In a speech linking African-American and Palestinian liberation, UCLA professor Robin Kelley promised no applause lines and said he sought no finger-snapping affirmation.
Speaking March 1, he challenged the audience of some 300 at the Nancy Schrom Dye Lecture Hall to listen closely and be open-minded.
“I’m here to be critical and to raise difficult questions, and to dig into some history which we may not all be familiar (with),” said Kelley, an author and history professor in UCLA’s African-American studies department. “When it comes to learning and thinking and debating, we should never expect a safe space when what we’re trying to figure out is a matter of life and death for the people about whom we speak.”
Kelley touched on the 1948 creation of Israel referred to as the Nakba — Arabic for catastrophe or disaster — by Palestinians. Between 750,000 and one million Palestinians were expelled from their homes by Israelis in the founding, according to the Institute for Middle East Understanding.
Kelley said many black intellectuals such as NAACP founder W.E.B. Dubois and civil rights activist and union leader A. Phillip Randolph were supportive of Israelis and dismissive of Palestinians.
Those attitudes began to change after the Six-Day War in 1967 in which Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan, and Syria and occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Kelley said Israel’s refusal to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders in violation of United Nations Resolution 242 and its expansion of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank made many black activists see Israel as victimizer rather than victim.
Israel’s supporters say it has a right to expand settlements in the Occupied Territories and its treatment of Palestinians is in response to terrorism, such as bombings, rocket attacks, and recently, stabbings of Israelis in Jerusalem.
However, Kelley compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the brutal apartheid system established by whites for blacks in South Africa, which ended in 1994. Rather than self-defense, Kelley accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and a land grab.
He said the apartheid analogy is limited because while white South Africans brutalized their black counterparts, they needed them for cheap labor. Kelley said Israelis have increasingly relied on immigrants for cheap labor rather than Palestinians while settlers continue to confiscate prime Palestinian land in the Occupied Territories.
Kelley said defenders of Israel, which receives some $3 billion in annually U.S. taxpayers, unfairly equate criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with anti-Semitism. He called it a smokescreen.
“It’s actually a sign of fear,” he said. “Fear with trying to deal with the real questions at hand. And a fear of history.”
Kelley said Israelis and Palestinians who denounce Israel’s treatment of Palestinians are increasingly being harassed in Israel. And Kelley said proposed laws by some U.S. states defining criticism of Israel on college campuses as “hate speech” and efforts to shutdown the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are an attempt to stifle speech and expression.
“A boycott is perhaps the purest form of free-market expression you could come up with,” he said. “It’s exercising free will not to consume.”
After an hour-long speech, Kelley took questions for about 30 minutes. Among the questioners was Rabbi Shlomo Elkan, co-director of Chabad at Oberlin, a support group for Jewish Oberlin College faculty and students.
Elkan said he disagreed with some of Kelley’s remarks, but defended his right to speak. He praised Kelley for keeping the discussion civil.
“That’s my goal and hope for the campus and the greater community,” Elkan said. “That we can respect each other and be in relationships amidst our differences even when those differences of opinion and values are vast.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune UCLA professor Robin Kelley speaks March 1 at Dye Hall on the history that has shaped Middle Eastern politics.