On October 7, Hamas broke out of the walls confining Palestinians in Gaza and killed more than 1,300 Israelis in army bases and settlements. Immediately, many Western mainstream media, politicians, and social media platforms asked supporters of Palestinians a seemingly simple question as a precondition of any further comment: “Do you condemn the Hamas massacre?” Denouncing Hamas’s brutal murder of civilians seems obvious. But the question’s framing has deep roots that I want to examine here.
On August 21, 1831, Nat Turner, an enslaved man, led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in the United States. The rebels killed about 60 White people, including children. People have differing opinions on whether killing children as part of this revolt was ethical. However, very few would attempt to extricate an understanding of the rebellion and the killing of White people from the underlying issue of slavery. Many would say that the revolt was justified — a long shot, but possible chance for freedom.
Enslavers ended Nat Turner’s rebellion, as they did others, with intense brutality, including killing and torturing many who had nothing to do with the uprising. No one today would be expected to condemn the rebellion first, before being allowed to point out that if a country enslaves people, its citizens should not be surprised if there are uprisings, or if the enslaved treat their former enslavers with the same lack of humanity with which they were treated for decades. Enslavers should not be surprised if enslaved people resort to terror and revenge, or even criticize the entire institution of slavery. To many people now, it would seem preposterous to focus on the harm done to White people by slave revolts or to claim the enslavers were innocent. As a matter of fact, if anyone today were to begin a conversation about Nat Turner’s uprising by asking the discussants whether they condemn the violence perpetrated by the enslaved during the revolt, this question would be understood to reveal the questioner’s refusal to recognize the humanity of Black people. In short, this question would be understood as racist.
Accordingly, persistent calls for people to denounce Hamas’s actions serve to dehumanize Palestinians and their supporters. It is presumed that all human beings denounce the murder of all civilians. Questions about condemnation have been asked by people who presume to have the moral authority (and superiority) to evaluate whether a supporter of Palestinians has any right to speak. If a speaker does not first condemn Hamas’s actions, the questioners imply that nothing they say can be considered. In effect, the person being posed this question has to first justify their humanity. If they don’t condemn the brutality, it is implied that they are sub-human, possibly dangerous, and that they and their ideas ought to be suppressed — they are not to be considered part of “civilized society.” In fact, if you write or say anything now that is supportive of Palestinians, it is automatically presumed that you support Hamas’s actions unless you first explicitly denounce them. You might also be labeled “antisemitic.”
The background to the current situation, as Palestinian-American activist and scholar Noura Erakat concisely put it, is as follows:
Israel has subjected Palestinians to settler-colonial removal for 75 years, to the longest occupation in history for 56 years, and to a debilitating siege of Gaza holding 2.2 million Palestinians in an open-air prison for 16 years. In 2020, several Israeli and legacy international human rights organizations confirmed that Israel oversees an apartheid regime against Palestinians.
Israel, with the full support of the United States and its weapons, is raining tremendous terror on Palestinians. Gaza is being cut off from food, water, fuel, and electricity, and is being viciously bombed: hospitals, schools, and more than 20,000 residential units have been destroyed. More than 3,400 Palestinians have been killed. The people of Gaza are being collectively punished, which is a war crime. And this mass murder and destruction are expected to be followed by a far worse Israeli ground invasion.
The dehumanization of the question “Do you condemn Hamas’s attacks?” enables and facilitates the war crimes and terror being visited upon Palestinians. We are witnessing ethnic cleansing as Palestinians are being forced to choose between leaving Gaza or dying without really being allowed to leave. This is potentially genocidal. Yet in Germany and France, protests in support of Palestine have been banned or restricted. In those countries and in the United Kingdom, displaying the Palestinian flag, wearing a keffiyeh, or saying “Free Palestine” risk arrest. This dehumanization by politicians and the media in Europe’s supposedly liberal centers facilitates stripping people of their rights and actively enables the brutalization of Palestinians in Gaza and beyond.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States, destroying the World Trade Center, hitting the Pentagon, and killing 3,000 people, mostly civilians. People were shocked and grief-laden. Many quickly demonized all Arabs and Muslims and rallied behind US efforts to wage war and seek revenge. The US government took advantage of people’s fear and anger to expand its imperial aims, launching an open-ended, all-encompassing “war on terror.” It led to massive death and destruction with over 500,000 Afghans and Iraqis dead, many more displaced, and an even more dangerous world. Unfortunately, many who should have known better at the time did not act quickly enough to oppose this.
The dehumanization of Palestinians and their supporters includes the spread of fake news and lies. Headlines scream and social media repeats the story of Hamas’s “decapitation of babies.” There is absolutely no credible evidence of this. President Joe Biden repeated the story, embellishing it with claims of having seen photos, only to have to retract the statement hours later. When the US was manufacturing support for its 1991 war on Iraq, it fabricated a story of Iraqi soldiers removing Kuwaiti babies from incubators, leaving them to die. This never happened, but the story smoothed the way for the US-led war.
The question of the day isn’t “Do you support Hamas’s actions?” Rather, the questions we should all be asking today are: Do you condemn the aerial bombardment of a civilian population and all forms of collective punishment? Do you condemn an apartheid state? Was anyone content with the continuation of the status quo in Israel/Palestine before October 7? If not, then what do you hope for in the future? Who gets to decide the lives, dreams, and futures of Palestinian people? Most importantly: How does humanity get out of this situation?
Antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate are rapidly escalating: One extremist in Illinois murdering a six-year-old Palestinian boy, while another in France murdering a teacher are the latest examples of the senseless brutality. The world is being hurtled towards expanding war.
The world is being asked to side with and accept either an unending militarized apartheid state carrying out ethnic cleansing to maintain an oppressive and violent status quo, or theocratic Islamist would-be liberators who murder civilians. No, we can’t accept this! People in the region are suffering and terrified — they are caught in the middle of this horror. This unbearable pain will continue unless people can prevent the current governments and their militaries from carrying out their plans.
I condemn this system, where the masses are doomed to be at each other’s throats, choosing which form of oppression is best and hoping that they have the biggest club so they can be the oppressor and not the oppressed.
Editor’s Note, 10/24/2023, 12:15pm EST: The title for this article was borrowed from a line in Palestinian-American writer Fady Joudah’s 2021 poem “Remove.”