I grew up in an anti-Semitic household. I have relatives who treat “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as fact and not as the vile, racist propaganda that it is.
I am not immune to anti-Semitic biases, just as I am not immune to racist, misogynistic, homophobic, classist, ableist or even Islamophobic biases. Despite all the anti-oppression work I do, whether through student groups or in my personal life, it is a constant struggle to keep these biases in check. In fact, my struggles against oppression have taught me how to identify my own biases and how I may perpetuate oppressive systems as much as it has taught me how to identify centers of power to fight against.
I do not publicly make these recognitions for a pat on the back for how good of a social justice advocate I am. Nor do I make them in resignation—“we’re all a bit racist, so relax.” I recognize these biases as a reminder that the struggle for justice is a constant and never-ending process; it’s as much a practice in self-awareness as it is an effort to fight against oppressive structures. I also remind myself that my own oppression isn’t isolated; it intersects with all other kinds of oppression and there’s no way one can fight for the rights of one group while another continues to be marginalized.
I keep all of this in mind when I do Palestinian solidarity work. The issue affects my family and me in an intimate way, but it is very much entwined with my own daily life as a Duke student. I am driven to ensure that people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, members of lower socioeconomic status, Muslims and other marginalized groups can feel safe and empowered on Duke’s campus and in the United States at large. But I also inform my thoughts and behaviors on how our own action and inaction perpetuate the suffering of people worldwide, including that of the Palestinian people.
Our government, through military aid and diplomatic pressures, and our population, through its attitudes, help to perpetuate the largest refugee population in the world—over 5 million Palestinians and their descendants. Palestinians in the West Bank lack freedom of movement, self-determination or even proper access to water. An imposing 700-km-long wall not only separates the Palestinian population from Israel but also splits up many Palestinian villages while annexing more land into Israel. As Gaza is under a full blockade, the Israeli military counts the amount of calories needed to keep the population at just-above-tolerable levels of malnutrition. Palestinians within Israel may have formal access to citizenship, but they are still part of the larger system of oppression against Palestinians perpetuated by the Israeli state. The fact that there are Arabs in Knesset doesn’t do away with the institutional inequalities such as poorer health care, education and limited access to land ownership. Just as having black congressmen in the late 19th century didn’t undo Jim Crow or, in the present day, having a black president doesn’t undo the fact that one in nine young black males are in prison.
It’s not just prejudice (the attitude that Palestinians or Arabs or Muslims are somehow inherently violent, savage or otherwise unworthy of free and dignified lives) but institutional power that constitute the oppression of Palestinians. The destinies of Palestinians are largely at the mercy of the technologically and militarily advanced state of Israel, with large support from our very own nation.
But as I remember the suffering of the Palestinians, I remind myself not to lose sensitivity to the historical oppression of the Jewish people. No one can afford to forget the Holocaust—the most brutal, mechanized and tragic genocide in human history, claiming over 6 million Jewish souls—and we must all say “never again” to such a collective human failure. The suffering didn’t end after the fall of the Third Reich. Anti-Semitism was, and still is, rampant. The Jewish people deserve safety and self-empowerment just like everyone else.
Too often—and even once is too often—I see those who have similar awareness of the suffering of the Palestinian people yet harbor outright hatred for Jews. Holocaust denial. Equating the actions of an oppressive regime with the faith of an entire group of people. Dehumanizing civilians as targets of terrorist attacks.
When I stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people, I also must take a stand against those individuals and groups. Their fight is not my fight. It is not the fight of the vast majority of the Palestinian people. The fight against oppression can’t be fueled by hate and prejudice against an entire people.
With recent polling data suggesting that almost 70 percent of Israelis would not support voting rights for Palestinians if the West Bank were formally annexed into Israel, it’s clear that the mistrust and prejudice runs both ways. Just like in South Africa, before the process of truth and reconciliation can truly begin, the oppressive structures must first be undone. Settlements must be dismantled. The wall must be torn down. Palestinian refugees should be given the right to return to their rightful homes. It’s a long and never-ending process to face the biases we all have and to fight oppression, and it must start with us.
Ahmad Jitan is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Thursday. You can follow Ahmad on Twitter @AhmadJitan.