2 – The Sound of Silence: Why many on the left are failing to call out genocide

* title in print “Watching and Waiting? On speaking out and staying silent during genocide”

By Kermit

I first became critical of Zionism and the occupation of Palestine over twenty years ago when I went to hear a group of ex IDF soldiers and Israeli refuseniks speak out against it. After I moved to the Bay Area and became involved with Slingshot in the mid 2000s, support for Palestinian liberation and condemnation of Israeli apartheid were common convictions within the radical community around me, especially among my radical Jewish friends. Despite notable improvements in the coverage of other issues we were talking about then, the mainstream coverage of Israel in the US media seems to have barely changed in the last twenty years.

All of that is to say that when October 7th happened, I already knew that, much like 9-11, the trauma of it would be used to justify much larger atrocities in return and I suspected that the US media and Democratic-led government would act in ways to defend those atrocities. Despite knowing this, the extent of the genocidal violence Israel has unleashed against the people of Gaza has still been shocking. While it is heartening to see more voices calling for ceasefire and an end to apartheid and the occupation of Palestine, too many US liberals and progressives still seem to be hesitant to honestly look at what is happening and demand that the US government stop supporting it.

I’ve been living farther away from radical community in recent years. While I do have radical friends who live an hour or two away and many more farther afield with whom I can text and share memes or voicenotes, I’m often surrounded by people who are not nearly as upset or concerned about Palestine as I am. There seem to be a lot of folks around me and on the internet who are broadly liberal and would normally be outraged by US backed war crimes and civilian suffering but have been notably silent about Israel. Witnessing the inability of mainstream liberals, including many on the progressive left, to speak out against the genocide in Gaza has me trying to understand why.

Why are people silent?

Many knee-jerk defenses of Israel that were common at the beginning of the bombardment have withered away or become ridiculous as the violence continues and more information comes to light. The idea that Israel is acting in self defense or only targeting Hamas fighters as it inflicts mass casualties on an impoverished population is absurd. The continual attempts to justify the bombing of hospitals, universities, refugee camps and people who are desperately trying to get food in the middle of a militarily imposed famine are obviously empty words.

The purpose of all of these lies, however, isn’t really to convince people to believe them, it is to overwhelm and confuse those of us who are removed from the violence itself. It is to make people in places like the UK, Germany, and especially the US – whose governments continue to provide Israel with funding and some degree of political cover – tune out and disengage. Arguments like “it’s an ancient hatred”, “it’s too complex, you wouldn’t understand” and “there are bad actors on both sides” all boil down to one message; “look away, stop paying attention, let this continue and worry about other things”

It is true that sifting through all of the history and information coming at us daily and trying to verify every contested report is complicated but naming genocide and apartheid and calling for an end to it is not. We can’t let complex histories of oppression and fear of imagined futures prevent us from seeing the simple moral truths of the present.

Setting aside the general sense of overwhelm that keeps most people fairly apolitical while trying to survive capitalism, some of reasons people seem to be staying out of this political fight are that criticizing Israel or supporting Palestinian freedom is, or could appear to be, antisemitic or that it would be divisive in an election year when the left needs to be unified. Lets take a look at where these arguments come from and why they fall apart. 

I don’t want to be antisemitic”

One of the most common things that prevents people from speaking out against Israeli actions is the worry that it might be antisemitic or otherwise fuel antisemitism to do so; that it is necessary to choose between a concern for the safety and self determination of Palestinians and concern for the safety and self determination of Jews around the world. This idea is powerful, but it is a false choice. 

Antisemitism is on the rise and important to expose and condemn but this is not a reason to be silent about Palestine and the actions of Israel are doing more to spread it than to combat it. Antisemites use coded language to channel often legitimate outrage about social inequality away from the systems of power that actually oppress people and toward their own racist conspiracy theories that demonize Jewish people. As wealth inequality and the climate crisis destabilize systems and accelerate mass migration, antisemitic and other racist dog-whistles have been employed more openly by right wing parties within many democracies to focus fear and anger into their political projects.

A lot of the arguments made by people who justify Israel’s actions are based on the idea that Zionism is the same as Judaism and that supporting the aims of Zionism is the best or only way confront antisemitism and keep Jewish people safe. This conflation is arguably antisemitic itself and, at the very least, is demonstrably untrue.

Zionism is not Judaism. Zionism is a political ideology founded in late 19th century Europe that proposed to use European settler colonial methods to escape European antisemitism. It’s principal project has been to establish, defend and expand an explicitly Jewish nation-state in the land that is now Israel and occupied Palestine. Judaism, on the other hand, is a religious and ethnic identity that predates Zionism by millennia. Modern Rabbinic Judaism, developed in diasporic communities around the world, has always contained many different political and religious view points.

Zionism, like all settler nationalisms – including US manifest destiny and its nostalgia for the ‘wild’ west – weaponizes fear of the ‘savage’ indigenous other in order to justify the brutality of occupation. It wrongly asserts that in order to protect the safety and dignity of settlers, it is necessary to strip the dehumanized other of their dignity and their land. It never questions the ethics of settlement and is incapable of imagining living and sharing the land in ways that do not threaten indigenous sovereignty.

The opposition to Zionism has always included Jewish voices, from members of the Jewish Labour Bund who articulated a political vision around the idea of doikayt or ‘hereness’ a century ago to the many anti-Zionist Jews who are active at Palestinian solidarity actions with groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now today.

Some of the most vocal Zionists, on the other hand, are well funded evangelicals. There are more Christian Zionists than Jews in the US and many of them believe that Jewish people have to return to the biblical land of Israel in order to bring about the second coming of Christ – it’s weird shit.

US support for Israel is not altruistic either. The United States is by far the largest provider of military aid to Israel and while they claim that this is motivated by a desire to protect Jewish lives, it is very clear that having a strong ally in the middle east has done a lot to further American geopolitical objectives. This is evident in a clip of Biden from the 80’s where he says: “if there were not an Israel, [the US] would have to invent one” because of its strategic importance to US policy aims.

Israel, by continuing to maintain an apartheid state where the non-Jewish population has a second class or non-citizen status while committing literal genocide and declaring that it represents all Jews is a PR gift for antisemites and will almost certainly lead to more antisemitic attacks around the world. This is a dangerous cycle that can become self-reinforcing and must be stopped.

There is nothing contradictory in denouncing anti-Jewish rhetoric while also calling for an end to the Israeli occupation and genocide in Gaza. Beware, however, of propaganda that willfully misinterprets all pro-Palestinian sentiment as inherently antisemitic, conflates Judaism with Zionism, or polices the language of people experiencing genocidal oppression.

Its not worth the hassle”

Even when people understand that criticizing Israel is not necessarily antisemitic, they may still be disinclined to talk about it because of the fear that doing so opens them up to social criticism and push back. This is always true when expressing political views that are perceived as controversial, but with Israel-Palestine it can be particularly intense, both because the level of atrocity we are all witnessing is so horrific and because so many Americans have been conditioned to think of Israel as a benevolent and democratic country.

Social media platforms are a vital part of feeling connected to other people who share our values and concerns. Seeing and sharing things from online content creators that are thoughtful and on point has been super important to me in the last few months. The architecture of those spaces, however, can also lead to bad faith interpretations and exaggerated reactions. One of the ironies of outrage culture is that we get so fatigued by intense emotions that we don’t know what to do when we are confronted by things that are actually worthy of rage. 

Fear of being misunderstood and potentially canceled also makes the stakes feel higher. As we all come under increased scrutiny online, it can lead to out-sized worry about the effects of political missteps on our careers and social circles.

If we are too far removed from the people we are trying to talk to, shared vulnerability can’t develop and it is difficult to be in the frame of mind we need to respond with compassion and evaluate information critically. The most fruitful conversations I’ve had have been in real time with people I know well enough to hear and be heard by in good faith.

While it is true that some people are in situations where being vocal about their support of Palestine can endanger relationships that they depend on for their livelihood, most of us would not face a material threat if we spoke more to the people in our lives about Palestine and our voices might help those who are in more precarious situations.

It is important for those of us who wish to make the world less shitty to create space in our communities where people are able to say things, even if they use the wrong words, even if they will be subject to criticism and have a lot to learn. It is that kind of space that allows people to learn and grow, it is that space that gives us the tools to live in community with each other.

In the end there is always a balance between trying to make the world better and protecting our own mental health. It is important, at times, to conserve emotional energy or avoid fights that aren’t worth having. I would still encourage those of us who do have the bandwidth (myself included) to push ourselves a bit further out of our comfort zones in expressing our solidarity with Palestinians and the need for ceasefire now.

It’s the lesser of two evils”

Fears of contributing to antisemitism or facing awkward social situations definitely inhibit people, but perhaps the worry that scares US liberals and progressives more as the war drags further into 2024 is the fear that it will splinter the democratic base and allow Trump to win. This fear causes people to shut down or worse, to become like the choruses shouting “four more years” at protesters confronting Biden officials about their complicity in genocide.

Trump is a fascist would-be strong man who is actively trying to subvert democracy in the US and a Trump win would be terrible in a thousand ways. Trump would obviously not bring about any meaningful change in US policy vis-à-vis Israel either except, perhaps, to be more honest about it. But the idea that Biden and his party can continue arming and providing cover for a genocide without facing a political price is ludicrous. 

Backed into a corner, many US liberals seem to be hoping the issue will just go away while they label those who cannot remain silent as political spoilers. The problem is that it will not go away. The divide is already there and dismissing it displays a profound lack of empathy that is completely alienating younger and more radical leftists. If Democrats really want to make the case that Biden is the lesser of two evils, they need to acknowledge that his support of Israel is a problem.


1948, the year of the initial mass displacement of Palestinians (the Nakba) and foundation of the state of Israel was a pivotal moment. It was just a year or two after the Nuremberg trials had revealed the true horror of the holocaust to the wider world – including to western nations that had turned away people trying to flee because they were seen as undesirable immigrants.

Many people arguing for the defense of Israel have evoked the memory of the holocaust to do so. Over 17 million people, including six million Jews, but also Roma, gays, disabled people, political dissidents and others, were murdered in that genocide and it shamed the world. Over 75 years later, however, some people seem to have learned the wrong lesson from it. 

The lesson of the holocaust is not to support Israel at all costs because it is the only way to protect Jewish people or to memorialize the fight against fascism. The lesson of the holocaust is to recognize and disrupt genocidal situations wherever we find them in order to prevent anything like the Nazi holocaust from ever happening again and to build societies that protect all people within them, refusing to scapegoat ethnic and religious minorities and with the understanding that we are all capable, in our silence, of being complicit in atrocity. 

People who adopt or avoid political views because they are afraid of being uncomfortable or because they are shamed out of questioning authority are not the people who push their communities towards justice or hold the line when marginalized people are under attack. It was not comfortable to be against Jim Crow in 1925, to help people fleeing the Nazis in 1940 or to be an advocate for gay people in 1955. Those who worked against apartheid and repression in those moments had ethical commitments born of empathy and a willingness to put their own reputations, and often their own bodily safety, on the line. 

Genocidal hatred is something we must fight at all costs but it cannot always be defeated by naming and shaming. We who are removed from the direct violence of this genocide need to find ways to speak so that people can hear us and listen so that we are able to learn; to access the compassion needed to make ethical choices and the courage to face the consequences.

The struggle against antisemitism is the struggle for Palestinian Liberation, there is no other way. Settler colonial nations like Israel and the United States need to come to terms with the violence of their origins and move forward with decolonized people toward a shared future – a future where all of the people living from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond can be free; that is the only way we can all be safe and have the freedom and dignity we deserve.