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Talkin’ bout an intifada

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Dozens of tents were in place as part of a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Photograph by Ed White/AP)

Don’t ya know?

They’re talking about a revolution

It sounds like a whisper

Poor people gonna rise up

And get their share

Poor people gonna rise up

And take what’s theirs

— Tracy Chapman

Much has been said about the use of the word “intifada” by antiwar protesters in the United States and globally in reference to Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza. Pro-Zionist politicians across the US political divide have seized upon the use of this word as evidence that the student protesters and others are inherently anti-Semitic and violent.

As examples, on April 30, the pro-Zionist Biden regime singled out Columbia University student protesters for using the term, while the far-right Christian Nationalist Speaker of the House has similarly taken issue with protesters using the term. Similarly, various university administrations have condemned the use of the word, describing it as anti-Semitic.

The word itself is an Arabic word — Arabic being a Semitic language, closely related to Hebrew. The root of the word is n-f-d which in English roughly translates as “to shake off”. In the form of “intifada”, it means the action of shaking off; to get rid of. In general terms, if can be equated with the English word “revolution” or the act of revolt, or uprising, in relation to an oppressor (the Arabic word thawra is closer to the true meaning of the English word “revolution” in the sense of fundamental social and economic revolution — thawra would be used for, say, the 1917 Russian Revolution; “intifada” for revolt against an oppressive regime or for national liberation against a coloniser). In the Palestinian context, it refers to shaking off or resisting the occupation and the military forces of the occupation. Such resistance includes all forms of resistance — such as the nonviolent protests of the 2018-19 Gaza border protests, known as the Great March of Return, which demanded an end of the Israeli blockade (Gaza being under a starvation regime siege since 2007) and the right of return of Palestinian refugees; as well as active resistance towards occupation forces. Incidentally, the Israeli response to the Great March of Return was the use of indiscriminate violence using live ammunition, teargas and rubber bullets on unarmed protesters, killing 214 people (including 46 children), and injuring more than 36,100 (including 8,800 children).

The term “intifada” is not inherently violent. It can mean nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience — just as revolutions are not inherently violent. The student protests, as we have seen, have witnessed violence only when police and paramilitary forces enter campus and brutalise protesters — there is violence, but from the state towards the protesters — or as we saw at UCLA, when Zionist thugs attacked protesters with police present but not intervening. That revolutions turn to defensive violence in the face of state repression can and does happen; however, the revolutions in themselves are seldom inherently violent on their own.

Nor is the term anti-Semitic any more than the English equivalent of “revolution” or “uprising”. Indeed, in Arabic the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto of 1943 is referred to as an intifada. The term is used in Arabic simply as an equivalent to the English “uprising” or “revolt” — and is first recorded in this context from 1952, in Iraqi resistance to a puppet authoritarian regime. Other uses of the term include (but are not limited to) the 1965 intifada against the British Empire in Bahrain; the intifada against the Spanish Empire in Western Sahara (and, since, against Morocco); the 1984 intifada against the Egyptian dictator Mubarak; and in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and Sudan from 2010 to 2013 — events that in the West we call the Arab Spring.

That many in the West see an Arabic word and assume violence or anti-Semitism is simply reflective of the Islamophobia that was particularly weaponised during the US Empire’s War on Terror. We see similar Islamophobic reactions to even the Arabic word Allah, which simply means God in Arabic — more specifically “the God”, and is cognate with the Hebrew equivalent, Elohim.

We must guard against those who cynically exploit voters’ lack of knowledge of Arabic or Islam to further their political goals — in this case, weaponising Islamophobia to prevent solidarity with protesters, as well as to justify the use of brutal force against them.

When the students and antiwar protesters call for an intifada, they are not calling for violence against the Jewish people. They are calling for the end of the occupation and war. They are calling for an end to US hypocrisy in terms of American support for an apartheid regime and a genocidal war being waged by Israel against an occupied people, bankrolled and armed by the US. They are drawing linkages between Israel and their occupation forces and the US — with many US police and paramilitary forces receiving training from Israeli forces, who themselves have honed their skills in Gaza and the apartheid regime of the West Bank.

They are drawing linkages between the development of Israeli surveillance tech used against Palestinians now being deployed in the American imperial core against protesters and unions. They are drawing linkages between universities and the military-industrial complex, as well as their role in US imperialism. They are calling for shaking off the illusion that the US is a democracy and the “good guys” by pointing out the hypocrisy of US politics and geopolitics. They are shaking off illusions about US commitments to international law. They are shaking off neoliberal arguments that there is no money for education, welfare and healthcare, yet there is money to fund the military-industrial complex — with more than 1,000 military installations outside of the US; and a military budget outspending the next nine countries combined at $916 billion a year — and militarised police forces, including the prison-industrial complex.

Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University

Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University

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Published May 08, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated May 08, 2024 at 7:13 am)

Talkin’ bout an intifada

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