Every time a man has contributed to the victory of the dignity of the spirit, every time a man has said no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, I have felt solidarity with his act.
– Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1952
The ruthless assault on Gaza has sometimes been presented in our media, and on occasion in some solidarity efforts too, as an issue that is solely of concern to Muslim people. It is true that in recent years state politics in both Palestine and Israel has taken on a more religious inflection. There has also been a growth in popular movements in both Palestine and Israel that frame the conflict in religious terms. Moreover there is a historical religious dimension to the origins of this conflict in so far as the long persecution of the Jews in Europe, which is the root cause of Zionism as an armed colonial project, cannot be divorced from a murderous European intolerance, that, for a thousand years, framed itself as Christian. Europe, long imagined as a Christian space, displaced its historic moral debt to the Jews of Europe onto the Palestinians.
But this conflict began as a colonial occupation. It did not start as a religious war and has never been reducible to the question of religion. Some Palestinians are Christian, many are secular and Palestinian resistance to Israeli oppression has often been organised on the basis of nationalism or left wing ideas. Edward Said, one of the most compelling advocates of the Palestinian cause, was born into a Christian family. And while leading Christian figures, including Desmond Tutu, have taken a clear position in support of justice for the Palestinian people it is also true that, from the United States to Uganda, many of the most impassioned defenders of the Israeli state are right-wing Christians. In Israel, in South Africa and around the world many Jewish people, religious and secular, have taken a clear position against the Israeli state and in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. You cannot deduce a person’s religion from where they stand in this conflict nor can you deduce their position on this conflict from their religion. Moreover in many parts of the world, like Ireland or South Africa, popular solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is generally rooted in a shared history of colonial oppression rather than shared religious convictions.
But although not all Palestinians are Muslim and not all Jews, or Christians, support the oppression of Palestinians by the state of Israel, this conflict does have an inescapable contemporary religious dimension resulting from the fact that, since the latter years of the Cold War, American imperialism has actively sought to politicise Islam. This was first undertaken in order to cultivate an ally in opposition to the Soviet Union. After the Cold War the politicisation of Islam was used to manufacture a new enemy that could legitimate American attempts to control the world’s oil. Among other crimes this led to the devastation of Iraq in the name of human rights and freedom – a crime for which the butchers in Washington will never have to account to any court because global power relations are such that white and Western power continues to be equated with reason, modernity, virtue and civilization even when it engages in mass murder for the purpose of wholesale theft.
One result of the construction of Islam as the new enemy of the West is that Palestinians are presented, from the Jerusalem Post to the New York Times, as irrational, without regard for the sanctity of human life and as part of a lower form of culture that is a threat to what is assumed to be the enlightened, democratic and, in every respect, superior culture of Western civilization. This means that there is a degree to which Muslim people, around the world, have a particular stake in contesting the way in which a set of pejorative ideas about Islam are mobilised to dehumanise Palestinians. But this does not mean that the conflict in and around Palestine can be reduced to one of religious identity. Even when religious identities are mobilised in support of political objectives, a process that is particularly easy in this part of the world given its place in the history and imagination of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we are still not dealing, at the ethical level, with a conflict between two or three religions as monolithic blocks. On the contrary there are always acute ethical conflicts within religions. All of the major world religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – have enabled profoundly ethical orientations to the world and they all also carry entirely perverse currents that all decent people, irrespective of the accidents of their birth and their own religious choices, must oppose.
The particular stake that Muslim people have in opposing the demonization of Islam is not unique. After all women have a particular stake in opposing sexism, black people have a particular stake in opposing anti-black racism and gay people have a particular stake in opposing homophobia. But just as this does not let men, white people or straight people off the proverbial hook when it comes to the necessity to oppose these systems of oppression people who are not Muslim have a moral obligation to be in solidarity with all Palestinians as people, and, also, with Palestinian Muslims who are oppressed, in part, as Muslims. The assault on Gaza is, like the devastation of the Congo, or the ongoing disaster in Iraq, everyone’s concern. In the particular case of Gaza the way in which Islamophobia is used to legitimate oppression is also everyone’s concern. It is also true that the way in which Islam is sometimes misused to legitimate oppression, as in the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit at the moment, is everyone’s concern.
In 1940 the Nazis forced more than 400 000 Jewish people into a tiny corner of Warsaw that became known as the Warsaw Ghetto. More than half of these people were sent to the Treblinka death factory in 1942. In 1943 the residents of the ghetto began a campaign of armed resistance against the Nazis. They held out, in a heroic struggle, for three months before the Nazis burnt and blew up the ghetto, building by building, murdering everyone they could find. In 2002 Mark Edelman, who was a Deputy Commander of the Jewish Military Organization in the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote an open letter to the leaders and soldiers of all the militant groups in Palestine. He critiqued their methods but, nonetheless, addressed the Palestinian militants as militants, and, by implication, endorsed their struggle as a struggle for justice. A few months ago Chavka Fulman-Raban, one of the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, gave a speech at the Ghetto-Fighters’ House Northern Israel in which she declared that:
All of my nearest, most beloved comrades fought from the rooftops, in the fires, from the bunkers. Most of them perished. I hurts me that I can no longer remember all their names. We memorialize only a few. But in my heart I am not parted from them, from the forgotten. … Continue the rebellion. A different rebellion of the here and now against evil, even the evil befalling our own and only beloved country. Rebel against racism and violence and hatred of those who are different. Against inequality, economic gaps, poverty, greed and corruption. Rebel against the Occupation.
This is what an ethical orientation to the world looks like. We are all – irrespective of the accidents of our birth or our religious choices – obligated to be in solidarity with the people of Gaza.
Pic Credit: Eloise Bollack