Nihilism of ‘Free Palestine’
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It’s time for us to reckon with the hopelessness at the heart of Arab and Western ‘liberationist’ ideology


“Free Palestine”—the slogan, the fantasy, and the policy—has always consciously implied the mass murder of Jews in their towns, streets, shops, and living rooms. Few are willing to say so openly, but in many intellectual, professional, and popular circles in the Middle East and the West, the idea of Palestinian national liberation has long been framed in terms that condone or necessitate the indiscriminate killing of Jews. For more unambiguous actors such as Hamas and the Islamic Republic of Iran, freeing Palestine simply means the total eradication of Israel without qualification. This is not a polemical point, but a basic reality and fact of our lives that demands scrutiny.

Consider the ideological milieu in which many Arabs and Muslims have been raised, including me. Growing up as a Muslim in Egypt, the concept of Palestine was never a geopolitical issue; it was a deeply ingrained part of our collective moral identity, the unifying element of both our religious and secular Arab nationalism. It was, and remains, a cause that resonated with us politically, socially, and spiritually, often approaching a fervor that defies rationality. This emotional charge, embedded in the political and religious narratives of much of the Arab Muslim world, has made rubbish of the idea that the Palestinian cause is merely based on anti-Zionism rather than antisemitism.

This milieu, however, is not in any way essential to what it means to be Arab or Muslim—it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon shaped largely by the influence of European revolutionary ideologies on Arab intellectuals and political activists. Among these imported systems of thought is a strain of revolutionary antisemitism that casts Jews as the eternal enemy not just of Arabs but of all human beings. Not every Arab or Muslim subscribes to these views, of course, but when fused with preexisting religious and cultural biases, they have infected almost every institution, pattern of thought, and aspect of life in the Arab Muslim world. Modern Arab political and religious literature is filled with the claim that Jews are hostis humani generis, the enemies of mankind—a classical European libel, and a French revolutionary cry.

The problems of this poisonous strain of thought are compounded by the concept that “freeing Palestine” is a species of resistance against foreign settler colonialists, a Fanonian revolution in which violence against civilians is defended as a legitimate means of achieving racial justice. The wholesale labeling of Israeli Jews—the vast majority of whom are refugees or descendants of refugees from Arab Muslim dictatorships and Soviet totalitarianism—as colonizers, settlers, and imperialists is in fact a type of collective ethnic punishment, nonsensical even on its own twisted terms, which recalls the medieval Christian denunciation of Jews as moral abominations, as a group and as individuals. You might have noticed in the last few days that those committed to liberating Palestine can’t seem to avoid the abject dehumanization of the Jews as a people—and that their aim is not for Palestinians to simply live in peace, dignity, and freedom alongside Israelis, but a state that is necessarily established upon the ruins of Israel. Hamas is explicit in its intention to murder the Jewish population of Israel and enslave any survivors; its partisans in the Middle East and the West are coyer on this point.

The Savage Nihilism of ‘Free Palestine’

Islamists articulate the fantasy of Jewish eradication in the language of jihad, framed in eschatological terms, and imbued with a sense of divine justice and cosmic warfare—what Westerners would ordinarily recognize as a type of religious fascism. But while the Islamist version of this idea is potent for the purposes of mobilizing the impoverished and uneducated masses, the “left-wing” or secular version—couched in the language of Fanon and Karl Marx, of human emancipation, equality, anti-capitalism, and social justice—is the more effective means of mobilizing opinion among the Western intelligentsia. The point is that they are two sides of the same coin, the value of which is set in Jewish blood.

For those who are shaped by such a worldview—whether the “right-wing” or the “left-wing” version, the religious or the atheistic—celebrating the murder of innocent Israeli civilians, including children, women, and the elderly, is an expression of the partial fulfillment of a moral vision. As a teenager in Egypt, I recall nearly all the adults around me expressing such feelings when following the news of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada. Egypt’s most prominent religious authorities declared the perpetrators to be martyrs and saints. In a way, it was not unlike the valorization and even canonization of those who destroyed livelihoods, burned property, and targeted police officers during the protests in America in the summer of 2020. I do not mean to inject American domestic politics where they do not belong, or to suggest a perfect moral equivalence, but there is a reason that leaders of Hamas and the Islamic Republic of Iran themselves insist that they are engaged in the same struggle against racism.

Almost every Arab Muslim knows that what I’m describing is not a personal opinion but objective reality. We may try to belittle these facts, or dismiss them as the delusional daydreams of uneducated know-nothings under the influence of religious and populist fanatics. But we should not deny that they are true.

My fear is that the impulse to dismiss and belittle is the byproduct not of sincere belief but of a deep sense of helplessness. After many recent conversations with the rising generation of young, intelligent, Westernized, and highly educated Arab professionals and diplomats, I have witnessed a strong urge not to confront this reality. Even among those who genuinely accept the legitimacy of Israel in a way their parents would have never been capable of, I almost always hear them describe the deaths of innocent Israelis as somehow being their own fault, or at least the fault of the Israeli government for not unilaterally making peace and ending the conflict. There is nothing more depressing than the surrender of the young to a problem they see as too big to solve.

Those of us who belong to the cosmopolitan professional class of Arabs, who jump from country to country and from one lifestyle to another, benefiting from foreign cultures that live on the moral currency of liberalism and tolerance, are in many cases secretly ashamed. We see the antisemitism, the bloodlust, the insanity, and we cringe—but we hope it goes away. It’s easier for us to look forward to a hypothetical future where things are otherwise. It’s easier to ingratiate ourselves to the new social world where we want to belong, rather than grapple with the failures of the one we’ve left behind. We dismiss, we belitte, we explain away, we say, “What about Shireen Abu Akleh?”—and we go on pretending.

But even we are not as fresh or youthful as we like to think. We are walking in the footsteps of previous generations of modernizing, secular, intellectual Arabs. They too wanted nothing to do with their native lands, which they saw as having none of the power, prestige, or respect they craved. In their egotism and intellectual narcissism, they didn’t want to belong to “backward” societies. So they sought in foreign, mostly Western ideologies a refuge and a hiding place from backwardness. They joined the progressive secular movements and trendy revolutions because they offered an escape hatch from the drudgery of slow, marginal, local change. They became revolutionaries because they were afraid and insecure. Like Edward Said, they were anti-Zionist and anti-American “humanists” because they did not want to be, or could not be, “Arabs.” Their obvious cultural chauvinism was simply an urge to self-annihilate, to disappear into universalism. Their lives were a hopeless quest to shed their own skin.

To the Arabs of my own generation, I say we need a truly different approach. I’m not asking you to love Israel or Zionism, or to hang a poster of hipster Herzl in your bedroom. If you are critical of Israel and think there should be a Palestine, continue to do so. All I ask is for you to be authentically courageous, to admit that the murder we all witnessed in the last few days is an accurate representation and logical consequence of a catastrophic moral system, the one we all know intimately. This is a moment for collective introspection. It’s time to confront the darker corners of our ideological heritage, and question the ideas and beliefs we may have uncritically absorbed. Only by doing so can we hope to contribute to a more constructive and humane world for ourselves.

We ask you to continue to spread the truth with us. The world needs to know what is happening in the Middle East.

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