In 1996, CBS journalist Lesley Stahl asked then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright about the deaths caused by U.S. economic sanctions on Iraq. “We have heard that half a million [Iraqi] children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima,” Stahl said. “And, you know, is the price worth it?”
“I think that is a very hard choice,” Albright replied after some consideration, “but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”
Her statement makes clear that in the U.S. government’s calculus, Iraqi lives did not matter.
Almost two decades later, President Joe Biden’s National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby expressed much the same sentiment as the civilian death toll in Gaza rose relentlessly under Israeli bombardment. “This is war. It is combat,” he admitted. “It is bloody. It is ugly, and it’s going to be messy. And innocent civilians are going to be hurt going forward.” But he adamantly opposed global calls for a ceasefire. “A ceasefire right now really only benefits Hamas. That’s where we are right now,” he said.
Implicit in his statement is the idea once again that the price is worth it, that Palestinian lives don’t matter.
On November 7, after 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza had been killed and one-third of the structures in the territory flattened, Kirby was asked whether there was any scenario in which the U.S. would put limits on its aid to Israel. Kirby replied that Israel by definition did not target civilians. Thus, no amount of civilian death would deter U.S. support. “We’ve been crystal clear since the very beginning of this conflict,” Kirby stated, “that one of the things that separates us from Hamas, who actually did try and intend to kill innocent civilians, is that democracies like the U.S. and Israel observe the law of armed conflict, that we respect civilian life.” There exist “no red lines at all” that Israel could cross that would deter U.S. support and aid. Biden might profess regret for the loss of Palestinians’ lives, but the U.S. was determined to support the bombardments that were killing them. Leaders determined that the price was worth it.
A month later, with the death toll approaching 20,000, UN Secretary General António Guterres invoked extraordinary powers to demand that the Security Council call for a ceasefire. The United States cast the sole vote against the resolution. (The U.K. abstained, while the 13 other members voted in favor.) Meanwhile Biden called on his own extraordinary powers at home to bypass an increasingly reluctant Congress and approve a new sale of tank shells for Israel’s war effort, reinforcing, once again, his utter disregard for Palestinian lives.
The calculus of whose lives matter to those in power draws on some long-standing and deeply held biases, as well as the specific ways in which Israel and its supporters have framed the question of Palestine and a Jewish state. On the basis of these framings, Israel’s supporters in Congress, the White House, the mainstream media and university administrations reiterate, in Orwellian terms, that Israel’s war is peace, and any call for Palestinians’ rights to life, political rights or a homeland, is violence.
One underlying frame is orientalism: the European intellectual tradition that has constructed a dichotomy between a healthy, rational, moral and strong “West” and a diseased, irrational, evil and weak “East” in permanent need of conquest and reform by the West. While a large body of academic work has analyzed and critiqued orientalism, it still permeates popular culture. Centuries of colonial thought have embedded the notion that Israeli lives are the ones that matter.
A second is the glorification of war and military prowess, undergirded by a reluctance to question the goals or aims of the U.S. and its allies in any war. Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “necessary,” we are told, to avoid a ground invasion. Academics may debate whether the U.S. could have achieved Japan’s “unconditional surrender” without the bomb. But most accept the war aim unquestioningly, as well as the moral calculus that lives must be sacrificed in pursuit of those aims.
While U.S. spokespeople from the president down applaud Israel’s vague war aims and condone virtually any violence to achieve them, they profess horror that anyone might try to understand or contextualize violence by Hamas. That, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, would be a “celebration and glorification of evil.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken concurred, insisting that “this must be a moment for moral clarity” and that “the failure to unambiguously condemn terrorism puts at risk not only people in Israel, but people everywhere.”
Israeli violence is either justified, or not Israel’s fault, or not even violence at all. “We support Israel’s right to defend its people,” progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren declared. Hamas, not Israel, “bears the blame” for Israel’s violence.
According to President Biden, terrorists must “pay a price for their terror” and dictators must “pay a price for their aggression.” Israel’s war on Gaza will “help us build a world that is safer, more peaceful, and more prosperous.” Biden has enthusiastically supported Israeli violence in all its forms, insisting that Hamas be “eliminated entirely” and, like Warren, characterizing Israel’s violence as “self-defense.”
Orientalism and celebration of war lay the groundwork for such distortions of language. In the case of Israel and Palestine, a number of other factors help to explain the particular character and resonance of widespread logical slips.
The heart of the problem lies in the dilemma that has confronted the European movement to found a Jewish state in Palestine for over a century: how to create a “Jewish” state in a land where most of the population was not Jewish. Five solutions emerged. One, flood the land with Jewish immigrants; two, expel non-Jewish inhabitants; three, create a “democracy” that reserved rights and privileges for Jews; four, invoke the Holocaust to deflect criticism of the undemocratic nature of the first three; five, conflate any challenge to the undemocratic nature of the state or its “right” to kill, expel and exclude non-Jews with “a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people,” in the words of the House resolution censuring Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
Together, these “solutions” serve to make any claim to Palestinian rights — which, practically by definition threaten the exclusively Jewish nature of the state in Palestine — equivalent to violence and genocide against all Jews. Not only can nothing ever justify Palestinians’ violent actions, but the propaganda machine transmutes even nonviolent protest into violence.
In a November 10 interview, Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi outlined this formulation when queried about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the 2018 March of Return in Gaza. Nonviolent action in support of Palestinian rights, he argued, was actually violent:
The B.D.S. movement is committed to what Palestinians call the Right of Return. The March of Return was literally that. We are going to inundate Israel with the descendants of Palestinian refugees. B.D.S. and the March of Return were both, we can say, technically peaceful…. But the March of Return and B.D.S. have, as their goal, the destruction of Israel…. In that sense, there’s no difference between that and the goal of Oct. 7…. The consequence will be the effective destruction of the Jewish people. We will not survive as a people without the state of Israel.
Halevi’s remarks are clarifying. Any invocation of Palestinian rights, even if “technically peaceful,” is a threat to the state of Israel. “The key,” Halevi said, “is the legitimacy of a Jewish majority state.” Thus, any discussion or movement for Palestinian rights — in particular, the “right of return” for refugees driven out in 1948, or even full rights for current Palestinian citizens of Israel — is inherently violent.
In such a framing, since Israel is conflated with the Jewish people, any challenge to the state becomes a violent and existential threat to Jews, a move that facilitates the invocation of the Holocaust whenever the state or its actions are criticized.
“More Jews were killed on October 7 than on any day since the Holocaust,” read a headline in The Economist — one of many using this language. October 7 was clearly an attack on Israel, and an attack on civilians — but was it an attack against Jews? The families of the up to 80 Thai migrant workers and more than half a dozen Bedouin workers, among the 1,200 killed and 240 taken hostage, would surely not think so.
On U.S. campuses, nonviolent student protests faced similar accusations. The Anti-Defamation League wrote to 200 university leaders calling on them to investigate Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters for links with a foreign terrorist organization and for violating Jewish students’ right to freedom from harassment. The president of Brandeis University jumped on board, suspending SJP and violently dispersing a peaceful protest on the campus a few days later. SJP, he asserted, supported Hamas and advocated “the violent elimination of Israel and the Jewish people.” Slogans like “from the river to the sea” and advocacy of BDS, he continued, condone violence and “echo the Nazi strategy of killing all Jews.” Meanwhile, Columbia University suspended SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace, claiming that their protest “included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” While the university did not name the “threats,” the groups’ art installation included calls to divest and the phrase “land back.”
In a further twist to logic, since the U.S. government has made clear its position that even calling for a ceasefire — an end to violence — constitutes support for Hamas, it therefore can be dismissed as a call for violence and condemned as hate speech.
If Israel and its backers in the U.S. transmute criticism of Israel into attacks against Jews, and from there, into threats to Jews’ (and Israel’s) existential “right to exist,” Palestinians face a distorted mirror of this web: Israel continually and blatantly denies their right to exist. Since Israel controls the entirety of historic Palestine, it erases Palestinian rights on multiple levels.
For Palestinians driven out in 1948 and beyond, it denies the right of return: As far as Israel is concerned, these Palestinians do not exist.
Israel’s 2018 Nationality Law affirms that, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” In other words, Israel explicitly denies Palestinians’ existence as a people, not only in slogans or demands, but in its actions.
Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population, are tolerated on the condition that they remain a minority and concede any claims to national identity. Although they are technically citizens of Israel, numerous laws and policies that privilege the Jewish population led Amnesty International to characterize the system as “apartheid.”
For those in the West Bank, Israel’s decades-long military occupation and increasing usurpation of land flagrantly denies fundamental rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to freedom of movement, freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, as well as from arbitrary arrest, detention, exile and murder.
In Gaza, even before the current bombardment and invasion, Israel’s crushing military blockade had turned the territory into what many described as an “open-air prison.” The killing going on in Gaza goes even further, amounting to a literal Israeli denial of Palestinians’ right to survive.
In the midst of this slaughter, to insist that the main question is Israel’s “existential right to exist” shows a blatant disregard for Palestinian lives and Palestinian humanity, much less Palestinian self-determination or “right to exist” as a people. The insistence reveals the same underlying belief that Israeli lives matter and Palestinian lives do not. And they turn actual Israeli occupation, ethnic cleansing, mass killings, and other crimes against humanity into a price that is “worth it” for the likes of Joe Biden and Madeleine Albright.
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