As pressure builds for a ceasefire after 27 days of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates joins us in a broadcast exclusive interview to discuss his journey to Palestine and Israel and learning about the connection between the struggle of African Americans and Palestinians. “The most shocking thing about my time over there was how uncomplicated it actually is,” says Coates, who calls segregation in Palestine and Israel “evil.” “There’s no way for me, as an African American, to come back and stand before you, to witness segregation and not say anything about it.” Coates acknowledges the suppression of those advocating for Palestinian rights but says this is not new for Black writers and journalists. “I have to measure my fear against the misery that I saw.”
AMY GOODMAN: As pressure builds for a ceasefire after 27 days of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, we spend the rest of the hour with the acclaimed author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. This summer, he spoke at a literary festival in the West Bank that connected the Palestinian struggle with decolonization struggles around the world. In Ramallah, he opened his remarks with a comparison between the struggle of African Americans and Palestinians.
In recent weeks, Coates joined dozens of other writers and artists in signing “An Open Letter from Participants in the Palestine Festival of Literature,” that was published in The New York Review of Books and called for, quote, “the international community to commit to ending the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza and to finally pursuing a comprehensive and just political solution in Palestine.”
AMY GOODMAN: Last night, Ta-Nehisi Coates participated in another event hosted by organizers of the Palestine Festival of Literature, or PalFest, in the James Chapel at Union Theological Seminary here in New York City. It was called “But We Must Speak: On Palestine and the Mandates of Conscience.”
Ta-Nehisi is the recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and the recipient of numerous prizes, including the National Book Award for his book Between the World and Me. We Were Eight Years in Power is another book, An American Tragedy, and his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. His novel is titled The Water Dancer. In 2014, he wrote an award-winning cover story for The Atlantic magazine headlined “The Case for Reparations.”
Ta-Nehisi, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, under extremely difficult circumstances. Last night, this remarkable event almost didn’t happen. I mean, it was in the James Chapel of Union Theological Seminary, but venue after venue had said no to this gathering. And without almost any publicity, well over a thousand people turned out, but the place only held 300, so people went over across the street to another place of 300, overcrowd, overflow, and then thousands watched on the live video stream. Can you talk about your experience being in the West Bank, going to the Occupied Territories, and how it changed you?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Oh wow. I spent 10 days in Palestine, in the Occupied Territories and in Israel proper. I’ve had the great luxury over the past 10 years of seeing a few countries. I have not spent more time or seen more of another country or another territory than I did this summer.
I think what shocked me the most was, in any sort of opinion piece or reported piece, or whatever you want to call it, that I’ve read about Israel and about the conflict with the Palestinians, there’s a word that comes up all the time, and it is “complexity,” that and its closely related adjective, “complicated.” And so, while I had my skepticisms and I had my suspicions of the Israeli government, of the occupation, what I expected was that I would find a situation in which it was hard to discern right from wrong, it was hard to understand the morality at play, it was hard to understand the conflict. And perhaps the most shocking thing was I immediately understood what was going on over there.
Probably the best example I can think of is the second day, when we went to Hebron, and the reality of the occupation became clear. We were driving out of East Jerusalem. I was with PalFest, and we were driving out of East Jerusalem into the West Bank. And, you know, you could see the settlements, and they would point out the settlements. And it suddenly dawned on me that I was in a region of the world where some people could vote and some people could not. And that was obviously very, very familiar to me. I got to Hebron, and we got out as a group of writers, and we were given a tour by our Palestinian guide. And we got to a certain street, and he said to us, “I can’t walk down this street. If you want to continue, you have to continue without me.” And that was shocking to me.
And we walked down the street, and we came back, and there was a market area. Hebron is very, very poor. It wasn’t always very poor, but it’s very, very poor. Its market area has been shut down. But there are a few vendors there that I wanted to support. And I was walking to try to get to the vendor, and I was stopped at a checkpoint. Checkpoints all through the city, checkpoints obviously all through the West Bank. Your mobility is completely inhibited, and the mobility of the Palestinians is totally inhibited.
And I was walking to the checkpoint, and an Israeli guard stepped out, probably about the age of my son. And he said to me, “What’s your religion, bro?” And I said, “Well, you know, I’m not really religious.” And he said, “Come on. Stop messing around. What is your religion?” I said, “I’m not playing. I’m not really religious.” And it became clear to me that unless I professed my religion, and the right religion, I wasn’t going to be allowed to walk forward. So, he said, “Well, OK, so what was your parents’ religion?” I said, “Well, they weren’t that religious, either.” He says, “What were your grandparents’ religion?” And I said, “My grandmother was a Christian.” And then he allowed me to pass.
And it became very, very clear to me what was going on there. And I have to say it was quite familiar. Again, I was in a territory where your mobility is inhibited, where your voting rights are inhibited, where your right to the water is inhibited, where your right to housing is inhibited. And it’s all inhibited based on ethnicity. And that sounded extremely, extremely familiar to me.
And so, the most shocking thing about my time over there was how uncomplicated it actually is. Now, I’m not saying the details of it are not complicated. History is always complicated. Present events are always complicated. But the way this is reported in the Western media is as though one needs a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies to understand the basic morality of holding a people in a situation in which they don’t have basic rights, including the right that we treasure most, the franchise, the right to vote, and then declaring that state a democracy. It’s actually not that hard to understand. It’s actually quite familiar to those of us with a familiarity to African American history.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates, last night you were asked about the significance of Martin Luther King’s words on Vietnam. You said it’s taken you years to, quote, “understand nonviolence as an ethic” and that you understood that ethic in Israel. Could you explain?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, sure, I mean, and I think the thing to do is just to proceed off of what I said. Martin Luther King dedicated his life to the fight against segregation. His was a segregated society. The Occupied Territories are segregated, de jure segregated. It’s not, you know, hard to understand. There are different signs for where different people can go. There are different license plates forbidding different people from going different places. Now, what the authorities will tell you is that this is a security measure. But if you go back to the history of Jim Crow in this country, they would tell you the exact same thing. People always have good reasons, besides, you know, “I hate you, and I don’t like you,” to justify their right for imposing an oppressive regime on other people. It’s never quite that simple. And so, that was the first thing.
But the second thing I think that you’re referring to is, you know, I — you know, this is like really personal for me, because I came up in a time and in a place where I did not really understand the ethic of nonviolence. And by “ethic,” I mean the notion that violence itself is corrupting, that it corrupts the soul. And I didn’t quite understand that. If I’m truly honest with you, as much as I saw my relationship with the Palestinian people and as much as it was clear what the relationship was, it was at the same time clear that there was some sort of relationship with the Israeli people, too. And it wasn’t one that I particularly enjoyed, because I understood the rage that comes when you have a history of oppression. I understood the anger. I understood the sense of humiliation that comes when people subject you to just manifold oppression, to genocide, and people look away from that. I come from the descendants of 250 years of enslavement. I come from a people who sexual violence and rape is marked in our very bones and in our DNA. And I understand how when you feel that the world has turned its back on you, how you can then turn your back on the ethics of the world. But I also understood how corrupting that can be.
I was listening, actually, to my congressman last night, or I guess it was two nights ago, talk on the news. And a journalist asked him, “How many children, how many people must be killed to justify this operation? Is there an upper limit for the number of people that could be killed, when you would say, 'This is just too much. This just doesn't — this just doesn’t, you know, compute. This does not add up’?” And I will tell you, that congressman couldn’t give a number. And I thought, “That man has been corrupted. That man has lost himself. He’s lost himself in humiliation. He’s lost himself in vengeance. He has lost himself in violence.”
I keep hearing this term repeated over and over again: “the right to self-defense.” What about the right to dignity? What about the right to morality? What about the right to be able to sleep at night? Because what I know is, if I was complicit — and I am complicit — in dropping bombs on children, in dropping bombs on refugee camps, no matter who’s there, it would give me trouble sleeping at night. And I worry for the souls of people who can do this and can sleep at night.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, Ta-Nehisi, last night, as I said at the beginning, I think Union Theological was the fifth place that PalFest had turned to for this event. I want to point out who was there. Among the speakers was you, you know, a MacArthur “genius” fellow; was Michelle Alexander, the remarkable author and lawyer; Rashid Khalidi, a leading Palestinian American scholar, Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University; and others. And you being at Union Theological, you know, Dr. Martin Luther King is known for that speech, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” that he gave across the street at Riverside Church, but he started at Union Theological. So many people came, he had to go across the street for it. But can you talk about this difficulty in speaking out? I mean, just last week, we spoke to Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is the Vietnamese American Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who was on a book tour for his latest memoir, and the 92nd Street Y, now known as 92NY, canceled his conversation about his memoir because he had signed on to a letter — I think it was signed by 750 other people — calling for a ceasefire. The U.N. secretary-general has called for a Gaza ceasefire. Can you talk about what it means to break the sound barrier, and if you were nervous about coming out and speaking about Gaza, about the West Bank, even going, to begin with, knowing what you would feel responsible for doing once you came out?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, I wasn’t just nervous. I was afraid. You know, I hear people talk all the time about how fearlessness is a necessary quality. And I have never had that. I’ve never had that in my life, and I certainly have never had that in my career.
I spent five days with PalFest when I was over there, and then I spent another five days with a group of Israeli Jews. And I knew that whatever I was going to see — like, I had a sentiment. I couldn’t express it like I just expressed it for you right now, because, obviously, I hadn’t been there. But I had a sentiment that what I was going to see was not going to be great. And I know that, A, because of my upbringing, and I know that, B, because of my vocation as a journalist, you can’t behold evil and then return and not speak on it. And segregation is evil. There just is no — there’s no way for me, as an African American, to come back and stand before you, to witness segregation and not say anything about it.
One of the hardest things was to come back and then to read the rhetoric of certain African American politicians who are defending this regime. And I just — I couldn’t understand it. You know, I wanted to know if they had been to Hebron. You know, I wanted to know if they had been to Masafer Yatta, if they had been to Susiya, if they had been to Tuba. Had they seen? Had they really seen what is actually happening here? I don’t know how anybody who benefits, who stands on the shoulders of our ancestors’ struggle against Jim Crow, against segregation, could see what is happening right now, could see the bombs being dropped, 9,000 people dead, an ungodly number of them children, in service of Jim Crow and segregation, which we have exported, and be OK with that. I don’t — I don’t understand it.
So, yes, I have my fears. I do. I do. You know, I’m afraid right now, sitting here talking to you. But I have to measure my fear against the misery that I saw. I have to measure my fear against the promises that I made to the Palestinians who welcomed me into their homes and gave me the facts, to the Israeli Jews who welcomed me into their homes and gave me the facts, to the Holocaust survivors who welcomed me into their homes and gave me the facts. I have to measure it against my own ancestors, against Frederick Douglass, against Ida B. Wells, who certainly faced off against things that were much, much more perilous than going someplace, coming back and telling people what you saw. This is the minimum. It’s scary, but it’s also the minimum. And the fact that people are trying to suppress speech is not an excuse for you not to speak. It’s always been this way for Black writers and journalists. This is our tradition, you know? And so, I feel — as I do feel the fear, I also feel that I am in good company, because I’m in the company of my ancestors.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Ta-Nehisi, I want to ask you about the way in which this conflict is in fact being represented in the media and, as you pointed out, politicians, congressmembers, but also the White House. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre compared pro-Palestinian protesters to the white supremacists who took part in the deadly —
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, I saw it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: — Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. She made the comment in response to a question from Fox News’s Peter Doocy.
PETER DOOCY: Does President Biden think the anti-Israel protesters in this country are extremists?
PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: What I can say is what we’ve been very clear about this: When it comes to antisemitism, there is no place. We have to make sure that we speak against it very loud and be — and be very clear about that. Remember, what the president decided to — when the president decided to run for president is what he saw in Charlottesville in 2017, when we — he saw neo-Nazis marching down the streets of Charlottesville with vile, antisemitic just hatred. And he was very clear then, and he’s very clear now. He’s taken actions against this over the past two years. And he’s continued to be clear: There is no place — no place — for this type of vile and despite — this kind of rhetoric.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Ta-Nehisi Coates, that’s the White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. Your response?
TA-NEHISI COATES: You know, I don’t want to personalize this. I’m sure she’s a very, you know, nice person and a very, very kind person. But, you see, all of us stand on the shoulders of Martin Luther King. All of us stand on the shoulders of the nonviolent struggle. And on King’s birthday, the White House, like it’s done for years, stands up, and, you know, it praises Dr. King, and it talks about Dr. King as our modern-day prophet. I don’t know how these people do that and sleep at night. I don’t know how you compare people who are trying to stop a war, who are very much in the tradition of nonviolence, who are trying to stop bombs being dropped, literally, on refugee camps, to neo-Nazi protesters. It’s disgraceful, to use her own words. It’s disgraceful. It’s reprehensible. It is offensive, as far as I am concerned, to the shoulders on those whom we stand right now. I just — I don’t understand it.
I would extend this further. I mean, I think hearing President Biden himself — and here I will personalize it — downplay the number of Palestinian deaths, to say that he doesn’t believe the Palestinians, I just — when his own State Department was citing those figures only months ago, you know? At some point, you know, there’s that saying: When people show you who they are, you have to believe them. And so, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to do the political calculus on this. And I think at a certain point we have to just stop and say, “They believe it.” They believe it. They believe bombs should be dropped on children. They just think it’s OK. They think it’s OK, or at the very least they think it’s the price of doing business.
That’s not an ethic I can align myself from, because, as I’ve said several times in this interview, I come from a history where people wanted to make the exact same calculus about us and took stances that we would now say are immoral. But, see, the test isn’t what you did in the past; the test is what you do in the moment right now. I’m a writer. I would be much more comfortable — I was working on a book about this. I would be much more comfortable sitting at home writing about this, before I’m here talking to you guys right now. It is not my nature to talk about things that I have not written about yet. But one has to balance one’s responsibility against the suffering, against the death, against the body count. And to see what is coming out of this White House right now is just — it’s morally reprehensible. Again, I don’t know how people sleep at night.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been talking about Dr. King. His daughter, Dr. Bernice King, who heads The King Center, lawyer, Martin Luther King’s youngest daughter, responded to a post by the comedian Amy Schumer, who shared a video of Dr. King condemning antisemitism and defending Israel’s right to exist. Bernice King wrote, quote, “Certainly, my father was against antisemitism. He also believed militarism (along with racism and poverty) to be among the interconnected Triple Evils. I am certain he would call for Israel’s bombing of Palestinians to cease,” Dr. Bernice King said. And so, if you could comment on this and also talk about how the issue of Palestinians, the Occupied Territories, the occupation, has been raised in the Black community, the Movement for Black Lives, for years now, and the pressure you come under when you do?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, and, look, I think it’s very, very important to talk about the force of antisemitism in history, indeed in American history, in fact. It’s a very, very, very real thing, and I don’t think you can understand the events of the moment without understanding that.
And I think, over the past few weeks especially, much has been made about the historic alliance between Black folks and Jewish activists and Jewish folks and that sort of thing. And it’s a very, very real thing. It’s a very, very important thing. But I think, like any alliance, it is at its best when it grounds itself in moral principle, not in a kind of gang truce, not in a kind of “I had your back, so you’ll have mine.” A moral alliance that is transactional is actually, in fact, not a moral alliance. And we have always been at our best — you know, when I think about the Jewish civil rights workers who went south and put their bodies on the line for the civil rights movement, I like to think — and I think it’s true — that that was not a transactional arrangement. That was not, you know, an attempt to say, “Look, I’m doing this because I think you’ll have my back in the future.” They did it because it was right. They did it based on principle.
And so, you know, I think some of the frustration that certain, certain people feel about the lack of African American support for this war comes from this notion that we should have people’s back as they drop bombs to try to defend a segregationist apartheid regime. We shouldn’t do that. And we haven’t done that. That’s the history that you allude to, I mean, going back to Angela Davis, to SNCC, to Black Lives Matter. I stand here, or I sit here, very, very humbly as a latecomer to the cause, but someone who has come to the cause nonetheless. We have to stand on principle, Ma’am. We have to stand on principle. And if I’m a latecomer to the Palestinian cause, I’m also a latecomer to the cause of nonviolence, but I’m here now. You know? And knowing what that has meant to our history, you know, to our — there is no way in the world that we can leverage the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, there’s no way in the world we can leverage the weight, the ancestry of our movement, in defense of a war, in defense of indiscriminate bombings on refugee camps. We just — we can’t do that. We can’t do that. We would be a disgrace to our ancestors.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ta-Nehisi, last night, just to end, you said — we’ve just spoken about the fact that it was so difficult for the Palestine Festival of Literature to find a venue for last night’s event. Your own books here in the U.S. have faced book bans, and yours aren’t the only ones, of course. But you’ve said that when people resort to these measures — book banning, limiting public discussions — these are weapons of a weak and a decaying order. Could you explain what you mean by that, and why there is, despite the horror of the moment, some scope for optimism?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I think if you — and a lot of this is, you know, actually from my time talking to Rashid Khalidi, Professor Rashid Khalidi up at Columbia. And one of the points he made — you know, I came back from Palestine, and I just was glass-eyed. I didn’t understand. I had this deep-seated feeling that, in fact, I had been lied to. And I began consulting people and talking to people. And so, I got to spend some time with Professor Khalidi.
And one of the things he said to me was, never has the movement — this is somebody who’s been fighting this war for his entire life. He said, “Never has the movement been as powerful as it is right now.” And, you know, I had to take that in. I also have to take in the fact that, like, when I think about what I did not know, and when I did not know, it wasn’t that I had competing sources and I didn’t know where to turn. The way I think Americans have traditionally, up until very recently, you know —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds, Ta-Nehisi.
TA-NEHISI COATES: — saw this struggle — sure. I’m sorry about that. I will just say that I’m very optimistic about the fight, and I think we’re going to win. I’ll leave it there. Sorry about that.
AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, acclaimed writer, National Book Award winner, spoke at an event last night organized by Palestine Festival of Literature here in New York. We will link to the live stream.
Before we end, this update from Gaza: The Palestinian WAFA news agency is reporting at least 27 people were killed today in an Israeli bombing of an UNRWA school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, the largest refugee camp in Gaza. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.