‘A kind of tribalism’: US supporters of Israel and Palestine fail to admit suffering of other side
The American TV media does not even mention Palestinian casualties.
"Each side in the conflict is pushing its narrative hard in the US, often ignoring wrongdoings by both Israel and Hamas
Aziz Abu Sarah knows what it’s like to have been so entrenched in his views that to give an inch, even to acknowledge someone else’s suffering, feels like a betrayal. And now the Palestinian peace activist, who works to get American Muslims and Jews listening to each other’s perspectives, is seeing the problem all around.
“I have friends who are American Jews and friends who are Arab American and they both only feel the pain of one side and completely ignore the other. Even some people who are not directly connected to either side have decided to be hardcore for one side or the other,” he said.
Each side in the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East is pushing its narrative hard in America.
Well-funded pro-Israel groups are working to keep the focus on the 1,400 Israelis killed and more than 200 abducted by Hamas in its cross-border attack three weeks ago. Electronic billboards with the faces of the Israeli dead and disappeared are patrolling the streets of New York and other cities.
Groups such as the American Jewish Committee are also seeking to discredit discussion of the broader context of occupation and oppression, including the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the West Bank, as amounting to justification of the Hamas attack. They paint the escalating Israeli bombing of Gaza as a necessary and reasonable response even as the numbers of Palestinian civilians killed runs into the thousands.
The AJC was among those saying it was “shocked” by the UN secretary general António Guterres’s statement that the attack “did not happen in a vacuum” and that the “Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation”.
On the other hand, some supporters of the Palestinians celebrated the cross-border raid as a legitimate act of resistance against Israel while downplaying or denying the brutal slaying of civilians, including children.
The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari and the celebrated Israeli novelist David Grossman were among those who criticised American and European progressives, decrying “extreme moral insensitivity and political recklessness” for placing all the responsibility for the Hamas attack on Israel without condemning the killings and, in some cases, even justifying them.
Many other Palestinian Americans and their allies have shied away from talking about the attack at all for fear that acknowledgement of wrongdoing would be interpreted as endorsing the Israeli military assault on Gaza.
The result is that Americans on both camps have not only struggled to acknowledge the suffering on the other side but also to admit wrongdoing by their own.
Abu Sarah said he confronted entrenched views in trying to talk about a woman abducted by Hamas and people killed in the Israeli bombing of Gaza.
“I know Vivian Silver who is right now presumed a hostage in Gaza. She’s someone I worked with. If I post about her, I will get messages from some of my Muslim or Arab friends who are angry and saying, ‘Aren’t you seeing what’s happening in Gaza?’” he said.
“Or if I post about somebody who was killed in Gaza, I get crazy angry messages like, ‘No, right now you need to only worry about what Hamas did to Israel, and how could you talk about this? This supports Hamas.’ Literally. It’s just so hardcore.”
Abu Sarah, who grew up in the West Bank, travelled his own path from throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and seeing his brother die from internal injuries the family said were the result of torture while detained without trial in an Israeli prison.
“When I was in high school and there were suicide bombings, there were kids that would say, ‘I’m also for resistance, even armed resistance, but suicide bombing isn’t armed resistance, it’s killing kids, it’s killing women, and we shouldn’t be doing that.’ And then others would say, ‘No, we have the right to do whatever we can,’” he said.
“Growing up, I had this way of thinking. If I sympathise at all with anything Israeli, with anything Jewish, then I’m accepting this whole occupation. It took me a long time to come to understand I can be sympathetic, I can understand the pain, I can speak against our own violence and at the same time speak out against the occupation and speak out against Israeli violence. Those are not mutually exclusive.”
Abu Sarah said he has no problem condemning the Hamas attack but understands why others hesitate.
“I do accept that what Hamas did was horrific. I have personally no issue with saying it, but I know why people do,” he said.
Abu Sarah said some Palestinians struggled to believe that Hamas would have committed such terrible crimes against Israeli civilians, even though the group has a history of suicide bombings and killings of non-combatants.
“The other part is if I admit that Hamas did this, then am I justifying what Israel is doing in Gaza? If I say, it was horrible, it is absolutely unacceptable, then am I saying Israel’s response is okay?” he said.
Some Palestinian Americans say they are subject to a double standard in being asked to condemn Hamas before being permitted to talk about the bombing of Gaza. They say Jewish Americans are not expected to jump through the same hoops in condemning occupation before being heard about the deaths of Israelis.
Discussion is not helped by a barrage of misinformation and propaganda. Abu Sarah said he spends a lot of time pushing back against false claims including a video on social media that supposedly showed one member of Hamas telling another to rape a woman during the 7 October attack.
“I’m listening in Arabic and that’s not what he said. I’m not denying that we might have seen similar things happening but that’s not what he says. So I sent my friend a message saying that this is just not true. Their response was, ‘Well, I’m sure something like this happened so it doesn’t matter if it’s true,’” he said.
“So there is this feeling that I have to defend my people or the side I think is right even if it’s a lie. It’s a kind of tribalism.”
Discussion of the Gaza crisis is even testing groups established to foster dialogue, including the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom which works to create greater understanding between Jews and Muslims with more than 100 branches and thousands of members across the US.
The Sisterhood issued a statement denouncing “the heinous murder and hostage taking of innocent civilians by Hamas terrorists.
“As a sisterhood of Jewish and Muslim women, we hold multiple truths at any given moment. It is possible for us to acknowledge that murdering civilians is a war crime and firing missiles at civilians is also a war crime,” it said.
“It is possible for us to recognize that Palestinians are not Hamas and Israeli citizens are not their government. It is possible for us to grieve for our own dead and grieve for all those lost in this horrible cycle of violence. And be reminded that violence will always be met with more violence.”
But it turns out that is easier said than done when the discussion moves beyond condemnation of killing.
The president of the Sisterhood’s board, Roberta Elliott, is Jewish and lived in Israel for a few years. She described being as shocked by the Hamas cross-border attack as she was by 9/11.
“In the circles that I move in the United States every single one of us knows somebody that was killed or was taken hostage and so it strikes very close to home. I’m also a daughter of a survivor of the Holocaust,” she said.
“I live in somewhat of a Jewish and Muslim bubble. My closest friends are Muslims and across the board everybody was completely empathetic and also in the same shock as the Jewish community. So initially I had no issues with anyone saying anything untoward or that wasn’t totally on the same wavelength that I was.”
Then came the difficult issue of discussing the broader issues such as occupation and how the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, helped keep Hamas in power.
Elliott said she was on a conference call with like-minded American Jews committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. One woman complained that “everybody’s looking for context in this situation, that everybody wants to say Hamas killed 1,400 people but look what the Israelis have done to the Palestinians over the years”.
Elliott listened as the woman said that it would have been considered racist to look for context in the police murder of George Floyd by discussing whether officers were afraid because of high crime rates in Black communities.
Elliott, too, struggled with the framing.
“The one thing I did have conversations with my Muslim partners about was context. They said, ‘yes, what Hamas did was absolutely terrible but it has to be seen within the context of the occupation.’ I, more than most people, couldn’t agree with that more. The occupation has done horrible things to the Palestinians and, frankly, horrible things to the Israelis. We shouldn’t be occupiers after what happened to us during world war two,” she said.
“But there’s a very fine line about this whole context issue which I resonate to. Everybody’s demanding context here but in other situations, if you demand context, it’s being racist.”
The Sisterhood requires members to listen to each other without challenge or argument so that each person’s perspective is accepted at face value. The group’s cofounder, Atiya Aftab, a Muslim lawyer, said that can be a challenge.
“There’s this thinking that if I as a Muslim sit at a table with a Zionist, I am ‘normalising relations’. So even getting Muslims to the table is a challenge because Muslim-Jewish dialogue is often seen only within the current contemporary geopolitical situation which is Israel Palestine,” she said.
“Then once they’re at the table, the second challenge is having dialogue on tough issues. We started off focusing on the fact that Muslims and Jews have had a relationship for over 1,400 years. So let’s build that up. Let’s talk about what our commonalities are.”
Aftab said she was proud of the Muslims in the group because they “categorically condemned” the killing of civilians by Hamas. But she said the dialogue has only gone so far.
“I think the challenge is really acknowledging whether or not this level of violent response is appropriate, whether or not to admit this is a genocide. I think the challenge is acknowledging some of these things,” she said.
“The language that says the response in Gaza is wrong is tepid. They don’t use the language of genocide or inappropriate escalation. Those terms are much more difficult to hear and that’s the challenge of dialogue. I think people feel that I can’t criticise my own, I’m being disloyal.”
Aftab said that even within an organisation dedicated to listening, some people are unable to hear another view in the present circumstances.
“I do see people walking away because I think this is a very hard topic to dialogue on because it’s very emotional. It’s a shame but I can understand why people need to walk away sometimes. We have to take care of our own mental health, we have to take care of ourselves,” she said."