The war between Israel and Palestine is dividing people all over the world. But it seems that these divisions are especially painful among Russian speakers. It’s not just about fundamental political differences. Several generations of Russian families, starting with the first Aliyah at the turn of the 20th century, are closely intertwined with contemporary Israeli society. As a result of the immigration wave from (post-)Soviet space beginning in the late 1970s, more than a million Russian-speaking Jews have settled in Israel (the so-called Great Aliyah). An additional 40,000 Russian citizens immigrated in 2022 after the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Many Russians, including those who left Russia after the outbreak of war and mobilization, have relatives and friends in Israel. In the Russian public sphere, those who unconditionally support Israel are the loudest.
Contemporary media, which isn’t indifferent to systemic racism, occupation, apartheid and the strengthening of the far-right in the Israeli government, usually turn to the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Today, this lens is used by researchers and journalists all over the world — both of left-wing as well as progressive-liberal political orientations. CNN, for example, gives Palestinian officials a platform. Even Haaretz, one of the Israeli’s largest newspapers, openly blames Benjamin Netanyahu for the violent turn of events.
However, Russophone media space is organized in a particular way. State media repeats the Kremlin’s official position or remains in silent agreement with it by avoiding controversial issues.
From the first days of the war, Kremlin propaganda joyfully celebrated regional instability in the Middle East and the problems of Israel. Despite the scale of the conflict and the threat of its escalation, Russian propogandists managed to sarcastically joke about those who left Russia for Israel after the start of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “They fled from one country at war to another: a country that is not at war with its neighbors is fighting them again. We await the exodus of Russian pacifists. In fact, no, we don’t,”— wrote Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of Russia Today, on her telegram channel. Ever-present are the habitual attempts by pro-Kremlin journalists to link all external politics to the USA and Ukraine: this time Russian propaganda talks about American weapons that have allegedly been given to HAMAS through the Ukrainians.
Officially, Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov have expressed the familiar Russian position of supporting the UN decision to create an independent Palestinian state. Although, Putin did not miss the opportunity to state once again that everything that is happening is an example of the failure of US policy in the Middle East. Not as exalted, but typically provocative were Putin’s radicals. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov condemned the “seizure of Palestinian land.” Vladimir Solovyev has been in no hurry to sympathize with Palestine or with Israel.
The Russian independent media that predominantly addresses the Russian public and covers Russian politics and society still exists. Most of these outlets are now banned, and their editorial teams and some of the journalists live in exile. However, they are partially accessible from Russia through social media and, with the use of VPN, the websites with their articles and videos.
These media are now covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict along with Russian politics and war in Ukraine. Thus, the recent topic on Dozhd, of one of the biggest Russian independent TV channels (also known as the TV Rain and now broadcasts from the Netherlands) was the “pro-Palestinian position of the left-wing intellectuals.” Moreover, the presenters and experts discussed pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Europe with obvious disapproval.
At other times, IDF spokespeople, a former Mossad employee, and a Knesset deputy were invited to the live stream. Their dominant narrative is that Israel is united in the face of the terrorist threat. Dozhd’s main focus was on emotional reports on Israeli victims. At the same time, Dozhd devoted much less attention to the massive bombardments of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and life in the Strip. And sympathy for the Palestinian position was interpreted as a supporting terrorism. Typical dialogue between Dozhd’ presenters went as follows:
— I will never understand this, and I’m utterly outraged by it, this is my boiling point. How can you advocate for human rights while at the same time supporting a terrorist regime?
–Moreover, there are major global media that take this position and interpret everything from the standpoint of the “vulnerable, wounded and oppressed” Palestinians.
Not only the biased statements noteworthy, but so are the structure of the news reports and the list of invited experts. Thus, Novaya Gazeta.Europe published an report by two military experts on the first the week of the war. Both clearly supported a broader Israeli military operation (one of them is even a former Israeli police and intelligence officer). The experts claim that “the Israeli side follows all the norms and rules of the warfare”. Ironically, this report was released after Human Rights Watch reported on the IDF’s use of phosphorous bombs.
Media coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is constantly being criticized for bias and lacking sufficient attention to the other side of the conflict. Researches who monitor media coverage of conflicts point out that journalists inevitably transform news narratives. They can become more ethnocentric, insensitive to alternative perspectives, and therefore, can support the escalation of conflict. There are several ways journalists transform information gathered from sources. But the biggest problems arise from the cultural, emotional and political translations — that is, when journalists adapt the information to their audience in a particular way. It’s notable that decontextualization and belittlement of “out-groups,” lacking empathy toward them, and refusing to take popular demands into account is a characteristic feature of news covering conflicts.
The confrontation between Palestine and Israel is asymmetrical. That is, it’s governed by a clear imbalance of the power. Researchers note that in such conflicts the weaker party get new opportunities to promote their positions thanks to digital technology, publishing eyewitness accounts, and participating in social media discussions.
Nevertheless, it was hard to get a full picture from Russophone social media of what was happening in the war’s first days. The narratives and images of Israeli victims dominated. Photos and videos of the aftermath of Hamas attacks (which were without a doubt monstrous) on the music festival and frontier kibbutzim filled the agenda. Many stories and interviews with survivors of these horrific events were published. The internet was filled with furious calls from users for Gaza’s complete eradication.
On their personal social media accounts, independent journalists, cultural figures, Russian oppositionists, and public experts actively and emotionally expressed their opinions on the conflict. On oppositional spaces on Twitter and Facebook, the pro-Israel narrative of the “war on terror” was glaringly dominant. Many liberal public figures burst out with hatred not only toward Palestine itself, (like, for example, equating its population with terrorists), but also toward those trying to draw attention to the history, causes and context of the conflict. Journalists and public figures called for immediate revenge and for the postponement of conversations about Israeli aggression and the systematic oppression of the Palestinians until better times. Everything flowed into one dense stream of anger, while Hamas and (far more devastating) IDF rockets targeted civilians. It’s possible that other parties will actively enter the war and turn the conflict into a regional catastrophe.
Emotional responses and support for Israeli escalation heavily dominated the initial public debate. And given that many of their authors are widely known for their consistent opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine, their statements about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have left an imprint. Despite everything that they read and saw, the Russian opposition’s audience easily identified with the aggressive Netanyahu government or at least considered Israeli civilians as the sole victims.
Coverage of Israeli war crimes is critical when massive ethnic cleansing could occur in the most densely populated area in the world.
The leftists (including those within Israel) are routinely criticized by the Russian liberal opposition for holding inappropriate (during a critical “battle with terrorism”) conversations about the fate of Palestinians. Their striving for equality and justice is opposed to a liberal-democratic common sense. Against this backdrop, it’s somewhat surprising that Russian liberal-democrats support the escalation of war. It is even more astonishing that Russian liberals have completely abandoned talk of human rights—a central pillar of Russian liberal-democracy.
We, leftists, are simply pointing to the need to acknowledge Palestinians’ human rights (the right to life, first and foremost) and Israeli war crimes: killing of civilians, the bombing of civilian infrastructure, and the use of weapons prohibited by international law. We also need to talk about alternatives that minimize civilian casualties and the humanitarian consequences of war. Instead, we see the proliferation of radical positions and groupthink, and attempts to sustain an anachronistic and highly problematic globalist narrative about the struggle of righteous liberal democracies against dictators and terrorists.
In recent years, a growing number of activists and socially conscious citizens in and outside Israel have called for de-escalation and changes to the media coverage of asymmetrical conflicts. Palestinian-Israeli experts have emphasized this need for change. Since 1967, the UN has established a committee to investigate Israeli violations of the human rights of Palestinians and other Arabs in the occupied territories. A recent report calls for a paradigm shift that moves away from “the narrative of “conflict” between Israelis and Palestinians” and recognizes Israel’s “intentionally acquisitive, segregationist and repressive settler-colonial occupation.” In another report, a UN expert on Palestinians rights calls for an end to apartheid and Israel’s 55-year occupation of Palestinian territory.
A terrifying but familiar picture defines life in the occupied territories: the seizure, annexation, fragmentation of land; the illegal settlement of Jewish Israelis into the West Bank; and Israeli security forces routine violence against Palestinians, including the killings of civilians.
Two million Palestinians live in the IDF blockaded Gaza Strip. The Strip is often described as world’s largest open-air prison. It lacks no full access to electricity, water or medicine, has a dysfunctional, Israeli controlled economy, and prohibits Palestinians’s free movement through the rest of Palestine or abroad.
UN experts point to the failure of international attempts to resolve the long-standing conflict. “These approaches confuse root causes with symptoms and serve to normalize the illegal Israeli occupation instead of challenging it. This is immoral and deprives the system of international law of its meaning”— says Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territory.
International human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and many others, including Israeli ones, recognize Israel’s actions as occupation and/or apartheid. Meanwhile, the human rights activists are regularly accused of antisemitism in their research, investigations, and reports. Take for example, the response to pro-Palestinian students and activists at Harvard University signing a statement in defense of Palestine and the population of Gaza. They’ve been aggressively doxed [the act of publicizing personal information without consent]. A conservative activist group exposed signatories’ photos and identities with the headline “Harvard’s Chief Anti-Semites.”
Many, including Russians, reject blind support for Israel and call for de-escalation, Palestinian rights and freedoms, and concrete solidarity with them (and not with Islamic terrorist groups!). Nevertheless, accusations of antisemitism, dogmatism and utopianism obstruct political debate and quickly discredit those insisting on the need to discuss crimes against humanity and immediate de-escalation.
Often underlining emotional posts on social media and harsh comments from the oppositional figures is an absolute conviction (conscious or not) in a total righteousness of liberal democracies. Israel, according to a common expression, is considered “an only democracy in the Middle East” and a reliable partner of Western countries. A painful combination of progressivism and Eurocentrism groups Russia, Palestine, and Arab, Asian and African countries as “backward” and contrasts them with “normal”, “developed” Western nations.
The cultural racism and imperialism among post-soviet liberal intellectuals vividly manifests itself in times of crisis and conflict. As Rossen Djagalov notes, the racist positions of Soviet liberal dissidents has traditionally worked at the intersection of two logics: the denial of officially declared Soviet values (internationalism, anti-racism, and support of anti-colonial struggles) and the acceptance of a civilizational hierarchy with the West at the top. The current Russian liberal opposition continues this tradition.
“I could care less about how many rockets democratic America fires on nondemocratic Iraq. I say the more, the better” — Valeriya Novodvorskaya stated at some point.
It is not surprising that similar rhetoric resurfaces again and again in the Russophone public sphere. We also heard it during the Black Lives Matter protests, migration crises, and escalation of the Palestine-Israeli conflict. Nowadays many independent Russian-language media are already picturing a Third World War as a global confrontation between dictatorships and democracies. Those who hesitate to equate Israel with the forces of good and a model of democracy are imagined as supporters of Hamas and terrorism. It doesn’t matter whether these critics are citizens of Russia, Europe or Israel.
Another “civilizing logic” also operates in Russian liberal discourse. “Barbarism” (!) will inevitably lose to “civilized” Israel. Thus, Ksenia Larina, a veteran journalist of 30 years (and former “Echo Moskvy” host) posted the following on social media: “What a deadly fire we all find ourselves in. Israel and Ukraine are trying to save the world from destruction and save civilization from the invasion of barbarians at the cost of dreadful loses to the lives of their citizens.”
Ignoring complex analysis, the historical, social and economic contexts, and structural inequalities around the world are sad symptoms of the degradation of Russian public sphere. Perhaps, the official position of the Kremlin and its propagandists will reinforce the refusal of Russian liberals to change their views regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict regardless of how many civilian casualties in Gazal. The refusal to see social and ethnic groups, rather than governments and civilizations, brings with it new outbursts of aggression. And obviously, this will not strengthen the call for peace in the contemporary chaos of global politics.