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Tectonic Shifts

A conversation with Darryl Li
Blocks of destroyed buildings in the Gaza Strip.

In the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israel earlier this month, which led to the death of over one thousand Israelis, the U.S.-backed nuclear power has waged a campaign of brutal retribution. Since October 8, they have intensified the long-running siege on the Gaza Strip and initiated a bombing campaign that has killed more than seven thousand people, nearly three thousand of them children.

Over the weekend, I spoke with Darryl Li, who teaches anthropology and law at the University of Chicago, about the unfolding crisis in Gaza and some of its wider implications for the Palestinian struggle and the solidarity movement. Our conversation—which took place across a series of phone calls, voice notes, and text exchanges—covered a wide range of topics, including our own affective responses, political analysis of the situation on the ground, and media criticism. But throughout, we grapple principally with universalism as a racializing structure of discourse.

I know Darryl through some of the advocacy components of my work at Palestine Legal, where I’m an attorney. Darryl and I are both longtime participants in the solidarity movement, though of different micro-generations: I started organizing for Palestine in college in the early 2010s, whereas Darryl got his start working for a Palestinian NGO in Gaza in the early 2000s, followed by various NGO stints throughout Palestine before entering academia. Though his academic work does not focus on Palestine—an intentional career choice—he has remained a part of the movement, largely through campus-based organizing.

These reflections are necessarily imperfect and incomplete. They also are a product of our individual subject positions. I’m Palestinian through my father, who was born in Gaza, and Jewish American through my mother, and am broadly racialized as white. By virtue of these overlapping identity markers I have access to a wide variety of spaces and audiences. Darryl, an Asian American, has none of these markers, which, he explained to me, carries its own benefits and limitations. The perception of middle-class East Asian Americans as depoliticized, especially when it comes to Palestine, has enabled him to engage white people and Zionist Israelis without triggering the same racial reflex as someone they read as Arab or Muslim. But on the other hand, he can’t speak from the position of the white or Zionist universal, nor from the position of the native informant. These subject positions inform both what is said to us, and what we are able to say in response. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Dylan Saba


Darryl Li: Do you want to talk about what happened yesterday, and what you’ve learned, and how you feel about it?

Dylan Saba: Several members of my extended family were killed in the bombing of the Saint Porphyrius Church. I didn’t know them personally. But that not knowing was its own form of pain: a grief in the form of a dull anguish. A grief without loss, but with plenty of shame. What right do I have to grieve this family of mine I only think to look after when they are being bombed? One of them was only six months old. What makes my life so precious?

It felt as though the Hamas attack was the beginning of an earthquake caused by that pressure exceeding a threshold.

I’m in Monterey, California, and I went out to the beach and immediately started weeping. I think that I released a lot of what I had been carrying by remaining steadfast and on message and showing up for clients. When I stepped away to grieve, I let out an exhale that carried with it a lot of emotion. I was looking out at the ocean, and thinking about my family in Gaza, and the shore there, and clichéd as it is, the oceans between us. I imagined that the mist that I was seeing was a version of the fog of rubble, but from my diasporic, safe, beautiful position.

Today I’ve felt more of the frustration and anger as I watch other Palestinians grieving their losses. I am frustrated at the relatively muted reaction in the media in response to what happened at the church. I’ve been sitting with these emotions and thinking about my family members in the diaspora who are grieving this loss and feeling frustration and anger as well.

DL: I’m so sorry. I don’t have family in Gaza, but I have many friends there. A lot of WhatsApp messages with only one checkmark this past week. The idea of checking in on friends is so surreal because I also don’t want to be burdening folks under such horrific circumstances, to say nothing of electricity and internet issues. Is checking in more about reassuring myself than supporting them? And of course the fact that I have been to Gaza at all and have had the opportunity to befriend folks there is a privilege denied to most Palestinians. I just learned that my friend, mentor, and former boss, Raji Sourani, a human rights lawyer in Gaza—that his house was bombed, although, fortunately, he and his family are apparently uninjured. Raji’s spirit is indomitable: he always reminds us to “keep the strategic optimism.” In his last message to me before the bombing, he wrote, “We are the stones of the valley. In Gaza, as you know, we have a lot of red chilies and we’ve eaten a lot of them—this focuses our sumud [steadfastness].” I really hope to hear his voice again soon.

DS: I want to pose a metaphor for you because it’s been on my mind, and I can’t really think my way out of it. It’s that we are in an earthquake. What I mean is that everything that has happened since October 7 is this very chaotic and violent release of energy that has been building in a way that feels tectonic. The structural forces, the forms of colonization and imperialism, had been exerting pressure within a relatively stable set of relationships. That pressure was building and would have moments of friction, but without any major releases or big shifts.

It felt as though the Hamas attack was the beginning of an earthquake caused by that pressure exceeding a threshold. And everything that’s happened since has been a total mess of contingency, where things are crashing into each other; everything is open in terms of possibility. That’s the vertigo: the feeling of standing still while everything appears to be moving fast around us. And even though it is so important in this moment of crisis to keep sight of the structures that amassed all of this pressure, how could you? It’s an earthquake!

And I think that is why it’s difficult to make assessments about what’s happening, particularly moral assessments.

DL: Before we go to earthquakes, there is another force of nature metaphor that’s right in the name: the Deluge of al-Aqsa, Hamas’s name for the October 7 attack. What’s a deluge other than an unfathomable number of little drops that on their own seem tiny but when brought together can wash away so much, in ways so indiscriminate and unpredictable? Including very basic assumptions like, there is Israel, this “normal” country that just happens to be next to the very abnormal Gaza Strip, this isolated, besieged enclave, object of colonial violence, humanitarian pity, or both. Gaza is so exotic to most Israelis it might as well be the other side of the moon, but Palestinians there know all too well how close by their old villages are. These events shattered those psychological barriers and highlighted—in ways terrifying to many Israeli Jews—the proximity, the geographical contiguity that Zionism has worked so feverishly to deny.

As the Palestinian anthropologist Hadeel Assali reminds us, Gaza is a city in southern Palestine—the eponymous “Gaza Strip” is an amputated geography produced by the Nakba. Compounding this violent spatial language is this phrase the Israelis have that I detest, עוטף עזה, or the “Gaza Envelope,” which refers to the area surrounding the Gaza Strip. Here, instead, was a situation where it seemed like it was Gaza that was doing the enveloping, as fighters and civilians crossed what had until then been a one-way frontier and literally unsettled Zionism’s grip on the surrounding lands, however temporarily.

The other qualitative factor introduced by Hamas that everybody has to respond to—but which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is desperate to distract everyone from—is the captives. In any asymmetrical or colonial situation, exchanging captives creates a forced parity between the two sides, which the colonizer hates. All these slogans about refusing to negotiate with terrorists sound pretty hollow when suddenly the colonizer is not the only one holding people against their will. That’s why they’re dragged into talks kicking and screaming, and they want to drive as hard a bargain as possible before invariably cutting a deal (Israel has already ramped up arrests in the West Bank, likely with an eye to strengthening their hand in any future negotiations).

The sheer number and variety of the captives—soldiers and civilians, plus different nationalities—is unlike any other precedent I’m aware of in the struggle with Zionism. The captives’ families are organizing and have the potential to become a significant voice of dissent in Israel, not necessarily on political terms that you or I would embrace but in ways that could significantly complicate the dynamic. Netanyahu wants to proceed as if they are already dead. But it’s not clear if that position will be accepted by the Israeli public, especially as time drags on.

Back to your metaphor of the earthquake, however; it usefully recalls the idea of the aftershock. We’re all waiting for what comes. And the aftershocks sometimes are just as big as the earthquake; sometimes they seem big, but they fade out. But they keep us continuously on our toes. The other thing about the earthquake is that some structures are leveled, others survive, and others have their foundations busted up. And I think that is a reminder of how, on the one hand, you have this shocking and unprecedented world-changing event of October 7, and then you have structures that react in very predictable ways. You have the United States closing ranks around Israel, and elite culture in the United States descending into this bloodlust. Neither of these things are surprising.

But there’s a whiff of desperation there too, something that is not quite so sure-footed about the response. And you can see this in Biden’s rather pathetic speech from the Oval Office. Generally, U.S. presidents do that when the nation is about to go to war. Going on TV from the Oval Office to beg for billions of dollars for other countries’ wars, however, only shines a glaring spotlight on aspects of U.S. imperialism that largely depend on public indifference. It seems comical to me that Biden wants to draw more attention to his endless spending on militarism abroad while failing to address poverty, climate change, debt, and so on.

It feels like a possible death rattle of the system. Maybe that’s too optimistic, but there’s a way in which these structures have been shaken by the earthquake, and the little gnomes of empire are running around trying to patch them up here and there, trying to reassure each other and the powers that be that we still got this. And Biden’s madcap, seemingly improvisational dash to Israel, to cajole, to stand in solidarity, to possibly counsel restraint, although probably not—all of these moves are responses to Palestinian initiative.

As you said, the vertigo is real. There are escalations and counter-escalations all around. I think it’s fair to say that the level of repression in the United States on speaking out is near an all-time high. But at the same time, so is the level of pushback, and as you said, it’s a moment of openness: we don’t know where things will land.

DS: I want to follow up on what you’re saying about the way that the U.S. government in Israel is going through the motions as they try to navigate the wreckage of this earthquake. It’s clear that some of the old tactics are going to work and some of them aren’t. But navigating this paradigm shift that was caused by Palestinians puts these governments on the back foot for the first time in recent memory.

What’s interesting to me is how the Netanyahu regime in particular is still trying to respond with the tools of the old paradigm of: when Hamas fires a rocket, you hit them ten times over in order to restore deterrence. Because those barbarians forgot what we can do. Right? Especially since the Iron Dome, Israel been able to do this with pretty minimal casualties and minimal losses.

But now the sheer scale of what Hamas did makes that totally impossible. The normal tools are not going to be sufficient to reverse the weakness that the attack exposed. But it seems like this hasn’t really been internalized, and the Israeli and Euro-American reaction is to exact revenge in the old mode, which is to say, react with disproportionate force. This means engaging not in the typical quasi-war offensive, but total war in a way that is almost certainly going to cross major regional thresholds for the involvement of other actors. And it will also embroil Israel in a costly ground offensive—to do what exactly? It’s not even clear.

DL: Yes, Hamas has forced them into a strategic dilemma: Israel insists that there can be no return to the status quo, but they also rule out a full re-occupation of Gaza, which would be an admission that the past three decades of policy have failed. So while they are figuring out what to do, we see them defaulting to the same playbook—siege, bombing, and possibly a ground incursion—albeit on a larger and more devastating scale.

In terms of what a qualitatively different response may look like, we have to remember that for Zionism, ethnic cleansing (“transfer” is the preferred euphemism) is always at least at the back of the mind. They can try to put so much violent pressure on the population that they leave. Egypt is terrified of that. It may not be the immediate goal, but if there’s ever an opportunity, they’ll be sure to take it.

The other idea that’s been floated, including by an Israeli cabinet minister, is strangling the population of the Gaza Strip into an even smaller space. Which is insane because as everyone knows, Gaza is already one of the most densely populated places on earth. An extreme version of this would be enacting widespread destruction in the northern parts of the Gaza Strip and then blocking reconstruction in that area as a way to force rebuilding to happen in the south instead, in the less densely built areas where the Jewish settlements were before 2005. We have to recall that from the moment Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967, it has used urban planning as a weapon of demographic engineering: in the 1970s, they “thinned out” refugee camps by demolishing thousands of homes to make wider roads easier to patrol. In the early 2000s, I watched them raze entire neighborhoods along the Egyptian border to create a buffer zone. After the 2005 disengagement, they started doing house demolition by fighter plane instead—the carpet bombing of neighborhoods we are seeing now looks like a radically scaled-up version of that.

DS: I want to talk about the non-white, non-Palestinian perspective in this moment. I’ve joked that the past two weeks have pushed me into being a race reductionist. And of course I’m kidding, but there are things that are hard not to notice. I just saw a graphic the other day of the members of Congress calling for a cease-fire, and there was not a single white person.

But I’m also observing in my milieu that people of color are able to parse events as they happen and see what I take to be the clear lines clearly, and the fuzzy lines as fuzzy, while it seems like the white population of America is just freaking out. And that extends beyond the Jewish community.

This is at a time when—and this is something I’m observing in my professional capacity—the suppression of, and backlash to, political expression is very heavily targeted at people of color. And that is relative to what we normally see. We’re constantly dealing with suppression. And we see in general that Black public figures who stand with Palestine get a degree of vitriol and harassment that non-Black public figures are not getting. And Palestinians and people racialized as Muslims always get more heat than white people. But right now those phenomena are even more exaggerated.

I don’t really have anything insightful to say about it. I’m just observing it and how it’s impacting me as someone who does not hold a hyper-identitarian politics and is not interested in representation for its own sake. So I’m just asking myself, what the hell is going on right now?

Maybe it’s as simple as the anti-Palestinian racism being legible. I don’t know.

DL: Yeah, it’s so true. I think over the course of the past twenty years, there’s been a significant evolution. When I started out, there was a preoccupation among NGO types I knew in Palestine, but also the folks who were active in the United States, to win over “mainstream Americans.” And so a lot of the strategic conversation was basically oriented toward persuading white people.

Zionism has long been at the forefront of liberalism’s language of minoritized grievance.

While Palestinians, Arabs, and others racialized as Muslim are undeniably the primary objects of harassment and intimidation in this country when it comes to Palestine, I’d like to highlight the way other people of color keep showing up in the fights over spaces like academia, the arts, and the professions, and that is no accident. It’s no accident that Black students have been major targets of the Harvard doxxing truck and the rescinding of job officers by prominent law firms. It’s no accident that the only incumbents in Congress who AIPAC is trying to defeat are members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We should have no illusions about diversity in elite spaces leading to emancipatory outcomes—but compared to the older wall-to-wall Zionist consensus in elite institutions, this does represent a non-trivial shift that terrifies Zionists.

Ferguson was a key turning point for solidarity organizing. For all of its own limitations and contradictions, the Movement for Black Lives is a relatively robust social movement. And people like me, who came up working for Palestine in the context of NGOs and academia, don’t have a social base. So we’re much more vulnerable to backlash. When baby boomer Zionists tried to replicate their disciplining of the Civil Rights Movement, it actually backfired and amplified intergenerational schisms among Ashkenazim in the United States.

This younger generation of American Jews basically felt that their opportunity to get an ally cookie was being threatened, excuse my language, and more of them started to critically interrogate not only their whiteness in the United States but their Jewish privilege under Zionism. And I think that was a very important development that helped lay the groundwork for things that we’re seeing today, like white, middle-class Jewish kids going and getting arrested at the Capitol.

DS: I’d like to shift gears a bit to talk about something that’s been on my mind, which is the discursive work that universalism does in these kinds of colonial encounters. In particular, the Palestinian subject position necessarily requires explicating in one breath this whole historical lineage, while the Zionist subjectivity has an assumed universalism. This seems to me to be a way to think about how race is structuring this conflict. This is true of the macro-history—the Zionist can easily say “these evil barbarians, the children of darkness, want to kill us,” and the Palestinian must respond by telling a story that starts a hundred years ago—but also in something like what happened at al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital, where an entire micro-history of violence is elided and replaced with a single contestable fact. I’m feeling a lot of frustration around that, of having to explain the anguish and anger in a way that has this impossible scope and is so easily negated by the race advantage of the assumed universal position. There are versions of this everywhere, such as people saying, “Why would the Israelis turn on the water and electricity if Hamas is still holding hostages?” This is absurd but typical of the goldfish memory of the white subject position.

DL: The power of contextualization and decontextualization is so deeply woven into racism. Universalism is not just about claiming certain things to be universal, but it also entails the power to decide when something is universal and when something is particular. To illustrate with a concrete example: in American public life, white Jews can access their whiteness to discipline people of color, but they can also speak as a victimized minority when going after other white people. All the stuff that conservatives decry about identity politics, cancel culture, standpoint theory, victimhood narratives—Zionism has long been at the forefront of liberalism’s language of minoritized grievance.

This is also a part of what’s at play with the bloodlust that American liberals display when it comes to Palestine. Some of these liberals might be a little bit more hesitant or self-critical in thinking about U.S. violence in a way that they don’t have to be when it comes to Israel because of this notion of righteous victimhood. This cheerleading of other people’s violence is of course also a means of vicarious enjoyment.

DS: That’s a helpful formulation—how the particular and the universal can come together as a technology of racialization. The modern formula of Zionist discourse is to plug standpoint epistemology into a transhistorical conception of anti-Semitism in order to, as a matter of process, deny both Palestinian testimony and Palestinian history. That’s how Zionists are able to leverage European tropes, and refer to “two millennia of persecution,” in their attempts to smear Palestinians and those in solidarity with Palestinians.

What’s so difficult about this moment is that the selective or cynical deployment of dehistoricized pronouncements—what you call universalism as a process—can never really work as a stand-in for judging events as they happen. But that’s what the law is, and it’s what we have, at least in terms of vocabulary. Generally, most people on the left in the United States will treat the law with scrutiny: it’s the product of politics and of the powerful, and not an ethical framework. That’s all still true when it comes to the laws of nations and the laws of war, but we don’t have another mode of discourse. For the oppressed people of the world, those condemned by history, this is a real challenge. On October 9, I asked on X, “What is the ethical way to climb out of hell?” This wasn’t a rhetorical question. I really don’t know.