Let’s be clear: the engineered omerta against the Palestinian fight for liberation exists in many places and continues to do a lot of damage. But in the specific context of this introspection, we ought to speak about Palestine’s centrality in the global anti-colonial struggle and the problems this raises in terms of solidarity. In this text, Karim Kattan provides a sharp yet generous reflection on these problems and the emotions we need to summon to address them.
In activist groups and in some progressive circles in many places of the world, we often look to Palestinian steadfastness as an inspiration, an ideal, or a culmination; or, to the ongoing Israeli occupation as a dire warning concerning the durability and ever-growing solidity of systems of colonization. The reasons for Palestine’s centrality in the global architecture of contemporary struggles are numerous and well-known. They include, of course, the length, depth, and breadth of its predicament. The Israeli occupation provides a useful mirror for other situations: inspired as it is by historic European colonization, it is an effective summary of 20th century history, and as a pioneer in the fields of armaments, populations management, and more, acts as a blueprint for future technologies of oppression. The particularly stark type of injustice enacted in Palestine, with its visible forms such as checkpoints, the wall, or the brutal and regular bombardments of Gaza, makes for an easily identifiable struggle to connect with. Palestinian lives are made entirely disposable by the sophisticated design of the occupation; we face daily subjugation, threat of maiming, and worse. We live in visibly fragmented geographies, are disconnected, isolated, and faced with an onslaught of physical, administrative, and symbolic violence. The length of the occupation, and the fast-paced and seemingly unstoppable nature of colonization, also have identified Palestine as a crisis; paradoxically locating us both in the long history of the 20th century and in the short history of emergencies. This has made Palestine into one of the most focussed upon issues of our time in activist circles, with a quantity of information produced around it that has few equivalents in terms of speed, comprehensiveness, and interest.
Beyond that, Palestine is also a crux historically: as the center of various religious and imperial appetites throughout the centuries from the East or the West, it necessarily speaks to many people’s imaginations. Thus, Palestine also acts as a linchpin for activist movements, a convenient shared struggle that gels into a cohesive whole. As a country, as a region, as a reality both political, social, and cultural, and as an object of speech and knowledge, Palestine arguably concentrates more than many other places a significant number of people’s projections and fantasies. Much more than it, or we, can even hold without breaking under their weight. People throughout Europe, North America, across the Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula, and sometimes even beyond these regions, have opinions about Palestine, which they believe to be the truth, and that they are often eager to share or see enacted as policy. These opinions, often, are shaped by their own fantasies of Palestine as a political reality, as a religious space, and as a real or symbolic struggle against real or symbolic imperialism. Palestine can provide a heady mixture of folklore, histories, fantasies, as well as personal and collective histories. Consequently, solidarity with Palestine has had a long history throughout the 20th century. It is, in fact, so prevalent in some circles that we joke it has lost its meaning—uttering the word “solidarity” at home today without irony might elicit rolled eyes and exasperated sighs.
In return, Palestinian solidarity with other global struggles can sometimes be witnessed. Indeed, the Palestinian struggle is historically an international one: Palestinian activists have taken inspiration from and pay tribute to the South African struggle against apartheid or the civil rights movement in the United States. Some recent shows of alleged solidarity, however, have left me wondering about the way we Palestinians engage with other struggles, the space we give to them, and how we construe our role within them. It’s an uncomfortable discussion to have, especially since it can easily be weaponized against us, or used in ways we do not mean it to.
This is not to discount actual solidarities that are enacted from Palestinians to the world, but to invite ourselves to consider why we are less likely to reach out or have knowledge about other colonial realities in the world, or ones that do not necessarily connect to Palestine.
One such exemplary discomfort for me in recent years has been the increasing popularity of the phrase “Palestinian Lives Matter,” and the context surrounding it. I can understand why it is popular, and what the reasoning behind its usage is. The material realities of anti-Palestinian violence in Palestine and of anti-Black violence in the United States indeed share many traits. The values of our lives are similarly dismissed. Both populations face mass incarceration, discrimination, police, and military brutality. The United States and Israel share techniques, strategies, and apparatus. Police departments in cities such as New York or Chicago engage in law enforcement exchanges with Israeli police officers. In 2014, Black and Palestinian solidarity was made visible as the massive protests over the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson coincided with Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza that killed over 2,300 Palestinians. Each renewed bombing and decimation of Gaza, and each indignity of the occupation reminds us in spectacular and less spectacular ways that there is little value placed on Palestinian lives, safety, health, and happiness.
I understand, furthermore, that drawing such a comparison is useful in uncovering systemic realities which underpin global systems of oppression. It helps us make sense of the world and articulate how our struggles fit within planetary contexts of power. It sheds a light on the way oppressors share their strategies, helping us in turn to share our own. It bears reminding that the Palestinian movement and Black activism have long-standing historical roots.
I understand, then, that “Palestinian Lives Matter” is a convenient, effective, and meaningful shorthand for this refusal to dismiss the value of our lives, for the similar structures that oppress (though, I would argue, this comparison reaches its limits very fast), and to point the way to past, current, and future solidarities.
I am however wary of comparisons, as a rule. First, because they make for specious arguments that tend to flatten the uniqueness of situations into an all-purpose understanding of the world. In a way, they dismiss nuance in favor of a soundbite; they end up weakening an argument as they function by analogy rather than demonstration. Second, because where there is a comparison, there is often something suspicious behind it: a shrug of the shoulders, some kind of guilty conscience, a blind spot, or a whiff of whataboutism.
“Palestinian Lives Matter” serves, ultimately, as a way to dismiss the uniqueness of the threat and violence faced by Black people in the United States. One of the aims of “Black Lives Matter” is to challenge the regimes of visibility and grievability in the U.S. and elsewhere, to make Black people, and violence against Black bodies, visible and unacceptable. It is both a push-back against a specific history of anti-Black violence and the legacy of chattel slavery in the United States and a generative statement in that context.
When we say, “Palestinian Lives Matter,” we are not saying that we support Black people’s right to live in peace, in safety, and to have the ability to thrive. What we are saying is: “What about us?” Instead of enacting solidarity, which would require us to step back, to listen, to make space, we are co-opting the phrase and its vocabulary for our own purposes.
In 2020, in Bethlehem, a mural was painted on the apartheid wall depicting Iyad al-Hallaq, the 32-year-old Palestinian man who was shot and killed by Israeli police in May of that same year. The graffiti next to it reads: “Not only Floyd, Iyad Hallaq too.” Around the same time, the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy shared a drawing expressing this sentiment, visualizing the supposed similarities between the two situations. Other depictions included George Floyd wearing a kufiyah or standing in front of a Palestinian flag. These depictions, this swiftness in appropriating a struggle not our own should make us pause. What does this mean? Why do we feel the need to do this? These are not expressions of solidarity but parallelisms. The message sent by these depictions is that Black bodies are hogging the spotlight—the one we think should be occupied by Palestinians—and that we demand to be put back center stage. In the mural, George Floyd is mentioned only by his family name (whereas Iyad al-Hallaq is fully named), as if he were reduced to the symbol of something else. The accompanying graffiti assumes a world where the circulation of images depends on a life’s value. It postulates that George Floyd’s image, because he is American, circulated — therefore received due justice and was grieved—but Iyad al-Hallaq’s did not; as if this were the foundational injustice, a difference in the distribution of attention.
These co-optations, no matter how well-intentioned, are made even more tasteless because anti-Black racism is prevalent throughout the Arab world—nowadays as it has historically been—and especially strong in Palestine, where African Palestinians in cities such as Jericho or Jerusalem face normalized, widespread, racism, and where the most common and normal word to use for a Black person is “slave.” These depictions do not occur in a vacuum but in our very situated culture. This culture is one based on unreckoned-with slavery—the Trans-Saharan slave trade, for one—and prevalent contemporary anti-Black racism. In this context, instead of emphasizing similarities to share an alleged spotlight, we should be more careful and caring. What do we achieve by comparing? We can demonstrate how systems are complicit with each other, how they are nested within each other, without what amounts to cheap stunts at the expense of others’ lives.
I suspect a lot of our so-called solidarity then was enacted to use the experience of “Black Lives Matter” as an aid in the spectacle of ourselves, a device in the grand narrative of our heroism. In effect, what we have done is mine other struggles for vocabularies and realities not our own, to use them for ourselves—completely erasing our own history and complicity in anti-Black racism.
To be clear, there have been expressions of solidarity that did not require or imply reciprocity but were expressed just as is. Protesters in Gaza sent their condolences. One mural especially in the West Bank depicted George Floyd alone, not as a prop to our own struggle. Unfortunately, most of this so-called solidarity has been expressed solely to shift a bit of the light back on us.
I believe we should be wary when solidarity implies reciprocity or recognition, as it becomes something altogether different. Solidarity should not be a counting game. And yet, despite this, we should take the time to consider the discrepancy between the effective ways in which solidarity is enacted in one direction or in the other.
The examples above are not echoes or homages, but the mining and co-optation of a vocabulary and a struggle in favor of a quick, emotional reaction. Historically, Black people in North America have stood in solidarity with Palestinians in much deeper ways than we have with them. This seems to be an identifiable pattern: I have seen how Indigenous solidarity with Palestinians in the United States or Canada is a given, when the opposite is not necessarily true, or often reduced to similarly appropriative approaches. Likewise, in our many conversations around this, Léopold has mentioned how he witnessed comparable discrepancies, for instance between Kanak knowledge of and solidarity with us and our lack of knowledge of their struggle in return.
In short, the production and distribution of knowledge, of value, and of concern is uneven. This is, of course, an inevitable consequence of the centrality of Palestine and the result of far-reaching historical and political processes. But it is precisely for this that we should pay close, critical, attention to this unevenness if we are to broaden the scopes and meanings of our solidarities.
Having lived in France, I have witnessed often how Palestine can be used in activist circles as a tool to deflect from other appalling situations. The centrality of Palestine in activist consciousness sometimes gives it a greater, more noble aura, and more pressing urgency: as if it were the first, and foremost, and most important priority in activism. I have heard “What about Palestine?” muttered or shouted in many situations, concerning many debates, sometimes in a way that felt relevant, but more often as an outright non-sequitur.
It also results in what I sometimes see as a disastrous drainage of empathy and, therefore, of potential solidarity. I have heard often, concerning the brutal invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army, many people ask: “What about Palestine?” While I understand where the sentiment comes from, and the frustration, it strikes me as not only a misplaced question, but also a noxious one. It reduces what we imagine to be our alliances and how far we think our shared struggles extend. Based on the historically false notion that Western Europeans consider Ukrainians as “white,” the question aims to illustrate the purported hypocrisy in the way the West treats the Ukrainian situation, compared to other allegedly similar invasions. This, in turns, is supposed to explain and denounce the dissymmetry in the way Western Europeans or North Americans relate to these situations, and how sympathetic they are or can be to a specific cause, region, power imbalance. Likewise, concerning Iran’s ongoing movement, fearlessly led by women, I have heard some—whose sudden, convenient understanding of feminism came as a surprise to all—ask, with more than a hint of vindictiveness: “What about Palestinian women?” I understand, here also, that this is meant to express frustration at the uneven distribution of support, sympathy, and time and the hypocrisy of Western (and non-Western) institutions. But the question asked acquiesces to the very terms these institutions are enforcing: that supporting one precludes supporting the other.
Yes, we know that governments are hypocrites; that populations often act on proximity or racist bias or worse. We know that double-standards for who deserves support and empathy are prevalent. We can demonstrate it without doing it at the expense of victims of another imperial invasion or a brutally repressive regime. And in doing so, we can demonstrate that we, indeed, have empathy and broader imaginations. Because our emotional imaginations, one hopes, can accommodate more than one struggle at a time without pitting them against each other, especially for time and attention.
In his poem translated into English in 1970 “The Unknown Continent,” Samih al-Qassim asks Black communities in the United States: “How do we reach you? […] How is the spark to reach you? How is the fire to be born?” A tribute both to the desire to connect our struggles, and to the ways in which the apparatus of imperialism disables any possible connection, reduces our empathies, and makes us compete for crumbs of attention from those very centers of power. I do not wish to end up becoming, in a misguided way, another useful tool to the obfuscation of our shared struggles. I would just like to think through the nuances and how these can perhaps make other sense of shared solidarity emerge.
No-one can be attentive to every political struggle in the world. As obvious as this sounds, it bears repeating. We are, as individuals and as collectives, limited in how much knowledge and empathy we can extend, where, and for how long. There are choices to make. But these choices do not force us to compete; nor do they oblige us to adopt oppressors’ methods, their worldview in which attention is a form of real estate—both online and offline—and therefore a rare commodity, and empathy can only be distributed to those who look like us, and only one at a time.
We can share slogans, be connected in a global way, but we do not need to compete. This is especially true when this competition results in a struggle over who occupies more space on social media, thereby eclipsing the power of physical solidarity, as it assumes that it is only in the digital realm that engaged attention, effective activism, and thoughtful commitment occur. We can also be mindful of our blind spots. In fact, paying attention to these situations as unique (but uniquely connected) doesn’t mean we give up on a systematic understanding of the world and of these layers of oppressions and imperialism; quite the contrary.
I believe that we do not have to engage in constant correction, the reactions to the reaction that Léopold mentions in the introduction. Reaction and correction are useful to steer the conversation, define our terms, and change the narrative. But I am increasingly convinced, as I see us more and more focus on this as our unique goal, that they can become a smokescreen: a way for us to lose our time and lose our solidarities. Worse, they keep us from generating new terminologies and ways of understanding our situations in their specificities. They reduce our imaginations to emotions as regrettable as envy and jealousy. It’s time for us to be more mindful of this, and to move away from this to create generative emotions and generative solidarities. ■