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‘Israel has a right to defend itself’ and the language of domestic violence

This language of “Israel has a right to defend itself,” takes a cue from the behaviors and conceits of abusers and enablers

CW: this article contains mentions of sexual violence and assault

Over the last two months, Israel has subjected the Gaza Strip—a blockaded 140-square-mile strip of land home to 2.2 million—to endless bombardment, killing more than 17,000 Palestinians in 65 days and injuring and trapping thousands more under rubble. Through it all, U.S. lawmakers, Zionist organizations, and the highly influential lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have parroted the same talking point while funding Israel’s genocide: “Israel has a right to defend itself.” This language takes a cue from the behaviors and conceits of abusers and enablers.

To sociologist and sexual violence researcher Dr. Nicole Bedera the language and obfuscation tactics of the Israel lobby in the U.S. are chillingly familiar. In particular, she’s reminded of a pattern of behavior commonly adopted by abusers: DARVO, or deny, attack, reverse victim and offender. The “toolkit of domination” isn’t just applied interpersonally; it also plays a role in military conflict and colonization.

The colonial logic of Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, AIPAC, and most members of Congress deliberately buries how aggression from the occupying force cannot be understood as “self-defense.” Israel, as the overwhelming majority of U.S. lawmakers frame it, is the victim, and the Palestinians whose land Israel is occupying are the aggressors. 

“Victims are not allowed to defend themselves from the abuser,” Bedera told Prism. When they do, they’re “cast as the aggressor, especially by the criminal justice system,” and often face charges for acts of self-defense. “Aggressors will try to make themselves look like the victim, to make any violence from them ‘self-defense,’ and any violence from their victim into an act of aggression. There’s only one group that’s permitted to be violent and aggressive.” This, Bedera says, is mirrored to a tee in Western conceptions of Israel and Palestine, especially in the two months since the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.

And, she notes, since Oct. 7, the Israeli military’s targeting of journalists—killing at least 70 as of Dec. 4, sometimes killing their entire families—has been deliberate. These targeted attacks are about making it as difficult as possible to disseminate information and let the facts of Israel’s violence reach people worldwide. The killing of journalists, Bedera says, is a “violent denial” of what’s happening on the ground: “DARVO is not about convincing the listener what happened, but making both sides seem untrustworthy. It’s about convincing people to be neutral, that they don’t know what’s going on, and so they should just look the other way from the abuse.” 

Bedera, who has extensively researched the litigation of campus sexual assault cases in Title IX offices, sees this all the time: Jacqueline Cruz, a friend of Bedera’s and fellow sexual violence researcher, calls it “orchestrated complexity,” the purposeful shrouding of facts, the manufacturing of nuance and qualifications that always privilege the abuser. This is how the false narrative of “mutual abuse” arises, obscuring who has any power to abuse in the first place. When something seems too complicated—even though it really isn’t—institutions justify inaction. “With Title IX, the thing they want to do is nothing. It’s the least amount of legal risk; it allows them to protect the perpetrators,” Bedera said. Similarly, Bedera says she’s observed how the dissemination of videos of the on-the-ground horrors in Gaza are often met with ostensibly objective, neutral parties trying to offer context: “It’s, ‘Well it’s more complicated than you think,’ and sometimes that may be true. But the result is, it makes people feel like they don’t have enough context to take a stand. It doesn’t necessarily make them switch sides, but they’re afraid to take the wrong side, so they just don’t take one.” The assumption, Bedera says, is that “inaction is neutral.” But it will always benefit the abuser who holds more power and benefits from a situation staying the same.

More recently, Western media has propelled narratives of alleged mass, coordinated rape perpetrated by Hamas against Israeli women, in some cases weaponizing reports of sexual assault to bolster support for the genocide in Gaza and capitalize on racist Western stereotypes about Arabic men as “barbaric” rapists. For merely pointing out the violence and war crimes—including widespread sexual abuse—that Israel has perpetrated against Palestinians earlier this week, Rep. Pramila Jayapal faced horrific smears accusing her of condoning sexual assault. But the extensive media coverage of unsubstantiated allegations of a mass rape campaign perpetrated by Palestinians does not stem from concern for all victims. If it did, it would acknowledge how the Zionist project itself is a fundamental act of gender-based violence; it creates the sharply unequal power dynamics that lead to sexual violence against Palestinians with impunity. Colonization and occupation create innate, inescapable vulnerability to sexual violence for Palestinian children, women, and men, who are routinely terrorized, detained, and abused by Israeli forces with impunity.

Child sexual abuse within Israeli prisons is rampant and systematic: In 2014, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club reported that Israeli occupation forces arrested at least 600 Palestinian children in Jerusalem, and subjected nearly half to sexual violence. The nonpartisan humanitarian groups Save the Children, Human Rights Watch, and Defense for Children International have offered corroborating reports of prevalent child sexual abuse in Israeli jails through the years, as recently as this July. A former U.S. State Department official recently resigned and told CNN this week that when Defense for Children International Palestine informed the U.S. that Israeli forces raped a 13-year-old Palestinian boy in an Israeli jail and the U.S. brought this to Israel’s attention, Israel shut down the organization’s office the following day and declared it “a terrorist entity.” According to numerous reports from Israeli and Western outlets alike, Israel has offered safe haven to those charged with child sexual abuse in other countries.

Despite this rampant, well-documented sexual brutality inflicted on Palestinians, the prevailing narrative remains that all of this is too complicated to decipher between victim and perpetrator. In the vein of “orchestrating complexity,” Bedera notes that one of the most common tactics of abusers is to change or obfuscate when a violent situation began. She sees this, particularly in American media coverage and political discourse on Israel’s war on Gaza and the fixation on Oct. 7: “When you start in the middle of a conflict rather than the beginning, you’re very unlikely to be able to tell why what just happened took place, or see who the primary aggressor is,” Bedera said. “Nothing starts with just a random attack—that’s not how this works.” Oct. 7 is not the beginning; rather, “the [Israeli] occupation is akin to the beginning of an abusive relationship.” And the reality is that, in both interpersonal and military contexts, victims can find themselves forced to use violence to resist violence.

Obscuring all information on anything but Oct. 7 sets up the perfect conditions for the U.S. Israel lobby to weaponize DARVO, leaning into the characterization of Israeli terrorism and war crimes as “self-defense,” Bedera says. The act of denial is deeply embedded in the White House response to every children’s hospital bombed by Israel, every dialysis patient killed, and every premature baby killed, left to starve, die, and decompose in their hospital beds by Israel’s blockade. The denial is in President Joe Biden’s conspiracy theory that the reported death counts from Gaza’s Health Ministry can’t be trusted—all while readily accepting every claim from the Israeli Occupation Forces, which has admitted to lying on numerous occasions.

Attacking Palestinians has also been core to the U.S. response to the Zionist war on Gaza: In the days immediately following Oct. 7, Florida Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis said the U.S. can’t accept any Palestinian refugees—even children—because they’re all “antisemitic.” On Nov. 2, Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana introduced a bill to expel all Palestinian Americans from the country. Republican Rep. Brian Mast Florida said there are “very few innocent Palestinian civilians.” Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey sweepingly referred to Muslim Americans as “guilty.”

All as U.S. officials, led by the president, deny basic realities about Israeli atrocities in Gaza and attack Palestinians in the U.S. and Gaza, the refrain remains that Israel is defending itself, that Israel is the victim: “The way ‘reverse victim-offender’ works most often is to literally just say, ‘to think negatively of me is unfair,’” Bedera said, pointing to how criticism of Israel and dissent to U.S. funding of the Israeli military is punished and characterized as antisemitic. Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the only Palestinian-American Congress member, was one of just a handful of Congress members who have ever been censured for her use of the decades-old slogan advocating Palestinian liberation, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which was baselessly decried as genocidal by Zionist politicians. 

That Zionists lean so heavily into narratives of Israel’s victimhood stands out to Bedera because such narratives are often heavily scrutinized when used by actual victims. This method has only been successful for Zionists “as a group with a lot of power.” Consider, for example, social media posts shared by Amy Schumer that refer to Israel in feminized, gendered terms and sweepingly call Gazans “rapists,” even as reported sexual violence against Palestinians is pervasive in Israeli prisons and rape is an institutionalized tool of colonization. “Part of why I think that this is effective is because Israel, supposedly the woman, the victim, isn’t defending themselves—it’s the U.S. arming Israel, the U.S. then, in that metaphor, can step in as the man, the white knight intervening with arms,” Bedera said. 

And why do atrocities perpetrated by Israel not seem to matter to the U.S.? “Everyone knows or loves a rapist,” Bedera said. Pointing to the U.S. and Israel’s decades-old, close relationship, she explained, “When it’s someone you know and love, you’re unlikely to see them as one; they’re someone you want to take the side of.” It further helps that the language of DARVO and justifying abuse is already so familiar to U.S. audiences. Violence and perceptions of aggressors and victims are also inextricably and fundamentally racialized in the U.S.: Israel’s racist language about Palestinians, calling them “children of darkness” and “barbarians,” is “intended for an American audience,” Bedera says.

In the U.S. itself, Bedera emphasizes that the “fact that we have such a large military” emerges from the language of victimhood, “from language that we need to protect ourselves, we are the victims” of other countries. The language of domestic violence and the justification of it are a staple of militarism and international relations: “There are human rights abuses happening across the globe, like now, a genocide is being is being committed by [Israel], but the U.S. decides we’re just going to look the other way, we’re not going to even condemn it, because [Israel] gets to choose what they do in the privacy of their home,” Bedera said. “That’s the primary way domestic violence is justified. Just as long as you do it within the confines of a place you’re allowed to control, your private home, your own country—we’re willing to look away.”

At the core of the U.S. government’s response to the genocidal Israeli campaign against Palestinians is an incessant, violent policing of Palestinian victimhood. We see this in the urgent demand for anyone who expresses support for Palestine to condemn the Palestinian resistance and its fighters, to criticize the colonized for how they respond to their oppression, just as we criticize victims of abuse for their responses to abuse. All too often, when someone critiques the behaviors of victims, the insinuation is that under those same conditions, they would be better, they would know better than the victim—to condemn something is to say you would not do it. 

But no one with access to water in their homes, the ability to move from one place to another freely, to go to a hospital without being bombed, to not have family members killed by a heavily militarized state actor could possibly say what they would or would not do, what measures they would or would not take under those circumstances, to try to be free. Yet, there’s no acknowledgment of this reality from U.S. officials or Zionist institutions. It’s a total “lack of empathy,” Bedera says—for those who experience violence, for what the experience of violence can drive people to do.


Prism Reports, 2024



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