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Letters on the Arab-Israeli Dispute in James Forman's The Making of Black Revolutionaries PDF E-mail
Matthew Quest   

James Forman was the Executive Secretary and Director of International Affairs of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Later, he would be a leader of the Black Manifesto movement, a call for Black reparations from major U.S. religious institutions, and the Black Workers Congress, an organization which emerged from the Detroit based League of Revolutionary Black Workers.


SNCC (1960-1971) was a multiracial organization which used non-violent direct action to register Black folks to vote in the Jim Crow South. Members often faced brutal attacks by fascists and a white supremacist state often synonymous with one another. Early American television images of their subjection to police dogs and high powered water hoses are legendary. If Dr. Martin Luther King was the figurehead of the southern civil rights movement, SNCC was the shock troops.

Associated with Stokely Carmichael, the banner of “Black Power” emerged from SNCC in 1966 foreshadowing its transformation into a Black nationalist organization. In its early years SNCC would be part of a social democratic coalition. They would be careful to maintain their autonomy from both public communist sympathies and dependency on the Democratic Party. Later it would be among the first Black liberation organizations of its generation to take public militant anti-imperialist positions enduring the wrath of the liberal-labor coalition which used to cautiously embrace them. [1]

A major historical figure in these struggles, James Forman wrote an eloquent and provocative autobiography The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972, 1997)[2], both documenting and providing important strategic analysis. This essay examines two letters contained in that text that James Forman wrote to Stanley Wise, a fellow member of SNCC, regarding the prospects for Palestine solidarity during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. These letters predate the publication of Ethel Minor’s “The Palestine Problem” in the SNCC Newsletter (July 1967) by a month. The latter was the basis of the first major public controversy around Black Power and Palestine solidarity, and accusations that the group was marred by racism and anti-Jewish bigotry. Minor’s article was not meant to be a public position by SNCC but an internal document for discussion. Exposed to public light without SNCC’s consent in a preemptive strike, and never repudiated, it in effect became the SNCC position. Nevertheless, whatever its shortcomings, its explicit pro-Palestine character created a whirlwind of disputes and condemnations, many which Forman’s letters anticipated.

It is beyond the scope of this inquiry to make comprehensive claims about SNCC’s politics on Palestine as a whole, which would have to be a product of more extensive research. The type of tactical questions Forman asks in his letters to Wise about SNCC’s capacity to develop and defend a Palestine solidarity position are still of much relevance for contemporary activists. This essay highlights those considerations. But first, it’s worth reflecting on the Minor article more closely.

Ethel Minor was a close associate of Stokely Carmichael in SNCC, leading a study group on Israel/Palestine in which he participated. Formerly, she was a colleague of Malcolm X when he was in the Nation of Islam and later in the Organization of Afro-American Unity. She was known to be friends with many Palestinians from college. Carmichael credits Minor with helping to initiate his “long time disciplined study of Zionism.”[3] Her article “The Palestine Problem” was subtitled “Test Your Knowledge” and listed thirty-two “documented facts” aimed at giving a brief history of the state of Israel from its inauguration to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Minor’s article, meant for discussion, was attributed to SNCC as a whole by Newsweek.

Among other questions, SNCC asked the readers whether they knew:

That the US Government has constantly supported Israel and Zionism by sending military and financial aid to this illegal state ever since it was forced upon the Arabs in 1948? ‘That the Zioinist terror gangs (Haganah, Irgun, and Stern gangs) deliberately slaughtered and mutilated women, children and men, thereby causing the unarmed Arabs to panic, flee, and leave their homes in the hands of the Zionist-Israeli forces? ‘That the famous European Jews, the Rothschilds, who have long controlled the wealth of many European nations, were involved in the original conspiracy to create the ‘State of Israel’ and are still among Israel’s chief supporters? That the Rothschilds also control much of Africa’s mineral wealth?’ [4]

This article was accompanied by photographs of members of pre-1948 Zionist terrorist groups, as well as Arab civilians killed en masse by Israeli soldiers in 1956. These pictures were accompanied by a caption which noted: “This is the Gaza Strip, Palestine, not Dachau, Germany.” Another cartoon image can be seen of a hand with a six pointed star and a dollar sign on it, holding a hangman’s rope around the necks of Gamal Abdul Nasser, late president of Egypt, and Muhammad Ali, former black heavy weight boxing champion. An arm labeled “Third World Movements” is poised to cut the rope. [5] 

Ralph Featherstone, publicity director for SNCC at that time, in response to media condemnation that SNCC was anti-Semitic, wished to clarify that the organization was not against Jews as a race, but limited its opposition to Zionism and the State of Israel. Yet Featherstone also felt the need at this same time to defend an awkward analogy about Zionism in the Middle East and its similarity or relation to Jewish shopkeepers’ exploitation of African American urban communities.[6] 

Now, merely in this brief synopsis of Ethel Minor’s “The Palestine Problem” and the images and ideas associated with it, we see a mixture of radical anti-colonial ideas, sympathy for populist Third World rulers such as Gamal Abdul Nasser, and African Americans which identified with them, such as the boxer Muhammad Ali. We also see an unpolished and unexplained connection of some of the most brutal founders of the colonial state of Israel with Hitler’s Nazi Germany. [7] Continuing on what most would see at best as an irresponsible slide toward an implied embrace of fascist myths, the Minor article suggests there are inherent Jewish ethnic characteristics. These would be equivalent to the exploitive behavior of capitalists and colonizers, whether by the Zionist state of Israel, the Rothschilds (who were said to own much of the wealth of Europe and Africa), or the small Jewish American shopkeeper. Thus whatever actual anti-capitalist content is suggested within the article’s anti-colonialism, it was ill-defined, smeared, injured, and could be called into question.[8] Were capitalist and imperial relations being objected to in principle? Or was it their racial origin and nature? The emphasis on who owned the wealth in African and African American communities suggests it was primarily the latter.[9]

My intention in this article is not to call into question SNCC’s internationalism in regard to Palestine solidarity. Rather, through examination of James Forman’s letters to Stanley Wise shortly before the debacle around the article by Ethel Minor, I wish to illustrate the dangers and considerations for a group seeking to become a Palestine solidarity organization in the United States. Whatever the shortcomings of Minor’s “The Palestine Problem,” formulated to stimulate internal discussion, as per Forman’s earlier letters, it would have provoked exactly the kind of discussion that was needed in SNCC.

The summer of 1967 was distinguished by the Black liberation struggle in the U.S. being noticed by the entire world. Fierce rebellions in Newark, Detroit, and fifty-five other cities marked the decline in emphasis of the southern civil rights movement. Many SNCC activists were going abroad to many parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia to forge international solidarity as recognized freedom fighters. International support for Black liberation in America compelled those who had not yet considered it, to ask what was the African American relationship to anti-colonial struggles abroad? Before leaving for Tanzania and Zambia, James Forman wrote the first of two letters under discussion as a prelude to encouraging and preparing SNCC to take a position on the 1967 Arab-Israeli War in the Middle East.

In Forman’s first letter to Stanley Wise (June 7, 1967) he argues SNCC should patiently formulate their position on Israel/Palestine because the Arab-Israeli War “will not be a short war. It already has been a long protracted struggle and it will continue to be one.” SNCC should consider that there is a large public opinion favorable to the Israelis. Many Jewish community organizations who previously have been sympathetic and in some ways sponsored the civil rights movement constantly lobbied for U.S. support of Israel. Forman noted that the liberal-labor leadership circle of the movement, which was more conservative than SNCC, including African American leaders A. Phillip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King, was openly supportive of Israel. SNCC would need to be prepared to be attacked in the media.

At the same time, Forman felt awareness of the Arab-Israeli conflict would heighten the class struggle in the African American community. The “gut reaction” among most SNCC members would be against Israel and on the side of the Arabs reflecting a growing awareness by African Americans of the “semi-colonial” nature of racism in their own country. But Forman told Wise, members and particularly those in leadership positions should not take these instincts for granted. "Study of the historical development and contemporary economic policies of Israel” was very necessary. Forman explains:

Actually Israel represents an extension of United States foreign policy as well as an attempt by Zionists to create a homeland for Jews…the implications…for us, it seems, is not to fall party to a reactionary position that even the Syrians and Egyptians don’t articulate: namely, a hatred for the people of Israel. Rather, they detest what Israel represents—an extension of imperialism and a violation of territory of the Arabs, to put it mildly. [10]

After making this point, and emphasizing SNCC must stop putting off developing an autonomous financial base in the Black community, Forman detailed different scenarios he anticipated could occur as a result of SNCC taking a stand on Israel. He believed like their stance against the war in Vietnam, “the reaction would be fantastic against us.”

Manning Marable has noted that SNCC was a non-ideological vanguard organization which “talked the talk and walked the walk” in their commitment and risk taking, organizing everyday people, such as sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer, to be their own leaders.[11] The organization’s unquestionable historical integrity obscures the group’s inconsistency of membership requirements and political education. Acknowledging this is important, not to challenge SNCC’s historical legacy, but in fact to appreciate the inconsistencies in less heralded social movement organizations today, and the real lack of clarity committed folks have even as they strive to take up difficult positions and tasks.

James Forman’s scenario questions included possible reactions from inside and outside SNCC:

A. Why was it necessary for SNCC to issue a statement? What does this statement do for the people that we are organizing? Why did we do this when the issue; was and remains touchy in this country?

B.SNCC is wrong. Did not the Jews help SNCC in Civil Rights? Is this not a minority issue and SNCC should support minorities in this country? How could SNCC dare to be so inhumane as to not recognize the rights of the people of Israel?

C. This is not any of our business period.

D. SNCC must be isolated further and it must be destroyed and never forget that it came out in favor of the Arabs (assuming we do that). [12]

It’s quite illuminating that Forman’s sober assessment of one of the most courageous radical civil rights organizations with a mass following was that it had membership who feared being destroyed. It was not clear at all what an outlook of international solidarity with non-African people would do for community organizing among everyday Black folks. “Touchy” issues, seen not immediately relevant to Black folks, would not be seen as SNCC business by at least some members. Others might choose to equate solidarity with Jews as synonymous with support for the state of Israel. These contradictions all seem contemporary, if paradoxical, for organizations explicitly dedicated to Palestine solidarity. But they also inform why many ethnic and multiracial, religious and secular organizations do not identify with this cause today. Many ask: “What would be the benefit to us?”

Clearly from this letter, James Forman, is trying to get SNCC to turn the corner and be a consistent anti-imperialist organization. A political organization which is self-interested in terms of reform, or gains for one narrowly defined community, cannot maintain such a position. Forman was not personally sure that SNCC could decide to take “a Pro Arab position,” yet “increasing horrified at the prospects for blacks in this country.” Forman explained:

I am also absolutely convinced that we can go nowhere in the future in terms of programming if we do not accentuate a class analysis of the national and international scene. We cannot, for instance, just explain glibly the events in the Middle East as a struggle of Blacks against whites when the actors themselves have a different viewpoint. That is not to say we should not speak of racism for racism is involved in the Middle East crisis. But it is a serious error to even think one can eliminate racism without dealing with the fundamental cause of exploitation, the unequal distribution of wealth throughout the world, and the desire for those who have control of the wealth to keep it. [13]

Forman was coming to the conclusion that SNCC, to evolve radically further, would have to declare itself a socialist organization to have meaningful international relations. He was charged with facilitating this responsibility, and to have a proper method in evaluating people and struggles. This would bring future controversy but the responsibility of radical commitments dictated that SNCC rise to the challenge.

"Dear Brother Stanley" begins the second letter to Wise written a day later. Forman is now on a diplomatic trip to visit with an ambassador from the West African nation of Guinea. Whether they are meeting this ambassador in Tanzania or Zambia is not clear. What is obvious is the following: Forman observes Floyd McKissick and Lincoln Lynch, two leaders of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), another non-violent direct action civil rights organization of that era that would soon make the turn from multi-racialism to Black nationalism, making excuses to the ambassador as to why they do not publicly support the Palestinian cause. They believe it would rip their organization apart both through inflaming internal divisions on the matter and through public scrutiny. This is the exact crisis that SNCC soon faces.

Interestingly Forman shows both sympathy and disdain for CORE’s position. Clearly he thinks they should be more uncompromising. But citing the ideas of Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Forman imagines CORE’s position as equivalent to a moderate African nation state such as Zambia, which must compromise at times to attain independence from colonialism. It is clear in this allusion, and in Forman’s satisfaction at establishing contacts with many populist African and Arab ruling elites based at the U.N. as similar to a “people to people” foreign policy, that he equates the leaders of certain Third World nation-states as anti-imperialist forces.[14] Forman writing to Stanley Wise explains:

Frankly, I have not changed my position on the Middle East crisis since I last wrote. A public stand ought not to come before there is a special meeting and education of the staff. I would hate for someone in Alabama to read about the position of the Central Committee and [have] no education on the question. Secondly, I am worried about SNCC’s ability to withstand the external pressures. I know we would almost be united internally, but the external pressures would be fantastic, especially in New York. Thirdly, the situation is very muddy in the Middle East and I think we should give some time to see what is going to happen. One has to be concerned about the wording of any position, for that is a very delicate question given the nature of the government of some countries. [15]

Under the pressure of realizing the need for public accountability for taking any position on Israel/Palestine, not only with Zionists but rank and file African Americans, James Forman suggests mass and internal organizational education is important. He argues any stand SNCC takes must be worded delicately “given the nature of the government of some countries” implying the possibilities of American state repression and the desire to unite with regimes imagined as progressive abroad.

Palestine solidarity activists can learn much from some of the experiences of SNCC as detailed briefly by James Forman. Many Palestine solidarity coalitions come together with less discipline or commitment than did SNCC, who were prepared in many respects to define the struggle for democracy, and opposition to white supremacy, as necessarily breaking unjust laws and confronting the American state. Nevertheless, there are few understood commonalities with the experience of this heralded movement organization and Palestine solidarity activists.

SNCC’s political philosophy was remarkably undefined like that of many Palestine solidarity activists today. Activists’ visions became more concrete from unexpected confrontations, difficult to imagine when beginning such work. Opposition to empire is not a mere slogan, teach-in, or charity event. It is a political campaign against an opponent that will strike back. Attacks in the media need not be a crisis. If one prepares they are opportunities for a clear statement of principles and demonstration of the capacity for action.

Many Palestine solidarity activists are primarily concerned with securing their own civil and human rights in their own countries under the logic of ethnic competition, capitalism and the state. These can account for some of the shortcomings of SNCC’s perspective. For those with integrity, it takes the experience of struggling under this rubric to find out that freedom cannot be secured in this way. The most insightful freedom fighters in SNCC came to this conclusion.

Palestine solidarity is often conceived as something which should not offend outsiders and not cause existing community and cultural organizations to implode. But if they are not built for Palestine solidarity how can this not be an eventuality? Consequently, the Palestine solidarity movement thus far has been unsustainable under pressures, often unintentionally provoked, by those who wish to avoid conflict with Zionists and the American state.

Many Palestine solidarity activists, as did most SNCC activists, do not see a clear distinction between liberal and revolutionary ideas, nor opposition to empire as a universal principle. Consequently, they are caught off guard when Zionists, especially liberal ones, seize what should be their platform. That is the task in a campaign of defining to the public what they believe are the principles of democracy and anti-racism and who and what institutions constitute their violators.

Ethel Minor’s discussion piece on the Palestine problem stressing the ethnic character of certain capitalists, Ralph Featherstone’s equation of Zionist colonialism with Jewish small business owners in predominantly Black American communities, and James Forman’s alliance making with newly independent governments who were willing, despite populist speeches, to subordinate their own working classes to the logic of international capital, suggests something crucial. SNCC was unable to consistently apply their vision of direct democracy as a principle to guide their global politics. Having a just reputation for facilitating direct democratic processes in community meetings, encouraging working class folks on the local level not to be dependent on aspiring representatives from above, SNCC still at times fell prey to the logic of capitalism and state power.

Democracy and anti-racism as principles must be defined in any Palestine solidarity campaign as the negation of all existing and aspiring states and ruling classes if it is not to fall prey to accusations that Israel is the focal point of special unprincipled venom. It is difficult to accomplish this task. Anti-imperialist solidarity for most activists, locally and globally, is an attitude of fellowship subordinated to defense of our individual, or our ethnic group’s aspiring representatives’ ability to seize power and patronage for survival under the terms of oppressive systems.

Israel, Zionist Jews claim more or less fairly, would appear to be justifiably doing the same thing as other states. Racial and imperial oppression, capitalist and class relations, cannot be discovered and objected to merely in one corner of the globe. SNCC was one step further on the road to revolution by grappling with what it meant to consolidate a consistent internationalist position. This is a contemporary task for us all.


Notes


[1] The standard work on SNCC is Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995. Two other valuable general works on SNCC to consider are the following. From the pre-Black Power era, Howard Zinn’s SNCC: the New Abolitionists. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965. Discussing SNCC in the context of a general survey of the Black Power Movement is Robert L. Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1990.

[2] James Forman. The Making of Black Revolutionaries. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.

[3] Carson, 267. See also Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). With E. Michael Thelwell. Ready For Revolution: The Life and Times of Stokley Carmichael. New York: Scribner, 2003. The late Carmichael/Ture extensively covers his controversial views on Palestine on pages 557-563. He avoids naming Ethel Minor by name whom he terms only as a “courageous activist sister.” He believed her document to be “entirely accurate.” Her name is mentioned elsewhere in the book but is clearly marked in the historical record in James Forman’s The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972, 1995).

[4] “SNCC and the Jews.” Newsweek, August 28, 1967. 22. Cited in Louis Young. “American Blacks and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” Journal of Palestine Studies. 2.1 (1972): 70-85.

[5] Young, 77. Carson, 267-269. The content of the Minor document is also summarized in Robert Weisbord and Richard Kazarian Jr.’s Israel in the Black American Perspective. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985. 33-36. And in Melani McAlister.< em>Epic Encounters: Culture, Media and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2001. 84-124.

[6] Carson. The analogy of Jewish shopkeepers in African American urban communities to Zionists in the Middle East I believe is problematic because it is consistent with a critique of these communities as “neo-colonies,” a term Kwame Nkrumah applied to post-colonial Africa. The theory of neo-colonialism laments the lack of sovereignty of the native state and ruling class in relation to outside racist and corporate elements. This seemingly anti-capitalist and anti-racist analysis obscures that non-native shopkeepers are insulting simply because petty capitalist exploitation should be organized by nationalist business owners—thereby negating whatever injuries were thought to exist previously. While I see no need for a revolutionary class struggle or anti-racist vision to prioritize attacking small businesses, national liberation at its best is not a project which prioritizes liberating the middle classes. Further Zionism in the Middle East is not maintained primarily by a conspiracy of Jewish capitalists, but by the U.S. state and ruling class of varying religions and ethnicities.

Featherstone was later killed with William “Che” Payne in March of 1970 in Bel, Maryland. A bomb exploded in their car rendering their bodies unrecognizable. They were in Maryland to do solidarity work for H. Rap Brown (now Imam Jamil Abudllah Amin, and again a political prisoner) who was framed up at that time for inciting a riot while giving a speech in Cambridge, Maryland. It was believed these were assassinations associated with the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to disrupt domestic radical organizations. Forman, 542; Carson, 297

[7] “Zionism=Nazism” is often a slogan used to this day by some Palestine solidarity activists. Seen as extreme and irresponsible, a relationship can in fact be documented but is not often explained clearly by activists who use this analogy. For a discussion of the politics of Zionist terror gangs and their fascist and Nazi connections see Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of Dictators. Westport, Connecticut: Lawrence Hill, 1983.

[8] Minor’s article suggests at least some influence from her experience in the Nation of Islam (NOI). The NOI’s record opposing imperialism is rather a mixed one. If it can be said to have been an anti-colonial organization most certainly it was never anti-capitalist. The NOI throughout its history has promoted white supremacist manufactured ideas about Jews as good coin such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Henry Ford’s The International Jew. This is not to say this was Minor’s intention in this article but rather to take note of previous influences on her ideas. The emphasis on the Rothschild family is a particular eyesore, not because of their reprehensible capitalist activities (which many nationalists do not oppose in principle), but rather their supposed Jewish character. Nevertheless, it must be said the NOI, especially under Malcolm X’s leadership, was certainly a radicalizing influence on SNCC toward its evolving Black nationalist and internationalist orientation.

[9] The question that must be raised is not one focusing solely on ownership which is part of any anti-colonial struggle, but also on the social relationships that entails that ownership. To replicate the social relations in capitalist property relationships negates the anti-capitalist content of any movement. Hence the critique of Jewish ownership of African resources can be questioned for its anti-capitalist merits because on what basis is it anti-capitalist? If indigenous ruling classes appropriate resources and rule with capitalist relations then it cannot be supported just because of the fact that they are people of color. The same standards of anti-capitalism and democracy must be applied to all societies or else the possibility exists that the abilities of people of color in creating an autonomous anti-capitalist society may be degraded. The alternative is a world based on direct democratic control of mines, factories, schools, and neighborhoods with social relations, whether titled nationalist, religious, or revolutionary, that entail such dynamics as will solve the fundamental question of self-management in Palestine, Africa, and throughout the world.

[10] Forman, 493. The “attitude of Egypt and Syria” referred to is that of the short lived United Arab Republic federation led by Gamal Abdel Nasser.

[11] South End Press. “A Humane Society Is Possible Through Struggle: An Interview with Manning Marable” http://www.zmag.org/zmag/articles/marableint.htm

[12] Forman, 494.

[13] Ibid, 494.

[14] A critique of American financial and military dominance in the world by a peripheral nation-state’s leader can not with historical hindsight be termed anti-imperialism. Rather it is obligatory “democratic” rhetoric for subordinating these nations to the logic of the market by uniting its working and ruling classes. Observers of the left wing of capital, the Democratic Party in the U.S.A., can see a similar analogy in the obviously empty concerns with opposing certain policies of warfare, but not whether America should be an empire at all, through other channels such as the U.N. and World Bank.

[15] Forman, 496.

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