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David Sheen

What Marc Lamont Hill went looking for in Palestine

Hill was axed from his CNN spot over his pro-Palestine comments at the UN [FilmMagic]

Date of publication: 12 March, 2019

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The New Arab Meets: American academic, author, Palestine activist and TV personality, Marc Lamont Hill.
In November 2018, when academic, author and activist Marc Lamont Hill urged the United Nations to rally for "a free Palestine, from the river to the sea," he triggered a storm of criticism from supporters of Israel. 

Within 24 hours, CNN buckled to this pressure and terminated its contract with Hill, who had provided the news network with some of its strongest commentary in recent years.

The sacking was an unconscionable response to Hill's speech, a 21-minute plea for Palestinian freedom, for all Palestinian people to have the same exact set of human and civil rights that every Israeli Jew already has, wherever they might live in the land, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

In the last quarter-century, however, many advocates for Palestinian rights have curtailed the scope of their campaigning to just Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The long-expired Oslo Accord of 1993, which promised a Palestinian state on only a quarter of the land in historic Palestine, left Palestinian citizens of Israel on their own to fight for equal rights with their Jewish neighbours in the other three-quarters.

So today, Hill's call for equal rights for Jews and Palestinians in a single secular democratic state represents a bold challenge to the consensus opinion at the UN General Assembly: To divide the land into two ethno-states, one for Jews and one for Palestinians.

Hill's concern for Palestinian people emerged as he was exploring his own African roots

Some casual observers were shocked by the political risk that Hill took, surprised that an African American man was willing to put his professional career on the line in order to stand in solidarity with people on the other side of the planet that he has no direct connection to.

But Hill's concern for Palestinian people did not follow from an interest in a foreign culture. Rather, it emerged as he was exploring his own African roots.

"My interest in the Middle East is rooted in my reading of the Black radical tradition," Hill told The New Arab in an interview last week.

His fascination with northeast Africa and the Middle East began, he says, with the only black civilization to beat back the British empire and force it into retreat: Sudan's Mahidiyyah movement in the late 19th century.

"And so Sudan became interesting to me. Nubians in Egypt became interesting to me. The Africans in the Jordan Valley [in the occupied West Bank] became interesting to me," Hill explained.

Read more: Axed CNN pundit supported basic Palestinian rights. What's so radical about that?

"And so, Israel-Palestine became another space for me to think about these issues of diaspora, these issues of identity, these issues of trans-national solidarity. But also, the question of, What does it mean to be black here?" he said. "So for me, it was also about finding myself here. So that sparked it."

The focus of Hill's UN speech was limited to the suffering of Palestinian people, whatever their colour. But Hill's views on the conflict have also been shaped by the black people he has interacted with across the country.

His many visits to the land have taken him not only to the Afro-Palestinian communities of the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem, but also to those groups within Israel's internationally-recognised borders: African Bedouins, African Hebrews, African Jews and African refugees.

His travel itineraries in Israel have included the now-defunct Holot detention centre, which Israel rounded thousands of African asylum-seekers into off the streets of Tel Aviv, trying to pressure them to self-deport.

"I'm watching people risk their lives to cross the desert, I'm watching people risk their lives to get into Israel, and I'm watching the public discourse be, 'We can't have them here! They're a threat to our economy! They're a threat to our social and cultural fabric! They're dangerous! Let's criminalise refugee status,'" Hill told The New Arab.

Similar sentiments were expressed in Israel when black Jews from Ethiopia were finally allowed into the country in the 1980s, after successive Israeli governments had refused their entry for decades, all while encouraging Jews of every other colour to immigrate.

"When they came, there were questions about their authenticity. There were questions about their ability to integrate into the state," Hill recalled.

'Israel-Palestine became another space for me to think about these issues of diaspora, these issues of identity, these issues of trans-national solidarity.' - Marc Lamont Hill

"Whether or not they were sufficiently Jewish. Whether or not they were clean enough. Some of the most dangerous and anti-black - and really anti-Semitic, on some level - narratives about them became part of the conversation."

Without missing a beat, Hill pivots to Palestinians, noting that some of the same Israeli laws used to discriminate against African citizens of Israel are also used against its Arab ones.

"If we look up in the Galilee, that new law about two weeks ago that normalised, or reinforced, the Admissions Committees. Such that, a person can be denied access to live somewhere because they don't support or mirror the social and cultural fabric of an area," Hill remarked.

He was referring to a law that allows hundreds of villages across the country to keep out those that they consider undesirable; the Netanyahu government voted last month to markedly increase the number of villages that may use this legal loophole.

"Ethiopian Jews are denied access to Jewish neighbourhoods! Because of the social and cultural fabric," he said. "'Social and cultural fabric' can become a proxy, or 'secret agent' talk, for race and ethnicity."

Hill continues, "Imagine what it means for an Arab citizen of Israel - who's even more likely not to be allowed access to these neighbourhoods."

The prevalence of institutional racism against Arabs and Africans is a persuasive argument against a two-state solution, as it would grant legitimacy to Israel's ethnocracy and the racist rules required to maintain a sectarian state.

But even if he shelves the concerns of minorities inside Israel and only looks at the West Bank, Hill comes to the same conclusion: That a one state solution is preferred by far.

"The notion of two states, for me, is not a bad idea as such. My concern is that with settlement expansion and the current political moment being what it is, that two states is an impossibility. And if two states is an impossibility, then we have to imagine a new set of practices - if we are being honest and serious about this thing," Hill told The New Arab.

"For me, a one-state solution, a singular democratic state, creates the possibility for everyone's vote to count, for everyone's vote to matter, for everyone's voice to be heard, for everyone to live in safety and security," he added.

"Again, it is not easy to imagine a different world. But a different world is necessary."

David Sheen is an independent journalist originally from Toronto, Canada and now based in Dimona, Israel. 

Follow him on Twitter: @davidsheen

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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