Black Panthers and Palestine: How a Black Nationalist Movement Took On An Internationalist Character

The year was 1970, and the Black Panthers had sent the FBI, and now the State Department into a whirlwind of panic. Rumor had spread across the embassies that the Black Panther Party was in Jordan agitating the country against Jewish people in Israel. Huey Newton called a press conference to clarify: the rumor was not quite true, Kwame Ture was in Jordan, but not as a representative of the Black Panther Party, and they had no grievance against the Jewish people. But what was happening was something far more formidable: one of the most fearsome socialist organizations in the US had been operating with an international consciousness.

Whether or not a grassroots movement is able to assent to international anti-imperialism has become an infamous bellwether on the left ever since the imperialist turn of the Social Democratic Parties in Europe. As World War I broke out across the continent, Lenin and Luxemburg warned that this was a war among imperial powers for control over resources that would be wrong to support, but the Social Democratic Party in Germany, and other European socialist parties most directly influenced by Marx and Engels, decided to betray them and each other by choosing nationalism and voting for war credits to finance the war, demonstrating how a socialism organization even with the best intentions can be bended into a tool of capitalism and the state if their politics are not fully anti-imperialist. How much will Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez be willing to reduce the defense budget and withdraw US troops at the expense of their electability in the largest empire in the world? How much would the protestors who turned out against police brutality in the US be willing to turn out against Duterte’s lethal Anti-Terror Law in the Philippines? Every solidarity movement as it grows faces challenges to the limits of its solidarity that it must meet if it is to continue to unite the oppressed against their oppressor.

“We support the Palestinians’ just struggle for liberation one hundred percent,” announced Huey Newton at the conference, “we will go on doing this, and we would like for all of the progressive people of the world to join our ranks in order to make a world in which all people can live.” The Black Panthers had been in daily correspondence with the Palestine Liberation Organization, via Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver in Algiers, who had traveled there fleeing US Law Enforcement. In about a year’s time, the Black Panthers had written and distributed 33 different articles on this topic in their newspaper, the Black Panther

But undoubtedly the most meaningful result of Black Panther’s relationship with Palestinian solidarity came with a militant Anti-Zionist organization which formed amongst Mizrahi youth in Israel in 1971. The Mizrahi are Jews who originated from Middle East and North Africa who were therefore both are Arab and Jewish, and as such have been treated as second-class citizens in Israel, above Muslim Palestinians citizens of Israel but below the European descended Ashkenazi Jews. Second-generation Mizrahim living in the slums of Musrara would learn of socialist movements from the revolutionary Matzpen movement organizing in Israel, and from these conditions the Mizrahi Black Panthers were born.

What’s beautiful about the Mizrahi Black Panthers is that rather than merely fighting for their own rights as Israeli Jews, they found common cause with their fellow Palestinian Arabs in Israel, who often lived in the same neighborhoods as them and faced similar problems of harassment and brutality by the police. They organized public demonstrations, often facing arrests from the police, including disrupting the World Zionist Congress of 1972 and organizing a hunger strike at the Western Wall which forced a meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister. In what they had termed “Operation Milk,” milk bottles were stolen from rich Ashkenazi neighborhoods and given to poor Mizrahi families in need, along with incendiary literature explaining why this had been done. While they didn’t always necessarily identify as an Anti-Zionist or an Anti-Imperialist movement, their actions and their outlook situated themselves and the Palestinians against the Zionist state which to them was indistinguishable from the “white tribe” Ashkenazi supremacy of their condition.

At the press conference, Huey Newton had said, in what would later get published as “On the Middle East” that the Black Panther Party would “[n]ot just stand in international solidarity with all peoples oppressed by white supremacy but international resistance against all whom we understand to be the bodyguards of capital.” But how was it that it came to be that a movement that began in 1966 as two activists in Oakland arming and organizing black residents to defend themselves against police violence would be publicly declaring international opposition against all of capitalist imperialism in just four short years? What is it that they did or saw that we can learn from by their example? 

The first thing to note about the Black Panther Party’s solidarity with the Palestinians is that it was only a part of a rich relationship between Palestine and the broader Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X was a significant champion of the Palestinian cause, on a personal level having been connected to the Arab world as a member of the Nation of Islam as well as ideologically as an anti-imperialist revolutionary, visiting Gaza in 1964. Malcolm X’s fight for black liberation extended to all non-whites oppressed by Western imperial power, not just African-Americans living in the US. Like Malcom, Kwame Ture’s concept of Black Power was also internationalist, explaining that “[w]hen you talk of black power, you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created.” As chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Ture wrote a 1967 article drawing parallels between the black civil rights struggle in the US with the Palestinians rights struggle in Israel and staged a demonstration at a leftist conference to demand adoption of a resolution condemning Zionism.

While Ture and Newton both supported what they recognized as Palestinian Nationalism against the state of Israel, Newton felt it necessary to draw a distinction between a sort of alliance amongst oppressed peoples towards seperatism characteristic of Ture’s Pan-Africanism and his own conditional nationalism aligned not strictly by race but by the struggle against capitalist imperialism, stating “This transformation can only take place by wiping out United States imperialism and establishing a new earth, a new society, a new world. So politically and strategically the correct action to take is not separation but world revolution in order to wipe out imperialism. Then people will be free to decide their destiny. Self-determination and national liberation can not really exist while United States imperialism is alive. That is why we don’t support nationalism as our goal.”

And it must have seemed (more than usual) that these were particularly international times. It was the midst of the cold war and countries and conflicts were literally being categorized by their relation to Western Imperialism and Communism. More importantly, it was the midst of the Vietnam War. The most unpopular war in US history had been opposed by the Black Panthers  from the very start, including an anti-war plank in its original Ten-Point Platform, stating “We want all Black men to be exempt from military service. We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America.” The next year, the draft began and the number of deployed troops reached half a million.

At the same time this was a pivotal moment for the Israel-Palestine conflict in particular: in June of 1967 came the Six-Day War. It took less than a week for Israel to pre-emptive strike Egypt and much of Syria’s air force and drive out Egyptian and Jordanian forces on the ground until the UN came in to broker a cease-fire. The result was the entirety of historic Palestine became occupied by Israel, with a million Palestinians now living under Israeli rule and hundreds of thousands more fleeing as refugees. Unlike the relatively static occupation of this decade, the burgeoning party would have seen the nation of Palestine effectively wiped from the map in real-time.

Another essential aspect of the anti-imperialist politics of the Panthers, of course, was the anti-imperialist teachings of Marx, Lenin, and Mao whom as revolutionaries their leadership ascribed to. While Marx set the economic basis for describing the exploitation of Capitalism, it was Lenin who saw in particular its relation to Imperialism, describing it as the highest stage of the Capitalism system. Mao took this philosophy of Marxist-Leninism and recontextualised it outside of the West – first, as a “semi-colonial” country facing imperial aggression from Japan, later, as a Communist power facing aggression from the US. The result was militant political organizing conducted with a awe-inspiring combination of revolutionary zeal and analytical clarity, as illustrated here by Fred Hampton “We’re not going to fight reactionary pigs and reactionary state attorneys with any other reactions on our part. We’re going to fight their reaction when all working people get together and have an international proletarian revolution.”

The sources of the Black Panther Party’s revolutionary ideas appear to have come from a variety of places. From the first, the Black Panthers saw themselves picking up after the work of another revolutionary, Malcom X, who was assassinated a year before their founding. But for the Panther’s Maoism also wasn’t a historical matter, they could see these principals in motion in China and Vietnam. They also drew inspiration from the Cuban revolution as well as the Marxist and decolonial thinker Frantz Fanon. By Assata Skakur’s account, “I wasn’t against communism, but i can’t say i was for it either. At first, i viewed it suspiciously, as some kind of white man’s concoction, until i read works by African revolutionaries and studied the African liberation movements. Revolutionaries in Africa understood that the question of African liberation was not just a question of race, that even if they managed to get rid of white colonists, if they didn’t rid themselves of the capitalist economic structure, the white colonialists would simply be replaced by Black neocolonialists.” On the other hand, George Jackson simply stated “I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me.”

Among these factors which help explain the international character of the Black Panthers, the one I find most compelling is the simplest one: the Black Panthers and Palestinians both faced struggles which they could recognize in each other. The Black Panthers were founded as a community solution to police violences and began their first published article demanding justice for the police killing of Denzil Dowell. In Palestine, there were 48 people killed by Israeli officers enforcing curfew in Kafr Qassem and the Wadi Salin riots protesting the police killing of a Mizrahi Jewish man. At a time when black people in America relocated to escape the legacy of slavery a racial enmity in the rural South and faced the impacts of redlining in ghettos, Palestinians and Mizrahim faced displacement from Israeli troops and slums. While Huey Newton compared the black experience in America to a colonial occupation of Palestine, a Palestinian liberation leader reflecting on Huey Newton would compare the oppression of the Palestinians to the the US incarceration system. While the location, context, and degree of these struggles may vary between the two peoples, it is undeniable they struggled against much of the same problems, in truth both struggling against different facets of the same problem of racist and imperialist capitalist systems. The Black Panthers direct experience with this oppression and with this struggle, fundamentally, is not something that would require a textbook to explain.

Perhaps the political and organizational legacy of the Black Panther Party in the United States can best be seen today in the Black Lives Matter movement, arguably the most influential racial civil rights and police abolition movement since the Civil Rights Era, and Democratic Socialists of America, arguably the most influential socialist organization of this generation. What guidance can we offer these movements on how they can stay the course of international solidarity? In the case of Palestine at least there is some reason for optimism; in 2016 the Movement for Black Lives released a statement in support of the Palestinian struggle as part of their platform and in 2019 the DSA passed a resolution in support of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement. But the lesson I believe we can take from the Black Panther Party on internationalism is to study the movements that came before you, pay attention to the world events happening around you, study the revolutionary theorists of the past and present, but above all engage meaningfully in the struggle for liberation. To catch a panther cub you must enter the panther’s lair — there is no greater teacher on the contours of our shared political struggles than the material reality of the struggle itself.