Nicole Froio is a feminist scholar and writer. In this op-ed, she shares her perspective on why we should be looking to Palestinians, not celebrities, for commentary and guidance on the Israeli-Hamas conflict.
On October 30, actor, singer, and beauty mogul Selena Gomez issued a statement on Instagram about the Israeli-Hamas conflict that upset a lot of her fans. Reaching her audience through Instagram stories, Gomez wrote, “We need to protect all people, especially children, and stop the violence for good. I’m sorry if my words will never be enough for everyone or a hashtag. I just can’t stand by innocent people getting hurt. That’s what makes me sick. I wish I could change the world. But a post won’t.” After she shared, Gomez received some criticism for what many considered was a vague, milquetoast position, with some commenters pointing out that as the third-most followed person on Instagram, she is an influential celebrity whose opinion could go a long way in humanizing Palestinians and pressuring the U.S. government to call for a ceasefire.
While I understand and sympathize with this criticism, I also do not blame Gomez, who has since signed an open letter from entertainers calling President Joe Biden to seek a ceasefire, for her unsophisticated post. I blame our culture for expecting celebrities — who, for the most part, don’t have the political education needed to lead us nowhere near liberation — to make statements at all. Why do we look to celebrities to model how we should act in times like these? Gomez, like many other A-list entertainers (and noted by her own admission), doesn’t have the expertise, lived experience, or political position to provide answers that will help us.
Celebrities Won’t Save Us
In the last decade or so, social media and political posturing from the celebrity class has created an environment where we expect celebrities to speak out on issues we are passionate about. But it has become increasingly clear that they are by and large ill-equipped to speak on systemic oppression. We shouldn’t be looking to Gomez or any celebrity to lead the conversation about the liberation of Palestinian people because, frankly, many of them lack the historical context and insight on colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy to provide fruitful and nuanced commentary. And while their platforms generate immense engagement, which is important to bring awareness to these conversations, their statements can, and often do, cause more harm than good.
For instance, after the backlash to her Instagram story, Gomez responded with another post, threatening to delete her Instagram account: “I’m taking a break and deleting my Instagram. I’m done. I do not support any of what’s going on.” While it’s unclear if Gomez’s social media pause is in response to the fallout from her post or the images of slaughtered Gazan children, many received her response, her choice to “take a break,” as license for all of us to look away from the violence in an effort to prioritize our own mental health. This, after all, is what many popular influencers have suggested to their own massive followers. And this, again, is yet another reason why we can’t keep looking to entertainers to guide us.
Don’t Look Away
Since October 7, when Hamas, the militant group based in Gaza, led a surprise attack on Israel that killed 1,400 people and claimed 241 hostages, the Israeli government has killed more than 10,000 civilians in Gaza through its merciless carpet bombing. In the West Bank, an occupied Palestinian territory that isn’t governed by Hamas, Israeli settlers have harassed, assaulted, expelled, and killed more than 100 Palestinians while the Israeli military killed 8 people in an airstrike. In the U.S., a Palestinian-American 6-year-old boy was stabbed to death and Islamophobic and antisemitic hate crimes are on the rise.
We cannot look away. We are supposed to feel sickened, angry, desperate, and disgusted. Witnessing this level of violence should feel bad.
For years, the individualization of mental health care and the discourse around it has convinced a lot of people that their comfort is more important than witnessing the horrors, sorrows, and terrors of our so-called postcolonial world. Alienating ourselves from the news has become the reflexive response to global disasters, to our lack of rights, and to human suffering more generally. While the oppressed suffer, the people who have the resources to numb themselves, to look away, often do so without guilt, citing their mental health and the necessity to protect their peace.
But you cannot self-care yourself out of the massacring of a people. You cannot numb yourself out of it. It is of utmost importance that we are present for this, that we watch it unfold, and recognize the U.S. government’s support of Israel’s military moves. Since Israel was founded on May 14, 1948, the U.S. has been the nation’s biggest supplier of military aid. In total, the U.S. has contributed around $130 billion with bipartisan support, more than any other country. In 2016, Democratic President Barack Obama agreed to a 10-year security assistance Memorandum of Understanding to Israel, sending $3.8 billion to boost its advanced military capabilities anually. More recently, the Republican-majority House of Representatives passed a bill to provide $14.3 billion to Israel to aid its war with Hamas, a bombardment that has killed more Palestinian civilians than Hamas forces and that has incited more anti-war protests from Israelis and Jewish communities in the U.S. than returned hostages.
We cannot look away from our government’s complicity in the massacring of Palestinian civilians; we have to become angry so we are driven to protest and demand for it to stop. Additionally, Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere have been begging the world not to look away. There are several reasons for this. The first is that Israel has a history of producing anti-Palestinian propaganda, including that the Nakba — the violent event that founded Israel in 1948 through the displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians by Zionist militias — never happened. Instead, it’s been argued that this moment marked the return of Jews to their ancestral land.
But the denial of a people and their experiences allows for their suffering to be in invisible to the world. In this sense, witnessing the horrors being done becomes a matter of historical importance, so we can assert that we witnessed the existence of Palestinians and the merciless attempt of their annihilation. Being present allows us to see the humanity in a people that the Israeli government has called “children of darkness.”
Look to Palestinian Experts, Not Celebrities
For decades, Palestinians have worked tirelessly to produce a body of work — through books, documentaries, music, and more — where they speak out for themselves. Instead of expecting our faves to talk about issues they know little about, we should be doing our own research to find Palestinian voices to read and listen to. “We have learned the hard way that documenting what we are going through is very important to ensure that our narrative remains alive and remains ours,” Palestinian writer Asmaa Abu Mezied wrote in an essay in the book Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire. “Our stories, our struggle and pain, and the atrocities committed against us for more than seven decades are being erased. […] We record to resist the labeling of our people as unworthy, if not inhuman, by the so-called ‘objective’ Western media, which can barely say our names and tell our stories.”
Palestinians are begging the world to see that they are human and that they deserve to live in peace, on their land. This is why there are so many unfathomably horrible images and videos circulating on social media. Palestinians are asking us, “how can you let this happen to other humans? Don’t you see we are humans, too?” And we must respond by doing all we can to stop this — not by turning away.
“Palestinians are being deliberately deprived of all the basic necessities for life and humanitarian dignity,” Ammal Awadallah, the executive director of the Palestinian Family Planning & Protection Association (PFPPA) in Jerusalem, tells Refinery29 Somos. “Every day that passes, more and more people are being infected by diseases, which are spreading immensely in the severely overcrowded shelters hosting over a half-million Palestinians. The pain and suffering is truly unfathomable.”
Listening to Palestinian scholars like Maha Nassar, on-the-ground journalists like Bisan Owda, human rights lawyers like Noura Erakat, and survivors in Gaza also helps us understand how what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank is what happened to the ex-colonies we now inhabit; and we can watch, in real time, how people are expelled and killed and how the land becomes an exploitable resource for the colonists. This process is exactly why some of us are able to sit in comfort in our homes, and why others are unable to do so. Witnessing a process of colonialism can elucidate our conditions, help us understand that the current world we have was born out of violence, built on oppression, and maintained through a culture of emotional and political alienation. It can push us to understand that until these historical wrongs are addressed globally, they will continue to happen until we destroy ourselves.
By closing our eyes and our social media accounts, we make it easier for powerful governments to aid in the mass killing of the Palestinian people, in the destruction of land, and in the theft of all of our humanity. We must bear witness. We must use the privileges we have to center and uplift the plight of all oppressed people.
As Awadallah worries about the safety of her colleagues, family, and friends, she urges: “Everyone needs to demand accountability for the violations of international and humanitarian laws. Now, more than ever, Palestinians need the world to see what is happening and do the right thing for humanity. The world cannot switch off and hope this goes away.”
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