Guest Column: Taking sides on contemporary injustice

Serene Darwish

“I am a Palestinian Arab, and I am also an American. This affords me an odd, not to say grotesque, double perspective.” Edward Said spoke these words, in a lecture on academic freedom, at South Africa’s University of Cape Town, and 23 years later, they speak to my soul. In the same speech, he spoke of the Israeli policy of closing Palestinian schools and universities for years while Jewish youth freely attended classes. He lamented that he saw no campaign of Western intellectuals to alleviate the situation while U.S. celebrations of Israeli democracy continued. Said attributed Israel’s oppressive practices to the state’s intent to “deny, if not altogether obliterate, the Palestinian national identity” and render its existence impossible “except as nameless, disenfranchised ‘Arab inhabitants’ of ‘Judea and Samaria’ (as the West Bank and Gaza are known in official Israeli parlance).”

Decades after the First Intifada, the late ‘80’s Palestinian uprising against occupation, Israel’s policy of beating, arresting and killing Palestinians en masse in order to maintain its reign in Palestine has remained. Perhaps the Israeli war machine has evolved in that it kills Palestinians in higher numbers now. During the First Intifada, the Israel Defense Forces killed about 1,100 Palestinian people over the course of six years. During the latest onslaught, the IDF has killed nearly 1,800 Palestinian people over the course of three weeks, even more than were killed during what Israel named Operation Cast Lead. In all instances, children have made up a high proportion of the dead.

In his lecture, Said spoke of proportions: “when you consider that well over two-thirds of the population in Occupied Palestine is made up of people under the age of 18, the sheer massive brutality of denying them school and college or university by systematic edict is extraordinary.” Children in Gaza now are also bearing the brunt of Israeli brutality. Generation after generation, Israel denies life and the pursuit of happiness to Palestinians of all ages and instead grants subjugation or death.

Although Said’s words seem unfortunately timeless, they are due for edits. Now, mainstream discourses do not posit Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as “disenfranchised ‘Arab inhabitants’ of ‘Judea and Samaria’” but, rather, as citizens of a hostile neighboring state. Joan Rivers recently stated, in an analogy considered “awesome” by TMZ staff:  “If Jersey was firing rockets into New York, we would wipe them out. If we heard they were building tunnels from Jersey to New York, we would get rid of Jersey.”

First, I am disturbed that a prominent figure can get away with expressing such frighteningly violent endorsements of wiping out people and territories, but such is the sad state of Palestinians in this world. With Palestinians, racism is allowed to come out and play in the open. Joan Rivers’s statement is a simplified articulation of what we’re hearing from Israeli spokespeople and, in turn, all over mainstream US media. We hear it time and time again: “what would you do if…”

The pervasive idea is the following: Israel has to bomb this hostile neighboring state as an act of defense, just like you would if you were in its place. Gaza is neither a neighbor nor a state. Israel occupies Gaza, and eighty percent of the people in Gaza are refugees from inside Israel’s recognized borders. They, along with Palestinian refugees in exile, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank, are native to the country. As for statehood, there is one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. That state is Israel, and two peoples live under it, Israelis and Palestinians, with Palestinians as the people stolen from, segregated, subjugated, besieged, occupied, imprisoned, ghettoized and sometimes, like now, bombed. Even if we accepted that Gaza was simply a hostile neighboring state, Israel’s actions would remain criminal.

The situation is purposely made complicated. This is where I am tempted to simplify it into an analogy like our friend Joan Rivers did. Palestinians are so dehumanized that we find ourselves constantly tempted to utilize comparisons in order to re-humanize. Human decency often ceases to be a factor in discourses surrounding Palestine/Israel, so the logical conclusion then is that maybe if people just imagined siege, occupation, apartheid and mass killing happening to another population, then their decency would kick in and they would realize how vile this is!

I grew up bearing witness to Israeli atrocities and, simultaneously, to the U.S.’s role of support. This is the grotesque double perspective Palestinian Americans are afforded. As Israel now further shows the world how genocidal it is, I can’t help but think:Palestinians told you so. Why didn’t you believe us? Were we that muzzled? Time and time again, why didn’t you believe us? 

Regardless, defending the Palestinian people does not require making foolish hypothetical analogies like the New York-New Jersey scenario. Though incredibly unique, the case of the Palestinian people is neither the first nor last case of oppression. Therefore, we can draw on actual instances and make tangible connections.

In that spirit, let us not forget that racist mobs were lynching black people in Jim Crow America. Let us remember that the U.S. labeled the late Nelson Mandela a terrorist when he fought apartheid in South Africa. Let us recall how France dropped leaflets on Algerians warning them to pick between settler-colonization and total destruction: “You must choose either peace and the protection of France or crime and punishment,” they said. Let us draw on memory so that we may not fall for timeworn colonial discourses.

Though it is easy to retrospectively stand on the right side of history, it requires much more clarity, courage and conviction to stand on the right side of the present. The present needs us though. The present is urgent, so I urge you. I urge you to evaluate where you stand now and join Palestinians in solidarity. Lives are at stake.

Serene Darwish is a rising Weinberg senior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].