The weaponisation of nuance in Israel’s war on Gaza

Demands for ‘nuance’ in how Gaza and Palestine are narrated seek to obfuscate the context of Israeli occupation and apartheid.

Demonstrators take part in an "Emergency Rally: Stand with Palestinians Under Siege in Gaza," amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., October 14, 2023. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Demonstrators take part in a pro-Palestinian rally at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 14, 2023 [File: Reuters/Brian Snyder]

“Your work doesn’t look good in this political context. If someone asks me about your work, I won’t say anything positive about it. You need to think about how you are becoming a liability for me and the institution … It’s best to keep your head down and stay quiet.”

These were the words of a colleague. The political context he was referring to was the harassment and attacks many of us had faced for publicly criticising Israel’s war on Gaza and highlighting the long history of Palestinian suffering that preceded the October 7 attack. He subsequently reminded me of the importance of being “nuanced and taking a balanced approach” and recognising the emotions and sentiments on “both sides”.

“Nuance” is an interesting word that I have been hearing a lot over the past 80 days. Recently, I received an inquiry from a European news outlet, looking to commission a “nuanced” article explaining “what Hamas actually are”.

I also read about the alleged “lack of nuance” independent presidential candidate and former Harvard professor Cornel West had identified in the letter expressing solidarity with Palestine issued by Harvard students days after the October 7 attack.

In this war on Gaza, we have seen many a weapon deployed against the Palestinian population. Yet, the call for “nuance” has emerged as the most unlikely one. But what does it mean to be nuanced at a time of extreme Palestinian suffering?

From the perspective of those weaponising this word, it means the history and context of Israel-Palestine cannot be recalled. This, of course, results in the suppression of all forms of public critique of the actions of the Israeli state.

Sociologist Muhannad Ayyash describes this as a form of toxification of any perspective rooted in the aspirations of the Palestinian people and their lived experience of occupation and siege, as invalid, irrational, disruptive or simply “too unnuanced” for any respectable discussion of the politics of Palestine-Israel.

Accusations of “lack of nuance” often morph into accusations of anti-Semitism. Harvard students who signed the “unnuanced” solidarity statement immediately became the target of a doxing campaign. A truck with digital billboards, funded by the conservative watchdog Accuracy in Media was seen circling Harvard Square, flashing the students’ photos and names and labelling them “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites”.

They also faced pressure from faculty members and donors. Wall Street executives “demanded a list” of the students in order to “ban their hiring” and a prestigious law firm rescinded job offers to some of the students.

But while the students were being charged with supporting a terror group and their violence, what they were really being targeted for was insisting that the events of October 7 did not happen in a vacuum and that the history of Palestine-Israel did not begin on that day. Rather, the statement explained, it was a consequence of the nearly two-decade siege of Gaza and 75 years of structural violence inflicted by the Israeli state on Palestinians that has included air strikes, land seizures, arbitrary detention, checkpoints and targeted killings.

When Columbia University students released a similarly “unnuanced” statement that was uncompromising in its support for Palestinians, they too were doxed. The statement said the “weight of responsibility” for the violence and its human cost lay with “the Israeli extremist government and other Western governments, including the US government, which fund and staunchly support Israeli aggression, apartheid and settler-colonization”.

It added that the issue at hand was not the timing of the attack but its “root causes and [… the] Israeli occupation and the deprivation of human rights, including the lack of respect for the Palestinian people’s legitimate right to self-determination”.

Apart from allowing their students to be harassed and doxed over their pro-Palestinian views, universities have also gone on to censor scholars and public figures that have been deemed “unnuanced” and therefore “disruptive”.

The University of Vermont cancelled a public talk on “representation and misrepresentation of Palestinians in the US” by renowned Palestinian poet and journalist Mohammed el-Kurd, citing “safety concerns”.

Liverpool Hope University cancelled a talk by Israeli-British historian Avi Shlaim also citing “safety” concerns. Shlaim’s lecture was expected to be “critical of the formation of the state of Israel”.

Arizona State University cancelled a speech by Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. The university spokesperson insinuated that the event was not organised in a way that minimised “disruption to academic and other activities on campus”.

Institutions like Brandeis, Columbia, George Washington and Rutgers have also suspended their respective chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) citing violations of a wide range of university policies, including organising events that “disrupted” classes.

University leaders have also been keen to control how their staff and students speak about Israel-Palestine – often advising a middle ground. The University of Exeter published “general advice” that first underlines Hamas’s status as a proscribed terror organisation under UK law. Subsequently, it advises staff and students to be “inclusive” in the way they comment on social media and cognisant of the sentiments of the “other” side, adding that “in the absence of nuance or context, comments often don’t help and can create more division, hurt, and hate”.

At other universities, senior faculty members and administrators have sought to demonstrate how student activism can be “misinformed” and create a polarised campus environment “lacking in sophistication and nuance”.

While claiming “sophistication”, such uses of “nuance” actually seek to obfuscate history and reality on the ground in Palestine. They push for a narrative that overlooks structures and institutions of violence, oppression, subjugation and erasure that have marked the lives of Palestinians since the Nakba of 1948. Instead, what is going on in Palestine-Israel is portrayed as a conflict between two seemingly equal parties vying over the same piece of land.

As one proponent of this narrative recently wrote in The Nation: “The intellectual poverty that would reduce human history to a battle between the oppressed and the oppressors is also just plain lazy.”

But there is nothing “lazy” about knowing and pointing out historical circumstances and context. Further, recognising the long history of Palestinian suffering that precedes and exceeds the events of the day does not preclude mourning the civilian deaths in Israel as a result of Hamas’s attack on October 7.

A word that is meant to indicate a subtle difference in shade or meaning from what seems self-evident has emerged as an important weapon in this war that seeks to shift attention from the structures and institutions of violence and oppression Palestinians face.

Within universities, “nuance” has been weaponised to target all those who strive to draw public attention to the plight of the Palestinians and demand a different shade or meaning is ascribed to what is apparent to many as a genocidal military onslaught by the oppressor on the oppressed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.