Politics

Why Must Palestinians Audition for Your Empathy?

I’ve moved back to the United States twice since my birth. Once as a child, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Then again for graduate school. I’d had the privilege of a youth — adolescence and young adulthood — in countries where being Palestinian was fairly common. The identity could be heavy, but it wasn’t a contested one. I hadn’t had to learn the respectability politics of being a Palestinian adult. I learned quickly.

The task of the Palestinian is to be palatable or to be condemned. The task of the Palestinian, we’ve seen in the past two weeks, is to audition for empathy and compassion. To prove that we deserve it. To earn it.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched Palestinian activists, lawyers, professors get baited and interrupted on air, if not silenced altogether. They are being made to sing for the supper of airtime and fair coverage. They are begging reporters to do the most basic tasks of their job. At the same time, Palestinians fleeing from bombs have been misidentified. Even when under attack, they must be costumed as another people to elicit humanity. Even in death, they cannot rest — Palestinians are being buried in mass graves or in old graves dug up to make room, and still there is not enough space.

If that weren’t enough, Palestinian slaughter is too often presented ahistorically, untethered to reality: It is not attributed to real steel and missiles, to occupation, to policy. To earn compassion for their dead, Palestinians must first prove their innocence. The real problem with condemnation is the quiet, sly tenor of the questions that accompany it: Palestinians are presumed violent — and deserving of violence — until proved otherwise. Their deaths are presumed defensible until proved otherwise. What is the word of a Palestinian against a machinery that investigates itself, that absolves itself of accused crimes? What is it against a government whose representatives have referred to Palestinians as “human animals” and “wild beasts?” When a well-suited man can say brazenly and unflinchingly that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people?

It is, of course, a remarkably effective strategy. A slaughter isn’t a slaughter if those being slaughtered are at fault, if they’ve been quietly and effectively dehumanized — in the media, through policy — for years. If nobody is a civilian, nobody can be a victim.

***

In 2017, I published a novel about a Palestinian family. It was published by a respectable publisher, got a lot of lovely press, was given a book tour. I spoke on panels, to book clubs. I answered questions after readings. There was a refrain that kept coming up. People kept commenting on how human the story was. You’ve humanized the conflict. This is a human story.

Of course, literature and the arts play a crucial role in providing context — expanding our empathy, granting us glimpses into other worlds. But every time I was told I’d humanized the Palestinians, I would have to suppress the question it invoked: What had they been before?

A couple of weeks ago, in a professional space, someone called Palestinians by name and spoke of the seven decades of their anguish. I sat among dozens of co-workers and realized my lip was quivering. I was crying before I understood it was happening. I fled the room, and it took 10 minutes for me to stop sobbing. I didn’t immediately understand my reaction. Over the years, I’ve faced meetings, classrooms and other institutional spaces where Palestinians went unnamed or were referred to only as terrorists. I came of professional age in a country where people lost all sorts of things for speaking of Palestine: social standing, university tenure, journalist positions. But in the end, I am undone not by silence or erasure but by empathy. By the simple naming of my people. By increasing recognition that liberation is linked. By spaces of Palestinian-Jewish solidarity. By what has become controversial: the simple speaking aloud of Palestinian suffering.

These days, everyone is trying to write about the children. An incomprehensible number of them dead and counting. We are up at night, combing through the flickering light of our phones, trying to find the metaphor, the clip, the photograph to prove a child is a child. It is an unbearable task. We ask: Will this be the image that finally does it? This half-child on a rooftop? This video, reposted by Al Jazeera, of an inconsolable girl appearing to recognize her mother’s body among the dead, screaming out, “It’s her, it’s her. I swear it’s her. I know her from her hair”?

***

Take it from a writer: There is nothing like the tedium of trying to come up with analogies. There is something humiliating in trying to earn solidarity. I keep seeing infographics desperately trying to appeal to American audiences. Imagine most of the population of Manhattan being told to evacuate in 24 hours. Imagine the president of [ ] going on NBC and saying all [ ] people are [ ]. Look! Here’s a strip on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. That’s Gaza. It is about the same size as Philadelphia. Or multiply the entire population of Las Vegas by three.

This is demoralizing work, to have to speak constantly in the vernacular of tragedies and atrocities, to say: Look, look. Remember? That other suffering that was eventually deemed unacceptable? Let me hold it up to this one. Let me show you proportion. Let me earn your outrage. Absent that, let me earn your memory. Please.

I don’t hesitate for a second to condemn the killing of any child, any massacre of civilians. It is the easiest ask in the world. And it is not in spite of that but because of that I say: Condemn the brutalization of bodies. By all means, do. Condemn murder. Condemn violence, imprisonment, all forms of oppression. But if your shock and distress comes only at the sight of certain brutalized bodies? If you speak out but not when Palestinian bodies are besieged and murdered, abducted and imprisoned? Then it is worth asking yourself which brutalization is acceptable to you, even quietly, even subconsciously, and which is not.

Name the discrepancy and own it. If you can’t be equitable, be honest.

There is nothing complicated about asking for freedom. Palestinians deserve equal rights, equal access to resources, equal access to fair elections and so forth. If this makes you uneasy, then you must ask yourself why.

***

Here is the truth of the diasporic Palestinians: They are not magically diasporic. Their diaspora-ness is a direct result of often violent, intentional and illegal dispossession. One day a house is yours; one day it is not. One day a neighborhood is yours; one day it is not. One day a territory is yours; one day it is not. This same sort of dispossession is grounded in the same mind-set and international complicity that is playing out in Gaza.

I’m a poet, a writer, a psychologist. I’m deeply familiar with the importance of language. I’ve agonized over an em dash. I’ve spent afternoons muttering about the aptness of a verb. I pay attention to language, my own and others. Being Palestinian in this country — in many countries — is a numbing exercise in gauging where pockets of safety are, sussing out which friends, co-workers or acquaintances will be allies, which will stay silent. Who will speak.

Here’s another thing I know as a writer and psychologist: It matters where you start a narrative. In addiction work, you call this playing the tape. Diasporically or not, being Palestinian is the quintessential disrupter: It messes with a curated, modified tape. We exist, and our existence presents an existential affront. As long as we exist, we challenge several falsehoods, not the least of which is that, for some, we never existed at all. That decades ago, a country was born in the delicious, glittering expanse of nothingness — a birthright, something due. Our very existence challenges a formidable, militarized narrative.

But the days of the Palestine exception are numbered. Palestine is increasingly becoming the litmus test for true liberatory practice.

In the meantime, Palestinians continue to be cast paradoxically — both terror and invisible, both people who never existed and people who cannot return.

Imagine being such a pest, such an obstacle. Or: Imagine being so powerful.


Hala Alyan is a clinical psychologist and professor in New York City. She is the author of the novels “Salt Houses” and “The Arsonists’ City,” and several collections of poetry, including the forthcoming “The Moon That Turns You Back.”

Source photographs by Bettmann and Sepia Times, via Getty Images.

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