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Sarah El Bulbeisi on Institutionalized Discursive Violence

Victoria Schneider Victoria Schneider
25th November 2023
Sarah El Bulbeisi on Institutionalized Discursive Violence
Sarah El Bulbeisi currently works as a cultural studies scholar in Beirut

Note: The views and opinions expressed in editorial articles are those of the author. They do not reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

Last week, on November 14, the German parliament discussed a law amending the criminal code to combat anti-Semitism, terror, hate and incitement. In its opening sentences, the problem is stated as follows:  

“The Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas killed, injured and abducted many innocent people in Israel in the barbaric terrorist attack on 7 October 2023. More than 1400 people were murdered in Israel. The Hamas terror exacerbates the threat for Jewish citizens in Germany. In the week following the terrorist attack by the Islamist Hamas.”

The language used in the statement shows intention. The word “terror” is mentioned four times in three sentences, leaving no doubt about who is who.

The statement also refers to “more than 1400 people” murdered in Israel, even though three days before, Israeli officials had revised the number of dead to 1200, including soldiers. It is noteworthy that the German government deliberately used the old, false figures to promote this new law. 

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Draft law to amend des criminal code by the German government 14 November 2023 

However, this narrative is in line with the general narrative that Germany has adopted with regards to the State of Israel since the end of the Second World War. 

For a long time, German elites in politics and media used language as a tool to guilt trip the public into subscribing to the Israeli-dictated and German-adopted narrative. Reminding the people of Germany's historic responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust, blurring the differences between Jewish people and the government of Israel, and combining it with the systematic demonisation of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, the discourse effectively established that any criticism of the politics of Israel can be seen as an act of antisemitism or pro-terrorism

But language is no longer the only tool. In recent years, the German government has gone even further by putting this narrative into action. In 2019, for instance, the German Bundestag passed a Resolution criminalizing the BDS movement, notwithstanding a letter sent by the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights to in which representatives of the OHCHR expressed “our concern that the motion sets a worrying trend of unduly limiting the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and of association.” The German government’s answer established that these rights at their full scope are subject to interpretation:

“The rights to freedom of opinion and expression, of peaceful assembly and of association are guaranteed, inter alia, by Articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. [...] These rights, however, are not absolute [...] the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions [...] necessary to ensure respect of the rights or reputations of others; the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.”

The last months have shown that years of constructing this narrative have had an effect on the public discourse. The media reports according to the official narrative, with little questions. In the context of Hamas’ October 7 attacks, many outlets copied the word “unprovoked,” implying that there was no reason for Palestinians to rise up against anything. Calling the attacks unprovoked means legitimizing the illegal Israeli siege of Gaza since 2007 and ignoring the violent oppression that the Palestinian people have been subjected to for more than a century. Resistance is hence turned into an unreasonable criminal act of cold-blooded terror. 

All of this laid the foundation of the current discourse where it has become widely accepted among political elites, media, and the public to portray Arabs and Muslims in general, but Palestinians in particular, as potential threats to public peace.

In her dissertation, Swiss-Palestinian scholar Sarah El Bulbeisi has examined the impacts of this systematic denial of violence against Palestinians on the Palestinian diaspora. 

Sarah El Bulbeisi works as a cultural studies scholar in Beirut. She was previously a research associate at the Middle East Institute at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) Munich, where she also completed her doctorate. She led the DAAD University Dialogue "Violence, Forced Migration and Exile: Trauma in the Arab World and in Germany" between Palestinian and Lebanese universities and the LMU. Her dissertation was published as a book in German by Transcript-Verlag in 2020 )"Taboo, Trauma and Identity: Subject Constructions of Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland, 1960-2015") and will be published in English soon.

Misbar spoke to El Bulbeisi about how the strategic use of language has created and maintained the dominating image of the evil Palestinian, how this goes back to colonial narratives and inevitably restricts democratic rights. 

Misbar: We would like to take a deeper look into what dictates the strong narrative in Germany these days, and understand the language used to create this "consensus."

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: In my dissertation, I looked at violence in discourse, but also in silence. What does it do to Palestinians that they live in societies in which their systematic experience of violence, but also their identity, is denied, tabooed or criminalized? How do the public discourses obscure the experience of violence? These are discourses that morally justify the experience of violence by Palestinians.

Misbar: Can you give an example? 

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: An example for this is denialism in discourse. For instance, in the years after 1948, violence towards Palestininans was portrayed as a byproduct of the Arab-Israeli war, which, of course, the Arabs had started. It was said that Palestinians left voluntarily because they had no connection to the land, based on Palestine not being a nation state in the European sense; or that there was no expulsion because there was no one there. These were narratives that trivialized violence.

Misbar: Was this narrative used by the media or by politicians? 

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: It circulates in public discourse, both in the media and politics, but also in history books. The official Israeli narrative was adapted in various media spaces: They always talk about 1948. There is no mention of the fact that expulsions of Palestinians began before 1948, and half of them occurred before the Israeli-Arab war. The systematic nature of forced displacement is erased through language. They called it a “byproduct of the war.”

It is hardly mentioned that there were also hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced in 1967. And now there are 1.5 million displaced people in Gaza who had to move to the south and will maybe even have to go to Egypt. I'm sure that again, this will be seen as a “byproduct of the war.” All of this makes the Palestinian experience of violence invisible.

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From BILD, Germany’s most read tabloid, November 2023: Is it true that Israel took away land from the Arabs? Before the jewish migration waves towards the end of the 19th century, there were both Jews and Arabs in small numbers who lived in the territory of Palestine (part of the Ottoman Empire and later mandated by Britain). Most of the land was empty and Jews bought it from the Arab landowners. Tel Aviv was founded by Jews on sand in 1909. With the Jewish migration to the region many Arabs followed, because of its economic revival. 

Misbar: How have you seen language being systematically used since the beginning of this latest genocidal escalation? 

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: By the way, the word genocide was banned at a demonstration in Berlin recently. In fact, everything that makes Palestinians human must be denied; they must not - cannot - be victims of crimes against humanity. And this is what dehumanizes, the experience of violence is repeated through the use of denialist language. They cannot be called victims of crimes against humanity and that dehumanizes them.

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In this article in German’s Federal Agency for Civic Education from September 1980, the author declares that in a historical sense Palestinians are referred to the population of Palestine under the British Mandate until 1948, including Jews and Arabs of different religions, but that with the termination of the territorial unit “Palestine” in May 1948, there are technically also no Palestininans anymore. “Having said this, it’s better to not speak of Palestinians, but of “former Palestinians”. All Jews and Arabs who used to live in the former territory of Palestine under British Mandate, and wanted to stay in their cities and villages after the foundation of Israel, became Israeli citizens. Those Arabs, who stayed in Judea Samaria - also former Palestinians - became citizens of Jordan. A third population group, the population of Gaza, which was occupied by the Egyption army in 1948 and stayed under Egyptian military rule until 1967, was denied citizenship by their Arab occupiers. They - also former Palestinians - are stateless.  

Misbar: It is like these words are reserved for selected people only.

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: Yes, this is the singularity of the Holocaust. Anything that comes close to this experience of violence, or seems to put this experience of violence into perspective, or could be viewed as competition to this experience of violence is denied. As if one threatened the other in its severity, in its extent. Actually, this is totally infantile. Not just perverted, infantile. 

Misbar: There is another narrative that exists in the public discourse which is the idea that "we", the West, actually have to help the Palestinians, or "rescue" them from themselves, which again sounds not like Palestinians are seen as a self-determined people. 


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Die Welt, a center-right national daily newspaper on November 2, 2023 

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: It's the total adaptation of the Israeli narrative. On the one hand, they [the Palestinians] are the perpetrators because Hamas has become the collective subject of all Palestinians. The Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are being equated with Hamas, or even all Palestinians, because they voted for Hamas [in 2006]. And so all Palestinians are demonized. For me, the narrative that Germany has to "save" the Palestinians is the weakest narrative, it's almost cynical. 

Misbar: It does feel like people do like to believe it though...

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: It's a continuation of the colonial narrative. The colonists have always used the narrative of: We go there to civilize people and to help them develop progressive, democratic, free values. The British told this story in all countries they colonized. And Zionism was, or is, also a colonial project that used colonial narratives; Herzl spoke about wanting to set up a wall against barbarism in the East. This “We come to save” has a very long tradition in colonial discourse and colonial thinking. You can see everything in the narrative that the colonial power has the feeling that it is defending itself against the people who are oppressed.

Misbar: The demonization of Hamas seems to play an important role in keeping this narrative up, how do you see that? There is little out there that tries to understand who Hamas is and how they came to be. 

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: Again, this is ignorant of the systematic nature of violence. That was the new moral imperative: you can't say "but;"  the "but" becomes forbidden. They twisted it in such a way that if you want to contextualize or explain it, then you excuse it. 

And what it does to the Germans who always hear that... I think this is a question that many of us are asking ourselves these days…

Misbar: But what makes people believe it, without questioning it, including the media who reproduces information without challenging it? 

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: We live in a time of extreme conformism, and there is an incredible number of people who simply conform, who don't think for themselves. Without wanting to sound elitist, I'm just thinking out loud now, but that's what strikes me, this double standard. I've noticed that people voice criticism, or speak in a more or less differentiated way, and in other contexts speak a completely different language. And I think that has something to do with conformism or opportunism, whatever you want to call it. We aren't allowed to express these feelings and they change depending on the situation. I think there are other controversial topics where you can see this, not only this one. This is an interesting phenomenon. I do believe that many journalists are not doing their job. But I also believe that readers also shouldn't be absolved from their responsibility to form a differentiated opinion.

Misbar: It does seem like there is a gap between what people actually feel and think, and what the narrative suggests. What is it that people don't voice their solidarity in public? 

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: There is a climate of fear that has been created that sometimes even makes people paranoid. The discursive violence which has been going on for decades is now being institutionalized through measures like language regulations, or rules about what is allowed at demonstrations. There is the last resolution by the Bundestag, but then there is the Resolution from 2019, which declares BDS anti-semitic. This 2019 resolution is based on the EU Parliament resolution of 2017, which adapts the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which is  controversial among anti-Semitism researchers. It criminalizes BDS and the so-called pro-Palestinian commitment and by that, the implementation of human rights of Palestinians. It legitimizes repression. These things are all legally decided, they might not be legally binding, but because of the authority of the institutions that generate them, they have this criminalizing power.

Misbar: What about the role of the media, shouldn’t they be calling their authorities out?

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: It’s the need for harmony. But I think this goes much further. We just notice it so blatantly now with this topic, but it's something that runs very deep. We are far too conflict-averse; we are socialized to adapt and not actualise ourselves, that starts in the school system. I think these are much broader, human issues. This current time actually is a chance to talk about these fundamental topics. What I also found interesting is that there are many Germans who are affected by the fact that their language is being taken away from them. I don't want to make anyone a victim here, this is out of an observation. But in general, what is happening is a shock to many people. That resolutions, which normally don't mean much practically, are implemented. How brutal an occupying power can behave, and how arbitrarily international law is applied. All of this was completely different in Ukraine. To see this and realize it as the world we actually live in shocks many people. This also affects many people in their personal lives, not just in their Palestine solidarity.

Misbar: Many people may notice that this freedom of expression that they grew up with believing in, and taking for granted, actually has limits...

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: Yes, people realize that these are not democracies, or they are illiberal democracies. It's becoming more and more inevitable to see this. People would like to dismiss it as a conspiracy theory. But it is becoming more and more certain that we are moving from what we considered surreality into reality and I think people tend to suppress that because at the moment when you actually have to admit it, you as a citizen would have to become much more active. 

Misbar: It seems like there is a pattern that those who raise their voices are people who don't necessarily only have German backgrounds. Many are Jewish or Arab migrants.

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: I also know a lot of Palestinian people who don't say anything either. I was on Swiss television twice - it made people feel very guilty. There have been many requests to Palestininnas by journalists, but they often don't dare to say yes. This conformism is there as well, not just among Germans. I was told that divisions are emerging between German-Iranians, German-Turks and German-Palestinians. Apparently, in the first few weeks, Muslim voices were invited to talk shows, and because everything is now merged, Hamas is suddenly Boko Haram and ISIS, and everything is Muslim and they are identified with it, they are brought into these shows. Divisions arise from that. Firstly, they don't know much about it, just as many Germans don't, and secondly, they often use this to whitewash themselves and show themselves to be good, well-adjusted Germans who have nothing to do with the Palestinian extremists. Instead of there being solidarity, there is division.

Misbar: This division seems to be accepted - by the Germans. Having this idea of themselves that "we were the bad guys in the past and now we are the good guys," they play others off against each other.

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: I have described it the same way. It's become a cynicism, playing others off against each other. Anti-Palestinian racism is a continuation of anti-Semitism. The figure of the Semites was split into two and what once was the figure of the evil Jew is now reproduced in the figure of the evil Palestinian, or evil Arab. And what's actually hidden in this figure is a form of sadism, racist sadism, masked by the fact that you yourself have such moral integrity because you've been cleared and have dealt with your guilt, or are still processing it. This is why people show so much solidarity with Israel. This third party in this triangle of the two alternating figures of evil, emerges as a morally upright person, as an observer who is not involved. And this means that this sadism can continue because you as the third person can watch how they fight each other.

Misbar: In the collective consciousness people think that one cannot be anti-Semitic or racist because of the Second World War. This debate isn't even taking place.

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: I would also say that we are not aware that this anti-anti-Semitism itself is a form of racism. Palestinians are racialized and made into inferior people through this moral exclusion. In doing so you can ignore your own racism, or the continuity of structural racism after 1945, as well as the racism before, the colonial racism. By ignoring the continuity of racist structures you avoid a real confrontation with yourself. In this way you can blame and institutionalize responsibility while avoiding personal confrontation. 

In German families it is often said: Grandpa was not a Nazi. There is a lot of personal defense against being a Nazi. So it has been institutionalized, you go to a concentration camp at the age of 12. And that is something completely different than a personal confrontation.

Misbar: You are half-Swiss, half-Palestinian. Living through all of this, especially the recent radicalisation, what does this do to you personally?

Sarah El-Bulbeisi: I've lost a lot of people. It's been going on for so long now, I don't think I have any people around me anymore, or I don't even let people around me anymore access these feelings. You become suspicious. You no longer feel at home in the society in which you grew up. And that is a very terrible experience. So I have stopped allowing it to affect me emotionally. 

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