TERRA INCOGNITA: Colonizing Gaza’s dead for Kaddish theater

I’m no religious expert, but isn’t Kaddish supposed to be said for one’s relatives, not for random people one has never met, half a world away, whose families didn’t even ask you to say it?

The sun sets over the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side of the border May 15, 2018 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
The sun sets over the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side of the border May 15, 2018
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
On May 14 more than 60 people in Gaza were killed during protests that were the culmination of the “Great Return March” organized by Hamas. Two days later a group of 50 Jewish activists, some affiliated with well known groups, attended a Jewish prayer event at Parliament Square in London to, in the words of one attendee “express grief and anger in the most Jewish way possible.”
Have 50 Jews from different groups in the UK, or anywhere else, ever held a mass Kaddish for other groups? Have they ever held a Kaddish for the dead in the Rwandan genocide? Or Rohingya refugees? Or thousands of Yazidis machine-gunned to death by Islamic State? Or for hundreds of Israelis killed during the Second Intifada? Or for Jewish victims of antisemitism, whether in the AMIA Jewish Community Center bombing in 1994 or the murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006?
It doesn’t seem so. Only one group has received such a Kaddish, and only once, in a public place for all to see.
Palestinians didn’t ask for Kaddish to be said for them. They didn’t ask to become part of a Jewish mourning ritual. They had their own mourning tents in Gaza, their own prayers. But no one who said Kaddish for them in Parliament Square seemed particularly interested in Islamic mourning, or in live-streaming a mourning tent from Gaza. They wanted to say Kaddish – they wanted to colonize the dead in Gaza for a kind of theater in London.
I read two accounts of the Kaddish prayer in London, by two participants. One uses the word “Jew” or “Jewish” 10 times, the other five times. One uses the term “Gazans” once and the other uses the term “Palestinian” once. This incredible imbalance between self-references and references to the other – the group supposedly being prayed for – illustrates that the event wasn’t about Palestinians, it was about Jews.
It was about a sense of feeling superior, about the sense of being “as Jews” or doing something in a “Jewish way.” The participants later wrote about “our Judaism”; “Jewish value of justice,” and “Jewish mourning.” Lastly about the “Jewish principle of the sanctity of life.” So long as these kinds of Jewish values don’t include Palestinians as equal voices and as part of the prayer, events like this are solely for self-gratification, and use Palestinians as a prop.
A lot of the people who expressed outrage about the Kaddish also did so entirely in terms of what it means to be Jewish. No one seemed to ask about the Palestinians, the ones supposedly being prayed for. That’s because no one really cares about the dead Palestinians. They were just props in a macabre theater in London, as they often are, trotted out as props to make other people feel good about their “values” in the West.
It isn’t only Jews in London, either – those “mourners” are in bizarre agreement with Hamas. Hamas also uses dead Palestinians as props. The more dead, the bigger the spectacle. How about the living Palestinians in Gaza, 1.9 million of them? How about the thousands wounded in the protests during eight weeks of clashes with Israel? Don’t they deserve some attention? Was there ever a follow-up Kaddish?
I’m no religious expert, but isn’t Kaddish supposed to be said for one’s relatives, not for random people one has never met, half a world away, whose families didn’t even ask you to say it? Wouldn’t the most respectable way to respect the dead in Gaza be to reach out to the families there?
Some have debated whether or not those killed were Hamas members and whether that makes this whole event even more bizarre. But Hamas members or not, wouldn’t it behove those saying Kaddish to at least take a moment to learn from the families about the person for whom Kaddish is being recited?
No matter. After the public Kaddish colonization theater in London, no more prayers will be said for these Gazans. It was a nice spectacle, good for some videos and some controversy. That’s what it’s always about when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians. Some cool protest, some “demo” that people go to. Some fun thing for people to check out on a Friday or weekend. Even when it’s an event devoted to boycotting “apartheid Israel,” it’s still mainly a social event. People come, they see friends, they hang out, they go for drinks, they go home. The dead stay dead. The colonized stay colonized.
For the theater that is Israel-Palestine conflict in the Diaspora, there are no real people in Israel and Palestine. That’s why no one bothers to ever look for any real information about the dead and wounded, whether Palestinian or Israeli. No one bothers to contact a family or get to know someone. Because they don’t see people in the Middle East as people. They see them as in an Orientalist painting, as caricatures and stereotypes. So much of the Israel-Palestinian discussion abroad is a mockery of anything to do with the realities of life in Israel and the Palestinian territories. So much of it drips with neo-colonial nonsense about “solving” the conflict, as if the conflict will be solved thousands of miles away from where it takes place. It has become a hobby.
We need to ask ourselves when debating controversies such as the Gaza Kaddish, what’s really happening? If these events are designed only to instill in the organizers a sense of their own superiority they need to be challenged not as being “anti-Israel” but as being ethno-religious-centric and forcing their faith onto the unwitting and often unasked Palestinians who become manipulated objects in a drama far away. The groups that carry out Kaddish theater, not just in the UK but also in the US, need to be asked who they are doing Kaddish for; for themselves or for Palestinians? When they talk about “Jewish values,” we need ask them whether colonizing the dead without asking is a “value”? Isn’t the real value asking the family what kind of prayers they want said, interacting with people, treating them as equals? Palestinians in the Kaddish are not treated as equals, their religion and identity is taken from them to serve someone else. In a bizarre irony this is what anti-Israel voices who say Kaddish for Palestinians tend to say Israel does by taking away Palestinian rights. Well shouldn’t the right to be mourned as one wants be an essential human right.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman