American coverage of the ongoing war in the Middle East is a chilling throwback to the 19th century
The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas is quickly gaining steam, potentially spiraling completely out of control. A lot of this has to do with the fact that this issue elicits so many emotions and has each side firmly entrenched in their positions. In the Western world, we can see that one side – the Israeli side – has far more reach and influence, so much so that the mere act of even having sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians can get one excommunicated from civil society.
For instance, a prominent writer in the Czech Republic named Prokop Singer, has been informed by virtually all of the publications that he regularly contributes to that his work will no longer be accepted. Never mind that he has been studying the Arabic language for years, that he has traveled extensively to Palestinian territories, and is one of the only credible Czech commentators on this issue. Apparently, his social media behavior – such as pointing out that Western politicians are routinely silent on the death and dispossession of the Palestinians or calling out hypocrisy over how Czech liberals treat Ukraine versus Palestine – was too much to bear.
We are also seeing students from some of the world’s foremost academic institutions, such as Harvard and Columbia, having their employment rescinded over their stances on the conflict. People who attend pro-Palestine rallies or sign letters in support of Palestine are being doxxed and reported to their employers or, worse, to local police and government agencies. Accuracy in Media, a conservative organization dedicated to holding “public and private officials accountable,” is now funding a truck to drive around the US displaying the personal information of pro-Palestine students. Social media companies around the world are also openly censoring pro-Palestine pages and posts without explanation.
This sort of behavior is extremely dangerous and has a chilling effect on Western society for a number of reasons, not least for its clear injustice. But more than this, while the West prides itself on being a place for a free and open exchange of ideas, that is apparently no longer the case. Even if we may all vehemently disagree with one another, no matter what the issue is, it is still important to at least know – or have the ability to know – what the other side thinks. Without this crucial understanding, the path to war is inevitable.
This is no exaggeration. After enduring the worst attack on its soil for decades, Israel is on a tear for revenge – even if basic logic indicates, and indeed most Israelis themselves believe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bears responsibility for not having prevented the attack to begin with. If a ground invasion of Gaza, which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are preparing for, takes place, then the conflict will immediately become regional.
Iran and its allies, such as Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and other Tehran-blacked militias across the region, such as in Syria and Iraq, don’t seem eager to go to war with Israel. But because their entire identity as a political organization and alliance is based on resisting the violent excesses of Israeli apartheid and what UN experts warn could be turning into an ethnic cleansing against Palestinians, they are left with little choice. If they do nothing in the face of the very thing they swore to deter, they may as well not exist at all – and they know it.
It is for this reason that black-and-white thinking cannot prevail in the world. This is especially true in the West, to which Israel owes its very existence if not for the diplomatic and defense cover it provides to the vulnerable Jewish state.
Both sides are caught in a trap where talk of one side’s right to exist is predicated on the destruction of the other. In the West, this manifests as Israel’s right to defend itself – by whatever means necessary, including through indiscriminate bombing – while Palestinians are dehumanized. But Palestinians also have a right to defend themselves and the right to resist occupation and apartheid.
This does not in any way justify the crimes of Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – both of whom have a deplorable ideology and resort to criminal tactics that only serve to reinforce a caricatured view of Palestinians. That being said, in examining the way in which public discussion is unfolding in the West, I cannot help but feel reminded of the way in which the American media covered the nearly 250 slave revolts in the 19th century.
As the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic recounts, the American media – dominated by white people, obviously – was fanatically racist and, when covering slave revolts, would laser in on the purported crimes of black slaves while pen-vomiting out prose that would make Adolf Hitler blush.
For example, in the wake of the 1822 Vesey Conspiracy, the Charleston Times’ editor wrote, “Let it never be forgotten, that ‘our Negroes, are truely the Jacobins of the country; that they are the anarchists and the domestic enemy; the common enemy of civilized society, and the barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.”
In 1859, after the famous John Brown raid, the New York Herald’s editor, James Gordon Bennett, wrote, “The whole history of negro insurrection proves that there is no race of men so brutal and bloody-minded as the negro. The negro, once roused to bloodshed, and in possession of arms, is as uncontrollable and irrational as a wild beast…”
This sounds eerily familiar, sort of how the American far-right commentator Ben Shapiro, an orthodox Jew and an ardent Zionist who is against so-called cancel culture until it personally benefits him, talks about Palestinians. When faced with his own verbatim comments – including that, “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage. This is not a difficult issue. #settlementsrock” – he accused the prominent conservative BBC host who was interviewing him of being a “leftist” and stormed off the show. He is not alone, however, as you can find countless examples of Zionists – including high-level Israeli officials – openly talking this way.
After the extraordinary hardship suffered by Jews throughout history, I can fully sympathize with the generational trauma at play. It is clear that this is what is driving Israel’s behavior in ruthlessly attacking the Palestinians. But that is not a justification, nor does it negate the fact that the Palestinians also have a right to life and independence. The fact that we in the West cannot even acknowledge this, nor even humanize the people of Gaza, is an absolutely terrifying and dangerous prospect.