Aaron Dixon, a former Black Panther Party captain, on why the struggle for justice in Palestine is inseparable from the movement for racial justice in the United States.
Aaron Dixon is an activist, author, and co-founder of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party—the first chapter outside of California—in 1968. Dixon later moved to Oakland to work with Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in 1972 (he also, for a time, served as a bodyguard for Elaine Brown). In 2006, Dixon ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate on the Green Party ticket in opposition to the Iraq War. In 2012, following the publication of his memoir My People Are Rising, Dixon traveled to Palestine to stay with Palestinian families in Jerusalem and the West Bank and learn more about their culture and their struggle for justice.
I spoke to Dixon about the most recent wave of Israeli attacks on Palestine and the connection between Black people in the United States and Palestinians. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: What are you seeing and feeling during this horrific escalation of violence by the state of Israel?
Aaron Dixon: The fact that the Israeli Defense Forces had the gall to go into the Al-Aqsa Mosque and harass, beat, and disturb people that were quietly praying was a new escalation. And it was very disheartening to see that, but by them doing that, they really exposed themselves.
What they did went worldwide. People all over the world could see how aggressive the IDF is and has been towards the Palestinian people. Me and you and other people who have traveled over to Palestine, we saw it firsthand, but now people all over the world are seeing this.
We are in a period of a worldwide awakening. And I think this worldwide awakening began to happen with Black Lives Matter and the pandemic.
We are in a period of a worldwide awakening. And I think this worldwide awakening began to happen with Black Lives Matter and the pandemic, where injustice and inequality has been being exposed the last two years. And so now, the injustice and the inequality that’s happening in Palestine is being exposed, too.
Q: On April 27, Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive report calling Israel an apartheid state. This obviously brings to mind the era of South African apartheid. Having traveled to Palestine, what do you think of this designation?
Dixon: I would call it apartheid, and even more: ethnic cleansing and genocide, too—all those terms are appropriate. But it’s something that Israel has always fought against and tried to whitewash, that any of those things were ever happening.
I [went] there and learned so much. And things that I saw will never leave me. I remember visiting a Palestinian family. They were all living together, the grandmother and the mother and father and the kids. And the Palestinian family across the street had been evicted from their homes in the middle of the night. This was around three in the morning, by Israeli soldiers. And all of the woman’s belongings were just thrown out on the streets.
Q: Was this in Jerusalem?
Dixon: This was in Jerusalem. And the family that we were visiting, they were in fear of the same thing happening to them. They built a little room on to their house, which if you don’t have permission from the Israeli Army, it’s illegal. So, what the Israeli Defense Forces did, they moved a settler into this room that [the family had] built. And so, they had to constantly deal with this aggressive, racist settler living on the same property as them.
Also, when I was in Palestine, we saw a field where there had been 1,000 thriving olive trees. But the IDF cut the tops off of all of them. And the olive trees are the lifeline. They are such a strong cultural reminder to the Palestinian people of what they’ve been through. Those olive trees are sacred to them. Of course, Israel knows that, so that’s why they chop them down.
Q: Can you speak to the United States’ responsibility with what is happening to the Palestinians? What should our government be called to do? And what should people here do?
Dixon: Our government has the responsibility to be truthful and to be honest. Look at what happened to the Rohingya people in Myanmar, that was a tremendous tragedy. And America did come out and take some positions. And they put sanctions against the government. And America needs to do the same with Israel.
They need to stop funding the Israeli military with that $3.5 billion dollars they give to Israel every year. They need to end that support for Israel. And they need to hold Israel responsible. But we’re a long way from that, so that’s why the people here in America see what’s going on in Israel. That’s why the people need to come out and demand that the President take action against Israel. And let’s be brave enough to stand up and say, “This is ethnic cleansing. This is genocide. And this is apartheid.”
With Biden saying that Israel has the right to defend itself, he’s totally ignoring what led to the whole escalation: the IDF going into the Al-Aqsa Mosque and also kicking people out of their homes. The Palestinians are very strong people. They have endured so much, but they never give up. And they never will give up until there is justice.
Q: You are someone who has never given up in the fight for racial and social justice and against U.S. imperialism. Your life of struggle has been an inspiration to me. I would especially like to hear your comments about the connection between Black and Palestinian liberation? Also, what was the position of the Panthers on Palestine?
Dixon: The Black Panther Party always had solidarity with the Palestinian movement because we recognize that they were dealing with many of the same problems that we are dealing with here. And nowadays, as Black people are constantly being killed by the police, Palestinians are suffering from all the very same things. I first became aware of the Palestinian movement from reading about it in the Black Panther newspaper.
Black people in this country must realize that we are really connected with Palestinians. Black people here, Native American people here, oppressed people here in America, our liberation is really connected with the Palestinian people and with what they have endured. As long as the U.S. spends billions to support the military occupation of Palestine, that is money that it won’t have to support Black communities, education, healthcare, housing, and programs to help all oppressed people.
As long as the U.S. has the power to support the oppression of Palestinians, it will have the power to oppress Black people at home.
Q: It’s been beautiful to see the Palestinians support the Black Freedom Struggle, too. Like in 2014 when the protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, Palestinians were expressing solidarity on social media and advising about how to handle tear gas (Palestinians had been dealt that very same tear gas because it was made in the United States and supplied to Israeli forces).
Dixon: That’s right. And it’s time for things to change here in America. It’s time for things to change in Palestine. There will be no justice in the world for anybody until Palestine is free. As long as the U.S. has the power to support the oppression of Palestinians, it will have the power to oppress Black people at home.
Jesse Hagopian is a high school ethnic studies teacher in Seattle, an organizer with Black Lives Matter at School, co-editor of the books, Black Lives Matter at School and Teaching for Black Lives, and editor of “More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.”