Palestinians are told the words we use dwarf the decades of violence enacted against us by the self-proclaimed Jewish State. A drone is one thing, but a trope—a trope is unacceptable. No more.
BY MOHAMMED EL-KURD SEPTEMBER 26, 2023
When we were growing up in occupied Jerusalem, the people seeking to expel us from our neighborhood were Jewish, and their organizations often had “Jewish” in their name. So were the people who stole our home, scattered our furniture in the street, and burned my baby sister’s crib. The judges banging their gavels in favor of our expulsion were also Jewish, and so were the lawmakers whose laws facilitated and systematized our dispossession.
The bureaucrat issuing—and sometimes revoking—our blue ID cards was a Jew, and I especially despised him because a stroke of his pen stood between my father and my father’s great-great-grandfather’s city. As for the soldiers that were frisking us to check for those IDs, some of them were Druze, some Muslim, most of them Jewish, and all of them, according to my grandmother, were “godless bastards.” Those who administered the rifles and handcuffs, those who wrote the meticulous and murderous urban plans were—you guessed it.
This was no secret. We lived under the rule of the self-proclaimed “Jewish State.” Israeli politicians have exhausted this line, and their international peers nodded along. The army declared itself a Jewish army and marched under what it has called a Jewish flag. Jerusalem city councilmen boasted “tak[ing] house after house” because “the bible says that this country belongs to the Jewish people,” and Knesset members sang similar tunes. These legislators weren’t fringe or far-right: the Israeli nation-state law explicitly enshrines “Jewish settlement” as a “national value … to encourage and promote.”
Still, though this was no secret, we were instructed to treat it as such, sometimes by our parents, sometimes by well-meaning solidarity activists. We were instructed to ignore the Star of David on the Israeli flag, and to distinguish Jews from Zionists with surgical precision. It didn’t matter that their boots were on our necks, and that their bullets and batons bruised us. Our statelessness and homelessness were trivial. What mattered was how we spoke about our keepers, not the conditions they kept us under—blockaded, surrounded by colonies and military outposts—or the fact that they kept us at all.
Language was more of a minefield than the border between Syria and the occupied Golan Heights, and we, children at the time, were expected to hop around them, hoping we don’t accidentally step on an explosive trope that would discredit us. Using the “wrong words” had the magical ability to make things disappear; the boots, bullets, batons, and bruises all become invisible if you say anything in jest or in fury. Even more dangerously, believing in “the wrong things” rendered you deserving of this brutality. Citizenship and the right to movement weren’t the sole privileges robbed from us, simple ignorance was a luxury as well.
As Palestinians, we understand from a young age that the semantic violence we practice with our words dwarfs the decades of systemic and material violence enacted against us by the self-proclaimed Jewish State. A drone is one thing, but a trope—a trope is unacceptable. We learn to internalize the muzzle.
So, I heeded these calls—what else is a 10-year-old supposed to do?—and I learned about Hitler and the Holocaust, I learned about the nose stereotype, the poisoned wells, the bankers, the vampires, the snakes and the lizards (I just found out about the octopus), and I learned that, when speaking to diplomats visiting our zoo of a neighborhood, the settlers squatting in our home must be the secondary point of my presentation, second to an effusive denunciation of global antisemitism. And when my 80-something grandmother addressed those foreign visitors, I corrected her mid-sentence whenever she described the Jewish settlers in our house as, well, Jewish.
A decade and some years later and not much has changed. The boot remains there; so are the bullets and batons (and I would be remiss not to mention the innovative genius of the AI-powered robot firearms recently added to the Jewish State’s arsenal).
The government titles its project in the Galilee as “the Judaization of the Galilee,” and its quasi-institutions do the same. As for the council members that promised to take “house after house,” alongside their success in stealing houses, in Sheikh Jarrah, the Old City, Silwan, and elsewhere, they routinely march in our towns with megaphones and flags, chanting “we want Nakba now.” The judges still bang their gavels to ensure the continuation of this Nakba; still rule in favor of Jewish supremacy. And, despite disagreeing with the Supreme Court on various things, parliamentarians legislate in accordance with that supremacist attitude. Some openly state the fact that Jewish life is simply “more important than [our] freedom” (and sometimes they’re even nice enough to apologize to Arab TV presenters as they deliver them these hard truths).
A decade and some years later, the status quo remains as is. And we—how my heart breaks for us—we continue dancing among the land mines. We continue betting on morality and humanity, as they bet on their guns.
A few weeks ago, 16 Israeli police officers turned off their body cameras and branded, as in physically etched, the Star of David into the cheek of 22-year-old Orwa Sheikh Ali, a young man they arrested from the Shufat refugee camp.
Also a few weeks ago, MEMRI, a media watch group co-founded by a former Israeli military intelligence officer, released footage of PA President Mahmoud Abbas stating that Europeans “fought [the Jews] because of their social role” and “usury,” and “not because of their religion.”
In response, a group of renowned Palestinian intellectuals, many of whom I admire and respect, published an open letter “unequivocally condemn[ing]”—guess what?—Abbas’ “morally and politically reprehensible comments.”
One could call their joint statement a ‘strategic’ move to negate the belief that Palestinians are born bigoted. Others may say it represents what having a “consistent moral code” looks like. I’m certain some signatories believe our so-called moral authority makes it incumbent upon us to deplore historical revisionism “vis-a-vis the Holocaust,” and to lead by example in rejecting all forms of racism, no matter how rhetorical.
Whatever it is, when I read it, I felt a sense of deja vu. Here we are, caught in a discursive crisis once more, hastily responding to crimes we haven’t committed. The strategy of defending ourselves against the baseless charge of antisemitism has historically brought us closer to it. And, more than that, such an impulse inadvertently elevates the history of Jewish suffering, which is certainly studied, if not honored, above our present-day suffering, a suffering that is denied and disputed.
While the signatories of the letter, some who’ve criticized the PA since before I was born, did decry the “PA’s increasingly authoritarian and draconian rule,” and while they made note of the “Western and pro-Israel forces” supporting Abbas’ expired presidential mandate, neither of those things served as the catalyst for what appears to be the first joint statement condemning Mahmoud Abbas. The letter didn’t spell his collaboration with the Zionist regime as its headline, nor his brutalization of protesters and political prisoners, let alone the murder of Nizar Banat.
The catalyst here was words. Mere words. And it always is. Again, a drone is one thing, but a trope is off-limits.
Ironically, both the joint letter and Abbas’ speech sought to distance themselves from antisemitism. Towards the end of the clip, Abbas wanted to “clarify” that he said what he said regarding “the Jews of Europe hav[ing] nothing to do with Semitism” because we ought to “know who we should accuse of being our enemy.”
What a burdensome impulse. Not only do we live in fear of displacement at the hands of a colonialism that professes itself as Jewish, not only are our people bombarded by an army that marches under what it claims is the Jewish flag, and not only do Israeli politicians over enunciate the Jewishness of their operations, we are told to disregard the Star of David soaring on their flag—the Star of David they carve into our skin.
This impulse is decades, if not a century, old. In his handwritten transcript of a speech he gave in Cairo, October 1948, Palestinian scholar Khalil Sakakini struck through a fragment of a sentence that read “… the fighting between Arabs and Jews,” to replace it with “the fighting between us and the invaders.” Palestinian academics, the Institute for Palestine Studies, and the PLO’s Palestine Research Center (which was looted and bombed repeatedly in 1980s) have dedicated articles, books, and volumes for the study of antisemitism, its European roots, and its manifestations—European or otherwise—and its conflation with anti-Zionism.
The Palestinian People have consistently made it crystal clear that our enemy is the colonialist and racist ideology of Zionism, not Jews. Our capacity to produce such distinction is admirable and impressive, considering the heavy-handedness with which Zionism attempts to synonymize itself with Judaism.
However, this distinction isn’t our responsibility, and personally, it isn’t my priority. A Palestinian’s perceived resentment doesn’t have the backing of a Knesset to codify it into law. Tropes aren’t drones, nor can one convert conspiracy theories into nuclear weapons. We are past the early 1900s. Things are different, power has shifted. Words are not murder.
In the days between the 16 soldiers branding a man’s face with the Star of David and the release of the joint letter, an Israeli soldier killed a disabled teenager near a military checkpoint in Qalqilya; another shot a child in the head in Silwan; a young man previously shot in an Israeli raid of the Balata refugee camp died of his injuries; a sniper shot a Palestinian youth in the head in Beita; a 17-year-old was shot and killed south of Jenin; one more young man succumbed to his wounds following a invasion of the refugee camp; families of Palestinians whose corpses are held by the Occupation authorities marched with empty caskets in Nablus; a soldier killed a man near Hebron, police executed a 14-year-old boy in Sheikh Jarrah to the applause of hundreds of settlers; the police then tear-gassed his family in Beit Hanina; a Palestinian was killed after ramming Israeli soldiers in Beit Sira, killing one; in the north of Jericho, a Palestinian man was killed and a soldier was injured in a gunfire exchange; a soldier shot a man in the head in Tubas, killing him—and this is only the very tip of the iceberg.
Which of these caused a far-reaching debate? None. There was a lot of noise concerning Itamar Ben-Gvir stating that Jewish life is “more important than [Palestinian] freedom” on television, a lot less noise about the carving of the Star of David, and, of course, Mahmoud Abbas received the noisiest reaction of all. (This is true in general, not just in the case of the open letter).
All three of those examples deal with aesthetics. Ben-Gvir’s statements were factual and true: Jewish life is worth more than ours under Israeli rule, but it was his explicit oration that triggered outrage rather than the institutionalized policies that have made his racist remarks the material reality on the ground. Even the physical deformation of a Palestinian’s face was only of note because of what the etching symbolized, not the etching itself—had the soldiers cut inconspicuous lines on his cheek, I doubt it would have garnered any attention at all.
As for Palestinian death, it is quotidian and negligible. If we’re lucky, our martyrs are communicated in sums on the pages of end-of-year reports. “Revisionism” on the other hand, warrants a cacophony of condemnation.
Here is where I stand. There is a Jew who lives–by force—in half of my home in Jerusalem, and he does so by “divine decree.” Many others reside—by force—in Palestinian houses, while their owners linger in refugee camps. It isn’t my fault that they are Jewish. I have zero interest in memorizing or apologizing for centuries-old tropes created by Europeans, or in giving semantics more heft than they warrant, chiefly when millions of us confront real, tangible oppression, living behind cement walls, or under siege, or in exile, and living with woes too expansive to summarize. I’m tired of the impulse to preemptively distance myself from something of which I am not guilty, and particularly tired of the assumption that I’m inherently bigoted. I’m tired of the pearl-clutching pretense that should such animosity exist, its existence would be inexplicable and rootless. Most of all, I’m tired of the false equivalence between semantic violence and systemic violence.
I know this essay is within itself a minefield. That it will be taken out of context and disseminated, but I’ll never be a perfect victim—there’s no escaping being accused of antisemitism. It’s a losing battle and, more importantly, a glaring red herring. And it is time we reevaluate this tactic. There are better things to do: we have coffins to carry. We have kin in Israeli mortuary chambers that we must bury.
This essay was inspired by James Baldwin’s landmark 1967 article, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.”