Not just antisemitism: protest that neither hates nor falsely equates

Members of Alternative Jewish Voices and Wellington Palestine sat down last weekend to explore the speech of protest that neither hates nor falsely equates.  

We find that language in the discourse of human rights, because rights are either everyone’s rights, or they are nothing. We reject any language which ethnically ranks and values human beings.  Rights value us according to a single, shared human standard.  Then the law can distinguish between the different obligations of occupier and occupied, and the wildly different proportions of actual harm.

We deplore the weapons of war because we are all flesh and blood and family.  We mourn all of the deaths. We do not equate the dangers or the damages. We protest Israel’s regime, wherein the weapons are wielded so disproportionately by the powerful against the powerless.  We call for legal accountability to replace the present, violent impunity.

That is not anti-Israel.  Accountability takes the side of civilians. The armed party which does the overwhelming share of the wrongful killing and destruction, earns the overwhelming share of the law’s attention.  The community which experiences the overwhelming share of the dispossession, loss and harm deserves the greatest part of our concern, our protection.  B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, tracks the casualties of this occupation.  Through the past twenty years, the casualites have been 88% Palestinian. 

Now another 256 are dead in Gaza; 12 in Israel.  It is wrong to decry these factual proportions as anti-Israel, or to attribute antisemitic motives to speakers who are simply counting.

Early in the Great March of Return, Ha’aretz published an Op-Ed by an American rabbi, titled, If You Call the Gaza Death Toll ‘Disproportionate,’ How Many Israelis Have to Die for the Sake of Symmetry?  On May 17, 2018, I responded.

“The deaths arising from Gaza’s weeks-old protests are one-sided: the IDF has killed more than 100 Gazans. They have injured more protestors than Gaza has hospital beds. Médecins Sans Frontières has noted an alarming pattern among the gunshot wounds, indicating a particularly harmful choice of ammunition. No Israeli has been injured or killed.

“You ask whether a person who observes these facts would like to see ‘a hundred Jewish bodies strewn across the desert.’  No, I would not. I am simply observing a fact. I am not seeking more deaths; I am seeking fewer. I am calling attention to avoidable killing. If I may not note the factual distribution of death, then what am I allowed to say?”

Facts are allowed.  Essentializing, dehumanizing hate is not.  Between them lies a hotly contested political vocabulary.

This vocabulary includes objective, discomfiting words like apartheid, a crime against humanity.  Human rights lawyers have repeatedly found that Israel’s arrangements of power constitute apartheid. Their legal analyses make the term available to the rest of us.  I object when anti-Jewish motives are attributed to people for using such substantiated terminology.  It is incidental that this apartheid happens to benefit Jews.  The point is that it illegally, systemically oppresses our fellow human beings. 

If it is antisemitic for non-Jews to conflate ‘Israel,’ ‘Zionist’ and ‘Jews,’ then why do we allow Zionist spokespeople to do precisely that – to hide Israel’s military regime in the protected religious sphere of Judaism?  Are they not essentialising all Jews as nationalists and occupiers? 

When the proponents of Israel’s occupation call their critics antisemitic, they also logically encroach on the meaning of semitism.  I am a Jew, a Semite.  The category is ancient and precious to me. See what they are doing to it. If it is antisemitic to pursue others’ freedom, if human equality is antisemitic, then tell me what they have made of my semitism.

In this era of accusations, how often do we condemn the speech that hates and dehumanizes Palestinians?

We must urgently equalize the hateful, deadly disparity we apply to the dense civilian-military intermingling that prevails in both Israel and Gaza.  Israel consistently ranks among the most militarized states on earth.  Its Ministry of Defense stands in the commercial heart of Tel Aviv.  You can’t walk a block in Israeli cities without seeing weapons, some carried by men and women wearing uniforms and some not.  Gaza is also militarized, some of it visible and some concealed.  Yet we allow ourselves to be told that Israel’s army shields civilians while Gaza’s civilians are deployed to shield Hamas fighters. Which is it? This perception conditions our understanding of justifiable and wrongful killing.

Israel has wiped out generations of Palestinian families on the pretext of striking at individual members of Hamas.  It beggars belief to suggest that Israelis – or anyone else – would accept the killing en masse of generations of the families of their own soldiers, teachers, civil servants, rubbish collectors or police with the same rationale. Nor, straying geographically, would Israelis or anyone else call it justice to blow up the family homes of people suspected of crimes, as Israel does in the West Bank.

Israeli police stations are civic installations, yet the IDF blew up “dozens” of Gaza’s police stations as military targets.  In all these ways, the prevalence of arms in Israel is not seen as forfeiting civilian status. The mere, unproven association with Hamas is allowed to militarize extended families and apartment towers in the Gaza Strip. 

Which is it?  Each inversion protects Israelis and strips Palestinians of their civilian protection. 

We begin discounting Gazan life when we allow “Hamas” to stand in for the name of the place being bombed. Israel does not bomb Hamas, because Hamas is not a place. We see with our own eyes that every bomb lands on the Gaza Strip, an overwhelmingly civilian community.  To euphemise the repeated bombardment of Gazan Palestinians as ‘mowing the lawn’ is the ultimate denial of their humanity. That speech drips with hate and incitement.

It is imperative that we continue to protest boldly, because this did not end with the grief and the wreckage of Gaza.  Since the ceasefire, another 800 Palestinians are facing expulsion from their homes in Silwan.  Naftali Bennett may become Israel’s Prime Minister despite declaring, “I’ve already killed a lot of Arabs in my life – and there is no problem with that.”  Ayelet Shaked may return to prominence despite reminding Israeli soldiers in 2014 to kill the Palestinian “little snakes,” to kill their mothers and to destroy their homes.

The triggers are all still cocked. 

Marilyn Garson, Alternative Jewish Voices of NZ

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