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“The Mandates of Conscience”: Michelle Alexander on Israel, Gaza, MLK & Speaking Out in a Time of War

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Image Credit: Josh Pacheco

“But We Must Speak: On Palestine and the Mandates of Conscience.” That was the name of a recent event organized by the Palestine Festival of Literature here in New York, where leading writers and academics came together to speak out against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Speakers included Yasmin El-Rifae of PalFest and the civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, a special broadcast: “But We Must Speak: On Palestine and the Mandates of Conscience.” That was the name of a November 1st event here in New York where leading writers and academics came together to speak out against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. The event was held at the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. But it almost didn’t happen. Four other venues refused to host the gathering.

Over the next hour, we’ll hear the words of the acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who won the National Book Award for his book Between the World and Me. He was in conversation with the Palestinian American historian Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University. His books include The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. Their discussion was moderated by Michelle Alexander, the renowned civil rights attorney and author. We begin with Yasmin El-Rifae, author, writer and producer of the Palestine Festival of Literature.

YASMIN EL-RIFAE: Since 2008, PalFest has been bringing writers and artists from around the world to Palestine for a weeklong festival, staging free public events in multiple cities across Palestine. Some of you have been our guests, participants and advisers.

As we come together in this beautiful sanctuary tonight, churches, mosques, hospitals and refugee camps in Gaza are being bombed by Israel. Our PalFest colleagues, friends and partners in the West Bank are living in terror for their safety and the safety of their families. The young writers in Gaza who organized a night of poetry in the besieged strip ahead of the opening of PalFest in Ramallah last May have stopped replying to their messages. Mohammed al-Qudwa, who contributed a poem to that evening last May, is still occasionally replying to messages and posting on Instagram. With no food, water and power in Gaza and amidst constant bombardment, he writes that when his phone lights up, the internet feels like a miracle. Some of the writers and activists in the West Bank whose homes PalFest visited just last May and in years prior are having their photographs and addresses circulated on chat groups among armed Israeli settlers calling for their murder. Some of the publishers and editors who have worked with these writers and artists and activists are in this room today.

In response to this disaster, we are holding this event as an urgent intervention by writers, scholars and poets who have worked at the unavoidable intersection of art and politics, who have thought deeply about land, segregation, colonization, history and liberation. We thank the Union Theological Seminary for taking us in at a time when events in this city are being canceled and censored. This is the fifth space we approached to host us this evening. The difficulty is not because of availability.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Yasmin El-Rifae of the Palestine Festival of Literature speaking at an event at the Union Theological Seminary here in New York. It was titled “But We Must Speak: On Palestine and the Mandates of Conscience.” This is civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, renowned author of the book _The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” About five years ago, Alexander wrote a widely read op-ed piece for The New York Times headlined “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine.”

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: The fact that so many people are here tonight, so many, from all different religions, races, genders, is itself a testament of hope. I know that so many of us are carrying a great deal of grief, fear, anger, internal conflict and despair into this room. I hope that we can breathe together, now that we have arrived, exhale, open our hearts to one another and listen deeply to each other. We are here. We are many. We are not alone.

On behalf of Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, I want to welcome you to James Chapel. Serene could not join us tonight because she has a commitment in Washington, D.C., but she wishes she could be here, and she extends a very warm welcome to all of you.

It’s no secret that many people are closing their doors to these kinds of vital conversations right now, fearful of what others might say, think or do in response. And so I am enormously grateful that Serene said yes when I asked her if the Palestine Literary Festival could come to Union and use this sacred space. She said yes, knowing that her decision might invite criticism or rebuke. But she also knew that James Chapel has been a site of many, many difficult, courageous conversations, dialogues that are essential to our collective liberation and the creation of beloved community.

In fact, it was in this very space that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was originally scheduled to deliver his 1967 speech condemning the Vietnam War. The event was ultimately relocated to Riverside Church across the street due to the overwhelming number of people who wanted to hear what he had to say and our space limitations here.

At Riverside, Dr. King stepped to the podium and said, quote, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. A time comes when silence is betrayal. And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”

Dr. King acknowledged how difficult it can be for people to speak out against their own government, especially in times of war, and that the temptations of conformity may lead us toward a paralyzed apathy. He did not deny that the issues present in Vietnam were complex with long histories. And he recognized that there were ambiguities and that North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front were not paragons of virtue. But he said that he was morally obligated to speak for the suffering and helpless and outcast children of Vietnam. He said, quote, “This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls 'enemy,' for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers,” end-quote.

He condemned the Vietnam War in unsparing terms. He decried the moral bankruptcy of a nation that does not hesitate to invest in bombs and warfare around the world but can never seem to find the dollars to eradicate poverty at home. He called for a radical revolution of values. He said, quote, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered,” end-quote.

Dr. King was condemned by virtually every major media outlet in America for taking this stand. And even within the civil rights community, many imagined that he was a traitor to the cause. And yet we now know — deep within us we know — that he was right. He is right. He is right today as he was back then about the corrupting forces of capitalism, militarism and racism and how they lead inexorably toward war.

And he was right that our conscience must leave us no other choice: We must speak. When the oppressed, the poor, the weak are under attack, when their homes are stolen or demolished, when they are forced to migrate and to live in unspeakable conditions, in open-air prisons, concentration camps, perpetually as refugees under occupation, we must speak. We must speak when Jewish children are brutally killed in the name of liberation, when antisemitism and Islamophobia slip in through the back door of supposedly progressive spaces. When Palestinian children in refugee camps are bombed and killed, when schools and hospitals and entire neighborhoods are laid waste, we must speak. When international law is treated like a naive suggestion, we must speak. Yes, it may be difficult. Yes, we will make mistakes. We are human. And yes, we may be afraid. But we must speak. Countless lives and the liberation of all of us depend on us breaking our silences.

And what’s required in these times, as I see it, is not only activism and politics, but also deeply personal spiritual work. As Grace Lee Boggs once said, quote, “These are the times to grow our souls.”

All of us have a conscience that whispers to us, sometimes in the dark. The mandates of conscience that arise within each of us arise not out of loyalty to abstract principles or doctrines, but from a place of deep knowing, a deep knowing that we owe something to each other as human beings, that we belong to each other, and that our freedom and liberation depends on one another. If I do not stand and speak up when the bombs are raining down on you, then who will speak up for me, for my loved ones, when the tables are turned? As James Baldwin wrote to Angela Davis more than 50 years ago when she sat in a prison cell “For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

AMY GOODMAN: Civil rights attorney and author Michelle Alexander, speaking at a November 1st event at the Union Theological Seminary here in New York organized by the Palestine Festival of Literature. Coming up, Michelle Alexander moderates a discussion by the renowned author Ta-Nehisi Coates and Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi. Stay with us.

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