An African-American pastor and musician, Dumisani Washington is not your average Israel advocate. His perspective is equally unique.
How does an African-American pastor come to be a leading advocate for Israel on American college campuses? • And what does it have to do with Martin Luther King and the countries of sub-Saharan Africa? • Dumisani Washington explains it all in a revealing and in-depth interview with ‘Mida’ • A tale of a multifaceted love for Zion
Please tell us about the IBSI.
IBSI was formed in July 2013 as a pro-Israel group that focused on cultural issues not always addressed in other organizations.
This includes emphasizing:
Israel’s ethnic diversity: The fact that the Jewish people are ethnically diverse, and that some 90 nations are represented in Israel (Jew and non-Jew) is important to many Black people. Diversity and inclusion are signs of a healthily pluralistic society. Seeing people living, working, thriving in Israel that look like people from all over the world helps combat the Israel racism/apartheid lie.
Israel’s historical work in African nations: People aware of Israel’s history (or the history of Zionism) are aware of Theodor Herzl’s vision to help realize the “redemption of the African”. That vision has been a major part of Israel’s history since her rebirth in 1948. Long before she was Israel’s first female Prime Minister, Foreign Minister Golda Meir was so active on the Continent that Tanzania’s president, Julius Nyerer called her, “the mother of Africa.”
As my friend and colleague, Professor Gil Troy said in his book “Moynihan’s Moment”, “by the early 1970s, Israel had diplomatic ties with thirty-two African countries, more African embassies than any country other than the United States.” To this day, Israeli organizations continue to partner with African nations bringing technologies of every kind, while empowering the people to build strong infrastructures.
The oppression of the Palestinian people by their own leaders: One of the greatest tragedies of anti-Israel propaganda is the focus that is removed from the true plight of the Palestinian people. The people of Gaza and the West Bank are suffering human rights abuses replete throughout the Islamist world, yet the media is dominated by story after story of Israel’s “crimes against humanity”. Since the 1960s, no weapon has been used more frequently in bludgeoning Israel than racism; and no people have been more exploited in the campaign than Africans or African-Americans.
I wrote an article in Times of Israel entitled, “7 reasons why the Palestinian crisis & the Black struggle for freedom are absolutely nothing alike”. I will expound on it in my upcoming book, “Zionism & the Black Church: Why Standing With Israel Will be a Defining Issue for Christians of Color in the 21st Century.”
We have colleagues and associates across the US as well as in Israel, Kenya and Nigeria. In Nigeria, we are very proud to be working with author, attorney and leader within the Igbo community, Remy Ilona. Remy is doing a wonderful work among the Igbo Jews that have been discussed more and more in the news. His seminal work “The Igbos and Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of the Oldest and Largest Jewish Diaspora” is a must read for anyone interested in the topic.
IBSI has no official membership numbers as we have not begun formal enrollment. We plan to open our first American field offices this fall.
Could you give us some examples of IBSI accomplishments?
IBSI’s first social media campaign was entitled “Diverse by Choice”, in which we highlighted the multiethnic Jewish diaspora living in the Jewish State. The campaign made many people aware of IBSI’s presence, and our message resonated with many who were unaware that the Jewish people were not only immigrants from Europe. We began to understand our effectiveness as anti-Israel groups began mocking our ads – the highest form of flattery. #Diversebychoice is an oft-used hashtag that IBSI started.
It was shortly after the ‘Diverse by Choice’ campaign began that people began contacting us wanting more information; and scheduling me for speaking engagements.
What made you such an enthusiastic supporter of Israel? Did you grow up in a pro-Israel household?
I grew up as a Christian (Baptist) and there was no particular pro-Israel teaching. From a young age I was always drawn to the Christian Old Testament (Tanakh), which made me fascinated with Israel, the Jewish people and the Diaspora. As I got older I wanted to know about the Hebrew roots of my Christian faith. I knew nothing of the Church’s horrific history with the Jewish people. That’s something I learned much later in life.
My affinity for all things Israel led me to independently research the current state of the Diaspora, especially the Jews of Ethiopia, India/Burma, and the Igbo of Nigeria. Finally, as I followed the current events of the Jewish state, I became aware of the political realities of advocacy as well as anti-Zionist propaganda. My speaking out initially involved sharing what I had learned about Israel and dispelling the myths surrounding her.
Why do you spend so much time supporting Israel, as opposed to many other worthy causes?
As one raised as an active Christian and socially conscious person, I have had various causes to which I’ve lent my voice. Advocating for the State of Israel was a natural development, as much as a divine call. The combination of Israel’s enemies pilfering the Black struggle for civil freedom, along with my connection to the cause of Zionism became my impetus.
Another motivation for me was my upbringing. I was born in the segregated south (Little Rock, Arkansas) where both my parents grew up. They instilled great honor and gratitude in me for the history of my people who endured so much, yet survived and thrived. As a young adult, I came to understand that the language of the civil rights struggle of my people was being used to attack a free, democratic nation that had no stain of legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, apartheid or legalized for of racism – I was appalled. I had to speak out.
You have been lecturing recently in campuses around the USA about “Dr. King’s pro-Israel Legacy, and Israel’s Multiethnic Society“. Can you say a few words about Dr. King’s and his followers’ support to Israel?
Dr. King was a staunch supporter of the State of Israel and a friend of the Jewish people. Many who know of his legacy know of his close relationship with Rabbi [Avraham] Joshua Heschel as well as the Jewish support for the Black civil rights struggle. Many are unaware, however, of the negative push back Dr. King got from some people. Particularly after the 1967 war in Israel, international criticism against the Jewish State began to rise. Dr. King remained a loyal friend, and made his most powerful case for Israel almost 1 year after the Six Day War – and 10 days before his death.
Continuing his tradition, Dr. King’s close friends – Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph – formed BASIC (Black Americans to Support Israel Committee) in 1975. BASIC was formed in large part to combat the “Zionism is Racism” resolution being debated in the UN at the time. Some 300 African-Americans signed a statement in the Sunday, November 23, 1975 edition of the New York Times condemning the Resolution. I have a reproduction of the document on my blog. Though the organization is no longer active, it definitely spoke to the strong pro-Israel stance within the Black American community. That sentiment still exists, though it has more dormant in recent years. IBSI’s goal is to give voice to it once again.
What kind of difficulties do your activists in universities face? Can you tell us about any opponent you had and how you faced him or her?
Our opponents are still trying to figure out how to respond to us. We have not gotten any of the type of antagonism many of our Jewish friends have faced on campus. But we have had many interesting conversations.
In Southern California earlier this spring I had the opportunity to have a long debate/discussion with a leader with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). I challenged the SJP member to truly evaluate the Palestinian human rights abuses perpetrated by their own people. At the end of what was about a 2-hour talk, I finally asked the student if there was truly anything Israel could do that would make its enemies allow her to live in peace. The student quietly admitted, “No. There’s nothing Israel can do.” It was an enlightening moment for the student, who thanked me and shook my hand as we parted. The student also took my contact information, and wanted to know more.
What is your opinion of the BDS movement calling to boycott Israel? Is it successful in the USA?
Ironically, this was one of the questions the SJP member asked me. I told the student that I didn’t see BDS going anywhere. Israel’s dominant position in technology, agriculture, medicine, and more will ensure that no country or business who wants to be competitive will ever distance themselves from her. Also, academic boycotts by organizations like the ASA reveal the type of elitism and disconnectedness we often see in academia. This is not to say that America’s college professors (as a whole) are anti-Israel. But some are, and their campaigning for BDS is evidence. I don’t have national stats on the BDS, but there was a recent article inthetower.org that stated Americans overwhelmingly (66% to 34%) blame the Palestinian (leaders) for breakdowns in the peace talks.
There is a feeling in Israel that we are losing the support of the American people. From your many visits to campuses around the US, is your impression that the support to Israel in the US is decreasing? What about the support to Israel specifically in the Afro-American community?
Again, this is a complex question. Clearly the vast majority of Americans remain decidedly pro-Israel, even if they have much sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people. What groups like IBSI are primarily concerned with is the younger generation. We believe the tactics like BDS are not necessarily designed to cripple Israel’s economy (Omar Barghouti has publicly stated that his ultimate goal is a Palestine next to a Palestine). But BDS is designed to make Israel a pariah in the hearts and minds of the college students.
As for the African-American community, like any group, we are not a monolith. That said, we are generally placed into one of three camps:
1) The majority of Black Americans do not view the Middle East as a priority. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is not on their radar.
2) There is (and will continue to be) a fringe, anti-Israel subsection. They are the second generation Israel-haters from the 1960s who completely embrace the Palestinian narrative. Most have never visited Israel.
3) There remains a strong, pro-Israel base who are mostly evangelical Christians. They see support for Israel – if not all of its policies – as a biblical mandate, and are represented in organizations like CUFI and AIPAC.
In your activity you stress very much Israel being Diverse by choice. What is your respond to the recent quotes of John Kerry saying Israel might become an apartheid state and Thomas freedman saying Israel is the most active colonial power on the planet today”?
My response to both of those gentlemen is that, in democracies like the US and Israel, everyone is entitled to their opinion, for which I am grateful. I would also say that words like “apartheid” and “colonialism” have historical and cultural definitions. Applying them to a free, multiethnic nation that has cultivated that diversity while fending off a long line of enemies attempting to destroy it is not how I would spend my time. But again – this is a free country.
Can you tell us about your musical project “The Hebrew Project“? What makes it unique? Are you planning to perform in Israel?
I am a musician by profession. It is my passion, though not a major part of my life at the moment. But THP is very dear to me. It is a group of some 24 singers and musicians who perform a jazz/gospel version of Hebrew songs. We released our debut album last spring. It’s entitled “Volume 1: From Beyond the Rivers” based on Zephaniah 3.10. We are discussing a trip to Israel with our manager, Dave Creel of Up B Management. We hope to go some time in 2015.
Is there any further message you would like to pass on to “Mida” readers?
I just want to thank you for the opportunity to connect with your readers. I also want to tell everyone to be on the lookout for our new media campaign. We will be releasing a series of short videos that focus on various parts of our Israel advocacy, and will also give people the chance to make online donations to the cause.