Commentary | Challenging simplistic power dynamics

Israel/Palestine is more complicated than oppressor/victim

The first time I heard of the BDS Movement (which advocates for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israeli products implicated in Israeli occupation), I couldn’t help but think of kinky sex – bondage, domination, sadism, masochism (BDSM). When I thought more in-depth, I realized the comparisons between these two acronyms go beyond the similarity in letters. To an outside observer, BDSM sex seems to represent a relationship where one actor is entirely dominant, and the other totally submissive. However, as anyone who has delved into kink will tell you, the relationship is anything but a simple power dynamic of dominator/dominated. The same can be said of the Israel/Palestine conflict; superficially, Israel appears  holistically as the dominant actor, violently and aggressively dominating a weak, vulnerable Palestinian population. Israel is only understood as the oppressor, and Palestinians are the oppressed. However, this understanding is very limited.

I will be the first to admit that Israel often – almost always in fact – acts as an oppressive force toward Palestine. In no way do I intend to belittle or ignore this glaring truth. But, such a simple understanding of the conflict ignores the deep complexity and intersections of identity, power, and ideology involved.

The oppression facing Palestinians reflects an imbalance in power and resource distribution that favours the state of Israel. Given this, it is easy to claim that the entire conflict can be boiled down to a systemic power imbalance that originated in European privilege enabling Zionist imperialists to settle the land. Essentially, this is the message of Israeli Apartheid Week. Although this power imbalance and initial European privilege are extremely relevant influences in the conflict, they are not sufficient to understand the entire situation. Why did these Zionists desire this settlement in the first place? What role did historic Jewish oppression play in developing a nationalist consciousness amongst the Jewish people, just as Palestinian nationalist fervour has developed in the face of British imperial and Zionist oppression? What about those Palestinians who are being exploited by Palestinian leaders? By presenting the conflict as a simple dichotomy between an oppressor, who is always in the wrong, and the underdog victim, in need of international assistance and solidarity, these deeper cultural and ideological questions are lost.

The portrayal of power dynamics in Israeli Apartheid Week not only ignores fundamental questions about the origins and development of power in the conflict, but also works to disempower Palestinian communities. The construction of Israel as the constant tyrant implies a constant victim, deserving of pity and lacking in indigenous resources to mobilize themselves toward social change. Although Israeli Apartheid Week does make an effort to emphasize Palestinian resistance and autonomy in challenging Israel, the mass portrayal of Palestinians is that of vulnerable and subjugated. In order to claim to have solidarity with a people, presenting them as such is not only disempowering, but also disrespectful.

The strength of the Palestinian people is not all that is belittled through Israeli Apartheid Week. The use of the potent word “apartheid,” for example, scares away many potential supporters, particularly within the Jewish community. Through the use of aggressive words and strategies, individuals or communities are led to feel extremely uncomfortable, or assume that there is no space for their dissenting voices within the struggle for Palestinian rights.

By silencing voices or ideas contrary to those represented in Israeli Apartheid Week, the BDS movement is in fact contradicting fundamental foundations of the movement.  As a progressive movement, the basis of the fight for Palestinian rights is founded on challenging the status quo, struggling for anti-oppression, and each individual and community’s right to self determination.  However, by silencing voices which differ from the perspectives reflected in Israeli Apartheid Week, the week is acting as an oppressive force, undermining the autonomy of those with dissenting views. Power dynamics, as presented in Israeli Apartheid Week, also oppress individuals who associate any ideological, cultural, or ethnic legitimacy with the existence of Israel. These individuals are immediately seen as perpetuating oppression, thus limiting their space to develop their ideas or express themselves.

The ambivalence I feel toward Israeli Apartheid Week is tremendous. Although I do plan to attend some events, I cannot disregard the gross implications of a series which deems the conflict to be a simple relationship of domination and submission, ignoring the vast complexity of that very same system.

Lily Hoffman Simon is a U1 Sociology and Jewish Studies student. She can be reached at lily.simon@mail.mcgill.ca.


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