In U.S. politics, tensions have flared over free speech, criticisms of Israel and allegations of anti-Semitism.
Few people know that better than Marc Lamont Hill, who was fired as a CNN commentator in November after giving a pro-Palestinian speech at the United Nations. On Sunday evening, the influential black activist spoke in Clifton about the fallout from his speech, the struggle for Palestinian rights and the connection to black justice movements in the U.S.
Hill said he did not regret the comments that led to his firing and a rebuke from Temple University, where he teaches media studies and urban education.
"I was on the right side of history, and if the final word on me is that 'he had a career that ended because he spoke up for justice,' it'll be just fine," he said during a keynote speech at the Palestinian American Community Center's Activism and Empowerment Conference. "I can sleep at night."
Hill made headlines after he called for "political action, grass-roots action, local action and international action that will give us what justice requires, and that is a free Palestine from the river to the sea."
Backlash ensued over his use of the term "free Palestine from the river to sea." Hill said he was not calling for Israel's destruction, as critics have alleged, but for a bi-national democratic state within Israel.
The controversy comes amid a changing political landscape. Israel has lost some support amid rapid settlement expansion, alleged war crimes and the far-right turn of its leadership. Ttensions flared Monday as Israeli forces struck targets in the Gaza Strip in response to a surprise rocket attack from the territory, while in the U.S., President Trump said he will recognize Israeli sovereignty of the occupied Golan Heights in Syria.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a highly sensitive issue in American politics, and pro-Israel groups charge that critical speech sometimes crosses a line into anti-Semitism. Activists, however, say these groups are trying to silence legitimate criticism of Israel.
Nationally, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota was blasted for comments last month suggesting that the pro-Israel lobby pushes lawmakers to show "allegiance to a foreign country" and that they were influenced by the lobby's money. Her comments led the House to pass a resolution condemning hate and intolerance, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim discrimination.
And in January, an Alabama civil rights organization rescinded an award to African-American activist and author Angela Davis over her support for Palestine — a move that was later reversed after protest from black Americans and progressive Jewish groups.
At the conference in Clifton, Hill talked about solidarity between black Americans and Palestinians over decades. The bond was revived after the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson in 2014. Police responded to large street protests with riot gear, arrests and tear gas. During the protests, Palestinian activists tweeted messages of support and advice on how to cope with tear gas.
"They helped remind us that solidarity is possible," said Hill, author of "Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond."
Hill spoke about his own work in the prison abolition movement that calls for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes, such as reform rather than punishment. He urged the audience of around 100 people to get involved.
"We have to really show up for each other," Hill said. "It's not enough for me to say 'free Palestine' if I'm not on the ground willing to struggle with you. And it's not enough for you to speak out against the American nation-state and what it does in the Middle East if you don't speak out about what it's doing to black folk right here in New Jersey."
In the days after his United Nations speech, debate ensued over the meaning and context of Hill's words and his use of the phrase "from the river to the sea."
The comments were condemned by some Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, which called it "divisive and destructive against Israel," saying the phrase calls for an end to Israel. Other organizations said the phrase was used by Hamas to promote violence.
Hill and other scholars responded that the slogan existed years before Hamas was created and has been used by a variety of groups.
"I support Palestinian freedom. I support Palestinian self-determination," Hill tweeted, adding, "I do not support anti-Semitism, killing Jewish people, or any of the other things attributed to my speech. I have spent my life fighting these things."
Still, Hill offered a measured apology in an op-ed, saying that "although this was the furthest thing from my intent, those particular words clearly caused confusion, anger, fear, and other forms of harm. For that, I am deeply sorry."
On Sunday in Clifton, he elaborated, saying there was "no secret undertone" or "anti-Semitic message," rather "a call for justice everywhere."
"But I said if those six words made people focus on only the last five seconds of the speech and not the other 21 minutes, then I didn't do Palestinians any favor and I didn't do Jewish brothers and sisters any favors," he said.
While media reports focused on the backlash, Hill said he got more messages of support than criticism, including from people inside CNN.
"I got letters and tweets and emails from people who expressed their frustration or their hurt or their anger. But for every one letter, I got 20 in support," he said.
Despite a growing divide over Israel, it's still a hard subject to talk about in the United States, where many states have passed laws requiring state employees and contractors to sign pledges that they will not boycott Israel, at risk of losing work.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education expanded its definition of anti-Semitism to include some criticisms of Israel, making universities subject to possible penalties.
Despite such pressure, people who gathered Sunday evening in one of the largest Palestinian-American communities in the country said they believe people are more willing to challenge the status quo.
They noted that the liberal advocacy group MoveOn had called on Democratic candidates to skip the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference, saying the group had tried to thwart the Iran nuclear deal and had advanced "anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric."
Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American comedian, writer and political activist, leading a question-and-answer session with Hill after his Clifton talk, noted that at least six Democratic candidates for president have declined to attend.
"We are light years ahead from where we were four years ago or eight years ago," he said.