The power of words in the Israeli war on Gaza

Nevine Khalil, Wednesday 6 Dec 2023

A worldwide revolution in the lexicon and narrative about the war on Gaza has not gone unnoticed.

Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in front of the morgue at the hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. AP


“We refer to the Israeli hostages, but everyone in Gaza is also a hostage and it is a permanent state of hostage-taking,” Daniel Maté told his audience on 30 November.

“Israel holds their fate in its hands, and the sheer scale of the inequality of power is monumental,” Maté added.

Speaking at the fourth virtual discussion sponsored by Interfaith Action of Southwest Michigan, titled “God in Conflict: Faith or Politics? A new lexicon,” Maté sifted through the emerging terminology being used worldwide to describe Israel’s persecution of Palestinians.

In Maté’s mind, Israel’s onslaught on the Gaza Strip has a clear intention: “Take over land, clean it out of Palestinians, and push them into Sinai or anywhere. It does not matter.”

Even before the war, the strip had been described as “the world’s largest open-air prison” and a “concentration camp” due to Israel’s “brutal, medieval siege and blockade on Gaza,” said Maté.

“Since 7 October, it has evolved from a concentration camp into a death camp,” he insisted, “because what Israel is unleashing is looking and sounding a lot like ‘the final solution’ which Israeli politicians have had in mind for some time.”

Maté, whose great grandparents died at Auschwitz, embodies growing Jewish voices that are critical of Israel and Zionism, personifying the analytical and critical Jewish intellectual.

“I have never felt more Jewish in my life than in the last two months,” he said. “For me, the Jewish tradition is dissent, speaking out, inquiry, being vaudevillian, and everything else we have done to keep ourselves sane and alive.”

An acclaimed composer, lyricist, and playwright, Maté has been prolific on social media over the past two months, advocating for Palestinian rights, criticizing Israel, and demanding an end to the bloodbath in Gaza. With around 50,000 followers on Instagram, 11,000 subscribers on YouTube, and almost 10,000 followers on X, he has used these platforms to inform, debate, question, and critique the treatment of Palestinians as a result of the Zionist project.

Maté unabashedly uses “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe the massacre and displacement of Palestinians in historic Palestine, as well as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank today.

“Genocide is the indiscriminate targeting of a people with the intent to wipe them out, displace and uproot them from their land,” he explained, and “ethnic cleansing was the foundation of the state of Israel.”

He added that moving settlers into usurped territories is also a component of ethnic cleansing. “You’re settling your people and squeezing the others into smaller and smaller cantons, and sometimes pushing them out entirely,” he said.

Maté’s father, Gabor Maté, is a renowned anti-Zionist who turned his back on Zionism decades ago. As an early teen, the younger Maté listened to his father speak out about the abuses of the Israeli government during the first Intifada in the 1980s.

Maté spent many summers at a labour Zionist camp as part of a family tradition and “absolutely loved it.” But when the Jewish community began censoring and blacklisting his father, Maté picked a side.

When he joined an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue group at McGill University in Canada, he met Palestinians for the first time in his life.

“Until then they were just a concept, an abstract,” he said. “I was not an activist by any means; I was just an opinionated Jew, and there are many of those in the world.”

The day after the 7 October attack, Maté picked up his phone, took a walk through town, and started his first Instagram livestream about the atrocities perpetrated against Palestinians. He lambasted the racist double standards, how the attack was understandable and inevitable – albeit not necessarily justifiable.

“We can take refuge in moral condemnation and righteousness,” he told viewers last week, “but until you see why it was inevitable, you cannot prevent it from happening again.”

Maté is adamant about disrupting a deliberately misleading narrative that is promoted and propagated in the West that equates Zionism with Judaism. “It is outrageous and egregiously absurd,” he exclaimed, explaining that Judaism is a way of relating to the divine, while Zionism is a political movement invented by secular European Jews.

The only reason the two are purposefully conflated, Maté asserted, is to protect Israel from criticism because if Zionism is the same as Judaism, then opposition to what Israel does must be opposition to Jews.

“It is a very handy little trick,” he mused darkly. “It is completely bogus, but it does the trick because no one wants to be called an anti-Semite.”

He noted that Israel is a political entity that is not immune to criticism, and to criticize it is not irrational anti-Semitism.

“A colossal grievous wrong was done to [Palestinians], consciously, deliberately, knowingly, and ongoingly so that the Jewish state could exist,” he stressed. “This canard that criticism of Israel and Zionism is the same as anti-Semitism is simply a way to shut people up.”

Maté also referenced Orthodox Jewish sects that are vehemently anti-Zionist, citing the works of Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, Norman Finkelstein, Ilan Pappe, Baruch Kimmerling, and Raz Segal who are all Jew scholars opposed to Zionism and are critical of Israel.

“When they cannot call you an anti-Semite, because, like me, you are Jewish, then they call you a self-hating Jew. That is the only way they can explain why I am not supporting war crimes, genocide, and mass murder.”

Maté takes it a step further and argues that it is Zionists who are anti-Semites because their only definition of being Jewish is to be a “militaristic, nationalist, chauvinist, who thinks he is superior.” Anything else is unacceptable.

“No, no, no, no,” Maté emphatically responds to that. “You just do not like Jews with the moral compass and humanistic tradition of Judaism. You are the anti-Semite.”

He added that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and B’Tselem have all reported in recent weeks that Israel is de facto an apartheid state, and thus he believes it should be dealt with as one. “End the apartheid and create a binational state,” he suggested.

However, he fears that Israel’s current military and political leadership is too far gone. Right now, “It is a lunatic state,” Maté concluded.

The next Interfaith Action discussion titled “Hear Our Voice” is on 7 December and will feature two Palestinian guests from Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Ashley Bohrer, a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace. Held every Thursday, the virtual series is open for anyone to join from anywhere in the world, and all discussions are available as Apple podcasts and on YouTube.


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