Racial Gaslighting and Palestinian Erasure

Andrea Sakleh
January 26, 2024

In a statement released on January 14th, 2024, the Biden administration condemned the October 7th, 2023 attacks by Hamas and marked the 100th day of Israeli captives being held in Gaza. Nowhere in the administration’s statement is the word Palestinian uttered once. Not once was there an acknowledgement of the 24,000+ Palestinians, many of whom were children, who have been killed by Israel’s genocidal bombardment of the Gaza Strip as of early January 2024. This intentional erasure of Palestinians is not a stand-alone event. It represents the top-to-bottom, systematic ideological thought process in the west regarding Palestinians: Pretend that the Palestinians do not exist and, if that does not work, label them as the enemy to validate any violence inflicted on them.

The erasure of the existence of Palestinians in the western conscious is not new. In his 1979 book The Question of Palestine, Edward Said lamented on the state of western thought when it comes to Palestinians. He says,

“It is a striking fact that merely to mention the Palestinian or Palestine in Israel, or to a convinced Zionist, is to name the unnamable, so powerfully does our pure existence serve to accuse Israel of what it did to us” (Said, 1979, xvi)
Image from a Pro-Palestinian protest in October 2023 courtesy of Aljazeera

Palestinians within DEI

According to Professor Evelyn Alsultany, the denial of Palestinian existence while still acknowledging them through the lens of violent perpetrators can be described as racial gaslighting. Racial gaslighting is a systematic denial of a group’s lived experiences and reality; therefore, leading to the “denial of the persistence and severity of racism” which they experience” (Alsultany, 2022, 115). In the same vain as Biden’s January 14th statement, the west has systematically excluded Palestinians as victims of violence and dehumanization. This has allowed for, in part, a rise in anti-Palestinian racism to manifest.  

Yet, racist acts against Palestinians (or Palestinian allies) have been systematically ignored. What has emerged, instead, is a neoliberal panic to appear inclusive by affirming that Islamophobia has no place in western institutions. Within a DEI context, Anti-Islamophobia was re-adapted as an organizational and governmental stance in response to the Trump administration’s 2017 Muslim ban policy. At the end of October 2023, agencies within the U.S. government as well as universities across the country released statements declaring their belief that Islamophobia has no place within their walls.  For example, on November 28, 2023, the US Department of Education hosted a listening session to discuss the rise of Islamophobia on college campuses.  

Nowhere in the invitation to the event was the word Palestine found. Although Islamophobia is on the rise, it is being used by those in power as a scapegoat to circumvent discussing the rise of anti-Palestinian racism. The panic by progressives to distance themselves from any, and all, of the Trump administration’s policies has led to a surge of neoliberal multiculturism thinking.

“Neoliberal multiculturalism’s approach to diversity involves including groups regardless of context or purposes of inclusion, using crises as opportunities to add or include a target group, turning crisis diversity into a lucrative endeavor” (Alsultany, 2022, 19).

While trying to find a solution to their “Palestinian problem,” U.S.-based institutions have used anti-Muslim hate as a way of appeasing their stakeholders and silencing any resistance from their working bodies. For example, on November 13th, 2023, the University of Michigan Vice President of Student Life and other top executives sent an email to SAFE (Students Allied for Freedom and Equality – a Palestinian focused group) members stating that they are concerned about the increasing instances of “islamophobia, antisemitism, and other harmful acts occurring on or near the U-M campus and across the United States.” Just like the US Department of Education invitation, the email never once mentioned Palestinians. For many of these institutions, their inclusion of the Muslim population can only be seen as reinforcement of the orientalist idea that all Arabs are Muslim, and all Muslims are Arab.

To be clear, these institutions do not primarily care about their Muslim populations.

Just as we’ve seen in the Biden Administration’s statement, western institutions ultimately eliminate any acknowledgement of the Palestinian people. With the current genocide taking place in Gaza, this is no mere accident. Universities have specifically refused to refer directly to their Palestinian communities while simultaneously shutting down student organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine-- an act which can only be seen as a form of racial gaslighting (Abu-Laban & Bakan 2022, Alsultany 2022). Not only are institutions ignoring the violence against the Palestinians in their communities, but they are adhering to a classic Zionist tactic of refusing to use the word “Palestine” to push the idea that “Palestine” and the “Palestinian people” never existed.  

Palestinians, to these western institutions, only exist when they are viewed as the violent perpetrators. This way of thinking has led to more violent crimes being committed against Palestinians and their allies, not because they are Muslim, but because they are, or support, Palestinians.  

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