Israel continues its aerial bombardment of Gaza, which at the time of this writing has resulted in about 100 Palestinian deaths and many more injured. Yet surely all who remain informed about this subject have heard the oft-repeated phrase from American politicians about Israel’s “right to defend itself,” and have seen the comments on various news site and social media networks blaming the Palestinians for the deaths and destruction in Gaza. In the digital age where a wealth of information is available at the tap of a keyboard documenting background facts that are disputed by no serious historian—the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people from their land, and the continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinians–it is difficult to understand how otherwise reasonable, fair-minded people can continue to support and justify Israel’s aggression against this helpless group of human beings. While the reasons underlying this anomaly are many and complex, ultimately Israel uses the same tool that has been used for centuries to justify various forms of oppression of an ethnic group, from enslavement of blacks and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in the United States to apartheid in South Africa: the dehumanization of the oppressed by portraying them as inherently inferior in some aspect, and the insistence that, regardless of its acts, the oppressor is morally superior and therefore justified.
According to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israelis are different from Palestinians because “they sanctify death, we sanctify life, they sanctify death, they sanctify cruelty, and we mercy and compassion. That is the secret of our strength.” Netanyahu is hardly alone in harboring these sentiments, and, in fact, his statement is more restrained than many other Israel supporters, including politicians, religious leaders and the general public. To read the comments section of New York Times articles about the aerial bombardment of Gaza over the last several days without knowledge of the conflict’s background, one would come away with the impression that Hamas is a nuclear power that is occupying and dispossessing Israelis. One comment, for example, designated a “New York Times pick” and fairly representative of comments supportive of Israel’s military action in Gaza, reads: “ Do you think a people that elect a terror organization as its government deserve a state? People that blame everyone but themselves for their troubles?” Another comment, a “reader’s pick,” claims that “[a]s long as the Hamas continues to use civilians as human shields while they continue to fire rockets into Israel, they are getting exactly what they deserve.” A third commentator, who received 172 “recommends” for his remark which is also designated a “reader’s pick” (presumably based on the number of “recommends”) writes: “What does Hamas/Fatah/Palestinian Authority DO with the billions of dollars annually in international aid? Why is the single priority to destroy Israel rather than create and build a civil society? To what end?” Having read all 1200 comments to this article, I can say with confidence that these are representative of about fifty percent, and that other articles on the topic received similar comments in about equal proportion.
The callousness and casual racism in these comments can hardly be overstated. All three commenters, along with many others, entirely disregard the background of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This in itself is an insidious form of racism because by removing the context, what is in reality a reaction to decades of oppression appears to be an act of aggression. Consider the situation in which a black slave kills his white owner who has beat him mercilessly for years, and a commenter who, without addressing the relationship between the parties or the reason behind the killing, declares the slave obviously deserves his lot due to his inherently aggressive nature. Ignoring the enslavement and physical abuse is a form of racism because it removes these actions from their context, and then uses the reaction as evidence that the black slave was inferior in the first place. Of course, in this situation, where the Palestinians are being slaughtered left and right with not a single casualty on the Israeli side, a more apt example would be one in which a slave strikes back at his owner who has been beating him for years, the owner then kills the slave and his family, and publicly justifies the murderers by declaring the slave had a violent nature and was incapable of living in peace with his white “neighbor,” and suggesting that his family, being black, possessed a similarly violent nature and therefore deserved to die.
Another form of racism, exemplified in the second and third comments above and repeated countless times in the comments section to this article, is equating Palestinians with Hamas and thereby justifying use of violence against all Palestinians, including children. Indeed, one commenter urges Israel to bomb everything in Gaza, including day care centers. Assuming arguendo that Hamas promotes some undesirable policies, and ignoring the fact that Palestinians have few options in elections and that not all Palestinians voted for Hamas, it is racism, pure and simple, to suggest that it is appropriate to kill otherwise innocent Palestinians because they voted for Hamas, or to equate Palestinians with Hamas. Advocating or justifying wholesale slaughter of civilians because they voted for a group with some unsavory policies is deplorable and would be widely recognized as absurd and condemnable in any other context. A similar and common form of justification for Israel’s brutal massacre of civilians in Gaza is the claim that Hamas uses civilians as “human shields.” Again, assuming for the sake of argument that this is true, it is illogical to argue that this somehow vindicates Israel from responsibility for bombing in the first place. While the sort of racism discussed above may not be at play in this so-called “reasoning,” it is worth pointing out how unconvincing this rationale is.
In the end, these comments, like Netanyahu’s quote above, reflect an age-old attempt to differentiate the “other” and thereby justify inhumane treatment, including in this case dispossession, occupation, oppression, and collective punishment. While to so many it is simply “obvious” that Palestinians and particularly Palestinian Muslims are simply violent and deserving of such treatment, it would behoove those promoting this view to remember that it was always “obvious” to those justifying oppression that the other was inferior. Those justifying slavery in the United States truly believed that those of African descent were morally and intellectually inferior. The Holocaust was justified by the “knowledge” that Jews posed an existential threat to the Aryan race. The ethnic cleansing of Native Americans was justified due to their ostensible inherently violent nature, and moral and intellectual inferiority. Unfortunately, history provides us too many examples and clearly, too many fail to learn.