Don’t Call Me Resilient

Why the Israel-Gaza conflict is so hard to talk about

Episode Summary

With the intensification of war in the Middle East, comes an intense polarization within our institutions. A historian whose family was taken hostage by Hamas, and a geographer with family in the West Bank, get together to discuss a way forward.

Episode Notes

It's hard to escape the news coming out of the Middle East. It's everywhere. And it's excruciating to take it all in. First came the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel. 1,400 people were viciously attacked and murdered and at least 200 more were kidnapped and taken hostage. Then came the retaliation by the state of Israel. Almost immediately, those living in Gaza, under the leadership of Hamas, were faced with an evacuation order for more than a million people. They had their food and water supplies cut off and 6,000 bombs were dropped on them in one week. So far, more than 5,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s assault. There is so much polarization that it has become really hard to have a conversation about what is happening - and what has been happening for decades. In today's episode, Vinita speaks to two guests about how and why the conversation is getting shut down - and what we can do about it. Natalie Rothman is a  professor of historical and cultural studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She grew up in Israel. She has friends and relatives in the region including family members who have been taken hostage by Hamas. Norma Rantisi is a professor of geography and urban planning at Concordia University who has done work in the region. She has family in the West Bank and is a member of the Academics for Palestine Concordia, and the Palestinian-Canadian Academics and Artists Network.



Episode Transcription

Why the Israel-Gaza conflict is so hard to talk about


Natalie Rothman: this is not about narratives, this is about historical facts. … and the other issue is whenever we say, oh, this is too complicated, this is too intractable. No it isn't. It is not more complex than any other settle colonial situation around the world and somehow when it comes to Israel Palestine, people are unable to speak about it or unable to Get their facts right And when they do get their facts right, they get silenced. 

Vinita: Maybe you’re like me. I can’t stop watching the news coming out of the Middle East. I can’t stop looking at the feed on my phone (and) At the same time, it’s so excruciating to take it all in.

First, came the horrific Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel. 1,400 people were viciously attacked and murdered and at least 200 more were kidnapped and taken hostage. 

Then came the retaliation by the state of Israel. Almost immediately, those living in Gaza, under the leadership of Hamas, were faced with an evacuation order for more than a million people. Their food and water supplies were cut off and 6,000 bombs were dropped on them in one week. So far, more than 5,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s assault against Hamas.  

Many of us have been left with a feeling of helplessness as we watch in horror.  And for others this witnessing has brought personal anguish, especially for those with ties to the region. 

For all of us, it’s raised intense challenges about how to talk about what is currently happening and what has been happening for decades.

There is SO much polarization. There are those that feel their pain, loss and histories as Jewish people have been diminished). On the other hand, those attempting to apply an anti-colonial lens to the issue are being shut down and labeled as anti-semitic.

Our two guests today both say that our institutions need to make room for true dialogues – where decolonization is not a bad word…. They say a contextual, historical analysis is crucial to moving forward….

both at home and abroad. 

Norma Rantisi is a professor of geography and urban planning at Concordia University. She has done work in the region and has family in the West Bank.  She is a member of both the Academics for Palestine Concordia, and the Palestinian-Canadian Academics and Artists Network.

Natalie Rothman is a professor of history at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She grew up in Israel. She has friends and relatives in the region including family members who have been taken hostage by Hamas.



VInita:  right now, as people residing in [00:01:00] Canada, we have witnessed horrific and excruciating pain and loss of life, in the Middle East, and we're also witnessing some extreme polarization. Much of it on social media, but. Some of it in our own, own neighborhoods and families. Um, you're both scholars, obviously, you're here today to speak about this issue, but before we get started, I wanted to check in with you on a personal level and just ask you both how are you feeling as these conversations are going by? , can I start with you, Natalie, 

Natalie: I think it's fair to say I'm feeling immense grief., the sites we're seeing from. Israel Palestine are horrific. The loss of life, the loss of civilian life is devastating., and at the same time as I experience grief, I'm also very mindful of the ways in which this grief is constantly being weaponized and the ways in which the polarization means that, it's become an either or, uh, And from my perspective, 

you can be for Palestinian liberation and at the same time denounce the killing of, or the kidnapping of civilians. You can grieve the deaths of Israeli civilians and not support the genocide that is unfolding in Gaza right now.

but unfortunately, my grief and the grief of other Jews who support Palestinian liberation is. Constantly being turned into, uh, a weapon in the hands of the Israeli government that presents these assaults, these genocidal assaults on civilians in Gaza, as somehow Israel's right to defend itself, which to me makes it even more painful to think about the ways in [00:03:00] which 

we're being silenced. We're being told that any criticism of Israel right now is antisemitic. That any concern about respecting international law and respecting, the rights of Palestinians for liberation, that this is somehow antisemitic. I find it deeply offensive and deeply painful to live through.

Vinita: I'm sorry. And you have family right now who are living through some of these issues. Do you wanna tell

Natalie: So I was born and raised in Israel and most of my family, my birth family is there. One of my father's cousins and her husband are held hostage in Gaza, or at least were taken hostage. We don't know at this point with all the aerial bombardments, whether they're even alive still. Um, yeah, so there's definitely a [00:04:00] deep connection in terms of family, but I should also say that I have a lot of pa close Palestinian friends who are grieving the loss of direct family members and close friends in Gaza were fearful for their own safety, whether it is in.

Um, Israel in the West Bank, certainly in Gaza. So  these issues are deeply connected for me, and I refuse to choose sides in this context, um, or prioritizing only the wellbeing of my immediate biological family over the wellbeing of the millions who are besieged in ga and should, I should say, have been besieged in Gaza.

Not just since October. This part of the missing piece of this is that the siege has been ongoing since 2007 and that the nakba has been ongoing since 1948. The catastrophe and the dispossession [00:05:00] the ways in which Israel has instituted an apartheid regime. the ways in which occupation and ethnic cleansing has been an ongoing aspect of life in Israel Palestine for many, many decades now, this is all part of the narrative that is often left out of these, 

um, conversations that only talk about the immediate, quote unquote cycle of violence. Only talk about it in terms of an immediate conflict between supposedly two sides, rather than think about – ss you said in your opening remarks – that this is an anti-colonial struggle. This is a struggle against a dehumanization that has been unleashed for decades now.

Vinita: I want to talk more about the, the narrative of the two sides, and before we get there, I [00:06:00] wanna make sure we check in with Norma as well. Um, how are you doing Norma, right now in this, watching all of this unfold and I know participating in conversations, um, in chats,

Norma: thanks. I, uh, just wanted to echo a lot of what Natalie has already said. it is a time of grief. There's a lot of loss of life, uh, and lamenting on loss of life,, I'm just quite anxious, clearly about what's, uh, what's unfolding at the moment. Um, my own family is in the West Bank …and I have …quite a few Palestinian friends with connections to Gaza with loss of family as well. And so, um, yeah, the, these connections, are. real and and difficult.

Vinita: I imagine there's a lot of Just anxiety every day. as you're watching from so far, I'm sorry that both of you have these personal [00:07:00] connections and are going through this immense grief. And I, I do thank you so much for taking the time to come and speak with us, with me about it. And I know that people are anxiously listening because, There are people I think, who are very confused by some of the messages that they're getting. 

one of the things we were talking about when we spoke last week, is this extreme kind of polarization that's happening on social media. …Natalie, you mentioned the idea of these two narratives, and the complexity of the situation. I'm wondering if you can explain a little bit about, the issue with, describing this as a conflict between,  two competing narratives?

Natalie: So I think there are several reasons to reject the two competing narratives Um, framing of this, um, at the most basic level, because we're not just talking about narratives, we're talking about historical facts. And the historical facts are incontrovertible. 1948 [00:08:00] hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were dispossessed and never allowed to return against all international law.

Since 1967, Israel has held illegally occupied territories without extending civil rights, um, to the people living there and while applying, um, martial law and 

A classical case of apartheid where Palestinians are subject to a different set of laws and rules that govern their lives than Jews living in the same territory. dispossessing taking away Land, applying a system of checkpoints, et cetera, et cetera. this is all well documented. This has all been established by major international human rights organizations.

human rights watch, amnesty [00:09:00] International, the UN special 

Rapporteur on human rights in The occupied territories, , et cetera, et cetera. So this is not about narratives, this is about historical facts. the other issue is whenever we say, oh, this is too complicated, this is too intractable. No it isn't.

It is not more complex than any other settler colonial situation around the world. and somehow when it comes to Israel/Palestine, people are unable to speak about it or unable to get their facts right. And when they do get their facts right they get silenced. There is tremendous repression of the ability to speak about Palestine.

We're witnessing it all around the globe, whether it's in Europe, where rallies in support of Palestine have been outright banned, or whether it's here in Ontario where a member of the Provincial Parliament has been [00:10:00] Censured and kicked out of caucus….

Whether it's in the universities where faculty and students are being doxxed as we speak, being named and shamed for calling for freedom and liberation. Where there is this constant demand that every Palestinian and every pro-Palestinian activist before they say the first thing about Palestine denounce the Hamas as if we all are hamas supporters by definition.

So this is a climate where to talk about competing narratives just produces this inability to talk about the history, to talk about the context, to talk about what's happening right now, about this immense genocide. 6,000 bombs dropped on Gaza in one week. Just think about it. Think about the immense loss of life and devastation and complete disregard for civilian lives.[00:11:00]

And this has been going on with impunity for decades. This does not start in October, so that's why the two narratives is just such a problematic way of talking about this.

Vinita: …many experts, um, have called what is happening to the Palestinian people, um, an ethnic cleansing or a genocide. Um, In, in the context of this, of current day, uh, we're talking about, um, why do you think we cannot speak freely about this if we are witnessing such a genocide? Um, uh, Norma, I'm, I'm gonna turn to you to ask you to, why do you think this is so challenging for …, If we have international experts calling this out, what is the issue for us in Canada?

Norma: that's a good question. …

Norma: one of the ways in which, , there's a silencing that [00:12:00] operates is there is a long standing,, kind of racist and Islamophobic tropes. That have been continuously put forward by institutions, major institutions, which include the mainstream media and educational institutions and government officials all of these, um, institutions. And the, the kind of racism that's embedded within it, I think, uh, have a longstanding history.  And the history, it is both, I think, one of a racist, nature, but also of a geopolitical nature. It's of a geopolitical nature because of wanting to maintain Western friendly dominance in the region.  a lot of this is being bankrolled and propped up [00:13:00] by us funding provision of arms as well as the Canadian. Support the supportive backing of multiple Western governments. just concrete manifestations of this. This racist tropes are the ways in which, for instance, in the current war, one of the things that we've been seeing playing out are things like reference to, the decapitation of babies when. It didn't really occur.

We saw that first put out on C N N, which took, its point directly from the Israeli Defense Forces, and then only having later to retract, um, claims about rapes, which were then later retracted. 

Vinita: We're talking about, uh, this, you know, kind of large powerful sort of infrastructure that exists, which includes governments, includes media, um, and if we could just bring it closer to home for you on the university campus, uh, you know, I spoke to somebody last week who said overnight I went from being a, an expert on Palestine too, to being an an activist on Palestine.

And so I'm just wondering, um, about some of the forms or the types of silencing that happens. Um, if you've experienced it firsthand, um, if you've witnessed it, um, on, in the, in the university context, in your personal context.

Norma: Yes. I also wanna include one other dimension, which I think is critical, 

to the previous mention of the silencing, The fact that any criticism of Israel is considered antisemitic., [00:15:00] and I think this becomes really, uh, at the root of a lot of that silencing. And, and of course, um, there is the horrific history that many Jewish, uh, people experienced with the Holocaust and with, um, you know, fascism, what we're finding now is all this, this manipulation of an attack on a government. Uh, one of the most highly militarized governments in the world ranked forth definitely by far the most powerful in the Middle East. a government that has. Not only, you know, has a history of apartheid cell colonialism throughout the territories, but has placed the entire population of Gaza under siege, caged for the last 17 years. Um, so beyond the nakba [00:16:00] starting in 1947, the occupation is 67. We have this siege, um, where, we're already lacking in terms of access to food, medicine, , healthcare. A collapsing economy prior to the attack. Anyways, with all of these kind of injustices that we witness that are unfolding, any criticism becomes labeled antisemitic.

Vinita: So can I, I just wanna clarify because I went back to read. the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and their definition of, um, antisemitism in the actual definition, it doesn't say that criticism of the state of Israel is antisemitic, but the examples they give are all a, a lot about the state of Israel.

… It's a definition of antisemitism has been adapted by the Canadian government and including many universities, the province of Ontario, but many provinces in Canada, other, [00:17:00] um, countries as well. So I think it's important that we just take a moment to really explain this. What impact does this definition have? 

Norma: Well, I think you touched, um, on it Vinita in the sense of, because, a fair number of the examples explicitly mentioned the state of Israel, there's a lot of room for interpretation whereby, criticism of Israel, is Equated with some form of antisemitism, which of course puts, um, everyone on kind of heightened, r self-censorship, right?

Because of an anticipation. Of what recriminations might come. Um, so the kind of, uh, adoption of this and the, the embrace of this, particularly among political officials, has an impact [00:18:00] for the university setting. on a number of unions have sought to pass motions that directly, um, Challenge or contest the I H R A definition of antisemitism. And that was done in an effort to protect the freedom for discussion and for debate and critical analysis of 

Israel as a settler colonial 

and apartheid state.

Vinita: I'm just wondering Natalie, too, because you are also in the university context, um, do you feel like you got shut down as well?

Natalie: I think that I personally have not been shut down, but I am Positioned in a way that allows me to speak precisely because I'm Jewish and Israeli. And I'm deeply aware of the privilege and responsibility that comes with that kind of position, but many of my colleagues have been silenced. Um, I wanna go [00:19:00] back to a very important point 

Which has to do with the broader climate of silencing and I think 

the organized Jewish community bears some responsibility for that as well. The constant conflation of being Jewish and being pro-Israeli. And we see this in the current messaging coming from Hillel, coming from the center for Israeli and Jewish Affairs, which is an organization that has partnered with school boards to write their anti-Semitism and Jewish education curriculum.

and that issues public statements like “anti-Zionism is just a disguise for anti-Semitism, and it has no place in Canada. Nor anywhere.” full stop. Those are the kinds of statements that people like me have to deal with being told time and again, that if you are not with Israel, you are somehow now Jewish.

To me, that is antisemitic and it is outrageous. but it also really prevents all kinds of [00:20:00] coalitions from forming because people are truly afraid, and horrified of the notion that they would be labeled Antisemitic. people who have very strong commitments to social justice. There are few things that are more abhorrent to people who are committed to universal principles of social justice than to be labeled antisemitic. It's a very powerful label ….when university administrators call out by name and denounce and start disciplinary proceedings against student unions for daring to speak for Palestine and telling them that they're being antisemitic for doing so.

That has a [00:21:00] tremendous chilling effect. And I'm seeing it all around me right now.

Vinita: Mm-hmm. So, I just wanna pause because I think this is very important that we do acknowledge that antisemitism itself is on the rise and, uh, that it is this, this act that happened on October 7th, this heinous act on October 7th is, has been felt by Jews, especially, um, in the region and around the world. Um, So the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel was the largest number of Jewish people murdered since the Holocaust. 

and this happened after the world had promised never again. Um, so I'm just, what I'm trying to get at here, the question that I have is, um, [00:22:00] How can we have this conversation while also taking into account,

, the very real fears felt by Jews around in the region and around the world, 

Natalie: I don't know that I have a simple answer, but I will say that here I follow, you know, black liberation activists in saying that we're not safe until everyone is safe, until everyone is liberated. and that to me, the rise in antisemitism is directly connected to the rise in white supremacist nationalism and in authoritarian and fascist regimes around the world, and that the only way we can protect ourselves is by being in solidarity and committing ourselves to fighting against injustice wherever it is committed. Never again for anyone, not just never again for Jews. I find actions of pro-Israel activists deeply [00:23:00] irresponsible in.

Perpetuating, really pernicious ideas about all Jews supporting Israel, because actually that makes me unsafe. That makes a lot of people in diaspora feel that their identity is called into question and that their own right to exist is being called into question. and ultimately as Israel continues to, Implement apartheid and genocide with impunity that makes everyone unsafe, and especially the people who are under the boot of these regimes.

So to me, these are not separate issues, but I think that the threat to, Jewish life comes from right-wing supremacists. First and foremost, and that that's the struggle that we need to unite against, [00:24:00] rather than calling to question our ability to be in solidarity with the Palestinians and call for freedom in Palestine.

Vinita: I should say that Islamophobia is also on the rise in Canada. 

Given these challenges that we've been talking about and that we've just, we've been discussing, um, what do you see as a path forward for fostering productive conversations and understanding regarding this Israel Palestine conflict?

Norma: the opening has to be, um, opening the space for discussion of the history of contextualizing the conflict, which we rarely see. We rarely see this in the media. [00:26:00] We also need to open the space for thinking about how, our key institutions, whether it be the government and the media, close out some of those possibilities. And I would just like to offer up a couple examples in relation to that, that I think we, we need to address head on. Firstly. Um, Taking into account the media. Um, you know, there's not just the tropes that I had previously mentioned, uh, prior, uh, are examples of some of the problematic, uh, formulations. But also, um, there's the case where B B C and the Sky News, for example, talk about, um, Israelis were killed, uh, Palestinians died.

Vinita: Mm-hmm. I 

Norma You know, uh, 

Vinita: saw that in the Washington Post newsletter as well. I, I've 

Norma: so it, [00:27:00] it's, you know, these kind of framings, there's much work that needs to be done to, you know, re kind of reconstruct, deconstruct, and reconstruct these framings

Vinita: I thought we were there. I have to be honest, like I, I used to teach journalism and we had these conversations 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and I mean, 10 years we're just, I thought we were there. I I,

Norma:, they're feeding into reproducing and propping up a whole vilification and dehumanization of Palestinians priming the public for an acceptance of an unfolding genocide.

Is what we're seeing happening.

So on the one hand, there's an ideological battle that has to occur, but more immediately, and as well as long term, there is an anti-colonial [00:28:00] battle, which means when we're making calls today, For an immediate ceasefire when we're making calls today for the provision of a humanitarian corridor for the provision of food and water, of which gazen sowed 2.3 million Gazen caged in Gaza.

So desperately need when we're, we're making the arguments for those things, we need to go beyond that. We need to make the argument to end apartheid. We need to stop giving a blank check

Vinita: Hmm.

Norma: and arms and munitions and we need to start the discussion there. What does, when we're discussing how you know how to move forward, the discussion needs to be, how do we start to enact anti-colonialism and practice and how even us that are [00:29:00] outside, Immediate setting of the immediate region at the moment, work to hold our own governments accountable in that project

Vinita: Can I ask you, Natalie, the same question in terms of, you know, as a historian, how would you, you know, you're looking back, but how would you suggest we look forward in this, in this way? 

Natalie: Sure. First of all, I would agree with absolutely everything that Norma just said. Um, I do think it's an enormous ideological battle, I think. Young people, especially in Canada today, are learning to think about anti-colonial struggles through a, uh, an intersectional lens that is very, very valuable and very important.

And with the ongoing conversations about truth and reconciliation here in Canada [00:30:00] and and around the globe, I think. It's, I want to hope that people can draw these connections and understand how these struggles are both historically connected and connected in what kind of future we, uh, want to imagine for ourselves and, and for our children.

Um, and I think that educational institutions have an enormous responsibility here. You cannot preach, um, um, truth and reconciliation at home and support a colonial regime abroad. Um, you cannot about indigenous rights and, um, sovereignty and wellbeing here and accept an apartheid regime happening in Israel Palestine.

So in that sense, I do think that young people are starting to see these connections, make these connections and hold our politicians and public media accountable for perpetuating [00:31:00] these divergent frameworks. But I also do think that we need to ensure that freedom of speech is enshrined, um, that, um, academic freedom is protected, that those who are talking and teaching, um, and um, making Palestine present in our own spaces here, the universities are not silencedI. 

Vinita: Norma.

Norma:to, um, elaborate a little bit about the campus kind of setting and some of the challenges faced, ….there's um, often pressure to, you know, cancel events, uh, or speakers that are, uh, speaking on Palestine, on themes of federal colonialism, apartheid. There's often the harassment of speakers …we've had direct experience with this, with the organization that I work with, with the academics for Palestine, Concordia, and some of the events we've hosted.

We had a situation where actually the Israeli consulate contacted some members of the university trying to put pressure to cancel you. Uh, a, a talk for instance. Um, we also have, as Natalie had mentioned, there's a naming and shaming and doxxing of both students and faculty, and there are outlets in which this occurs, such as Canary Mission or something called Honest Reporting

 I also think it's really critical to mention one other thing, which I think both ties into, um, some of the challenges on the campus setting, but also pathways for the future is. Boycott divestment in sanctions movement. B d s and I mention this because in 2019 when McGill University, uh, student groups, uh, passed a b d s resolution, Justin Trudeau was giving a speech, um, around the same time this was, and, uh, said that the b d s movement was antisemitic.

V: Hmm.

Norma: And was causing a hostile environment and harm. And this too really works to narrow the prospects for challenging or contesting apartheid. Um, and when one looks back and reflects on the, um, experiences of, um, movements against South African apartheid, Divestment in sanctions. Were a central killer to that

Vinita: Yeah, 

, the, campus activism around that was very intense and, I'd like to think it had something to do with what happened in South Africa. There was such international pressure to end apartheid,

NORMA: but those channels become closed off

Natalie: When you make nonviolent resistance impossible.

Norma: when major international human rights organizations, as Natalie had mentioned, had already declared that apartheid was happening in 2020 and 2021, um, the international community failed, We have collectively failed. We at the university setting have often been reticent to being a, to even using the word apartheid in relation to Israel or settle colonialism. And so that needs in my mind to be the exact starting point for all future discussions.

Vinita: Start using the right language. 

Norma: yeah, I mean, and, and more than that in because in using the language of apartheid comes much else. It comes to acknowledgement of where the the oppression lies.

Vinita: it dispels this idea of, uh, equal parties in a conflict.

Norma: Yes.

Vinita: I think that I'd like to try to end this conversation with something hopeful, with a little bit of hope. And in all of this I'm going to ask you both. What gives you a little bit of hope?

Norma:, it's incredibly heartening to see the protests that are happening around the world, and I know for family it's incredibly heartening to know it's happening. I. Um, that the world is no longer remaining silent. I feel like there is, we're seeing some kind of turning point. we saw this a bit in 2021 as well during the unity in ADA period and the protests that were happening.

But here, this is even, um, a more sustained kind of movement that we're seeing, uh, and a, a kind of reckoning I feel. And so I'm hopeful [00:35:00] about that. I'm hopeful that it's being ushered in primarily by youth and that that's gonna be critical to moving forward. I.

Vinita: What about you, Natalie? What's, uh, are there some

Natalie: I don't think I have much to add to to, Norma's point I, I think

the solidarity work is critical and I try to stay hopeful. young people are learning to be media savvy and to get their news from a variety of sources and to be critical in questioning, and I think that is beautiful. Um, I've had personal conversations over the last two weeks with people who are starting to question a lot of what they've grown up learning [00:36:00] or being told about Israel, questioning their own automatic identification with Israel as Jews.

Um, I've heard from Muslim friends and colleagues who are choosing not to stay silent, even at the risk of enormous personal costs. Um, and I have tremendous respect for everyone who's working in this space right now and putting themselves at harm's way to speak the truth and to insist that we cannot remain silent because this is on us.

This is on us for, uh, as, as citizens of, um, a country that purports to be. Democracy and the champion of human rights globally that is actively perpetuating and supporting genocide at the moment. it is on us.

Vinita: Thank you so much both of you. I, I'm going to give [00:37:00] that respect back to both of you, so much appreciation for the time and the courage that you're both showing to come and speak out and, um, spend your time with me to have this conversation. 

Natalie: Thank you. Good meeting you, Norma.

Norma: I know same, Natalie