History shows that those committing atrocities on the world stage don’t wake up one day and spontaneously end their crimes. As regular readers of Mondoweiss know, Israel won’t end Palestinian oppression on its own. Outside pressure is the only hope, and the most powerful vehicle to deliver that pressure, BDS, is building momentum. That is, boycott and divestment are, but sanctions are not yet a serious topic of discussion in U.S. political discourse. And they need to be.
The best hope for Palestinians is a change in American public opinion. Losing the support of Americans, including the largest Jewish population outside Israel, would mean losing American military support. At that point, Israel would be isolated on the world stage.
What will it take? When will a critical mass of Americans understand that Palestinians have been oppressed for 70 years? That it’s wrong for the U.S. to bankroll Israel’s military? And that our blind support of Israel is morally bankrupt? Despite encouraging signs of late, most Americans still believe Israel’s actions are justified—because like Israelis, their American supporters see Palestinians as sub-human.
The dehumanization of Palestinians underlies so many absurdities. One example: the endlessly repeated myth that Palestinians teach their children they must kill Israeli Jews. No sane parent would encourage a child to take an action that would ruin the child’s life. Or end it. The notion that it could become a societal norm in parenting is beyond absurd. Those who believe this myth can only do so under the premise that Palestinians are less than human.
Another example: the claim that insisting on the right of return for Palestinians is equivalent to demanding the destruction of Israel. As Rahim Darwish points out, this absurdity dehumanizes Palestinians by denying their feelings, aspirations and needs.
It doesn’t end there. Whether it’s the conflation of Hamas with ordinary Palestinians or blaming Palestinians themselves for the abysmal living conditions in Gaza, the function of the propaganda is the same: to deny the humanity of all Palestinians.
This answers the question above: what will it take? To end the atrocities, we must reverse the dehumanization.
Ultimately, Americans will see the injustice clearly only when they’ve unlearned the absurdities that cause them to ignore the humanity of Palestinians. If they see Palestinians as monsters who teach their kids to kill Israelis, they never will see Israel’s actions as the atrocities they are. Instead, they will rationalize away the brutality as somehow necessary. Even when snipers shoot unarmed Palestinians in cold blood, which we saw continue for months on end, American public opinion will be mixed, at best.
Which means those of us who support the Palestinian cause must place more emphasis on the humanity of Palestinians, rather than the actions of Israelis.
For example, many more eyes were opened last year by the abuse of young Ahed Tamimi by Israeli police. Why? The horrific nature of Israel’s actions in this case was in no way unique.
For me personally, the force of Ahed’s story was multiplied because months earlier, I’d read Ben Ehrenreich’s book The Way to the Spring¸ which provides vivid detail about the daily lives of the Tamimi family. I learned how welcoming they were to Ehrenreich, I got to know their personalities. I saw their everyday struggle. Through Ehrenreich, I even felt as if I shared meals with them. So when I read about Ahed’s arrest and imprisonment, it angered me more than usual.
Just as the dehumanization of Palestinians occurs in countless ways in multiple contexts by Israel and its American supporters, so too must the effort to re-humanize them. There are three areas that are the most promising, in my view (although undoubtedly there are many others worth our effort as well).
First, counterparts to Birthright—interfaith group missions and other organized trips that use travel to counter the pro-Israel position—must be strengthened and expanded. More American thought leaders need to visit the occupied territories, witness the oppression, and experience, first-hand, the humanity of Palestinians.
Second, far too few people in the United States have ever known a Palestinian or even have a friend or family member who knows one. It’s easy to harbor crazy thoughts about any group when you’ve never been in contact with them. We can change that dynamic.
The election of Rashida Tlaib to Congress likely will be a big step in that direction. A concerted effort by the entire Palestinian-American community to expand their everyday contact with other Americans could be a much bigger one. Believing that Palestinians teach their children to kill is impossible for a rational adult (and a challenge even for an irrational adult) if her friend is Palestinian.
And there’s a ripple effect, which means those of us who are not Palestinian-American have our part to play as well. When I’ve mentioned to others my personal relationships with Palestinians—and directly confronted the absurdity of what they’ve been told—it has an impact. It’s nowhere near as powerful as direct contact with Palestinians would be, but it helps.
Third, we need more people to hear and read stories that humanize Palestinians. We can all do more to expand the reach of Ben Ehrenreich and other works like his. Almost every day, Mondoweiss provides stories of Palestinians and their humanity—the daily routine that can be both mundane and miraculous, as well as the extraordinary moments of resistance to Israeli violence.
People don’t respond emotionally to numbers. Over one hundred Palestinians were killed by Israeli sniper fire in the Great March of Return—but American popular opinion didn’t change. Ditto for the horrific statistics from the 2014 Gaza massacre.
To be sure, many fantastic writers speaking out for Palestinians do so in terms more analytical than story-focused. But as brilliant as, say, Rashid Khalidi and Norman Finkelstein are, and as much as I am personally grateful for what they’ve taught me, I don’t know if they move American public opinion very much. It’s the personal stories, like the glimpses of the Tamimi family in The Way to the Spring, that move people.
Remember Tariq Abukhdeir, the young Palestinian-American who was brutally beaten by Israeli police in 2014? When he returned to America, still badly bruised, he spoke in Washington, DC, about his ordeal. Young Tariq was so compelling that Sen. Barbara Boxer went to the empty Senate to speak about no topic in particular, knowing that C-SPAN’s policy would force it to turn its coverage from Tariq to her. She feared the impact coverage Tariq would have on American public opinion.
And more recently, coverage of Razan al-Najjar, the young Palestinian medic killed last year by Israeli sniper fire, reached beyond the bubble of those already concerned with human rights in Palestine.
The personal story of every oppressed Palestinian should be told, even if it’s just in a blog post or video that only a dozen Americans read or see. Those stories add up. They make it so much harder to buy in to the absurdities, and so much easier to reject them.
The task for every one of us is to use every channel we can to awaken an American public that swallows the absurd claims labeling Palestinians as less than human. Shame on them for being taken in. Shame on us if we fail to bring them back to reality.