On solidarity with Gazans

A first beginning

On Sunday morning Melbourne time, Steven Salaita tweeted: ‘If you’re inclined to justify Israel’s massacre of civilians walking in the direction of their ancestral villages, I suggest that you spend some serious time contemplating a simple question: what kind of person does Zionism require me to be?’

What kind of person indeed.

Over the last two Fridays, Palestinians in Gaza – most of whom are refugees, forced out of their towns and villages, off their lands, in the founding of Israel, or what is called the Nakba, in 1948 – have enacted The Great Return March.

‘Over the past eight days, tens of thousands of protesters in Gaza have breathed life into a place that is slowly being depleted of it,’ explained Ahmad Abu Rtemah, one of the organisers. ‘We have come together, chanting and singing a lullaby we’ve all longed for – “We will return” – bringing all that we have left to offer in an attempt to reclaim our right to live in freedom and justice.’

They are claiming a right of return: a right to go back to the lands their families are from. They are demanding that the siege which Gaza suffers from is lifted immediately. They are insisting that Israel and the international community recognise their full humanity.

The march is organised by refugees, doctors, lawyers, university students, Palestinian intellectuals, academics, civil society organisations and Palestinian families,’ spokesperson Asad Abu Sharekh said. Despite Israel’s claims that the march is being organised by Hamas – a claim I’ve seen repeatedly shared by numerous people on social media – the group is merely taking part in the protests, not leading them. Contrary to Israel’s desires to paint Hamas as permanently and intractably violent, Al Jazeera reports that ‘the internal security of Hamas released a statement calling on all protesters to “avoid friction with the Israeli occupation forces, and cooperate with the instructions of the organizers of the events.”’

Gaza has been under siege for 11 years, during which time its borders with Israel and Egypt have been almost hermetically sealed. Every few years Israel bombs Gaza, and then refuses to allow the provision of the construction materials that would enable rebuilding to occur. Unemployment rates are astronomical, and there is little access to sufficient electricity, clean water, food, or proper sewage systems. Hospitals are unable to provide proper care, and many are highly dependent on foreign aid in order to subsist.

Gaza sits on the Mediterranean, but fishing is only allowed within six nautical miles of land. And on its other side, at the fence that lies on the border with Israel, there is a ‘no go zone’, where Palestinians are not allowed to enter. The constant threat Gazans face is murder by Israeli army sharpshooters.

This is precisely the threat Gazans have been enduring as they undertake The Great Return March. Israel, on the other hand, seems to deliberately be breaking the rules of warfare, taunting the world with its excesses. Take Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s statement that:

It has to be understood that there are no innocent people in Gaza … Everyone is affiliated with Hamas, they are all paid by Hamas, and all the activists trying to challenge us and breach the border are operatives of its military wing.

An article in +972 rightly called these shootings by Israeli snipers ‘a state sponsored mass shooting’. Over 1000 unarmed Palestinian protesters have been shot over the past week. Hundreds more have been injured. Thirty Palestinians have been murdered.

One of the men killed on Friday was Yaser Murtaja, a journalist. There is a lot of talk about him on social media, largely because he was a photographer who was at the protests wearing a ‘Press’ vest to clearly identify himself as such. He was shot by a sniper and was – we can safely assume – deliberately targeted. Indeed, this past Friday at least six journalists were shot.

But as Palestinian poet and writer Remi Kanazi notes, ‘Every Palestinian shot in Gaza has a name, a face, a story. Each one is so much more than the bullet, than the breath taken away. What gets lost in statistics and numbers is life’s textures, whether heartbreak or the smile beyond the smoke.’

It is harrowing to see the photos of the protesters in Gaza facing the snipers in Israel. It’s evident that they can all see each other; that the snipers know exactly what they’re doing.

Thirty people have been murdered so far. We can’t know everything about them – we can’t know who the last person they spoke to was, what food they loved, what words were on their lips, what knowledge about the world and insights about their lives they could have taught us – but we can at least know some of their names.

Alaa Yahya al-Zamali, 15 years old

Sidqi Abu Outewi, 45 years old

Mohammed Hajj Saleh, 33 years old

Ibrahim Al-Ourr, 20 years old

Hussein Mohammed Madhi, 13 years old

Hamza Abdel-Al, 20 years old

Yaser Murtaja, 30 years old

Majdi Ramadan Shbat, 38 years old

Thaer Rab’a, 30 years old

Osama Khamis Qdeih, 38 years old

Mohammed Najjar, 25 years old

Amin Mahmoud Abu Muammar, 38 years old

Mohammed Abu Omar, 22 years old

Ahmed Odeh, 19 years old

Jihad Freneh, 33 years old

Mahmoud Saadi Rahmi, 33 years old

Abdel Fattah Abdel Nabi, 19 years old

Ibrahim Abu Shaar, 20 years old

Abd al-Qader Marhi al-Hawajiri, 25 years old

Sari Abu Odeh, 28 years old

Hamdan Abu Amsheh, 28 years old

Jihad Zuhair Abu Jamous, 30 years old

Bader Fayek al-Sabbagh, 20 years old

Naji Abu Hjair, 25 years old

Omar Samour, 31 years old

Mohammed Naeem Abu Amr, 22 years old

Wahid Nasrallah Abu Samour, 27 years old

Faris al-Raqid, 29 years old

Muhammed Mhareb al-Arabiyeh, 22 years old

Shadi al-Kashif, 34 years old

Musab Zuheir Anis al-Saloul, 22 years old

Ahmed Arafa, 25 years old

But really, we should know them all. Their names and their histories should be burnished on our brains, because their histories are also our histories.

We should know about the protesters who have burned tires in order to provide a smokescreen between themselves and the snipers, and those who formed a ‘human reading chain at protest encampments’. We should know that people are coming out in costumes, and that people are sitting in tents organised by village of origin, talking about their families’ homelands.

As Linah Alsaafin wrote yesterday morning (Melbourne time): ‘The stories, hopes and dreams of Palestinians or Syrians or Yemenis deserve coverage not because white people “touched their lives” but because they are humans living under extraordinary conditions.’

We should know about those ‘extraordinary conditions’ and we should know about their ‘stories, hopes and dreams’. We should know not because to know is to grant them some kind of special recognition of their humanity, but because all of our humanity is bound together, and there is so much the rest of the world has to learn from Gazans, and from each other. We should know, because we have so much to learn about courage and steadfastness.

Indeed, as Salaita’s tweet reminds us to reckon with, ‘what kind of person does Zionism require me to be?’


A second beginning

As European Jews faced persecution in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of different political projects were developed, among them, the idea of the New Jew. In designing a Jewish nationalism, Theodor Herzl – who is commonly considered to be the father of modern state-based Zionism – was profoundly influenced by the ways in which nineteenth-century German nationalism was being shaped.

According to Tamar Mayer, Herzl admired the way in which Germans had been mobilised around the nationalist cause and believed that ‘a similar future for the Jewish nation’ was possible. He thought that this could be the cure for the ‘problems caused by 2,000 years of living in exile’. These problems materialised, Herzl believed, in the lacking masculinity of Jewish men in Europe. As such, the reform of the Jews needed to take place primarily at the level of the physical; there needed to be a changing of the body.

Mayer writes that ‘[t]he New Jew’s characteristics were to mimic those of the gentiles: tall, virile, close to nature and physically productive’. This was, in short, an ironically assimilationist move in the face of an anxiety that Jews were not a robust national group. In this formulation, the problems (and resolutions) of individual bodies were being mapped onto a national group identity. In order to reform these bodies which were (and are) perceived as lacking, training an army was central to Herzl’s formulations. In the 1890s he wrote in his diary: ‘I must train the youth to be soldiers. But only a professional army … However I must educate one and all to be free and strong men, ready to serve as volunteers if necessary.’

This would be the makings of the Zionist New Jew: a hyper-masculine Jew whose body and spirit would be reformed in line with the worst excesses of European exclusivist nationalism. It would involve ideas of control of body and space, practices of government which were motivated by the dominance of, and the ensuring of, Ashkenazi Jewish hegemony. Populations, in this governmental practice, are managed to within an inch of their life (or, indeed, to the end of their lives).

There is a clear line from Herzl’s imaginings of the reformed and controlled European Jewish body to the snipers who have laid down on the mountains of dirt and used their bodies and their weaponry to shoot Gazans. Is this the kind of person that Zionism requires people to be?


A third beginning

But there’s a different vision of that world that could exist. Herzlian Zionism (and its consequences) is not an inevitable product of the antisemitism that European Jews faced. There were other political projects that emerged that were built around a profound, deep, and ongoing sense of anti-nationalism and solidarity with the marginalised and oppressed.

And today, when Jews continue to face antisemitism around the world, there are some of us who articulate Israel’s massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, as well as the ongoing attacks on Palestinian life throughout Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel, as being a source of overwhelming shame, anger and alienation. Given that the first instance of the present massacre took place as Jews were beginning Pesach – a festival of liberation and deliverance from slavery – some Jews took to social media to proclaim this a #PassoverOfShame. We describe Israel’s actions/the massacres as profoundly unacceptable and counter to everything we hold dear. We know that Israel’s actions are to be condemned at every possible turn, every possible moment. We scream it from the rooftops, at the pulpit, on the streets, in front of our computers. We rage.

Many of us Jewish diasporists articulate a vision of the world in which bodies need not be reformed, nor the spirit of the people articulated in exclusivist terms. John Docker, a writer and scholar based in Perth, explains that diaspora can offer:

a sense of belonging to more than one history, to more than one time and place, more than one past and future. Diaspora suggests belonging to both here and there, now and then. Diaspora suggests the omnipresent weight of pain of displacement from a land or society, of being an outsider in a new one. Diaspora suggests both lack and excess of loss and separation, yet also the possibility of new adventures of identity and the continued imagining of unconquerable countries of the mind.

For two other diasporic thinkers, Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin, Jewishness articulated as diasporic offers a home within ‘family, history, memory, and practice’ rather than ‘autochthony’. Viewing Jewish life through a diasporic lens offers an ‘impossibility of seeing Jewish culture as a self-enclosed, bounded phenomenon’, as it is in the process of being constantly remade through its homeliness in a non-exclusivist space. This diasporism is one which is multicultural not in the form of white multiculturalism critiqued by Ghassan Hage, but in a deeper sense wherein there is a genuine living among Others, without any claims or desires on managerialism.

It is a dwelling which sits on the side of solidarity as a political expression of deep love, rather than embracing control as an expression of government.


A fourth beginning

The histories which are being enacted at this moment in time are ongoing and transnational. They are histories of resistance in the face of breathtaking violence, of peoples’ struggles against a regime which seeks to deny them their humanity. In the face of a great deal of media silence, obfuscation, and erasure, it is incumbent upon us to assert a different vision of the world, and of what humanity can mean.

To look at the history of the type of person that Zionism has conjured into being, and to work collectively for something different. How we narrate the present moment, the histories and types of narratives we deploy, will shape what we can know.

As Saree Makdisi writes, ‘Palestinians are not merely a ragtag collection of refugees; they are a people purposefully kept from their homes by an army of occupation. Restoring or even acknowledging their narrative would enable us to understand them as genuine human beings animated … by thoughts, feelings, affections, cares, worries, desires, rights – and the will to be free.’

What then are the histories you want to tell? What are the political narratives into which you will place the present moment?



Image: Mahmoud Bassam / Twitter

Jordy Silverstein

Jordana Silverstein is a Senior Research Fellow in the Melbourne Law School. A cultural historian of migration and of Jewishness, she’s the author of Anxious Histories: Narrating the Holocaust in Jewish Communities at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century (2015).

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  1. Helpful and illuminating account – thank you. Alas, the Gentiles stood back and let 6 million Jews be killed – a terrible stain on civilised, “Christian” Europe. What we see now is the trauma of that genocide being acted out by its victims, and successive generations, here so unconsciously and dangerously on the people of Gaza. We need people of peace, of truth, and of generosity, to help heal this multigenerational atrocity. Since there is no immediate resolution of these dynamics, actions of the heart, of peace, of truth, will inspire – like this determination to celebrate the right to return.

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