On hearing the news that 3 bodies have been found in the West Bank that are suspected to be the three abducted Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, that went missing almost three weeks ago I posted the following facebook status:
I was referring to the fact that some armed groups have claimed responsibility for the killings (inc an ISIS affiliated group, and Sarayat al-Quds, the military wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad). If it is shown that one of these groups, or Hamas as the Israeli government keeps claiming, is responsible, then the killings would constitute a war crime.
Almost immediately comments began to follow that status update with comments on context and the atrocious backlash that the Palestinian population has suffered after the abductions in recent weeks. Comments came thick and fast about what we have already witnessed: Israeli forces’ arresting hundreds of Palestinians, raids and damage of property, enforced restrictions on freedom of movement, the continued widespread use of administrative detention and of course a series of killings.
From these comments I assume that people felt one of two things. Either that they thought that by condemning one act of violence I was somehow tacitly condoning another. And/or that some context was needed to the killings of the teenagers for those who read my facebook status updates to understand ‘the other side of the story’.
Whilst I strongly reject the first (for hopefully obvious reasons) the latter needs a bit more exploration.
I strongly agree with the assertion that context is important in understanding violence and human rights abuses. It is essential. I would be fascinated to hear anyone argue anything different. Equally, as a human rights activist the principle of impartiality is important – so I would be equally as passionate about condemning killing of civilian x as I would of civilian y.
The perpetrator is not important, but the context is.
With this said, why then would my facebook status not include the ‘other side of the story’ that so quickly emerged in the comments below?
Firstly, like so many, that status came as a result of reading about and then empathizing with all those affected by the killing of the three boys. It was a knee jerk reaction to a deplorable act. The words that came to hand was that of emotion and human rights, “deplorable act” “war crime” etc.
This facebook status wasn’t an essay, an analysis or trying to make any wider point. It was simply a comment on a deplorable act to illustrate that International Humanitarian Law condemns such behaviour.
Secondly though there is also an issue around comparing and/or contrasting people’s suffering. Not only do I find this morally uneasy but also at times pragmatically unhelpful. I am not convinced that trying to compare levels of suffering is helpful to anyone. In contrast, I can see others use the language of others suffering to perpetrate further atrocities. For me, the death of anyone’s loved one deserves a mark of respect, not a reduction of that life into a statistic to be used and abused for political ends.
With that said, a balance at this point then has to be struck. Clearly those in power are not following this line of thought and are already using these tragic deaths to justify furthering a pattern of events that have been occurring for much longer than the last three weeks.
Netanyahu has openly blamed Hamas for the killings and has promised revenge for what he described as a murder “in cold blood by human animals”. As a result we have already seen a sharp increase in the bombing of the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli housing minister, Uri Ariel, has called for the extrajudicial executions of leaders of Hamas and for Israel to “start a wave of construction in the settlements in response to the murder of the abductees.” – something which in itself would be the cause of forced displacement, a myriad of human rights violations and is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law (IHL).
So simply ignoring the context isn’t sufficient either. Mourning the loss of innocent civilians whilst watching on at the on-going violations of others is as equally morally and pragmatically undesirable.
The challenge for myself, and others then looking to comment on these killings and the atrocious backlash being experienced across the Occupied Palestinian Territory, is how we speak out in an equal and fair way without reducing people’s suffering to just statistics or worse, campaigns fodder.
This is something that I am still struggling with and thinking about. For now, I use human rights language. Hence my response as I tried to keep it simple when responding to one friend who asked about the killings of Palestinian children:
While some might think of human rights language as cold and legalistic, I think of it as a powerful liberal tool that encapsulates the importance of the individual. It is not always perfect but it does allow space for people to expand on individual violations when they want.
This morning I chose expand on the deplorable killings of three Israeli teenagers. This has no bearing on my thoughts on the other violations occurring in the region.
Anti-Semitism in pro-Palestinian networks
Anti-Semitism exists within ‘pro-Palestinian’ networks and must be tackled. But labelling everyone who speaks out against Israel’s crimes as ‘anti-Semitic’ is as unhelpful as it is untrue.
In a brave and powerful article in the New Statesman, Mehdi Hassan took on what he referred to as the “the banality of Muslim anti-Semitism” in Britain.
I am sure it wasn’t an easy article for him to write but it was an important article for at least two reasons. Firstly, it tackles a form of prejudice that has been left untouched by many. Secondly, it made me and I suspect many others, reflect on the prejudice that sits within our own social circles.
As I was reading the article I could not help but to draw parallels with the low-level anti-Semitism that exist within the ‘pro-Palestinian’ activist networks that I have dipped in and out of in the last few years.
Please stick with me here. What I am about to write involves me wading through a quagmire of politics, misinformation and high emotion.
From my personal experience, most of the ‘internationals’ (ie not Palestinians or Israelis) that are passionate about the ‘Palestine issue’ are so because they have a deep rooted empathy with other human beings that have been, and still are, suffering terribly.
I have however come across the occasional individuals who self identifies as ‘pro-Palestinian’ who has also held anti-Semitic views and used the conflict as context and cover to express these views.
The problem is that a significant minority of those in the former category – the well intentioned empathetic individuals – have not been vocal enough or clear enough in condemning these views.
In addition to this I have come across lazy and sloppy language often confusing the state of Israel with that of Jews worldwide – not anti-Semitic in itself but a line of thought that when combined with vocal criticism of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories, can too often lead to anti-Semitism.
In addition to all of this in the international activist community, I also came across wide-spread anti-Semitism within parts of the Palestinian population living in the West Bank.
Part of what triggered me to write this article was Mehdi writing about the conspiracy theories he had come across in the British Muslim community. With obvious sarcasm he wrote:
“What about 9/11? Definitely those damn Yehudis. I mean, why else were 4,000 Jews in New York told to stay home from work on the morning of 11 September 2001?”
A conspiracy theory that is as repulsive as it is without truth. A conspiracy theory however that I heard on four separate occasions from Palestinians in the West Bank and once from an international working in the there.
What was also interesting and perhaps equally as depressing was a conversation I had with an ISM volunteer in Nablus. I told her about hearing these conspiracy theories and she responded saying that (and I paraphrase from memory) ‘you can’t blame Palestinians for thinking like that. Wouldn’t you if you had lived under occupation for the last 45 years?’
At the time I didn’t know where to start. I gave my answer, “No” and walked off. In retrospect it clearly highlights to me a deep rooted problem -That too many who self identify as pro-Palestinian become apologists for a form of anti-Semitism.
In short I can see three issues that we as peace activists need to face up to:
1) A tiny minority of those who campaign for Palestinian rights do so holding unacceptable anti-Semitic views.
2) Too many of those who campaign for Palestinian rights, also too often turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism amongst fellow activists and amongst Palestinians.
3) A significant minority of Palestinians express anti-Semitic views and are left unchallenged (it goes without saying that this does not describe the majority of Palestinians).
On the flip side of this of all this is an equally important challenge that anyone serious about tackling anti-Semitism has to face up to.
I have personally been accused of being anti-Semitic, hating Israel and such forth**. All utter codswallop. Equally, I know good friends who have had similar accusations thrown at them. This not only cheapens the accusations but it makes seeing the actual anti-Semite amongst the false accusations much more difficult.
Equally, it is worth noting that it doesn’t just apply to individuals.
EAPPI –the organisation that I travelled to the West Bank with – has also had every criticism you can imagine thrown at it.
Melanie Phillips writing in the Mail quoted the following remarks about EAPPI:
“[EAPPI is] nothing but an insidious front for a pro-Palestinian campaign to propagate the partisan lie that, while Israel is besieged by child killers, infiltrated by suicide bombers, surrounded by Islamist propagandists and endures almost daily missiles launched at civilian areas, she is the aggressor, the terroriser, the occupying force.’
‘… the EAPPI ascribes Palestinian misery to apartheid Israel alone, consistently turning a blind eye to Palestinian aggression, corruption, rejectionism and incitement (not to mention Islamism, homophobia, racism and the oppression of women). The EAPPI is blind to antisemitism and deaf to the numerous overtures to peace which have been offered. They are ignorant of Israel’s need for security, and oblivious to the fact that she alone in the entire region is a vibrant, tolerant, multiracial, multi-faith society.’
This description of EAPPI is so far from what I experienced that it dissolves any sense of credibility that the author might have tried to project.
In short, I and many others cease to take it seriously because it bears no resemblance of the truth.
Our ability to tackle the low level anti-Semitism within the ‘pro-Palestinian community’ (a term I feel uncomfortable using but do so for the sake of ease) is hampered by those who aim to smear all involved as anti-Semitic.
I, like many others, have learnt to ignore such criticisms. The severity, sensitivity and frequency of this anti-Semitism though demands that we start taking this seriously. The roles of those who dedicate themselves to highlighting anti-Semitism has to be to begin to work with the progressive majority within ‘pro-Palestinian’ circles to tackle anti-Semitism– not blindly attacking. It helps nobody when these progressives spend their time having to defend themselves from false accusations.
Like Mehdi this article has not been easy for me to write. Removing prejudice and encouraging a greater degree of human empathy has to be the starting block of any future peace.
I am sure that this article will win me no friends from either side of this polarised debate. So I finish with a plea to the moderates who might quietly agree – speak out. Publically stand up for those falsely accused of anti-Semitism and condemn in the strongest terms any hint of true anti-Semitism you experience. The foundations of any future peace depend on it.
**Update** After receiving feedback I’d like to clarify that when I listed ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘hating Israel’ next to each other I was seeking to illustrate some of the false accusations thrown at me, not to conflate the two as being the same.
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Filed under Human rights, Middle East, Social comment
Tagged as anti-Semitism, Human rights, Israel, networks, Palestine, prejudice, pro-Palestine