“Animals” Under Siege in Gaza: an Open Letter to Decolonial Thinkers

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been frustrated that animal advocates have largely remained silent about Israel’s genocidal assault on Palestinians – cognizant, among other things, that such silence will fuel accusations that we “care more about animals than humans,” similar to distortions of the #Ceasefire movement as hating Jews or the disingenuous corrective to Black Lives Matter that “all lives matter.”

More recently, an interconnected anxiety settled in: the omission of animal suffering in denunciations of the bombardment of Gaza. As many have decried the dehumanizing language weaponized against Palestinians — laboring to convince the world that Arabs are, indeed, human and, therein, worthy of empathy — animals have been doubly thrown under the bus.

Efforts to demonstrate Palestinians’ “shared humanity” solidify the conceptualization of animals as ineligible for concern. As Fadi Abu Shammalah put it, “You know what happens to animals? They’re slaughtered.”

It is not only possible but imperative to hold two things simultaneously. Palestinians must be unshackled from the degrading classification of “animals.” Vital to achieving that goal, other species need be as well.

The species divide is innately hazardous. “Human” is a discriminatory identifier, concocted to validate a racist world order wherein attributions of sub-humanity have long been mobilized in the service of massive-scale destruction of life. Frantz Fanon diagnosed the lethal implications of such “othering,” observing that “the terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms” and that colonizer and colonized are constructed as “different species.”

Casting non-Europeans as animals makes violence as such invisible. Europeans defended African enslavement on the basis of zoological taxonomy. The species divide is entangled with the civilization versus barbarism trope undergirding Europeans’ colonization of the Americas, including the genocide of indigenous Americans. Nazis portrayed Jews as vermin to justify the Holocaust.

Predictably, Israel is legitimizing its extermination campaign against Palestinians on the grounds of precisely this dichotomy. Israeli Major General Ghassan Alian declared Israel‘s intention to render Gaza uninhabitable: “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water, there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell”. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant drove it home: “we are fighting animals.”

The Israeli strategy of “mowing the lawn” demotes Palestinians to the rank of plants. Alongside animalization, this reflects Aimé Césaire’s concept of “thingification,” the process whereby Europeans depict colonized humans as contemptable “things.”

The species divide is itself drenched in racism. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed that, “This is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle”. As Syl Ko observes, “By ‘human,’ everybody just means ‘white.’”

In the margin of a photograph of Gaza the entirety of whose frame is the white of blasted concrete, I allow my eyes to take hold of an emaciated donkey. This proverbial “beast of burden” is outside even what leftist observers are called upon to grieve. They are hidden in plain sight beneath the shroud of speciesism, excluded from the destruction and death we are entreated to condemn. How can we regard other species amidst the systematic and unchecked annihilation of Palestinians, deemed less than human, unfolding before our eyes?

The human/ animal binary is foundational for the unmitigated violence on display in Gaza, an embargo on kindness itself. Within the frame of rubble and rocks, advocating for justice requires that we express our grief and rage about the donkey’s fate, too. Doing so is not a distraction from solidarity with Palestinians, but intrinsic to promoting life.

As Cary Wolfe observes, “As long as it is institutionally taken for granted that it is all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species, then the humanist discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well, to countenance violence against the social other of whatever species….”

Suppression of solidarity with Palestinians via doxing, cancellation or outright blacklisting makes speaking out frightening. To openly declare solidarity with the animal casualties of Nakba 2023 feels acutely precarious, but dismantling speciesism is intrinsic to achieving meaningful peace. Contra the toxic hierarchy of care, if we can withhold empathy from anyone, we can potentially withhold empathy from everyone. In this catastrophic moment, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond is Associate Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and Luso-Brazilian Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her publications on Critical Animal Studies and the legacies of African enslavement include “Haunting Pigs, Swimming Jaguars: Mourning, Animals and Ayahuasca”(2019), “Akbar Stole My Heart: Coming Out as an Animalist” (2013), and White Negritude: Race, Writing and Brazilian Cultural Identity (2008). Her current book project, “Home Sick,” blends theory with creative nonfiction to meditate on grief, end of life, the medical-industrial complex, Islamophobia and the commodification of (human and nonhuman) animals.