The attacks between Israel and Gaza have recently escalated again. There are live updates about this, and you’ll see a lot of pieces of the picture to explore in that one link. There are Twitter feeds with the hashtag #gaza, but apparently Israel is shutting down Internet use in parts of the country. As usual, it is mostly Palestinians who are dying, but there is death of civilians in Israel and in Gaza. But this time, I know more about what is going on. And this time, there are worldwide protests. This post is me attempting to say what I have made sense of so far.
How to keep track of the basics
In Israel, the population is about 3/4 Jewish. The army is called the Israeli Defense Force. The philosophy of Zionism, the idea that Jews belong in Israel, has come in multiple waves, and is supported quite strongly by parts of the American Jewish population. Jewish Americans, in my experience, are heavily and painfully divided on the issues of Israel and Palestine. Groups like “Jewish Voices for Peace” openly speak against the actions of Israel, as do many Israeli Jews. But many Jewish people do not want to discuss the issue within their communities, especially with non-Jews such as myself, because apparently there are anti-Semitic people who are speaking against Israel.
When it comes to Palestinians, there are at least 4 regions to consider, and knowing this helped me sort out the facts I was learning:
- the West Bank, which sees increasing settlements by Israel, is called apartheid, and sees increasing non-violent resistance by Palestinians. It is an Israeli occupied territory.
- Gaza, an open-air prison where Israel with Egypt’s help prevents almost all people and resources from going to and from it. Gaza used to have settlements but those were pulled out in 2005, and since then there has been increased violence by the IDF. Israel disputes the labeling of Gaza as an “occupied territory”.
- Arab citizens in Israel itself. Some are Bedouin, who may not call themselves Palestinians, or may call themselves part of the Palestinian minority with a distinct history. There are incentives not to self-identify as Palestinian, because Palestinians are demonized in Israel.
- Palestinian refugees in other countries from 1967, who are having trouble in the Arab nations they have fled to. Apparently Israel is afraid to let them back in, because that would mean not maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel.
That is the skeleton I rest other facts on. I know that it is not an easy situation to understand. I used to rely on a close friend’s expertise, as a Jewish person who has studied Arabic and followed the situation for years, and I still could ask her–but it is hard for her to speak of painful things, and there is far too much pain in her life right now. But where once I felt that meant I didn’t know enough, I now feel that I should learn more about it, and be able to understand what is going on.
In the course of doing this, and hearing the Palestinian side of the story, I find it useful to sort out and address the kind of tactics that what some of my Jewish friends call “die-hard Zionists” will use, that one should watch out for. Too much focus on these, of course, means privileging Jewish voices over Arab ones. But they are tactics that tend to quickly cloud and obstruct dialogue, and to get around them and fail to be discouraged, you can either ignore them (as many do) or, like me, know what you are seeing and why it is problematic.
Some Zionists talk as if all Jews must stand in support of the actions of the IDF, and encourage the conflation of “Israel’s government and the IDF” with “Jewish people”. This conflation is anti-Semitic, because it means pretending all Jews are alike and/or trying to force them to be. But for those who use this tactic, it allows them to accuse Jewish people who criticize Israel as “self-hating”, and anyone else as “anti-Semitic”. There almost certainly are anti-Jewish people Americans speaking up against Israel. But anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia are much more common and widely accepted in the US than anti-Jewish sentiment. Finally, it is worth noting that though “anti-Semitic” is used to mean “anti-Jewish”, Arabs are Semitic peoples too.
Pinkwashing and racism
“[Israel is] the only regime in the Middle East that supports democracy and the rights of women and the LGBT community!”
I have a high-school classmate named Saffo, with whom I’ve recently re-connected, who is a Greek-American trans woman and now an anti-Zionist activist. She has talked about how some Zionists will meet her, say things along the lines of “even a freak like you would be safe in Tel Aviv”, and threaten her with “what Palestinians would do to you if you went to Gaza”. She’s far from the only queer person to experience this; pinkwashing is a widespread phenomenon, and I’ve even had a milder version directed at me. People take their own queerphobic fantasies and project them onto Palestinians. You might not be surprised to find that there are US companies benefiting from this; and as a more critical queer thinker, I strongly object to having my own social status used against me and my community by Zionists. Queer Palestinians are vocally against this pinkwashing too. Oh, and it bears saying that this is not a tactic used by Israel alone; many, many countries and institutions use their “progressiveness” in some areas to distract from their human rights abuses, including of course, the US government.
“Israel is an oasis of democracy in the chaotic Middle East”
Let’s be real, any half-politicized American or European knows that the views of our white-dominated countries toward Arab populations are racist. That when countries are called “third world” and “violent”, on top of the actual facts being discussed there is a heavy connotation of being “barbaric”, Other, inferior. Not all Jews are white, not all Israeli Jews are white, but there’s a lot of international white privilege going into that kind of statement. But in this case the US media are the ones that are mostly pro-Israel, I’ve heard often more than the Israeli media. (It even made it onto yoisthisracist.com).
“It is easy to hear about oppression and see the Palestinians sad story and not feel badly about it. I have seen their sad story for decades. They are a tragic people, caught between being used by the powers that be in the Arab world as a weapon against Israel, their own leaders who vary between corrupt thieves (Arafat) to psychopathic Jihadists (Hamas) and Israel on the other side. Many Israelis hate the Palestinians. Many do not.
But the Palestinians have also brought plenty of misery on themselves.”
OK, and educational…up until the last sentence.
“Gaza can never have peace until Hamas stops firing rockets on Israel”
And Israel will likely continue to see retaliation by Hamas or other Palestinian organizations, until the IDF and other responsible parties have not only stopped the violence but have helped heal the wounds they have caused. But it is Palestinians in Gaza who must live in an open-air prison.
Possibly the strongest case here is that the US should not interfere in matters of Israel and Palestine, because we should not interfere in countries abroad. And European countries should not criticize Israel for its violence. I usually agree with statements like this, though not uncritically. There is also an argument that Americans have no right to talk about colonization, because the vast majority of us live as immigrant-descendants in colonized lands. That is the danger of “hypocrisy” arguments: as Mia McKenzie put it on a different subject, It is precisely because we are all complicit that we need to be calling each other out.
But the biggest problem with this argument, and the reason that Americans must talk about this issue, is that the US is actively complicit in the IDF’s violence. Even as Gaza is under severe attack now, the US Senate has resolved that “Israel has the right to defend itself”. I wrote a letter to Obama asking him to say something, anything, against this.
Jewish democracy and the fear of the minority
Also connected to “hypocrisy”. Because there are “Christian nations” like the US, and there are Islamic theocracies the reasoning goes, there should be “somewhere for Jews to go”. This is fed by the long history of discrimination against Jews, including the Holocaust, but also including the way the US treats Jewish and other non-Christian holidays.
I have been puzzled about why this seemed like a good idea, because Islamic theocracies have been a huge liability for Muslims in the US. I recently read a bit about the history of Zionism, which said that before the Holocaust, many Jews were afraid that the existence of “a Jewish state” would threaten their own statuses as citizens of their countries. After the Holocaust, well, that argument was substantially weakened.
I do not wish to erase current and past anti-Semitism. But I find the idea that Israel should have a Jewish minority, to be extremely unhelpful. First of all I dearly wish that this nation were much less Christian. My own mother refers negatively to the “un-Christian Right” and I agree, yet she raised me with Catholic-style repression that continues to impact my life. I would like to celebrate my family and friends and gift-giving without having it be “Christmas”. And so on. A religious democracy is a contradiction in terms, I think. And with or without majority status, Jews will probably be privileged in Israel for a long time to come.
But then, does any group have the right to expect to be the majority in some country? Not all oppressions are alike, and I can’t speak to racial or ethnic oppression since I have American white privilege. (And in the US some racist white people are indeed expressing fear of being in the minority.) But as a queer person, there is not and will never be a country where I’m in the majority, dominant or otherwise. So, I live knowing there is a realistic possibility that my country will turn on me, because I’m queer, because I try to be activist; that anti-queer sentiments will grow not shrink. I live knowing how strongly the US culture is already against my transgender friends, my friends who are queer people of color, friends and strangers, whose humanity I respect but my culture does not. No matter how much queer rights “progresses”, we are and will always be a minority, we will always depend on the sufferance of the majority to let us live as ourselves. Queer people know how hatred can be created against minorities, in culture after culture. Jewish identity is one form of minority status, and like queerness it can sometimes be invisible. But the answer to threats of oppression is not “being the majority”; if you are part of “the majority” and think that is a good thing, it probably means you’re ignoring the ways you contribute to the oppression of others.
In my years of learning about social justice, I have learned a lot about the human power of denial. About how the colonizer will justify its violence against the colonized, because of fear of the colonized. About how people support the prison-industrial complex because they’re so afraid of criminals that they are willing to think the expanding violence of prisons are worth it. (Or people may reasonably disagree about this, but often there is a heavy Othering bias against “criminals”, a tendency to argue that prisoners have all brought the violence on themselves). About how well-meaning people can not only willfully ignore the violence other “good people” do, the violence done by their home countries and beloved institutions, but in discomfort over facing these topics, they may blame the messenger. I have friends who do not like it when I talk about Israel and Palestine, even if they listen to me on everything else. My own roommate prefers that I not discuss it around her–and I know she does not favor Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and other violent actions. I have Israeli Jewish friends, and I am afraid to lose them. I know that they know that I don’t hate them; but, I don’t know that this would be enough for them to be willing to listen to me.
And, even more than I don’t want to lose my friendships, I don’t want to see denial in action. I am sick and tired of seeing that. I want to see people love each other. I want to see people listen to each other’s messages, understand when hurt is not meant, but be willing to hear and apologize when they have done hurt. I want to see people prioritize love and communication, to risk their own sense of personal security for the sake of connecting with others. But my own impulses to listen, my own sense of morality, and my sense of personal responsibility for doing something to make the world around me less violent and more beautiful, drive me to think about the hard things. And to consider speaking up, even when I am afraid of those consequences.
What to do
I could not go to the student protest today, or the one in San Francisco, because I am home with my family in New Jersey, and now more than ever I think how lucky I am to have them. I did comment on an article about how Stanford is complicit in this violence. I participate in these discussions now, when I did not before. You can see I got quotes from the comments there, though those quotes are ones that come up over and over again. I do not think divestment is the only answer, but it is certainly a part of what we should do. I need to figure out how much time and energy I really do have for this battle between peoples not my own.
But when we feel we are encouraged to be silent, that is a sign that speaking up will matter.