John Fleming: Welcome to the Palestine Center Summer Intern Lecture series. We have called it Palestine and Us: Contextualizing Contemporary American Activism. This series was organized by the four of us, as the summer interns at the Palestine Center. We hope to – over the course of this series – examine the ways that American activists incorporate Palestine into their work, theoretically, and on the ground. Palestine, and the struggle of the Palestinian people for total liberation, is central to an intersectional understanding of imperialism, militarism, white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, and other forces that shape our world and oppressed people.
Dylann Nasr: Today, we are joined by pastor and activist, Reverend Graylan Hagler. Reverend Hagler was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. Hagler received a bachelor’s degree in Religion from Oberlin College, Ohio in 1976. He is presently the senior minister of Plymouth Congressional United Church of Christ, Washington, D.C, and the immediate past national president of Ministers for Social and Racial Economic Justice.
Jasper Salah: Reverend Hagler is a longtime black liberation anti-war and economic justice advocate, and active in the ongoing Poor People’s Campaign, in addition to tackling issues of systematic racism, indigenous rights, [and] economic equality. He has been a member of Black Solidarity delegations to Palestine in the Past, as well as opening up his church and congregation to speakers you might have seen here, like Mazen Qumsiyeh and Reverend Naeem Ateek.
Thomas Milnes: Alright ladies and gentlemen, I would like to remind everyone to turn off your cell phones and any other noise-making devices. I’d also like to remind you, if you have the chance, take a look at our website at “www.thejerusalemfund.org” where you kind all sorts of information of what we do here, and videos of past events because we actually record our events here, as well as information about our upcoming event. Without further ado, please join me in welcoming our esteemed guest.
Reverend Graylan Hagler: Thank you. I had a wonderful opportunity to meet these interns and to hear their diverse background and their interest in Palestine and various perspectives that brought them to the Jerusalem fund and I am glad I have met them – quite a tremendous group of young folks that gives definite hope in terms of the work that we need to do in the future.
I also want to greet and welcome my colleague, Reverend Dr. Raymond Bell, who is the pastor of Spirit Love and Deliverance Baptist church in Maryland. He went with me to Palestine in 2016. And can I adequately say, reverend Bell, that you were a Christian Zionist when you left? Right, he was a Christian Zionist when he left. And I didn’t have anything to do with that, he just looked around and he saw what he saw. And he began to question everything he had assumed and that folks had taught him and the stuff that had conditioned him. And when he looked at the reality, Reverend Bell changed his whole spirit, his whole theological perspective and understanding of what was going on in the country.
And that’s important. That’s where I want to start. One thing that is clear is that oppression is allowed to exist, and continues to exist, when we do not see and therefore cannot comprehend. It is like the residual effects of slavery in this country, right? Folks say “Well, that’s passed, that’s gone, that’s not something that you should dwell upon.” Well, the reality is that it still has a tremendous impact today, partly because it has never ever been addressed as a society.
Racism has never been addressed. The whole issue of separation and segregation, and economic segregation, and physical segregation, has never been addressed. You know, we went through the moment the country elected a black person with an Arab name as president, and somehow, we thought we had entered a post-racial era. We thought that just because we elected somebody that somehow, all the injustices of the past have been dealt with. That it was all over now and now we can sort of just move on with life.
Then the reality is that after eight years of somebody who is black with an Arab name in the White House, we see this whole resurgence of white supremacy on steroids, and racism that continues to come back at us. I have been reading this book The Half that Has Never Been Told by a writer by the name Baptiste. And he talks about, really, the economic change in slavery and the philosophical change in slavery that took place. And one of the things he talks about in that book is that in the thirteen original colonies, basically those who were enslaved were still known by the trades and the crafts that they did. Somebody was a blacksmith, somebody was a carpenter, somebody was a housekeeper. And even though it was still immoral, people bought and sold on those skills that they had.
And then the Louisiana Purchase happens, and new slave territory opens up, and cotton becomes king. And basically, the crops on the east begin to collapse. People began to sell their slaves to save their farms. People are buying slaves wholesale here and taking them out there to Mississippi and Louisiana and selling them at retail value – at premium retail values. And all the brokerage houses are financing the exchange of land and the exchange of slaves, and so everyone is making money and cotton is king. And all of a sudden, families are truly, severely ripped apart, ripped from one another. Wives are sold from husbands and children are sold from mothers. So for me, what’s been going on in our border right, the kinds of sort of ripping apart of families…..but somehow, we forget, really, [that] this has been a hallmark of what has happened in terms of oppression and violence that has taken place in the United States of America.
So the whole thing changes and all of a sudden people are not known by what they can do but they are known by their hands – their hands that pick cotton, and the quotas that they require to bring in. And everybody is enriched, except for those enslaved families [and] individuals that have been torn away from their families – that’s been torn away from their homelands, been stripped of their language and their religion.
Why do I lift that up? Because, we still don’t want to see what has generated the kind of economic power that exists in this country – that people have inherited from generation to generation to generation and people have been deprived off from generation to generation to generation. And as long as we don’t see, we can pretend that it doesn’t exist. We can pretend that somehow the impact of enslavement is something that is over with and exists in the mists of time.
That is what you found out, Reverend Bell, when you went to Palestine and you saw. You saw what the media was refusing to talk about. You saw the kind of paradigm that existed that created and kept in place the models of oppression. You saw, what really, Jim Crow in the United States looked like. You saw the separate but unequal status that existed. And if you go there and you take a look through your eyes, and I got to say, particularly, it was easier to take Black folks on a trip to Palestine than it was to take White folks to Palestine. Why? Because White folks wanted to know the history of both sides and you got to look at it from an objective point of view, when the reality is, what is objective? There is nothing that is objective. The reality you live is a subjective reality you live in. I don’t live it. So, in a sense, what goes on is that people want to see, and, strain to see as they keep talking about both sides of the issues.
Well when people of color, particularly Black folks go, they see it out of their subjective reality. They see it out of their experience with racism in this country. They see it out of their experience of being separate and unequal in this society. They see it because of police brutality in this society. They see all the kinds of -isms that come right back and smack them in the face. And so, if your eyes are open, then your heart is changed. And if your heart is not changed, then there is something that you have got to question, that may be wrong with your soul—if heart is not changed. Because one of the things is that, think of all of the media exposés, the half stories that they tell—not even the half stories sometimes, sometimes 10 percent of the story, sometimes 5 percent.
Sometimes, it is just total untruths:
“Palestinians don’t want peace, because they walked away from the negotiating table.”
Well why did they walk away from the negotiating table?
“Well, because they believe that Palestinians have the right to return.”
Oh, so they believe that Palestinians have the right to return who have some ties to the land, and meanwhile, they want to sort of allow Jews who never had a tie to the land to the so-called return. Just understand the imbalance in terms of the information that is going forward.
I want to just say that, every time I have been in Hebron, there has been an incident. We had an incident the last time we were in Hebron. And the incident that I had the first time, not the first time I was there because I was there, I got to say this, I was there in 2014 and we went back in 2016. I was in Palestine previous to that in 1974, so you’re talking about a 40-year gap of being there and not being there. And leaving with the impression that I left with in 1974, which was seven years after the ‘67 war. And still, even though you had occupation, the country was relatively open, that I could take a cab from Jerusalem down to Jaffa. I could travel the length. I could travel to Nazareth. I could move throughout the countryside without being stopped and all. And I left, so that was the window I left with in ‘74. To return in 2014 and to see a prison wall that surrounded cities like Bethlehem, to see sniper nests, to see checkpoints at every single juncture – every single place. To go down to Hebron and to – I did this crazy thing, I went to walk through the park – there is a part right across the synagogue in Hebron. You know, you got the mosque here, you got the synagogue here, and you park across the way. So, I have been in the mosque, and sort of just take a look at the movement, the atmosphere in front of the synagogue, and it wasn’t as inviting as the mosque, let me put it that way.
So, I was walking over to the park and I was walking around the park and I was looking at all the plaques on the park. And the plaques on the park were people who had contributed to the park and contributed to the synagogue, and it was mostly doctors out of Chicago that had made those contributions to the park. I noticed then, as I turned around and looked, I entered the park and there was one armored vehicle and now they were three, and they were looking in my direction. And I did grow up in Baltimore, so I know when it’s time to start moving on, right? So, I started slowly moving on. I didn’t run because I did not want to look like I was panicked, you know? That’s sort of my city instinct: to walk slowly, to not look in their direction, [and] pretend I don’t even see. And I hooked back up with my delegation just as a platoon of soldiers came running right at us, demanding to see our papers.
And the incident became [this]: my delegation showed them their passport, and I had my hand in my pocket like this, on my passport, and my arm would not move. I kept telling my arm to move, my arm evidently decided to ignore me. So, there I am, the only one who has not produced my passport. And the only thing I could think of – ‘cause I didn’t want to be too antagonistic – because they had automatic weapons and it was like the little skinny, pimply, white boys with automatic weapons and I knew that [it] could be a dangerous toxic mixture. So, I finally said to them, the thing that I could conjure up, I said, “Why?” and one of the guys said to me, “Because Arabs are not allowed on this road.” To which I said, “Then I don’t need to show you my passport.” And I turned and walked away. It scared the daylight out of my delegation because they said, “You could have been shot.” And I said, “You could be shot anywhere in this world.” And I said, “We probably had a bit more protection being not from Palestine, to challenge the authority, than if a Palestinian were to challenge the authority.” And that has always been the reality.
I remember, years ago, my father had a friend—this brings another story of mine—who was on East St. Louis as a radio host. And he went down to the Eastern Shore, and he went to a place to be served, and they did not serve him of course because they did not serve Black folks. So, he went back there a week later, dressed up in African garb, talking in an accent, and got served at the same place, because sometimes [if] you are from someplace else, than if you were the oppressed people right there and there. And there, and sort of like it was a matter of tapping that power. And I am glad I challenged them—I didn’t mean to challenge them—it was just all that city stuff in me of cops always coming down at me when I was growing up that caused me to respond in that way. I was not trying to be a hero, but I was just looking angrily – from my perspective being a person that was sixty years of age and somebody eighteen years of age pointing an automatic weapon at me. I was not going to suffer the indignity. I have suffered the indignity too long in my life to stand there and suffer at that point. You have got to understand that is coming from a Black person’s perspective—a person that is really sensitive to the way oppression and racism works—that you are always dehumanized, that’s the vehicle: that folks are dehumanized because you want to condition people to [think] they are not worthy, that they are less than, all those types of things.
The beginning of June, I got arrested for praying in front of the Supreme Court with nine or eight other leaders. And we [were] praying in front of the Supreme Court, it was the day the Supreme Court came out with this decision that Ohio could purge its voting rolls. And so, we got arrested, total of nine. We were purposely lost in the system for twenty-eight hours. We were subjected to DC Central Cell Block, which was roach and rat infested, and we existed in it. And I have got to tell you that this an issue that sort of I did not see until I was there. That is the importance of seeing, right? That you had a cell that was filled with roaches, the walls, the floors, the so-called bed which was nothing but a metal shelf that had been drilled in it and roaches were walking along it. That’s where you were expected to sleep all night long. Roaches everywhere, rats, mice, running around everywhere, and you’re in that type of environment. And as we came out I said to the other folks with us, “You know, our eyes have been allowed to see something, and once we see it, we can’t un-see it. So, we have got to do something about it.” So, we started speaking out about the condition in Central Cell Block, immediately got a call from the Director of Corrections, immediately. Wanting to have a meeting with us because he did not want it to become a bigger news story, and simply, we said to the head of the Department of Corrections, “Well, our issue is you either clean it, or close it.”
That’s the perspective we think. In fact, we are having an action in the end this month at DC Central Cell Block to bring those demands: that you either clean it or close it, and you have got to open it to public scrutiny. But what I am getting at is that it dawned on me that thousands of women and men go into Central Cell Block every single year and put into conditions [that] are un-human conditions – subhuman conditions, filthy conditions. Therefore, the system is communicating to people that [they] are less than an animal, because you treat the dogs and the cats at the kennel down the street from me better than you treat people going in. And these are folks that have not been convicted yet. These are folks that are picked up off the street, usually for charges that they should not even be incarcerated for, held overnight for. The many of them have been arrested for things that tickets should have been written for, if the tickets were valid. But they’re put into that condition because you’re saying something to the people. You are saying, “You are less than animals.” You are saying, “You don’t have the right to dignity or respect.” That the Bill of Rights and all the other states, all those other things everybody talks about, something that continuously alludes you, and you do not have the right to demand it. That’s the conditions for Palestinians every single day living under occupation – is that they don’t have the same rights as Israelis, that they don’t have the same rights – that there are two court systems that exist. For example, the civilian court for Israeli settlers and Israeli citizens, and a military court for Palestinians, who are occupied.
[It is] all those kinds of things, and the checkpoints set up as ways and a means in which to take any dignity that’s left out of people—to make sure people understand that they don’t have right to, and the only rights they have is really because somebody has chosen to be benevolent. Not because you have a right to, but because someone has chosen to be benevolent. My father passed [away] in May – this past May. He was ninety-six. But one of the things that he taught me was that no one will give you rights: you have got to be strong enough to stand up for who you are. That’s the truth that brought me along, to stand up. And not just for myself, but to understand that when we stand up, seemingly for ourselves, we stand up for a community. You know, it is like going into that cell block is to understand that I got more privilege to speak out than many thousands of young men and women that go into that system, who have been in that system, who have been brutalized in that system. I got more ability to speak out and demand that it be shut then they do. And so, to stand up not because it offended me, but because it is the right thing to do. And [Rev.] Bell, that’s what we’re doing as preachers now. We are standing up as preachers now, we are standing up as preachers because our eyes have seen. We can’t deny what we have seen, we can’t deny the relationship to oppression and racism.
And I guess that’s the thing that hits me right now – and we can open to the questions and answers in a little bit – is [that] between Israel [and] the United States right now, there is this pact of racism and white supremacy that exists. There is no other way to put it. In fact, when you have white supremacist groups that are now advocating for Israel, you got a real problem. You got white supremacists, that historically have been anti-Semitic groups, then, all of a sudden, now, standing up for the embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and going down and having a hate fest in terms of the ribbon cutting on the embassy in Jerusalem. There is a conspiracy that exists. This was again sort of the reaction to a multiplicity of ethnic groups and people wanting to basically isolate themselves, that is racism that exists across borders, across continents [that] right now we are called to struggle against – called to fight against.
Nelson Mandela went and thanked Palestinians. Why? Because Palestinians, who did not have a homeland, stood for the liberation of Black folks in South Africa. That is why the statue of Nelson Mandela stands in Ramallah today. Again, to understand that our struggle is against racism and white supremacy, not only here at home, but it has to be around the world. It has to be around the world wherever people are and [are] discriminated against and oppressed. You know everybody always coming, they say, “Well, why are you singling out Israel?” You hear that all the time, right? You hear that all the time, right? Everybody wants to say that, “Oh you’re just picking on poor, old, Israel.” And I’d remind folks that when we were [being active] around South Africa in the 70s, particularly in the 70s, [someone would say] “Why are you talking about South Africa, what about Uganda?” And I’m going: “What about Uganda? We’re talking about South Africa.”
And what they were trying to do was trying to equate what Idi Amin was trying to do in Uganda with something we were supposed to be consumed with, and we were. There was not one Black group that was standing with Idi Amin, and his politics in Uganda, nowhere in the world, nowhere in the country. We had already condemned him, right, even though he was Black. Let me point out, even though he was Black. And what does that mean? Does that mean we were anti-black because we stood against Idi Amin? Would that mean that? That would be the equation that folks would say, “Well, they must be anti-Black or Jewish Voices for Peace must be self-loathing Jews to be standing up and talking about justice.” Well it doesn’t mean that, it just means your eyes are open, that you stand for justice no matter who and no matter where that resides and no matter who is carrying out the injustice. What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong, and you can’t dress it up and make it something that it is not. And so, to create a separate society, where people are dispossessed of land and history and voice, people are dispossessed of the freedom of movement, people are dispossessed in all kinds of economic sociological ways, there is no way you can dress that up and claim, somehow, [that] you don’t understand it because it is too complicated.
I remember a rabbi that kept saying to me over and over again when we came back, and we were talking about Palestine, and what we had seen, and the rabbi kept saying, “Well, it’s complicated.” Well you know I saw these checkpoints. “Well, it’s complicated.” Well we saw this wall and it had sniper nests on it, and it reminded me of the prison walls in Walpole Prison, where I had worked. “Well, it’s complicated.” Well, I saw Israeli soldiers kick a ten-year-old kid for trying to sell a little trinket that I had just bought two minutes ago from him, and they say, “Well, it’s complicated.” I say, so what’s, what’s complicated about it? People being segregated is unjust. People being deprived of history is unjust. A narrative that is free is just. Freedom of movement is just. There is no way you can dress it up, it is not that complicated. Justice is not that complicated.
Walter Brueggemann [is] a theologian; he talks about the idea of justice. He says, “What is justice?” Justice, as he says, is the “determination of what belongs to whom and returning it.” Now, Walter Brueggemann is obviously anti-Semitic, right? [laughs] But he’s talking about how you make amends for where we are right now. And what is going on in Israel, whether you want to admit it or not, is really an American and European agenda that is running the entire society and depriving the people of color of their own presence. We went down to the, what is it, the, well how do you pronounce it? The Aida Refugee Camp. We went down there to dedicate a monument, remember that? And we dedicated a monument, it was a pouring rain storm. We were there for a little bit, dedicated it. And it was to a young Palestinian kid that was killed by sniper fire while playing in the camp. The other side was to Tamir Rice, who was killed down in Cleveland, Ohio. That came from the people in that camp. They understood the relationship between the young man who was killed on the streets in their camp, and a young man who was killed in the playground in Cleveland, Ohio. And when I saw it, obviously I was moved because people understood the relationship. They understood a bullet fired in a refugee camp in Palestine is also a bullet fired into a playground in Cleveland, Ohio, or is the tear gas that is used in Ferguson, Ohio, or is the police brutality that takes place here, and the shootings that take place here, and the police harassment that takes place here, is the police harassment that takes place in Palestine, and the bullets that brutalize in Palestine. The attempt to deport people of color here, Latino and African, is also seen in the deportation of Africans from Israel. It is the same thing. It is all a world-wide paradigm of oppression, and our spirit and our hearts have got to be about liberation, and standing with folks that are on the margin, and standing against those who think that they got power.
Because, I have got to say, as a person of faith I still believe, I still believe in a God that sits high and looks low. I still believe in a God, that has at the core of its existence, the spirit of justice. I believe there is an arc in the universe that is long but it bends towards justice. And I believe that people of faith and people of conscience will continue to stand up and to demand. To demand freedom, demand hope and light and demand that all of us can live in a place where we are free and secure and not hounded by someone and definitely not demeaned by anyone – and I still believe in those things, and I pray that we believe in those things together. Thank you, God bless.