Who will defend Palestinians from racist attacks?

Who will defend Palestinians from racist attacks?

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Have attitudes hardened in the maelstrom that is the world of Israel-Palestine? The furor over a social media post from actress Emma Watson suggests so, heralding the nadir in debates about one of the world’s oldest conflicts. The time has come when even a vague expression of solidarity with Palestinians, who have to live under apartheid and occupation, is met with accusations of antisemitism and fulminating anti-Palestinian hatemongers spitting tacks.

Emma Watson, a huge global star following her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter film franchise, posted to her 64.3 million Instagram followers a picture that included the words, “Solidarity is a verb.” In the background, you can see “Free Palestine” and “Save Sheikh Jarrah” banners. There is no reference to Palestine in the text at all. There is not even any criticism of Israel. It hardly merited much attention.

The anti-Palestinian brigade had other ideas. The online hit squad was fronted by Danny Danon, the former Israeli ambassador to the UN and senior Likud figure. “10 points from Gryffindor for being an antisemite,” he posted on Twitter. Alongside him was his successor as ambassador, Gilad Erdan, who wrote: “Fiction may work in Harry Potter but it does not work in reality.” I may have missed it, but the Israeli government did not criticize these comments at all. Then again, the Israeli government said little about the “death to Arabs” marches in Jerusalem.

Watson could be criticized for the temerity of her words in the face of such abhorrent levels of Israeli oppression and discrimination of the Palestinians. She did not dare to mention war crimes, ethnic cleansing or apartheid. I am sure she would not pretend this was Gryffindor-style bravery.

The debate should center on why more celebrities and leading figures do not speak out. Some do, but not as many as the situation warrants. Are these stars all so cowed, so fearful? 

The easy part in this debate is that Watson’s trivial post was in no way even close to being antisemitic. Jews are not even referenced. The ranting fury against Watson is not a first. Recent examples include anti-Palestinian activist and lawyer Alain Dershowitz describing the legendary anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu as an “antisemitic bigot.” Back in October, author Sally Rooney, who supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, was castigated because she refused to have her book translated into Hebrew by a specific company linked to the Israeli military. If you approach celebrity status and support Palestinian rights, expect to be tagged as anti-Jewish.

This is a diabolical abuse of the noble cause of fighting antisemitism. Jews across the world still face violence and hatred. In many areas, instances of genuine antisemitism are rising. Synagogues have been attacked and graves desecrated. In London last month, a bus full of Jews was attacked and its passengers harangued and spat at. Jewish communities are understandably extremely fearful, given their history and the fact that one of the world’s most appalling racial genocides happened in living memory. And, yes, Hamas deploys antisemitic language and tropes in a vile fashion, while there are some in the Palestinian rights movement who have also transgressed and indulged in appalling antisemitism.

Clearly, what the anti-Palestinians want is to intimidate anyone daring to speak out, to stifle any criticism of Israel

Chris Doyle

What Danon and his ilk, largely on the far right, have done by weaponizing antisemitism is to trivialize anti-Jewish behavior, with grave consequences. Aside from anything else, they are deliberately conflating Judaism and Jews with criticism of Israel. This is itself a serious antisemitic trope.

Clearly, what the anti-Palestinians want is to intimidate anyone daring to speak out, to stifle any criticism of Israel. Is it effective? It would appear to have a chilling effect. Many politicians from numerous countries and political trends have told me they are concerned but fear speaking out.

The real racism on display, more often than not, is anti-Palestinian. It has a rich history but is undergoing an energetic revival. One is, once again, increasingly seeing comments questioning whether the Palestinian people exist. Another anti-Palestinian trope is that they are not yet fit to govern themselves, which was given prominence by comments made by Donald Trumps’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in 2019. Then there is the “anti-Zionism automatically equals antisemitism” myth. Another lie is that, if you call for Palestinian freedom, you are apparently calling for the destruction of Israel — in other words, Palestinians can never be allowed to be free because it would mean the end of Israel. Another slur is that, if you sympathize with Palestinians, you support Hamas. It is racist to stigmatize and condemn an entire people for the actions of a group such as Hamas. In the same way, Israelis should not be collectively condemned for the actions of the far right.

Anti-Palestinian racism is at the heart of the conflict. It is Palestinians who are denied basic national and human rights, including the right to self-determination, to a state, to citizenship, to marry who they want, to land and water, and to a life of dignity. Their very presence is being erased, along with their history and culture. Nearly three-quarters of Palestinians can no longer live, and often even visit, what was their country. It is this racist attitude that permits the collective punishment of 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, once again collectively punishing them for the crimes of Hamas. A senior Israeli diplomat recently berated European ambassadors for their criticisms, saying: “After everything the new government in Israel has done for the Palestinians, you come to complain?” Yes, the occupying power believes it should be thanked for the way it treats Palestinians.

What is most alarming is that the leaders of major international powers do nothing to defend Palestinians, including from racist attacks. Instead, all too often they indulge in the dangerous conflation of criticism of Israeli policies and antisemitism.

Despite having plenty of material to work with, I cannot recall one American or European leader calling out racism against Palestinians or even Arabs. This has to change. It is all part of the broader anti-Arab racism that is churned out in Hollywood films and TV, which leads to ignoring Arab civilian casualties in wars and terrorist attacks and boasting that “we don’t do body counts.” It is why Israeli war crimes and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians continues to be ignored. Until this ends, more people need to show solidarity, not least those, like Watson, who have influence.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech
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