Palestine is a Litmus Test of Our Capacity to Change the World

Rebecca Ruth Gould

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Morning in GazaAya Isleem / Telegram (https://t.me/AyaIsleemen)

The world’s attention has been transfixed by Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza. Palestinian voices and narratives have begun to filter through the mainstream American media channels that have suppressed their voices for decades. When the Israeli military bombed al-Jalaa Tower, which housed the Associated Press and Al Jazeera offices in Gaza on 15 May 2021, it seemed to mark a turning point in wider public opinion. On the day of that bombing, which followed the destruction of two other large residential buildings in Gaza, US Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Cori Bush tweeted a simple yet powerful message: “apartheid states aren’t democracies.”

Never before had so many US politicians endorsed the conclusion that had been drawn a few months earlier by Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem: Israeli is an apartheid state, which has institutionalized the separate and unequal treatment of Israelis and Palestinians. The Associated Press denied the Israeli Defense Force’s claim that its offices, which the IDF bombed, were located in a Hamas headquarters and asked them to back up their claims with evidence.

The ruling class of the world’s most powerful democracies have remained deaf to the public outrage, but popular opinion is shifting. The tide of global public opinion is turning in relation to Palestine. Many US citizens have begun to wonder whether they really want their tax dollars funding Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its military assault on Gaza. Palestine has become particularly central to leftist internationalism, which is increasingly unified around this issue, as witnessed by the protests that have erupted around the world during the eleven-day-long attack on Gaza.

Perhaps we have not yet succeeded in making it politically costly for politicians to go on backing Israel, but the protests have shown that politicians have less to lose than they think they do in terms of political capital by recognizing the asymmetric nature of this conflict.

And yet, at the edges of this upsurge, dissenting voices can also be heard, including on the left, particularly among those writing and working in languages other than English. While global solidarity with Palestinians is growing, colonized peoples elsewhere in the world have also expressed their frustration with the left’s heavy focus on Palestine, as if this were the only or site of colonial occupation and exploitation. When Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (a figure who is widely despised by leftist Iranians), tweeted on May 6 that “Palestine is a yardstick for justice. Few measure up,” it was difficult for many of us familiar with the injustices being perpetrated and justified within the contemporary Islamic Republic to take his words at face value.

As Iranian scholar, Kamran Matin tweeted a few days after Zarif’s tweet amid the escalation of the latest round of Israeli violence, “Israel’s occupation, dispossession & killing of Palestinians recurrently demonstrates not only colonialism’s absolute violence but also Eurocentric anti-colonialism of many on the (Iranian) left whose solidarity with colonially oppressed peoples begins & ends with Palestine.”

Matin’s comment effectively pinpoints the problem: not that leftist solidarity has coalesced around Palestine, but that it often coalesces exclusively around Palestine while ignoring other global injustices. Indeed, on 10 May, the very day when Israel’s aerial bombardment of Gaza began, a girls’ school was bombed in Afghanistan, killing eighty-five people, many of whom were children attending the school. It is difficult to imagine a more brutal attack on female education and gender equality. And yet, this story was barely covered at all in the mainstream media outlets of Europe and America. The world’s attention was squarely focused on Gaza.

What justifies the disproportionate focus on Palestine in the Euro-American imagination, particularly among leftists? Whether they occur in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Kashmir, Iran, China, Chechnya, or Palestine, atrocities always call into question the very possibility of an “appropriate” or “proportionate” response. Still, it is worth considering the implications of the world’s disproportionate focus on Palestine and Israel amid the many forms of apartheid currently being perpetrated across the Middle East and beyond.

It is rare in world history to see the world’s population united around a single global cause. Perhaps the last time this happened was in connection with South Africa’s apartheid regime, which was brought down by many factors, including the international campaign to divest from South Africa, after which the campaign to boycott Israel (BDS) is modelled. Although the united front presented by the left on Palestine has been inspiring, it has not so far changed to the status quo or substantially alleviated Palestinian suffering and dispossession on a mass scale.

At this stage in the fight for justice in Palestine, we have solidarity rather than a material infrastructure or the necessary political leverage for bringing about change. The combination of leftist mobilization alongside its relative ineffectiveness is enough to fill one simultaneously with hope and despair. This paralysis — like the occupation itself — cannot persist forever. Something has to change. While that change is ultimately in the hands of the Palestinian and Israeli people, the extent of US and European investment in the occupation implicates those of us on the outside and makes us duty-bound to bring it to an end.

Several factors set Palestine apart from other atrocities around the world. First, the United States and other western democracies such as the UK are Israel’s biggest supporters and weapons suppliers. The support these countries give to Israel includes the weapons Israel uses to bomb Gaza. Linked to this also is the dark shadow cast by the Holocaust and the guilt that Europeans rightly feel as a result of that atrocity. All of these factors create a special relationship between Israel and the west that is also a continuation of old imperial alliances.

Second, the exogenous nature of the conflict — which centers on two peoples with a history of co-existence whose history has been brought into conflict in the twentieth century due to factors beyond their control — draws in many external stakeholders: Jews who feel connected to Israel (or who are repelled by it), US taxpayers concerned about what is being done with their money, and the wider Arab world, whose solidarity with Palestine is often not represented in the policies and practices of their countries. The Palestinian diaspora, too, is large and articulate. They have given voice to their narrative of dispossession and displacement in the major languages of Europe, alongside Arabic.

Third, the duration of this conflict exceeds that of most contemporary atrocities. While the persecution of the Uyghurs, the bombing of Afghanistan, and the rampant imprisonment of dissidents in Iran share common ground with what is going on in Palestine and underscores the need for resisting all state oppression, the duration of the Israel-Palestine conflict (with the exception of India’s militarization of Kashmir) is in a class of its own. For Palestinians, the nakba — the catastrophe with which this conflict began — is an ongoing event and a perpetual attestation to a settler-colonial reality.

With all of these factors taken together, it is unsurprising that the world’s attention has been fixated specifically on Palestinians, sometimes to the exclusion of other oppressed peoples. This disproportionality — indeed, this bias — is in part a response to disproportionality that moves in the opposite direction, of uncritical support for Israel by a long succession of US administrations as well as by many mainstream and right-wing commentators. This bias is reflected in the $735 million military aid package for Israel, which was approved by the Biden administration in the very midst of Israel’s assault on Gaza.

Given that disproportionate focus on Israel and Palestine is likely to feature in our geopolitical landscape for the foreseeable future, what should those of us who are in solidarity with Palestinians, yet who do not want the world’s attention to be diverted from other global atrocities, do? How can we use this solidarity and channel the energies collected in this struggle to pursue other liberation struggles beyond Palestine/Israel, which have even more thoroughly evaded the world’s attention?

It is in this specific sense — and not in the sense intended by Zarif — that Palestine is a yardstick of justice. Solidarity with Palestine is a litmus test, not of a person’s individual conscience, but of our collective ability to change a global narrative that has legitimated oppression for many decades. If popular opinion can shape the actions of the world’s leaders with respect to the occupation and help to bring the world’s longest-standing contemporary example of apartheid to an end, that would send a sign to the rulers of this world that the injustices they perpetrate anywhere, on any people, will come back to haunt them? Wouldn’t this definitely demonstrate that we can make the world a better place by mobilizing against injustice?

We can’t fix every global injustice through a single activist campaign. But we can learn from our struggles to bring about justice in one particular context and apply those lessons to other struggles. The struggle for justice in Palestine has been informed by past struggles, including the Irish fight for independence and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. As Palestinian scholar Malaka Shwaikh has documented, hunger strikes are a key civil disobedience strategy pioneered in each of these contexts. A general strike, first practiced by Palestinians as a tool of resistance in 1936and revived in 2021 during the attack on Gaza, is another strategy that can be exported beyond Israel-Palestine to other site

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I write about politics and culture in the Middle East. My books include Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016), which won the University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies and the best book of the year award from the Association for Women in Slavic Studies. Other work has appeared in the London Review of Books, Current Affairs, The Progressive, The Global & Mail, World Policy Journal, and Middle East Eye. I am also a translator, fiction writer, and Professor of Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature. I run the YouTube channel Poetry & Protest (subscribe via the link to below).

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