Who is treating Palestinians like animals?

Palestinian solidarity campaigns sound increasingly similar to bleeding-heart animal-rights campaigns.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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At a time when the mass struggle for Palestinian national liberation is a distant memory, and when the Palestinian political movement has splintered into various opportunistic outfits, what does ‘Palestinian solidarity’ mean? Who are Western activists solidarising with, and to what end? A clue was provided at Saturday’s demonstration against Israel’s bombing of Gaza, which took place outside the Israeli Embassy in Kensington in west London. What was striking was that there was very little to distinguish this loud demo from an anti-fur stall that some sad-eyed animal-rights activists had set up outside west London’s most famous shopping landmark, Harrods. Both were about drawing attention to the ‘cruel treatment’ meted out by powerful forces to defenceless creatures, whether it’s men in white coats skinning rabbits or men in Jerusalem firing bombs at Palestinians.

‘Cruelty’ was the big concern of the pro-Palestinian marchers. Not political repression or frustrated national rights, but the ‘cruel treatment’ suffered by Palestinians, as Baroness Jenny Tonge described it from the podium. Some protesters held up placards with the names of children ‘murdered by Israel’. Palestinian solidarity groups often upfront the ‘cruel treatment’ suffered by Palestinian children in particular. Israel practises ‘unrivalled cruelty’ against the inhabitants of Gaza, we are told. Even a clearly political, repressive act such as making Palestinians who travel into Israel go through various checkpoints is now discussed in terms of cruelty – campaigners refer to it as ‘checkpoint cruelty’. In order that privileged activists might get a taste of this cruel treatment, the London School of Economics’ Palestine Society recently set up a mock Israeli checkpoint on campus to ‘raise awareness of the dire conditions’ Palestinians live in, at which the students playing IDF soldiers were told to ‘be as rude as you can. Beat, kick, swear, humiliate. That’s what will make you an Israeli soldier.’ Students at the LSE lined up to get a thrill from vicariously experiencing the cruelty suffered by Palestinians.

Palestinian solidarity activists’ obsessive focus on Israel’s cruel treatment of Palestinians shows the extent to which they have plucked this issue from the world of politics, from the world of interests and arguments, and plonked it instead in a world of shallow, black-and-white, childish moralism. So Israel doesn’t build border walls and erect checkpoints out of a sense of political desperation or in pursuit of narrow territorial interests, but rather as an act of cruelty, in order to ‘beat, kick, humiliate’ Palestinians. And Palestinians’ experience of checkpoints or simply living in very poor, closed-off areas is not unjust, but ‘cruel’, not oppressive, but ‘humiliating’. The terminology now most frequently used by Palestinian solidarity activists is indistinguishable from that used by animal-rights campaigners – it is peppered with words like cruel, caged, battered, humiliated, desperate, all designed to appeal to Western observers’ sense of moral revulsion and pity for the underdog rather to any political aspiration to achieve greater liberty around the world.

In our post-national liberation era, the motivation of Palestinian solidarity campaigns has shifted dramatically. The main motor to these campaigns is now pity rather than solidarity, a desire to demonstrate one’s morally superior concern for less fortunate creatures rather than any determination to help secure full democratic rights for a foreign people. This is why campaigners focus so much on suffering Palestinian children – because they are seen as the clearest embodiment of the patheticness of the Palestinian people as a whole.

Look at the Palestinian child shown on the fairly typical solidarity leaflet on the right: seemingly caged, all alone, vulnerable looking, eyes wide with expectation… it is creepily reminiscent of the animal-concern leaflets you used to see in your local library years ago, which would feature some downtrodden dog or bunny staring expectantly from inside a horrible cage. Those leaflets were designed to arouse, not any political sensation or even meaningful fury, but rather a mothering instinct, a desire to hug and stroke the benighted beast. And so it is with much of the Palestinian solidarity campaign literature on children, which, with its images of kids wrenched from any political or even adult context, is aimed at making us feel avuncular rather than angry.

The reduction of Palestinians from political subjects who deserve our political support to hapless creatures who require our pity was best summed up by the American author and noted Israel critic, Alice Walker. In an interview last year, she flitted with remarkable ease between discussing ‘cruel and inhuman’ treatment meted out to Palestinians, who are ‘frazzled and suffering everyday’, and talking about the living conditions of chickens in factory farms, which are ‘horrible, torturous’. Just as we ‘must help those suffering in Gaza’, so we must also ‘change the way chickens are thought about and raised’, she said.

This is the essence of so-called Palestinian solidarity today – it’s about getting one’s moral rocks off by experiencing and expressing an elevated feeling of informed pity towards the people of Palestine. Or towards chickens in factory farms. Either one will do. The aim of Palestinian solidarity campaigning is not really to improve the political lives of Palestinians but rather to boost the sense of moral purpose felt by Western observers. In a 1992 essay on Western media photographs of children in warzones, Patricia Holland said some viewers secretly found the images pleasurable: ‘As the children in the image reveal their vulnerability, we long to protect them and provide for their needs. Paradoxically, while we are moved by the image of the sorrowful child, we also welcome it, for it can arouse pleasurable emotions of tenderness, which in themselves confirm adult power.’ So it is with those who stare pityingly at leaflets or magazine articles featuring damaged or injured Palestinian children.

This is the opposite of solidarity. Solidarity doesn’t mean pitying people; it doesn’t even simply mean offering people support. Rather, solidarity is about recognising that your interests and another group of people’s interests are intertwined, and therefore you should strive to bolster one another’s campaigning, in pursuit of your own interests and theirs. As the OED says, solidarity is ‘the fact or quality, on the part of communities, of being perfectly united or at one in some respect, esp. in interests, sympathies, or aspirations’. In contrast to that, modern-day so-called Palestinian solidarity is about selfishly satisfying the inner moral needs of certain sections of the Western middle classes at the expense of promoting the interests of Palestinians to become free, and properly adult, and the equal of other grown-up nations. Indeed, in order for this warped brand of Palestinian solidarity to stagger on, it is necessary for the Palestinian people to remain ‘beaten, kicked, humiliated’, so that they can continue playing their walk-on part in a moral drama created by Western observers looking for some meaning in their lives.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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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