Opinion

What Are the Boundaries of Criticizing an Oppressed Society?

Palestinian women protest in support of women's rights outside the prime minister's office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 2, 2019
AFP

Is it permissible to criticize a social group that has suffered prolonged oppression and exploitation? Does someone who belongs to the oppressors’ group have a right to participate in such criticism?

These are questions that trouble me every day, as a reporter on the Israeli occupation. These are also two of the vital questions that weren’t asked in the recent storm du jour over the unleashed language of television journalist Yaron London, but they emerge from between the lines of his statements about Arab culture.

The storm has died down, and we’re already being promised a new and chilling series by Ron Cahlili about Israelis’ unvarnished hatred for Arabs. And people are already predicting that it won’t create any fissures in our arrogant attitude. Because Israeli culture has been shaped by decades of rule over another people, by its expulsion and dispossession of that people, and by its need to conceal and justify these deeds and its intent to continue committing and perfecting them.

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No culture emerges fully formed, all at once, from the bosom of history. Culture is dynamic. It is created, and continues to be created, by the layers, aggregations and intersections of human behavior and creativity, by geography, historical and economic processes, foreign occupations and calamities, forced migrations, the dictates of climate, and liberation struggles both failed and successful.

In other words, if our current culture is boastful, arrogant, racist and hungry for power and land, it isn’t because of our Jewish genes, but because of the circumstances that caused us to be dispossessors and to benefit from the dispossession.

Racism and sexism aren’t the causes of sickening inequality; they are means of preserving and cultivating excess privilege accumulated by social, gender and national groups over the course of thousands, hundreds and dozens of years. At some point, racism and sexism take on a life and personality of their own. They formulate laws, guide religious and national courts and shape religious, military and scientific thinking. They become so natural that we no longer even see them.

But on the flip side, the groups that were dispossessed and oppressed and that suffered from racism for hundreds of years aren’t devoid of flaws. And indeed, we Israelis adore reports about corruption in the Palestinian Authority, the murder of women, brawls between Arab clans, reckless driving, the sanctification of guns (here the oppressed is imitating the oppressor), trash thrown into public spaces, corruption in Hamas, persecution of members of the LGBTQ community and ignorant nonsense published in the Palestinian media.

Israel’s position of superiority allows us to scrutinize every detail of our subjects’ lives with a magnifying glass, to depict it as positive or negative as we see fit, while ignoring the inevitable context of oppression and dispossession.

But must every negative phenomenon be connected solely to the many years of subservience and the ongoing trauma of dispossession that has continued since 1948? When is violence among the Palestinians a product of anger generated by our occupation and abuse of them, and when is it fed by the patriarchy, which sees women and children as property, or by property disputes between clans? When does Palestinian leaders’ indifference toward their people stem from the fact that they are embarrassingly held hostage by Israel and its Shin Bet, and when is it the natural indifference of leaders who, because they are leaders, want to preserve their status?

These are questions that the Palestinians think about all the time, though less in the media and more in private conversations.

Is it possible to generate positive change and stop the processes of social disintegration when Palestinians live under the constant threat of being expelled or killed, and when we’re waging an economic and psychological war of attrition against them? Even though the chances are slim, there are Palestinian groups and organizations on both sides of the Green Line that continue to believe this is possible and strive to make it happen.

What’s clear is that most Israelis, who think it’s our right to dispossess and are blind to the militaristic culture of expulsion we have developed, have no right to criticize the Palestinians. Criticism coming from them is just another drone strike by the neighborhood thug.