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  1. Ideas
29 November 2023

As long as Palestine remains occupied, cycles of violence will continue

If there is one silver lining it is that the world has taken notice of the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and the diaspora.

By Ryan Ruby

One thing Jews and leftists have in common is that they almost never agree about anything, especially not about what it means to be Jewish or a leftist. That is among the many reasons I try to avoid speaking “as a Jew” or “as a leftist”. Generally, I prefer to speak as myself. But to paraphrase one Jewish leftist, people do not speak “under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.

As I write, the circumstances are these: Israel, a country which considers me a potential citizen, is engaged in a campaign of collective punishment and ethnic cleansing that has killed more than 12,000 people in Gaza, a third of them children, and hundreds more in the West Bank, territories which it has illegally occupied since long before I was born.

It is doing so with the financial and diplomatic backing of the governments of the United States, where I am a citizen; Germany, where I am a permanent resident; and the United Kingdom, where I publish work. These governments, and their respective media apparatuses, routinely justify their policies in the name of my safety as a member of an historically persecuted people. “If one is attacked as a Jew,” another Jewish leftist of a very different stripe once argued, “one must defend oneself as a Jew.” It is a perverse irony that the converse has instead become imperative: if one is defended as a Jew, one must attack as a Jew.

My position on Palestine may be leftist, but it is hardly radical. It is merely the position any impartial person who is acquainted with the facts would hold. Beginning from the premise that one Israeli life is equal to one Palestinian life, everything else follows: that it is perfectly fair to describe Israel as an apartheid state, that the occupation is colonialism, and that the current war on Gaza is – at a minimum –incipiently genocidal.

People who disagree either reject the premise or are misinformed; either way, those who support the actions of the Israeli military are implicitly committed to the view that a Palestinian life is worth one-tenth of an Israeli life. There is a word for this view that decent people tend not to like when it is applied to them.

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In this context, questions such as “Do you condemn Hamas?” and “Does Israel have the right to exist?” are nothing but moral blackmail, and should be refused even by those who do condemn Hamas (which I and everyone I know does) and who do agree that Israel has a right to exist (which I might, if I understood exactly what the phrase meant), especially when the person demanding an answer is an official or unofficial representative of the state. Their function is to obscure the simple truth that as long as Palestine remains occupied, cycles of violence such as the one we are now witnessing will continue, and more Israelis and Palestinians will die.

Anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian Jews – not all of whom are secular leftists, incidentally – tend to unsettle or infuriate those who take for granted that a person’s primary loyalty must be to their ethnos, rather than to their common sense. At best, we are regarded as curiosities, which is why we receive a disproportionate amount of media attention.

Considering this, it seems to me that if we have a specific responsibility, it is to prevent Jews from being used as rhetorical human shields by Israel and its allies in Western governments and media, as we continue to call for an end to this war, the criminal government that is prosecuting it, and the illegal occupation that gave rise to it. This responsibility entails using our position to defend our non-Jewish neighbours and colleagues from the pernicious use of anti-Semitism to suppress and punish dissent, and as cover to express Islamophobia and racism or to attempt to codify these into law. (In Germany, the need for this is particularly acute.)

Above all, it is necessary for us to state that these responsibilities are auxiliary to the more important struggle being undertaken by Palestinians themselves, who are trying to survive as persons and as a people. If there has been one silver lining to the past few months it is that the world has taken long overdue notice of the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and the diaspora – among them doctors, activists, novelists, poets, journalists, scholars, comedians, politicians and children – who have shown exemplary courage, sceptical intelligence, righteous anger, and a sense of humour in the face of unmitigated horror.

Insofar as Jews would like to continue considering these principles a part of our tradition as well, we cannot allow them to be handed over to the State of Israel – or the states of the countries in which we live – in exchange for something as insipid and poisonous as a bowl of ethno-nationalist stew.

This article is part of the series What It Means to Be Jewish Now.

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