When I first moved to Malaysia, some of my high school mates in Penang were surprised to learn that I, a white Italian non-Muslim boy, would actively boycott brands profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Until today, friends not only from Malaysia but also from other Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan have expressed surprise and appreciation upon learning this – a surprise which often stems precisely from the ‘unexpectedness’ of non-Muslims being supportive of Palestine.
How is this surprising? As in other multi-ethnic societies, a sad phenomenon of the ‘ethnicisation of sympathy’ can be observed among Malaysians. For example, many Malays are highly emotionally invested in Palestine, but appear reluctant to discuss or pay attention to similar domestic issues, such as the evictions of Orang Asli or the apparently disproportionate police brutality towards Indian Malaysians.
Perhaps as a reaction to this, I have also noticed a certain lack of interest in the Israel-Palestine issue among most of my Indian and Chinese Malaysian contacts.
It is as if the association of a cause (Palestinian human rights) with a community (the ‘umat Islam’) had raised ethno-religious barriers to solidarity: the simplification of the political scenario into a “Yahudi (Jews) versus Islam” narrative implicitly discourages non-Muslims from taking sides, reading up on the issue or empathising.
I recall from my stay in 2016 how, for those Malaysians most frustrated with local religious politics, the “Yahudi versus Islam” rhetoric would almost inevitably result in automatic support for the former.
In view of this, it is apparent that the religious war, the “clash of civilisations” rhetoric, does more harm than good to the Palestinian cause.
Thus, a new, more accurate Malaysian approach to the issue should be sought: one which deconstructs Zionism and rejects it because of its imperialistic, neocolonial and nationalistic nature.
This is necessary not just to dismantle the Yahudi versus Islam narrative but also for people to recognise and condemn those injustices which, despite occurring in the Malaysian context, share the same nature as Zionism.
Ideally, this should lead to a replacement of the current approach (based on ethno-religious affiliations and selectivity) to a more humanitarian one, based on a recognition of universal human rights and their intrinsic worth.
In applying humanistic, humanitarian values to the Palestinian cause, Nelson Mandela said it best in his famous quote that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.
The violations of human rights in Palestine at the hand of Zionists is a wound on the whole global community, precisely because we are talking about universal basic human rights, such as the right to live in dignity and the ability to do that in freedom without discrimination.
Zionism, by its very nature, cannot see Palestinians as full holders of such rights. In a land where Muslims and Jews had coexisted peacefully for centuries, the arrival of Zionism brought in a new political project that, justifying itself through Jewish religious doctrines, set off ethnic tensions and divides we still witness today.
Zionism cannot recognise Palestinian rights because it is an imperialist project, heavily funded by Western powers eager to preserve their influence in the region. It views Palestinians standing in the way of that project as a mere obstacle to its settler-colonial ambitions. It is also a nationalist project in its championing of a “Jewish nation-state” – the belief that Palestinian lands rightfully belong to an exclusive ‘nation’ – and the resulting apartheid-like system that has been put in place.
It must be noted (and in Malaysia it is being noted only recently) that many Jews do not approve of Israel’s state-sponsored violence and indeed seek to promote peace with Arab Muslims.
While the coexistence of Jews and Muslims has been a reality in the Middle East for centuries, these possibilities for peace seldom make it into the Malay mainstream discourse, which seems largely focused on blindly hating Jews on an anti-Semitic basis.
Once all this is considered, the narrative of Israel-Palestine as a grand Yahudi versus Islam civilisational conflict stops holding up. We can then understand the issue in more complex and nuanced ways where imperialism, settler colonialism, nationalism, religious-supremacist and xenophobic rhetoric all blend.
All these problematic entities are not exclusive to the Israeli Yahudis but manifest themselves around the world in their own context-specific shapes and forms. Recognising this again requires us to look beyond how these issues affect a specific ethnicity or religious group and to realise instead how they claim victims all around the globe.
Eventually, these considerations on Zionism also lay the basis for reflecting on the manifestations of these problems in the Malaysian context. For the sake of coherence, a condemnation of the forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah should entail a similar condemnation of the continual displacement of Orang Asli and Bornean indigenous people.
Similarly, with nationalism, we cannot logically criticise the Zionist dehumanisation of Palestinians without also noticing its Malaysian parallel: the terrible contempt many people hold towards migrant communities such as the Rohingya and Bangladeshis. Interestingly, this happens even though the Rohingya in Myanmar face the same challenges as Palestinians, ie statelessness, displacement and state-sanctioned violence.
How solidarity is allotted differently to different ethnicities can be the result of many things. Is the crime only outrageous when committed by Jews? Are Palestinians, in their Arab-ness, more linguistically, culturally and somatically appealing to the Malay(sian) gaze? Is it the different levels of migration flows compared to the Rohingya? Or do long-distance expressions of solidarity allow Malaysians to feel no actual responsibility towards Palestinians – while the responsibility to dismantle the oppression of the Orang Asli and migrants would be too much and is negligently avoided?
Whatever the exact causes, it is high time that people – in Malaysia and elsewhere – move beyond ‘ethnicised solidarity’ and its selective outrages, towards a solidarity based purely on our shared humanity.
Daniele Speziale studied at Penanti Secondary School in Bukit Mertajam as a 17-year-old exchange student and later as a political science research intern at USM – and he has been passionate about Malaysia ever since. Now a political science graduate from Leiden University in the Netherlands, he lives in Italy