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“Finish Them”—Callous Joy in Vulnerable People’s Pain

After World War II, the pain of the Jewish people became a collective. And whether borne out of guilt for doing too little to curb Hitler’s genocidal rampage, or a genuine determination to ensure such mass slaughter of innocent civilians is never repeated, the West, though not exclusively, would support almost everything Jewish. In 1948, they helped create modern Israel by displacing and occupying land inhabited by Palestinians. They did this based on nebulous ancestral/religious grounds. This would usher in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that has bedeviled the Middle East since then. From the beginning therefore, the conflict—though steeped in disagreement about land—was tinged with religious fervor that would expand beyond Judaism and Islam, and ensnare Western Christians as well.

Whether out of desperation for living generationally as refugees, or from a calculated provocation, the Hamas attack inside Israel on October 7, 2023, that killed 1,200 and kidnapped 250 Israeli civilians, was terroristic and has been roundly denounced as such. The West has long designated Hamas as a terror organization, and its behavior on October 7 gives credence to that label. Israel, on the other hand, is touted as a modern civilized state that abides by the rule of law. Therefore, how the country responded to Hamas’ incitement would be a test of the difference between the actions of a terror group that uses civilians to further its political goals, and a militarily powerful state that achieves its political ends by sparing civilians.

By any measure however, the current ultranationalist Israeli government, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, has succeeded in blurring the lines between a “terrorist” Hamas and an Israeli government increasingly perceived as disregarding civilian safeguards and resorting to the same indiscriminate terrorist methods Hamas is condemned for. Israel estimates that it has killed 14,000 Hamas militants since the war began. The total Palestinian dead is estimated as 37,000. That means approximately 23,000 civilians, mainly women and children, have been killed in Israel’s response to Hamas.

It is this seeming disregard by the Israeli government for Gaza’s civilians that has alarmed the world, prompting allegations of genocide and leading to UN charges against Netanyahu and others. Israel’s war behavior has not only squandered the goodwill it garnered when the Hamas attack took place, it has also confirmed the phenomenon where victims, when they gain the upper hand, can soon behave as badly if not worse than their attackers. So, Hamas kills/kidnaps 1,450 Israeli civilians. In response, Israel goes scorched earth against Hamas militants, but seems cavalier about Palestinian civilian casualties, justifying the high numbers as “fog of war.”

Many Christian groups, especially American Evangelicals, have supported Israel since its creation in 1948. That support has been tested in recent times as the actions of Israel’s military have skirted ethical boundaries and brought shame to their Christian backers. Though this is acquired shame earned by association, it runs and gnaws as deeply at the insides, constantly tugging at the moral compass. How we respond to injustice perpetuated against the vulnerable by individuals or groups we’re associated with, reveals our humanity.

This is the quandary many Westerners, particularly Christians who share a long affinity with Israel, find themselves in. There are some in the Religious Right, Southern Evangelicals especially, who seem unbothered by Israel’s conduct in the war because they view their alignment with Israel as a zero-sum game which overrides all other considerations. They cheer on Israel regardless of ethical concerns. But there are others in the faith community, equally on Israel’s side, who are genuinely conflicted by what the UN characterizes as genocide. They are frozen and continue to sit silent on the sidelines watching the carnage unfold.

This dynamic, where alliances conflict with ethical considerations, is also at play in US politics. President Biden, a bona fide progressive who is ordinarily sympathetic to the underdog’s plight, took a hard position in supporting Israel, at the war’s onset. This was likely calculated to blunt criticism from the Republican flank, but it could also have been reflexive. Thus boxed-in, the President had little recourse when allegations of Israeli atrocities in Gaza started piling up and Netanyahu kept crossing humanitarian red lines. If Biden loses in November, one of the reasons may be because he miscalculated the depth of his base’s disillusionment with his unfettered commitment to Israel, even as Netanyahu’s government used American-made bombs against defenseless children.

But it is Netanyahu’s posture in knowingly putting his core backers in an ethical bind and shame that interests me. His practice of marrying self-preservation motivations with religion and politics at the expense of his benefactors is just a tactical variation from the playbook that some minority personalities have been using to gain ascendancy in American right-wing politics. Here’s how it works.

It is a two-pronged process. First, a minority right-wing “Christian” politician disavows their cultural roots as price-of-entry into the echelons of conservative circles. If repudiating such cultural ties is not sufficient to get them up the rungs, they resort to cringe-inducing behavior—saying or doing outrageous things that malign their heritage—in order to prove their conservative bona fides. They then gain the acceptance they crave and are rewarded by the right as spokespersons against minorities.

This has been going on for a while, but the tactic has undergone a renaissance in the Trump era. Hardly does a political season go by without a minority right-wing politician or personality distancing themselves from their ethnicity, or doing/saying things that cast aspersions on their communities of origin. While the motivations driving their actions may be multifaceted, I disassociate their actions from all other attributions, and view them solely from the perspective of a minority that can’t escape the shame of such behavior. This is because any bad conduct by a social minority, regardless of their political persuasions, lands unbidden and heaviest on the hearts of other minorities. My goal here is to shine a small light on this practice, which is now sadly being normalized, in hopes of curbing its continuation. I provide three “character witnesses” below, to illustrate this phenomenon.

Enter Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, UN Ambassador, and a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, who recently suspended her campaign. She was born Nimrata Randhawa to her immigrant Indian parents. But when she embarked on a political career as a Republican, she started a gradual detachment from her roots. First, she dropped her Punjabi first name, “Nimrata,” explaining at the time that her maiden name “wouldn’t fit on a yard sign.” Then she converted to Christianity from her parental Sikhism. So in 2001, when she identified as “white” on her voter identification card, her transformation into a white Christian Republican was almost complete.

During Haley’s Republican presidential run, a reporter asked her if America was a racist country. She offered a full-throated refutation by splitting hairs: “We’re not a racist country. We’ve never been a racist country …. I know I faced racism when I was growing up.” Ambassador Haley grew up in an exclusively white community in South Carolina.

But it was her totally unnecessary pandering to the Republican base at the expense of suffering Gaza civilians that may someday define her. This mother of two was in Israel recently to show her support in the ongoing war. While visiting an ammunition depot showcasing US made artillery, she signed one of the shells with the message: “Finish Them.” The most generous interpretation of such a gesture is that she saw it as a stunt. But then why would a mother do something this crass when Palestinian children and their mothers were being killed daily by the very ordinances she was signing? When a minority and a mother is so casual about the suffering of the most helpless during war, the shame provoked is shared communally, by all minorities.

Then there is Clarence Thomas, the second African American justice, who has been at the Supreme Court for 33 years. He was nominated to the court by the first President Bush as replacement for retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights icon and first African American justice. From the moment he got to the court, Thomas seemed dedicated to dismantling any gains his predecessor had fought for on behalf of minorities. These include his recent 58-page concurring opinion after the court struck down college Affirmative Action programs last year. He voted against a program he confirms helped him gain entrance to Yale University Law School in the 1970s, which subsequently propelled him to a seat at the US Supreme Court. Translation?  Affirmative Action was good for Justice Thomas when he needed it, but destructive for other minorities. Shakespeare, it appears, anticipated Clarence Thomas:

But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.
(Julius Caesar, Act 2, scene 1)

In May this year, Thomas took a swipe at another civil rights legacy: the 9-0 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that declared the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional. The majority decision that allowed South Carolina to use a congressional map was widely criticized for diluting Black votes. Thomas used his concurrence opinion to argue that the 1954 court, that banned the separation of school children by race, overstepped by taking a “boundless view of equitable remedies.”

Thomas is saying nothing new. His views are often couched as part of an overall ideological support for limited government action. This is essentially the same arguments made by segregationists 70 years ago. Why does Clarence Thomas go out of his way to volunteer these opinions every time the court’s conservative supermajority strikes down a civil rights era decision that has benefited him? That is, besides rubbing it in the faces of his ancestors who fought tirelessly to even the playing field that he took advantage of throughout his career?

These days, Justice Thomas’s name has become synonymous with unethical behavior at the Supreme Court. That’s the sad part, to climb so high up the rungs only to end up as the “poster child” for graft. But this shame is not his alone. For every small cut of indignity that attaches to him, it is also acutely felt by minorities everywhere.

If Clarence Thomas has perfected the art of “clan-hate,” he has an acolyte in Byron Donalds, the two-term congressman from a predominantly white constituency in Florida. He recently gained some attention when the Republican house majority could not settle on a Speaker. At one point during that impasse, he won 20 “protest” votes.

Since then, he has sought to capitalize on that brief visibility to say outlandish things, mostly at odds with his ethnicity, to keep the spotlight on him. There was speculation a few weeks ago that the Trump campaign was vetting him as a potential vice-president. Whether that explains why the 45-year-old black congressman decided to praise the Jim Crow era as “good for black families,” may never be known. But this is what we do know: all three of these minorities profiled are married to white partners, a glorious progressive “achievement” in its own right. But the Jim Crow-loving Byron Donalds’ of our time need to be reminded that during that former era, they would have risked being lynched just for thinking of marriage to a white person.

Like Netanyahu, these social climbing minorities seem to thrill in gaslighting the very communities that nurtured their upbringing. They may do this for acceptance and stardom in conservative politics, but it is unclear what other long-term benefits they could derive for their joy in casting down the ladder they used in climbing up themselves. Whatever else it might be, from the perspective of an outsider looking in, the tottering legacy of Clarence Thomas’s career may serve as a cautionary warning for such pyrrhic behavior.

Image Credit: hosny salah from Pixabay

About the author

Matthew Quartey was born and raised in Southern Ghana and obtained graduate and postgraduate education in Ghana, Nigeria, and the United States. His academic interests center around post-independence African literature as well as British/American literature of the 19th century. Quartey works in healthcare management and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with his wife Sophia. More from Matthew Quartey.
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