This article is meant for Westerners who do not have ties to Israel and Palestine. I do not think it is appropriate for me, an American, to police the language used by Israelis and Palestinians at this time. Their feelings are valid, and how they choose to express them is also valid.
I think it’s safe to say that a lot of us out west, Americans in particular, have had to swiftly educate ourselves on the affairs of the Middle East over the last few weeks. If you’re like me, you’ve found significant blind spots in your knowledge of the relationship between Israel and Palestine. You’ve learned that you’ve received a lot of indoctrination from your religious institution, the media, and even your community and family.
I was horrified when I learned that I had no idea what has happened to Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank over many decades. My pro-Israel indoctrination began early. So did the Islamophobia that was spoon-fed to me after 9/11. I trusted the people who taught me these lessons, so I didn’t question them. I can’t blame those people entirely. I made it to adulthood and swiftly put the Middle East out of my mind. Thinking I had a grip on what was going on over there, I moved on to other things.
The last few weeks have been incredibly eye-opening. I’ve learned of the absolute atrocities done to the Israeli people at the hands of the terrorist organization Hamas. That part didn’t surprise me—after all, I’m an American. Terrorism = bad. Right? What I wasn’t expecting was to learn of the terrorism that has been delivered to the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government for literal decades. Starvation, lack of water, inability to travel in and out of their own land, genocide. There has been a slow annihilation of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government for a very long time. And I had no idea.
A lot of us feel utterly outraged over what we’ve learned. If we’re on social media, we’ve publicly criticized the Israeli government—proclaiming FREE PALESTINE everywhere we can. We have sent letters to Congress. Called our Representatives. Amplified the voices of Palestinian people who have direct knowledge of what is happening over there. In earnest, we’ve done our best to stand with Palestine.
But I’m seeing something, particularly in white leftist spaces, that is starting to concern me. The discourse around freeing the Palestinian people has become increasingly volatile as the days and weeks have gone on. To some extent, that’s fair. It is frustrating to see our country stand with the Israeli government as it continues its atrocities against the Palestinian people. It’s natural for our feelings and our words to escalate.
Some of us, though, are really toeing the line between outrage and anti-Semitism. And it’s starting to scare me.
I posted a few days ago about my growing concerns with leftist spaces. How some of us are handling ourselves during this time is a prime example of what I meant. We have lost our ability to understand nuance. The pressure to be the loudest, the most outspoken, the one with the angriest take, has made us start to look almost indistinguishable from the radical right who has been espousing anti-Semitism for as long as I can remember.
And I can’t help but think that the loudest and most aggressive takes from white American leftists are performative—existing only for clout, for praise and approval. Because anyone with a heart and a brain can see that there is a lot of nuance here. We can see that this is a war between two people groups who the world, throughout history, has loved to hate. There are real repercussions for the way we choose our words. People around the world are just waiting for one solitary excuse to justify their prejudice toward Jewish people, and our performative anti-Israel rhetoric could be exactly that.
As my understanding of the war between Palestine and Israel has evolved over the last few weeks, I’ve come to a few conclusions. Palestine needs to be free. There is no question about that. But here are the things I consider before I engage in public discourse about it:
1) We need to call out the actions of the Zionist Israeli government against the Palestinian people. It is okay to call it terror because that’s what it is. You don’t starve a country. You don’t.
2) The Israeli government does not represent all Jewish people, not in Israel and not all over the world. While we call out the Israeli government, we must make the distinction between it and the people of Israel and Jewish people in the diaspora.
3) Stop demanding that Israeli and Jewish people around the world condemn the Israeli government. That is a choice they have to make, and it is a complicated one. I know that will upset some people, but I just can’t stand behind American whiteness telling Jewish people what to do about their own homeland and government. There are Jewish people worldwide condemning the actions of the Israeli government. There are those who aren’t. And it’s not up to us to speculate why or to tell them what they should do. There is nuance that we don’t have the range to comprehend.
4) All terror is terror. Westerners who support Palestine (as we should) need to stop excusing the atrocities that were done to Israel earlier this month as “justifiable rebellion.” The Palestinian people, those in Palestine and in the diaspora, may say those things, but we should not. I think we are capable of understanding that in the face of slow genocide, anyone would call an act of rebellion justifiable. We need to let them. But it is not our place to say those things. And it comes dangerously close to using our white, western faces to say that murdering Jewish civilians in cold blood is ever justifiable. Terror is never justifiable. It’s okay to say that.
5) Hamas does not represent all Palestinians, just like the Israeli government does not represent all Israeli people. We must use precision with our words. Why do we, in the west, struggle so much with this? It is easy to call out terrorism from groups and governments without implicating the innocent people who those groups and governments claim to represent. Let’s stop painting with such a wide brush that we start making all Palestinians look like Hamas and all Israelis look like the Israeli government.
6) We all possess the ability to have compassion for both Palestine and Israel. I know we do. Our arguments about freeing Palestine are not dampened by also acknowledging the horror of what happened earlier this month, and that is still happening to Israeli hostages in Gaza. Jewish people around the world are hurting—comprehending how quick the world is to dismiss their heartache and their grief. This is a people group who have been almost wiped off the face of the earth more than once, and there are still people living today who would like to see it happen again. Please be careful with your words.
Words can heal, and words can harm. Activism matters. It always has. But in our activism, we need to be painstakingly careful in how we use our words. If not, we may wind up with blood on our hands that we will never see.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.