Nat Turner and the Palestinians

Nat Turner (L) attacking a settler. Library of Congress, undated.

When 17-year-old Palestinian Muhammed Taraireh stabbed to death 13-year-old Hallel Ariel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came to a child murdering a child.  Outrage in Israel was widespread, even though kids have died by the hundreds – the majority Palestinian. But this one death fit Israel’s official narrative. After visiting Hallel’s bedroom where she died, Netanyahu made a video with this statement:

“You don’t murder a sleeping child for peace. You don’t slit a little girl’s throat to protest a policy you don’t like. You do this because you’ve been brainwashed. You’ve been brainwashed by a warped ideology that teaches you that this child isn’t human. We will not let barbarism defeat humanity.”

For Netanyahu, this event instanced Palestinian barbarism. It presented a rationale for the occupation: we are a liberal, pluralistic society fighting against the Arab darkness that surrounds us. This formulation attempts to hide the daily violence of Israel’s occupation and the means by which towns such as Kiryat Arba have been built. As Palestinians understood when they celebrated a shahid, but Netanyahu cannot understand.

Muhammed Taraireh, who knew he would die in his desperate attack, murdered Hallel Ariel as an affirmation of his own right to an equal humanity. His family, and many more Palestinians, celebrated his death as self-sacrifice to demonstrate a collective right to human equality and self-determination. If a Palestinian could not live with these rights, neither could an Israeli live with superior rights. Human rage totalizes and Palestinian outrage is no different. Such rage does not differentiate between adult and child, between genders, or between political beliefs. From an enraged perspective, an entire class is guilty of denying human equality: to strike at any one of them is to strike at the class as a whole.

This is not unique to Palestinians. Child murder in the name of freedom is visible in US history too. When I teach about the 1831 Nat Turner slave revolt and its major account, The Confessions of Nat Turner, one of the most difficult issues concerns violence against children. Turner recounts how the rebellion began with axe killings of the Travises, an entire family of five. Walking away from the house with his companions, Turner recalls how they forgot an infant in its cradle so two of them return to kill the child too. As the rebels go from house to house they killed children alongside their parents. In one house they killed a mother and her ten children.

Palestinian children, Hebron,
Palestinian children, Hebron,

Students find this reading traumatic. The commonest response is “Why did they kill the children?” A few will point to Thomas Gray, the white attorney who interviewed Nat Turner and published this antagonistic account. Maybe he changed details so as to make Nat Turner into a monster? No, the historical facts are that children died alongside parents in this rebellion. Students have to confront the deliberateness: it was not sufficient for the rebels to kill nearly the whole Travis family, but they turned around and came back to kill an overlooked infant. While sympathetic with the justice of a slave revolt, students have a very difficult time discussing the butchering of children. Many simply leave a seeming contradiction unreconciled. A few may come to the conclusion that it is impossible as modern readers to put ourselves into the shoes of slaves who have been treated as less-than-human for generations.

Despite this mass slaughter of white children, Nat Turner is widely celebrated in American culture as a defiant hero. When the new Nat Turner film, The Birth of a Nation, is released this fall the US will address this history once again. Palestinians who refuse to be subjugated and strike with violent outrage at an oppressor class might easily recognize such moments in US history. Killing the children of oppressors is a desperate response from an underclass whose own children have no future of freedom, equality, and opportunity.

Instead of recognizing Palestinian human equality, the response of settlers has been to excoriate Palestinians – echoing slaveholding white Americans speaking of blacks – as morally deficient beings. In her funeral elegy for her daughter, Rina Ariel said, according to media reports, “I am standing here with a heart filled with pain and I am turning to you, the Arab mother, the Muslim who sent your son out to stab. I raised my daughter with love, but you and the Arab Muslim educators, you taught him to hate. Go, put your house in order.”

Rina Ariel has matters precisely opposite. It is Israeli settlers and Israel that must put their house in order. No two-state peace plan advanced or contemplated allocates Kiryat Arba or Hebron to Israel, nor is the continued existence of these settlements tenable under any plan. The political vision common in Kiryat Arba, a bastion of settler ideologies, is quite opposite: clearance of Arabs and their replacement by Jews. Hallel’s father, Amichai, stated “We have a view here; I don’t want to see this view. There’s a new neighborhood planned… I don’t want to see the view, I want to see a neighborhood.” The unspecified “view” from their Givat Harsina neighborhood is the surrounding Palestinian environs. Arabs spoil his view. The new Jewish neighborhood is to be built on the displacement of Palestinians.

The Ariels have plans for larger expulsions too. Seizing on the murder, Rina Ariel wrote a public letter to prime minister Netanyahu demanding that she and 250 mourners be permitted to conduct prayer ceremonies on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Her husband announced the renaming of the compound’s Moghrabi Gate after their daughter, now to be called Hallel Gate. Rina and Amichai Ariel are long-time supporters of the Temple Mount Faithful movement to build a Third Temple to replace the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques, undoubtedly the surest means of turning a national conflict into an enduring and catastrophic religious war-to-the-finish.

The Ariel family, kin to ultra-right settler minister Uri Ariel who has pressed for the establishment of Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount, has lived in Hebron for over 40 years, almost as long as the occupation. Thirty years ago I was with a delegation that visited with a Palestinian family living immediately adjacent to Kiryat Arba. A couple times a week at night-time someone was throwing hand grenades at their home and taking occasional potshots. Fortunately their stone walls were thick and there were solid metal shutters. No one had been hurt yet, just children frightened. We planted a couple olive trees on the property while settlers gathered on the high ground above and screamed at us. One woman hanging onto the security fence screamed hoarsely in Brooklyn-accented English “Go back to Tel Aviv! You are traitors, scum!” I don’t know what happened to the Palestinian family, but it is most likely that the Kiryat Arba settlers managed to dislodge them and take their land for expansion.

Palestinian youth, Hebron.
Palestinian youth, Hebron.

This is the violence by which Palestinians have been displaced throughout Hebron. It is the Ariels, their neighbors, and their political supporters who bear responsibility for putting Hallel and other children on the front lines of a colonial project that can engender only hatred, resistance, and counter-violence. By charging Palestinians to change and cease resisting occupation, Rina Ariel avoids her own responsibility as an adult participant in an ugly project based on superior means of violence. The colonizer who demands that an occupied and colonized people accept their condition lives in a delusion of circular self-fulfillment where a dominant population dreams of others accepting their own subordination.

So theo-colonialist West Bank settlers and their advocates propose to educate Palestinians on their duties as moral subjects. Caroline Glick, The Jerusalem Post’s star ultra-nationalist columnist, voices such a demand that Palestinians cease resistance and condemns them as morally deficient for refusing to capitulate to Israel’s settlement project. Glick writes “The smart set in the West has insisted for over a generation that Israel and the Palestinians are morally equal” and that the term “cycle of violence” only makes excuses for Palestinian depravity.

In this argument, one that joins the Ariel family in effacing Israeli violence and domination, Palestinian society is no more than the world’s leading manufacturer of anti-Semitism. Any recognition of Palestinian equality – not to mention Israeli responsibility – constitutes evidence that Western political morality has been overcome by “the hate-filled, murder applauding mob” that is Palestine. In Glick’s colonial and racist argument, equality itself is the enemy of humanity.   Nat Turner would recognize this type of argument predicated on the naturalization of an alleged inferior morality.

Little separates Glick’s reactionary defenses from the 19th-century pro-slavery apologist George Fitzhugh’s fulminations against equality as a watchword for moral collapse often accompanied by mass murder. This well-known species of pseudo-historical argument posits a complacent, weak, and luxury-loving society that falls prey to an evil under-class willing to murder the innocent. A settlement advocate such as Emily Amrousi, for example, asks rhetorically whether the Ariel murder will shake “the foundations on which the complacent West builds its cafes? Wake up, world! Hallel was sleeping, and she died.” The killing of a Jewish child becomes a sign of moral somnambulism, rather than accurately as the product of an ethno-national conflict and its desperate moments.

For its part, the Netanyahu government only knows how to plunge deeper into the settlement project. It perpetuates a political morass through attempts to normalize an ever-vigilant security regime that governs Palestinians. A Jewish girl’s death means another harsh security crackdown, not likely to be effective where a majority of Palestinian men in the West Bank have been arrested and held at some point in their lives. Too, after Nat Turner’s rebellion the southern states instituted new legal restrictions and repressive disciplinary measures. These allowed slaveholders to succeed in the short term, not in the long term. Similarly, Palestinians count on a lengthy process of eroding the occupation through individual and collective acts of anti-colonial revolt. One rebellion never suffices.

Nat Turner is alive and lives in Palestine today.

Photographs courtesy of Montecruz Foto, and Library of Congress. Published under a Creative Commons license.