The UK Parliament recently cast a historic vote to officially recognise the state of Palestine. Although the vote is still only symbolic, the MPs at Westminster aren’t alone in their defiance of U.S.-backed Israeli policies in the occupied territories. More than 60 academics at Cambridge University have signed a statement calling for an immediate end to the Israeli blockade on Gaza and the “discriminatory and dehumanising treatment of Palestinians”.
Clément Mouhot and Lorna Finlayson, the academics at King’s College who co-drafted the statement, reflect here on the enduring crisis in Palestine and respond to critics who say that singling out Israel is “misguided”, “myopic”, or “immoral”.
The Israel-Palestine situation is not simple, but it is certainly not a symmetric conflict between equally right or wrong adversaries either. The situation has a name: colonial occupation. This is something familiar in France, which only retreated from Algeria and Indochina—and with much bloodshed—when the people of those countries rose up and organised an anti-colonial resistance.
Some among Israel’s ruling class would like to claim that history—either the memory of the Holocaust, or the wars waged in the past by surrounding Arab countries against Israel—vindicates this neocolonial occupation. Whatever oppression or injustices a people have endured, it does not morally justify that people in oppressing another. The point is all the clearer in a case like that of the Palestinians, in which the population in question has nothing to do with the oppression or injustices once suffered by their current oppressors.
Others would like to justify the bullying and oppression of millions of Palestinian people with reference to the anti-Semitic slogans attributed to certain factions or organisations like Hamas. This logic of collective punishment is morally repugnant, a thin veil for an attitude of genuine contempt for the lives of Palestinians. Those who make that argument would be rightly horrified by any suggestion that the outrageous actions and racist discourses of certain extremist Jewish settlers justify the murders of Israeli citizens.
Israel’s most recent prolonged attack on Gaza, ‘Operation Protective Edge’, was the third in less than 6 years. The latest spate of bombing is thought to be the most devastating that the inhabitants of Gaza have ever experienced. 2,139 Palestinians were killed, the vast majority of them civilians, including at least 490 children (on the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and six civilians lost their lives – including a four year-old child.) Gaza’s hospitals, schools, mosques, and factories were systematically bombed. Entire families were wiped out.
Mainstream media attention crescendos when, for a number of days or weeks, the bombs are falling and hundreds or thousands of people die in a short period of time. Between these episodes, the media to a large extent loses interest, and it would be easy for people to assume that there was nothing much happening. But even in the last few weeks, Israel has used the end of Operation Protective Edge, and of the international media scrutiny that went with it, to announce a new wave of illegal settlements. State and settler violence against Palestinians is on-going. The blockade of Gaza is calculated to keep the 1.8 million people contained in the city-sized strip of land on the edge of starvation. These conditions will inevitably engender resistance, and can only be maintained by constant violence on the part of the Israeli state—a violence which periodically spills over into the mass killing of Palestinian civilians.
With the escalation of this on-going violence, the chorus of criticism has been rising too: mainstream media coverage, the stance of politicians, and academic opinion alike have undergone a small but perceptible shift in recent months, as the images of destruction in Gaza reverberate around the world. The chorus is answered with a strange and increasingly desperate-sounding propaganda tune, heard across the U.S. and much of Europe: these activists targeting Israel are obsessed by this issue even though there are lots of other atrocities committed, and people dying horrific deaths every day elsewhere in the world (with the murders of Christians in Iraq, the war in Ukraine, or simply through starvation in the poorest countries); therefore these single-minded activists can only be driven by anti-Semitism.
The argument ascends to a dizzying level of moral irresponsibility: it admits that the injustices, oppression and murders committed in Palestine are as bad as other atrocities in the world, holding only that focusing on this one would be ‘anti-Semitic’. With this reasoning, what should we say about all the people who have dedicated their lives for one particular cause, be it fighting segregation in the U.S., fighting apartheid in South Africa, or fighting for abortion in many countries? Did those people’s commitment to one particular cause diminish the righteousness of their fight for that cause? Of course not. It is time that the situation in Palestine is recognised for what it is: a colonial occupation, supported by the USA and also by Europe to a large extent, that is to be condemned and fought just like all other colonial occupations in the past.
It is not enough simply to condemn each session of bombing as it happens. Those who care about this issue must work to maintain the pressure and scrutiny that is needed if we are not to be complicit in the violence being done to millions of people. This includes trying to build a more durable awareness of the situation among as many people as possible. Change is not going to come from academics, but the least we can do is to speak out in accordance with our consciences when required, and to try to educate one another and our students. If academics can make any contribution at all, this can only be a slow burn: the building and maintenance of a culture of critique which just might, in some way and at some point, play a role in a struggle that is both broader and longer. The new academic year seems to us like an opportune time to start doing that.
Clément Mouhot is Professor of Mathematics and Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge.
Lorna Finlayson is a Junior Research Fellow in Philosophy at King’s College, Cambridge.