Zionism is not a Palestinian problem or a Middle Eastern problem but a global problem, Palestinian activist Nada Elia declared to a supportive crowd of about 300 people packed into the sanctuary of Atlanta's First Iconium Baptist Church.
It was the Friday, Sept. 25, the opening night of the 14th annual national conference of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. Elia, a leader of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement with the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, was the one Palestinian on a three-woman panel trying to connect the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement of today to the Palestinian struggle against Israel. "Against" was a key element of a program titled "From Atlanta to Palestine: Continuing the Struggle for Freedom."
Elia and her fellow panelists — Ruby Sales, who worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, and Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter in 2013 who said she has fought for Palestinian freedom for 12 years — spoke far more about what they oppose than what they desire.
When a conference attendee asked whether the Palestinians want a one-state or two-state solution, Elia wouldn't commit. She said any solution is fine as long as all Palestinians between the Jordan and the Mediterranean have the same rights, including the right to return to what is now Israel.
But given that Elia assigned a litany of evils to Israel and Zionism — in the process painting a picture reminiscent of the anti-Semitic hoax "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" — and that she emphasized opposition to partial solutions, it's hard to imagine that she would accept any Israel.
"We've been in the struggle too long not to get all that we want," Elia said.
She blamed Israel for chaos in Lebanon and Syria and thus for the refugee problem in Europe. She said Israel "impacts politics everywhere," creates a global logic of repression and oppression, and provides the police training that leads to American police killing unarmed black men.
Cullors cited "very obvious reasons" why American media don't report on the Israeli connection to U.S. police misconduct, but Elia said that story is out there, thanks to social media.
"I would love new visibility of the other crimes Israel is committing in the United States," Elia said without listing any.
One member of the audience tried to fill in the gaps, asking the panel about the role of money in skewing the discussion and tying Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson's interest in a possible Atlanta casino to Zionism's influence.
The panelists and others indicated that resisting a casino amid poor black neighborhoods is a struggle Palestinians should join as part of the global progressive battle against capitalism, imperialism, racism, sexism, anti-environmentalism, LGBTQ repression and more, all somehow summed up in the term "Zionism."
Palestinians complain about PEPs, or progressives except for Palestine, but they must beware of becoming POPs, or progressives only for Palestine, Elia said.
"It is the job of (pro-Israel group) StandWithUs to tell us there are differences" among progressive groups and causes, she said.
"I am an extremely angry person," Elia said calmly, "and I don't want to get rid of my anger because my anger motivates my commitment to justice."
The program's goal of linking Atlanta and the civil rights movement to the Palestinian movement was attempted largely on a philosophical level: a broad view of interconnected progressive causes and of Israel as an extension of American white supremacist institutions.
A more concrete connection was attempted between the BDS movement and the anti-apartheid boycott movement against South Africa in the 1980s. Just as the boycott movement worked then, Elia and others said, the 10-year-old BDS movement will work now.
But that belief ran into hard reality in the First Iconium sanctuary.
Cheering religious organizations such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that have endorsed BDS, one member of the audience asked the senior First Iconium representative present, the Rev. Heshimu J.D. Sparks, when Baptist churches would get on board with BDS.
In all seriousness, the director of Christian education of the church hosting the pro-Palestinian event asked, "What's BDS?"