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More points to consider regarding the war in Palestine

The outbreak of war in Gaza has been an uncomfortable topic for many on campus, and has opened up legitimate fears of emboldened anti-semitic and Islamophobic acts on campus and in the U.S. As someone without a personal connection to Israel or Palestine, nor to Arab or Jewish ethnicity, I recognize that it is easy for someone like me to comment and talk over the lived experiences of those with personal connection to the war. Rather, I would hope to point to these examples of scholarship on Israel and Palestine which help respond to bad-faith arguments that can plague these discussions. 

My introduction to Alan Rubenstein was watching videos of him heckling student protesters during Students for Justice in Palestine’s Nov. 9 march. After seeing these, I was linked to an article that he contributed to the Carletonian offering something of a rebuttal to points raised during the “Behind the Violence” teach-in on Oct. 18. While the article is worth a response for its historical inaccuracies and bad-faith arguments, it is primarily in response to Mr. Rubenstein’s harassment of students and slights against fellow Carleton faculty that I am writing this. Many of these studentsare my friends, and some of the faculty are those who I greatly respect and would not be at Carleton without. “Blaming the Victims: Spurious scholarship and the Palestinian Question.” is the name of Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens’ edited collection, and I believe the title captures my opinion of Mr. Rubenstein’s article. In fact, his article covers most of the “greatest hits” criticized in “Blaming the Victims,” which, given that the book was published in 1986, showcases how deeply some of these factual errors and loaded framings are embedded into contemporary discussions. This collection of articles, as well as Professor Rashid Khalidi’s “The 100 Years War on Palestine” were especially helpful for this article, and the intellectual debt I owe to them cannot be overstated. I would highly recommend them as a reference for anyone interested in relevant literature.  Media (mis)representations are expressly political acts, and the power to define one’s self is often denied to those who have already been dispossessed. Critically engaging with Palestinian scholarship and perspectives is crucial if one wishes to say anything about Palestine.

Khalidi argues in his contribution to “Blaming the Victims” that Palestinian identity has largely been discursively annihilated, as Palestinian voices have been either drowned out or expressly forbidden from telling their own stories. Therefore, much writing on Israel and Palestine hasn’t met the basic journalistic premise of critically considering both sides of an issue, which is especially problematic given the severe disparity in power between the two sides in question. Not once in his article does Mr. Rubenstein mention Palestinians or the general concept of Palestinian national identity (the one reference to a Palestinian faction is where he says “Hamas men,” or twice there is simply reference to the “enemies,” which is undoubtedly a racist generalization). Mr. Rubenstein argues only that Israelis are indigenous to Palestine, which, coupled with his silence on Palestinian identity, implies that Palestinians are not indigenous. Addressing the national claim of Zionism thus always bears in mind the issue of why the Zionist claim to the land of Palestine supersedes the national claim of Palestinians to the land. 

The claim that Israel is, or was, a colonial state has been highly contentious in contemporary discussions. While Israel is a very unique case, applying the colonial framework to its creation is not only a valid way of framing its history but also important to contextualizing its recent actions. Similarly, understanding the U.S.’s colonial history is essential to ongoing discussion of Native American and racial minority civil rights, as well as the histories of our former and present overseas territories and states. The centrality of Jerusalem to the religion of Judaism cannot be disputed, but is not immediately sufficient as a claim for what remains an exceptional example of state creation in recent history. Mr. Rubenstein makes the novel, although patently absurd, statement, “[How Zionists conceptualize Israel] is simply not how colonizers or occupiers think and feel about the land where they reside.” The religious argument’s parallel to manifest destiny aside, this is rather reductive about the aims of colonization. Indeed, discourses and biases which frame how we think are harmful, but the material consequences of colonization—the subjugation, genocide, silencing, impoverishment, dislocation— remain the harms of colonial projects. As well, claiming that colonization is simply a relation to the land rather than between people and institutions is similarly reductive, and further silences the experiences of Palestinians. Even if Israel only differs from the archetypal colonial project in these rather trivial aesthetic ways, but continues to pursue the subjugation of its indigenous inhabitants, I believe that we can still call it a colonial project (and so do many academics, historians, politicians, activists, both Palestinians, and Israelis).

On Nov.29th,  President of Israel  Isaac Herzog claimed that “this jihadist culture” forced war upon Israel, a “peace-loving nation.” Going further, he claims that after Israel “opened up” the Gaza strip for work in Israel, those Gazan citizens spied on the state of Israel in order to aid the planning of the Oct. 7 attack. The Gaza strip in its entirety is now constructed as a terror cell, where it is impossible to differentiate the civilians from those that would cause Israel harm. Explicit here, but implicit in Mr. Rubenstein’s and others’ writings is the question, “why would Hamas orchestrate such a brutal attack on Israel?” Within the corpus of literature on Israel and Palestine, of which I will point to the Washington Post’s editorial board as an example, relatively little ink has been devoted to this question, a consequence of which seems to imply that it naturally follows that Palestinians are violent and anti-Semitic (Peter Beinart’s column for the New York Times on Oct. 14, 2023 is a notable exception to this trend). Edward Said refers to this practice as the “Essential Terrorist,” conflating terrorism with Arab or Palestinian identity itself, thus essentializing these identities as fundamentally terrorist. To clarify, this is not to claim that this is what Mr. Rubenstein and others truly believe, but to draw attention to the refusal to engage with this question. It seems that decades of the War on Terror has made it easier for us to accept these implicit premises.

While we can say that the violence perpetrated by Hamas was horrific, to quote one moral philosopher, “when analyzing political events, it is important to resist the temptation that we live in the utopian world that we all wish for.” If one can make this statement to justify the actions of Israel, why is it also being used to condemn the actions of Hamas? We often endeavor to contextualize Israel’s brutal actions, but Palestinian resistance and suffering appears to occur in a vacuum, and we seem to be content with leaving it at that. There has been non-violent resistance to Israel and Zionism throughout the twentieth century, and since then the conditions in Gaza have only worsened. The Gaza Health Ministry has reported that a total of 23,167 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, as well as around 58,416 injured, and 1.9 million  people displaced. It is simply an erroneous assertion that all or most of these are military targets, or the result of Hamas “using civilians as human shields.” The IDF’s bombing of purported “evacuation zones” not only shows a callous disregard for civilian life and international law, but also renders Mr. Rubenstein’s claim that Hamas “discourages (civilians’) evacuation to safer places” moot. 

Perhaps these deaths were simply “deterrence,” claimed not only to be Israel’s prerogative but “highest imperative.” Labeling one side’s actions as “deterrence” and the others “terrorism” is a decidedly partisan act. In 1986 then-U.N. Ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu defined terrorism as “deliberate and systematic murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent designed to inspire fear.” From this it is even less clear how Israeli deterrence is different from Hamas terrorism. The above statistics flatly refute any claim that Israeli action since Oct. 7 (particularly since it has happened under the guidance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) has been “deterrence” or “getting even;” it is merely a way to justify the terrorism and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. 

Trying to engage with the earlier question of why was, I believe, was one of the goals of the Middle East Studies Department’s teach-in. Case in point, Chair of the History Department Professor Adeeb Khalid opened the discussion focusing on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and stressed its uneven nature. As well, Arabic Professor Zaki Haidar made the point that accounts of the ongoing violence against Gaza mirror accounts from as early as the 1960s. If the same violence has been perpetuated in Gaza for upwards of 60 years, it stands to reason that the violence enacted upon Gaza and the rest of the Occupied Territories has been systematically perpetrated by such institutions as the Israel Defense Forces, Israeli settlements and prohibition of Arab political representation and activity even within Israel. We cannot consider the events of Oct. 7 outside of the context of over a century of history.

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