Objectivity and Palestine

A few days ago, I received a text message from a cousin asking me to explain the situation in Palestine. It was the third such question I’ve received in the past week. I am, after all, an Arab living in the United States. The difference with this one message, though, was that it was coming from my home country of Lebanon, which is much closer (geographically, culturally, and historically) to Palestine. 

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My cousin’s question was well-intentioned. 

“Educate me on what is happening, exactly,” she said. “Because I feel like everyone is subjective.” 

She believed that my professional and academic background afforded me the needed distance and perspective to approach the topic with balance. I have a major in international politics, I regularly follow news of the region, and worked briefly as a journalist. 

Despite the good intentions, though, I haven’t been able to stop playing the question over in my head. Not just because of where it came from, but because I could justify it. Even with my deep familiarity with the history of the region, hearing the stories of people who have lived through Israeli occupation. Even living through and witnessing the horror of Israeli attacks personally, I have found myself shying away from conversations about Palestine, wondering if my very closeness to the situation paradoxically made me less entitled to speak about it. 

When I do talk about it, I find myself picking my words very carefully, self-moderating, teetering on the edge of the very “both-sides-ism” that I know full well is lazy and misleading. 

I couldn’t help but wonder: Has the mainstream narrative of Israeli occupation gaslit us, myself and others like my cousin, into believing that we could not possibly approach this issue in any way that isn’t “subjective?” And if so, is it fair for our understanding to be entirely discounted?

Like my cousin and many others in the region, the Palestinian cause was as ingrained in our upbringing as learning to say please and thank you. I grew up watching news footage of the Second Intifada, following the tragedy through the news and the conversations in my family, listening to stories of my parents and other loved ones who lived through Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. Names like Mohamad Al-Dorra (the Palestinian child who died on his father’s lap from an Israeli bullet) were common in my house, always spoken as if in reference to a loved one, and not just another in a sea of countless innocent victims. The Palestinian cause went beyond politics. It was part of our shared experience as Arabs, living through our culture in songs, novels, poems, and movies. 

And, yet, we are made to feel as if ours cannot possibly be a worthy perspective on the defining conflict of the region, precisely because of how close we are to it. Is it not strange to feel that the convictions and knowledge accumulated over a lifetime should disqualify you from being a part of the mainstream dialogue? Twitter has been abuzz with praise for major U.S. public figures, from Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to Trevor Noah and John Oliver to Mark Ruffalo, for their outspoken criticism of Israel’s disproportionate attacks on Gaza, whose residents have been suffering well before the recent military actions. And while I am happy to see more public support for the Palestinians, is it not strange to heap praise upon these people for saying something that we have all known for years? 

The simple fact that Israel’s recent military campaign in Gaza is triggering so much international outrage is proof of how deeply damaging the narrative of “objectivity” or “both-sides-ism” has been to the lives of Palestinians, whether those who are fighting for their homes in Sheikh Jarrah or their lives in Gaza. Nothing about the recent crisis is unprecedented. In fact, the only thing that is arguably unprecedented is that there is a somewhat broader acceptance of the description of events on the ground: war crimes, crimes against humanity, apartheid, and forced displacement. And though we still have a ways to go, would things have been different today if we were able to openly and without hesitation use these words in the past? If we had accepted that our experiences were as valuable as those going viral on John Oliver or Trevor Noah’s YouTube channels today? 

The problem with gaslighting is that it can sometimes be so easy to forget that there are others like you whose voices are being drowned by the sheer frequency and volume of mainstream narratives. 

We have also grown so accustomed to the “both-sides-ism” that is often considered the gold standard of journalism that it is easy to forget how outrageously misleading it actually is. If you were to read about the Gaza crisis now in outlets as prominent as The New York Times or Washington Post, you might assume that this is a conflict between two military forces, and not in fact, an attack by one of the region’s most powerful military forces on a people who are essentially trapped, who are stateless, who have no freedom of movement or an army to protect them. You certainly also wouldn’t know that the very state that is raining bombs on Gazans also controls their access to water, power, and basic services which we take for granted. To present this as an attack-and-response conflict between two sides is to actively conceal the fact that only one “side” of the “conflict” controls all the levers of power. 

This is the arbitrary nature of objectivity in many newsrooms ⁠— power dynamics are ignored in favor of whatever opinion lends itself to keeping editors, and their readers, comfortable with the status quo. 

Perhaps, in reading these news articles, you would have also come across the words “Sheikh Jarrah,” possibly two to three paragraphs in, and not known that the attempted displacement of four Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood is by no means a one-off offense, but rather a part of a systematic campaign of settler colonialism that dates back to 1948. Maybe, if the article offers a little more context, you might also learn that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are a violation of international law, a fact that seems to be pushed further and further down news stories — if it makes it in at all — and almost always as an afterthought. 

The attempt to present balance in a story that is fundamentally about disproportionate power and rights has become so forced that news outlets have taken to using the passive voice to describe Israeli attacks. Gazans are killed, buildings are destroyed, and Palestinians are injured. But who or what is behind these attacks is never immediately clear. Because to do so would draw attention to the fact that the responsible party has no matching foe, rendering the “objective” narrative as meaningless as it is misleading. 

Yet, for those of us not raised to sympathize with the Palestinian people, this is the kind of reporting that is relied upon to learn about what is happening in Gaza today. Could my “subjective” experience be any less informative and illuminating of what is happening on the ground than the “balanced truth” that many journalists and editors say they are beholden to? In fact, is their framework not as “subjective” for ignoring the power dynamics on the ground? 

At the end of my conversation with my cousin, we both recalled our experience during the 2006 Israel war in Lebanon. We remembered the fear, the hopelessness, and insomnia that came with the horror of not knowing whether we would be killed by an airstrike in our sleep. 

“I remember thinking, ‘How does no one care?’” my cousin said. “How is everyone in the world living as if nothing is happening to us?” 

All this to say that if you, like me, have shied away from talking about Palestine or felt the need to measure your words and hold back out of a misplaced commitment to “objectivity,” then don’t. What Gazans are experiencing today is a horror that is hard to put in words. Those of us who feel close to their cause, and who have the privilege of expressing it, owe them a voice. 

Fatima Bahja is a freelance writer, with a MA in Communication, Culture & Technology from Georgetown University. She focuses on the intersection of journalism, culture, and politics. Originally from Lebanon, Fatima is particularly interested in the representation of Arab communities and issues in Western media. The article reflects her personal views.

This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider.

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