It’s increasingly difficult for academics to speak out about Gaza, writes Professor Joanna Kidman, in an environment where “heightened levels of racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism are swirling around communities and individuals in an ever-splintering public conversation”.
The demand from an external organisation to remove me from my academic post came a month after Israel declared war on Hamas.
On that particular day, the death toll in Gaza had risen to an estimated 9,770 Palestinians, mostly women and children. On the news each night, there were devastating scenes of human misery. Of parents screaming in terror as they ran from the bombing carrying their dying children in their arms. Of bodies mounted up on the streets. Neighbourhoods razed to the ground. Hospitals with no medical supplies. And an endless stream of the injured.
On social media, photographs of lifeless babies lying in the rubble of ruined buildings were widely circulated, along with footage of small children wailing in despair in the immediate aftermath of bombardment when they saw their families lying dead around them. We watched their faces crumple in anguish as they realised they were orphans now.
And we watched and watched.
Until that time, I hadn’t spoken publicly about where my political sympathies lay. Media coverage of wars is never neutral. A great deal of what we saw on New Zealand television in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack on October 7 was drawn from international news sources with little or no historical context and tailored towards particular points of view that weren’t always explicit.
In late October, when the complaint was made about my presumed political stance, I was still processing my own visceral response to the graphic images of the conflict that were broadcast daily on television and social media. But I was also uneasy about the media narratives that were developing.
Since 9/11, news agencies in the west have routinely represented Muslim peoples across the globe in highly stereotyped terms — as terrorists, murderous religious fanatics, extravagantly wealthy oil barons or irrational actors intent on undermining western democracy. These attitudes underscored much of the reportage of the conflict in Gaza, although the tenor of some media coverage in Aotearoa began to shift as talk of ethnic cleansing and genocide entered the public conversation.
There is a fine balance when reporting the horrors of war. In an age of unprecedented access to the visual narratives of suffering in places far from Aotearoa, we can watch atrocities unfold in real time.
There is some evidence that, when images of horrific violence are widely broadcast, governments may be more likely to act. But it’s complicated. We see and hear what the photographer or the camera operator shows us, and we respond to the way news editors frame the story. But we often don’t know much about those who are filmed as they experience some of the most horrifying and defining moments of their lives.
Unless there are direct family or community connections, we don’t know them as people, their back stories, their dreams. While some Gazans have been filmed openly pleading with camera operators to record what was happening so they could tell the world, many of those we saw in the rubble of cities, the children and ruined families, are unlikely to have consented to perform their trauma for us. We turn our spectators’ gaze on them, but in doing so, are we also taking from them the right to refuse to grieve publicly for our edification? This makes me uneasy.
The need to know what is happening in distant wars is important, but it also comes at a cost, possibly to those who’ve already lost everything. As well, the media narrative shifted so quickly from “Muslim as terrorist” tropes to “victim” tropes, seemingly without ever depicting Gazans as complex human beings responding variously to unspeakably violent circumstances.
For the television audience watching from a distance, we might catch televised glimpses of people as they mourn or die, but we don’t necessarily know their names. As for the survivors, we probably won’t ever find out what happens to them next. Those we watch weeping in distant lands are almost always strangers to us. Their stories are not ours. And yet they haunt us.
When audiences at a distance view footage of war, we face uncomfortable questions about whether we’re acting as witnesses, bystanders, or simply as voyeurs in the spectacle of violence. What is our ethical duty as consumers of these images, we might ask ourselves. Because we can’t claim we didn’t see them or that we didn’t know. We invite that terrible knowledge the moment we turn on the television news or doom-scroll through social media.
In late October, a coronial inquest into the March 2019 terrorist attack on masjidain began in Christchurch. On the news each night, we saw media coverage of the inquiry as families, witnesses and first responders relived the nightmare of that day and spoke of its harrowing aftermath. These news stories about the inquest were frequently followed by reports of the devastation in Gaza.
It felt disrespectful to look away.
At the beginning of the inquest, a video tribute was played and each of those who died were identified. Over the course of the proceedings, we saw their faces, we heard their back stories, and importantly, we knew them by their names.
On the day the inquest began, more than 700 Palestinians were reported killed in overnight Israeli air raids on Gaza, the highest 24-hour death toll since the bombardment began.
In the wake of the March 2019 attacks in Christchurch, many Māori senior leaders moved quickly to establish relationships with Muslim communities in their rohe.
Some kaumātua saw it as a responsibility for tangata whenua to build connections with those who should have been protected on these shores. For others, it was the grim recognition that the unease at the heart of the social contract in Aotearoa, with its history of colonial violence, is a lethal arrangement, fostering racism and hate. In many parts of the country, solidarities between Māori and Muslim groups continue to grow.
Research shows that prolonged exposure to graphic imagery of suffering in war-torn regions can enhance empathy and activate moral responses to a greater degree than non-graphic images. But it can also fuel anxiety or collective trauma. Many people are deeply affected by what they see happening in Gaza, but the relentless and explicit imagery has also been a source of distress for Māori I’ve spoken with who see parallels with our own colonial history.
As an academic who has spent years researching the New Zealand Wars, I regularly visit battle sites in Aotearoa where mass violence has taken place. Nineteenth-century British military invasions resulted in widespread Māori land alienation. There are ongoing public silences around those colonial conflicts and their deadly aftermath.
More importantly, I am a Tainui woman. My own tūpuna were forced off their lands at gunpoint during a massive military campaign carried out as part of the invasion of the Waikato. Of those who survived, most never returned. Even now, Māori life expectancy and outcomes are diminished.
Many Māori are familiar with stories handed down over generations about the desperate brutality of those conflicts, and know that Māori women and children fared particularly badly. At Ōrākau, where some of my own tūpuna died, those carrying children in their arms as they fled for their lives were slower-moving targets for the British troops and were easier to kill.
Eerily similar stories about child casualties and survivors are coming out of Gaza at present — and, for some, the news gives graphic and almost unbearable insight into what our tūpuna must have endured. Te pūtake o te riri!
While active combat takes place in Gaza and the West Bank, the war reverberates here in other ways. During the first six weeks of the conflict, Disinformation Project researchers and the Department of Internal Affairs measured a sharp increase in violent Islamophobic and antisemitic online content in Aotearoa. The DIA’s digital violent extremism team also saw a surge in Christchurch terrorist attack-like content, and synagogues across Aotearoa temporarily closed amid security concerns.
I heard of meetings between members of the Jewish and Muslim communities and representatives from interfaith groups, which took place away from the public gaze where they could speak quietly together and make plans for the safety of each of their communities. They did this amid the deafening roar of anger and rage that surrounded them.
During the second month of the war, guarded conversations were taking place in New Zealand universities among academics who publicly condemned the attacks on Gaza or expressed solidarity with Palestinians living in Aotearoa. Some have been the target of online harassment or complaints to their employers.
In Christchurch, a Māori scholar who spoke to his students about settler-colonialism in New Zealand, drawing parallels with the situation in Gaza, was sharply rebuked by an external lobby group that aired its complaints to the media. A professor at another university was subjected to vitriolic racial abuse online, and others have also been targeted.
Academics in New Zealand will continue to draw on established research about racism, colonialism, genocide and media representation, but it’s increasingly difficult to do this in an environment where heightened levels of racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism are swirling around communities and individuals in an ever-splintering public conversation.
In the tenth week of the war, along with many other academics, students and alumni of New Zealand universities, I signed a statement in support of academic freedom on Israel and Palestine in Aotearoa New Zealand. By then, the death toll in Gaza had reached 18,600 — and 1.9 million people, or 80 percent of the population of Gaza, were displaced.
Black American scholar and poet Audre Lorde once wrote: “Your silence will not protect you.” And she is right. There is a time to speak. Many Middle East commentators have all but given up on the possibility of peace and have turned their attention to how the losses can be mitigated. These are the politics of despair.
The legacy given to Māori at Ōrākau was to fight for justice forever: Ka whawhai tonu mātou, āke, āke, āke!Along with many others in the Māori world, I carry this legacy with pride, and honour it daily.
But if we stop talking about peace — and peace is not simply the absence of conflict — if we take it off the agenda altogether, then the only option left is war without end. As a researcher immersed in the unresolved landscapes of colonial wars that have taken place here in Aotearoa between unequally matched forces, I find that unacceptable.
As I write this, the death toll in Gaza is now more than 19,000 people, and there is no sign that the killing will slow in the days ahead.
The historical and political underpinnings of the war in the Middle East are not my story, but as a Tainui woman who has watched the land-hungry growth of the military and political arm of the settler state, and grieved for members of my own whānau lost in the tides of that history, I stand with my tūpuna against militarised settler violence.
As an academic who has spent time in colonial war zones on these islands, I stand for peace in an angry world.
Joanna Kidman (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa) is Professor of Māori Education at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. She is a sociologist working in the field of Indigenous youth studies, and her research focuses on the politics of indigeneity, Māori youth, and settler-colonial nationhood.
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