‘We are all Gazans now’

The anti-war protests against Israel have been based less on the brotherhood of man than on the victimhood of man.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

The mass protests against the Israeli assault on Gaza staged across the UK on Saturday revealed a striking depth of feeling for the suffering of Palestinians.

In London alone, between 50,000 and 75,000 people were reported to have attended. Yet it wasn’t just the sheer volume of people that was striking but the diversity of backgrounds: trade union banners jostled for attention with those of Islamist groups; students huddled side by side with parents and their pushchairs; and youths, faces concealed by their keffiyehs, snaked their way purposefully through the crowd, passing old lefties distributing pamphlets as they did so. Understandably, sentiments were as various as the marchers themselves. Support for Palestinian self-determination marched hand in hand with unadulterated pacificism; militant Islamism walked alongside undying faith in international law and its executor, the United Nations.

Protesters march through London.

That there was little contradiction evident was due, in the main, to the unifying urgency of the protesters’ immediate demand: a ceasefire. ‘One, two, three, four, occupation no more’, sang a group of teenagers. ‘Five, six, seven, eight, stop the killing, stop the hate.’ And who could disagree with that? Indeed, who, with a shred of compassion, could tolerate the bombing of hundreds of people? Before such a question, potential political differences between protesters evaporate.

Empathy with the suffering of those in Gaza seemed to be the dominant, motivating impulse behind many of those marching. Whether on placards or leaflets, images of suffering were everywhere, from a child’s face distorted in agony to an inconsolable mother. If this was anything, it was a protest premised on the universality of suffering. In the words of a 45-year-old nurse who had just thrown a shoe in the direction of Downing Street, ‘I helped search for the people who were injured in the London bomb blast, so I know what it means’ (1).

In Trafalgar Square, a number of public figures queued up to express their feelings – of horror, of pity. ‘I turned the TV on a few days after Christmas’, announced pop singer Annie Lennox, ‘to see the pyres of smoke emanating from the buildings of Gaza and I knew that underneath those pyres of smoke, there were innocent children, women, mothers, fathers, ordinary civilians who are stuck in Gaza’. Her voice seemed to falter. She continued: ‘I as a mother, as a human being, as a humanitarian, dread to think what kind of images we are going to see if Israel enters into Gaza.’

One protester likens the attacks
on Gaza to the Holocaust.

This form of emotionally involved spectatorship, captured by Lennox’s TV-induced upset, reveals something about the nature of objections to Israel’s attack on Gaza. In the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza, the supreme moral value of that most prized category, the victim, shines forth. Little wonder that many of the placards alluded to that model of victimisation, the Holocaust, and its conceptual beneficiary, genocide. ‘Guernica – Warsaw – Gaza. Israel, stop behaving like Nazis’, read one placard. Another simply said: ‘Stop the Holocaust in Gaza.’

This type of mass, polyvalent empathy, less a brotherhood of man than a victimhood of man, divests the conflict of the political interests of its participants (which are admittedly difficult to work out). Under Western eyes, it becomes an abstract conflict, a matter of choosing between the undoubtedly suffering Palestinians and their super-weaponised Israeli aggressors, between Muslim victims and their Zionist victimisers, between, ultimately, good and evil.

Political solidarity, in which interests and values are shared, becomes something else: a form of emotional solidarity, of moral empathy with the victims. At the demo, Ismael Patel, chairman of a Palestinian human rights group, Friends of Al-Aqsa, gave an account of Palestinians going to bed on 27 December and never waking up. ‘Today’, he concluded, ‘we are all Palestinians, we are all Gazans, and we are all Hamas’. Since it is unlikely that more than a handful of protesters would ever actually sign up for Hamas, how else are we to understand this claim except in terms of an emotional identification with Hamas as the victims of Israeli aggression?

The danger here is that the logic of victimhood leads to a demand for external arbitration, either through the United Nations or, as some commentators have recently demanded, the European Union. Indeed, the London march seemed designed to shame British PM Gordon Brown into action, where if it wasn’t a shower of shoes directed at Downing Street, it was a chorus of boos and ‘shame on you’. In Trafalgar Square, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn declared: ‘It is not enough for Western powers to simply voice regret and speak in honeyed terms, we need action to condemn absolutely this act of war by Israel.’ Despite Corbyn’s lack of specifics, the possibility of further intervention in an area of the world long shaped – and ruined – by Western powers drawing lines in the sand is as clear as it is ominous. With ‘friends’ like these self-declared victims in the anti-war movement, the Palestinians don’t need any more enemies.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Whose war is it anyway, by Brendan O’Neill

War without ends, by Mick Hume

The first Twitterwar, by Nathalie Rothschild

Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza

(1) Riot police called out in London as protest ends in skirmishes, Independent, 4 January 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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