From Trump to Twitter Wars: Dehumanizing Palestine
Guest post by Leila Barghouty
Opinions and commentary on Israel/Palestine, Islamophobia and Antisemitism. Postings do not necessarily represent the views of Jewish Voice for Peace
Recently, President Trump announced that the United States will be recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The move causes two things: a slight increase in convenience for diplomats in Israel, and serious political and social unrest across the Middle East. Photos of storefronts on strike and protesters wielding charred American flags and molotov cocktails dominate coverage of the issue, fueling the argument that the Middle East is a perpetually dangerous and volatile place.
The US is now the only country in the world that recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a city which is home to holy sites for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Awarding Israel unilateral agency over yet another major portion of the Holy Land illustrates the Trump administration’s determination to ensure that Arab and Muslim rights, all over the world, are not protected.
However, this latest spike in attention on the “Palestine versus Israel” issue has also exposed the very cratered face of millenial slacktivism. On both sides, young writers have taken to Twitter to use this ancient war of faith and soil as an excuse to appear relevant and reap the instant gratification that a few new likes and followers yields.
After Trump’s announcement, a tweet from 2010 by conservative columnist and current Editor in Chief of the Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro, was brought back from the dead:
“Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage. This is not a difficult issue. #settlementsrock.”
Though the tweet is old, calling Arabs sewage-dwelling terrorists is still very much on-brand for Shapiro. In fact, he’s built his large following by frequently mixing a cocktail of blatant racism, confused allyship, and self-victimization — using his Jewish identity as an excuse to crucify other ethnic groups based on their blood alone. Much like the symbolic implications that the Jerusalem move reflects onto the Trump administration, Shapiro relying on his Jewish heritage to fuel a narrative hinged on an inherent hatred between Jews and Muslims is nothing short of toxic. Not to mention untrue, as Jewish-led organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace actively fight this narrative, and plenty of American celebrities of all backgrounds have denounced illegal settlements and Zionism.
But Shapiro’s not alone, and his tactic is by no means unique to supporters of Zionism or the conservative right. One Arab journalist (who will remain unnamed) and frequent critic of conservatives like Shapiro, has built a brand illustrating an imagined race-war within the Arab world.
While frequently calling out anti-Arab sentiments like those of Shapiro, she is also notorious in the Twittersphere for constantly antagonizing other Arab journalists and creating a self-victimizing narrative while defending the actions of gross human rights violators like Assad. The journalist consistently and unabashedly uses her Arab, female identity as an excuse to attack and insult other Arabs and criticize Palestinians who talk about their own, personal experiences.
What this journalist and Shapiro (and many more like them) have in common is that rather than back up their arguments with fact and carefully considered opinions, which I don’t doubt they are capable of, they use their targets’ god-given DNA as a justification to constantly put-down, guilt-trip, and dehumanize Palestinians and other Arabs on Twitter. Voices like theirs are like the nuclear weapons of identity politics.
While it’s easy to say that hate speech and baseless accusations on Twitter should be taken with a grain of salt, the problem with Palestine is that it is a label that gives outsiders the audacity to use your lineage as social and political capital — online and in reality.
In my young life as a light-skinned, unveiled Palestinian, it’s been easy for me to hide my Palestinian-ness. As a child, doing so was something my parents encouraged. Now that my social circles are more well-read and the politics of my ancestors more easily accessed, it’s less easy to hide.
But it’s not just haters and bigots that use my blood as a weapon in their own fights. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve met a white peer who decided in their youth to wear the Palestinian struggle as their cause-du-jour, and who takes some strange joy in explaining to me how rewarding it was to see life “on the other side of the wall, first hand.” I usually reply by informing them that I can’t relate, because unlike a “Smith,” or a “Stevenson,”or a “Baker,” my last name alone gives Israel the de facto probable cause they need to bar me from entering my family’s homeland.
Like white feminists who ignore intersectionality, like politicians who insist that some of their closest friends are Black or Jewish, and like men who sexualize certain races over others, both the right and the left are guilty of treating Palestine as a social commodity; a product that can be bought and sold to strengthen tone-deaf arguments and garner attention and praise from their respective echo-chambers.
However, like womanhood, like blackness, like sexuality, and like any heritage, being Palestinian is a state of being that one should not be punished for. It is not something to be tokenized or fetishized. Most importantly, it is not an existence that is inherently violent.
In light of the Jerusalem move, I am urging Palestinians and Arabs on social media to resist fighting hate with hate (I myself am certainly guilty of giving in and making generalizations of my own, emboldened by the safety of speaking from behind a computer screen). I am urging non-Arabs and non-Palestinians to be allies, not appropriators.
Finally, I am urging everyone, ally or adversary, not to treat Palestine as a cheap and fleeting way to bring your self-serving pseudo-altruism to completion.
Leila Barghouty is a Palestinian-American journalist based in New York City. She covers race, diaspora, and conflict in America and across the Middle East. You can find her on Twitter at @PLBarghouty.