How Israel Lost the Culture War

By Alia Brahimi

After accepting an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed “an achievement no military has ever achieved” in Israel’s 11-day bombing campaign in Gaza. At the same time, Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that had indiscriminately fired more than 4,300 missiles into Israel, reflexively expressed “the euphoria of victory.”

Whatever the military outcome, it seems increasingly likely the final reckoning of this latest round of conflict will be decided far away from the battlefield. Netanyahu may have picked the wrong time to doggedly pursue airstrikes against one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, where 50 percent of the inhabitants are under the age of 15; more specifically, he may have chosen the wrong cultural moment.

Of course, there are grim continuities between the latest war and previous onslaughts on Gaza. For example, as with Operation Protective Edge in 2014, roughly 1 in 4 fatalities in Gaza was not only civilian but also a child (66 out of a total 248 deaths). Yet as of this month, the Israeli military did not change its tactics or recalibrate its use of force, continuing to deploy the aerial prowess of a military superpower against the tower blocks of an impoverished, captive population.

The difference this time was the racial expression of the violence that intersected with a larger global conversation about systemic racism.

The difference this time was the racial expression of the violence which, intersecting as it did with a larger global conversation about systemic racism, promised a transformational shift in the conflict’s framing.

A discussion about race in Israel-Palestine has the potential to gain traction among a younger generation that tirelessly challenges received wisdom on global issues from climate change to economic inequality. Young American Jews are a critical force in these shifting cultural sands as they struggle to reconcile their progressive views on politics and race with Israel’s actions, asking: “Why does a safe homeland for us mean the subjugation of another?”

As global networks such as Black Lives Matter stand in solidarity with Palestinians, they draw attention to an underlying and universalizable struggle for racial liberation. This new license to interrogate official Israeli talking points has already reformed the vocabulary in the United States’ conversation about the conflict in striking ways.

The outbreak of war was surrounded by a series of racially charged incidents in Jerusalem and elsewhere: Israeli police raids against the al-Aqsa mosque on the first and last days of Ramadan and on the holy night of Laylat al-Qadr, firing stun grenades and rubber-tipped bullets at one of the holiest sites of Islam; the impending forced displacement of Arab families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, whose homes are one court ruling away from being taken by Jewish settlers; and violent clashes between Jewish and Arab citizens in several Israeli cities raising the specter of mob “lynchings.”

To coordinate their attacks against Arabs, ultranationalist Israelis created social media channels with names like “Death to Arabs.” The brutal May 12 assault of an Arab man pulled from his car and attacked by a crowd of Jewish extremists in a suburb of Tel Aviv was reportedly organized on Telegram.

These events brought into sharper focus the source of the so-called Israel-Palestine dispute: a colonial-style occupation the official Israeli narrative has long sought to suppress. Israel remains the occupying power of Palestinian territory in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza—where it still enforces a military blockade despite removing settlers in 2005.

Within the bounds of Israel itself, Arab citizens are discriminated against on racial grounds in a systematic manner that is increasingly being described as apartheid; the disproportionate number of arrests and indictments of Arabs after recent Arab-Jewish violence is just the latest indicator. As the psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon observed 60 years ago, what parcels out the colonial world is the fact of belonging or not belonging to a given race.

These colonial conditions also helped explain the dramatic imbalance in the death toll (12 deaths on the Israeli side compared to 248 deaths in Gaza). Hamas’s targeting of Israeli civilians is as cowardly and abominable as the Israeli military’s indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza, yet it is no coincidence Israel is shielded by the Iron Dome air defense system (which blocked 90 percent of incoming rocket fire) and its Jewish citizens have access to bomb shelters. This asymmetry is no accident of history; it is integral to the colonial origins of the conflict and guarantees an inequality in suffering.

More concretely, the United States has provided $1.6 billion specifically for Iron Dome batteries, interceptors, and maintenance as part of the $3.8 billion aid package it delivers annually to Israel—which goes almost entirely toward military assistance and is not conditioned on Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law.

Confronting the reality of Israel’s occupation of Palestine raises further uncomfortable questions for Israel, not least a closer inspection of its enemies. Groups like Hamas are militant, repressive nonstate actors with no international legitimacy that often make double victims of the Palestinian people. But they are able to claim a mandate anchored in the promise of military resistance to the oppressor. At the same time, the occupation’s brutalizing conditions make it difficult for nonviolent forms of resistance to compete with armed movements. In a way, Israel is fighting the shadow of its own colonial enterprise.

All this is bad news for the Israeli government, which is prosecuting an old colonial campaign in a rapidly changing global culture. For two decades, its official narrative has been empowered by the sweeping and suffocating discourse of the global war on terrorism, in which Israel was breathlessly depicted as a small and committed democracy defending itself against the inexplicable wrath of an Islamist terrorist movement powered by antisemitic motivations.

The Israeli government is prosecuting an old colonial campaign in a rapidly changing global culture.

In 2020, one prominent Israeli newspaper noted that what the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have in common is the way Black people and women have been subjected to domination of their bodies by others. This increasing global focus on the ways the human experience is shaped by power relations flips the script on Netanyahu and draws attention to Israel’s 54-year occupation of the Palestinian people.

Whereas in the wake of 9/11 the Israeli narrative found a captive audience, Palestinians now have access to the language of the moment as hypermilitarized Israeli security forces literally kneel on the necks of peaceful protesters and demonstrators wave banners that integrate their cause with a global fight for racial justice catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd by a U.S. police officer: “We can’t breathe since 1948.”

In this emerging global discourse, Palestinian lives matter as much as Israeli lives do. And no military victory for Israel will spare it from that racial reckoning.