Ferguson to Palestine with Reverend Hagler

Reverend Graylan Hagler spoke in Rochester this evening at an event sponsored by Christians Witnessing for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.  Reverend  Hagler is the Senior Minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, immediate Past National President of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice (MRSEJ) and has served on the Steering and Administrative Committee of United for Peace and Justice.  Inspired by a visit to Palestine with an African American Delegation earlier this year, his topic was “Ferguson to Palestine”.

Hagler’s lecture was was deliberately sabotaged by two different Zionist groups in Rochester.   First, he received a death threat on the phone last week from an individual who identified himself as a member of a local branch of CUFI, Christians United For Israel, Reverend Hagee’s Christian Zionist church.  This threat was followed by the expression of a desire to ‘spit’ in Hagler’s face.   The barbarism of these attacks was actually rather shocking.  I mean, these are middle class folks from the local suburbs.  A day or two later, Colgate Divinity School, who were to host  the event, withdrew their invitation.   Another local group, Roc4Israel, defiantly claimed responsibility for pressuring Colgate to cancel.  A couple of days after that, the local NPR affiliate backed out of a planned interview with Hagler.

Photo by Mara Ahmed

Photo by Mara Ahmed

Reverend Hagler courageously decided to come to Rochester anyway,   So, another venue was found at the last minute, and local Brothers from the Nation of Islam volunteered to act as security guards in and around the venue.  One hundred and fifty to two hundred people attended, and the good Reverend’s speech was a roaring success.

I had not done my homework, and with all the fuss around him, I had visioned Reverend Hagler as some variety of fundamentalist, but I would now describe his views as ‘progressive ++’.   He is a truth teller, and a man with a vision, whose presentation inspires in a manner similar to that of Cornel West.

The introductory speakers are  Prof. Joshua Dubler from the University of Rochester and Tanya Noel of B.L.A.C.K. (Black Leadership and Community Knowledge), an organization founded by African American youth at the University of Rochester on their return from Ferguson last fall.

You can listen to the events of the evening  here:

Photo by Mara Ahmed:  Reverend Graylan Hagler at the podium.

Photo by Mara Ahmed: Reverend Graylan Hagler at the podium.

In brief, Reverend Hagler began by saying “Racism is allowed and continues to exist because everyone denies that it exists.”   He said that it is impossible to have an honest conversation when “you have to try so hard just to be heard.”    With regard to Israel and Palestine, he said that he is not here to “destroy” anyone or take them down, but rather to “lift up the dignity and rights of all people in the world.”   The Occupation” [in Palestine], he said “is clear” when you are present to see it.  He said that he had visited Israel/Palestine in 1974, an event which left a snapshot in his mind.  The country  he found in January of 2015 had nothing to do with that snapshot.    Today’s Palestine, he said, was “a country like the U.S. where he grew up under Jim Crow.”  The black folks in the delegation he led did not need any explanation, he said.

Dr. Hagler saw the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) storm a home in Bethlehem, and come out with an 8 year old child, hand cuffed with a bag over his head.   The mother was screaming and the father attempting to fight them for his child.  Why?    This is nothing new, he said. It is an assertion of ‘Power’, a message to the boy and the parents and the neighborhood and the people of Palestine.  “We are in power.”  ” Every Palestinian is treated by police as a criminal,” Hagler said, “Black folks experience this treatment in the United States.”

Reverend Hagler talked about how Charles Ramsey, when he was Chief of Police in Washington DC, was the first police chief in the United States to send his force to Israel for training.  He went further, said Hagler, and changed the laws so that people born in the neighborhoods in DC where these police were deployed, would not be able to qualify, causing the force to become more white and more foreign to the area, so that the police in Washington, DC began to act as an occupying force like the military force in Gaza rather than as a neighborhood service.

In Tel Aviv, he saw black Africans in a refugee encampment.  They were starved of resources and denied their basic human dignity.   It’s all about the language.  So as to make this abuse ‘legal’, they were identified as ‘infiltrators’ rather than ‘refugees’.  This was like the practice in the United States during the time of slavery to count a black slave as 3/5 of a person.  This practice was not only humiliating and dis-empowering to the black slaves, but politically empowering for the white slave owners, giving them an edge over their northern peers.

He told the story of his visit to Hebron, which he said he is still ‘processing’.   His description of an encounter with a young soldier in the IDF in Hebron is the story that has been used to demonize him and see him removed from at least 2 venues locally.    His delegation visited an ancient mosque in Hebron, on a site where it is said that the prophet Abraham (sacred to both Jews and Muslims) is buried.  Twenty years ago, Baruch Goldstein, and American Israeli, walked into this mosque and opened fire on the worshipers with a an automatic weapon.   Now, a part of the site has been converted to a synagogue.  The entrance to the synagogue is accessed by a path that leads around the site from the door of the mosque.

Local Palestinian activist Bassam Ashkar greets Reverend Hagler at the end of the evening.

Photo by Mara Ahmed:   Local Palestinian activist Bassam Ashkar greets Reverend Hagler at the end of the evening.

Hagler became curious about the synagogue and began to follow the walk towards the entrance to it.  He found himself confronted by young soldiers who pointed their automatic weapons at him.   They demanded to see his passport.  Other members of the delegation handed theirs over, but his arm was frozen by an inner defiance that would not release it.   The young man directly in front of him was a white youth from Chicago who was threatening him with an automatic weapon directly in his face and demanding his passport for no reason other than that assertion of power he had previously described.  This is the youth he referred to as a ‘pimply faced white boy’.

It is as if he could not contain his outrage at this insult to himself as a black man, that this white youth from his home country would choose to treat him as if he were a member of the (local) under-class.   The rules are that Palestinians are not allowed in that area.  However, said Hagler, if this American youth was demanding passports in English, he knew they were not  Palestinians.    Being threatened by an automatic weapon in your face is a situation most of us who are white have not experienced, but it surely would affect one’s mindset and leave a psychic wound that would require some serious processing.   I think Reverend Hagler’s outrage is understandable, and his language, in this case, colorful but not vulgar cursing – and it was a direct reflection of the assumptions made by this youth and his companions about Hagler and his companions that led to their being targeted based on their appearance.

In closing, Hagler focused on the value of treating others with respect in order to create a ‘paradigm’ of respectful relations.   And, he said  “we have to talk about the things folks don’t want us to talk about.”

“We’ve got to talk about the occupation.  We’ve got to talk about the Palestinians.   We’ve got to talk about what the history of the land is in order to get to the place where we can construct a better world, a whole new world predicated on justice and fairness, and treating each other with value and respect and dignity.  Palestinian lives are as important as any other lives.  Regarding the Black Lives Matter

Photo by Mara Ahmed: Tanya Noel of B.L.A.C.K.

Photo by Mara Ahmed: Tanya Noel of B.L.A.C.K.

Movement, there’s a couple of things.  We say Black Lives Matter to confront the world because the world has said black lives do not matter.  Black lives can be cut down by police.  Black lives can be relegated to slums.  Black lives can fill prisons.  Black Lives Matter we say to the world, because the [] of the world is that black lives do not matter.  And so, we are making a proclamation when we say Black Lives Matter.

Of course we know that all lives matter.  But in this case, because of the racism that has existed in this country and around the world we need to make a particular proclamation that Black Lives Matter.  But also an affirmation – and in that affirmation we hear ourselves because we also are conditioned to think of ourselves as victims and as second class citizens …..  Black Lives Matter is an affirmation that I am human.  It’s an affirmation that I’m a creature of the creator.  It’s an affirmation that I have the dignity, the right to be respected just like everybody else.  Black lives matter.  But also Palestinian lives matter.  “

For those of us, black and white, Palestinian, Israeli and American,  who are struggling with the issues of reconciliation and relationship, Reverend Hagler’s speech was a light and an inspiration.   Many thanks to all those involved in organizing this event, and to Reverend Hagler for having the courage to walk past the gate-keepers of bigotry and the status quo to come to Rochester to speak.


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