This month marks fifty years of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. Sympathy for Palestinians has notably increased among the Australian public, the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement gains more victories worldwide and Palestinians have the weight of international law on their side. And yet, Israel’s occupation, settlement and apartheid machinery accelerates with the support of western governments, particularly our own, who, along with establishment media, repeat dominant mantras about Israel. These dominant narratives contribute to a state of being ‘PEP’– Progressive Except Palestine, as activists wryly call it.
It doesn’t matter how many United Nations resolutions support Palestine, fifty years of illegal occupation and sixty-nine years of theft and now Apartheid, we must understand the emotional and ideological regimes behind the ‘Progressive Except Palestine’ attitude that dominates our political and media landscape.
The first emotional roadblock is a controversial one and it is about the notion of victimhood. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a struggle over land that will never be resolved if the competition over victimhood is not undone. I say competition because emotionally we cannot ignore the fact that for many people, the Holocaust created the Jewish people as the ultimate victims. Now I do not say this to be callous or dismissive. I was in Berlin two years ago and I wept as I walked through the Holocaust Memorial. The Israelis may have stolen my family’s rights and homeland, but they can never steal my capacity to ache for the suffering and injustice the Jewish people have endured. My people’s suffering should not cancel out the suffering of others – not even those who have caused our suffering.
Any story that conveys the struggles of Palestinians – as people living under military occupation, besieged in Gaza, the targets of a campaign of ethnic cleansing, deprived on a daily basis of their basic rights – will emotionally be blocked by a moral contest. It is a comparison that defines Jews as the a priori victims. No matter what Palestinians suffer, their story will always be silently edited in the shadow of the real victim in the conflict.
This links directly with the second ‘truth’ that informs the PEP mindset when confronted with the Palestinian narrative: Israel’s ‘right to exist’. This is the taken-for-granted, ideological ‘fact’ that flows as an inevitable conclusion from Jews as the higher victim in this competition between victims.
Thus, in the very moment we Palestinians are offered the chance to tell ‘our’ story, we are robbed of that chance. And we are robbed of that chance because, among PEPs, in front of each of our stories as Palestinians, is a prologue that sets itself up as a substitute for our political context and history. It is a prologue that sets up the Palestinian ‘human story’ as a story of being a victim– but not the most worthy victim. Because of the emotional weight of the Holocaust in a narrative that has constructed the flawed notion that Zionism was borne out of the Holocaust (when it was in fact a 19th century nationalist political movement), every Palestinian victim of Israeli aggression, apartheid, racism and occupation can only be a victim to a certain point.
This is one of the intractable emotional impasses that obstructs Palestinian efforts to challenge the dominant narrative. Until Zionism is untangled from the tragedy of the Holocaust, our struggle will only soothe – rather than confront – the consciences of PEPs.
One of the next ideological biases we face when talking to PEPs, particularly in the media, is the notion of ‘balance’, as though this is a conflict of equal sides, of relative truth, of a middle road if only the parties took steps to reach it.
The attempt at equivalence of the Palestinian ‘side’ and Israeli ‘side’ obscures the fact that for Palestinians, the claim that one is not taking sides is taking sides. How could it be otherwise? How can one remain balanced when the fact of Israeli military hegemony, oppression, belligerence and defiance of international norms and laws is so clear? The grossly disproportionate imbalance in death tolls is evidence enough. Every time I have been invited to a media interview with a pro-Israel spokesperson ‘for balance’, I have an image of a see saw. The illusion of a balancing structure is there, but what counts is the distribution of weight.
This leads me to the next emotional constraint among PEPs, connected to the idea of ‘humanity’. What kind of human is a Palestinian allowed to be? What kind of Palestinian will we root for? Listen to? Sympathise with? Take notice of?
The way violence is reported in this conflict is telling. When Israelis are killed, the headlines are predictable: Wave of violence. New violence. New unrest. Worst unrest. Spike in violence. There is no such thing as ‘lapses’ or ‘waves’ of violence for Palestinians. Every day is an encounter with violence.
The more I reflect on this, the more it links back to the wider global context of power hierarchies and how these shape western emotional (and strategic) alliances. We prefer victims who don’t fight back. The stoic, self-restrained victim who doesn’t resist or assume any agency. Our treatment of asylum seekers who exercise agency by daring to leave their war-torn countries is a case in point. It is the refugee resigned to their fate in a refugee camp whom we applaud. Arguably, Palestinians – women and children included – defy the stereotype of the passive, doe-eyed brown figure of the victim. They claim the right to resist. They demonstrate a fierce resilience and unwavering spirit of defiance.
Because the western imagination is limited by the luxuries of its privileged existence, the capacity to understand the pressure cooker that is life under occupation structures the way we think about Palestinians who resist. There is a deep-seated self-centred conceit in referencing our lives when assessing how much Palestinians should take.
It always amuses me, this idea that Palestinians are excessive in their resistance, particularly when the vocally racist mobs speak up. We have entire collectives of enraged people ready to die for Australia because they cannot handle the outrage, the sheer, unassailable injustice of a halal label on a jar of Vegemite or Easter Eggs. This speaks to the topsy-turvy emotional regimes we are dealing with.
Palestinians who are literally giving birth at checkpoints or watching their children shot by soldiers are either expected to live with it, or, for others, asking for it. It is the former position that interests me more because it speaks to how people in the west divide the world between the west as a zone of safety and the third world as the zone of danger. Fear, bombs and violence are not something that touches everyday life for us in the west, violence and conflict being something that mainly affects cultural or ethnic others. We are shocked, disturbed, affected by violence. Palestinians/non-Westerners only ‘know’ and ‘understand’ violence.
There is a flipside to this, of course, because we are endlessly reminded of Israel’s right to defend itself. No state can tolerate rockets, we are told whenever Gaza is in the media.
This is what Palestine advocates in the West are up against emotionally and ideologically. And this is why if we are to ensure that we are celebrating peace and self-determination for Palestinians and Israelis in fifty years time, we must expose the false narratives and emotional biases that are buried deep in the mindset of PEPs until they extend their progressive politics and compassion to Palestinians. Half a century on, God knows Palestinians have waited long enough.