It is not often we glimpse the cosmic struggle between civilization and barbarism, humanity and inhumanity, freedom and tyranny. But last week’s ghastly diptych was one such moment: on one side, Trump officials—led by stumbling, corrupt Israeli politicians and anti-Semitic millennialist preachers—celebrated the relocation of the US Embassy to Occupied Jerusalem; on the other, Israeli snipers murdered more than sixty Palestinians in broad daylight.
American media commentators might have viewed the event as this century’s Sharpeville massacre. They might have compared the massacre to earlier colonial massacres, such as Amritsar or Sétif. Or they might have linked the event to American atrocities—The Orangeburg Massacre, The Jackson State Massacre, or The Kent State Massacre.
But that would have entailed viewing Gazans as human and their killers as vicious perpetrators. Instead, most American pundits tended to frame last week’s events into a familiar, even dominant narrative form: on one side, an Judeo-Christian “City Upon a Hill;” and on the other, barbarians at the gates.
For some, the city-upon-a-hill narrative is apocalyptic in nature: the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy in an alliance that is as spiritual and civilizational as it is military and political. There exist both Christian-Zionist and Jewish-Zionist versions of this, and they are well represented in Conservative, Rightwing and evangelical media forums.
But there is also a secular, often liberal version—a civilizing mission—which goes by many names: Light Unto The Nations, Making the Desert Bloom, Start-Up Nation, The Only Democracy in the Middle East, A Tiny Country Surrounded By Enemies, A Small Country in a Big, Bad Neighborhood, and so on. This myth may not necessarily be millenialist in nature, but it no less cosmic.
For right-wing commentators, Gazans who were protesting their interminable imprisonment were nothing more barbarians deserving to be shot. For most liberal pundits, however, Gazan demonstrators were simple people who had been manipulated by the barbaric Hamas. But either way, in this narrative, the Gazan victims can only appear as nameless hordes howling at the gates of The City. Whether as criminal subhuman, or merely dupe, the Gazan as barbarian is as fixed in liberal commentary as it is in conservative and right-wing opinion.
Elite Commentary on Gaza
Right-wing commentary on FoxNews, The National Review, Brietbart, The DailyWire and elsewhere, presented the Gaza massacre/US embassy opening according to the city-upon-a-hill narrative in its baldest terms: the epic struggle between good and evil, us and them. Some voices in liberal-centrist outlets, like CNN and MSNBC, temporarily broke with the narrative when confronted with footage that showed thousands being shot by snipers sitting far away in quiet hunting blinds. But these voices were balanced (or canceled) by the many other pundits on those liberal-centrist platforms advising audiences not to cry over the bloodbath: these people brought the violence upon themselves.
As usual, the New York Times opinion pages were emblematic of what is normal, possible and allowable in elite American commentary on Palestine. Bret Stephens put it most succinctly on 16 May: “Gaza’s miseries have Palestinian authors.” Stephens’ essay was a classic example of the city-upon-a-hill story where the vitality of Israeli humanity, ingenuity and entrepreneurialism is met by the baseness of Palestinian ignorance, resentment and rejection. Stephens was not alone in the paper of record: while NYT journalists were reporting—often, but not always, accurately and fairly—about the overwhelming and unnecessary Israeli violence against Palestinians, the NYT opinion pages filled with other stories, as if to off-set the damage done by stating facts clearly. On 16 May, David Brooks also weighed in to decry the rise of “extremist” thought on both sides of the conflict, placing the lion’s share of the blame on Hamas, as if the organization were capable of total mind control over the Gaza Strip.
Only one other regular NYT columnist commented in the pages on the Gaza protests last week: on 14 May, Michelle Goldberg wrote forcefully about Palestinian rights and history and about the alliance between Israeli Jews and evangelical Americans, from a position that was not so much “pro-Palestinian” as it was progressive and diasporic Jewish. Two other columnists— Thomas Friedman and Bari Weiss—who might have been expected to write something were silent, at least on the page. For his part, though, Friedman had already advised that Israel deal with Arabs most aggressively in a recent column. And in an appearance on Bill Maher, Weiss blamed dying Palestinians for raining on Israel’s parade. She also admonished audiences for feeling sorry for Israel’s victims who were, nothing more than dupes of Hamas: “Let’s not fall for a trap that is being set by a theocratic, authoritarian group that are sending women and children to be human shields.”
By that time, there had already been a steady stream of other pieces in the opinion pages of the paper. On Monday, 14 May, one contributor made the provocative claim that Zionists invented human rights, suggesting—though not explicitly saying—that human rights and norms belong to Israel and its supporters, even when it comes to Gaza. On that same day, Ahmad Abu Artema—a Gaza organizer—effectively laid out the case and rationale behind the Gaza protests. On 16 May, an Israeli soldier-writer, Matti Friedman, reflected on his experience in the Israeli military to argue that American audiences were being tricked by Hamas. Friedman urged readers to reject "simplistic" stories, presumably like the ones that showed how Israeli snipers were shooting unarmed Palestinians. On 17 May, in a perfect counterpoint to Friedman, Gazan author Atef Abu Saif, published a poetic reflection on the experience of protesting at Israel’s fence.
Reflecting on these pieces, we can reasonably say that the editors at the opinion page were working to create a balance. On one side, three pieces that begin from the premise that Palestinians are human beings who possess inalienable rights and who are survivors of a long history of dispossession that includes the 1947-8 Nakba and also a brutal military occupation that has lasted from 1967 until the present. And on the other, four pieces that do not acknowledge this history, do not grant Gazans normal rights and agency, and do not axiomatically recognize Gazans as humans. Given how rarely Gazan realities appear in the pages of the New York Times, it is striking that two of the seven pieces were penned by Gazan authors. While three out of seven does not strike a perfect balance, it does indicate an attempt to include narratives of Palestinian humanity.
That attempt was torched on 18 May when Shmuel Rosner, an American-Israeli contributing opinion writer to the NYT, was effectively given the final word on Gaza. Rosner wrote, “It is customary to adopt an apologetic tone when scores of people have been killed, as they were this week in Gaza. But I will avoid this sanctimonious instinct and declare coldly: Israel had a clear objective when it was shooting, sometimes to kill, well-organized “demonstrators” near the border… I feel no need to engage in ingénue mourning.”
What does it mean for Rosner put the word demonstratorsin square quotes? That and the observation that they were well-organizedimply that they are not “real” for at least two reasons. First, because protestors are being manipulated—by Hamas, no doubt. And second, because the demonstrations are being organized at all, rather than occurring in a wholly spontaneous fashion. In other words, these are not authenticdemonstrations and therefore the demands apparently being made by protesters—ending the siege of Gaza and allowing them return to their homes—can be ignored out of hand. And what do protests become when we take away demands? Nothing less than a riot. A seething, angry—and inarticulate—threat that must be dealt with in terms of security and control.
But Rosner’s comments went far beyond dismissal of demands. He was also arguing that to mourn Palestinian losses was ingénue, that is, naïve and childish. We might ask Rosner: when are Gazan lives worthy of mourning? Fortunately, Rosner tells us: when they cease resisting their defeat. In this, he is in line with Stephens who delivered the same message to Gazans in his column:
No decent Palestinian society can emerge from the culture of victimhood, violence and fatalism symbolized by these protests. No worthy Palestinian government can emerge if the international community continues to indulge the corrupt, anti-Semitic autocrats of the Palestinian Authority or fails to condemn and sanction the despotic killers of Hamas. And no Palestinian economy will ever flourish through repeated acts of self-harm and destructive provocation.
According to these authors, there is no point in lamenting Palestinian losses. Whatever tragedy befalls them, they have no one else to blame but themselves. Lest we mistake callousness for thoughtlessness, Rosner rejects empathy with Palestinians by way of timeless wisdom from the Talmudic tradition:
The Jewish sages had a famous, if not necessarily pleasant, saying that went something like this: Those who are kind to the cruel end up being cruel to the kind. As harsh as this sounds amid the scenes from Gaza, as problematic as this seems to good-intentioned people whose instinct is to sympathize with the weaker side in every conflict, sometimes there is no better choice than being clear, than being firm, than drawing a line that cannot be crossed by those wanting to harm you. By fire, if necessary.
This is how the opinion pages at the NYT ended a very busy week last week: with a call to slaughter, wrapped in an exhortation not to mourn the Palestinian death that would occur as a direct result.
As we have already seen, the narrative of the City and the Gate is fully portable, and ready-for deployment in the USA. And it resonates deeply with a pop culture crowded with humanoid monsters. Those who use this framework to dehumanize Palestinians will use it to dehumanize others. And in fact, they already are, and have been for some time. It is not just Ann Coulter asking to shoot people on the US-Mexico border, or Trump referring to immigrants as "animals." It's not just loonies on the racist right either: these arguments already appear routinely in the nation's leading liberal newspaper.