Dangers of Dehumanizing Rhetoric and Its Impact on the Palestinian People

While the watermelon has been adopted to support Gazans, dehumanizing narratives continue to be used as a strategy to rally support against Palestine. Credit:  Yahel Gazit—Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images


The devastating events unfolding in Gaza is believed to have occurred in retaliation to the Hamas attack on 7th October which was reported to have taken 1400 lives, and some 200 hostages, most of whom have yet to be returned. There is no denying that civilian deaths are never something to celebrate or justify.

However, Prof. Ilan Pappe, a famed historian of Israeli nationality and former member of the Israeli military, implores upon people to consider the source of violence. He explains that the Israeli government is using the Hamas operation as a pretense for committing genocide against Gazans. Pappe elaborates the importance of understanding the context and history of current events before the 7th of October by remembering Israel’s many violations of international law such as the siege placed upon Gaza and the denial of their basic rights, the decades long ruthless occupation in the West Bank, and by Israel’s constant dehumanization of Palestinians in general.

Breeding Violence via Dehumanizing Narratives

Israeli leaders and officers, as well as Zionist supporters, have repeatedly dehumanized Palestinians by referring to them as “human animals,” “children of darkness,” peace-loving vs. inherently violent, Western civilization vs. Muslim barbarism, and many more problematic terms coupled with graphic imagery with reference to vermin (such as the caricature of an IDF soldier crushing a Palestinian human cockroach under his/her military boot). Dr. David Livingstone Smith has also observed the dangerous dehumanizing language used by the Prime Minister of Israel and others within his top administration that paint the “other” (i.e. Gazans and Palestinians) to appear as “bloodthirsty monsters.” Smith condemns the atrocities committed by Hamas, yet he could not deny the dangerous rhetoric employed by the Israeli regime is indicative of “pre-genocidal” actions which is reflected in the horrors unleashed on Gaza today.

Unfortunately, the practice of dehumanizing rhetoric is not new. Nazi propaganda has been well documented to portray Jews and other “inferior” races such as the Gypsies, Jews, Poles, Roma, and Sinti as dirty, bestial, lazy, and a threat to the economic, moral, and civilizational development of the elite Aryan race. Fast forward to 2023 and the tables have turned. It is ironic that descendants of Holocaust survivors are mirroring the rhetoric that the Nazis employed to depict Jews and those of the “inferior” race as “untermensch” or “sub-human.”

Such expressions of hatred are often prelude to horrific ethnic cleansing as seen during World War II, the Srebrenica massacre, and genocide in Rwanda. This is generally done by amplifying one’s fears towards those deemed as others and causing them to act on it. Unfortunately, fear transcends geography. This is evident from the murder of a 6-year-old boy in Plainfield, Illinois, approximately 9981 kilometers away from Israel. The brutality meted out in this murder was indicative of the perpetrator’s deep hatred towards the victim. It was claimed that the perpetrator was heavily influenced by the conservative media’s narratives on the situation in Israel-Gaza and believed that the victims (who were of Palestinian descent) would eventually harm him. Such violence is not the first time Islamophobia has manifested and costing the lives of innocent Muslims around the world.

However wrong these actions are, it does now allow for some pro-Palestine supporters to engage in antisemitic rhetoric, vandalism, or violence. Not only is there an increasing trend of antisemitic comments online but there is also heightening violence to Jewish communities outside of Israel. It is never justified to dismiss an entire group of people based on their ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality because of the acts of their government or extreme members within their community. A case in point is the involvement of Jewish communities calling for a ceasefire such as that organized by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). JVP’s recent “sit-in” in New York saw the arrests of approximately 200 its Jewish protestors and their allies. This is why Prof. Avi Shlaim (Israeli and British historian of Iraqi Jewish descent) made an important distinction between antisemitism (which is wrong), and criticism on the official ideology of Zionism and the Israeli government—particularly policies related to Palestinians and the occupation of Palestinian territories (which is legitimate).

Importantly, this demonstrates how dehumanizing narratives breed violence not only towards a targeted group but also a blowback to the initiating group. Here, we are faced with two important questions: 1) why is dehumanization as a strategy important? And 2) how should we act in the face of such dangerous narratives?

Effectiveness of Dehumanization

Historically, dehumanization has been an effective strategy to mobilize the masses against a perceived enemy.  Dehumanization is particularly insidious as it subverts moral arguments against the perpetrator by justifying the intervention, subjugation, oppression and even extermination of groups deemed to be “barbarians” or “terrorists” that threaten peace-loving, civilized nations. For example, past European colonizers categorized the native populations as savages in need of salvation—where they saw fit to forcefully remove children from their “uncivilized” communities, implemented cultural assimilation policies such as residential schools, and other initiatives to eradicate the offensive existence of indigenous populations.

In short, dehumanization is effective as it: 1) denigrates the morality and humanity of the perceived enemy; 2) rouses extreme and negative nationalism; and 3) justifies intervention, and 4) legitimizes violence.

Collectively, these explain the justification of acts of violence against Gazans specifically and Palestinians in general—whereby news of their extermination are met with celebrations in the streets and disgraceful TikTok videos mocking Palestinian suffering. The intentional, systematic dehumanization of Palestinians has justified the destruction that has followed as part of “self-defense.” Yet bombings of key infrastructure and facilities such as communication networks and hospitals, schools and places of worship, residential areas and refugee camps has only caused mass casualties and displacement of Palestinians with no avenue for their return—all of which Hamas has managed to evade within the besieged Gaza.

Rationality must Persist

Thus, in pursuit of what is right (i.e. justice), can one inadvertently commit a wrong and perpetuate negative stereotypes and hate speech? An example would be to blanketly condemn Jews and hold them all responsible for the gross violations of international law by Zionists leaders. Such actions would not only further harm innocents but also delegitimize the pursuit of justice.  

Empathy must also be extended domestically including vulnerable communities in our own countries. In Malaysia, while many have stood up passionately against the injustice done towards Palestinians in Gaza, there is continued resistance against the possibility of offering minimal, basic rights and protections to refugees already in Malaysia, including Palestinians. One crucial factor for this is anxiety with regards to the “other” i.e. migrants and refugees. The “other” is often perceived as a safety and security threat to Malaysians; further amplified via stereotypical media narratives that emphasizes on their “illegal” status. Concerningly, such “us” and “others” worldview may unintendedly lead to the use of dehumanization of the “others.” This demonstrates the importance of adab. Leaning on the words of Prof. Syed Muhammad Naquib Al Attas, adab is reflected through right action which is a result of self-discipline founded upon knowledge. Only when these conditions are present can we hope to gain the wisdom needed to pursue justice for all while mitigating dehumanization.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Dr Murni Wan Mohd Nor is a senior lecturer at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and a research associate at the Institute for Social Science (IPSAS, UPM). Her research interests are on issues of hate speech, Islamophobia, and media representation on racial and religious issues. She is passionate about preventing hate speech and extremism through a holistic framework involving a multi-stakeholder approach. Dr Murni is also active in training and advocacy programs on anti-racism education. Her children's book entitled "When Love Heals Hate" highlights that hatred CAN be overcome through kindness and compassion.