Phillip Agnew and the Dream Defenders

  • March 12, 2020

On March 7, 2020, the Presidential campaign for Senator Bernie Sanders announced Phillip Agnew as the campaign’s newest Senior Advisor. Agnew, who previously campaigned on Sanders’ behalf as a National Surrogate, is expected to play a greater role in steering Sanders’ platform on issues of race and inequity and to amplify the campaign’s outreach to Black Americans, according to a press release from the campaign. Based on Agnew’s record of activism, it is not unreasonable to conclude that this outreach to Black communities could be at the expense of supporters of the State of Israel and the American Jewish Community.

Agnew promotes a concept of global solidarity that draws a direct line between the struggle for Black liberation in the U. S. and the characterization of Israel as an apartheid state that perpetrates ethnic cleansing. In a 2015 article in Ebony, Agnew described Zionism as “a racist, exploitative, and exclusionary ideology.” In the article, Agnew reflected on a recent trip to Israel and the West Bank: “What I saw there was cold, calculating racism and ethnic privilege masquerading as a Jewish State….[Some people] would have you to believe that the state of Israel was founded for the safety, security and sovereignty of a ‘People without a home.’...It is a lie.”

On Twitter and Instagram, Agnew pushed back against charges of antisemitism by emphasizing that his accusations are directed at the Israeli government, rather than Jews as a people. However, equating Zionism with racism often crosses a dangerous line beyond simply criticizing a government’s actions. As ADL explains, the “false and biased charge” that Zionism is a racist ideology is part of a long history of deliberate attempts “to delegitimize the right of Jews to a national homeland and undermine the Jewish nationalist movement.”

Dream Defenders, the Florida-based organization which Agnew cofounded in 2012 following the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, frequently centers the experience of Palestinians in its work to bring about social change in the United States. In 2016, Dream Defenders explained its position that “the state violence we experience [in the United States] is directly tied to the violence facing Black and Brown communities in Palestine and around the world.” The organization wrote about the connections between the experience of Black people in the United States and Palestinians again in 2018: “While our struggles may be unique, the parallels cannot be ignored...Too many of our children quickly learn that they may be imprisoned or killed simply for who they are. From Trayvon Martin to Mohammed Abu Khdeir and Khalif Browder to Ahed Tamimi - racism, state violence and mass incarceration have robbed our people of their childhoods and their futures.”

Since 2015, Dream Defenders has led an annual delegation of American activists to Israel and the West Bank, including the trip described by Agnew in his Ebony article. According to The Hill, one of the tours  offered during a 2016 trip was led by a guide who identified himself with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States and many other countries. Dream Defenders previously promoted the PFLP in its 2014 “Blacked Out History” campaign, which presented the PFLP alongside other “revolutionary organizations from around the world.” The curriculum stated that the PFLP “want to be free from global imperialism. They want liberation. They want equal rights. Just like the Dream Defenders.”

Both Agnew and Dream Defenders continue to promote gross inaccuracies about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including claims that Israel is committing genocide and ethnic cleansing, and claims describing Israel as a colonial entity or apartheid state. While intersectional movements and solidarity across marginalized groups can be a powerful tool for organizing, equating America’s history of racism to issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is misleading and defending terror organizations is unconscionable under any circumstances.

Disclaimer: As a 501c3 nonprofit organization, ADL takes no position on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for office.