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Representative John Lewis, Civil Rights Giant, and Issues of Palestinian Human Rights and Self-Determination

posted on: Jul 22, 2020


Bloody Sunday, Selma, 1965–John Lewis battered by State Police  Photo CNN

By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

John Lewis was one of the most successful civil rights leaders during the past six decades. He was a moral leader who practiced non-violence fastidiously and was willing to put himself on the line and thus directly in harm’s way. Lewis came to the Palestinian human rights later in his life, especially after a lifelong allegiance to Israel.

John Lewis, a titan of civil rights and hero to many

Representative John Lewis died Friday, July 17, at age 80, after fighting pancreatic cancer for months. A civil rights giant, Lewis had come a long way from a sharecropper’s son to a champion of civil rights, not only for Black Americans but for others who were oppressed because, simply, they weren’t White. Lewis began his career in the civil rights movement on the front lines. Quoting NBC News, “The longtime Georgia congressman, an advocate of nonviolent protest who had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, was the last surviving speaker from 1963’s March on Washington.”

Rep. John Lewis, Civil Rights Giant, and issues of Palestinian human rights and self-determination
Remembering Selma-two giants re-walk the walk Photo BBC

Lewis had fans everywhere, especially including former President Barack Obama, who called Lewis a personal hero. In Obama’s tribute, also according to NBC, he said that Lewis “loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise.”  Obama continued, “through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.” Lewis did not just ask for respect for the dignity and worth of all human beings, he demanded it.

Foreign news sources have also waxed eloquently about John Lewis. One in particular, the Jewish News Syndicate, wrote that Lewis understood how important it is to build “bridges of empathy” between different communities. Furthermore, it reported, “He was a lifelong ally of the Jewish people, a loyal supporter of Israel, and a vigilant voice against anti-Semitism.” The context for this statement is the pressure Israel is feeling about forces that wish to sever the “black-Jewish unity.” Imagine the day when such a quote might substitute Palestinian for black.

Interview with a constituent and acquaintance of Lewis

An interview with Wally Yazbak, a Palestinian-American living is Atlanta, Lewis’ congressional district, sheds some light on the richness and complexity of the Congressman’s human rights perspective. Yazbak noted that he had voted for Lewis in every election since 1986. His meetings with Lewis were both civic and personal, in one instance part of a campaign to get more Arab Americans out to vote. In another, Lewis was invited to a school attended by Yazbak’s sons to discuss the issue that inspired Lewis–human rights.

Yazbak noted during the interview the occasions on which Lewis voted favorably towards Arabs, one being the Congressman’s vote against the Iraq war. He was one of few elected officials in the House or the Senate to cast a negative vote against a war whose negative repercussions are still present. On another issue, the status of Jerusalem, Lewis told Yazbak that all peoples should share this holy city.

When asked why he thought Lewis was slow to come to the support of Palestinians, contrasted with his steadfast backing of Israel, Yazbak responded, “Lewis was misled” by the numerous American pro-Israel lobbies and other political forces that proclaim Israel can do no wrong and that Palestinians are simply a drag on Israel’s efforts to expand the Israeli state. Lewis also showed signs of increasing support for Palestinians in his vote to release hundreds of West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem minors arbitrarily arrested, confined and abused in Israeli prisons.

Palestinian American, Wally Yazbek, with his congressman, John Lewis

Another hint of Lewis shifting support for Palestinians was his action on a vote for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions congressional bill aimed at sending a message to Israel that it could not continue to exploit Palestinians by violating their human rights. While Lewis would not vote favorably on this specific bill, he did vote for a resolution to protect the right of Americans to participate in boycotts that is a First Amendment protection. In that sense, his vote had nothing to do with Israel but more about protecting the freedoms of Americans.

Yazbak told a story of having met john Lewis at the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta on September 2018, at which time Lewis said, “Jerusalem belongs to all religions and no one can just give it away to one religion,” He invited Lewis to visit his hometown in Nazareth and Palestine, which Lewis suggested he would put “on the top of his bucket list.”


John Lewis rendered great moral and ethical support to the American civil rights movement. It seems his unflagging backing of Israel, even in the face of that nation’s oppression of the Palestinians, may have blinded him to their human rights needs. He did, however, come to mediate that bias in coming to see the Palestinians as a human rights issue and a question of their self-determination.


“Representative John Lewis, lion of the civil rights movement, dies at 80,” NBC News, 7/17/2020

“Jewish and Israel-related groups mourn the passing of 8—year-old Rep. John Lewis,” Jewish News Service, 7/19/2020

“Ilhan Omar’s Pro-BDS Bill is Gaining Momentum – Thanks to a Surprising Supporter,” Forward, Ariel Gold, 7/22/2019



John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.


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