Can Victims Transform Co-annihilation into Co-existence?

The history of the Holocaust was an important part of my childhood in Holland.  One of my best friends was a Jewish-Dutch boy who lived in the house behind mine.  I knew that I couldn’t play with him on Saturdays, because he had to go to Hebrew school.  I also remember that he had certificates on his bedroom wall indicating how many trees he had funded in Israel.  A few years later, when I studied the Holocaust in school and read books on the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, I knew that as a “bystander” my sympathies were with Jewish “victims” and my antipathies with Nazi “perpetrators.”

This moral clarity gave me a sense of comfort: I knew I didn’t want to be friends with the German classmate down the street and got mad at my Mom when she brought my bike to the local bike shop, because its owner was supposed to have been a Nazi sympathizer.  I also hoped that, if I had lived during the Holocaust, I would have been the kind of person to actively support persecuted Jewish families, and that I would have joined the Dutch resistance against Nazi occupation instead of being a passive bystander.

Imagine my shock when, as a teenager in high school, I realized that the tables had turned.  Watching and reading the news on the First Intifada in 1987, I couldn’t believe that the Jewish people I had admired for so long now waged war against persecuted Palestinians, who obviously lacked the military might of Israel.  I was confused and didn’t know how to respond to this reversal in roles.  My sense of moral clarity was shattered: How could victims become killers? How could the persecuted become persecutors? 

I believe that this question of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders remains crucial for thinking about today’s Israel-Palestine catastrophe.  While Jewish people claim essential victim status based on a long history antisemitism, pogroms, and most recently the Holocaust, does this mean that they can’t be perpetrators of genocide today?  How do we, as bystanders in the US empire, enable Israel to claim victimhood after October 7 and to justify its crimes against humanity in the name of self-defense since then? Aren’t Palestinian civilians in Gaza and other occupied territories the victims now?  Or are they all accomplices and potential recruits of Hamas perpetrators of terrorism, forcing Israel to protect its population from this existential threat?  And can we really be innocent bystanders to what is happening in Gaza, especially after the recent invasion in Rafah?  Or are we all, as funders and participants in the US-led imperial war machine, inevitably implicated in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and therefore collectively responsible for its perpetuation?

Instead of treating victim, perpetrator, and bystander as separate categories, I want to emphasize the complex relationships and entanglements among these categories.  One the one hand, it is important to recognize Palestinians as current victims, hold Israel accountable for perpetrating genocide, and reflect carefully on our responsibility as implicated bystanders.  On the other hand, we also need to think beyond recent events and consider wider systems of settler colonialism to better understand the catastrophic cycles of violence in Palestine and know how to make humane coexistence in social relationships, community life, and political decision-making possible.

This raises more urgent questions: What would it take to think and imagine beyond the victim-perpetrator divide?  How could we envision livable co-existence among Jews and Palestinians based on careful judgment rather than on perpetual revenge driven by mutual victimhood? 

First of all, we need to recognize that the dichotomy between “victim” and “perpetrator” can be used by political authorities to serve their own interests and continue the cycle of violence in Palestine.  We also need to consider our role as “implicated bystanders” in perpetuating the victim-perpetrator binary.  So, the fact that Israel is currently a perpetrator of genocide does not make the Jewish people any less a victim of the Holocaust or ongoing antisemitism.  And the fact that Palestinians have a right to armed resistance as victims of colonial occupation and extermination does not condone the brutality of Hamas perpetrators against Israeli civilians on October 7.  In addition, as bystanders, we in the U.S. must take responsibility for avoiding conformity with our government’s and mass media’s complicity with genocide in Gaza.  Only careful thinking and judgment by human beings around the world can produce action toward ending the cycle of violence and victimhood.

Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt’s ideas about thinking and judgment are especially relevant here. For Arendt, thinking is a dangerous activity because it allows all of us to critically examine dominant ideologies and popular opinions in society. It pushes us to engage in inner dialogue with ourselves on urgent political issues, and to question widely-accepted concepts like victim, perpetrator, bystander, security, free speech, self-defense, and terrorism.  Thinking also shapes our moral conscience concerning what is right or wrong and our political perspective on how to act.  It prepares us for moral and political judgment based on independent reflection, and for collective action that opens up new possibilities—what Arendt calls new beginnings.

Second, we should admit that legal justice and abstract fairness are not enough to resolve conflicts like that between Israel and Palestine.  The Nuremberg Trials after World War II, for example, provided concrete evidence of Nazi crimes, convicted 22 prominent Holocaust perpetrators, and legitimized the use of international criminal law against future perpetrators of crimes against humanity.  But they have done little to prevent or stop genocides and war crimes by nation-states since then.  Similarly, calls for fairness promise to repair past wrongs and reconcile present conflicts.  Truth commissions, for instance, invite both victims and perpetrators to share stories of suffering and transgression in the hope that forgiveness can restore humane relationships and discourage bloody revenge.  The case of South Africa shows, however, that truth commissions often reinforce victim and perpetrator identities, while lacking the power for enduring structural transformation.  And if international institutions and laws can’t even force Israel to accept a ceasefire, why would fairness be able to do so?

Finally, as implicated bystanders in the United States, we need to create ways to act against the US empire’s support for Israel’s genocidal colonialism and to act for new beginnings—for new initiatives toward co-existence among Jewish and Palestinian people, as well as among other nationalities, social groups, and struggles for liberation.  While it is crucial to provide humanitarian aid to all victims, we also need to highlight how Jewish rulers and settlers have pursued Israel’s settler-colonial project to displace and erase Palestinians from their land, and how Palestinian people have never given up their right of return and have always resisted colonization with unarmed as well as armed strategies—like other colonized and indigenous populations around the world.   Instead of avoiding conflict by staying silent, we need to use our moral imagination and political capacity to resist conformity with mainstream media’s manufacturing of consent and complicity with support for genocide among political, economic, and academic elites.  And as Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said insisted, we also need to create and inhabit social spaces for learning and meeting across differences, and for risky experiments with co-existence among unique human beings and communities confronting common existential conditions and political challenges.

This brings us to the question: What can we learn from promising experiments with coexistence among Jewish and Palestinian people in occupied territories known as Israel?

One promising initiative is The Parents Circle—Family Forum, a joint Israeli-Palestinians organization with over 700 families that have lost an immediate family member in the colonial conflict.  This organization originated in 1995 and hosts dialogue meetings where Israeli and Palestinian parents tell personal stories of bereavement in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, promoting interpersonal reconciliation and sustainable peace instead of hatred and revenge in relationships across families, communities, and cultures.  Instead of relying on governments or leaders for solutions, they focus on listening, mutual understanding, and joint action guided by the kind of moral-political thinking and judgment favored by Hannah Arendt.  These bereaved families show how capacities for co-existence can emerge from sharing experience and stories of common suffering as unique human beings, not as opponents identified as “victim” or “perpetrator.”  Although interpersonal empathy still needs to be translated into political decolonization, it is not surprising that Israel’s Education Ministry banned the Parents Circle from schools last year, despite protest of principals at these schools.

Another inspiring association is the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), which was founded in 1997 and involves critical Jews in Israel, US, UK, Finland, and Germany seeking to end Israel’s apartheid policies and settler-colonial project by mobilizing against Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes and engaging in anti-colonial political education.  While confronting Zionism as a settler-colonial ideology for ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, the ICAHD also calls for the creation of a single, decolonized democratic state with equal rights and dignity for Jewish, Palestinian, Christian, and other inhabitants.  The ICAHD demonstrates how common struggles against colonial systems and for political co-existence can spark new beginnings toward peace and justice in Palestine.

And most importantly: What can we learn from student encampments in the US and around the world about how co-existence can start at the grassroots level and grow translocally? 

The Gaza solidarity encampments that started at Columbia University and continue spreading across the globe highlight yet again how the victim-perpetrator dichotomy has been weaponized by ruling institutions and elites.  For example, university administrations claim that Pro-Israel Jewish students who feel unsafe are “victims,” while anti-Zionist Jewish students resisting peacefully—and facing violent assaults by pro-Israel activists—are “perpetrators.” Politicians and mainstream media portray Palestinian students and faculty as “perpetrators” of speaking up about inhumane conditions in Gaza and standing up to heavily-armed police forces, while wealthy Jewish alumni withdraw donations as “victims” of antisemitism.  Initially, these attempts at distortion and intimidation kept many audiences on the sidelines, but increasingly people throughout the world are waking up to calls for ending genocide in Gaza and Palestine.

Thankfully, the lived experiences and realities of student encampments are very different from the mainstream media’s delusional images and commentaries! Student encampments have become common spaces for political education and co-existence among Jewish, Palestinian, and other students—as well as among faculty and other activists—in solidarity with families and communities in Gaza. They are places where participants push university administrators to disclose and divest from corporations associated with Israeli genocide; perform new ways of living together across violent binaries; and put bodies on the line to dismantle the US empire’s war machine in Palestine, in the US, and around the world.  Students in solidarity with Palestinian struggles for liberation are showing all of us how open-minded thinking, moral judgment, and political will can guide mass movements that eventually end military atrocities like the Vietnam War and racist governments like South Africa’s apartheid regime.

I believe that as university students and faculty members—and as human beings in our shared world—we are responsible for using our intellectual and ethical capacities to make courageous choices about how we respond to urgent situations that confront us.  In my view, the ongoing genocide in Gaza is the most urgent situation in the world since the Holocaust.  We cannot afford to blindly obey our rulers and end up on the wrong side of history.  Passivity or silence in times like these is betrayal—as both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Audre Lorde demonstrated.  Trapping ourselves in fixed identities as victims, perpetrators, and bystanders is not a viable option.  And there are no guarantees that our ideas and actions will produce the solutions we want.  Our only choice is to draw on common suffering to create common struggles and common spaces for coexistence with former enemies, other communities, and ecosystems.  As a child, I hoped that I would become the kind of person who feels and enacts solidarity with Jewish people facing death in concentration camps.  Today, I know that empathy with victims in Gaza is not enough.  Our future depends on how I, how you, how everyone responds to one question: Coannihilation or Coexistence?

Sean Chabot is a professor of Sociology at Eastern Washington University. He published a book on "The Transnational Roots of the Civil Rights Movement" (2012) and is working on a manuscript on repertoires of decolonizing resistance. Read other articles by Sean.