No Human Being Can Exist

Every bomb dropped is added to a bill we pay

Jordan Nassar, This Is My Night. 2018, hand-embroidered cotton on cotton. 35 × 36”. Photo by Phoebe d'Heurle. Courtesy of the artist, James Cohan, New York, Anat Ebgi, Los Angeles, and The Third Line, Dubai.

Six thousand. Eleven thousand. Twenty thousand. This steady rhythm of fatalities marked the progression of the following pieces, which I wrote  during Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip this autumn. The official number of people Israel has killed in Gaza now approaches thirty thousand, but in reality that number has already been surpassed. Israel is killing two hundred and fifty Palestinians per day, ten people per hour, one person every six minutes. Each figure corresponds to a life snuffed out by a merciless killing machine for which killing has become an end in itself.

Since I wrote the first of these pieces, South Africa has formally charged Israel with the crime of genocide before the International Court of Justice. After the Court published interim measures requiring Israel to stop committing genocidal acts, the United States’ move was to suspend its contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency charged with sustaining what little life remains in Gaza. Why? Because a report released by the Israeli secret police, which routinely uses state-sanctioned torture, accused twelve of UNRWA’s thirty thousand workers of having participated in the events of October 7. Let me say that again: unsubstantiated and unproven “confessions” implicating 0.04 percent of UNRWA’s workforce, almost certainly extracted through torture, led the US to cut off all funding to the agency responsible for the care of more than one million people on the brink of starvation who the world’s highest court had just found to be the likely victims of a genocidal campaign of destruction. “We haven’t had the ability to investigate [the allegations] ourselves,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “but they are highly, highly credible.”

Just hours before, the International Court of Justice had quoted Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, in justifying its finding of interim measures against Israel:

Overcrowded and unsanitary UNRWA shelters have now become “home” to more than 1.4 million people. They lack everything, from food to hygiene to privacy. People live in inhumane conditions, where diseases are spreading, including among children. They live through the unlivable, with the clock ticking fast towards famine. The plight of children in Gaza is especially heartbreaking. An entire generation of children is traumatized and will take years to heal. Thousands have been killed, maimed, and orphaned. Hundreds of thousands are deprived of education. Their future is in jeopardy, with far-reaching and long-lasting consequences.

Blinken’s statement affirming the suspension of support for UNRWA confirmed what we already knew: if Israel is engaged in genocide in Gaza, the United States is a full-blown participant. With more than a million people at the very precipice of catastrophe, we are the ones lazily nudging them over the edge.

S. M., February 7, 2024

October 25, 2023

Recently, an Australian Palestinian friend of mine was invited to appear on an Australian national television network to discuss the situation in and around Gaza. His white interviewers posed all the usual questions: Can you defend what we’ve seen from Hamas militants? How has the Palestinian cause been helped by this violence? How can anyone defend the slaughter of young music lovers at a music festival? Do you condemn Hamas? They probably expected a defensive reaction from him, but calmly, in his smooth Australian-accented English, my friend had already turned the interview on its head. “I want to know why I’m here today, and why I haven’t been here for the past year,” he said gently. By the eve of October 7, he pointed out, Israeli forces had already killed more than two hundred Palestinians in 2023. The siege in Gaza was more than sixteen years old, and Israel had been operating outside international law for seventy-five years. “Normal” in Palestine was one killing per dayyet one killing per day in a decades-old occupation was hardly news; it certainly wasn’t justification for a live interview on a national television network. Palestinians were being given the opportunity to speak now because the Western media suddenly cared, and they cared (“as we should care,” my friend added) because, this time, the victims included Israeli civilians. In the days after October 7, Australia made a strong show of support for Israel: Parliament and the Sydney Opera House were lit up in the colors of the Israeli flag; the prime minister said pro-Palestinian rallies should be called off out of respect for the Israeli dead; the foreign minister was lambasted for saying Israel should endeavor to minimize civilian deaths in Gaza. “Well, what about our lives?” my friend asked.

What about lighting up a building for us? When our government lights up every building blue and white, how are we [Australian Palestinians] supposed to feel? Are we not Australian? Should nobody care about us?... A 14-year-old boy was set on fire in the West Bank by Israeli settlers. What about us?

The news anchors were caught off guard. This isn’t how these interviews are supposed to go.

Those of us, like my friend, who are summoned by Western media outlets to provide a Palestinian perspective on the disaster unfolding in Gaza are well aware of the condition on which we are allowed to speak, which is the tacit assumption that our people’s lives don’t matter as much as other people’s. Questions are framed by the initial Hamas attack on Israeli civilians (the Hamas attack on Israeli military targets and Israel’s belt of fortifications, watchtowers, and prison gates surrounding Gaza goes unnoticed), and any attempt to place it in a wider historical framework gets diverted back to the attack itself: How can you justify it? Why are you trying to explain it instead of condemning it? Why can’t you just denounce the attack? If Palestinian commentators want to be asked about Israeli violence against Palestinian civiliansabout the history of ethnic cleansing and apartheid that produced the contemporary Gaza Strip and the violence we are witnessing today; about the structural violence of decades of Israeli occupation that cuts farmers off from their fields, teachers from their classrooms, doctors from their patients, and children from their parentswe have to ask to be asked. And even then, the questions don’t come.

I’ve spoken to a lot of journalists from a lot of different media organizations over the past two weeks. With rare exceptions, the pattern is consistent, as it has been for years. I’ve experienced it too. A recent appearance on a major US cable news channel was canceled at the last minute, immediately after I sent in the talking points the producer requested I submit; they clearly weren’t the talking points they had in mind. For years, I was on the list of regular guests for BBC radio and television interviews concerning Palestineuntil, during a previous Israeli bombardment of Gaza, I told the interviewer he was asking the wrong questions and that the questions that mattered had to do with history and context, not just what was happening right now. That was my last appearance on the BBC.

How can a person make up for seven decades of misrepresentation and willful distortion in the time allotted to a sound bite? How can you explain that the Israeli occupation doesn’t have to resort to explosionsor even bullets and machine gunsto kill? That occupation and apartheid structure and saturate the everyday life of every Palestinian? That the results are literally murderous even when no shots are fired? Cancer patients in Gaza are cut off from life-saving treatments. Babies whose mothers are denied passage by Israeli troops are born in the mud by the side of the road at Israeli military checkpoints. Between 2000 and 2004, at the peak of the Israeli roadblock-and-checkpoint regime in the West Bank (which has been reimposed with a vengeance), sixty-one Palestinian women gave birth this way. Thirty-six of those babies died as a result. That never constituted news in the Western world. Those weren’t losses to be mourned. They were, at most, statistics.

What we are not allowed to say, as Palestinians speaking to the Western media, is that all life is equally valuable. That no event takes place in a vacuum. That history didn’t start on October 7, and if you place what’s happening in the wider historical context of colonialism and anticolonial resistance, what’s most remarkable is that anyone in 2023 should still be surprised that conditions of absolute violence, domination, suffocation, and control produce appalling violence in turn. During the Haitian revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, former slaves massacred white settler men, women, and children. During Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831, insurgent slaves massacred white men, women, and children. During the Indian uprising of 1857, Indian rebels massacred English men, women, and children. During the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, Kenyan rebels massacred settler men, women, and children. In Oran in 1962, Algerian revolutionaries massacred French men, women, and children. Why should anyone expect Palestiniansor anyone elseto be different? To point these things out is not to justify them: it is to understand them. Every single one of these massacres was the result of decades or centuries of colonial oppression, a structure of violence Frantz Fanon explained more than sixty years ago in The Wretched of the Earth.

What we are not allowed to say, in other words, is that if you want the violence to stop, you must stop the conditions that produced it. That you must stop the hideous system of racial segregation, dispossession, occupation, and apartheid that has disfigured and tormented Palestine since 1948, consequent upon the violent project to transform a land that has always been home to many cultures, faiths, and languages into a state with a monolithic identity that requires the marginalization or outright removal of anyone who doesn’t fit. And that while what’s happening in Gaza today is the product of decades of settler-colonial violence and must be placed in the broader history of that violence to be understood, it has taken us places where the entire history of colonialism has never taken us before.

At any moment, without warning, at any time of the day or night, any apartment building in the densely populated Gaza Strip can be struck by an Israeli bomb or missile. Some of the stricken buildings simply collapse into layers of concrete pancakes, the dead and the living alike entombed in the shattered ruins. Often, rescuers shouting Hadan sami’ana? (Can anyone hear us?) hear calls for help from survivors deep in the rubble, but without heavy-lifting equipment all they can do is helplessly scrabble at the concrete slabs with crowbars or their bare hands, hoping against hope to pry open gaps wide enough to get survivors or the injured out. Some buildings are struck with such heavy bombs that the ensuing fireballs shower body parts and sometimes whole charred bodiesusually, because of their small size, those of childrenover surrounding neighborhoods. Phosphorus shells, primed by Israeli gunners to detonate with airburst proximity fuzes so that incendiary particles rain down over as wide an area as possible, set fire to anything flammable, including furniture, clothing, and human bodies. Phosphorus is pyrophoricit will burn as long as it has access to air, and basically can’t be extinguished. If it makes contact with a human body it has to be dug out by scalpel and will keep burning into the flesh until it’s extracted.

“We live,” one of Al Jazeera’s Arabic correspondents said, talking over the ubiquitous buzz of Israel’s lethal drones, “enveloped in the smell of smoke and death.” Entire familiestwenty, thirty people at a timehave been wiped out. Friends and relatives desperately checking on one another often find smoking ruins where close relations once lived, their fates unknown, vanished either under the concrete or scattered in the remnants of other increasingly unrecognizable areas. Survivors find themselves with crumbling telecommunications, faltering electricity, failing medical systems, a looming internet outage, and an uncertain future.

In 2017, the United Nations warned that Gazaits basic infrastructure of electricity, water, and sewage systems smashed over years of Israeli incursions and bombings, leaving 97 percent of the population without ready access to fresh drinking waterwould be “unlivable” by 2020. It’s now 2023, and the entire territory, cut off from the outside world, is without any access to food, water, medical supplies, fuel, and electricity, all while under continuous bombardment from land, sea, and air. “Attacks against civilian infrastructure, especially electricity, are war crimes,” pointed out Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. “Cutting off men, women, children [from] water, electricity, and heating with winter coming,” she continued“these are acts of pure terror.” Von der Leyen is right, of course, but in this instance she was referring to Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure. As for Israel’s attacks on Gaza’s infrastructure, Von der Leyen says that Israel has the right to defend itself.

Nine hundred, 1,000, 1,500, 1,800, 2,600, 3,500, 4,600, 5,000, 5,900, 6,500. The fatality figures, with which no one can keep up, are augmented every few hours with another twenty here and thirty there as this building or that is brought down in a cataclysmic burst of fire, smoke, and rubble. Three or four hundred peopleor moreare being killed every day. At one point, health sources in Gaza reported one hundred fatalities in a single hour. For every person killed there are two or three or more wounded, often severely. Almost half the dead and wounded are young children; some of the most painful images coming out of the current bombardment of Gaza, as in the ones past, are those of dead children, battered, ashen, covered in soot and dust, wrapped in the final embrace of parents who were killed trying to protect them. So far, with no end in sight, Israel has killed more than 2,300 children. The dead and wounded or often simply recovered body partscharred legs, trunks, headsare taken to hospitals overflowing with casualties, running out of medical supplies and fuel for their emergency generators. Hospital beds have long since been fully occupied; new arrivals to Gaza’s hospitals crowd together in their own blood in hallways or on the sidewalks outside; doctors report napping on operating tables on which they now have to operate without anesthetic by the light of mobile phones, using household vinegar to clean wounds because they’ve run out of everything else.

With morgues full to capacity and cemeteries running out of space, health authorities in Gaza have started storing bodies in ice cream trucks, with blood dripping slowly from doors emblazoned with the bright childish colors of ice cream brands. In alleys, courtyards, and makeshift mosques, those who are able gather in silent tears and prayers over arrays of bodies, large and often pitifully small, wrapped in blood-soaked shrouds in preparation for burial. Relatives sob over each bundle, give a bobbing forehead one last kiss as it is taken away for the last time, leaving only weeping mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins in one another’s arms, their own turn in their shrouds surely not far away. Sometimes there are no relatives; they’re all gone, too. The scale of the death and destruction is so massive, so unrelenting, there’s often no time to mourn, and every day, every hour, the Israelis shower more death on Gaza. One hospital has begun burying the anonymous dead in a mass grave for lack of any other option.

In the first week of the round-the-clock bombardment, the Israelis said they had dropped six thousand bombs on Gaza, almost as many bombs as the US dropped on Afghanistan per year during the height of the war. (Afghanistan is 1,788 times bigger than Gaza: Gaza is the size of Las Vegas, while Afghanistan is more than double the size of Nevada.) Israel also claimed to have dropped more than one thousand tons of high explosives; by the end of week one, we were, in other words, already into the kiloton measurements of nuclear weapons, and weeks two and three are upon us. In the first week of bombing, 1,700 entire buildings in Gaza were destroyed. Many times that number were damaged, often beyond repair. Each building includes seven, eight, nine, or more separate apartments, each one the former home of some family now either homeless once more or dead. As ever, the Israelis claim they are targeting “the terror infrastructure.” As ever, the bodies (or body parts) actually pulled from the rubble or picked up from the neighboring streets are mostly of women and children, unlikely constituents of the phantom terror infrastructure from which the occupying powerwith the blessing and backing of its superpower patronclaims to be defending itself.

It is obvious from the harrowing footage coming out of Gaza that the Israelis, unable to locate any clear military targetsno guerrilla fighters in the history of anti-colonial struggle have ever stood around waving their hands and making themselves obvious targetsare indiscriminately striking civilian targets instead, systematically destroying one concrete building after another, often annihilating entire neighborhoods at a time; the UN estimates that Israel’s bombing campaign has already damaged or destroyed 42 percent of all the housing units in Gaza. On its websites and social media accounts, the Israeli state proudly boasts of the success of its campaign against Hamas, but the evidence it musters generally amounts to photographs and videos of urban ruin, and the result is the carefully calculated infliction of mass homelessness on an entire population.

Whatever horrors are unfolding there take place in darkness.


On October 13, the Israelis told more than one million people in the northern part of Gaza to flee for their lives. But there is nowhere for them to go, and those who attempt flight compound risk upon risk. The Gaza Strip is all of 140 square miles; it is already one of the most densely populated areas in the world. If the United States had the population density of Gaza, it would have sixty billion inhabitants. And now the Israelis are bellowing that they want the tiny territory’s population to somehow squeeze into half the remaining areaand anyway they are bombing the south of Gaza as well as the north and the center. Nowhere in Gaza is safe.

Already refugees once or sometimes twice over, Palestinians in Gaza now find themselves in search of refuge once more, even as the Israelis warn darkly that there is far, far more to come. On the day Israel told Gazans to evacuate the north, a column of terrified refugees making their way south down Salah al-Din Street in Gaza Cityspecifically singled out by Israeli leaflets as a safe corridorwas bombed. Seventy survivors of other bombings were killed and scores more injured. Doctors in clinics and hospitals in northern Gaza refused to move altogether, saying that it would be impossible primarily because there’s nowhere to relocate their patients. All the other hospitals are full, said Dr. Yousef Abu al-Rish of al-Shifa hospital in northern Gaza. “And the other thing,” he added, “most of the cases are unstable. And if we want to even transfer them, even if there [are] extra beds in the other hospitals, which is not true, they will die because they are too unstable to be transported.” Patients in the ICU, newborns in incubators, people on ventilatorsthey would all just die if they were moved. Of course they might die if they stay put, too, especially once the last drops of diesel run out and the lights go off. Or if the Israelis continue to bomb hospitals and ambulances, as they have been doing. Already, one-third of the hospitals and clinics in Gaza have shut down due to a lack of resources.

“The specter of death is hanging over Gaza,” warned Martin Griffiths, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. “With no water, no power, no food, and no medicine, thousands will die. Plain and simple.”

A few days ago the Israelis said that it would be best, on the whole, for the entire population of the territoryover two million people, half of them childrento leave, either to Egypt or to the Gulf. The aim, the Israeli analyst Giora Eiland said approvingly, is “to create conditions where life in Gaza becomes unsustainable.” As a result, he added, “Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.” Major General Ghassan Alian of the Israeli army, echoing the defense minister’s recent reference to Palestinians as “human animals,” said, “human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water, there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.”

What kind of people talk like this, with a godlike sense of their power over literally millions of people? What mindset produces such genocidal proclamations on the disposition of entire populations?

What we are witnessing is, I think, unprecedented in the history of colonial warfare. Ethnic cleansing, in itself, remains more common than we would like to believe; only a few weeks ago, 120,000 Armenians were driven in terror from their homes in Artsakh by (not coincidentally Israeli-armed) Azerbaijan. In the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, thousands of people of the “wrong” religion or ethnicity were expelled from their communities in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. Almost all90 percentof the Christian and Muslim population of Palestine itself was ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces in 1948. And we can go back to the 19th, 18th, and 17th centuries and recall the sordid history of genocide, extermination, and slavery with which Western civilization made its enlightened presence felt all around the planet.

But in no instance that I know of has ethnic cleansing been accomplished through the use of massive ordnance and heavy bombardment with ultramodern weapons systems, including the one-ton bombs used by Israelis flying the latest American jets. Such matters have normally been conducted in person, with rifles or at the point of the bayonet. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 was carried out almost entirely with small arms, for instance; the Palestinian civilians massacred at Deir Yassin, Tantura, and other sites to inspire others into terrified flight were shot with pistols, rifles, or machine guns at close range, not struck by thousand-pound bombs dropped from F-35s flying at ten thousand feet or higher.

What we are witnessing, in other words, is perhaps the first fusion of old-school colonial and genocidal violence with state-of-the-art heavy weapons: a twisted amalgamation of the 17th century and the 21st, packaged and wrapped up in language that harks back to primitive times and thunderous biblical scenes involving the smiting of whole peoplesthe Jebusites, the Amalekites, the Canaanites, and of course the Philistines.

What’s worse, if anything could be worse, is the near-total indifference on display by so many in and out of government in the Western world. Given the shock and outrage over the Palestinian massacre of Israeli civilians expressed by journalists, politicians, governments, and university presidents, the nearly blanket silence concerning the fate of Palestinian civilians at the hands of Israel is deafening: an earth-shattering, roaring silence. We who live in Western countries didn’t support or pay for any Palestinian to kill Israeli civilians, but every bomb dropped on Gaza from a US-provided aircraft is added to a bill we pay. Our officials are falling over themselves to join in the encouragement of the bombing and to rush the delivery of new bombs.

State Department officials issued internal briefings calling on spokespeople not to use phrases such as end to violence/bloodshed, restoring calm, or de-escalation/ceasefire. The Biden Administration actually wants the bombing and killing to continue. Asked about the tiny handful of more or less progressive congressional voices calling for a ceasefire and a cessation of hostilities,  the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said, “We believe they’re wrong. We believe they’re repugnant, and we believe they’re disgraceful.” There are “not two sides here,” Jean-Pierre added. “There are not two sides.”

Government spokespeople are calculating and insincere; they’re ultimate nihilists who don’t actually believe in anything, least of all anything they say themselves. But the same cannot be said of the people all around us who, so desperately moved by the images and narratives of Israeli suffering, have nothing to say about Palestinian suffering on a far greater scale. How can anyone be so heartless? I’m not talking about overt racists who explicitly call for the destruction of Gaza and the expulsion of the Palestinians. I’m talking about ordinary people, manymaybe even mostof them solid liberals when it comes to politics: advocates of gender and racial equality, anxious about climate change, concerned for the unhoused, insistent on wearing face masks out of humane consideration for others, voters for the most progressive of Democrats. Their indifference is not personal, but a manifestation of a broader culture of denial. Such people seem not to see or recognize Palestinian suffering because they literally do not see or recognize it. They are far too intent, far too focused, on the suffering of people with whom they can more readily identify, people they understand to be just like themselves.

Of course, the corporate media knows how to encourage such forms of identification, how to construct protagonists, and how to make viewers sympathize with a subject, to imagine themselves in her shoes. In throttling information, Western media outlets cut off access to identification with Palestinians and reaffirm the perception that there is only one side. Meanwhile on Al Jazeera Arabicwhose team of correspondents in Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine and Lebanon have been providing gripping and unflinching coverage of the catastrophetragedy unfolds in real time. On October 25, the Gaza bureau chief Wael al-Dahdouh was on air when he received news that his wife, son, and daughter were killed in an Israeli air strike nearby. Footage shows him on his knees as he weeps and places a hand on his teenage son’s chest. “They’re taking their revenge on us through children?” al-Dahdouh says. For those of us glued to Arabic Jazeera these days, to whom al-Dahdouh is a familiar face, the loss feels personal.

Some lives are to be grieved and given names and life stories, their narratives and photographs printed out in the New York Times or the Guardian along with photos of mourning parents. Other lives are just numbers, statistics from an accounting machine that doesn’t seem to stop adding new digits, twenty or thirty at a time.

November 14, 2023

I grew up during the civil war in Lebanon. With my parents and brothers, I endured the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982 and recall what we thought was the unsurpassable violence of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. But nothing we have seen is anything close to what we are helplessly watching unfold in Gaza today.

Since October 7, the Israelis bombing the Gaza Strip have killed more than eleven thousand people, including almost five thousand children. The true, horrific scale of these numbersof the calamity being methodically inflicted on an entire population as the world watchesbecomes even clearer when considered in relative terms. In three weeks, Israel has killed more civilians than the Russians have killed in almost two years of total war in Ukraine, a country with nearly twenty times Gaza’s population and a landmass over a thousand times its size. Save the Children reported that Israel has killed more children in the first three weeks of bombing Gaza than were killed annually in all conflict zones across the entire world since 2019. And that was about two weeks and two thousand children ago. On an average day in Gaza, Israel kills 136 kids. Twenty-eight thousand Gazans, including more than seven thousand children, have now been injured, and countless more are entombed alive or dead beneath the rubble of destroyed apartment blocks. Entire multigenerational families have been wiped out: grandparents, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, and children. Every one of them has a name, a family, a face, a voice, a smile, a laugh. Already, in absolute or relative terms, these numbers strain our moral and intellectual capacity to comprehend the scale of loss and harm. And the end is nowhere in sight.

On a daily basis, the Israeli government updates the tally of “terrorist facilities,” “terrorist infrastructure,” “terrorist positions,” and “terrorist cells” that it claims to have “eliminated.” These talking points, faithfully transcribed by English-language newsrooms around the world, pass as fact in a media environment restricted by government censors, squeamish corporate ownership, and the difficulty of reporting under conditions of harassment, bombardment, and siege. All reports coming out of Israel are subject to the military censor, which strictly regulates what can and cannot be reported. The US government has repeatedly asked that Al Jazeera “turn down the volume” on its uncensored coverage from Gaza, where at least forty journalists have been killed by indiscriminate Israeli fire.

On October 31, Israeli bombers dropped a carefully calibrated batch of two-thousand-pound bombs in the middle of the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, destroying an entire city block in a single moment and wounding or killing hundreds of civilians. Israel said that the intended target was one particular Hamas officialwhose presence was not even confirmedand that all those hundreds of people just happened to be in the way. “But even if that Hamas commander was there amidst all those Palestinian refugees who are in that Jabalia refugee camp, Israel still went ahead and dropped a bomb there, knowing that a lot of innocent civilians, men, women, and children presumably would be killed?” an incredulous Wolf Blitzer asked an Israeli military spokesman on CNN. Yes. “This is the tragedy of war, Wolf,” came the reply. “As we’ve been saying for days, move south.” Even for Blitzer this was too much. “You knew there were refugees, all sorts of refugees, but you decided to drop a bomb on that refugee camp attempting to kill this Hamas commander.”

Israeli officials’ justification is that they consider any man, woman, or child among the estimated three hundred thousand people remaining in northern Gaza to be a terrorist accomplice and therefore a candidate for killing. And so what they did to Jabalia on October 31 they did again to what remained of Jabalia the next day, then to the Bureij refugee camp the day after, and to the Maghazi refugee camp two days after that, and to other targets up and down Gaza, in the “safe” south and center as well as the north. “Terrorist targets” is the constant Israeli refrain, but the video feeds show only the broken and bloody bodies of fathers, mothers, and children.1 From one scene of carnage and devastation to another, across the “terrorist” targets constituting Gaza’s “terrorist” landscape, the cameras show us the lucky few emerging from the shambles asking what they did to deserve being bombed without warning. We were at home, they say; we were with our family, we were at a child’s birthday, we were having tea, we were at a celebration for a new birth. (It’s hard to remember that, war or no war, 150 babies are born every day in Gaza. Each birth brings a brief flicker of joy and life to new parents in these darkest of times, even if, as has happened again and again, new life is snuffed out too soon.)

More than the video footage, it’s the soundtrack of the aftermath of these bombings that sears one’s consciousness like a hot iron. The screams of the injured, of men calling out for tools“pull with me, come on, one, two, three, pull together”then the rush of survivors crying out in agonizing wails over the dead, the dismembered, the missing: Where is my wife? My daughter? My son? Where are my parents? Where are my children? The other day I saw a news clip of a teenage boy crying softly baba, baba, baba (daddy, daddy, daddy) as the dismembered parts of his father’s body were placed on a stretcher by a medic. Even if he survives physically, how is a child like this ever going to recover emotionally from the trauma to which he, like one million other children, is remorselessly being subjected?

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs points out that two-thirds of the people Israel is killing in Gaza are women and children, and a substantial additional percentage are elderly. That in itself is evidence of the indiscriminate nature of the Israeli bombardment and the toll it takes on the residential districts that are its primary targets. Given the alarming scarcity of food in Gaza (according to the UN, stocks of rice, sugar, and pulses are down to zero, and bread is in very short supply), fathers, husbands, and sons spend as much of the day out scavenging or gathering what meager provisions they can findthe wait for a half ration of bread runs to six hours, if it’s there at all, and might involve some pushing and shoving or worsewhile mothers and children stay home. “I send my sons to the bakeries and eight hours later, they’ve come back with bruises and sometimes not even bread,” one woman said. Thus, when Israeli pilots carefully launch their high-tech bombs into apartment buildings, it’s generally women and children who take the brunt of the damage.

Israeli bombers have attacked mosques, churches, schools, and universities (279 educational facilities have been damaged or destroyed); they have struck ambulances even at the doors of hospitals, as well as hospitals themselves. On November 9 and 10, six major hospitals came under direct Israeli fire: al-Shifa, al-Awda, al-Quds, the Indonesian Hospital, al-Rantisi children’s hospital, and al-Nasr. On November 10, an Israeli drone operator fired a Hellfire R9X missile at the courtyard of al-Shifa hospital, a variant of the missile that, instead of carrying an explosive warhead, unfolds into an array of massive blades like those of a samurai sword, killing by dismembering anyone in its path, leaving bloody limbs and torsos scattered in the hospital forecourt. By nightfall, all the hospitals in the north of Gaza reported being under Israeli artillery and missile fire: showers of incendiary phosphorus just outside, buildings heaving with successive explosions, inundating all within with dust and debris and in some cases shrapnel and shell casings. Democracy Now! reported Israeli snipers were firing into the hospitals themselves. Tens of thousands of terrified refugees have been sheltering in the hospitals, and those who tried leaving both al-Rantisi children’s hospital and al-Shifa on November 10 were shot at by Israeli troops and had to return under fire. Both hospitals were reporting bodies scattered in the streets outside, beyond the reach of medics, who also came under fire when attempting rescue.

Whoever survives the bombing today will be drinking seawater and eating unbaked wheat in the future.


By the morning of November 12, al-Shifa Medical Centerone of the oldest and largest medical institutions in Gazadeclared itself out of action due to Israeli fire: no water, no electricity, no lights. Six hundred gravely injured patients could no longer be treated. With thirty-nine premature babies in incubators and other intensive care patients on ventilators and no electricity, staff resorted to attempting manual resuscitation but knew, without oxygen, that they had little chance; the babies started to die one by one. The doctors fleeing the al-Nasr pediatric hospital had to take what infants they could save as they fled under Israeli shellfire, but had no choice but to leave behind five babies on their own in the flickering incubators. “That’s the situation: leaving babies now alone on the ventilators,” one shaken doctor reported. In the larger al-Shifa, doctors seemed determined to stay put. Its director, Muhammad Abu Salmiya, pledged that the medical staff would stay with their patients until the end: “We will not leave, because we know if we leave the hospital, dozens of patients will die,” he told Al Jazeera.

But that was as of November 10. Since then the hospitals in northern Gaza have fallen silent, entirely cut off from the outside world. For now, no one knows what the fates of the doctors, patients, and thousands of refugees sheltering there will be. Under continuous bombardment, Gaza City is now without medical service. The Israeli army allows no ambulances into the area from the south, and anyone injured in the unrelenting Israeli bombardment will almost certainly die from injuries that might have been treatable. No journalists remain and all lines of communication have been cut. Whatever horrors are unfolding there take place in darkness.

Israel has convinced itself that Hamas has underground headquarters beneath the hospitals, a claim refuted not only by Hamas and the hospitals themselves but by foreign doctors with intimate familiarity with them. Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian physician who has worked in Gaza for years and is presently stuck in Egypt trying, at 76 years of age, to return to Gaza to help, utterly rejected the Israeli claim about al-Shifa. “For sixteen years, I have walked around freely inside the hospital complex. We have heard these claims since 2009 and they have been threatening to bomb al-Shifa since then without offering any proof.” Now they have bombed it at last.

What we’re witnessing in Gaza, in other words, is not self-defense; it is an opportunistic offensive. It is not a war, the word used mendaciously by most of the mainstream Western press; it is a campaign of genocidal violence. Indeed, it’s a “textbook case of genocide,” as Craig Mokhiber put it in his letter resigning from his role as a director in the New York office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. His words have been echoed by many scholars of genocide and the Holocaust. Genocide is, after all, the term international law provides for a situation in which one group imposes on another “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” in addition to killing or “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.” Beyond the eleven thousand civilians killed, the UN now estimates that about half of Gaza’s housing units have been damaged or destroyed263 thousand residential unitsand 1.6 million people displaced from their homes. The territory’s basic infrastructure of electricity, water, and sewage networks, repeatedly battered in previous Israeli assaults, has been damaged beyond repair. Newly installed solar panels have been deliberately smashed. Israel has targeted and destroyed eleven bakeries producing the staple on which the population depends for its very survival; it has bombed the fishing boats that are, or were, another potential source of nourishment; it has bombed and churned up the fields that sustain Gaza’s surviving agriculture; it has bombed water conduits and reservoirs. People are forced to drink dirty, contaminated, or brackish water, with the inevitable results of diarrhea and disease. Hundreds of corpses are rotting under the rubble. Whoever survives the bombing today will be drinking seawater and eating unbaked wheat in the future, if not starving or dying of the diseases already proliferating from the raw sewage running through streets. And there will be nowhere for them to live.

For years, Israelis have talked openly about eliminating Gaza or pushing its population into the desert if not into the sea. Now they seem to have the opportunity to do so and the unreserved blessing of Western capitals to get it done. The Western governments rushing financial support and more bombs to Israelmaking themselves accomplices to all these atrocities and Israel’s grotesque violations of international humanitarian lawseem to have no qualms about what they are supporting. Asked if there is any limit to the number of civilian casualties that the US would accept in Gaza, Senator Lindsey Graham answered flatly, “No.” The White House national security spokesman, John Kirby, said the Biden Administration will not draw any kind of red lines for Israelmeaning that, as far as it is concerned, no atrocity goes too far. As in Washington, so in London and Paris, Berlin, and the EU offices in Brussels. All this, we’re told in sanctimonious terms from across the Western political class, is Israel’s right to “self-defense.”2 Israeli politicians, however, are using an altogether different language to describe their actions.

If any doubt remained about Israel’s intent, it was allayed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s reminder to the Israeli public and the army that “you must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible.” His biblical reference was unmistakable: it was to a passage that reads, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Samuel 15:3). Netanyahu is not alone in his genocidal pronouncements. He himself had to restrain one of the members of his government, Amichai Eliyahu, who said that using nuclear weapons on Gaza “is one of the possibilities.”3

Israel has a record of indiscriminately killing Gazans as a matter of routine (1,400 in 2008 and 2009; 2,100 in 2014; and 260 in 2021), using the obscene phrase mowing the lawn to describe these periodic punishments. Disastrous as those previous episodes were, what Israel is doing today is collective punishment on a different scale. It is the enactment of Israel’s so-called Dahieh doctrine, a reference to the Dahieh, or southern suburb, of Beirut, which the Israeli air force essentially wiped from the surface of the earth through heavy bombing in the summer of 2006. After Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon, the Israeli military developed a plan to inflict a similar level of damage to civilian areas in future conflicts. “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction,” boasted a senior Israeli general, Gadi Eisenkot, outlining the doctrine to the newspaper Haaretz. “This isn’t a suggestion,” he added. “This is a plan that has already been authorized.” The plan is now underway: as one Israeli military official put it, describing the current offensive, “Right now we’re focused on what causes maximum damage.” The total abandonment of the principles of proportionality and distinction that underpin international humanitarian law are now, in other words, central to Israeli military strategy. What we are seeing in Gaza is a premeditated series of war crimes and crimes against humanity with the intent signaled on live television as the world watches.

But to what end? On October 17, the Misgav Institute for National Security & Zionist Strategy, which has close ties to the current Israeli government, published a position paper calling for the “relocation and final settlement of the entire Gaza population.” This moment offers “a unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the whole Gaza Strip in coordination with the Egyptian government,” the paper says. It outlines various scenarios in which the entire population of Gaza can be transferred (to use a Zionist term with a heritage going back to the 1920s) into Egypt. The Israeli government has not officially endorsed this plan, but its actions are certainly consistent with it. “Right now, one goal: Nakba!” declared the Israeli member of parliament Ariel Kallner. “A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of ’48. Nakba to Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join,” he added. “If they are refugees already, it’s better to be a refugee in Canada than in Gaza,” said Ram Ben Barak, the former deputy director of Mossad. “So let us distribute the Gazans all around the world. There are 2.5 million of them. Each country takes twenty-five thousand. One hundred countries. That’s humane and that needs to be done.”

Though the US claims that it does not back the ethnic cleansing of Gaza and opposes Israeli attacks on civilians in Gaza, it does nothing to stop them and in fact actively abets them. There are reports that Israel’s backers in the West, above all the US, have brought pressure to bear on Egypt to unlock the crossing at Rafah on the Egyptian border to let the population of Gaza flow into the Sinai. Whether the Egyptians will cave and let in some or all of the population of Gaza is a real question. Whether the people of Gaza themselves would accept their further and renewed ethnic cleansing80 percent of people living in Gaza are already survivors of the Nakba or their descendantsis another matter.

For the Israelis to succeed in pushing the Palestinian population out of Gaza, they would need to continue to pummel from the air and go in on the ground to round people up and force them to leave, in the time-honored way of genocides past. But every step the Israelis take into Gaza is hotly contested and comes at a cost that recent history has shown them unable to sustain. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, it inflicted massive damage on Lebanese civilian infrastructure and killed more than 1,100 people, mostly civilians; but the 156 Israeli fatalities inflicted by Lebanese resistance, mostly military fatalities, were enough for Israel to abandon the war in bitter defeat. Now, in Gaza, Israel’s tanks and armored vehiclescompletely sealed up and hence largely blindare being destroyed in attacks mounted by Palestinian resistance fighters from a point-blank range that no armor in the world was designed to protect against. Israel’s ineffective infantry, more accustomed to harassing Palestinians at checkpoints than engaging with determined foes who actually shoot back, is not prepared for close-quarters combat in a landscape of urban ruin that has, since Stalingrad, always given the advantage to defenders over attackers.

“Despite pressure exerted” by the Israeli army, reported Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel on November 5, “there is no apparent significant effect on Hamas command and control, which continues to function.” Anyone watching the videos of daring Palestinian close-quarters attacks on Israeli troops and armor on Al Jazeera could have come up with the same assessment. Since its ground incursion into Gaza two weeks ago, Israel has admitted to hundreds of Israeli casualties between dead and injured soldiers, and because the army imposes strict limits on reporting these casualties, reporters say the actual figures are undoubtedly higher. It’s not clear how many more casualties the Israeli army can sustain, for all the harm its blind lashing out on Palestinian civilians is also causing.

Should Israel not succeed in its massive process of ethnic cleansing, Israel’s American backers, above all Secretary Blinken, have been preparing contingency plansconcocting various scenarios based on the premise that the bulk of Gaza’s population will remain in Gaza and Hamas will somehow miraculously go. Perhaps, they suggest, the political and military cadres of Hamas can be persuaded to abandon their positions and their people to Israel’s mercies, as the Palestinian Liberation Organization did after the siege of Beirut in 1982? Obviously not: every Palestinian will remind you that what immediately followed the PLO’s withdrawal was the Israeli-supervised massacre of defenseless Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The US has proposed a multinational peacekeping force, taking for granted the departure or defeat of Hamaswhich shows absolutely no sign of wavering. Clearly the US has forgotten what happened to the last multinational peacekeeping force it imposed to clean up the mess Israel left behind in Lebanon in 1982, including the bombings of the US Marine barracks at Beirut Airport in 1983.

Perhaps the United Nations can run Gaza? Perhaps the US can bring in the openly collaborationistand detestedPalestinian Authority from the West Bank to run Gaza? By early November, Blinken was jetting from one Arab capital to another, taking his cue from the tattered 1970s US diplomatic playbook according to which the US can talk about the Palestinians to everyone except the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Netanyahucornered and fighting for his political lifehas proposed the reoccupation of Gaza. Other Israeli officials have called for the demolition of Gaza City. One minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has proposed recolonizing the ruins of Gaza with new Jewish settlers. Another, Avi Dichter, has, more bluntly, said this is the Gaza Nakba: “We’re rolling out Nakba 2023,” he announced on television.

All these imaginary plans are premised on an Israeli victory. And what if Israel fails to dislodge Hamas but nevertheless runs out of energy and momentum for its campaign of genocidal violence? What if even the British and American governments feel at some point that the damage being inflicted on Gaza is causing too much harm to their own interests, their own domestic standing? What happens then?

No one knows what the coming weeks will bring beyond more death and misery. But the most likely outcome is that, having once again set itself an unachievable stated objectivethe destruction or elimination of HamasIsrael will fail, as it has repeatedly failed in the past, because the mere ability to kill people and blow things up does not translate into political victory. They will have killed ten, twenty, thirty thousand people and made life itself a living hell for those left behind, and accomplished nothing more than a venting of their vengeful bloodlust. But they will have nourished and watered the growing sense around the worldnot in the Western corridors of power, but in the streets hosting demonstrators by the hundreds of thousandsthat the real problem with which the world must contend is not the symptom, but the cause: not the result of seven decades of occupation and apartheid, including Hamas, but the condition of occupation and apartheid itself.

The bitter irony is that Gaza itself holds the keys to this realization. It is the living outcome of Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians going back to 1948. The transitory nature of life therehuge urban neighborhoods misleadingly called “camps”has for all these years been a constant reminder that the overwhelming majority of the people in Gaza are not from Gaza. They are from Isdud, Simsim, Najd, and other communities within an hour’s walk of the fences and walls that seal them off from their own land. They or their parents were driven into Gaza during the creation of a state whose foundation required their expulsion; they have been corralled there ever since because their freedom is irreconcilable with a state project premised on ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence. That state project is the prime mover of this conflict. It has been since 1948, and it will be until this racially exclusive enterprise involving apartheid, occupation, and death is brought to an end and a new state is formed in its place, constituted on the basis of inclusion, democracy, and equality for all. That is the only way out, and its sheer straightforwardness is made clear by Gaza itself: if only those fences and walls were dismantled and the majority of Gazans were allowed to walk home, this entire nightmare would be brought to an end.

December 22, 2023

“I am a 70-year-old Jewish man, but never in my life have I seen or felt the antisemitism of the last few weeks,” Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of Berkeley Law wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times.

I have heard antisemitic things from time to time through my life. I remember as a child being called a “dirty Jew,” and my friends and I being called “Christ killers” as we walked to Hebrew school. I recall a college girlfriend’s parents telling her that she should not go out with me because “Jews are different.” I had an incident in a class I was teaching about the ethics of negotiations, where a student matter of factly said, “the other side will try to Jew you down,” without the slightest sense of how that was a slur.

But, Chemerinsky adds, “none of this prepared me for the last few weeks.”

Chemerinsky’s piece appeared about three weeks into Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, and it correlated with more than merely anecdotal reports of an alarming increase in antisemitism across the United States. In a report published in mid-December, the Anti-Defamation League reported over two thousand antisemitic incidents in the US, up from fewer than five hundred in the same period the previous year, representing, the organization said, “a 337-percent increase year-over-year.”

The rise of antisemitic incidents documented by the ADL was particularly profound on university campusesjust as Chemerinsky says in his piece, based on his experiences at UC Berkeley. Nearly three-quarters of Jewish students on US campuses have “experienced or witnessed some form of antisemitism,” the ADL claimed in another recent report. “No student should feel threatened or intimidated on campus,” the CEO and national director of the ADL announced. “No student should feel the need to hide their religious or cultural identities. No parent should ever have to wonder whether it’s safe to send their kids to certain schoolsbut that’s the sad reality for American Jews today,” he added. “University administrators need to wake up and recognize that Jewish students uniquely need protection nowand policymakers must step up, provide resources and enforce Title VI.”

The sharp increase in such reports of antisemitism led the US House of Representatives, responding to the ADL’s appeal, to summon the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania for hearings aimed at “holding campus leaders accountable and confronting antisemitism.” Of the hours of testimony, one scene that captured national attention was that of New York Representative Elise Stefanik confronting Penn President Elizabeth Magill and demanding her response to a particularly heinous slogan.

Here is how that confrontation played out:

Congresswoman Stefanik: Ms. Magill, at Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?

President Magill: If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment. Yes.

Congresswoman Stefanik: I am asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?

president magill: If it is directed, and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.

Congresswoman Stefanik: So the answer is yes.

President Magill: It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.

congresswoman stefanik: It’s a context-dependent decision. That’s your testimony today, calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context, that is not bullying or harassment. This is the easiest question to answer. Yes, Ms. Magill. So is your testimony that you will not answer yes? Yes or no?

President Magill: If the speech becomes conduct. It can be harassment, yes.

Congresswoman Stefanik: Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide. The speech is not harassment. This is unacceptable. Ms. Magill, I’m gonna give you one more opportunity for the world to see your answer. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s code of conduct when it comes to bullying and harassment? Yes or no?

President Magill: It can be harassment.

The equivocation and prevarication offered by President Magill and the other campus leaders were not well received. Newspaper headlines called the university presidents out for their refusal to acknowledge and confront the alarming rise in campus antisemitism. The Biden White House swiftly condemned the presidents. The House of Representatives itself shortly afterward passed a bipartisan resolution condemning both antisemitism on college campuses and the presidents’ testimony, stating that they were “evasive and dismissive.”

Overlooked in all the furor over the presidents’ refusal to condemn such a hateful slogan was the fact that neither Stefanik nor anyone else provided or referred to a single instance of anyone on any campus across the United States actually calling for a “genocide of Jews.” That’s because at no point in the past few weeks of protest has anyone called for such a thing. (When Stefanik asked Sally Kornbluth of MIT, “Yes or no, calling for the genocide of Jews does not constitute bullying and harassment?” Kornbluth replied, “I have not heard calling for the genocide of Jews on our campus.”) There was literally no basis in reality for the line of questioning, which led, within days, to the firing of President Magill, congressional resolutions, and White House calls for action.

Also overlooked during the hearings and the media circus they generated was the fact that the term antisemitism has in recent years been deliberately stretched to the breaking point in order to encompass criticism of the state of Israel. Organizations like the ADL have been working for years to impose on governments, including the US government and state legislatures across the country, the long-discredited International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which deliberately conflates criticism of the policies of the Zionist state with racism against the Jewish people. This redefinition is exactly what allows organizations like the ADL and the American Jewish Committee to spot a criticism of Israeli policya protest against the bombing of Gaza, for instanceand call it out as antisemitism.

Consider a recent ADL survey claiming to assess “whether there have been increases in antisemitic incidents based on real or perceived Jewishness or support for Israel and if students feel less safe on campus and less comfortable with others knowing about their Jewish identity or views of Israel.” Look at the very premise of the survey: “Jewish identity” is, in the survey’s own terms, functionally inseparable from “views of Israel,” just as “real or perceived Jewishness” is interchangeable with “support for Israel.” There is no way to disaggregate data on anti-Jewish bigotry from data on protests against Israel in such investigations. According to the methodology of this survey (and there are plenty more like it), then, the protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins, die-ins, and so on taking place on US campuses in response to the unprecedented and extraordinary violence Israel has unleashed on the Palestinian people all simply register as “antisemitism.”

The implication is: You may speak, but only I get to determine the meaning of your words.


As a result, when parsing one of the compendious reports documenting what the ADL warns us is the rise of antisemitism on university campuses, it is utterly impossible to separate what we would normally use the English word antisemitism to refer toi.e., actual prejudice against Jewish peoplefrom criticism of and protest against Israeli state violence such as is being visited on Gaza right now. As of mid-December Israel has killed more than twenty thousand people, including almost ten thousand children, and displaced almost 90 percent of the population from their homes. As far as the ADL is concerned, an expression of anti-Jewish bigotry and an anti-apartheid protest in response to this deliberately inflicted catastrophe are both, equally, instances of what it reserves the right to call antisemitism.

It follows that the spike in “antisemitism” observed by organizations like the ADL and individuals like Erwin Chemerinsky correlates directlyand not coincidentallywith the proliferation of protests against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, which provided the backdrop against which the survey was conducted. Once you look beyond the examples from his past, each instance of “antisemitism” Chemerinsky describes in his Los Angeles Times op-ed involves positions he heard people take on Hamas, Israel, and Zionism; not one involves an instance of actual antisemitism corresponding to the examples from his youth.

None of this means that antisemitism in the dictionary sense of the word is not also on the rise, and I don’t doubt that it is. But organizations like the ADL have invested so much time and energy into conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism that it has become impossible to disentangle data on the one from data on the other.

Key to this charge of “rising antisemitism,” as orchestrated by the ADL and similar organizations, is the attempt to lay interpretive claim to the slogans and chants used by students and other protesters. This includes the attempt to redefine those words, turning them from demands for peace, equality, and justice to proclamations of racial hatred. Consider two recurring examples of this linguistic distortion.

The first is intifada. The word entered the English language in the 1980s to refer to the generally unarmed uprising against Israeli rule in the occupied territories that occurred during that decade. (It even earned an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.) In Arabic its meaning ranges from “shaking off” to “overturning,” both in a political sense, as in an undoing of oppression. According to the ADL, however, the word intifada invokes “terrorism and indiscriminate violence against civilians by terrorist groups, including suicide bombings in buses and restaurants.” The term, the ADL continues, has recurred at anti-Israel rallies for years. “Jews and Israelis”note again the lack of distinction“hear this slogan as a call for indiscriminate violence against Israel,” it adds, “and potentially against Jews and Jewish institutions worldwide.” Although most of Elise Stefanik’s grilling of the university presidents relied on her regurgitation of ADL talking points, on intifada she outdid even the ADL, claiming that a call for intifada is a call “to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally.”

In effect, then, this Arabic-language word means not what its users think it means, but what the ADL and its claimed constituency say they hear. The implication is: You may speak, but only I get to determine the meaning of your words. You might claim to be challenging an oppressive political-racial structurerefusing the logic of military occupation, speaking up against genocidebut I know that secretly you just want Jews to be killed, and you’re using coded language to signal your wicked intent. Such a linguistic maneuver is not just absurd: it involves a carefully engineered sense of paranoia on behalf of the assumed Jewish self that it claims to represent.

We can see the same logic at play in from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. That phrase “is a rallying cry for terrorist groups and their sympathizers,” the AJC tells us. “It is also a common call-to-arms for pro-Palestinian activists, especially student activists on college campuses. It calls for the establishment of a State of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, erasing the State of Israel and its people.” Even before the humiliating congressional hearing, Harvard President Claudine Gay had already embraced this warped understanding of the phrase in an email that promised antisemitism training for Harvard students, faculty, and staff, and specifically condemned the phrase, saying from the river to the sea conveys “specific historical meanings that to a great many people imply the eradication of Jews from Israel and engender both pain and existential fears within our Jewish community.”

In point of fact, the phrase from the river to the sea first entered the political lexicon in the right-wing Likud party platform of 1977, which asserts that “the right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is linked with the right to security and peace” and hence “between the Sea and the [river] Jordan there will be only Israeli sovereignty.” A variation on that theme recurs in Israel’s constitutional Jewish Nation-State Law of 2018, which, on the basis that “the Land of Israel is the historic national home of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established,” proclaims that “exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” This is no longer a mere slogan but established law. Clearly, the ADL and AJC have no issues with this version of the claim on the land from the river to the sea, in the service of a system of apartheid whose true name they dare not speak.

There are before us, in fact, two antagonistic visions of the land “from the river to the sea,” and in essence the contemporary struggle between Zionism and the Palestinian people can be understood in terms of that antagonism: between the presently constituted state that grants exclusive rights only to Jews (the apartheid state of Israel) and the vision of Palestine as an ecumenical democratic and secular state of all its citizensMuslims, Christians, and Jews alikefor which Palestinians and their allies, including their Jewish allies, are calling. Understandably reluctant to express their support for Israeli apartheid in positive terms, organizations like the ADL and AJC resort to working negatively, expressing their dread of secular democracy in the worst possible way. In effect, the phrasing “erasing the state of Israel and its people” equates the end of the apartheid state with genocide: the word that dominated the recent congressional hearings.

We have entered, in a sense, an alternative reality, passing through the looking glass and into a realm where the chain that ties signifier to signified has been sundered. When the same lies and distortions are repeated again and again, they begin to take on a sense of realityand reality itself, viewed through a distorted lens, becomes unrecognizable. Is it any wonder that so many Jewish American have internalized the belief that the protests against Israels genocidal violence represent an existential threat to their physical safety if not their very survival? When the President of the United States says, as he has done on more than one occasion, “I believe, without Israel as a freestanding state, not a Jew in the world is safenot a Jew in the world is safe,” is it surprising that his statement can be taken by Jewish Americans to mean that they are not safe in the United States? Add that to the newspaper headlines, the congressional hearings, and the statistics urgently propagated by the ADL about skyrocketing incidents of antisemitism, and you have an audience primed to believe in its own dire vulnerability.

On at least two occasions, protesters demonstrating against the Israeli bombing of Gaza chanting the well-known slogan “We charge you with genocide” were reported on social media as having chanted “We want Jewish genocide.” One of these instances was a protest I attended at UCLA, and I still recall being shocked at the extent of the falsification of something I’d heard with my own ears only hours before. Was this simple fabrication, or a case of a person so ready to hear a protest against Israeli state violence as an outright expression of antisemitism that they really believed they heard “We want Jewish genocide”? The other instance, regarding a protest at Penn, was also documented on social media: We want Jewish genocide reads the text superimposed on a video of the protest, supposedly transcribing what the student protesters were chanting. “This is my Alma Mater. This is the University of Pennsylvania. They are cheering for my death & the death of all Jews,” concludes the Instagram user who posted the video. As USA Today and others documented, the claim was false.

There is, of course, a complication to the rhetorical jiu-jitsu employed by the ADL and others, which is the existence of anti-Zionist Jews. What to do with all those Jewish activists chaining themselves to the White House fence, blockading highways and shipping ports, staging sit-ins in Grand Central Station, and so on? As far as they are concerned, their Jewishness demands a stance against Zionism, not for it. Organizations like the ADL have no way to contend with this or any other kind of Jewish anti-Zionism. Faced with this quandary, and having boxed itself into a corner, the best the ADL can do is to accuse the anti-Zionist Jewish activist organization Jewish Voice for Peace of engaging in antisemitism.

It’s in these accusations that the equation of Jewishness with Israel and antisemitism with anti-Zionism most obviously collapses in a cloud of rhetorical dust. But as the recent congressional hearings remind us, even the void of substance can be put to malign uses. Retaliation against students protesting the bombardment of Gaza has been ferocious. In the days after a coalition of Harvard students issued a letter condemning Israeli policy and holding Israel “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” a billboard truck emblazoned with the headline HARVARD’S LEADING ANTISEMITES, above the names and photos of alleged letter-signers, took to the streets of Cambridge in an attempt to intimidate students into withdrawing their signatures. Similar doxing trucks later appeared in the neighborhoods around Columbia University and other campuses. These trucks are an extension of online Zionist doxing sites that have been around for decades, posting crude attempts at character assassination of students and faculty (including myself) who criticize Israeli occupation and apartheid policies.

Such harassment does not merely amount to idle threats. The billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman joined other CEOs in asking Harvard to release the names of individual students who signed the letter, “so as to insure that none of us inadvertently hire any of their members.” Offers of employment have been withdrawn from students who express support for Palestinian rights. Ryna Workman, an NYU Law student, had their job offer with the law firm Winston & Strawn rescinded for having issued a statement identifying Israel and its occupation as the cause of the violence that has been unfolding since October 7. Workman was also removed as student bar association president by the university itself. Separately, a group of more than two dozen major law firms sent a letter to law school deans across the US condemning “antisemitic activities” on their campuses, hinting that the firms would curtail hiring from schools where they have seen activity that they consider “concerning.”

Even professors at universities and law schools have denounced and shamed their students in a cruel and vindictive abdication of the duty of care we owe our pupils. “Don’t hire my antisemitic law students,” the Berkeley Law professor Steven Solomon wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Would your clients want an attorney who condones hatred and monstrous crimes?” Again, the charge of antisemitism is deployed in such a way that principled criticism of the Israeli state becomes functionally indistinguishable from activity that more fastidious users of the English language would ordinarily call antisemitismnamely, prejudice against Jewish people.

On several campuses, chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine have been threatened with closure or suspension. SJP was suspended at Rutgers; Columbia doubled down by suspending both SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace. Florida has ordered SJP “deactivated” on campuses, and UC Irvinea campus already notorious for suspending Muslim and Palestinian students for protesting a visit from the Israeli ambassador to the US in the wake of a previous Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2009, facilitating the students’ arrest and criminal prosecutioncharged its campus SJP with “disorderly conduct and violation of university regulations.” Brown University similarly had scores of its own students arrested for organizing a sit-in, that staple of campus protests since at least the 1960s. Most worrying of all, some universities have turned to outfits like the ADL and AJC for guidance and “training,” which is like putting the wolf in charge of the henhouseor the military censor in charge of academic freedom. (Even before the congressional hearings, Penn had announced that it was “actively partnering” with the AJC and that it plans to refer to the IHRA definition of antisemitism.)

At colleges and universities across the country, talks providing Palestinian perspectives or even the vantage point of international humanitarian law have been driven online or canceled altogether. Again at Columbia, a talk by Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch was canceled by the university, rescheduled, and canceled again on the flimsiest of pretexts.

At my home institution of UCLA, a teach-in I co-organized with colleagues in other departments during the first week of the bombardment was moved online at the last minute due to a mass of threatening messages received in anticipation of our event. As it was, students who gathered to watch the event on a laptop outside the room where we’d originally planned to meet were set upon by masked Zionist thugs who threw the laptop into the trash and threatened them with physical harm. (A security officer was able to intervene, but the students still decamped out of concern for their safety.)

Students wearing kaffiyehs on campus are likewise harassed. “Thank you for walking through neighborhoods and making families feel unsafe with your terrorist scarf,” Eve Gerber, the wife of former Council of Economic Advisers chair Jason Furman, yelled at a Harvard graduate student in a residential neighborhood. Abdulwahab Omira, an Arab student at Stanford, was struck by a car in a hit-and-run incident the local police are treating as a hate crime because of the epithets hurled at him by the driver. Worse still, three students of Palestinian heritage attending Trinity College, Haverford College, and Brown were shot and wounded in Vermont in an attack that left one of them paralyzed; their crime had been wearing keffiyehs and talking in Arabic.

These attacks on Palestinian students and othersincluding plenty of Jewish studentswho express solidarity with Palestinians or their outrage at Israel’s relentless violations of international humanitarian law are systematic, pervasive, coordinated, and omnipresent. They do not, however, dominate headlines across the nation as manifestations of one coordinated campaign of racist suppression, which they are. They are not the subject of congressional hearings. And they have certainly not led to the summoning of university presidents to the House of Representatives to discuss campus climate concerns. There are very clear reasons why one set of students is elevated and privileged over others. They have little to do with the students themselves, and everything to do with the lobbying organizations who claim to speak on their behalf.

In the days following Stefanik’s interrogation of Magill and the other university presidents, the newspaper headlines crying “furor,” “uproar,” and “outrage” were reserved not for the misleading distortions of language that led to the interrogation, but rather for the presidents and their evasive answers. Instead of challenging the very premise of this frankly outrageous interrogation of academic leaders by the nation’s legislative bodywhich harked back to the House Un-American Activities Committee and the last major systematic assault on intellectual freedom in the United Statesthe university presidents tried to equivocate. At a moment of political urgency, their responses were academic in the worst possible sense of that word.

And the result was inevitable. The same hedge fund billionaire who had asked Harvard for the names of protesting students now set upon leadership at Harvard, Penn, and MIT, threatening to mobilize other members of the donor class if they did not fire their presidents. The spectacle of a billionaire donor threatening major academic institutions with emotional blackmail ought to have been seen as obscene, but it worked. When Magill stepped down, Ackman boasted “one down,” and Stefanik, too, was quick to claim victory. “One down,” she gloated. “Two to go.”

I am far less concerned for the status of university presidents than I am for the safety and welfare of university faculty and, above all, students; there is more than academic freedom at stake. In October, the ADL joined with the Brandeis Center, another Zionist organization, in a letter urging university presidents to investigate their own SJP students “for potential violations of 18 USC 2339A and B, and its state equivalents, that is, for potential violations of the prohibition against materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization.” This dramatically increases the stakes of the ADL’s pursuit to suppress student criticism of Israel. To ban a student organization is bad enough; to suggest, as the excitable Columbia professor Shai Davidai does, that students protesting against Israel’s genocide in Gaza are “pro-Hamas” (rather than simply anti-genocide) is worse; but to call for students to be charged with material support for terrorism in order to silence them is another level of viciousness. As the legal scholars Anthony O’Rourke and Wadie Said argue in a recent article, “federal law enforcement has the capacity, and is under real pressure, to use the material support statute to launch specious federal terrorism investigations on college campuses, especially against students of Palestinian descent or Muslim faith, based solely on their public statements.”

No students or faculty speaking out on any other issue across the United States must contend with such levels of organized and coordinated harassment and intimidation, whose sole intent is to silence criticisms of the racism and violence of what is, after all, a foreign power. Even as students protesting the bombardment of Gaza are being harassed, intimidated, and doxed on campuses across the country; even as certain faculty are denouncing their own students for speaking up for Palestinian rights; even as Palestinian American students have been shot at and injured, public attention and political capital are failing to focus on these actual crimes and forms of violencelet alone the actual genocide in Gaza in which we, as American taxpayers accountable for our President and our representatives in Congress, are complicit. Instead, national attention is trained on imaginary outrages like the supposed calls for Jewish genocide, and the false and misleading campaign to reclassify legitimate protests against Israeli state violence as hate speech in order to abolish it from campus.

Calls for censorship, interdiction, surveillance, and punishment of speech on campus are sure to intensify in the weeks and months ahead. Meanwhile, the imaginary “genocide” that’s not being called for here will continue to overshadow the actual genocide that is taking place in Gaza, with aircraft, missiles, bombs, and shells that we paid for.

  1. It’s not just Gaza: on November 5 an Israeli pilot fired a guided Hellfire missile at a civilian car in Lebanon, burning alive three girls and their grandmother. Israeli officials confirmed only an attack on a “terrorist target.” 

  2. No understanding of the concept of self-defense includes withholding the basics of survival from a population for whose welfare one is legally responsible—which Israel is as the occupying power, a point reiterated in countless UN Security Council resolutions and assessments by the International Criminal Court. 

  3. Once again, comparison proves helpful to our understanding: while Israel may not have used actual nuclear weapons, by the end of October Israel had dropped twenty-five kilotons of explosives on Gaza, according to the Geneva-based Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in contrast, was a “mere” fifteen kilotons. Is it any wonder that a sign and candle display reading STOP GENOCIDE IN GAZA were recently unveiled in front of the atomic bomb memorial dome in Hiroshima? 

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