On Genocide and the Duty to Speak Up

When Western leaders fail to condemn Israel’s bombing of civilian Palestinians in Gaza, it becomes the people’s responsibility – and the responsibility of artists and cultural workers – to protest.

In recent days, many people have replaced their social media profile pictures with black squares in response to the bombing of Gaza.

How are you supposed to behave during an ongoing genocide? Should I just have my tea and munch my biscuits as usual while a million children have neither water nor food? Am I supposed to bring out my Mac and get to work while two million people have no other source of light than the sun and the glare of grenades?

These words are not mine, but a quote from a Facebook post (originally written in Norwegian and appearing here in my translation) by author Guro Sibeko approximately one week ago. I adopt them here because they articulate, with great precision, the experience of having been put on the sidelines as passive observers to an ongoing genocide in Gaza, from which no Western heads of state have so far properly distanced themselves.

In case anyone is wondering: No, I do not support any kind of terrorism, and I utterly distance myself from Hamas’s cruel attack on civilians in Israel on 7 October. The Norwegian Palestine Committee has also described the actions of Hamas as war crimes. Not only did they attack with thousands of rockets – they also sent in soldiers with automatic weapons who massacred civilians, including attendees at a music festival. According to Israeli sources, a total of 1,400 people were killed; as of this writing, the number of children killed has not been confirmed. Two hundred and twenty-two people have been kidnapped by Hamas and are now in Gaza, among them children, festivalgoers, peace activists, the elderly, and soldiers. The attack was rightly condemned by Western leaders. But condemning Israel, an occupying power responsible for decades of abuse and apartheid policy, is clearly not something they are capable of – even after Israel, led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government, launched an unimaginably brutal war of revenge that primarily affects the already sorely tried civilian population in Gaza.

In the last week or so, we have received news about how Israel has bombed Gaza – where 2.3 million people live in an area slightly smaller than Oslo – with an intensity equivalent to a quarter of an atomic bomb. Around half of Gaza’s inhabitants are children. According to the Palestinian authorities, 4,741 have been killed at the time of writing, and another 15,898 have been injured. Among the dead are more than 1,800 children. Israel has cut off access to water, electricity, medicine, and fuel for everyone in Gaza, which is a collective punishment and thus a violation of international law. Hospitals and health facilities, schools and residential buildings have been bombed. The war crimes against civilians have been condemned by organisations such as Norwegian People’s Aid, Amnesty International, the UN, and the World Health Organisation.

Drawing by Mazen Kerbaj, a Berlin-based Lebanese musician, comics author, and visual artist. Courtesy of the artist.

Norway has condemned the blockade, according to the Norwegian broadcaster NRK. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has also emphasised that Norway denounces Israel’s evacuation order, which advised half of Gaza’s population to flee from the north to south on the Gaza Strip. But beyond that, Støre is very cautious in his statements, and when confronted by Red Party leader Marie Sneve Martinussen during the Parliament’s Question Time yesterday, he would not condemn the bombing of Gaza, but referred to Norway’s support of Israel’s “right to defend itself.”

The caution characteristic of all Western leaders probably also has to do with concerns regarding their relationships with Israel’s closest ally, the United States. Yesterday, the UN tried to adopt what The Guardian described as “a resolution calling for Israel to allow humanitarian corridors into the Gaza Strip, a pause in the fighting, and lifting of an order for civilians to leave the north of the besieged territory.” According to the article, twelve out of fifteen members of the UN Security Council voted in favour of the resolution, but the US vetoed it, apparently because the proposal, which was drafted by Brazilian diplomats, did not mention Israel’s right to defend itself.

In some European countries, the freedom of expression of people who support Palestine is now under serious pressure. France and Germany have banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and people defying this ban have been arrested. The situation seems particularly difficult in Germany, where in 2019 the German federal parliament passed a resolution equating involvement in the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement with anti-Semitism. Among other things, this resolution was the basis for accusations of anti-Semitism against the collective ruangrupa, which, as curators of Documenta 15, invited the Ramallah-based Palestinian artist collective The Question of Funding (QoF), which allegedly supports the BDS movement, to participate in the exhibition’s 2022 edition.

Documenta’s collaboration with ruangrupa has now ended, making it all the more striking that on 9 October the organisation issued a press release with a statement from its Managing Director Andreas Hoffmann, in which he describes the fact that two members of ruangrupa “liked” an Instagram post in support of Palestine shortly after the Hamas attack as “unbearable and unacceptable.” Documenta’s need to distance itself from the ruangrupa members’ reactions – which, according to the same press release, have supposedly been retracted – is stated as having to do with the fact that Documenta and the Museum Fridericianum are now actively trying to “regain the trust of the Jewish community and the general public in light of the anti-Semitic violations last summer.” Hyperallergic has reached out to Documenta management and ruangrupa for further comment, but without success.

Another example of the difficult situation in Germany could be observed a couple of days ago when it was announced that the book fair in Frankfurt had decided to postpone awarding this year’s literature prize to the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli. According to The Guardian, the organisation responsible for the prize, LitProm, justified the postponement due to “the war started by Hamas, under which millions of people in Israel and Palestine are suffering.” PEN International expressed disappointment at the decision, and the cancellation of the award ceremony resulted in several authors boycotting the book fair in protest.

Protest poster by Roan Boucher, created for Jewish Voice for Peace.

Fighting anti-Semitism is extremely important, and it is understandable if Germans are particularly anxious about appearing anti-Semitic, given Germany’s historical responsibility for the Holocaust. But in this situation it is absolutely crucial to distinguish between racism and legitimate criticism of the actions of a state. It ought not to be that difficult. Many of the harshest critics of the state of Israel’s actions are themselves Jewish and Israeli.

Yonatan Shapira, a former helicopter pilot in the Israeli military, is now an internationally known Palestine activist and can often be found taking part in demonstrations in support of Palestine here in Oslo – most recently on 14 October, when 5,500 people gathered to protest against the bombing of Gaza.

The Swedish-Israeli artist and musician Dror Feiler – who is also the leader of the organisation European Jews for a Just Peace, spokesperson for Jews for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (Judar för israelisk-palestinsk fred), and one of the driving forces behind Ship to Gaza – published an opinion piece in the newspaper ETC on 18 October. Here, he is critical of the fact that large parts of the world community choose to either turn a blind eye to, or to support, Israel’s violation of international law.

Many North American Jews, and especially the organisation Jewish Voice for Peace, of which the well-known Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein is a board member, have worked to promote Palestinian rights for a number of years. They are now calling for a ceasefire and an end to the war crimes. In a video shared on social media on 17 October, Klein says:

Many of us grew up telling ourselves that if we were ever witness to genocide again, we would stand in the way. We would put our bodies in the way, we would raise our voices, we would say, “never again on our watch.” We cannot simply watch the collective punishment, and forced displacement, and ethnic cleansing that is happening now in Gaza.

When Israeli left-wing politician and Knesset representative Ofer Cassif was interviewed by the independent news program Democracy Now! two days after the Hamas attack, in which a close friend of his was killed, he had the following message:

We should stand together, join forces. All peace lovers, Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs, Jews, and the international community, must stand together and join forces to say to Israel, “You are going to end the occupation now. You are going to end the occupation. The Palestinians must be liberated.

On October 20, Democracy Now! reported that an Israeli parliament ethics committee had suspended Cassif for forty-five days for criticising Israel’s war on Gaza.

Recent days have seen several outcries and calls for action within the cultural field. A number of internationally known artists and intellectuals, including Nan Goldin, Judith Butler, Wu Tsang, Brian Eno, Nicole Eisenman, Jeremy Deller, Laure Prouvost, and Lawrence Abu Hamdan, have signed an open letter from the art community to cultural institutions and organisations which they believe have a responsibility to “protect freedom of expression, promote education, community and creativity.” In their appeal, they reject violence against all civilians, regardless of their identity, but express solidarity with the Palestinian people and advocate an end to the oppression and occupation, which they describe as the root cause of the violence. “We ask arts organisations to show solidarity with cultural workers and call on our governments to demand an immediate ceasefire and the opening of Gaza’s crossings to allow humanitarian aid to enter unhindered,” they write. The letter concludes: “We call on you to refuse inhumanity, which has no place in life or art, and make a public demand from our governments to call for a ceasefire.”

More than 1,800 artists, musicians, performing artists, writers, and other cultural workers have signed a Norwegian appeal against the bombing of Gaza, on the initiative of artist Jannik Abel and musician Marthe Valle. “We raise our voices for unequivocal condemnation of Israeli attacks against civilians, and for the Norwegian authorities to do everything to defend international law in the ongoing war crimes in Gaza,” the petition says. A statement of solidarity from Young Artists’ Society (UKS) calls for an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and occupation of Palestine. In a declaration by cultural workers in Denmark in support of the Palestinian people, over 1,300 have signed their name to a statement asserting that they “condemn Israel’s ethnic cleansing and colonisation of Palestine, including all attacks on Gaza.”

The international community, and not least Israel’s allies, have a responsibility to demand that international law is observed. When our government leaders do not shoulder that responsibility, it is up to the people to speak out. We all have a responsibility to react and protest against violations of international law and war crimes.

“Stop the genocide in Gaza.” From a demonstration against the bombing of Gaza, Oslo, 14 October, arranged by The Palestine Committee. Photo: Mariann Enge.

Note: This is a translated and updated version of an article originally published in Norwegian on 19 October 2023.

Update, 27 October 2023: New York Times reported yesterday that David Velasco, editor-in-chief of Artforum, had been fired over the publication of the open letter mentioned in this article.