No. 3

Arundhati Roy: Stop This Slaughter in Palestine

For the sake of the living and in the name of the dead.

Hero Image for Arundhati Roy: Stop This Slaughter in Palestine

Pallavi Sen

Arundhati Roy delivered the following speech at a ceremony held in Thiruvananthapuram, in the Indian state of Kerala, on Dec. 13, 2023, where she accepted the P. Govinda Pillai award.

I am not going to speak about the demise of the free press in India. All of us gathered here know all about that. Nor am I going to speak of what has happened to all the institutions that are meant to act as checks and balances in the functioning of our democracy. I have been doing that for twenty years, and I am sure all of you gathered here are familiar with my views.

Coming from north India to Kerala or almost any of the southern states, I feel by turns reassured and anxious about the fact that the dread that many of us up north live with every day seems far away when I am here. It is not as far away as we imagine. If the current regime returns to power next year, in 2026 the exercise of delimitation is likely to disempower all of south India by reducing the number of MPs we send to Parliament. Delimitation is not the only threat we face. Federalism, the lifeblood of our diverse country, is under the hammer, too. As the central government gives itself sweeping powers, we are witnessing the sorry sight of proudly elected chief ministers of opposition-ruled states having to literally beg for their states’ share of public funds. The latest blow to federalism is the recent Supreme Court judgment upholding the striking down of Article 370, which gave the state of Jammu and Kashmir semi-autonomous status. It isn’t the only state in India to have special status. It is a serious error to imagine that this judgment concerns Kashmir alone. It affects the fundamental structure of our polity.

But today I want to speak of something more urgent. Our country has lost its moral compass. The most heinous crimes, the most horrible declarations calling for genocide and ethnic cleansing, are greeted with applause and political reward. While wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, throwing crumbs to the poor manages to garner support to the very powers that are further impoverishing them.

The most bewildering conundrum of our times is that all over the world people seem to be voting to disempower themselves. They do this based on the information they receive. What that information is and who controls it — that is the modern world’s poisoned chalice. Who controls the technology controls the world. But eventually I believe that people cannot and will not be controlled. I believe that a new generation will rise in revolt. There will be a revolution. Sorry, let me rephrase that. There will be revolutions. Plural.

I said we, as a country, have lost our moral compass. Across the world millions of people — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Communist, atheist, agnostic — are marching, calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. But the streets of our country, which once was a true friend of colonized people, a true friend of Palestine, which once would have seen millions marching, too, are silent today. Most of our writers and public intellectuals, all but a few, are also silent. What a terrible shame. And what a sad display of a lack of foresight. As we watch the structures of our democracy being systematically dismantled and our land of incredible diversity being shoehorned into a spurious, narrow idea of one-size-fits-all nationalism, at least those who call themselves intellectuals should know that our country too could explode.

If we say nothing about Israel’s brazen slaughter of Palestinians, even as it is livestreamed into the most private recesses of our personal lives, we are complicit in it. Something in our moral selves will be altered forever. Are we going to simply stand by and watch while homes, hospitals, refugee camps, schools, universities, archives are bombed, 1.9 million people displaced, and dead children pulled out from under the rubble? The borders of Gaza are sealed. People have nowhere to go. They have no shelter, no food, no water. The United Nations says more than half the population is at risk of starving. And still they are being bombed relentlessly. Are we going to once again watch a whole people being dehumanized to the point where their annihilation does not matter?

The project of dehumanizing Palestinians did not begin with Benjamin Netanyahu and his crew — it began decades ago.

In 2002, on the first anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, I delivered a lecture called “Come September” in the United States in which I spoke about other anniversaries of Sept. 11 — the 1973 CIA-backed coup against President Salvador Allende in Chile on that auspicious date, and then the speech on Sept. 11, 1990, of George H. W. Bush, then U.S. president, to a joint session of Congress, announcing his government’s decision to go to war against Iraq. And then I spoke about Palestine. I will read this section out, and you will see that if I hadn’t told you it was written 21 years ago, you’d think it was about today.

September 11 has a tragic resonance in the Middle East, too. On the 11th of September 1922, ignoring Arab outrage, the British government proclaimed a mandate in Palestine, a follow-up to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which imperial Britain issued, with its army massed outside the gates of Gaza. The Balfour Declaration promised European Zionists “a national home for Jewish people.” (At the time, the empire on which the sun never set was free to snatch and bequeath national homelands like a school bully distributes marbles.)

How carelessly imperial power vivisected ancient civilizations. Palestine and Kashmir are imperial Britain’s festering, blood-drenched gifts to the modern world. Both are fault lines in the raging international conflicts of today.

In 1937 Winston Churchill said of the Palestinians: “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

That set the trend for the Israeli state’s attitude toward Palestinians. In 1969, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said, “Palestinians do not exist.” Her successor, Prime Minister Levi Eschol, said, “Where are Palestinians? When I came here [to Palestine], there were 250,000 non-Jews, mainly Arabs and Bedouins. It was a desert, more than underdeveloped. Nothing.” Prime Minister Menachem Begin called Palestinians “two-legged beasts.” Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called them “‘grasshoppers’ who could be crushed.” This is the language of heads of state, not the words of ordinary people.

Thus began that terrible myth about the Land Without a People for a People Without a Land.

In 1947 the U.N. formally partitioned Palestine and allotted 55 percent of Palestine’s land to the Zionists. Within a year they had captured 76 percent. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was declared. Minutes after the declaration, the United States recognized Israel. The West Bank was annexed by Jordan. The Gaza Strip came under Egyptian military control. Formally, Palestine ceased to exist except in the minds and hearts of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian people who became refugees.

In the summer of 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.… Over the decades there have been uprisings, wars, intifadas. Tens of thousands have lost their lives. Accords and treaties have been signed. Cease-fires declared and violated. But the bloodshed doesn’t end. Palestine still remains illegally occupied. Its people live in inhuman conditions, in virtual Bantustans, where they are subjected to collective punishments, 24-hour curfews, where they are humiliated and brutalized on a daily basis. They never know when their homes will be demolished, when their children will be shot, when their precious trees will be cut, when their roads will be closed, when they will be allowed to walk down to the market to buy food and medicine. And when they will not. They live with no semblance of dignity. With not much hope in sight. They have no control over their lands, their security, their movement, their communication, their water supply. So when accords are signed, and words like “autonomy” and even “statehood” are bandied about, it’s always worth asking: What sort of autonomy? What sort of state? What sort of rights will its citizens have?

Young Palestinians who cannot control their anger turn themselves into human bombs and haunt Israel’s streets and public places, blowing themselves up, killing ordinary people, injecting terror into daily life, and eventually hardening both societies’ suspicion and mutual hatred of each other. Each bombing invites merciless reprisal and even more hardship on Palestinian people. But then suicide bombing is an act of individual despair, not a revolutionary tactic. Although Palestinian attacks strike terror into Israeli citizens, they provide the perfect cover for the Israeli government’s daily incursions into Palestinian territory, the perfect excuse for old-fashioned 19th-century colonialism, dressed up as a new-fashioned 21st-century war.

Israel’s staunchest political and military ally is and always has been the U.S. The U.S. government has blocked, along with Israel, almost every UN resolution that sought a peaceful, equitable solution to the conflict. It has supported almost every war that Israel has fought. When Israel attacks Palestine, it is American missiles that smash through Palestinian homes. And every year Israel receives several billion dollars from the United States.

Today every bomb that is dropped by Israel on the civilian population, every tank, and every bullet has the United States’ name on it. None of this would happen if the U.S. wasn’t backing it wholeheartedly. All of us saw what happened at the meeting of the UN Security Council on Dec. 8, when 13 member states voted for a cease-fire and the U.S. voted against it. The disturbing video of the U.S. deputy ambassador, a Black American, raising his hand to veto the resolution is burned into our brains. Some bitter commentators on social media have called it intersectional imperialism.

Reading through the bureaucratese, what the U.S. seemed to be saying is: Finish the job. But do it kindly.

What lessons should we draw from this tragic conflict? Is it really impossible for Jewish people who suffered so cruelly themselves — more cruelly perhaps than any other people in history — to understand the vulnerability and the yearning of those whom they have displaced? Does extreme suffering always kindle cruelty? What hope does this leave the human race with? What will happen to the Palestinian people in the event of a victory? When a nation without a state eventually proclaims a state, what kind of state will it be? What horrors will be perpetrated under its flag? Is it a separate state that we should be fighting for, or the rights to a life of liberty and dignity for everyone regardless of their ethnicity or religion?

Palestine was once a secular bulwark in the Middle East. But now the weak, undemocratic, by all accounts corrupt but avowedly nonsectarian PLO is losing ground to Hamas, which espouses an overtly sectarian ideology and fights in the name of Islam. To quote from its manifesto: “We will be its soldiers and the firewood of its fire, which will burn the enemies.”

The world is called upon to condemn suicide bombers. But can we ignore the long road they have journeyed on before they arrived at this destination? Sept. 11, 1922, to Sept. 11, 2002 — eighty years is a long, long time to have been waging war. Is there some advice the world can give the people of Palestine?… Should they just take Golda Meir’s suggestion and make a real effort to not exist?”

The idea of the erasure, the annihilation, of Palestinians is being clearly articulated by Israeli political and military officials. A U.S. lawyer who has brought a case against the Biden administration for “failure to prevent genocide” — which is a crime, too — spoke of how rare it is for genocidal intent to be so clearly and publicly articulated. Once they have achieved that goal, perhaps the plan is to have museums showcasing Palestinian culture and handicrafts, restaurants serving ethnic Palestinian food, maybe a sound and light show of how lively Old Gaza used to be — in the new Gaza Harbor at the head of the Ben Gurion canal project, which is supposedly being planned to rival the Suez Canal.

Twenty-one years ago, when I delivered “Come September” in New Mexico, there was a kind of omertà in the U.S. about Palestine. Those who spoke about it paid a huge price for doing so. Today the young are in the streets, led from the front by Jews as well as Palestinians, raging about what their government, the U.S. government, is doing. Universities, including the most elite campuses, are on the boil. Capitalism is moving fast to shut them down. Donors are threatening to withhold funds, thereby deciding what American students may or may not say, and how they may or may not think — a shot to the heart of the foundational principles of a so-called liberal education. Gone is any pretense of postcolonialism, multiculturalism, international law, the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Gone is any pretense of free speech or public morality. A “war” that lawyers and scholars of international law say meets all the legal criteria of a genocide — is taking place in which the perpetrators have cast themselves as victims, and the colonizers who run an apartheid state have cast themselves as the oppressed. In the U.S., to question this is to be charged with antisemitism, even if those questioning it are Jewish themselves. It’s mind-bending. Even Israel — where dissident Israelis citizens like Gideon Levy are the most knowledgeable and incisive critics of Israeli actions — does not police speech in the way the U.S. does (though that is rapidly changing, too). In the U.S., to speak of intifada — uprising, resistance, in this case against genocide, against your own erasure — is considered to be a call for the genocide of Jews. The only moral thing Palestinian civilians can do, apparently, is to die. The only legal thing the rest of us can do is to watch them die. And be silent. If not, we risk our scholarships, grants, lecture fees, and livelihoods.

Post-9/11, the U.S. War on Terror gave cover to regimes across the world to dismantle civil rights and to construct an elaborate, invasive surveillance apparatus in which our governments know everything about us and we know nothing about them. Similarly, under the umbrella of the U.S.’s new McCarthyism, monstrous things will grow and flourish in countries all over the world. In our country, of course, it has begun years ago. But unless we speak out, it will gather momentum and sweep us all away. Yesterday’s news is that Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, once among India’s top universities, has issued new rules of conduct for students. A fine of 20,000 rupees for any student who stages a dharna, or hunger strike. And 10,000 rupees for “anti-national slogans.” There is no list yet about what those slogans are — but we can be reasonably sure that calling for the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Muslims will not be on it. So the battle in Palestine is ours, too.

What remains to be said must be said — repeated — clearly.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza are crimes against humanity. The United States and other countries that bankroll the occupation are parties to the crime. The horror we are witnessing right now, the unconscionable slaughter of civilians by Hamas as well as by Israel, are a consequence of the siege and occupation.

No amount of commentary about the cruelty, no amount of condemnation of the excesses committed by either side — and no amount of false equivalence about the scale of these atrocities — will lead to a solution.

It is the occupation that is breeding this monstrosity. It is doing violence to both perpetrators and victims. The victims are dead. The perpetrators will have to live with what they have done. So will their children. For generations.

The solution cannot be a militaristic one. It can only be a political one, in which both Israelis and Palestinians live together or side by side in dignity, with equal rights. The world must intervene. The occupation must end. Palestinians must have a viable homeland. And Palestinian refugees must have the right to return.

If not, then the moral architecture of Western liberalism will cease to exist. It was always hypocritical, we know. But even this provided some sort of shelter. That shelter is disappearing before our eyes.

So please — for the sake of Palestine and Israel, for the sake of the living and in the name of the dead, for the sake of the hostages being held by Hamas and the Palestinians in Israel’s prisons, for the sake of all of humanity — stop this slaughter.

Thank you once more for choosing me for this honor. Thank you, too, for the three lakhs that comes with this prize. It will not remain with me. It will go toward helping activists and journalists who continue to stand up at huge cost to themselves.

Arundhati Roy lives in New Delhi. She is the author of the novels The God of Small Things, for which she received the 1997 Booker Prize, and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. A collection of her essays from the past twenty years, My Seditious Heart, was published by Haymarket Books. Her latest book is Azadi: Fascism, Fiction, and Freedom in the Time of the Virus, which was awarded the European Essay Prize.

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