To Western friends silent on Gaza genocide: We need to talk

To Western friends silent on Gaza genocide: We need to talk
Gaza has become a taboo subject in the West, with supporters of Palestine either ghosted or forced to lose friends over their stance, writes Layla Maghribi.
12 min read
13 May, 2024
When it comes to Palestine, many in the West are unable or unwilling to confront their own power and privilege, writes Layla Maghribi [photo credit: Lucie Wimetz/TNA/Getty Images]

Almost everyone I know has lost, or reassessed, at least one friendship since October 2023, including me. Whether distant or close, from school or the office, our relationships with others have been tried, tested and in some cases burned like the skin of countless children we have seen injured in Gaza.  

Like almost every Arab in the world, I have been watching the unceasing bombardment of Gaza closely and have been impacted deeply. Those of us in the diaspora might be far removed from the physicality of bombardment, but having been assaulted with a barrage of unimaginably horrific images, it has felt like we are living in a simulation of war. 

Our ancestral, cultural and linguistic connection to the Arab world makes this attack on Palestinians feel like an attack on all of us, especially given that they are targeted by Israel because of their ethnicity.

As a British Arab, the hostile responses from the UK government towards pro-ceasefire marches and its unwillingness to call for an end to Israel’s bombing, even after more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, have made me feel that my life is valued far less than Western victims, such as those in Ukraine

Our mental and emotional threads are frayed and our need for compassion, safety and understanding are at their most acute. And yet, despite the overwhelming need for them, friendships have become yet another casualty of this unending bloodshed. 

"The inability of our Western friends to show up for us at a time of serious peril and pain has forced a rethinking of the dynamics underpinning the relationship in the first place: were we always just the token and exotic friends? Did they ever really love or understand us at all?"

Since the bombardment of Gaza began in October, many Arabs and Palestinians have felt a visceral need to feel safe, seen and protected by their mates and fellows. 

In the West, where the political atmosphere is notably hostile to Arabs and Muslims, our fears have magnetised us towards our “tribe”, the social groups that look and sound like us and where we know compassion and understanding exist. It has also felt necessary because our relationships with Western friends, partners and colleagues have become increasingly distant, if not a little fractured. 

“I have lost so many friends to both-sideism and a pro-genocide stance,” posted the award-winning Palestinian-American novelist, Susan Muaddi Darraj, on X, echoing the pervasive relational impact of the horrors unfolding in Gaza. 

Every person I have spoken with who supports Palestinians has said they’ve had to re-evaluate, if not sever, ties with people they once loved and respected because of their position — including the lack thereof — on Palestine.

For those of us immersed in the horrific imagery coming out of Gaza, of children’s body parts collected in plastic bags, of old ladies shot dead by a sniper crossing the road, of burned flesh and exposed organs, the lack of outreach from some friends to check in on whether we are okay or not has worsened the heartache we are experiencing.

Regardless of their political position, who they blame and what they think a future resolution might look like, the fact that some loved ones know we are in pain and yet have chosen to turn away from us has been as devastating. 

Between tokenism and whitewashing

Fundamentally, it is a questioning of common values that is shredding these bonds.

The absence of public solidarity against the industrial-scale killing of civilians — half of whom are children — of any group of people is painfully disconcerting, let alone an ethnic group that you belong to.

Can I really be friends with someone who is silent in the face of such human suffering? Can I genuinely respect someone who, seven months into a bloodbath, posts about holidays and restaurants instead of the 19,000 new Palestinian orphans that have been created? 

The silence of Western friends, their apathy and disconnection to us and to our pain, is revealing and uncomfortable. Is there a latent racism that has bubbled up to the surface? Has their personal comfort and fear of disrupting the exploitative imbalance of power in the world overridden the desire for the common good and humanity? Are they worried that speaking up would upend a system they are privileged by? So many uncomfortable questions are being asked and in the echoing silence, I am trying to find answers. 

A few months ago, Syrian Lebanese psychotherapist, Micheline Maalouf, made a video that went viral on Instagram that perfectly encapsulates the hurt we have felt when Western friends who gregariously enjoyed our company in the past have now abandoned us in our darkest hour of need. 

“Having an Arab or POC friend comes with responsibilities. You don’t get to enjoy the parts of us that we have whitewashed for you if you don’t accept our heritage and our struggle,” said Maalouf in her video. 

The inability of our Western friends to show up for us at a time of serious peril and pain has forced a rethinking of the dynamics underpinning the relationship in the first place: were we always just the token and exotic friends? Did they ever really love or understand us at all? 

One of my closest and longest-standing friends, who is, to my knowledge, neither Zionist nor anti-Palestinian has not reached out with a caring message (or phone call) in many months, even after I explicitly asked for it.

Without discussion or argument, we went from speaking multiple times a week about any and everything to radio silence. She still watches my Instagram stories though and within that passive voyeurism, I get a sense of what it must feel like to be a Gazan crying out into the world right now. Can you hear me? Do you see me? Is my pain important? 

“How do you deal with the ghostiness?” a Palestinian friend DMed me after I shared Micheline Maalouf’s video on Instagram in agreement with a comment about how I felt ignored by some friends during this time. 

“I want to assume good faith and think that maybe they got sick, or had a loss in the family or some other urgent matter, but when it goes on for months and they don’t even send a WhatsApp, I find it hard to give them excuses.” 

I told her that I hadn’t dealt with it but that writing about it was my way of trying to.

"Non-Arabs have an important role to play for their Arab and Palestinian friends, if they want one. Providing emotional support and a place for mental unburdening are equally valuable offerings that would help those of us watching the bloody frontline in Gaza"

How Gaza became taboo

Many of us have begrudgingly accepted that for some people, public displays of support, whether on social media or at protests, are problematic because they risk the funding, employment or institutional support their livelihoods depend on. But this acceptance sticks in the throat because it reinforces the divisions among us: there are those who can float above the consequences of inhumanity and there are those who will risk everything to try and save what is left of it. 

But even if we give some grace for people’s limited public interaction on the harrowing reality in Gaza, it doesn’t absolve our friends from caring and interacting privately.

Non-Arabs have an important role to play for their Arab and Palestinian friends if they want one. Providing emotional support and a place for mental unburdening are equally valuable offerings that would help those of us watching the bloody frontline in Gaza. For what is friendship if it isn’t witnessing, caring for and helping heal our pain when we are enduring it? 

The ethnic cleansing of a people that began 76 years ago when my father, along with hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, was kicked out of Palestine in the Nakba is a pain that supersedes all the former heartaches, job losses, house moves and physical pains my friends have historically been there for, and yet some of them now appear unable or unwilling to be there for me. 

I’m not sure I know why but I can speculate on some possibilities. The question of Palestine is kryptonite for anyone who strongly avoids conflict and confrontation because discussions on the topic almost always elicit passionate responses from all sides. Anyone trying to avoid being burnished in the heat of the argument will either run away or at best try to find the “middle ground”; but a “plausible genocide” committed by an occupying army does not forgive balance. With every missile dropped on the beaches of Gaza, lines are drawn in the sand delineating who stands with the victims and who stands with their killers. 

So does that mean our friends are for the murder of Palestinians? Possibly, although I have not personally interacted with anyone who has obviously held that view but I know plenty of others who have. Zionists and those singularly supporting Israel’s right to exist as an exclusively Jewish state without regard or concern for Palestinians deploy many tools to justify their occupation and violence, including discrediting reality and dehumanising the victims. 

Perhaps ending relationships with people whose beliefs or actions are clearly misaligned with your values isn’t too difficult, even if it is disappointing. Some things really are black and white, and not calling for a ceasefire after more than 100,000 Palestinians have either died, been seriously injured or are missing feels justifiably binary.

But there’s another cohort — our more benign, humane and possibly even pro-Palestinian friends — that have left us scratching our heads in bemusement. Why have they gone so mute and distant at a time when every voice and every act of kindness feels more necessary than ever? 

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I put this question to a group of mixed Westerners, among them Jews, all of whom have lived and worked in the Middle East, in a bid to gain insight into the likely psychological barriers to meaningful communication with their Palestine advocate friends.

Their answers — ranging from a fear of saying the wrong thing to the dislike of aggressive messaging on social media and the discomforting guilt felt around Western complicity — all suggested a deep aversion to confronting systemic imbalances of power and privilege, especially when it comes to Palestine. 

After months of silent stewing, I finally confronted my friend and asked her the same question: where have you been? Her response mirrored those above and despite declaring her enduring love for me and desire to maintain our friendship, it was clear that fear and self-protection had driven her to distance herself from me.

There remains a lot for us still to discuss, and we may never fully get past what in my aching heart felt like a betrayal, but at least the dam of silence is broken and I have a better understanding of her mindset from which we might, with a lot of work, be able to repair the damage. 

Within Western society, there remains an unwillingness to confront complex psycho-emotional issues, especially when they relate to race and politics. But for those of us on the receiving end of the consequences, we don’t have that luxury — and it is a luxury.

Nobody really wants to accept let alone address the fact that some lives are deemed worthier than others and that the politics of a place where you live and/or are a citizen of are often in direct conflict with the people and places you have an ancestral, emotional and somatic attachment to and affinity with.

However, as a British Arab with roots in Palestine, my reality has always been shaped by these issues and unless I want to deeply suppress them, my feelings — the good, the bad and the ugly — are inextricably a part of me and deserve the space to be seen and heard. 

It is fear, however, that has left far too much unseen and unheard for too long. Worrying about “not saying the right thing” or about “how they will react” or that “whatever I say won’t make a difference” are understandable concerns but to act on those fears by burying your head or turning your back does nothing to alleviate the pain and suffering of people you care about. It simply pushes friends towards a group that is emotionally safe but which also carries the risk of greater isolation and of “us and them” tribalism. We would actually do well to have those people more meaningfully engaged with our plight precisely because they don’t have direct skin in the game but have a vested interest, as humans, in peace, nonetheless.   

A guide to allyship

Yet ironically, as I scan the debris of fractured friendships and dwell on what’s been lost, I am equally buoyed by the surprising development of new friendships with Jews who share the same humanistic and political values that I do, many of whom also proudly give their name and effort to advocate for Palestinians.  

Once you see past the reductive “Muslims versus Jews'' narratives on Palestine, these new relationships are far less surprising than may first seem. After all, Arabs (of all faiths) and Jews connect over a shared grief and trauma over the Holy Land and know all too well that there is no escape from that complex pain.

The similarity of our experiences, whether Arabs or Jews, of persecution, othering, demonisation and violence (even if they differ in time and place) bring to the fore the ordinarily buried social and racial undercurrents of this conflict. Because we are acutely aware of racialised supremacy we are more willing or able to confront it in the same way it so often confronts us. Perhaps that is why, if our politics on Palestine align, I have found myself in recent months having more emotionally mature and fearlessly candid conversations with new Jewish friends than with long-standing Western friends. 

My takeaway from all the conversations I refer to above is that communication, however thorny a topic or uncomfortably charged as it might be is far better than none because only distance and distrust grow in the silent leftover. If that isn’t the desired outcome then I think we need to temper the natural flight response to unpleasant situations and lean into the discomfort instead.

Ask friends how they are, how they are feeling, and how you can help. Find the courage to step out of the shadows and maintain your humanity and morality, even if your political opinions differ from those you are speaking to. Find or create safe spaces to have emotional conversations instead of shutting them down.

Look your friend or colleague in the eye and tell them that you might not understand it all but you understand that they are in pain. Most of us are quite helpless in the face of the powerful lobby groups, military-industrial complexes and neo-imperialist economics that underpin Israel's occupation of Palestine, so we really are mostly left with the support and care of each other. 

Layla Maghribi is a British Arab writer and podcaster. She is the host of Third Culture Therapy, a podcast that explores mental well-being from a cultural perspective, and is writing her first nonfiction book. 

Follow her on X: @layla_maghribi

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.