The summer of 2020 will forever be remembered as the time that wokeness in America went fully mainstream—when white liberals made White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo a millionaire, the CEO of Twitter gave How to Be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi $10 million, Nike and Amazon declared their fealty to Black Lives Matter and Instagram influencers posted black squares to their profiles along with “antiracism” training slides.
If the racial reckoning of the summer started from a genuine place of wishing to deepen our understanding of racial injustice, it quickly devolved into wokeness, the imposition of a racial binary onto every problem, every issue, ascribing power to white people and powerlessness to people of color to an irrepressible, unalterable degree. And it’s been mainstreamed primarily by white liberals, many of them in the elites of society.
This re-racialization of American life followed George Floyd‘s horrific murder. But it never got around to fighting police brutality and racism. Though they have adopted an obsessively racialized outlook and vocabulary, the people who lead the most powerful institutions and organizations and companies and universities in America didn’t suddenly decide to share power. They didn’t suddenly decide to find partners across the land, across the aisle, in the sacred fight against mass incarceration and police violence. Instead, they redefined racism in a way that cost them the least in any material sense while promoting maximalist proposals like “Defund the Police” and “Abolish ICE” that have little purchase beyond ensuring no real progress is made on crucial, urgent issues like racial justice and immigration.
Whatever its initial intentions, that’s wokeness as it’s playing out today. And it’s come for the conflict in the Middle East.
If you’ve been paying attention to social media over the past week, you will have seen this same attempt to redefine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a racial power dynamic, casting Israel as infinitely powerful and Palestinians as completely without agency. And as in America, where antiracism has redefined racism and relocated the problem to a place where it costs little for white liberal elites to “do the work” combatting it, so has this happened in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where real and urgent civil rights abuses against the Palestinians have been obscured by a binary, maximalist view of the situation that’s now fully mainstream.
Here’s what’s actually happening on the ground in the Middle East: An ongoing round of fighting began in response to police brutality in Israel against Palestinians and a dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem over a number of Palestinian families facing eviction. These two issues, combined with several other events—viral Tik Tok videos of young Palestinian boys beating up Orthodox Jews, a racist march of far-right Jewish nationalists in Jerusalem, Jewish and Arab mobs hunting members of the opposite ethnicity to brutalize them—created a situation in which tensions were soaring. These tensions blew up when Jerusalem Day, which commemorates Israel’s recapturing of Jerusalem from the Jordanians in 1967, coincided with the holiday of Laylat al-Qadr, the holiest day of Ramadan. When Israeli police clashed with worshipers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, some armed with rocks, Hamas began lobbing rockets into Israel’s civilian population centers, and Israel retaliated with airstrikes. Many people have since tragically lost their lives—83 in Gaza and seven in Israel. Meanwhile, in several Israeli cities, bands of Jewish and Arab hoodlums have been attacking each other in the streets.
That’s the situation on the ground right now. But I suppose “national conflict between two groups that has been ongoing for decades, both of which can inflict huge amounts of suffering on each other, though not, to be sure, in equal measure” doesn’t generate the right kinds of headlines.
It certainly makes for worse Instagram posts. “Israelis are the OPPRESSORS and Palestinians are the OPPRESSED,” one viral Instagram post reads. “There is no ‘fighting’, there is only Israeli colonisation, ethnic cleansing, military occupation, and apartheid.” This rhetoric is hardly new to the conflict, but it’s become absolutely ubiquitous thanks to the binary of wokeness at play here: There is no “fighting” happening because one side, the Palestinian side, is subsumed by its victim status at the hands of Israeli “colonization.” No weapon in the hands of a Palestinian is thus ever real—even, apparently, rockets that have killed Israelis—because Palestinians are the OPPRESSED in the situation, as the drawing would have it, and oppressed people cannot fight, apparently. It’s wokeness 101: The oppressor has all the power, all the agency, and the Israelis are the oppressors. Case closed.
You can also see this in the way the narrative of Sheikh Jarrah is making the rounds. As is rather typical when it comes to the conflict, the two sides have different perspectives: To the Israeli government, the story is a decades-long real estate battle, most recently over rent payments. To the Palestinian families facing eviction, it fits into a larger narrative of Jewish ethnic control over Jerusalem. And both have some truth to them; the Israeli courts ruled in the past that the Palestinian families have protected tenant status as long as they paid rent, but have ruled that the Jewish claimants own the property.
That kind of complicated story doesn’t really make for viral Internet content, though; by the time it was filtered through the woke meme industrial complex, it had become a tale of ethnic cleansing and expulsion.
1500 Palestinians face expulsion in #Jerusalem. 200 protesters have been injured. 9 children have been killed. Sanctions on South Africa helped free its black people – it’s time for sanctions on Israel to free Palestinians. Join the call. #SheikhJarrah https://t.co/f9R6LYljez
— Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) May 11, 2021
Of course, in a way, when it comes to Israel, the American far Left has long been woke. But what’s new is the ubiquity of such discourse in mainstream American media. In the past, we didn’t see “Israel’s colonialist project” in Washington Post headlines, or MSNBC headlines insisting that “The latest Israel-Palestine crisis isn’t a ‘real estate dispute.’ It’s ethnic cleansing.”
And we didn’t used to have members of Congress pushing this line of thought. But the woke framework—that the conflict in the Middle East is not a national struggle between two ethnicities, but a racial conflict between powerful oppressor supremacists and a disempowered oppressed minority—is now being pushed by prominent American elected officials.
“What they are doing to the Palestinian people is what they continue to do to our Black brothers and sisters here,” Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said at a rally. “If you are Black, this is your fight. If you are Latino, this is your fight. If you are South Asian, this is your fight. If you’re white, this is your fight. If you’re Jewish, this is sure enough your fight,” Congressman André Carson concurred.
She described struggling to discuss this issue with colleagues.
"The ethnic cleansing continues now," she said of Israel's actions.
"We all deserve to live freely and with human dignity." pic.twitter.com/4ofwg1WXZB
— Ford Fischer (@FordFischer) May 12, 2021
Trevor Noah of the Daily Show summed up the situation with a single question: “If you are in a fight where the other person cannot beat you, how much should you retaliate when they try to hurt you?” Of course, he’s right that there is no comparing Israel’s military to Hamas. But seven Israelis have been killed. Per Noah’s logic, because Hamas can’t win in a military battle, those deaths don’t count and the Jewish state should just bear them quiescently. And that’s not a flaw in his logic; it’s the logical endpoint of judging the value of human life based on whether the person who stole it has enough “power.”
Why has this morally specious distortion gone mainstream? Just as the overreach of the antiracism movement in the summer of 2020 was enforced on social media with ruthless dog-piling and public smearing and shaming, people whose statements have been insufficiently woke—who have failed to cast Palestinians as pure victims and Israelis as pure aggressors—have been subjected to shocking amounts of abuse online. Climate change darling Greta Thunberg, actress Gal Gadot, New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, and Senator Elizabeth Warren were all named and shamed as malefactors. Yang even submitted to a struggle session with his own employees for failing to mention Palestinian suffering in a tweet about this latest round of fighting.
Palestinian suffering is real. Too many have been killed in Gaza. Too many have been brutalized by the police. For too long, Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank have been deprived of basic civil rights, like the right to vote for the government that exercises state power against them and freedom of movement. For too long, Gaza has been forgotten and left to languish under an unnecessarily brutal blockade, its young people and children deprived of any future. Israel has all too often penalized nonviolent resistance instead of bolstering civil society and supporting a new generation of Palestinian leadership. These all fall squarely on Israel’s shoulders, and all nonviolent means of pressuring Israel to solve these problems are legitimate.
But as with racism in America, the discourse that’s been proliferating on the far Left for years and which is now part of the American mainstream rebrands these problems in ways antithetical to solving them. Just as no one is going to abolish the police, Israel is not going to cease to exist just because a viral Instagram post says it doesn’t exist, or because hundreds of thousands of Twitter accounts say it doesn’t have a right to exist.
Wokeness is a poor enough lens for understanding our own problems here in the U.S. Its distortions are even worse when it comes to the Middle East.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the deputy opinion editor of Newsweek.