Jaspreet Oberoi is a blogger who recently had an article published in Ha’aretz, entitled “From Punjab to Palestine: Why young Sikhs like me are becoming pro-Palestinian activists.” I read it with interest, because I would like to know too.
I met some Sikhs in California, and had some in classes that I taught in the prehistoric 1970s. They were distinguished by being extremely hard workers who wanted to get along with everyone. The Sikh religion has a strong tradition of self-defense. They didn’t strike me as the type of folks that would be pro-Palestinian activists.
Oberoi’s photo shows a young man, probably in his 20s. He says in the article that he has lived in Canada for 8 years, having been born and raised in Punjab. He works as “a research scientist for a quantum computing company,” but his recent Twitter feed is peppered with links to his Ha’aretz article; he is clearly very pleased to have been published in what he calls “Israel’s longest running newspaper.” Maybe he has a future as a journalist, and not just a blogger with a day job?
So why is he becoming a pro-Palestinian activist? In his words,
Sikhs know what it feels to be effectively shooed out of your homeland and be forced to live in exile; what it’s like to be shot at “just for fun,” as target practice; what it’s like to be harassed daily by state security forces; what it’s like to have a seven year-old arrested on charges of “terrorism”; and what it’s like when the world simply ignores your plight.
One would think that such an experience would be precisely what would make someone a Zionist! But apparently that isn’t how it works.
When someone like Jaspreet Oberoi hears that some 59 “Palestinian protestors” were killed by Israeli snipers on May 14, he suffers “anguish, pain, remorse and disgust.” And later, his feelings were further assaulted by the lack of popular outcry over the “massacre” in Canada:
But after pacifying myself, when I peeked around, there was a stoic silence. At least nobody in Canada was celebrating or justifying the massacre, unlike many right-wingers across the globe, but there wasn’t a strong rebuke either.
Mr. Oberoi is immediately reminded of the horrific violence in India between Sikhs and the majority Hindus that began with Operation Blue Star in 1984 and the subsequent assassination of Indira Gandhi. He tells a story of a minority’s violent persecution, and how its complaints are ignored by the majority government and the rest of the world. And he keeps asking: does this sound familiar?
I admit that I am not competent to judge whether his account of the plight of the Sikhs in India is accurate. I’m sure there are facts and interpretations that he doesn’t mention, things I would hear about if I asked a supporter of Indian PM Modi. In any event, I am not about to write an article for an Indian newspaper about the Sikhs.
And of course there are things that Jaspreet Oberoi does not know about the Israeli-Arab conflict in general and recent events in Gaza in particular. For example, he doesn’t know that 53 of the 62 dead Gazans were operatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, according to spokespersons for those organizations, and that Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar, announced that “We will take down the border and we will tear out their hearts from their bodies.”
He does not understand that the “protest” was actually an attempted invasion, and that the IDF was defending Israel’s border and the people that live just a few minutes’ walk away from it, with what was actually the minimum force necessary.
Ha’aretz editors knew all this (it was in their own newspaper), even if Mr. Oberoi did not. They published his article anyway. But this post isn’t about Ha’aretz.
So we come back to the initial question: why does a young Sikh become a pro-Palestinian activist?
The cynical answer is that there is a demand for it. It is an easy way to get published in a prestigious venue, even if your writing isn’t of professional quality. Many Jews have taken this path with great success. A Jew attacking Israel has an authority that say, an Arab or European, doesn’t. But a Sikh presents an interesting, diverse, perspective too.
But I will give Mr. Oberoi the benefit of the doubt, and say that he simply doesn’t know any better. He is so deeply immersed in and affected by the real struggle of his own people, that he was triggered to write on a subject that he knew less than nothing about.
It’s a common psychological phenomenon. Each of us has his own story, and we impose it on chaotic reality that we don’t understand. To a woman who had an unpleasant divorce, every man looks like her jerk of an ex-husband. It’s not an accident that the idea of calling Israel an “apartheid state” arose in South Africa, or that Condoleezza Rice, Barack Obama, and the Movement for Black Lives have all drawn highly misleading parallels between Palestinian Arabs and African-Americans.
And why did he choose the Palestinians to identify with? Why not the Jews? Why indeed did he not end up a Zionist? Probably because he studied in Canada and that was the prevailing opinion. The easy, obvious choice.
It’s easier to apply a familiar pattern to a situation about which you are ignorant than to make the effort to learn about it. A good journalist or political analyst learns to avoid this trap. Mr. Oberoi hasn’t.