When I left Gaza, I did not realize how hard it would be to watch the occupation from outside the blockade wall. I want to act, protect, hit the world over its indifferent head, scream.
Instead, my piece of this uphill battle is to speak about what I know. The humanity of Gaza, its ambitions and its human rights – those I know after living and working in Gaza 2011 – 2015.
I dissent as a Jew who studies her religion and finds it a positive asset in the search for justice. As Israel radicalizes, some liberal (on matters other than Palestine) Jews are shuddering and hesitating in their reflexive Zionism. Natalie Portman has stood up for her Jewish values when Netanyahu stands against them. I think there are others pausing right now, discomfited but not yet ready to overturn the world as they know it. Their dismay represents one direction to grow the support for Palestinian rights. Each time I try to nudge someone from helplessness into action, I wonder whether a passionate pro-Palestinian movement will welcome them. Is this a tolerant space for their partial or conditional agreement?
I argue below that there are two good reasons to join with them, to challenge the majority adherence to a Zionist understanding of the Palestine-Israel conflict. First, it is more promising to persuade an engaged and questioning person, than it is to try to reach and interest an indifferent person. Second, a rights-based campaign is by nature inclusive. The substance of the campaign is undermined by calling for universal rights from a closed room.
I should state my own position. I believe that the value of human life is indivisible, not ethnic. Palestinian rights follow from that simple fact: our lives are of equal value. Human rights are foundations, not rewards for good behaviour. They need to be restored prior to political negotiations. I welcome every additional voice that amplifies the demand.
When Palestinians speak as of right in a fearless public debate, they will have the access to persuade others that their claims are just. Until that time, pro-rights gatherings and websites need to do more of the work of educating, hosting discussion and inviting new scrutiny. The movement will not gather momentum if it responds to Palestinian exclusion by becoming insular.
Throw open the doors.
This season, Israel is alienating liberal Zionist support by killing unarmed protesters, by its more overt annexation of the West Bank through lawfare, by its domestic racism and its gleeful embrace of Donald Trump. Jews have protested alongside non-Jews for the rights of asylum-seekers. Netanyahu is ripping open a space of liberal doubt. A campaign for Palestinian rights can fill that vacancy.
My time in Gaza concluded nearly two decades of work with excluded, hidden communities. I lived with my observer’s outrage, but I learned to act with my colleagues’ pragmatism. In 1990s Cambodia, I built a social enterprise with former child combatants and people with disabilities. They were all child survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide. I bristled at the voyeuristic visitors to our workplace. They pointed their cameras at the absence of a limb, and placed the whole person at the edge of their frame. My colleagues welcomed even such uninformed interest. They said that they already knew they were amputees. They wanted to be included amputees. After a few searching arguments about privacy, dignity and mainstreaming, I bit my tongue and took their lead. Our workshop welcomed visitors.
A decade later, I helped establish a decentralized social enterprise, to employ some of the Afghan women who are not permitted to move beyond their courtyard walls. I had lived in Afghanistan five years (and America had had troops there for nine) when I met an effusive buyer at a New York trade show.
“Afghanistan,” she said brightly. “That’s in Africa, right?”
The Afghan and Pakistani colleagues travelling with me didn’t miss a beat. The work of Afghan women was their calling card, and they wanted it distributed as widely as possible – even by the geographically impaired.
Long before I moved to Gaza, I had become convinced that hidden people needed to be made visible and recognizable in their full humanity, before they had any chance of mustering the broad political will for change. The validity of a community’s cause can persuade people who notice it – but injustice is not sufficient to get a community noticed. Before the justice comes the work of being seen and heard. That work is more difficult, of course, when it confronts a widely-held narrative. I wish it were otherwise, but those who are out of sight, really are out of mind.
I arrived in Gaza knowing that walls preserve the status quo by concealment. Even knowing that, the frank dehumanization of Gaza took my breath away, and made this issue mine. Dehumanization places Gaza at urgent risk because it denies Gazans’ right to human and civilian protections. When Israel’s Defence Minister says, “There are no innocent people in Gaza,” I feel absolutely frantic. What does that man feel entitled to do next?
My Gazan colleagues were strategic survivors of sustained threat and violence. After the war in 2012, my team crafted an explanation for their small children: Israel and Gaza held plenty of good people, but they had angry governments. When the governments fought, everyone was afraid. But angry governments will fall, so my colleagues taught their children that all the good people must remember how to live together.
They held every door open. On their behalf, I try to do the same.
In 2014, I chose to remain and work in Gaza through the war. Gaza’s vulnerability was obvious, but no one imagined the gratuitous onslaught that followed. In its wake, I had to reconstruct the piece of my identity that had been destroyed by the nightly bombardments, by the obliteration of Shuja’iyya and the bombing of seven shelter schools: what was my Judaism without Israel? How deeply was my Zionism baked in?
The long unravelling that had begun in the First Intifada continues today. It has required more than the unshrouding of religion from ideology. Just as class is a structure that replicates and enforces itself, so is this. Zionism is a worldview and a social principle and a family relation; a telling of history and prayer; an advantage and a fear and an entitlement. It is positionality and politics, and I mention it here because every doubting Zionist is likely to weigh up the length and uncertain price of some similar path. They will imagine what they are losing, long before they glimpse the net gains in their civic, political and religious lives.
It would be easier for them to turn away and lapse into indifference, retaining their community’s approval while their backs hold up the blockade walls. I am guessing that the people I know in Gaza would prefer to gain their conditional support – and then to bring them more fully on board by showing them the justice of the Palestinian case.
I speak widely about Gaza in order to add adjectives to the impoverished, politicized image of the community, and to frame Gaza in the language of human rights. I want discomfited liberals (Jews and others) to hear those two messages because they are often new, because they are true and because they are actionable where politics and violence have failed so abysmally. Rights are accessible: anyone can uphold the rights of humans, and in doing so, can protect all parties to a conflict. Rights are quietly radical, levelling the ground in favour of the disempowered and the dehumanized.
A unifying framework is needed, if liberal Jews are to broadly question their role in enabling and legitimizing the occupation. Just as Palestinians cannot be expected to swear loyalty oaths to an occupying regime which oppresses them, Jews cannot be expected to adopt visions of justice which (they believe) would threaten them. Rights can be a signpost, pointing to a progressive, non-tribal path away from conflict. We need that. Liberation is not zero-sum. Two peoples going to learn some liberation, or we’re going to tear each other apart.
Natalie Portman has taken a huge step in that direction. Jews are given to understand that Judaism-Israel-Zionism-Netanyahu is a single, total edifice. Portman has dismantled it, saying that Jewish values require speech and action to defend principles from racist politicians. In a weekend, mainstream media overwrote or frantically clung to the received wisdom.
Portman just made it easier for any number of liberal Jews to turn to the person sitting next to them and start a conversation where compliant silence has prevailed.
There is a second reason to be wary of the kind of ideological scrutiny that has taken place in some forums and at some protests, as Phil Weiss has discussed.
The content of human and political rights sits uneasily alongside that scrutiny. Human rights are universal or they are nothing. Israel de-legitimizes itself when it tramples the rights of Palestinians. A campaign to restore Palestinian rights is a call to equalize and include. If the tone of protest excludes, it erodes the substance of the message.
Exclusion further reinforces every fearmonger who insists that Palestinian rights are merely the polite face of a deeper threat. The status quo thrives on the fear that a Palestinian liberation would simply replace one tribal regime with another. Surely the potential of a future co-existence is best modelled by a present co-activism, to dismantle those fears.
I can hear – and at times I also feel – the retort, “But they…!” Yes, Israel’s advocates at times punish and exclude and rationalize. As long as they have the weight of inertia behind them, they can do so. Netanyahu doesn’t have to pretend any interest in a resolution while he has Trump.
Palestinian justice is an uphill battle, and it will not be won by mimicking Zionism’s rearguard actions.
Hidden people need visibility. Silenced people need an audience. There is every reason to oppose the occupation with a liberal, wide-ranging discussion that can bring the Palestinian case fearlessly into the mainstream. When they can be heard (rather than being lied about by the likes of Lieberman and Netanyahu), Palestinian claims for their human rights will be recognized.
Beyond that, I imagine we will re-form and debate all the negotiable politics. So it should be. With rights and respect, the real estate will be made to work.
From New Zealand, American political protest looks like a blood sport, notwithstanding its delicate language of creating safe spaces. I admire anyone with skin thick enough to withstand the clobbering that comes with visibility. However, neither thick skin nor ideological purity should be required to join the protest. Most protest takes place in the street and in the aisles and in the comments columns. In those spaces, disagree and include.
In summary, Palestinian thought leaders are asserting positive new terms, transcending the old factions and wresting something good from an ugly, brutal season. Gazans are laying bare Israel’s violence at real and immediate risk. Both initiatives are phrased in the language of rights. This language is true, and it is broadly actionable. The potential breadth includes a number of liberals and liberal Jews, who are increasingly dismayed by a radicalizing Israel. The curiosity of any disillusioned erstwhile Zionist should be welcomed. They can help grow the movement for Palestinian rights, and they can pave a path for others to shake off the orthodoxy and seek justice.
When I see Gazans stand up to soldiers, what can I do to support their protest from so far away? I can bring them to others’ notice, and capitalize on every doubt that Netanyahu creates.