Please note up front that I am not Palestinian, or Arab, or Muslim. I am an American Jew. So any list I draw up with this title is doomed to be incomplete, because there are a lot of facets of the Palestinian experience that I just don’t see.
I’ve seen a shocking amount of orientalist racism come up in discussions of Israel in the past few days, and it bothers me. A lot. I really want to believe that most of the people who express such sentiments are acting in misguided good faith, so this post will present some guidelines for what to absolutely never do, along with the reasoning why the actions I list are problematic. (And bad-faith racist assholes, you can no longer plead ignorance if you engage in any of these no-nos. Consider yourselves warned.) In no particular order:
- Don’t use any kind of slur. This should be an absolute no-brainer. If you ever feel the need to call anyone a slur, shut the fuck up immediately and go jump in the nearest lake.
- Don’t call Palestinians “animals” or “savages.” This is a dehumanizing tactic, used to justify or diminish attacks against Palestinians on grounds that they aren’t really human and don’t require the same consideration as people like us. This is racist. Always. In every context.
- Don’t claim Palestinians don’t really love their children or don’t really value human life. Another dehumanizing tactic is to point to “unnatural” behavior on the part of the targeted group as proof that they are less human.Don’t do it. The fact that anyone can repeat this claim even after the front page pictures of Jihad Masharawi carrying his son Omar just boggles my mind.
- Don’t claim Palestinian children are “taught to hate” or somehow less innocent than other children. Another dehumanizing tactic, and a particularly disgusting one, as it’s typically used to downplay the deaths of Palestinian children. If you feel the need to say that the deaths of certain children aren’t really as sad as others, ever, you need to walk away from the discussion at hand.
- Don’t say “Muslim” when you mean Palestinian. I see this a lot. Palestinians are mostly Muslim, but there are plenty of Palestinian Christians, too, as well as other groups. (There were even Palestinian Jews, whose communities predated British control of the area, although needless to say they are now Israelis rather than Palestinians in the current sense.) Not all Palestinians are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Palestinian. They aren’t interchangeable terms.
- Don’t say “Arab” when you mean Palestinian. Arab is a wider term, encompassing an entire ethnic group and bloc of countries. Palestinians are a distinct group within the Pan-Arab world, with their own unique culture, customs, and Arabic dialect. Use the appropriate term in the appropriate context, rather than making blanket statements about wider groups than you intend.
- Don’t claim Islam is inherently violent and evil. People who believe this are comparing Islam as practiced in poverty-stricken areas to Christianity or Judaism as practiced in affluent areas. See the problem there? People who are poor and oppressed, on the whole, engage in more violence and subscribe to more extremist forms of religions—regardless of what religions they practice, because the real problem isn’t the religion, it’s the poverty and oppression.Attacking an entire religion in this way is not only based on apples-to-oranges nonsense, but tinged with racism as well. (Before you protest that last assertion, look up just how many of the Islamic practices people freak out about are also practiced by Jews, then see if you can still come up with a reason for attacking only Islam that doesn’t rest on the fact that the stereotypical Jew is white-passing but the stereotypical Muslim is not.)
- Don’t say or imply that all Palestinians are terrorists or support terrorists. It’s not true, and it smacks of dehumanizing (“we don’t need to treat them with the same consideration we give people like us because they’re inherently evil and violent”). I’m betting many of you would rather not be judged by some of the actions of your current government, so don’t do the same thing to others.
- Don’t use any variant of the “we made the desert bloom” trope. This is basically the same racist argument European settlers in the Americas used—claiming they deserved the land because they made better use of it than the people whose land it originally was. In fact, Palestinians were farming, tending orchards, and raising livestock on the land well before Israel existed. Even if they weren’t, “I took it because I could make better use of it” wouldn’t get you off a theft charge in court, so why is it relevant here?
- Don’t use any variant of the “a land without a people for a people without a land” trope. See the previous point. There were most definitely people on the land before Israel. To deny that is to erase the existence of Palestinians and their history. Erasure of a culture is never okay.
- Don’t claim there is “no such thing” as Palestine or Palestinians. This also applies to people who put Palestine and Palestinian in quotation marks. Quibbling with the terms people choose to describe themselves and their culture is another form of erasure. Palestinians obviously exist. You don’t have the right to decide what they can and can’t call themselves.
- Don’t say Palestinians have no historical connection to the land or should go back to “their real countries.” Again, Palestinians lived in the land that is now Israel and the Palestinian territories well before Israel existed. That IS their country. Once again, the words Palestinian and Arab are not interchangeable. Just because Palestinians are Arab doesn’t mean they have the same culture and history as Arabs in other countries, any more than being a white American gives someone the same culture and history as white Europeans.
- Don’tcall Palestinians “Amalek” or cite Torah/Bible verses calling for the extermination of non-Jewish groups in Canaan. Calling for genocide isn’t remotely fucking acceptable, ever, and couching it in religion doesn’t make it any more so. I can’t believe I even have to say this. STOP.
- Don’t visually depict Palestinians using Arab racial stereotypes. Don’t sexualize or exoticize Palestinian women. Don’t portray Palestinian men as leering, claw-fingered, keffiyah-and-robe-wearing, hook-nosed villains with bombs strapped to their chests. Avoid using camels, tents, or polygamy imagery.
- Don’t demand that Palestinians or their allies take public note of Israeli casualties, affirm Israel’s right to exist, or publicly repudiate Hamas.People who make this demand are assuming that Palestinians are terrible people or undeserving of being heard out unless they “prove” themselves acceptable by Zionists’ standards.
- Don’t blow off Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims if they tell you what you are saying is racist or Islamophobic. Not all pro-Israel speech is racist, but some undeniably is. Actually give the accusation your consideration and hear the accuser out. If they fail to convince you, that’s fine. But at least hear them out (without talking over them) before you decide that.
I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, but it covers all the hard-and-fast rules I can think of. (I welcome input for improving it, particularly from Palestinians, Muslims, or Arabs. I don’t claim to be an expert on any culture but my own, and I definitely don’t intend to talk over you!)
But wait! Why should I care about any of this? Israel is defending itself against rockets!
You should care because this kind of behavior tarnishes your cause and makes people ashamed to be Zionist. You should care because even though Israel has every right to exist within its legal boundaries, Israel’s handling of the territories and the Palestinians has been brutal, oppressive, violent, and unjust, and behavior like the above just heaps insult on a deeply injured people. You should care because if you expect Palestinians and their allies not to be anti-Semitic, you’d better extend the same courtesy and not be racist. You should care because extreme rhetoric on either side makes the possibility of peace more remote and unlikely, and that hurts EVERYONE.
So, TL;DR version:
- Do go ahead and criticize Hamas.
- Don’t use racist or Islamophobic stereotypes or tropes.
- Don’t conflate Arabs, Palestinians, and Muslims as if they were interchangeable terms or groups.
- Don’t dehumanize Palestinians.
- Don’t erase their existence, history, or culture.
- Do engage Palestinians and their allies in conversation on the issues of Israel and of racism, rather than simply shutting them down for disagreeing.
- Do try to be sensitive to the fact that Palestinians are largely powerless, poverty-stricken, and violently oppressed, and that any “war” or negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians can in no possible way be construed as a meeting of equals.
May there be peace in our days.