A is my friend. He is a Burmese expatriate from Myanmar living in Europe. He is an academic, an educated and friendly person, and a veteran human rights activist. As a journalist who writes, among other things, about countries where acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing and human rights violations take place, I consult with various experts. A is one of them. This is the letter I sent him last week.
Hello, A. I am writing in response to your letter regarding the “colonial character and genocidal policy of Israel.” As you can imagine, I am quite busy these days, and as someone who is far away from his family in Israel, I am distracted. I am responding to you despite all this, mainly because your words opened with a reference to Auschwitz, a place where many of my family members were murdered about 80 years ago.
According to you, Israel is using the Holocaust as a “blank check” to justify the imprisonment, bombing and starvation of 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, almost half of whom are children. "In these circumstances, 'never again' is a hollow phrase," you write. “It becomes a call for uncontrolled violence, battle cries and a campaign of revenge and extermination." In the past and under different circumstances, I must admit that I might have agreed with you.
A, you must remember that we got to know each other after several occasions when you very generously shared with me your expertise, knowledge and experience regarding Myanmar. When I first contacted you, I wrote that as a journalist working in a free country, I felt obliged to tell the story of the victims of atrocities there – amongst others, the Rohingya people other minorities who have been suffering from genocidal policies for years since the military coup in 2021.
Since I am not an expert myself, I reached out to you, just as I reached out to many other experts, witnesses and human rights activists who could shed light on other places I wrote about, such as China, Ethiopia, Syria, Iran, Mexico, Belarus and Iraq.
This is an important point. As you know, there are complicated conflicts in many of these places about which there are different opinions. Still, my feeling was that we shared a real commitment to expose and fight certain types of acts which cannot be excused under any circumstances, regardless of the different narratives that explain the conflict. I mean the kind of actions that cannot be permitted even if there is no agreement on the history of the conflict or even on the identity of those responsible for it.
These actions include those that took place in Rakhine province in Myanmar, which I wrote about with your kind help. The barbaric murder, torture and rape of innocents that happened in your country is inexcusable. Political, ethnic, religious or demographic claims simply cannot justify throwing babies into fire, torturing children to death in front of their parents, and the mass rape of women before their execution. I thought we agreed on that.
This week, I received a long email from you, Dr. A. Extremely long. Long enough to clarify your words or even to add something along the lines of: "despite all this, of course I condemn [Hamas’ actions],” or even "despite the absolute truth of the Palestinian claims and genocidal policy of Israel, I do not justify killing civilians."
But there was none of that. Somehow, your post references 100 years of conflict prior to October 7 (including explanations using maps, cartoons, pictures, and quotes). And there is a reference to the days after October 7.
But the day itself, when over a thousand people, most of them civilians, were brutally murdered and over 200 people, again most of them civilians, were kidnapped, was completely absent. And it's strange given the fact that, as I recall, we share an interest in cases of throwing babies into fire, torturing children to death in front of their parents, and the mass rape of women before their execution. Yes, to make the point clear to a person from your background, for one historical moment, Israel's Gaza envelope region became Myanmar's Rakhine.
A, since I received your message, I have been trying to understand why you do not recognize October 7th. I understand your opinion about the essence of Zionism and the essence of Israel. I don't agree with it, but I understand your point. Still, there's that little matter of “under all circumstances.” Perhaps there is a certain type of fascist, fundamentalist, racist, and violent organization that, against your usual leftist positions, you actually do support.
But if so, what are the criteria? Is it because they are jihadists? Is it a matter of religion? Or that according to the accepted code of the post-colonialist discourse, the "natives" have certain Jew-killing privileges because of the many years of oppression they have endured? Oppression, which, as you know, I have never denied.
And maybe you are one of those who do not believe the photos, the direct testimonies of survivors, the explicit confessions of the attackers and the unwatchable and undeniable videos. Do all these not meet your strict standards? Strange, because we never applied such strict standards when I wrote about Myanmar.
Do you think it's all a conspiracy of Western governments spreading fake news? Is it all the settlers’ lies, supported by American imperialists? Are you really not affected by the testimonies of Israeli women, children and elders, many of whom, by the way, are peace activists who built their homes in socialist communes that are not in any way located in the West Bank or in any way disputed. Unless the very existence of Israel is disputed, a position I assume you hold since you treat Israel as a settler and colonialist entity.
And maybe I didn't understand what you meant. In this case, perhaps in the future, we can discuss the true nature of Israel. As you know from our previous correspondence, I never supported Netanyahu, I have always believed in compromise with the Palestinians and I am absolutely against any kind of war crime, including against civilians in Gaza. You also know that I am a social democrat and a person who is aware of the climate crisis and the hardships of the "global south.” But wait, here I am, once again falling into this trap. If I were not all of these things, if I were a Netanyahu supporter or a settler in the West Bank, would my massacre and that of my family members be justified?
Again, there's that "under all circumstances" nuisance. Even if the Jews were like the French in Algiers, and they are not, deliberate murder of innocents is always evil and mass murder is absolute evil. Among us Jews, even complete secularists like me sometimes recite from the ancient texts: “I have set before you today the heavens and the earth, life and death; I have set before you the blessing and the curse. Choose life, for your lives and for your descendants,” as it is written in the book that you call the Old Testament. Do you understand A? You chose life – without “buts” and without “maybes.” This is why I always opposed my own people murdering other innocent people. And you know what, I'm angry at myself for not resisting enough.
And so for the record, I want to mention that I believe that Jews, not just Palestinians, also have rights in the place where I was born. They have personal, social and national rights and they also have responsibilities that are well described in the Declaration of Independence of their country, our country, which was founded 75 years ago. You don't acknowledge that, which is probably the real reason you didn't mention October 7th in your message. If "Palestine will be free from the river to the sea," as they are now shouting in the streets near my house in Europe, the events of October 7th are probably not an accident in your eyes. They are the first step in the plan.
"Free from the river to the sea” means without the people who are living there now. This is not the two-state solution, nor a partition plan, nor a federation. I think with your education, you know exactly what it means. But in case it's not clear enough, I'll say it explicitly: Hamas is the genocidal wing of the Palestinian national movement, and it turns out that it has quite a few supporters. My friends say that such views stem from antisemitism, but I don't know what is hidden in a person's heart. How much darkness, how much hatred.
I also don't know what is hidden in your heart. But I know that October 7th was not another attack, another battle, another chapter in the bloody history of the Middle East. It cannot be solved with sentences like "I cannot be expected to condemn every action taken by the weak and oppressed.” This is a tectonic and world-changing event, carried out by thousands of people supported by hundreds of thousands of people, as well as by movements, states and regimes. Not condemning it is supporting it. And the results are inevitable. Because of the horror that these people have inflicted on the world, an even darker night is to come before we will see the light.
And so, as a wise man wrote during the World War II, you and I now stand on two sides. "My opinion is clear about your motives,” he wrote, “and you would do well to speculate on my motives.” And he added: "I have one more thing left to say to you, and let it be the last. I want to tell you how in the past we were so similar and today we are enemies. How could I have stood by your side, and and why everything between us is over now.”
And that's the thing. In Xinjiang and Syria, in Tigray and Iran, in Myanmar and Israel, acts like those committed by Hamas are not only the absolute lowest of what the human race is capable of. They also redefine the lines. If they do not fill a person's heart with unconditional anger and disgust, they place him outside the legitimate discussion of civilized people. If you can only find room in your heart for the pain of one side, that's your problem. But with your permission, I think I'll find myself a different expert on Myanmar.
Before I finish, I will ask just one last thing. Do me a favor – next time, please refrain from referring to Auschwitz. Not because I have a monopoly on the memory of the Holocaust or the memory of the victims. But because when it comes to the 1940s, those people on whose behalf you are currently campaigning, they tend to be something different than you imagine. When you remove the appearances of European leftist movements, those people tend to be supporters of the side that built Auschwitz, not of those led there to their deaths.
David Stavrou is an Israeli journalist living in Sweden.