s river is deep and wide, hallelujah.
Meet my mother on the other side, hallelujah.

These encampments provided more than safety. They were nascent political communities, spaces for collective debate and mobilization, crucial nodes in broader circuits set to crackling and buzzing by the electricity of freedom. The “contrabands” gathered here carried their own surreptitious cargo—in their songs and souls alike—the expansively egalitarian vision of a new society that Du Bois would come to call “abolition-democracy.”

This was the dawn of Reconstruction, that brief but hopeful interlude in which formerly enslaved people, as Du Bois described it, “went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” But what does Reconstruction have to teach us about the struggle for Palestinian liberation today? Everything, as it turns out.

***

Crossing the Jordan doesn’t mean quite the same thing when there’s a bayonet in your back. For many Palestinians expelled in the 1948 Nakba, this “catastrophe” meant displacement either toward or across the Jordan River, where many found only the tenuous safety of life as permanent and stateless refugees. Here too we are talking about camps, with those gathered in 1948 finding reinforcements in 1967 and 1973, in an archipelago of refugee settlements whose existence textures Palestinian reality today. But Palestinian resistance—past and present—was also largely born of the camps, from Jordan to Gaza. It was there, in the camps beyond the Jordan, that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) took root, launching anti-colonial resistance against the Zionist state—not from within the homeland but without.

From the university to the streets, a battle today rages over the phrase, “from the river to the sea.” Does the slogan—so often paired with “Palestine will be free”—gesture toward a future of peaceful coexistence, or does it portend something more sinister? Supporters of Israel hear in these words only expulsion at best or extermination—a new Shoah—at worst. But this certainly wasn’t what the phrase meant originally when it was a Zionist slogan, or when the 1973 platform of Israel’s governing Likud Party insisted that “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty”—Israeli domination of the entirety of historic Palestine.

And it certainly wasn’t what the phrase came to mean once transfigured by Palestinians themselves. Here, we might look to the various ways Palestinian organizations—from the PFLP to the DFLP and even Fatah—have taken up the phrase, each in their own way leaving space for Indigenous and even non-Indigenous Jews in a future democratic state. Or we could debate the various versions of the Hamas charter—a sort of cottage industry today. But none of this would give us the full story, since political programs past are no substitute for what will be built in the future. The question instead is this: what vision for a new world grows out of the constellation of refugee camps that constitutes today’s “Palestine”—and Gaza in particular?

***

Black-Palestinian solidarity has surged over the past decade, catalyzed by the simultaneous experience of two communities under siege. In July of 2014, Israel unleashed Operation Protective Edge on the Gaza Strip, leading to the deaths of more than 2,000 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians. And just weeks later, the police murder of Mike Brown led to a wave of rebellions that shook Ferguson, Missouri for two full weeks. While many were rightly shocked to see militarized police in armored personnel carriers rolling through the streets of this small, midwestern city, teargassing journalists and bystanders alike, Palestinians were not. Instead, they began to share tips online for dealing with tear gas—something with which they were more than familiar—and to express their solidarity with the Ferguson resistance.

Organizers from both communities quickly began to document not only the similarities of their struggles, but the active complicities underpinning their oppression. They revealed the ties connecting American manufacturers of tear gas and other weapons to the Israeli occupation, and denounced the training of US police by the Israeli Defense Forces. Black and Palestinian organizers have emphasized Israel’s historic alignment with white supremacist forces—from South African apartheid to Latin American fascism—and its strategic position today at the heart of global carceral and surveillance technologies. And both have shown how policing is central to the occupation, including the outsourcing to Palestine police through post-Oslo “security coordination.” All of which has led to the increasing recognition that the abolitionist framework developed mostly within the US might shed significant light on Palestinian resistance as well.

Crossing the Jordan doesn’t mean quite the same thing when there’s a bayonet in your back.

While some, notably Frank Wilderson, have dismissed any similarity between Black and Palestinian struggles as “bullshit,” even suggesting that those dying in Gaza enjoyed privileges not shared by the residents of Ferguson, such statements haven’t been able to stem the tide of Black-Palestinian solidarity. But this is in part because, as Robin D.G. Kelley has argued, our solidarity doesn’t ultimately rely upon sameness at all. Its roots instead run as far back as the wave of anti-imperialist solidarity with Palestinians during the 1967 War, and stretch the full breadth of the Third World. And for Kelley, moreover, this is less about the past than about the future—“a shared vision of liberation” that transcends all borders.

***

When Black people took power in South Carolina in 1868, many among the state’s white minority undoubtedly feared the worst. After all, some of the very same people they had been brutalizing for decades had themselves entered the halls of power. But as Du Bois documents in Black Reconstruction, Black rule brought not retribution but reconciliation. Rather than turning the racial binary against the former masters, the new legislators “made no distinction in race and color,” but instead pursued a universal program for the betterment of all. The policies they put into place saw the dramatic expansion of rights and services for many previously neglected groups: women, children, the deaf, blind, and mentally ill. Public education and health care were pioneered for the first time.

In fact, if there was one group that gained the most from Black rule, it was ironically poor whites. Previously peripheral to the slave economy, many were underemployed or unemployed “social pariahs” in the words of historian Keri Leigh Merritt, relegated—as Du Bois himself emphasized—to conditions that were materially worse than that of slaves. They had been barred from public office and even voting by literacy tests and property requirements, and many found themselves in prison when they inevitably fell into debt. All these barriers were lifted under Reconstruction, debtors’ prisons were abolished, and legislators pursued some of the most progressive social policies the country has ever seen.

As Stephen V. Ash describes it: “The conquest of the South by northern armies during the Civil War began the liberation of the region’s poor whites as well as its enslaved blacks… both encountered revolutionary possibilities beyond mere liberation, only to see those possibilities eventually thwarted.” For Du Bois, it was no small tragedy that those same poor whites who benefited so dramatically from Reconstruction would soon become its gravediggers, betraying their class for their race and the petty “wages of whiteness” it offered. Poor whites joined the Klan, unleashing a wave of terror that would roll back Black freedom and their own. Many soon found themselves trapped again in debt, condemned to sharecropping or prison, and prisoners of a dramatically impoverished political world.

These measurable, quantitative improvements also reflected the more profound qualitative shift that Du Bois associated with what he called abolition-democracy. What was the role of former slaves in what he had described in the book’s original title as “the Black reconstruction of democracy in America”? What kind of seismic shift occurs when the most excluded are included, and what kind of previously unthinkable democracy thinkable?

Abolitionist movements today continue to build upon the universalizing lessons and worldmaking aspirations of Reconstruction, whose ultimate failure gave us the world we confront today: a world of police and of prisons, of avaricious wealth and white power. And they do so according to the key insight gleaned from that failure: that there can be no tearing down of carceral institutions without a simultaneous building up of the collective power of community. To do so begins with the recognition that no one is dispensable or disposable, and that we can—indeed we must—be in community with those who have done harm. Some of the bravest moments are those when the families of those lost to violence come face-to-face with those who took lives, and that courage is mutual.

Reconstruction, in other words, was for everyone, a universal project for freedom and equality from the Combahee River to the Caribbean Sea.

***

Or for almost everyone. The crucial exception being those whose absence provided its invisible backdrop: those Indigenous people genocided, assimilated, or displaced westward over the course of decades and centuries. These are not uncomplicated questions: some Indigenous communities owned Black slaves and brought them to Indian Territory along the Trail of Tears. Others sided with the Confederacy during the war. And the Reconstruction era saw new treaties that, despite ostensibly progressive and inclusionary goals, resulted in more fragmentation of land and power—a continuation of the long Indian Wars that still haven’t ended today.

Even so, relations between Black and Indigenous people in Indian Territory were not reducible to the zero-sum game of settler colonialism, but instead saw the emergence of new forms of solidarity and new relations to the land. Those formerly enslaved Oklahomans freed by the war were not, as Alaina E. Roberts emphasizes, “African Americans” proper, but instead “Indian freedpeople” and often citizens—albeit contested—of Indigenous nations. As Union Armies occupying the South and Crazy Horse fought settler forces to a standstill, Black and Indigenous communities began to build new forms of community, separately or together.

Like Reconstruction, however, these experiments were only momentary, and experiments in Black-Indigenous solidarity were soon subsumed by the migration of white settlers westward. This devastation didn’t stop at the US border, either, but had in fact constituted it through the seizure of northern Mexico in the prelude to the Civil War. After the defeat of Reconstruction, color caste returned with a vengeance not only to the southern US but became a global project. “The United States,” Du Bois wrote, “was turned into a reactionary force. It became the cornerstone of that new imperialism which is subjecting the labor of yellow, brown and black peoples to the dictation of capitalism organized on a world basis.”

Abolition and Reconstruction remain incomplete, in other words, without decolonization, since each begs in a different way the question Du Bois posed with elegant simplicity: “Your country? How came it yours?” Each, moreover, demands new solutions and new forms of coexistence, solidarity, and community. Or as the Red Nation has put it, “decolonization is for, and benefits, everyone.” The Red Deal, their manifesto for confronting climate catastrophe, echoes many of Reconstruction’s own objectives in the call to recreate a lost past where “everyone’s material needs were met; there was no starvation, no homelessness, no alienation. Everyone was a relative, and everyone had relatives.” Here, again, the camp, this time at Standing Rock, where a unified resistance movement of Black, Brown, Red, and white came together to sustain the struggle while prefiguring a new world entirely.

Israel was founded as a non-European solution to a European problem, offshoring guilt for the Jewish holocaust by exporting the problem elsewhere.

Sometime around 1840, Wallace Willis, then enslaved but later a Choctaw freedman, gazed out across Oklahoma’s Red River, composing then and there the well-known lyrics to what Du Bois would later describe as “the cradle-song of death which all men know”:

I looked over Jordan and what did I see,

Coming for to carry me home?

A band of angels coming after me,

Coming for to carry me home.

***

Israel is a settler colony—this shouldn’t be controversial. Even Zionism’s founders agreed, proudly trumpeting its colonial status and encouraging mass Jewish settlement. Some would even go so far as to deny the very existence of Palestinian Arabs, declaring Israel “a land without people for a people without land.” Such declarations openly reproduce early colonial notions of res nullius upholding the doctrine of discovery, if not German Lebensraum and the Manifest Destiny “from sea to shining sea” from which Nazi leaders drew inspiration. Settlement and expulsion came together in the 1948 Nakba that displaced 700,000 Palestinians, an ongoing process that has once again entered hyperdrive today in what one Israeli government minister even called the “Gaza Nakba.”

To concede that Israel is a settler colony doesn’t mean it’s just any settler colony, however. Aimé Césaire once described Nazism as a “terrific boomerang effect” through which colonial chickens came home to roost on European soil. Colonialism required brutality, and brutality required justification, which it found in the dehumanization of the colonized. But Césaire’s great insight was to see that this dehumanization was mutual, that by treating others like animals, one inevitably becomes an animal in turn. “No one colonizes innocently,” he wrote, and Nazism is what happens when this dehumanization is revisited upon the European continent.

What we see today in Israel is therefore not exactly the same, but a sort of perverse repetition. Israel was founded as a non-European solution to a European problem, offshoring guilt for the Jewish holocaust by exporting the problem elsewhere. Such a solution was not unique: Lincoln himself was an ardent supporter of “colonization” schemes that would have seen the entire slave population of the US shipped elsewhere. And for the same reasons that the Klan supported Garveyite emigration schemes, the Nazis were sympathetic to the Zionist project. Of course, it was non-European people who bore the brunt of such solutions. This is why Fred Moten insists, for example, that the state of Israel is quite literally “an artifact of anti-Semitism.” And this is why Zionism is compatible today with the open anti-Semitism of a Marine Le Pen or a Donald Trump.

But if Israel is an artifact of anti-Semitism, it didn’t need to be this kind of artifact. European Jews could have embraced the lived reality of Palestinian Jews—coexistence, solidarity, the sharing of territory and culture. But instead of disavowing the colonial dehumanization that had birthed Nazism, Zionists sought explicitly to reproduce it, with Theodor Herzl upholding even that most colonial of binaries in describing a future Jewish state as “an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” Confronted with the myth of the rootless Jew—one which, as Naomi Klein has recently recognized, was similarly deployed against Indigenous Americans—Israeli leaders tacitly accepted the myth’s parameters, proving their rootedness through an all-too-grounded blood and soil nationalism.

In so doing, Israel has inevitably produced a second boomerang effect. Israelis increasingly support the continuation, even deepening, of apartheid-style segregation and inequality—with support of one-third of even self-identified leftists, and more support from women than men. An astonishing three-quarters of Israelis polled support the ongoing Gaza genocide. And the dehumanization of Palestinians has inevitably rebounded onto others: Eritrean asylum seekers and guest workers from across the African continent have been subject to racist pogroms and Ethiopian Jews suffer open discrimination. And today, “liberal” Israelis decry the increasingly “fascist” Netanyahu government without realizing that what they are experiencing is the inevitable endgame of settler colonial rule.

Albert Einstein, among others, saw this coming. An early sympathizer of Zionism, he understood this to mean peaceful coexistence in the region. But having himself fled Nazi terror, Einstein was repulsed by the Nakba and the Deir Yassin massacre in particular. Like Césaire, Einstein was keenly attuned to the “inner damage” that a “narrow nationalism” would inflict at the heart of Judaism. Foreseeing a “real and final catastrophe” in Palestine, Einstein would lay the responsibility largely at the feet of “those misled and criminal people” developing “in our own ranks.” In 1952, this friend and defender of Du Bois even refused an offer to serve as Israeli president. What Einstein saw so well was the threat Zionism posed to Jews themselves, and this was not simply spiritual. It meant inventing entire categories like the so-called Mizrahim to homogenize and distinguish the Israeli nation by stripping away the multiple and overlapping identities of many Jews, and it meant strongarming many pre-Zionist Sephardi communities who had long coexisted peacefully alongside Muslim and Christian communities into identifying with a colonial state.

This was process of turning natives into settlers again finds parallels in the US settler colony. The late Noel Ignatiev, whose central historical reference point was always Black Reconstruction, famously showed how “the Irish became white” by embracing the political project of whiteness and anti-Blackness. This process was not inevitable, however, and Ignatiev himself helped found the journal Race Traitor, whose tagline—“treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity”— encouraged mass disobedience to white supremacist rule.

Unsurprisingly, Ignatiev was also a radically anti-Zionist Jew who saw striking parallels between the US and Israel. “Israel is a racial state,” he wrote, and one which clearly “resembles the American South prior to the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.” It was perhaps only fitting to see the words of this non-practicing and radically anti-Zionist Jew paraphrased a few short years after his death, when shortly after October 7th the phrase began to appear on Twitter: “treason to Zionism is loyalty to humanity,” to which one recent tweet adds: “and Judaism.”

***

Zionism today is trapped in a dead-end of its own making, painted into a corner by its settler nature and gangrenous brutality. It has shifted rightward for decades, sometimes slowly, sometimes lurching, and there’s only so far more to go. The fascist and fanatical government of Netanyahu and Ben Gvir is no anomaly, but its inevitable conclusion. October 7th revealed in an instant the fragility of a government—and a state—that promises only domination of the Palestinians and absolute security for Israelis, but fails spectacularly to deliver either. The state of Israel makes Jews less safe, not more—this much is increasingly undeniable.

Our moment begs a question that parallels one posed by Du Bois nearly a century ago: what is the ultimate relation of Palestinians to democracy, from the river to the sea?

To continue on this path will create a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Fewer Jews will choose this life of false superiority and insecurity, while those who choose to remain—and even more so those who opt into the Zionist project—will by necessity be the worst of the worst. Demographic anxieties will only sharpen, the infrastructure of colonial domination will become all the more important. On the other side of the Green Line, Israeli divide-and-conquer is similarly doomed. Fatah’s collaborationist leaders are more discredited than ever—if this is possible. The anticolonial unity of all those forces prepared to fight is now the name of the game.

In such moments, fear looms large—hence anxieties over the phrase “from the river to the sea.” Such fears, however, like those of prior generations of colonizers and slavemasters, are a sort of paranoid projection rooted in a guilty conscience: they must want for us what we’re already doing to them. But as C.L.R. James memorably put it, “The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression.” We find this confirmed even in sheer numeric terms as Israel continues to obliterate Gaza today, pressing the death ratio toward 30-to-1. In light if the ongoing carnage today and the 75 years preceding it, anything that Palestinians do in the name of national liberation can only seem, in James’ provocative words, “surprisingly moderate.” In fact, history shows an astonishing restraint by the oppressed, who often treat their adversaries with a patience and generosity they never enjoyed.

We see this in the moments of supreme human tenderness captured on video between Israeli captives and their captors in Gaza—moments that the Israeli government desperately sought to cover up. Was it propaganda? Perhaps, but propaganda that the Israeli state, premised as it is on the dehumanization of Palestinians, would never be capable of producing. Such moments of humanity provide a glimpse of a new world beyond Zionism, and here the lessons of abolition, Reconstruction, and decolonization ring particularly true. Structures of domination harm everyone involved, amputating our collective humanity by making our worlds smaller. White supremacy offers increasingly meager “wages of whiteness” in exchange for participation in brutality. Patriarchy, as widely recognized today, brutally genders everyone through the permanent threat of physical violence. And Zionism too harms victors and victims alike, disfiguring Israelis as much, if not more, than Palestinians.

As US history teaches, abolishing oppressive structures does more than simply free their victims—it frees everyone through the invitation to build a new world, and to build it together. With the dismantling of slavery, it was more than just the slave who walked free. And this is why we say that the liberation of the poor, women, and oppressed communities of color here and abroad hold the key to the liberation of all. Abolishing Zionism—and it will soon be abolished—means the liberation of everyone involved, and particularly Jews and those currently known as Israelis. For them, it means refusing the amputation of humanity, and no longer having one’s identity shackled to the indefensible actions of a brutal ethnostate.

In Palestine as in the US, decolonization and abolition inevitably mean land back, but this is not synonymous with expulsion, much less extermination. Any future multiracial and multiethnic Palestinian state will be confronted with the hard work of reconciliation, reparation, and redistribution, but this is a process to participate in rather than fear or refuse. Some will lose wealth and status of a sort, but all will gain something far more valuable: a new relation to others, a sense of collective justice, and an identity not premised upon violent racial supremacy. As abolitionists today teach, this means a safer world, a better world, a more equal world for all.

If Zionism demanded even native Jews become settlers by embracing the Israeli state, this means that the opposite is possible—indeed, necessary. Non-native Jews and others have an urgent role to play in a new project for Palestinian liberation, from the river to the sea. This is already happening, too, with anti-Zionist Jews worldwide in mass rebellion against just this sort of condemnation to inhumanity, showing the very best of their culture and faith to be diametrically opposed to Zionism, and laying the cornerstone for a new world of solidarity alongside Palestinians in the streets.

Our moment begs a question that parallels one posed by Du Bois nearly a century ago: what is the ultimate relation of Palestinians to democracy, from the river to the sea? What kind of multiracial, egalitarian abolition-democracy will become possible today with the dismantling of Zionism? All this and more, the lesson of Reconstruction can help us see today. But maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question. Maybe it isn’t so much what Reconstruction can teach us about Palestine, but about how Palestine can—and already is—helping to free us all. With their dignity and steadfastness—their sumud, صمود—Palestinians in Gaza and beyond have already taught us so much about what freedom means and what it requires. The stubborn humanity of Gaza’s resistance is galvanizing our struggles, stitching our movements together in the streets, grounding our solidarity in collective action, and expanding our worlds as we recognize ourselves in the other.

And as they do, that freedom song resounds:

We’ll walk the muddy road

where pleasure never dies.

We’ll walk the golden streets

of the New Jerusalem.

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HELLO, COMRADE

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