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How to Tell When Defending Israel Is Actually Racist

The moment anybody defends Israel, of course.

"It’s not dialogue if one side has access to policymakers and corporate media and the other side gets punished merely for asserting its existence." (Photo: Getty)

"It’s not dialogue if one side has access to policymakers and corporate media and the other side gets punished merely for asserting its existence." (Photo: Getty)

Those empathetic to Palestinians toil in unhappy corners of the internet, fending off trolls eager to dazzle with age-old vitriol.  But decorated professionals recite the same discourses throughout corporate media, the veneer of respectability making them even more grotesque. Anti-Arab racism underlies defense of Israel. The racism isn’t marginal, either; it’s the lingua franca of American punditry.

Many of the people who defend Israel are consciously racist (clearly), but others dehumanize Arabs and Muslims by reproducing unexamined assumptions about Israel’s moral or civilizational superiority. Anyway, I’m less concerned with intent than with consequences. Anti-Arab racism is normalized to the point of common sense, largely because defending Israel requires dehumanization of Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians (and often Muslims more generally).


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Because we spend so much time debating when (or if) criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, we rarely get around to assessing how pro-Israel narratives exhibit anti-Arab racism. It seems important to rectify this problem. The following list is my humble contribution to the effort:

  • Falsely accusing Palestinians of anti-Semitism when they condemn Israel (or Zionism).
    Why does this rise to the level of racism rather than merely being dishonest or mendacious? Because it attributes anti-colonial sentiment to cultural barbarity. It validates the settler’s political fetish. It obliges Palestinians to abandon their sensibilities for the sake of their oppressor’s comfort. And it can open Arabs and Muslims to punishment.
  • Yelling about “Hamas” to deflect from (or justify) Israeli war crimes.
    “Hamas” is the world’s biggest red herring.  (Every foreign leader the USA wants to depose is tied for second.) “Hamas” is distinct from the political party that goes by the name of Hamas. The version with scare-quotes is an evil apologue deployed to embody Palestinian barbarity. Zionists (and their stenographers in corporate media) only need to accuse a person of being “Hamas”—children, the disabled, the elderly, the unborn, the already-dead, it doesn’t matter—in order to justify an act of murder, no matter how stunning or vicious. This kind of rhetoric shows the impossibility of being human under Israeli rule. Palestine has no civic structure; it has no voluntary association. The nation is a mass of unwanted bodies. Palestinians cannot organize. They cannot affiliate. They cannot fraternize. They exist only to die. The mere possibility of social life is enough for Israel to pursue their destruction.  In any case, based on the historical and legislative record, support of Likud, Labor, Hatnuah, Shas, Tkuma, and Yisrael Beiteinu is an objectively more violent affiliation. By analyzing a hypocritical discourse that mystifies settler colonization, I will be asked to clarify that I don’t in fact support “Hamas.” I’d rather hear the Zionist inquisitors clarify that they don’t support any of the Israeli parties currently orchestrating genocide.
  • Proposing “solutions” based on what Israelis will or won’t accept.
    Or, saying that certain things are “impossible” or “unrealistic”: the right of return, equality, binationalism, and so forth.  Colonizers like to present unilateral decisions as cooperative. And it’s always racist. The native is made to shoulder the inconveniences of pragmatism. The settler’s comfort is a given.
  • Validating or ignoring the histories that led to Gaza in the first place.
    The Gaza Strip isn’t an historical accident. It’s filled with refugees unable to visit their ancestral villages. Israel constricts the territory from land, sea, and air. The disparities of power between Israel the Gaza Strip are enormous.  Gaza is the result of ethnic cleansing, a brutal experiment in warehousing human surplus, but Israel’s apologists treat its residents as an undistinguished mass of existential terror. Palestinians lack agency until it’s time to justify another Israeli massacre, at which point they’re suddenly capable of spectacular conspiracies.
  • Assuming that Israel has a divine or universal mandate to shoot and kill.
    The assumption has religious undertones. The God of this religion is “security,” a privilege unavailable to the people whose safety is actually threatened.
  • Assigning blame to “both sides.”  
    Only one side colonizes.  Only one side demolishes homes, crops, schools, and hospitals.  Only one side determines citizenship and belonging. Only one side travels freely.  Only one side dominates the airwaves. Only one side has a nuclear arsenal. Only one side ethnically cleanses.  Conflating the work of survival with the violence of colonization not only bastardizes history; it also desecrates basic moral reasoning.
  • Deflecting condemnation of Israel with appeals to “dialogue” (or using “dialogue” as a form of cooptation).
    It’s not dialogue if one side has access to policymakers and corporate media and the other side gets punished merely for asserting its existence. Nor is it dialogue whenever one side handpicks a stable of native informants to represent the other side. Amid colonial violence, “dialogue” is usually a rhetorical device to implicate Palestinians as irrationally recalcitrant in contrast to the modern, open-minded Israelis.

Let’s recap. When does defending Israel cross the line into racism (directly or implicitly)? The moment anybody defends Israel, of course.

Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita is an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. He tweets at @stevesalaita.

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