A Palestinian boy in Gaza. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on Gaza: As Israel’s assault intensifies, it is not anti-Semitic to say: not in my name

In the end, it is about blood.

On a morgue slab in Shejaiya in the Gaza Strip a few days ago lay two anonymous children, a boy and a girl. Their bodies could not be identified because their parents, according to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a journalist for the Nation magazine, were already dead. Israel’s continuing assault on Gaza has claimed hundreds of Palestinian lives and has created 81,000 refugees. I should support it, according to many Zionist opinionators, because I am half Jewish. They tell me that those children had to die so that my future children can be safe. In the end, they say, it’s about blood.

Does it matter what Jews, and people from Jewish backgrounds, say about Gaza? It does when children are being murdered in our names, and in the names of family members for whom we have recently said Kaddish. Jews are better placed than anyone else to articulate a powerful call for ceasefire that does not fall back on the sort of lazy anti-Semitism that seems to the Israeli military to prove its point.

People of Jewish descent have every reason to be hyper-vigilant about anti-Semitic language and it is stupid to pretend that there’s none of it in the global movement for Palestinian freedom. It’s stupid to pretend that nobody ever conflates Jews with Zionists, or labels the Jewish people bloodthirsty and barbarous. And it hurts like hell to hear hoary old words of hate trickling through a movement that is about justice, about freedom, about protecting some of the world’s most persecuted people. It hurts just as much, however, to hear right-wing Israelis tell Jews around the world that the violence is for us, for our ancestors, for our children.

It is not anti-Semitic to suggest that Israel doesn’t get a free pass to kill whoever it likes in order to feel “safe”. It is not anti-Semitic to point out that if what Israel needs to feel “safe” is to pen the Palestinian people in an open prison under military occupation, the state’s definition of safety might warrant some unpacking. And it is not anti-Semitic to say that this so-called war is one in which only one side actually has an army.

It is not hate speech to reiterate the wild disparity in casualties. More than 600 Palestinians have been killed this past week, most of them civilians. Fewer than 30 Israelis have died, and most of them were soldiers. To speak of proportionality is not to call, as at least one silverback columnist has claimed, for “more dead Jews”.

One can mourn loss of life on both sides without condoning further bloodshed. The families of the young Israeli soldiers killed on the front lines of a conflict they didn’t create are grieving, too. That doesn’t change the fact that the casualties are disproportionate. This is a conflict in which no one wants to edge towards saying the word “genocide”, because in this context that is a term so loaded that what’s left of reasoned debate staggers and falls to its knees.

Comparisons to the Holocaust are crass – except when it is Israeli politicians who make them, as the economy minister Naftali Bennett did on CNN, accusing Hamas of “conducting mass self-genocide”. Then the comparisons become obscene. Binyamin Netanyahu’s ministers tell the world that families in Gaza that remain in their homes have nobody but themselves to blame when they are massacred. Ayelet Shaked, of the far-right Jewish Home Party, went further, posting on her Facebook page that the mothers of Palestinian men should “follow their sons [to hell] . . . Nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”

This sort of hate speech is not just disturbing – it is disturbed. We must have a compassionate reading of Jewish and Israeli history to understand where that disturbance comes from. Over 20 centuries of faith and survival, the Jewish people have been persecuted, forced into exile, tortured, traumatised, ridiculed, harassed and finally murdered in their millions, and that matters – it still matters, to the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who survived, including me.

But the abused sometimes go on to abuse others. Countries formed in response to genocide expand their borders with murderous intolerance. People whose communities are bombed and bulldozed fire rockets back. Cycles of violence are comprehensible. That doesn’t mean they are acceptable. That doesn’t mean they can never stop.

Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children around the world marched to express their disgust at Israel’s air and ground assault on the Gaza Strip, and among them were swathes of Jews and Israelis. This is one of the few situations in which it makes a difference to stand up and say: not in our name. Not now, not ever again. Being Jewish, or having Jewish roots, doesn’t make you responsible for what is happening in Gaza, but it does mean that your dissent carries that much more weight. Not more weight than the grieving relatives of the families butchered in Shejaiya, but the kind of weight that hangs heavy on the heart, and that comes with the small but palpable risk of upsetting your family.

So here it is. I think my ancestors who were persecuted, tormented and exiled down the centuries for being Jews would be horrified to see what is being done in their name today. Maybe it’s crass to put words in the mouths of your dead relatives, but right-wing hawks have been putting their opinions in the mouths of my dead relatives for weeks, so I think I’m entitled to a say, too.

Because in the end, it is about blood. Not blood as metonym or metaphor, but the actual stuff, wet on the faces of screaming children in Gaza. It’s about blood, and how much more of it will have to be shed before Israel finally feels “safe”, and how long the international community will stand by. The moral basis for Israel’s persecution of the Palestinian people is eroding fast. It is not anti-Semitic to say “not in my name”. 

Laurie Penny’s “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution” is newly published by Bloomsbury (£12.99)

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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The US election is now a referendum on the role of women

Melania Trump's recent defence of her husband's indefensible comments, shows why a Cinton victory is vital.

Maybe one day, when this brutal presidential election is over, Hillary Clinton will view Melania Trump with sympathy. The prospective Republican First Lady’s experience sometimes seems like an anxiety dream rerun of Clinton’s own time stumping for job of wife-in-chief back in 1992. Even before Bill Clinton had the Democratic nomination, rumours about his infidelities were being kicked up, and in a bid to outflank them, the Clintons appeared in a joint interview on the CBS current affairs show 60 Minutes. “I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said, the extreme humiliation of her situation registering as perhaps the tiniest flicker across her perfectly composed face. “I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him.”

Another decade, another TV interview, another consort to a nominee called on to defend her husband’s honour. After the release of Donald Trump’s grotesque “grab her by the pussy” comments from 2005, Melania headed out to do her wifely duty. But where the Clintons in 1992 had the benefit of uncertainty – the allegations against Bill were unproven – Melania is going up against the implacable fact of recorded evidence, and going up alone. Even leaving aside the boasts about sexual assault, which she’s at pains to discount, this still leave her talking about a tape of her husband declaring that he “tried to fuck” another woman when he was only newly married.

What Melania has to say in the circumstances sounds strained. How did she feel when she heard the recordings? “I was surprised, because [...] I don't know that person that would talk that way, and that he would say that kind of stuff in private,” she tells CNN's Anderson Cooper, giving the extraordinary impression that she’s never heard her husband sparring with shock-jock Howard Stern on the latter’s radio show, where he said this kind of thing all the time.

She minimises the comments as “boys talk” that he was “egged on” to make, then tries to dismiss women’s allegations that Trump behaves precisely as he claims to by ascribing their revelations to conspiracy – “This was all organized from the opposition.” (Shades here of Clinton’s now-regretted claim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her own husband during the Lewinsky scandal.) “I believe my husband. I believe my husband,” she says, though this is a strangely contorted thing to say when her whole purpose in the interview is to convince the public that he shouldn’t be believed when he says he grabs pussies and kisses women without even waiting because when you’re a celebrity you can do that.

Melania’s speech to the Republican convention bore more than a passing resemblance to elements of Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in 2008, but in fact Melania is working to a much, much older script for political wives: the one that says you will eat platefuls of your husband’s shit and smile about it if that’s what it takes to get him in power. It’s the role that Hillary had to take, the one that she bridled against so agonisingly through the cookie-competitions and the office affairs and, even in this election cycle, Trump’s gutter-level dig that “If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

Clinton soldiered through all that, in the process both remaking the office of First Lady and making her own career: “a lawyer, a law professor, first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, a US senator, secretary of state. And she has been successful in every role, gaining more experience and exposure to the presidency than any candidate in our lifetime – more than Barack, more than Bill,” as Michelle Obama said in a speech last week. It was a speech that made it stirringly clear that the job of a First Lady is no longer to eat shit, as Obama launched into an eloquent and furious denunciation of Donald Trump.

A Trump win, said Obama, would “[send] a clear message to our kids that everything they’re seeing and hearing is perfectly OK. We are validating it. We are endorsing it. We’re telling our sons that it’s OK to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated.” She’s right. From the moment Clinton was a contender for this election, this wasn’t merely a vote on who should lead the United States: it became a referendum on the role of women. From the measly insistences of Bernie Sanders voters that they’d love a woman president, just not the highly qualified woman actually on offer, to commentators’ meticulous fault-finding that reminds us a woman’s place is always in the wrong, she has had to constantly prove not only that she can do the job but that she has the right even to be considered for it.

Think back to her on that 60 Minutes sofa in 1992 saying she’s “not some little woman standing by her man.” Whatever else the Clinton marriage has been, it’s always been an alliance of two ambitious politicians. Melania Trump makes herself sound more like a nursemaid charged with a truculent child when she tells Cooper “sometimes say I have two boys at home, I have my young son and I have my husband.” Clinton has always worked for a world where being a woman doesn’t mean being part-nanny, part-grabbable pussy. Melania says she doesn’t want pity, but she will receive it in abundance. Her tragic apologetics belong to the past: the Clinton future is the one Michelle Obama showed us.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.