• “Do Palestinian Lives Have the Same Value to Us?” Ramsey Nasr on Gaza, Migrant Drownings, and the Right to Dignity

    “Children in Gaza write their names on their bodies so that when they get killed they can be identified.”

    In November 2023, actor, author, and former poet laureate of the Netherlands Ramsey Nasr wrote an op-ed on dignity in one of the leading Dutch newspapers. Nasr, whose heartfelt plea for the Palestinian people on a Dutch talkshow went viral globally in October, is of mixed Dutch-Palestinian descent and currently working on a collection of essays about Palestine. That op-ed, translated by David Colmer, is reproduced below.


    One morning in mid-June, I read a newspaper report during breakfast about a ship packed full of migrants that had capsized in the Mediterranean. Almost everyone on board had drowned and estimates of the death toll were as high as 750, among them large numbers of women and children.

    The article appeared under the headword “Migration,” as if it were the latest installment of an ongoing dossier. The headline read, “Hundreds dead, almost no reaction: Europe desensitized.”

    I read the article, took another sip of my tea and realized, this is what it’s about. I didn’t yet know which form it would take, but here, in the discrepancy between the magnitude of human suffering and the magnitude of human indifference, lay a key to our times.

    I want to talk about dignity.

    Dignity has long been one of the basic concepts of philosophy and, more specifically, ethics, frequently mentioned during legal and moral discussions of things like human rights. But what does it actually mean?

    For the ancient Greeks and Romans, dignitas was related to wealth and aristocratic origins. It was a particular demeanor expected from the members of an elevated political class.

    Later, dignitas took on a more internalized form. The Stoics came to consider this attitude the chief ingredient of their philosophy of life. Stoicism focuses on qualities we can consider derivatives of dignity: self-discipline, generosity, decorum, genuine acceptance. In short, calm among the furious waves.

    Thanks to Stoicism, the concept became something personal, something one could aspire to.

    Under the influence of Christianity, it went on to become institutionalized, available to all. Dignity was now a superior kind of peanut butter spread over all humanity. It had become something universal, the core of what makes us human; dignity as an inalienable part of human fate that connects us all.

    I respect the inhabitants of Gaza more than I respect any philosophers.

    That’s the theory. The practice proves otherwise. Dignity is not universal; we grant it to those we choose. It is not inalienable; I can no longer blindly believe that. I’ve seen too many people lose their dignity or cast it aside like a glove that’s too tight. What’s more, I think it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for those who have lost their dignity to regain it.

    In essence we’re talking about not one but two concepts. It is important to make a distinction between the dignity of others and one’s own dignity, the dignity of object and subject. For instance, a person in great distress might be ignored or humiliated. Their dignity might at risk. Another person might be ignoring or humiliating them. This person too can lose something important, something essential.

    Dignity is the seismograph of our humanity and far from abstract.

    Back to June 2023. I read the newspaper article. The headline was followed by a short introduction:

    “No great public consternation, no emergency meetings of politicians. Has Europe got used to drowned migrants?”

    I ask myself, is that something you can get used to? From psychology we know that people who are systematically abused, severely humiliated or maltreated find ways to cope without losing their mind or their life: temporarily disassociating from the horror they’re undergoing so it feels like it’s happening to someone else.

    But what if it really is someone else? What if we’re talking about you and me, the readers and viewers, the bystanders, the politicians, those responsible? We see images of a stranger, we see a sea full of strangers while sitting in our living room with a cup of tea. It could also be in the Lower House or the Prime Minister’s office.

    Do those of us who have the possibility of getting used to it also have a right to do so?

    When I see old photos of liberated prisoners at Buchenwald, totally emaciated, or the photo of that naked, badly burnt Vietnamese girl running towards the photographer, I never get used to them.

    What if the disasters being described, the horrors being shown, are happening as we speak? While you read, families are drowning.

    I can sometimes think “not right now,” but that’s looking away. It’s a temporary physical escape—because you never get used to the picture. I find that normal and human. Everyone has a right to a short holiday from their conscience. Especially when it’s something you can no longer do anything about. Whether you put it out of sight or not—it’s already happened. You can’t save the girl from the napalm, you can’t undo the concentration camps.

    But what if the disasters being described, the horrors being shown, are happening as we speak? While you read, families are drowning. Can you keep sending your conscience on holiday when the two things are happening simultaneously? Of course, looking away can be an expression of impotence, of desperation. “What on Earth should we do?”

    Politicians, on the other hand, have power. They have the means to intervene, to actually do something. That makes it all the more remarkable that our political discussions so rarely mention individuals, persons, humans. A minister is responsible for “a dossier”—migration, for instance. In itself, that’s a necessity: just as an ordinary citizen would go mad if every gruesome news item or incident forced its way into their living room, it would be too much for a minister, policy advisor, or responsible official to know and deal with all these separate cases. But it becomes a problem when all the people disappear out of consideration and only dossiers are left.

    When the boat turned over in June, neither Dutch Prime Minister Rutte nor his minister for migration Van der Burg mentioned the many hundreds of dead. When asked, Van der Burg’s spokesperson did speak up. “Super tragic,” he said. “But what can you achieve with a Tweet?”

    Not so very much, especially if your policy doesn’t amount to much either, and definitely if you continue to deny the larger problem, talking about fortune seekers rather than refugees, and not preparing for the reality that this refugee crisis will never be solved by individual countries washing their hands of it. Immediately after the disaster, EU politicians and national leaders began mumbling and jostling, trying to pass the blame and responsibility.

    Nobody seemed to stop to think about the most fundamental aspect of 750 drowned civilians: their dignity. Over their heads we battled out our own impotence or indifference.

    Because how did that ship actually capsize? Seeing as most countries are in no hurry to accept migrant ships, especially not when they’re packed with people, the local coastguard often ties a rope to them to tow them back to international waters, where there’s no legal obligation to admit them and they can be left to drift. In this case, the Greek coastguard had attached the rope to the side of the overloaded, overcrowded ship. As a result it immediately began to veer from left to right and the ship capsized.

    Super tragic. Super metaphorical.

    Before the disaster in June, the toll of dead and missing for 2023 had already reached one thousand. That makes the Mediterranean the most fatal sea imaginable. Since 2014, more than twenty thousand dead and missing have been registered. If refugees do make it to the mainland, there is a good chance that they will be left naked, beaten, robbed, raped, or murdered, especially in countries like Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia. The situation in Libya is not much better.

    According to the UN, the EU is contributing, through all this, to crimes against humanity.

    This brings us to that other refugee crisis, the one which has been staring us in the face for more than 75 years: the fate of the Palestinians. What can we say today about human dignity in Gaza? All of the Israeli and European dead, all of the hostages from the bloody Hamas attack, have now been named. Their friends and family members have been heard on TV or in the newspapers. Their lives, dreams, ideals are familiar to us, forever. And rightly so, I think.

    But do Palestinian lives have the same value to us? Do we also know the names of their dead babies, their humiliated grandparents and murdered children? Do we know their individual dreams, friends, school reports?

    In the past few weeks I have heard all kinds of Israeli politicians, ambassadors, and military leaders plead for the destruction of the Palestinian people.

    Palestinian lives are generally referred to by numbers: 48 dead, 1,200 wounded. Not names but numbers. Something like 750 dead migrants.

    This is an indication of how we distribute our compassion and to what degree we recognize the other’s dignity. Because, just like Israelis, Palestinians too are burnt alive and Palestinian villages have known pogroms—carried out by Israelis. Palestinian children are tortured and imprisoned for years without charges or succor.

    This has been happening, generation upon generation, for more than 75 years. And maybe that has made us immune. To us they’re not people, they’re accumulated suffering: “Won’t it ever stop?”

    But to me, they’re family. And I too think, “Won’t it ever stop?”, but when I do I’m thinking about Western governments’ blind support for an apartheid system and ethnic cleansing. Israeli human rights organizations call their own government racist, even fascist. Even before the Hamas attack, Knesset members, ministers, and rabbis were openly making suggestions that flirted with genocide.

    Prime Minister Rutte revealed his bias when he declared, shortly after the attacks, “It’s not so very often we’ve experienced this conflict being directed at very ordinary people.”

    He clearly doesn’t see Palestinians as ordinary people.

    That same day, Rutte said that Israel has our unconditional support. Unconditional means exactly what it says, not subject to any conditions.

    Conditions like adhering to international humanitarian law regarding armed conflicts. Not necessary. Unconditional support means the following:

    Even if you close off all of Gaza, even if you starve 2.2 million civilians, even if you deprive them of water, food, fuel, medical aid, even if you cut off their electricity, their light, their internet and telephone lines, even if you isolate them from the outside world so thoroughly that they are no longer part of the world, even if you murder dozens of local journalists and their families, even if you murder dozens of international aid workers and paramedics, even if you drop white phosphorus on densely populated neighborhoods, even if you kill 11,000 Palestinians, of whom the large majority are women and children, yes, even if you expel or kill all of the inhabitants of Gaza, the Netherlands will still support you one hundred percent.

    And you can reconsider your statement later, but the damage is already done.

    President Biden put it like this in a statement released by the White House: “We’re not drawing red lines for Israel.” And on 2 November Vice President Kamala Harris said, “We are not going to create any conditions on the support that we are giving Israel to defend itself.” She called the deaths of thousands and thousands of Palestinians “tragic.”

    Yes, super tragic.

    For Israelis, different laws apply. We know Israelis by name. We value them. And we also know what it can lead to when one people are valued and granted dignity and another people are not.

    In 1944 a Jewish Pole named Raphael Lemkin coined a term whose definition would be ratified four years later by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Lemkin described genocide as “a coordinated plan aimed at destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups so that these groups wither and die like plants that have suffered a blight. The end may be accomplished by the forced disintegration of political and social institutions, of the culture of the people…”

    He continues in this vein and ends this passage with “by wiping out all basis of personal security, liberty, health and”—here it comes—“dignity.”

    So, there it is.

    I think back to the headline of that article in the NRC: “Hundreds dead, almost no reaction: Europe desensitized.” Does it really have to do with desensitization?

    Has it ever really touched us?

    On October 27 the Arab American Association of New York placed a full-page ad in the New York Times, hoping to draw attention to the—then—7,000 murdered civilians in Gaza. Belal Aldabbour, a Palestinian neurologist in Gaza City is quoted:

    If I die, remember that I, we, were individuals, humans, we had names, dreams, and achievements and our only fault was that we were classified as inferior.

    If an occupying power tells 2.2 million civilians that they all have to go south in a single day, supposedly for their own safety, and then bombs those refugees in that same south—that occupier is toying with their dignity. This can only happen because people don’t consider them fully human. And this is only accepted because people don’t see them as fully human.

    Children in Gaza write their names on their bodies so that when they get killed they can be identified.

    That’s not all. In late October, Netanyahu held a press conference in which he compared Palestinians to Amalekites. You might have forgotten who the Amalekites are. That’s possible, because they no longer exist. In the Bible, they are a people who are a symbol of evil. That was why God wanted them to be exterminated. And so it came to pass. 1 Samuel 15 says:

    Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both men and women, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

    Netanyahu’s meaning seems clear to me. And he said it on national television. In the past few weeks I have heard all kinds of Israeli politicians, ambassadors, and military leaders plead for the destruction of the Palestinian people. Terms like Hiroshima and Dresden are used as an aspiration.

    You can look away. You can refuse to let these kinds of announcements of intent—because that’s what they are—sink in. But it can happen and it will happen, for the very reason that the West has never set any conditions or applied any restrictions on Israel’s behavior.

    That opens the door to the discussion of genocide as a solution.

    No wonder then, with the loud calls in Israel “to destroy the Palestinian people,” that a group of independent UN experts stated on Thursday that there was evidence of “genocide in the making.”

    Total destruction—and by that I include the destruction of a culture, an identity—requires more than all of us just ignoring it. Anonymization in the media and the denial of political support by the international community help, but they don’t drive it. Dehumanization takes commitment. You have to really want it. For decades military leaders and politicians in Israel have compared Palestinian civilians to, and I quote, “cockroaches,” “snakes,” “two-legged animals.” In 2002 Moshe Ya’alon, former Minister of Defence, compared Palestinians to cancer. He also had a treatment: “At the moment I am applying chemotherapy.”

    Compared to that, being seen as a number is a gesture.

    What is happening today in Palestine is the logical consequence of this treatment. Especially if nobody says STOP.

    Even if we want to, we mustn’t look away, and definitely not from the images we will never get used to. Another picture now joins the girl burnt by napalm and the liberated of Buchenwald.

    I saw it on Al Jazeera. I saw a man walking among the total destruction, holding a transparent plastic bag. He held it out in front of him, above the crowd, as if it contained a valuable loaf of bread. The bag was colored red. It wasn’t bread. In the bag were the remnants of his children’s flesh and bones.

    I sat down and cried like an animal.

    Looking away doesn’t rob him of his dignity; it is ours that is lost.

    I have a rule of thumb for human behavior: when residential neighborhoods and refugee camps are leveled and it’s called “mowing the lawn,” when thousands of women and children die only to be labelled retrospectively as terrorists, there is something wrong with humanity.

    With ours and with the humanity of everyone who doesn’t intervene.

    To conclude.

    After countless citizens from the north of Gaza fled south only to discover that Israel was carrying out air strikes there too, and that they would die no matter what from the lack of aid, many families returned north. A BBC reporter asked several of them why, as everyone knew the north was going to be annihilated. The answer was that they were going back home because they “would prefer to die in dignity than to die from thirst.”

    So, what is it, this dignity?

    I think it’s something like this. Children in Gaza write their names on their bodies so that when they get killed they can be identified. And families in Gaza? These days they split up into groups: one part of the family stays in one unsafe zone, another moves to another unsafe zone so there will be a chance of a branch of the family surviving.

    Stoically they face their fate. Now that they are in the depths of hell, these Palestinians embody what philosophers can only describe in words. Immanuel Kant saw dignity as an “inner law,” “self-esteem as a sense of inner value.” And, in what might be his finest definition, “dignity is that which inspires respect for oneself.”

    I respect the inhabitants of Gaza more than I respect any philosophers. In the horror they are subjected to, despite all attempts to deprive them of their dignity, they show what it means, not to be human, but to stay human.

    Those who are doing this to them, and we who are letting it happen, will be left behind.

    We will live as victors, devoid of all dignity.

    Ramsey Nasr
    Ramsey Nasr
    Ramsey Nasr, actor, author and prize-winning poet, is one of the most celebrated Dutch artists of his generation. He was appointed city poet of Antwerp and elected Dutch Poet Laureate. Nasr has been awarded numerous prizes for both his writing and acting work. He regularly publishes opinion pieces about art and politics.

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