Monday evening in Brooklyn, about 50 people gathered to protest Israeli apartheid and encourage the boycott of Israeli goods, a part of the growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Inspired by the effective use of boycott and divestment tactics in the struggle against South African apartheid decades ago, the BDS movement is growing with recent victories such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and many colleges and universities deciding to stop investing in companies complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people.
The mood of Monday’s rally was heavy. What was intended to be a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the BDS movement instead was a mourning of the many Palestinian lives taken in recent days by Israeli soldiers/bombs and civilians/settlers alike. Like Muhammad Abu Kheidr, a 16-year-old who was burned alive last week in what is widely assumed to be a revenge lynching by Israeli settlers after the bodies of three missing Israeli teens were discovered (blamed on Hamas without any evidence). Or Muhammad’s cousin Tareq, a 15-year-old Palestinian American who was badly beaten and detained for being at the wrong place at the wrong time (with the wrong ethnicity) a few days later. Or the 31 people in Gaza killed and countless others injured and displaced by 378 Israeli airstrikes in the last two days of its increasingly devastating “Operation Protective Edge.” Or the 10+ killed and over 360 kidnapped in Israel’s “Operation Brother’s Keeper” a few weeks ago in the West Bank, a form of collective punishment on the entire population after the disappearance of three Israeli boys.
There is a full on assault on the Palestinian people right now (and in various ways, there has been for decades), yet there was only one other Sikh present at the small rally in NYC last night. We stood there wondering why the rally wasn’t 500 or 5,000 strong instead of 50 and why there weren’t 20 or 200 Sikhs present instead of two. Given our commitment and obligation as Sikhs to stand up for the oppressed, why don’t we see a massive movement in our community in support of the dignity, sovereignty, and human rights of the Palestinians?
This is a question with no simple answers. Our community is not a monolith either. In 2009, over 100 Sikhs signed a “Sikh Solidarity with Palestine” statement in the midst of Israel’s siege of Gaza, which killed nearly 1,000 Palestinians. Today, 500 people are members of that Facebook group. But while strong signs of solidarity exist, there also seems to be a troubling dynamic in our community of seeing Zionism (Jewish nationalism) as something parallel to the Sikh nationalist project, resulting in the staunch defense of the Israeli government.
Recently, Amritpal Singh, the president of the World Sikh Organization, Canada’s largest Sikh advocacy organization, co-authored an essay in the Huffington Post with the head of the Centre of Israel and Jewish Affairs about fighting terrorism in Canada. The piece attempts to ally Sikhs with both the states of India and Israel in a way that I seriously doubt reflects the views of those the WSO ostensibly represents. They state, “While Israel and India may be miles apart geographically, linguistically and even culturally, they are intimately connected by the shared burden of coping with of the pervasive threat of terrorism.” The fear-mongering article continues, “It is a chilling testament to the power of jihadist ideology that those who benefit from Canada’s remarkable character — a society of openness, inclusiveness, and pluralism — are ready to murder others and to martyr themselves.”
The irony is too much to handle. At the time the article was published, the Israeli military was plundering the West Bank with a rhetoric of vengeance coming all the way from the highest levels of the state. Rather than mourn the loss of human life regardless of ethnicity or nationality, WSO chose to ally itself with a hawkish, Israeli advocacy organization that uncritically accepts and supports the twisted logic of occupation — a logic that will always present Palestinians as the aggressors, the suspects, the terrorists. This a far stretch from WSO’s own mission of promoting “the ideals of universal brotherhood, peace, justice, freedom of worship and speech, respect for cultural diversity and human dignity for all, without any distinction.” (Reality check: 31 Palestinians have been killed by bombs from one of the strongest militaries in the world in just two days, while zero Israelis have been killed by Hamas rockets).
The added layer of irony to the WSO’s essay is how collective state punishment in the name of counter-terrorism is nothing new for Sikhs. Just as all Palestinians are made to suffer because of Israel’s supposed goal of rooting out terrorism (i.e. Hamas), all Sikhs in north India suffered in 1984 and the years after because of the Indian government’s same supposed goal.
Given this common struggle that Sikhs and Palestinians share, why then would WSO or other Sikh organizations or leaders go out of their way to support Israel’s blatantly oppressive policies and tactics? A few weeks ago, WSO posted a quote on their Facebook page in the midst of Operation Brother’s Keeper (#BringBackOurBoys) about an event that their Vice President, Prabmeet Singh Sakaria, attended:
Looking at Sakaria, I was reminded of the IDF soldiers I had recently met on my trip to Israel. The Sikh community is much like ours. Small; like us. Maligned; too often. Family oriented. And like us, believe in caring for the other as well as themselves. I see the Sikh community as great friends of the Jewish people.
The WSO, or any Sikh for that matter, should not be proud of being compared to an IDF soldier. Feeling affinity with the Jewish community is great but must not be conflated with affinity for the state of Israel. In the last two weeks, WSO has posted four articles in “solidarity” with the state of Israel with no critique whatsoever of its military aggression, brutal occupation, or apartheid policies. This seems contradictory both to WSO’s stated mission and our Gurus’ mission. The Sikhi I know and cherish is not about standing in solidarity with the oppressor. Indeed, the Khalsa was created to tear down oppression in all its forms.
While I do not know WSO’s motivations (I emailed them without a response), I would guess their stance has more to do with political opportunism than a deep set belief in the righteousness of the Israeli state. I could be wrong though. I know there are Sikhs who look at Israel as a source of inspiration, a successful model for Sikh nationalists who see no hopes for freedom or sovereignty in the state of India. I will leave the question of Sikh nationalism itself aside for now but must at least assert that following in Israel’s footsteps would likely be the worst thing that could happen to the Sikh quom today. One’s freedom cannot be based on the subjugation of another. Therein lies the heart of the contradiction of the state of Israel. To Israel, Palestinians are a demographic problem, not human beings. What philosophy could be farther from Sikhi? What could be more antithetical to the ideology and practice of sarbat da bhala?