Their Eyes Were Watching Gaza

Arab grocery. London, March 2011.

Europe can be lonely for Israelis. Particularly during campaigns against the Palestinians. In between the anti-war demonstrations, the flyers and the graffiti, there is a perennial sense of favoritism, which many translate as anti-Semitism. Why else would they (the British, the Italians, etc.) always ignore Israel’s suffering? What about the rockets? Do they have any idea what it’s like to spend weeks in underground shelters?

Not all Israelis think this way. However, reinforced by a healthy, and increasingly dominant rightwing media, government and military spokespeople, the consensus has unfortunately grown over the years, eroding much of the diversity of opinion that was once ascribed to Israeli politics. So much so that spending time abroad, where there is, in many respects, an opposite consensus today, it can be extremely challenging. Such is the case in Western European capitols, which, since the height of the era of decolonization in the late 1960s, have become routine sites of mass protest against Israel’s policies.

Mixed messaging. Berlin, August 2012.

No European city has come to symbolize the continent’s partiality towards the Palestinians better than London. The lead photo in this series (top left) is one such example. A Palestinian solidarity flyer, it hangs from the door of an Arab-owned grocery on Golbourne road. Uncontroversial, such media are especially ubiquitous in London neighborhoods like the Portobello area, which serves as a home to both Muslims and Jews, as well as a number of Israeli expats.  (Just go and visit one of the areas hummus places, and you’ll hear a lot of Israeli-accented Hebrew.)  To little or no controversy, one might add. Certainly, Jews in the neighborhood, even if discomfited by such political messaging, accept it as part of the package of living with so much familiar immigrant culture.

Palestinian solidarity graffiti, in cities like Berlin, can be a little more difficult to digest, for obvious historical reasons. Home to a growing Palestinian community, the borough of Neukölln is especially attuned to the Middle East conflict. The graffiti above is but one example. Featuring a slogan typical to pro-Israel, rightwing activists (who consider themselves on the left, ironically,) “Free Gaza From Hamas” frequently appears on street media considered to be anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find any Jews, or members of Berlin’s growing Israeli community, associated with it. It is, in effect, an example of how foreigners hijack the Mideast crisis for their own political ends. To such activists, Israel and Palestine are simply foils.

Stop the massacre in Gaza. London, January 2009.

Few local Jews would argue that London can be extremely difficult, though. Such is the case seeing flyers like the one above,  at the top of Brixton High Street, at the height of Operation Cast Lead.  The idea that Israeli forces had massacred civilians (or that they would ever do such a thing) can still be a hard sell, due to the legacy of the Nazi genocide, and the generally liberal politics of the Diaspora Jewish community. Nonetheless, enough information was coming out about civilian deaths to give one pause. Following widespread reporting of human rights abuses and the killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan by NATO forces, the suggestion that the IDF was guilty of similar transgressions did not fall on entirely deaf ears.

Magazine advert. Paris Metro, June 2010.

Few European countries, unfortunately, have become more associated with anti-Semitism, than France, home to the continent’s largest Jewish community.  Also home to one of Europe’s most widespread populist movements, the legendary National Front,  there is ample reason to fear xenophobia in general, most particularly from the country’s Caucasian community. Historically anti-Semitic, in addition to being Islamophobic, it is only in recent years that the NF has made a concerted attempt to reach out to potential Jewish voters. Eager to leverage Jewish  anxieties about French Islamists, their efforts have been welcomed in certain quarters, most notably Israel’s current political leadership, which has gone out of its way to embrace European extremists like National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

Is that what the critical headline, about Israel’s Gaza policy, in the advertisement above, a reflection of? No, though there are conservative critics of liberal news media who would argue something of that order. Like many foreign news periodicals, this publication reflects a position critical of Israel’s policies that stems from more complex sources than that.  (It is a weekly digest of international news media.) Though one might be tempted to ascribe it to similarly racist leftwing intellectuals (or Palestinian sympathizers,)  that remains a a hard sell, too. Still, the reiteration of such criticism, in such a charged political context, makes it difficult for many to separate left from right. This contributes to the fear that Europe is simply anti-Semitic, and that the prejudice is subscribed to equally, by persons of all political persuasions.

It is hard to imagine this situation changing, especially as communal conflicts in France intensify. Not only do minorities have to contend with the rising threat of the National Front. Relations between Muslims and Jews are on the decline, too. Often citing the Arab-Israeli conflict as a source of this stress (Mohamed Merah, for example,) French Islamists do little to help dampen the conflation of anti-Semitism with Israel criticism in their country. Still, they need to be separated, even in instances of stress between French minorities, as Israel, and religion, may have little to do with what divides them.

Anti-Cast Lead graffiti. Milan, April 2009.

The biggest concern about Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians is that it will inevitably lead to the radicalization of foreign opinions about Israel, and, ultimately, Jewry. Such anxieties are on the rise, as Israel’s political establishment continues to move to the right, and prosecutes security policies which stand little to no chance of being sympathized with abroad (even amongst Diaspora Jewry.)  The intense anger expressed in this photograph, shot in Milan’s Via Padova neighborhood not longer after Operation Cast Lead, can easily be understood as a harbinger of such potential prejudices.

“For the children of Gaza, fuck Israel,” the main piece of graffiti reads. Accompanying prints including “Boycott Israel,” (with a crossed out Israeli flag) and “No to government (concentration) camps. Free everybody,” in reference to the criminalization and internment of illegal migrants, many of whom come from Middle Eastern countries. The use of the word ‘lager’ of course, is harsh, given the fact that the German world is also used as a term to designate Nazi death camps. To include such language, together with anti-Israeli graffiti, will never stop being difficult to swallow. Still, it is important to remember that it is in reference to Europe, not Israel.


Photographs courtesy of the author



  1. “The biggest concern about Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians is that it will inevitably lead to the radicalization of foreign opinions about Israel, and, ultimately, Jewry.” Really, the biggest concern? Not the death rate among Palestinian civilians, whose casualty figures outnumber those of Israelis several hundred times over; or the growth of settlements in the West Bank, with the virulently racist stigmatization of Palestinians that accompanies it; or the enforced immiseration of an entire population in Gaza? This article repeats the utterly threadbare conflation between criticism of Israel’s actions and the menace of anti-Semitism even as it purports to distinguish them, but what’s most extraordinary about it is its narcissistic aversion to facing the reality on the ground in Palestine: another brutal and disproportionate attack on a largely defenseless people who have been systematically denied justice for decades. Rather than focus on his own discomfort at the public airing of discontent with Israel in Europe – at a level that of course he wouldn’t find in the US – the author might reflect on what’s incumbent on the citizen of any nation when confronted with instances of state terror. It was that way with Americans in Europe during the Iraq war, and it’s the same with Israel’s sympathizers now.

  2. Yes, if you accept the fact that in Europe, Israelis (and Jews) tend to focus more on feeling victimized than they focus on the Palestinian question. In many respects, being in Europe amplifies their sense of victimization, because of the Holocaust, and because it is such a remarkably different discursive space than Israel. A culture of denial will problematize being here that way. Hence this article’s focus on Europe, which, for all the wrong reasons, tends to be what’s focused on. Not the plight of the Palestinians, or the ongoing occupation. It’s a very narcissistic worldview. But it needs to be addressed in order to be overcome.

  3. OK, late here, but I really don’t know how I feel about this use of ‘narcissism’ in regard to Israeli and Jewish anxieties about what appears to be growing antisemitism. It is a singular perspective yes, but narcissistic?
    It strikes me that this essay is very even handed, and hardly dismissive of Palestinian suffering. And it does an important job of dealing with both the legacy of the far-right traditionally antisemitic groups, their developing Islamophobia and xenophobia, and the leveraging of Jewish anxiety in campaigns (very perverse).
    I’m also very grateful for the acknowledgement of a situation that has me and some friends feeling quite ambivalent. I can be a supporter of a Palestinian state, but that does little to protect me from the anti-Israeli (i.e. no right to exist; characterisations of all Israelis as somehow bloodthirsty and violent) statements and antisemitic rhetoric used by some friends and colleagues. It is a really uncomfortable position, particularly as it limits, rather than enhances political participation. (I did not feel like I could march in a Scottish demonstration where its participants brandished signs that read ‘We are Hezbollah’ and other friends report feeling like they may have stepped into a pogrom on the verge.) In effect, the radicalisation of discourse may be inflaming some Europeans to action, but it’s also managing to create fear and discomfort among those who would otherwise be active.
    I’m not be as clear or precise as I’d like here, and suspect I’ve gone a bit off topic, but it is a mistake to divorce this discomfort and fear from the larger context. And it’s a mistake to dismiss it as narcissism– particularly as many of us in Europe are not as far from the Holocaust as Americans are– in terms of location and generation. And finally, it’s a mistake to think that this concern means I am somehow disregarding the plight of Palestinians.

    And on another topic: Joel, do you think the ‘Hamas out of Gaza’ is solely a xenophobic hijacking? I certainly see how it could be, but I am aware that Hamas isn’t entirely thrilling as a governing body to the people within Gaza. I could be wrong, but I wonder.

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