Marc Lamont Hill Was Arguing for the Rights of Humans, Not of States

CNN fired its popular commentator the Temple University professor and public intellectual Marc Lamont Hill last week. Contrary to most reporting, Hill was not actually fired as a result of the speech he gave at the United Nations on November 28—he was fired as a result of powerful pro-Israel forces, most notably the Anti-Defamation League or ADL, who used the speech to demand that he be fired.

Since that time Hill has apologized for a phrase that some in the Jewish community found hurtful, while reaffirming his commitment to his larger critique of Israeli practices. Hill’s many defenders have strongly asserted not only his First Amendment–based right to his opinion but equally importantly the historical and legal accuracy of his speech—and have appropriately demanded that CNN rehire him. But with a few important exceptions (Noura Erakat’s piece in The Washington Post and David Palumbo-Liu’s in The Nation among them) the important demand for rehiring Hill has obscured much of the actual content of his speech. Too many seem to have heard only the one phrase, taken out of context, that was the centerpiece of the ADL’s attack.

And Hill’s words are important. Not only because he laid out a fiery, cogent argument for the need to end Israel’s policies of oppression against Palestinians in the context of international law. But because, and it was especially fitting since he was addressing members of the UN General Assembly and top UN officials, Hill shaped his presentation around this year’s shared 70th anniversary of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Palestinian experience of the nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948—when 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes, expelled from their land, and dispossessed of their country with the creation of the state of Israel. And Hill depicted how the Palestinians, during that experience and since, have continued to be denied the very rights—political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights—supposedly guaranteed to every human being in the Universal Declaration.

Dr. Hill’s comments were not anti-Semitic; they were anti-oppression, rooted in history and calling for a common humanity, grounded in the rights of all people, whether Palestinian or Jewish, African or European, black or Native American, Latinx or white.

Early in his speech Hill noted that “while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that all people are ‘born free and equal in dignity and rights,’ the Israeli nation state continues to restrict freedom and undermine equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as those in the West Bank and Gaza.” He then moved through chapter and verse of the various human rights the declaration has guaranteed for 70 years, which Palestinians have been denied for exactly the same period. Hill identified the right to freedom and security, and protection against torture, and Israel’s long-standing violations of those rights. The same for the right never to be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile. For the guarantee of a fair trial. Crucially, given Israel’s long history of expulsion of Palestinians and the last decade of imprisoning almost two million Palestinians in the impoverished and ravaged Gaza Strip, he documents the declaration’s recognized “right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state, as well as the right to leave any country including ‘his [sic] own’ and to return to said country.”

Hill condemned his own government, the US government, for its role in financing and enabling Israel’s attacks on Palestinian rights. And he made clear that the Trump administration “is not an exception to American policy. Rather, Donald Trump is a more transparent and aggressive iteration of it.” He described Israel’s theft of Palestinian land, such as the current demolition of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

It is important to note that Marc Lamont Hill framed his arguments in the context of rights, not states. He talked about the state of people, not whether or how a state should be divided.

Like many Palestinians, and many in the global movement in solidarity with Palestine, he spoke of the urgency of fighting for rights—for equality, for the realization of all the globally recognized rights—rather than for any particular arrangement of states. In a later online discussion he indicated his private preference for a single democratic state with equal rights for all who live there, but even that was tempered with the recognition that “it is not my job as an outsider to decide for Palestinians or Israelis.”

Israelis, specifically the Likud Party of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, focus instead on states, not on rights. Their founding Charter asserts that there will be only one state: “Between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty,” it says. The Charter was amended a few years after Israel signed the Oslo Agreement that was supposed to pave the way for the much-heralded two-state solution. Instead, that 1999 iteration declared that “the Jordan river will be the permanent eastern border of the State of Israel. … The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.”

Acceptance of a single-state option—which today exists as an apartheid state with separate legal systems for the two different groups within the same territory, determined on the bases of race, religion, language—is the official reality of the Israeli government. It has been strengthened by the new Nation-State law passed earlier this year, which asserts that while more than 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian Christians and Muslims, “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

The alternative to apartheid, in keeping with the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is to focus on rights, not states. That was Marc Lamont Hill’s theme. And this focus of the rights of people must be the beginning point for any just resolution. The right of people is fundamental and at the core of human rights, and if anyone suggests one cannot discuss human rights as it relates to Palestinians or any people who suffer oppression, then they are suggesting that those people are not equal partners in the human family.

The United Nations, in this year commemorating 70 years of both Palestinian suffering and the global declaration of human rights, provides exactly the right time and place to ask, as Hill asked and answered, “what does justice require? To truly engage in acts of solidarity, we must make our words flesh. Our solidarity must be more than a noun. Our solidarity must become a verb.” It is that struggle for human rights and equality for all, for everyone living in that territory between the sea and the river, that still provides the best possibility of peace with justice in Israel and Palestine. That will mark the true solidarity of human rights.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is the 7th updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is national president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach. His latest book is The Third Reconstruction: How A Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear.

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