Many have been weighing in on Lauryn Hill’s recently canceled show in Israel. However, few have heard or will know the story of three teenage female emcees from a Palestinian refugee camp who this month visited New York City to perform. They endured a sobering process of checkpoints, permits and visas to journey to the Tri-State area (Ms. Hill’s birthplace). They were the only three chosen of nine young girls from Shoruq, an arts organization based in Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem.
I first met them this past January while on a delegation of several Black American activists and organizers to Palestine. We were welcomed into their space and they taught us dabke, holding our hands, patiently sharing culture. It has been quite a marvel to witness my country through their eyes these past few days. To see the way strangers, media and friends have treated the reality of the lives before them. While showing these girls a bit of my city, I kept envisioning the immobilizing soldiers, and searches, flashbacks to checkpoints in Ramallah instead this time remixed to hard-earned visas for Palestinian refugees and the blue gold standard of the American passport.
It is quite easy to be removed and desensitized from the struggles of our brothers and sisters abroad when we reside in the comfort of our passport jurisdiction no matter how disillusioned that comfort may be. I recall how eager we were as Black Americans in Palestine to identify our struggle in theirs; it would seem that we could not empathize had we not seen ourselves in their lives. I wondered at the meaning behind this word: solidarity. I became apprehensive at constantly trying to find the parallels between Black Americans and Palestinians and instead tried to take in the environment as resistance, though the connections and comparisons were already being made.
I wondered at the goodness of humanity and love, to be on the side of justice not because it was rationalized but because our gut instinct knows righteous love as opposed to reasoned hate. While visiting Palestine, I learned that Palestinians were not only in the midst of an atrocious conflict with the Israeli State by way of settlers, displacement, and discrimination but that in actuality what we were witnessing was indeed occupation and in fact an open-air prison—a violation of many, if not all, human rights.
If I have to get you to see me as you in order for you to affirm my right to exist and my humanity—this is not solidarity. We see oppression through a capitalist lens. If we offer our time, our energy, even our empathy and understanding—we look for the reciprocation. Where am I in this? What can I get out of this? We must acknowledge that to honor one life does not negate another.
We have been taught to fear empathy as a means of survival by extension of material gain. At the core, how do we operate when we know our means of bread and butter is threatened by our moral compass within? While I do, like many, applaud Lauryn Hill’s decision to cancel her show in Israel, I question the framing of her statement which appears to take no real stance. How do I illustrate the complexity of a fence rider? The fence rider is a person who is constantly playing the tricks of politics, sitting in the middle, with no clear stance on grave injustices against humanity. What are the elements that are causing people to walk on eggshells around blatant and vulgar atrocities against human beings? We cannot afford to be on the fence about oppression.
I continue to pose the question: What side are you on?
As Ferrari Sheppard eloquently stated in an op-ed after visiting Palestine in January of 2014, “I traveled to Palestine-Israel and discovered there is no Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” We are either pro-apartheid, checkpoints, walls, segregation, militarized policing, sensational media, industrialized prisons, displacement, the bombing of human beings, acts of senseless murder or… not?
At a distance, solidarity seems to be this romantic gesture of unity: I see you in me, you see me in you. But what about when we cannot see each other? What does radical solidarity look like when three young Palestinian girls are at your doorstep mouths dripping Arabic verse written with the ghosts of their sisters and brothers?
Nadeen Odeh spits, “I know freedom like the sun knows coldness.” There’s no incentive to care about Palestinian lives because we understand that there is no business to be made off of the struggle for Palestine. If you keep trying to see an issue from everyone’s perspective, you have no perspective. Either you are standing on the side of the oppressed or the oppressors.
The reason why I take such a strong position on Palestine is because I have witnessed it for myself and I am reliving the witnessing through the eyes of three young girls viscerally outraged by the State violence of America on Black bodies as they learn of the militarized response in the Baltimore uprising. I watch one of the girls take a few dollars out of her wallet from a given per diem, shocked by a homeless man begging on a 6th Avenue street corner and I see the confusion and frustration birth an understanding between us:
This is where we went wrong–
this treasured secret small enuff
to fit the hole in our hearts,
we did not love our people more
than we hated our enemies…
You wanna know what Palestine taught me?
To feel, feel.
To feel closer to strangers than passports.
“How you gon win when you ain’t right within?”
Aja Monet is a poet, educator, and activist from East NY, Brooklyn. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she received her BA in Liberal Arts and was awarded the the Andrea Klein Willison Prize for Poetry. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.