How Baldwin saw Palestine

July 23, 2014

Paul Heideman discusses solidarity with Palestine through the work of Black author James Baldwin, in a version of an article first published at Marxist Marginalia.

WITH BOMBS again exploding Palestinian homes and lives in Gaza, it is helpful (or comforting, at least) to return to the classic works of the struggle against Zionism. Edward Said's "Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims" comes to mind here, as do the poems of Mahmoud Darwish.

One writer who isn't often classed as part of this tradition, but should be, is James Baldwin. Here's a passage from Baldwin's last novel, Just Above My Head (1978), in which he addresses the subject of terrorism:

I was traveling before the days of electronic surveillance, before the hijackers and terrorists arrived. For the arrival of these people, the people in the seats of power have only themselves to blame. Who, indeed, has hijacked more than England has, for example, or who is more skilled in the uses of terror than my own unhappy country? Yes, I know: nevertheless, children, what goes around comes around, what you send out comes back to you. A terrorist is called that only because he does not have the power of the State behind him--indeed, he has no State, which is why he is a terrorist. The State, at bottom, and when the chips are down, rules by means of a terror made legal--that is how Franco ruled so long, and is the undeniable truth concerning South Africa. No one called the late J. Edgar Hoover a terrorist, though that is precisely what he was: and if anyone wishes, now, in this context, to speak of "civilized" values or "democracy" or "morality," you will pardon this poor nigger if he puts his hand before his mouth, and snickers--if he laughs at you. I have endured your morality for a very long time, am still crawling up out of that dungheap: all that the slave can learn from his master is how to be a slave, and that is not morality.

James Baldwin
James Baldwin (Carl Van Vechten)

Reading this passage today, one is struck by its prescience. Twenty years before 9/11, Baldwin eviscerated Bush and now Obama's pious apologias for the "war on terror." The contemporary relevance of the passage, however, can obscure its own context, which is just as notable. Baldwin's emphases here, on stateless peoples and hijackings, make it clear that the occasion for his reflections is the Palestinian struggle, which during the 1970s especially took the form of hijackings meant to draw international attention to the occupation.

PALESTINE CAME to be a prominent issue during the Black Power years, as Black radicals who identified with anticolonial movements embraced the Palestinian struggle against Israel (for more on this story, check out Alex Lubin's Geographies of Liberation).

This embrace led to allegations of anti-Semitism (which were not always unjustified) against Black Power figures, ultimately culminating in Johnson Publications' decision to shut down Black World, an important Black cultural and political journal, over a supposedly anti-Semitic article about Zionism.

In this context, Baldwin's writings on the subject, though brief, display a remarkable clarity, as he unhesitatingly declares that Israel represents imperialism, not Jewish self-determination.

Thus, in 1972, in his essay "Take Me to the Water," Baldwin recounted his reasons for not settling in Israel when he became an expatriate in the late 1940s: "And if I had fled, to Israel, a state created for the purpose of protecting Western interests, I would have been in a yet tighter bind: on which side of Jerusalem would I have decided to live?"

Here, Baldwin displays an awareness that, in 1948, most of the left still lacked. When he made the decision to flee the U.S., Baldwin realized he could scarcely accomplish his goal by settling in a country then replicating our own bloody frontier days.

Indeed, Baldwin's clarity on this question stands out from almost any analysis on the left during the period of Israel's birth. Stalinism, in particular, played a destructive role here, as the USSR's eagerness for an ally in the region led it to jump in as the second country to recognize Israel (the first, of course, was the United States). In its wake, Stalinists and their fellow travellers across the world refused to take a principled stand for Palestinian self-determination. Baldwin, always an iconoclast, took a different route.

BALDWIN'S MOST substantial writing on Palestine came in 1979, with his "Open Letter to the Born Again." This letter was occasioned by Jimmy Carter's dismissal of Martin Luther King's former aid Andrew Young from his position as ambassador to the UN because of his decision to meet with a Palestinian Liberation Organization delegation. Baldwin is again clear on the circumstances of Israel's birth:

Jews and Palestinians know of broken promises. From the time of the Balfour Declaration (during World War I) Palestine was under five British mandates, and England promised the land back and forth to the Arabs or the Jews, depending on which horse seemed to be in the lead. The Zionists--as distinguished from the people known as the Jews--using, as someone put it, the "available political machinery," i.e., colonialism, e.g., the British Empire--promised the British that, if the territory were given to them, the British Empire would be safe forever.

But absolutely no one cared about the Jews, and it is worth observing that non-Jewish Zionists are very frequently anti-Semitic.

Baldwin goes on to speak of Europe's history of anti-Semitism, the civilizational links between the Inquisition and Franco. The situation in Palestine, he makes clear, is not the result of terrorism or Jewish malfeasance, but European imperialism:

But the state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of Western interests. This is what is becoming clear (I must say it was always clear to me). The Palestinians have been paying for the British colonial policy of "divide and rule" and for Europe's guilty Christian conscience for more than thirty years...The collapse of the Shah not only revealed the depth of pious Carter's concern for "human rights," it also revealed who supplied oil to Israel, and to whom Israel supplied arms. It happened to be, to spell it out, white South Africa.

Baldwin's sharp sense of geopolitics, his grasp of the gulf which separates Jewishness from Zionism, and his willingness to locate the source of the problem in 1948 ("for more than thirty years") all would put him on the left edge of the Palestine solidarity movement today. Thirty years ago, in the United States, he must have felt as if he resided in the most desolate political wilderness. Studied today as a writer of sexuality and gender, or of civil rights, Baldwin's international radicalism remains in the hinterlands.

Those of us struggling to make good on his vision of real justice in the Middle East have a right and a duty today to claim Baldwin's voice for our side, and in doing so help bring his radicalism the recognition it deserves.

A version of this article first appeared at Marxist Marginalia.

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