Although Palestinian children endure lives of suffering, Obama’s love for their Israeli counterparts knows no limit.
Note–During the first and second intifada, more than 700 Palestinian children were killed, and a further 313 children died in the Israeli shelling of Gaza in December 2008-July 2009
What is it about Jewish and Arab children that privileges the first and spurns the second in the speeches of President Barack Obama, let alone in the Western media more generally? Are Jewish children smarter, prettier, whiter? Are they deserving of sympathy and solidarity, denied to Arab children, because they are innocent and unsullied by the guilt of their parents, themselves often referred to as “the children of Israel”? Or, is it that Arab children are dangerous, threatening, guilty, even dark and ugly, a situation that can only lead to Arabopaedophobia – the Western fear of Arab children?
Innocence and childhood are common themes in Western political discourse, official and unofficial. While it is a truism to state that since the end of European colonialism the US and Europe have been, at the official and unofficial levels, friendly to and supportive of the Zionist colonial project and hostile to Palestinians and Arabs in their resistance to Zionism, the expectation would be that a West that insists rhetorically on the “universalism” of its values would show at least a rhetorical commitment to the equality of Arab and Jewish children as victims of the violence visited on the region by Zionist colonialism and the resistance to it. Yet, the only Western sympathy manifest is to Jewish children as symbols of Zionist and Israeli innocence. This Western sympathy is deployed primarily to denounce Arab guilt, including the guilt of Arab children.
Indeed, the only time Arab children received any sympathy at all in the West was a few years ago when Israeli and US propaganda outlets, official and unofficial alike, mounted a major propaganda campaign to save these children from their barbaric Arab and Palestinian parents, who allegedly trained them to commit violent acts, or who unlovingly placed them in the middle of danger, sacrificing them for their violent political goals. It was not Israel who was to blame for killing Palestinian children, but the children’s own uncaring and cruel parents who placed them in the path of Israeli Jewish bullets, which left Israeli Jews no choice but to kill them. This of course is an old Israeli casuistry used to justify Israel’s carnage of Palestinians. Golda Meir had famously articulated the workings of Israel’s Jewish conscience thus: “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”
In the official discourse of post-World War II US power, Jewish children have been often invoked to illustrate the innocence of Israel, a tradition carried faithfully by Barack Obama’s rhetoric. Refusing to even acknowledge Arab children as victims of Israel, on June 4, 2009, Obama told Arabs in his Cairo speech: “It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.” He reiterated this in his May 19, 2011 “winds of change” speech, declaring: “For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them.”
Later that week, in his speech to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on May 22, Obama expressed sympathy with the hardship colonising Jews experience while appropriating the lands of the Palestinians: “I saw the daily struggle to survive in the eyes of an eight-year old [Jewish] boy who lost his leg to a Hamas rocket.” He averred that the US and Israel, presumably unlike Palestinians or Arabs more generally, “both seek a region where families and their children can live free from the threat of violence”.
Endorsing Israel’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, he asserted: “We also know how difficult that search for security can be, especially for a small nation like Israel in a tough neighbourhood. I’ve seen it firsthand. When I touched my hand against the Western Wall and placed my prayer between its ancient stones, I thought of all the centuries that the children of Israel had longed to return to their ancient homeland.” Aside from borrowing anti-Black American white racism with the use of terms like “tough neighbourhood” – a term first borrowed by Binyamin Netanyahu to refer to the Middle East over a decade ago – wherein Arabs are the “violent blacks” of the Middle East and Jews are the “peaceful white folks”, Obama’s endorsement of the Israeli claim that East Jerusalem is part of the Jewish homeland is the first such official US endorsement of Israel’s illegal occupation of the city.
Nonetheless, Obama’s attention lay elsewhere, in the fear he expresses of Arab children. He first articulated this fear in his May 19 speech: “The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River.” In his speech to AIPAC three days later, Obama reiterated his fear once more, as the first “fact” and threat that Israel, Jews, and the US must face: “Here are the facts we all must confront. First, the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories.” This is hardly a new fear, as Israelis have annual conferences, and have developed all kinds of political and military strategies, to deal with their fear of Palestinian children, whom Israel’s President Shimon Peres calls a “demographic bomb” that he wants to defuse. Golda Meir herself once revealed in the early seventies that she could not sleep worrying about the number of Palestinian children being conceived every night. If children are the future – except that Arab children are a negation of it – then the crux of the argument is simple: Israel can only have a future with more Jewish children and fewer Arab children.
Murdering Arab children
The story of Arab children, and especially Palestinian ones, is not only tragic in the context of Israeli violence, but one that also remains ignored, deliberately marginalised, and purposely suppressed in the US and Western media – and in Western political discourse. When Zionist terrorists began to attack Palestinian civilians in the 1930s and 1940s, Palestinian children fell victims. The most famous of these attacks include the Zionist blowing up of Palestinian cafes with grenades (such as occurred in Jerusalem on March 17, 1937) and placing electrically timed mines in crowded market places (first used against Palestinians in Haifa on July 6, 1938).
While the violence of the 1930s was the first introduction to the Middle East of such horrific terrorist violence, it is in the 1947-48 Zionist invasion of Palestinian villages and towns that Palestinian children were deliberately not spared. In December 1947, one of the first attacks by the Haganah (the pre-Israel Zionist paramilitary army) first attacks – which would become typical in this period – targeted the Palestinian village of Khisas in the Galilee and killed four Palestinian children. This proved to be a small number compared with the subsequent mass murders awaiting the Palestinians. In the village of Al-Dawayimah, where the Haganah committed a massacre in October 1948, an Israeli army soldier, quoted by Israeli historian Benny Morris, described the scene as such:
The first [wave] of conquerors killed about 80 to 100 [male] Arabs, women, and children. The children they killed by breaking their heads with sticks. There was not a house without dead… One commander ordered a sapper to put two old women in a certain house… and to blow up the house with them. The sapper refused… The commander then ordered his men to put in the old women and the evil deed was done. One soldier boasted that he had raped a woman and then shot her. One woman, with a newborn baby in her arms, was employed to clean the courtyard where the soldiers ate. She worked a day or two. In the end they shot her and her baby.
Palestinian children were murdered along with adults in April 1948 in the Deir Yassin massacre, to name the most well known slaughter of 1948. This would continue not only during Israel’s wars against Arabs in 1956, 1967, 1973, 1978, 1982, 1996, 2006, and 2008, when thousands of children fell victim to indiscriminate Israeli bombardment, but also in more outright massacres: in Qibya in 1953 where even the school was not spared Israel’s destruction; in Kafr Kassem in 1956 where the Israeli army massacred 46 unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel, 23 of whom were children. This trend would continue. In April 1970, during the War of Attrition with Egypt, Israel bombed an Egyptian elementary school in Bahr al-Baqar. Of the 130 school children in attendance, 46 were killed, and over 50 wounded, many of them maimed for life. The school was completely demolished. The first Israeli massacre at Qana in Lebanon in 1996 spared no child or adult, and the second massacre in the same village in 2006 did the same – adults aside, 16 children were killed that year.
The number of Palestinian children killed by Israeli soldiers in the first intifada (1987-1993) was 213, not counting the hundreds of induced miscarriages from tear gas grenades thrown inside closed areas targeting pregnant women, and aside from the number of the injured. The Swedish branch of Save the Children estimated that “23,600 to 29,900 children required medical treatment for their beating injuries in the first two years of the intifada”, one third of whom were children under the age of ten years old. In the same period, Palestinian attacks resulted in the death of five Israeli children. In the second intifada (2000-2004), Israeli soldiers killed more than 500 children with at least 10,000 injured, and 2,200 children arrested. The televised murder of the Palestinian child Muhammad al-Durra shook the world – but not Israeli Jews, whose government concocted the most outrageous and criminal of stories to exonerate Israel. In the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008, 1,400 Palestinians were killed, of whom 313 were children.
This exhibition of atrocity is not simply about regurgitating the history and present of Israel’s murder of Arab children for the past six decades and beyond – a history well-known across the Arab world – but to demonstrate how obscene Obama’s references to Jewish children are when he insists to Arabs that they must show sympathy with Jewish children, without ever enjoining Jews to show sympathy with the far larger number of Arab children killed by Jews. But Obama himself shows no sympathy with Arab children. Had he attempted to mourn the Arab children who fell and fall victim to Israeli violence at the rate of hundreds, if not thousands, of Arab children to one Jewish child, Arabs might have forgiven him this indiscretion.
Alas, Obama has no place in his heart for Arab children, only for Jewish ones. He even manages to infantilise Israeli Jewish soldiers who kill Palestinians, as nothing short of innocent children whose families miss them. In his AIPAC speech, Obama calls on Hamas “to release Gilad Shalit, who has been kept from his family for five long years”, but not on Israel to release the 6,000 Palestinian political prisoners, who include 300 Palestinian children, languishing in Israel’s dungeons for many more years. Perhaps Obama could have at least mentioned the reports of Israeli soldiers’ torture of detained Palestinian children issued in late 2010 by Israeli human rights groups. In the case of detained Palestinian sixth graders, in addition to being beaten up and deprived of sleep by Israeli soldiers, two thirteen-year old children testified that “the most awful thing that happened, was when the soldiers went to the bathroom, they peed on us and did not use the toilet. One of them videotaped it.” But Obama was not moved by their plight, for they were not Jewish children.
Zionism and Jewish children
Interestingly and unlike Obama, Zionism did not always show similar love towards Jewish children, whom it never flinched from sacrificing for its colonial goals. In the Nazi period, Zionist leaders, for example, protested strongly against granting European Jews refuge in any country other than Palestine. In December 1938, David Ben-Gurion responded to a British offer, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, to take thousands of German Jewish children directly to Britain by saying: “If I knew it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them to England, and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), then I would opt for the second alternative, for we must weigh not only the life of these children but also the history of the people of Israel.”
In November 1940, the Zionists responded to the British-imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine, long demanded by the Palestinian people, by blowing up a ship with Jewish civilian passengers in Haifa – killing 242 Jews, including scores of children. For Zionism, Jewish children are as expendable as Palestinian and Arab children, unless they serve its colonial goals. In light of this, it becomes clear that it is not simply the Jewishness or Arabness of children that makes them expendable or not, but their insertion into a political project as figures that can advance its goals or constitute obstacles to them.
Israeli girls write messages on a shell at a heavy artillery position near Kiryat Shmona, in northern Israel, next to the Lebanese border, Monday, July 17, 2006 [AP]
Israel’s recruitment of Jewish children in paramilitary organisations, which began in 1948, continues apace, and is perhaps best exemplified in its Gadna [“Youth Battalions”] programme, where young Jewish boys and girls are prepared early for their future military service in the most militarised state on earth. The most outrageous use of Jewish children, however, would be illustrated when the Israeli army invited them to write messages of hate on the missiles about to be launched against Lebanese children during Israel’s July 2006 invasion of Lebanon. Captured by an Associated Press cameraman, the picture of blond Jewish girls near the Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona writing messages of death to Lebanese children circulated the globe – though it remains unclear if they ever made their way to Obama’s desk. It is important to note that Obama might have met these same blond girls when he visited Kiryat Shmona a few months earlier, in January 2006. He recalled later that the town resembled an ordinary suburb in the US, where he could imagine the sounds of Israeli children “at joyful play just like my own daughters”.
Teaching children to hate
Given this history, not only are Palestinian children guilty of hating Israeli Jews, but also, Obama insists, they have no reason to hate Jews unless their evil elders indoctrinate them to do so. Binyamin Netanyahu himself, in his speech before Congress last week, reiterated Obama’s condemnation of Palestinians who allegedly “continue to educate their children to hate”. But what about Israeli Jewish children’s hatred of Arabs? A March 2010 poll by Tel Aviv University found that 49.5 per cent of Israeli Jewish high school students believe Palestinian citizens of Israel should not be entitled to the same rights as Jews in Israel; 56 per cent believe they should not be eligible for election to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. According to a report in January 2011 in the largest Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, Jewish teachers in Israel stated that anti-Arab racism among Jewish students reached alarming levels, advocating killing Palestinians. The teachers found graffiti written on school walls and even on exam papers stating “Death To Arabs”. According to the report, a student at a school in Tel Aviv told his teacher during class that his dream is to become a soldier so he can exterminate all Arabs; several students in his class applauded in support of him. This, in no small amount, is the direct result of the racist Israeli school curricula with which Jewish children are regularly indoctrinated.
In his speech to Congress, Prime Minister Netanyahu correctly diagnosed the situation on the ground. He declared: “Our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state.” It is the establishment of a Jewish settler colony that the Palestinians must accept to ensure a future for Jewish children and terminate a future for Palestinian children. Indeed it is precisely the refusal of Arabs to adopt Arabopedophobia that is the biggest impediment to peace in the region. Obama hopes that a Palestinian bantustan could limit the threat that Palestinian children constitute to the nightmare that is “the Jewish and democratic state”.
He recognises that the world can no longer claim to support universalism while endorsing Israel’s right to discriminate against non-Jews. In his AIPAC speech, he said as much when he told Israel’s lobby that the entire world, including Asia, Latin America, Europe (and he could have added Africa, which he inexplicably excluded) and the Arab World can no longer tolerate Israel’s institutionalised racism; that America in fact stands alone with Israel today. Clearly, Obama’s love for Jewish children knows no limits. His Arabopaedophobic views, however, are not accidental, but are motivated by his great love for the “children of Israel”, a love that can only be realised through continued hatred and containment of all Arabs, children and adults alike.
Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. He is author of The Persistence of the Palestinian Question (Routledge, 2006).