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Crimes Against Language

The moral truth of Israel’s war against Gaza is not difficult to grasp

From time to time, language dies.
It is dying now.
Who is alive to speak it?

—Fady Joudah, [. . . ]

There is no proper entrance to an essay that undertakes things which should never be uttered, which have already been said. There is no way to reconcile the knowledge that the hours I spend writing will also mark the death of numerous Palestinians, and an endless interval of hunger and agony for many more. For Palestinians in the diaspora, there is no body but the uncanny body now—this set of bones and skin which I have inexplicably been granted, while so many others languish, rupture, decay. In New York City, I watch the tree outside my window flicker into bloom, and I shudder at this sign of spring. It is the advent of the third season, and the seventh month, of the Gaza genocide.

In the beginning—the chilled and chilling autumn when the annihilation commenced—time moved like an accordion. Interminable nights, bitter-bright mornings, weekends compressed with urgency. I burned with an electric grief, my veins timed to the hammer-pulse of war. With millions around the world, I read our death, wrote our death, protested our death, measuring each hour in corpses, in outrage and fear. The enduring Zionist fantasy—to finish the job, to solve the Palestinian question—hulked on the horizon, a rapacious body, steel-toothed and single-willed. In its path, the last, fragile membrane of Western pretense, which, for all its hypocrisies, still feigned belief in red lines, in keeping up appearances of restraint.

On the knife’s edge, not only Gaza, but all of us.

A video: my nine-year-old cousin Mahmoud, lips parched and skin burnished by the cold. His eyelids flutter, chin dropping, then jerking back, as if he is fighting sleep. But winter daylight surrounds him as he sits on the floor, his back against a dingy wall. The city of Khan Younis, where his family just arrived after being evacuated from the north, is under siege. “The tank is at our door!” his older brother cried to me in a voice note earlier that day.

“We don’t know we don’t know we don’t know what to do . . .”

Mahmoud is praying, his small hands upturned as his lips faintly move. With each new explosion or round of fire, his body jolts, eyes opening for an instant before rolling backward into his head.

What is the word for shock inside of shock inside of shock? With time, the careening horror of the first months coagulated, dragging in my veins. Now, I move my body and feel a lag, a sensory doubling. The chronology of global, moral failure thrums in me, ongoing, simultaneous. Each gesture is shadowed by its parallel impossibility: I lift a cup to my lips and know that others can count days, weeks, months since their last taste of clean water. I take a bite of food and fight the urge to retch, images of a skeletal Yazan al-Kafarneh floating behind my eyes. I bathe and remember another cousin, who returned to his home in northern Gaza after weeks living outdoors, desperate for a shower. The bomb found him in the bathtub. He was fifteen.

In genocide, all language fails. For months, I have reached for words and find them curdling, inside-out: everything is un-thinkable, un-speakable, in-comprehensible. Flailing gestures, all we have in the face of such obscenity. The crisis of language recurs daily, is endemic—yet such bafflement is a luxury. When I tell my cousin Nabil, who, after losing friends, career, and family, just lost his home too: مش قادرة أتخيل كيف بتحس (I can’t imagine how you must feel), I am telling a truth, yet I am not absolved. Where my words—in Arabic or English—tremble, his body is a stone-hard certainty.

These sentences are failures; I could write six months, six years, without capturing a shard of Gaza’s present reality.

“The dead don’t grieve or sing. Not without the living, they don’t,” writes Fady Joudah in his latest book of poetry, [. . .]. The only thing more unthinkable than uttering these atrocities is the possibility that they might go unremarked. And so I resist the vaporizing fatigue; I refuse the fog of war. “For every martyr, there was a life,” my cousin reminds me, and so I fight to remain shocked, to remain conscious for each new travesty. Marking six months of slaughter, I pry my mind open, forcing language back into form. With smoking throat, I lay one word down, then another. Like so many graves . . .

A child dragged from a crushed house, asking, “Uncle, am I dead?” A trembling toddler, bloodied and dust-drenched, his dilated eyes staring at his own shaking limbs as if to say, “So this is the world?” My ninety-four-year-old great aunt, her shivering body moved from one refugee camp to another until finally succumbing to the cold. A father carrying his children—in fragments, in plastic bags. Another child, six years old, surrounded by her dead family members, begging for rescue before she, and the emergency workers dispatched to save her, are killed by Israel. Men and boys, running toward aid trucks, mowed down by guns, ground to pulp under tanks.

Beneath the stunning violence, a quieter carnage. The spread of disease began as soon as Israeli forces began depriving Gaza of clean food, water, and electricity. Sickness multiplied as hundreds of thousands—eventually 1.9 million—Gazans were forced from their homes into increasingly overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Thousands have undergone amputations and surgery without anesthesia or proper aftercare. Over 90 percent of children have had an infectious disease so far, and as malnourishment weakens them, the lethality multiples. Preventable diseases—preventable, which in this case means inflicted—are predicted to kill as much as a quarter of Gaza’s population within a year.

On the day before my birthday, I wake to see photos of an Egyptian construction project underway: a watertight wall, preparing to hold back a tide of Palestinian bodies as Israel threatens to invade Rafah, the southernmost point of Gaza, where the majority of the Strip—1.5 million people—have been crammed. The architecture of Nakba, its message vulgar, plain. It dreams of a world in which humans may be corralled like cattle. Dispensed like waste.

My body throbs with three generations, sweeps me down icy streets. I stare at a frozen soccer field and, for the first time in several speechless days, dial my state representative. On the other end of the phone, a woman speaks in a voice sturdy with youth. The air around her sounds warm, impossibly bright.

“Hi,” I say. “My name is Sarah and I’m a constituent of ________ and I’m calling to . . . urge . . . demand . . . an end . . .”

I break down and weep.

Throughout, Gaza’s hospitals and clinics have been laid to waste, in what has been called a campaign to decimate the entire health care infrastructure in the Strip. Where once Israel denied such an objective, it now routinely treats hospitals as battlegrounds, targeting staff with snipers and kidnapping. Those who remain are forced to treat heinous wounds with rudimentary supplies, including amputating thousands of limbs with inadequate anesthesia, sanitation, and aftercare. Miscarriages have increased by 300 percent, while other mothers become corpses, their babies cut from them.

In March, the Israeli army carried out its most ruthless operation against Palestinian health care yet—a two-week raid that brought Gaza’s premier hospital, al-Shifa, to its knees. In the immediate aftermath, the ruins of the complex revealed mutilated bodies and some hundreds dead, including at least twenty patients. The operation, according to the World Health Organization, “rips the heart out of the health care system” in Gaza.

And the starvation. Massive and methodic, a murder which began in the initial hours, as Israel’s defense minister announced hunger as a weapon of war. For months, tons of food have idled at the borders of Gaza, blocked by Israeli civilians and army alike; 1.1 million Gazans now face catastrophic hunger—the worst hunger crisis on record, according to Oxfam. “We are forty people with one can of food,” a relative wrote to me a few weeks ago. That night, not for the first time, I sat down to dinner, then slid from my chair to the floor.

These sentences are failures; I could write six months, six years, without capturing a shard of Gaza’s present reality. And I could never, if I wrote to the end of my days, recoup the galaxies of our past—not Gaza’s oldest mosque, not our universities or archives, nor my father’s first-grade school, the fate of which he discovered in the background of a newsreel, and felt his childhood die again.

“Incomprehensible,” yet the moral truth of this moment is not difficult to grasp. Rather, the real failure of language is—like every part of this crisis—intentional, manmade. In the past six months, Western discourse has throttled from mere hypocrisy into full-blown surreality. An arc of intentional, imperial absurdity we must recognize so that in coming months we may distinguish between self-exoneration and real change. 

In the past, those attempting to speak about Palestine—or simply speak as Palestinians—were frequently punished, defanged, or ignored. For the most part, only Palestinians seemed to believe Palestinians when we relayed the facts of our reality under occupation, colonization, and siege. Those appointed to “cover” us in our stead most often harmonized, consciously or by default, with the longstanding U.S. position, describing an intractable conflict sustained as much by Palestinian obstinacy as it is by Israel’s pesky bombs and apartheid.

By exposing the utter incoherence of the liberal project, Gaza brings us horrific clarity.

But in our current version of dystopia, with the “first livestreamed genocide” making it impossible for Israel, the United States, and their allies to staunch the evidence of their war crimes, this coalition has found new strategies for dismembering speech. It is a subtler violence than the timeworn tactics of academic hypocrisy, media bias, passive voice, false accusations, and censorship—though these remain rampant too. More sinister has been the elite, liberal consensus that their own language—the lexicons of global order, human rights, and even humanity—must be divorced from all meaning. After October 7, it was no longer only Palestinians whose words were treated as ghosts. 

Our world has revealed itself as one in which everyone from humanitarian leaders and legal experts to epidemiologists and historians can declare criminal catastrophe—daily, explicitly, and meticulously—only to be answered by the functional silence, the vehement indifference, of Western power. Now, American surgeons and Canadian doctors return from visits to Gaza to publish horrified op-eds, only to then learn what it feels like to have their speech evaporate. No matter how extreme and obvious the charges brought against Israel, its backers remained resolute: the possibility of their guilt is always already ruled out. No amount of language—whether emanating from the International Court of Justice or a nation’s constituents—is admissible; the meaning of genocide has been excised.

And so we have witnessed resignations from State Department officials and mass protests in major cities that “papers of record” declined to cover; the entire African Union condemning Israel while white nations continue to ship arms; Aaron Bushnell, a U.S. Air Force serviceman, self-immolating while screaming “free Palestine,” to negligible official or public reply. These non-responses have a mirror effect, as the substance of our protests ricochet off forgone political intent. “Screaming into the void” is a cliche too many of us are reaching toward, as institutions continue to bet against language. For six months, they have gambled on outlasting our determination to make words like children, catastrophic, preventable—and even life itself—signify.

My cousin Nabil, a trained pharmacist, discovered a love for writing during this war. From one shelter, then another, he sends me poetry and short stories. Sometimes, he pens letters directed at the outside world. In one, cataloguing the devastation around him, he pleads for shared vocabulary: “What is happening, dear world in general, and American friends in particular, is genocide. We must agree first that what is happening is genocide, genocide.”

Silence may be cloaked in language—as in recent weeks, when the Biden administration, stunned to discover the Palestine thing had not blown over, began grasping for flimsy terms of regret. With cataclysm long since underway, they recited words like tragic and concern, attempting to appease the millions of Americans now burning with disgust. Each utterance a crime against language as they continued to authorize the murderous weapons and lethal blockade they purported to deplore. “They did not mean to kill the children,” Joudah writes, “They meant to.”

Of course, this doubleness is not new—not for Palestinians, nor for the many others who have had no choice but to live in the schism between “democratic” speech and effect. “Actions speak louder than words,” the familiar saying goes—but recent months have been a staggering lesson the peril actions may pose to words.

It is a lesson Israel has long since grasped, reveling in a Western consensus that treats Zionist speech, too, as void. In the past six months, recognizing a special dispensation of this collective denial, Israel abandoned even nominal constraint, no longer attempting to veil its actions with “civilized” words. Daily, it stretches the limits of liberal silence to accommodate not only spectacular material violence, but murderous language too—from ministers declaring Palestinians “animals” to a public conference calling for ethnic cleansing to the endless grotesqueries touted on social media. From the grassroots to the Knesset, those screaming for Palestinian blood and land trusted their allies’ commitment to retrofit their words, and actions, with innocence.

U.S. Department of State Press Briefing, April 1, 2024

QUESTION: You said that Hamas returned to al-Shifa Hospital. . . . Now, is that your—you are citing the Israeli narrative, or you have your own independent information?

Matthew Miller: We don’t have our own independent assessment. But you have seen Israel produce the names—hold on—the names and photographs of known Hamas fighters who it has killed or captured.

QUESTION: How many? I mean, they showed names and Hamas fighters in al-Shifa Hospital?

Matthew Miller: I have—I have seen the information they have publicly released. Said—hold up, Said, just let—I know you get—let me just finish.

QUESTION: No, no. I—

Matthew Miller: I know. But let me—said, just—

QUESTION: I’m not interrupting. I’m trying to understand what you’re saying.

What has been happening in language is nothing less than a story about what is becoming, or un-becoming, in our world. By exposing the utter incoherence of the liberal project, Gaza brings us horrific clarity. It reveals European and American narratives of righteousness that can bankroll at least six months of genocide. It is a political canary, signaling how vastly our elected officials are willing to betray their constituents and punish dissent. It is a reminder of how blithely the same elected officials will resort to racism and bigotry when a people is declared an enemy. In Gaza, too, we have a horrifying preview of new forms of state violence, a testing ground for killing technology that will soon appear in our skies. In this pinprick of land, we witness the grisly trajectory of our current configuration of power—or, in the words of Noura Erakat, “the colonial nature of the rest of the world.” And so Palestine is also a portal torn in time. Through it, we glimpse a future that is ours to resist, or accept.

Following Israel’s killing of seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen, Gaza has also become a frame for the ways Western states attempt to negotiate guilt and fear of electoral reprisal with an enduring desire to project power on the Global South.

These regimes would be mistaken to think that we will forget what we’ve seen.

Recent days indicate that some factions in Western governments have been sufficiently spooked or shamed into changing, if not yet policy, then tone. But in the United States, Biden’s sharpened rhetoric reveals a president still more concerned with optics than with human suffering. It only underscores how the professed value of human life is contingent on, rather than determinative of, policy. The deaths of more than thirty-three thousand Palestinians and over two hundred other humanitarian workers failed to stem Biden’s profuse and often clandestine supply of arms to Israel. Months of warnings about catastrophic hunger in Gaza inspired nothing more than a few paltry, humiliating, and even lethal airdrops.

Now, in a sign of growing unease, however, dozens of congressional Democrats—including, shockingly, Nancy Pelosi—have signed a letter calling for a halt in arms transfer to Israel pending a “mitigation of harm to civilians.” In the UK, similar pressures are coming to bear on Rishi Sunak after outcry over the WCK murders coincided with mounting legal critique of the government for its complicity in Israeli war crimes.

It remains to be seen what long- and short-term changes this shift in rhetoric will bring. It is necessary to hold both skepticism and hope—to acknowledge that these developments are as unprecedented as they are inadequate. Yet it would be a mistake to be comforted by the European and American governments’ selective outrage. None of these governments have denounced the fundamental colonial violence at the heart of Zionism, which Israel continues to grind forward across Palestine. Without such a total divestment, the rebukes of Western governments amount only to a plea for return to quieter murders, an acceptable simmer of settler-colonialism, that predated October 7.

There is no third choice.

In the short-term, we will watch Israel test the terrain of this shifted language. In the past, when a particularly legible or extreme act of Israeli violence forced its allies to issue a condemnation, Israel reciprocated with a performance of being chastened, yet firm. Such symbolic exchanges have allowed both parties to reassert a version of Zionism as reasonable, self-reflective, and ultimately benign. Meanwhile, as the projects of ethnic cleansing and apartheid continued, each reaffirmed the hollowness behind their words.

So far, the skies of Gaza still drop death as Netanyahu brandishes the promise to invade Rafah. Biden has revised his stern critique to the toothless term “mistake.” Even if Western fatigue with Israel’s war succeeds in curbing some of the aggression, there is also grave danger in what may pass as a “ceasefire.” In some future “pause,” it is likely that Israel will exploit the West’s high tolerance for Palestinian suffering. It may ease the chokehold on aid, perhaps temper its live fire while deaths by disease and starvation smolder on. For this, it will accept congratulations for its benevolence, enjoying the release of pressure as it continues towards its genocidal aims. In such a scenario, the words civilian and aid will be deployed by both Israel and its backers to avoid discussion of the systematic extermination of the past six months, even casting their presence in Gaza as humane.

But these regimes would be mistaken to think that we will forget what we’ve seen. Too many of us now know what these words, in their mouths, mean.

QUESTION: Right, yeah. Just bear with me. A couple more questions. So, but why do you think—in your opinion, what value is there strategically for Israel to burn all the buildings, destroy all the equipment, destroy every last X-ray machine and everything in the hospital and not keep it? If their fight—

Matthew Miller: So—

QUESTION: —is with the fighters, why must you destroy—and they left. There were—there was no fighting when they left—just to burn the buildings and burn the things and destroy everything.

Matthew Miller: So let me just say this gets—

QUESTION: Why is that okay?

Matthew Miller: Let me just say this gets into where—I’m often asked to comment on—to questions where there are conflicting accounts.


Matthew Miller: And Israel has said that is not what they did, and we don’t have ground truth on that question.

“I am removing me from the we of you,” writes Joudah. The speaker’s verdict, unilateral as a knife: the we revealed by this broadcast genocide is irredeemable.

And Joudah’s speaker is not alone. With the millions who sprang to action in October, movements have been born and renewed. Poles are splitting, shifting, as more and more abandon the hope that the current order can be reformed. Some governments have taken concrete steps, with Latin American countries recalling ambassadors and cutting ties with Israel, while other nations have already halted arms sales. It is important to recognize that, though often criminally belated, such changes would never have come without the relentless movements of direct action and protest. “The language I wanted to be, I will be / after I’m done talking,” continues Joudah, bringing to mind Aaron Bushnell, and Toni Morrison’s Sixo, who saw no future in English and thus ceased to speak.

Indeed, what Gaza needs is for our words to become material. “Gaza cannot stand alone in sacrifice,” writes the poet Mohammed el-Kurd. There can be no route out of the current, necrotic we that does not involve our discomfort, disruption, cost. From direct actions to strikes, high school walkouts to university divestments, professional risk to financial forfeiture, it will be our bodies, our actions that lead us—falteringly, inadequately, and necessarily—into new forms of speech.

The new language we create must speak plainly, cutting through the obfuscations and revisions the perpetrators of genocide are sure to cast over their guilt. It must be a language that remembers what has been so explicitly revealed—that, to quote Audre Lorde, “we were never meant to survive.” It is in this we that our new horizon must be built—a we made not only of a free Palestine, but abolition, land back, environmental repair, economic justice, health care, trans and queer safety, and more. 

As we move, we must discipline our minds to hold the unimaginable—both the horrific ongoingness of now, and the impenetrable future, which this moment will birth. As we do, we must recognize that the people of Gaza are not only the repositories of present terror but the teachers of our tomorrow. While it would be obscene to romanticize their devastation, it would be remiss to allow this to obscure their deeper truth. That it is not only horror which shatters language. Love and beauty also bewilder, and sustain.

For, despite Israel’s attempts to sever them from each other, from their very selves—through engineered social chaos, psyops, and incalculable suffering—today, someone in Gaza laughed. Someone kissed their child’s fingers, a baby’s toes. Still, someone deepened their own starvation to feed a beloved, or stood through a bleary night, tending strangers’ wounds. Many others lay beneath the sound of quadcopters, and nursed dreams of return.

And still, my cousin is writing poetry. And still, Joudah urges us to see 

what isn’t hard to see 
in a world that doesn’t.