Israel and the Passive Voice

The U.S. failure to acknowledge the causes of Palestinian suffering…

In the United States, news reports from Israel often have something strange about them: People seem to die violently, but nobody ever seems to kill them. In 2014, when an Israeli missile destroyed a cafe in Gaza, blowing eight patrons to pieces as they watched a soccer game, the headlines in the New York Times were: “Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup” and “In Rubble of Gaza Seaside Cafe, Hunt for Victims Who Had Come for Soccer.” No word of whose missile it might have been; the missile seemed to have acted spontaneously of its own volition, and the hunt through the rubble seemed to be happening without anything even precipitating it. Just as reports on killings by police will claim that “A man died yesterday in an officer-involved shooting,” when the Israeli army kills Palestinians (as it often does), we read that “protesters have died.” The passive voice is the favorite rhetorical tool of propagandists worldwide, who “regret the mistakes that were made” without having to admit who made them. 

Yesterday, after the Israeli government killed 60 Palestinians including an eight-month-old baby, we saw a little less of the passive voice in the press than usual. The Washington Post even used the phrase “Israelis kill Palestinians” rather than “Palestinians die in clashes.” But on the front page of today’s New York Times, as usual: we get the following: “Violent Protests Leave Dozens Dead, as Embassy Opens in Jerusalem.” From that, you’d never guess that the “dozens dead” were actually the protesters themselves. It seems like the protests did the killing, rather than Israeli snipers. It takes a formidable amount of dishonesty and contortion to characterize a massacre by soldiers as a murderous “violent protest.” And even though 10 times more Palestinians died yesterday as the number of Americans who died in the Boston Massacre, you won’t find the word “massacre” in the mainstream press headlines.

But that’s exactly what it was. Beyond the skewed headlines, you’ll notice another odd omission in a lot of news reports about the killings: a clear account of how those who died actually died. Often, these reports adopt a kind of “fog of war” portrayal: Palestinians gathered at the border, there was a lot of smoke and tear gas and confusion, and by the end a lot of people were dead. Amid “chaos” and “clashes” nobody can really be responsible for anything, and clear acts of wrongdoing can be hidden from view.

It’s important, then, to be as clear as possible about the facts: The residents of Gaza live in what is often characterized as an “open-air prison.” They have food, water, and electricity shortages, and they are denied essential supplies thanks to an ongoing siege. Palestinians are currently marking the 70th anniversary of the violent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their ancestral homes in Israel. They have been protesting, in part, by trying to cross the border into Israel, to return to land that their families once called home. This act of resistance is meant to call attention to the absurdity of using military force to keep people caged and separated from their homeland. But when Palestinians have attempted to cross, instead of arresting them and turning them back, Israel has opened fire with live ammunition. Even before the latest bloodbath, Doctors Without Borders was reporting that Gaza’s medical facilities were stretched beyond capacity and begging Israel not to create any more casualties.

The justifications for the killings are flimsy. Israel has long insisted that the disproportionate casualty counts are a product of its commitment to self-defense against Palestinian terror and aggression. It has characterized the border protests as “violent,” a portrayal the New York Times has repeated. But it’s important to note how “violence” is defined. As one Israeli official put it:  “Whatever comes close to the fence are rioters, with one purpose, of crossing the fence — nothing else… It doesn’t matter if someone is carrying flowers if he’s tearing down the fence. That’s a violent threat.” The definition of “violence” here does not, then, involve actual physical harm to Israeli citizens. It’s obvious from the total lack of Israeli casualties that the protests pose no serious threat to Israelis. Rather, the very act of attempting to breach the border itself is characterized as “violence” and can be met with lethal force. This is perverse, because it equates harm to fences with harm to human beings. But Israel has come right out and threatened to kill anyone who tries to cross the border. From the NYT: “Israel said its soldiers had exercised restraint and that many more protesters would die if they tried to cross into Israeli territory.” Note how the concept of “self-defense” is being used: “Security” is being defined as the sanctity of geographic borders rather than the actual physical health of human beings. If this sounds reasonable, consider what it actually means: murdering anybody who crosses an arbitrary line in the desert, even if one knows full well that they pose no actual threat to anyone’s health or life. It’s the shooting of trespassers, which is obscene for the same reason that giving someone the death penalty for stealing a chocolate bar is obscene.

“Disproportionate” is actually a crucial term for understanding why what Israel is doing is so indefensible. Often, Israel’s defenders will point to violent acts by Palestinians in order to explain why Israel’s actions are acceptable. They will show a Palestinian hurling a rock or a Molotov cocktail, or sending a flaming kite with a swastika over the border. But we need to avoid slipping into “fog of war” thinking in which all force is equal: If someone steps on my toe, I am not allowed to throw a hand grenade at him, and if a teenager sets a kite on fire and sends it sailing across the desert, a government is not justified having a sniper blast him to bits. This is absolutely critical: Evidence that Palestinians have committed violent acts is not in itself evidence that Israel’s massacres are acceptable.

Consider the Boston Massacre again. The crowd that assembled to taunt the British redcoats was not peaceful. They threw things at the soldiers. They hit them. Yet when the soldiers opened fire and killed five people, their actions were still shocking, because you can’t kill people casually. (The fact that the Boston Massacre soldiers were instantly arrested for murder while the U.S. refused to even allow a UN investigation of Israel’s massacre suggests that people like Steven Pinker may be wrong in concluding that we have made considerable moral progress over the last several hundred years.)

This notion that any amount of provocation justifies any amount of retaliatory force is part of the logic that contributes to killings by American police officers. A mentally ill person will attack an officer, who will kill them and claim self-defense. But a morally serious inquiry must take into account whether the threat was actually serious and whether the retaliator did everything possible to avoid having to use force. In the Vietnam War, Americans often pointed to torture in North Vietnamese prison camps in order to exonerate the United States and show that we were on the “right side.” But there is a difference between treating several thousand prisoners brutally and dropping 400,000 tons of napalm. Israel is a nuclear-armed power with one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world, fighting impoverished people using rocks and kites. These are not the same thing, and everyone who sees press reports of Palestinians “throwing rocks” must bear it in mind before concluding that “both sides are wrong” or that Palestinians are violent and aggressive.

It is also true that one cannot evaluate violence outside of its context; the question is not just whether there is violence by Palestinians but why. In fact, an occupied people may be completely justified in using force. We understand this with respect to the American Revolution, and the soldiers in the Boston Massacre were representatives of an undemocratic occupying power. Attacks on British soldiers in colonial America were not “terrorism,” because these were military targets and the cause was a morally justified one. Yet attacks on Israel are automatically seen as “aggression” without a consideration of the historical situation. From a different perspective, the original expulsion of the Arab population was the aggression, and Palestinian violence since has been an act of self-defense. I am not here endorsing that position, but pointing out that mere evidence that a Palestinian has committed violence cannot suffice to prove that Israel is in the right.

In fact, it is strange to me how easy it is for people not to understand how things look from the Palestinian perspective. Consider this sentence from a recent article in the Wall Street Journal: 

Gazans are calling for the right to return to their ancestors’ villages and towns, a demand Israeli officials reject because they say it would risk the country’s Jewish majority. 

It is not a particularly remarkable sentence, it’s the sort that appears commonly in press accounts about the conflict. But imagine how different it would sound if you just changed the names of the parties involved:

Black Africans are calling for the right to return to their ancestors’ villages and towns, a demand South African officials reject because they say it would risk the country’s white majority. 

The sentence is describing an apartheid situation: A country is barring freedom of movement for explicitly ethnic reasons. It is deliberately trying to keep one ethnicity a minority and ensure its own ethnic superiority. And yet in the case of Israel-Palestine, such a sentence can appear casually without people even noticing the exact parallel to apartheid. This is important to bear in mind, because it shows us how different this situation may look to historians in retrospect: The United States was supporting a country that was trying to enforce a racial superiority regime.

And yet, while public opinion on Israel seems to be souring somewhat, in the United States there still isn’t much public protest in support of the Palestinian cause, despite our moral complicity in what is happening. Among prominent American politicians, only Bernie Sanders has publicly denounced Israel’s actions, and even then he made sure to condemn “Hamas violence” without noting the disproportionality of that violence. Norman Finkelstein, author of an excellent new book on Gaza, has lamented the lack of international support for Gazans as they are being massacred:

I was wrong: I thought there was a latent solidarity movement, that once the Palestinians started engaging in mass non-violent resistance, it would immediately get into action…. And then five weeks passed: there wasn’t a single demonstration for Gaza. None. There wasn’t a hunger strike. Except with the shining exception of If Not Now, there were no sit ins. There was nothing. I’m in contact with people in Gaza. They’re crestfallen. They’re heartbroken. Exactly what accounts for that? I can’t really say. I’m pretty perplexed. But one thing’s for sure: in the absence of solidarity, they’re going to be ground down.

Passivity, then, is to be found not just in New York Times headlines about the conflict, but in American attitudes generally. We do not accept our role as agents. Gazans are left to be killed, it is not us who are abandoning them. But cutting through propaganda requires switching from the passive to the active voice in order to discover those responsible for causing particular effects. An honest self-examination reveals that the United States, through the right’s active encouragement and the left’s passive silence, is encouraging Israel to continue committing dozens of murders.

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