Over and over we have asked ourselves and others, how do you think change will be made? We have advocated for the value of holding a door open for people who see that something is wrong in Israel / Palestine, but who do not act. They are the doubting Liberals, the disgruntled Zionists, the ineffectual diplomats, the Progressive-except. By some feat of cognitive dissonance, they are all able to live with a Palestinian exception to their values. We held out hope that information would spur people of conscience to action. After all, numbers build the political pressure for change, and these looked like proximate groups from which to add numbers.
2021, we thought, would be the year that moved people of conscience to action.
The attempted obliteration of Palestine belongs in the category of racism or inequality: structures predicated on intentional injustice. This is a category with no neutral ground. People may express no opinion, but their silence is not neutral because they have a very real, complicit effect. Theirs is the foot on the accelerator. By not (at least) pressing each government to uphold law, treaties and the protections we all owe to an occupied people; bystanders give the occupiers their impunity. Go ahead, no one will hold you accountable. We’ll look the other way.
Desmond Tutu said it simply, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
The horror of 2021 was beyond ignoring, especially the plummeting quality of life in Gaza since Israel’s bombardment. As never before, the most mainstream of media – Vanity Fair, for goodness sake, twice! – placed some graphic reality under our noses. But 2021 went by and mocked our faith in the conscience of the uninvolved.
The diplomatic bystanders admit that it is bad but they hope that it will not always be bad. They ask everyone to be nice as if everyone were equally aggressing. They speak about peace rather than the justice on which any durable peace is built. These people call for patience while the Israeli government seals the exits.
Wait nicely, the Liberal Zionists add, because the problem is Netanyahu. Until he goes, Palestinians and their allies must not resort to violence or display anger, or produce literature, art or history that refers to Palestinian national experience, identity, or existence. They must not make peaceful economic choices that limit the profitability of occupation. No Nakba, please, we’re fragile.
Netanyahu left office in the middle of 2021, to spend more time with his busy court docket. Since then, Israel’s government has criminalised six leading Palestinian human rights and legal NGOs. It is now expelling Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, carrying out the actions which sparked Palestinian protests last May. It is withholding precisely the materials (such as water pipes) needed to repair the Gazan infrastructure that it shattered in May. Gaza’s formal unemployment has risen to 50.2% although its “actual unemployment is much higher.” Israeli soldiers openly escort West Bank settlers to assault Palestinians. Even Rabbis For Human Rights recognises these settler militias as terror groups. The government of Israel continues to ignore its health obligations as an occupier, despite the Palestinian Ministry of Health pleading for resources to respond to the Omicron outbreaks that began in December in the West Bank and Gaza.
So Netanyahu was not the problem. The problem is a lie, a lie that underpins the intentions of settler colonialism. The lie prefaces apartheid law. The lie is the foundation of the ghetto walls around the Gaza Strip. The problem is a racist belief that values and discounts human life ethnically.
B’Tselem calls this reality “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”
Human Rights Watch summarises,
“Across two governments, each in power for roughly half of 2021, Israeli authorities doubled down on policies to repress Palestinians and privilege Jewish Israelis. The government’s policy of maintaining the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians … amounts to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
What can be said to people who see this spreading despair yet continue to imagine that they inhabit a Department of Clean Hands – a safe, privileged place of willful irrelevance. No risk, no responsibility, and no incriminating mirrors. No Palestine please, we’ve excused ourselves.
They are not excused, because standing back is taking a side. Bystanders do not keep the peace because the momentary suppression of resistance is not peace. The complicity of the bystander keeps the tanks rolling and the olive trees burning and it keeps hundreds of children languishing in military jails.
Nelson Mandela saw in 1997 that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” And look: the allies who support Palestinians’ assertion of their full individual and collective rights do so through solidarity. Whether they recognise in the occupation their own stolen land, their own attempted erasure or baked-in disadvantage, Palestine has become integral to any vision of structural change and decolonisation.
Palestinians’ allies are those who pursue justice and abhor the “new politics of exclusion” as it is being written by this occupation. And that includes the proliferating Jewish organisations who disavow occupation in our names. We believe in a Judaism beyond Zionism.
Transformational change will be made by those who turn up, and if 2021 didn’t make you turn up then nothing will.