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Anti-Palestinian Racism – The Socially Acceptable Racism of Our Time?

Anti-Palestinian Racism – The Socially Acceptable Racism of Our Time?

Categories: Latest News

Thursday May 02 2024

Anti-Palestinian Racism (APR) is the distinct form of prejudice and persecution Palestinians face on account of their ethnic, racial, and religious identity, as well as their indigeneity to historic Palestine. While APR has long existed, it has become increasingly recognisable in the current context of the genocide in Gaza.

According to the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, APR is a form of racism that “silences, excludes, erases, stereotypes, defames or dehumanizes Palestinians or their narratives”. APR takes various forms and can be directed towards those perceived to be Palestinian as well as their allies. However, it is always the Palestinian identity that is under attack. Palestinians face discrimination across multiple and intersecting identities, which along with their unique history, shapes a distinct Palestinian experience and creates unique patterns of oppression. Palestinians are perceived to be always Muslim and Arab by which they face additional discrimination in the form of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.

Although domestic laws and global conventions afford all racial groups protections against discrimination, APR is not commonly recognised as a form of racism and so there is no society-wide response to prevent or deal with it and its outcomes. Rather, the absence of the concept in common discourse ensures its continuity and means that it goes unrecognised and unchallenged in global media and politics, as well as public and online spaces.

Western politicians have expressed APR through a rhetoric which dehumanises Palestinians and justifies Israel’s collective punishment as ‘proportionate’. Following Hamas’ terrorist attack on 7 October, President Joe Biden extended sympathy to Israel over its loss, but dismissed the Palestinian death toll as unreliable. Similarly, some British politicians have shown disregard for Palestinian lives in their refusal to acknowledge Israel’s violation of international humanitarian law. In October 2023, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer suggested that Israel had the right to withhold power and water from Gaza. He justified such Israeli war crimes against civilians by saying that “Israel has a right to defend itself.” Labour’s Shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, followed suit by saying that a ground invasion of Gaza would be “acceptable” and that Israel’s airstrike on Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza “can be legally justified”, even when faced with the reality that so many Palestinians had been killed.

Since then, some government officials have expressed concerns over Israel’s breach of international law and a number of MPs have urged the government to impose an arms embargo on Israel to deter their risk of complicity in Israeli war crimes. Instead, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and a number of government officials have denied such breach, restating their unequivocal support for Israel while failing to mention the Palestinian death toll.

Despite a staggering 35,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza, Sunak has maintained his position in support of Israel and his refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire, insisting on humanitarian pauses instead.  When urged to do so by Muslim MP Zarah Sultana in January this year, Sunak dismissed her comments and responded with an Islamophobic trope, telling her to “call on Hamas and the Houthis to de-escalate the situation”. Not only did Sunak use Sultana’s religion to associate her with terrorists but directed blame away from Israel to justify the UK, USA and Israel’s actions. Even as government lawyers have said that Israel has breached International law, which David Cameron himself said he was “worried” about, and the International Court of Justice’s finding of ‘plausible’ genocide, with which many UN officials agree, the UK continues to provide arms and military assistance to Israel. Support for Israel is often legitimised through the repeating of Israeli propaganda and the dehumanisation of Palestinians by which human rights no longer apply.

The unequal treatment of Palestinians and Israelis is also mirrored in the media. Both right-wing and mainstream media outlets are deeply complicit in propagating APR through the framing of Israelis as victims of brutality and Palestinian deaths as collateral damage. While Israelis are actively killed at the hands of Hamas, Palestinians are faceless victims whose deaths are often not attributed a cause, as if by natural disaster, rather than at the hands of Israel’s military. Mainstream media has often shown a disregard for the welfare of Palestinian children by referring to Israeli minors wrongfully kidnapped by Hamas as “children hostages”, in comparison to Palestinian “young people”, to direct the reader’s sympathy.

While the media has given significant attention to Israeli hostages and their individuality, Palestinian hostages that are held in Israeli prisons are framed as criminals and largely ignored. Journalists grieve Israeli trauma but the lack of any criminal conviction and the severe physical abuse endured by Palestinian children under Israeli administrative detention is rarely mentioned. Instead, Journalists and commentators deploy racist stereotypes and Islamophobic tropes to justify Israel’s actions, pin the blame on Palestinians and imply that they have brought the suffering on themselves.

Few give voice to Palestinians and their supporters, and where they do, they are expected to condemn Hamas and are often silenced. Until the Palestinian death toll reached the tens of thousands, the mainstream media’s focus largely remained on Israel’s justification and not the cost of Gazan lives. This bias was made particularly clear when outlets, both in the UK and USA, chose not to broadcast South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice but gave full, live coverage to Israel’s defence the following day. The result of this highly selective media discourse is a warped perception of reality, where the Israeli state’s narrative is the only version of the truth, while Palestinian voices are gaslighted or silenced altogether.

APR also entails the criminalisation of pro-Palestine activism which has real and often damaging consequences for allies including professional, public and legal sanctions. Individuals have been suspended from schools, universities and employment, faced defamation, and in extreme cases been met with violence. Dissenting voices are not tolerated as pro-Palestine commentators have had their segments edited out of news programmes, and academics and public speakers have had their events cancelled. Similarly, pro-Palestine content has been increasingly censored on social media platforms.

The criminalisation of pro-Palestine activism normalises APR especially when it stems from the heart government. As mass demonstrations commenced in October 2023, former Home Secretary, Suella Braverman attempted to criminalise various forms of pro-Palestine activism, calling pro-Palestine protests “hate marches”, attempting to ban the Palestinian flag, and labelling chants for Palestinian freedom antisemitic. Since then, the UK government have sought to crack down on pro-Palestine demonstrations through changes to protest laws and the counter-extremism agenda, while Sunak himself has conflated peaceful protestors with extremism and others have characterised them as ‘Islamist’.

The criminalisation of Palestine’s allies rests on the assumption that any critique of the Israeli state is inherently antisemitic, while support for Palestinians is seen as sympathising with terrorists. Jake Wallis Simons, editor of the Jewish Chronicle terms “Israelophobia” as rooted in antisemitism and egregiously equates support for Palestinians with “support for the murder and desecration of Jews”. Others have suggested that those who support Palestinians naturally endorse terrorism, “glorify slaughter” or that “Anyone that is pro-Palestinian is pro-Hamas”. This highlights the double standard in what proponents of APR consider acceptable under free speech.

Critics of pro-Palestine activism rely on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism under which critique of the Israeli state becomes problematic and facilitates the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. This in itself is the driving force behind APR as it enables discrimination against Palestinians while simultaneously denying its existence. However, there are highly credible alternatives. The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism provides a definition which allows for legitimate critique of Zionism and the Israeli state and does not consider support for Palestinians as antisemitic. This definition is more compatible with the notion of free speech as found in Western democracies and provides an understanding of antisemitism which does not rest on the discrimination of another racial group.

The most blatant form of APR is that committed by the Israeli state towards Palestinians. Palestinians have long been subject to indiscriminate violence, detention and torture, displacement, and discrimination. Human rights groups, and even former Israeli officials, have said that Palestinians live under an enforced system of apartheid in which their lack of racial parity with Israeli citizens denies them the same rights and dignities.

The APR of the Israeli state, like other forms of racism, operates under a system of racial hierarchy by which Palestinian inferiority is constructed and maintained, and goes further to dehumanise Palestinians. Scholars and human rights organisations have argued that dehumanisation is often a precursor to genocide. Israeli politicians and spokespersons often use a language that reduces Palestinians to animals which denies their humanity and, as a consequence, their human rights. For example, in October 2023, Israeli Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, said “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly”, justifying the siege and bombardment of Gaza. The likening of Palestinians to animals has been repeated by numerous Israeli officials which the ICJ said may amount to “genocidal incitement”. Similarly, all Palestinians are equated with terrorists to justify Israeli war crimes and hold Palestinian civilians as legitimate targets.

The APR of the Israeli state also works to deny Palestinian indigeneity which encourages settler violence and the displacement of Palestinians from their ancestral lands. The overt APR expressed by Israeli officials and adopted by settlers works to erase Palestinian identity, justify their expulsion from historic Palestine and the extreme violence committed by the Israeli state.

So how should it be tackled? APR needs to be named and popularised in an effort towards tackling a form of racism that has so permeated our media and politics and works to silence, erase, and dehumanise Palestinians and their identity. There are some practical ways in which we can contribute towards raising awareness of and addressing APR. Activists, politicians, academics, journalists, and institutions need to discuss the term and call out APR where it exists. Governments, law enforcement agencies, and lawyers need to adopt an understanding of APR that will ensure accountability, while intergovernmental organisations need to name and challenge its grave manifestations in global politics. We as individuals can also raise awareness by disseminating information and campaigning to promote ways of tackling APR and advocacy for Palestinian rights. Finally, politicians and the media need to adopt a position of impartiality and treat Palestinians and Israelis equally as this is the basis of tackling all forms of racism.

As in any anti-racism movement, recognising APR is a step towards giving voice to the oppressed, standing up for racial justice, and addressing inequalities and prejudice in both the treatment and perception of Palestinians as rights-bearing individuals.


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