Enough of the equivocations and the confusions around Palestine: it is well past time to return to some basic principles, to state them unapologetically and to explain them to others.
Is the following story believable? If racism is not at work in the hundred years’ war on Palestine, then surely it could just as easily happen anywhere else:
A small Western country (say, Britain) is invaded by stateless people indigenous to North America. After a long genocide and its brutal aftermath, their leaders claim a right to this new home, prophesied in their sacred texts millennia ago. The United Nations agrees and hands them half the country to rule; London is to be divided. When you and your family are horrified and scared, world leaders sigh at your intransigence and inability to show proper hospitality to the new arrivals, who place us all under martial law.
Half of England’s population flee their homes as towns and cities are destroyed, setting up in refugee camps in France, prizing their old keys and the dream of returning home. The new occupiers shrug that the British have no real complaint – France is a European country after all, and since all Europeans are the same, and since Britons are now so numerous in France, they should just accept life there as their fate. A law is passed announcing that all property left behind by British refugees as they fled now belongs to the arriving families from afar, who move into empty and abandoned homes. The nation is renamed, and soon its new leader denies that there ever were British people at all.
France and Finland and a few other nearby countries declare war on the colonists, but eventually, most make their peace with the new arrangements. The British find themselves without much in the way of weapons or support, while much of the world from Russia to the US pours money and guns towards their invaders. Over the ensuing decades, the invaders conquer more of Britain and suffocate its previous inhabitants under a web of walls and checkpoints. Wales is cut off from England with a huge concrete barrier. The people of Wales, not chased from their homes as the English had been, watch as military courts are established to police them and their movements are blocked. A wave of arriving settlers redirects their water supply to build swimming pools where soldiers prevent Welsh people from swimming, and roads where Welsh people are banned from driving. Then the indigenous Americans place a corner of Scotland’s coast under a tight blockade; they even ban its fishermen from working.
If the saga already seems implausible enough, consider a Western media reaction as follows. Some Brits riot or attack the colonisers when our places of worship are invaded by colonising troops, who demand we pay rent to families arriving from Connecticut claiming to own our homes. Journalists talk only of ‘clashes’. Both sides are responsible. British stubbornness has been a very regrettable force, preventing the old population from making its peace with changed conditions. When the invaders bomb schools and homes in the besieged coastal enclave and Scottish mothers hold their dead children on camera, the press reports their murder in the passive voice. They were killed. A building exploded. The killers are scarcely even named. The killers are the victims; they faced so much irrational British rage. British terrorism is a major obstacle to peace.
Worse still, Britain’s international supporters are just a new chapter in the genocidal history targeting indigenous Americans. Families in Liverpool and Birmingham are so racist that they cannot even allow these people their right to a state. Do those families wish to evaporate any other state? Sceptical journalists ask questions like that as universities are bombed, and then accuse the bombed and their sympathisers everywhere of singling out these colonisers for opprobrium, for malicious reasons.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the nation that prospered by massacring its indigenous, now lends its enthusiastic support to its new ally and outpost in Britain. If this invasion had not happened, Joe Biden opines in the Senate, the US government would have had to launch it themselves “to protect our interests in the region.” Washington, which yesterday crammed the indigenous into reservations, now conveniently champions the settlers’ right to defend themselves with vast military might against British resistance. It is an argument that feels quite comfortable, quite familiar to Washington. Nobody says anything about what rights to self-defence the occupied might have. Clearly the British don’t like their occupiers, and liberal nuance quickly acknowledges that the occupiers are not blameless. The whole conflict is so complicated. Most commentators shake their heads and say, “I shouldn’t choose a side.”
That this is inconceivable in Britain but happens in Palestine speaks volumes about the racism that structures life on this planet. That it is even helpful to resort to analogy in order to recover the power to shock is evidence enough of the racism. Racism is not a fringe problem of a few extremists, easily identified and excluded from the public sphere. Racism is the global condition by which some are marked for rights and safety, and others for unending degradation. It couldn’t really happen to us; we know that in London. This thought experiment is an absurdity because Israel did not simply come into being one day, like the imagined invaders setting up their new state in Britain.
Centuries of colonial machinations, turning Palestinians into objects to be managed for the benefit of others, made it thinkable that a solution to European antisemitism could be found, not in the murderous wealth of Bavaria, but by ethnically cleansing these worthless people and building a new society in this barren desert. That Palestinians had a life before this erasure becomes their ‘narrative’, a story the natives like to tell. And if Britain as a victim of colonialism is a laughable thought, the truth is that Britain was the author of many of these colonial miseries in Palestine: there really is such a thing as British terrorism, just not of the kind that ever merits that label on nightly news reports.
Against that backdrop, we ought to change how we talk about racism. The British government recently sponsored a report denying that ‘institutional racism’ exists in Britain. Though it was read as part of a culture war against the ‘woke left’, in fact, the Sewell Report’s insistence that racism exists but institutions are irrelevant to it is not so alien from the contemporary anti-racist focus on policing personal interactions. These ‘microaggressions’ matter to the reproduction of racism, but what of macroaggressions – what A. Sivanandan called “the racism that kills”? What better label than racism for the practice by which Israel wipes Palestinians from the map? and one of the first concerns of most commentators is whether people horrified by this fact might use language offensive to the supporters of that racist state? How is that move made possible except by racism?
Racism ensures that, though sensible moderates never ask me to share the dinner table with Holocaust deniers and display polite restraint, Palestinians are expected to coexist constantly with people who lecture them about the ‘right to exist’ of the state built atop their burned homes. And Palestinians are usually expected to shut up about it, to show endless patience for the traumas of the people who murder them. Leftwing commentators explain to Palestinians that theirs is not really a colonial experience at all; they shouldn’t say that, since it might offend the coloniser.
I have spent several years writing about rising antisemitism, thinking about its causes and the range of its deadly and destructive consequences. To think that opposing antisemitism demands even the slightest equivocation about settler colonialism in Palestine is like arguing that feminism in the Jim Crow American south should have entailed support for moral panics about black men raping white women. Both views (no matter how often they are endorsed by the ‘lived experience’ of Jews after centuries of slaughter or white women in a violent patriarchy: trauma is not a university) seek shortcuts to safety whose essential racism lies in making exiled and colonised Palestinians or lynched black men into collateral damage.
In Palestine, settler-colonists armed to the teeth understand themselves as victims even as they pulverise others. The others – whether they march peacefully towards their old homes, or fire rockets at an enormous Iron Dome, or just mourn for their lost loved ones – are always the lurking, violent, dangerous threat. The dispossessed are, if they fight back, blamed for their own dispossession. They are chided, like children, for losing their temper with an abusive parent who should be allowed to beat up the child in peace.
White world order.
Palestinians are not unique in this condition; it is the crudest logic of racial violence everywhere. When slaves rebelled on plantations they too were terrorists, disrupting the serenity of the world. What gave them such a violent temperament, their masters asked, and made them so hostile to the peace that reigned while they were in chains? All that is safely in the past now, and academics celebrate the long-forgotten agency of the oppressed, seeking to be free. But in Palestine, it is not past – as indeed on American streets police lynchings are not really past either. The homes and health that Europeans have are like jewels and if others want them – migrants from elsewhere – those people are threats to be drowned at sea in their thousands. The whole world remains saturated by a colonial set of colour lines, dividing properly human lives from expendable ones.
In this bind, the most sympathetic thing Western journalists do is to focus on dead Palestinian children. They are helpless, blameless: pure victims against Israel’s grotesque claim to be the victim. This is how humanitarianism strips its objects of humanity. Palestinians deserve our support because in their abject weakness they do not (contrary to Israel’s charge) really threaten anything. Outsiders wince at resistance and stress the enormous inequality of arms: Palestinian weapons are barely weapons at all. To these supporters, Palestinians cannot be political subjects, people who fight for their freedom from domination as their allies from Algeria to Vietnam once did too. Given that the Israeli state and populace has as little interest as every other colonial society in surrendering their supremacy, the expectation that Palestinians should quietly go on dying in order to merit international support constitutes an insidious form of their dehumanisation. If bullish Western rightwingers see them as savages to be managed, generous Western liberals see them as dying exotic flowers to be treasured on windowsills. After the co-optation, fragmentation and ossification of their liberation movement and its allies abroad, this particular Orientalism gained ground.
Faced by the awesome, apparently intractable power of those divisions, it is utterly understandable that today’s Western radicals seek often to carve out safe spaces in an unsafe world. This is the politics that rises out of tragedy, after the defeats of 20th-century anti-colonial projects that thought they could turn the world upside down. But there was a different question asked by the revolutionary politics of that age, from Ho Chi Minh to Huey Newton and beyond, which we should not lose. Why, they asked, are we racialised? We all are, after all, and so despite enormous differences, we come under some common nets.
How did that violent process come to pass, coding people for extra exploitation and oppression? Who or what authored it? Treating race as a process rather than taking it for granted as a fact holds out the possibility of a world without it. How might it be undone, so that we are all liberated from the humiliations of dispossession and the paranoias of mastery? Such is the global hope enmeshed in these unlikely final words, which mourn so bitterly for the living and the dead by insisting that everything could be different. These words terrify those who only know how to be terrified, who believe deeply that dignity can only be won for some by stealing it from others. These are the words of people everywhere who refuse to disappear: from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.
Barnaby Raine is a doctoral student at Columbia University and a faculty member of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.