Who is worthy of a homeland?

The Zionist Project values Jewish life over Palestinian

Story by
Raji Kaur Aujla
January 10, 2024

This article contains subject matter that may trigger. Please read with care.


Surviving genocide


Genocide has been the subject of my inquiries since childhood. My father would tell us sakhis about Sikh genocides, ranging from the Mughal violence towards our Sikh gurus to the state-led pogroms against the Sikh people. Each generation of my family has stories of genocide. My paternal grandfather, Sardar Darshan Singh, lived through the 1947 partition as an army man. He personally witnessed the widespread bloodshed of hundreds of thousands of Sikhs that lost their lives when the British Raj drew an arbitrary line through the heart of Panjab as part of their purported two state solution. He would secretly save Muslim families and drive them to the newly created Pakistan. We don’t know how many lives he saved. He didn’t talk much about that time.

Satnam Singh, my mom’s brother, was almost a martyr to genocide in 1984. He was in Sant Jarnail Bhindranwale’s community, one which shared concerns over the survival of our religious future against the state-led religicide perpetuated on Sikhs across India. The fortification of the holy Harmandir Sahib took place after years of such systematic cleansing. When Indira Gandhi ordered tanks to Amritsar, the local Panjabi radios instructed all the Sikh men to make their way to Amritsar as well. This was before the Presidential Rule and media blackout. My uncle attempted to leave his home in Duhre several times before finally encountering the Panjab police at nightfall. They had been hiding around the perimeter of his home and fields since that morning. “Raji, unhāṁ nē sānū ghēra li’ā,” he once shared in our interview. They arrested and tortured him for an undisclosed period of time. They pulled out all his kes and beat his entire body. He also doesn’t speak about that time since he sought refuge in Canada. He’s still traumatized at the age of 75.

The preservation of identity and culture became imperative for the families that survived the partition and 1984 genocide. The migrant Sikh community that fled violence carried this responsibility to the next generation, my generation, at the border crossings. They attempted to build a conceptual homeland in the Canadian diaspora. The handful of Sikh families in the Okanagan came together to create an evening Panjabi school program. My siblings and I were enrolled and each Friday, we learnt our history and language that the public schools didn’t teach. This was before becoming a teacher myself to teach the generations that followed mine. My sisters and I played the harmonium and sang kirtan with the sangat on Sundays at our local Gurudwara. My brother accompanied us on the tabla. This private practice empowered the way I walked through the world publicly.

Material memory disappears with each generation that passes. And while we cannot speak to it or them, the past is stored in our bodies. The genocide of my own lineage continues to perpetuate to this day in ways known and unknown and this enables me to understand state resistance so intimately. The active genocide of Palestinians triggered all these ancestral memories. On the auspicious day of Bandi Chhor Divas, I exchanged heartbreak for my pen again, realizing that it’s only because my family survived genocide that we are here to speak against the genocide of others.


Vilification of survivors as terrorist


Suppose my curiosity with terrorism began when researching how media reported the Sikh genocide of 1984. The media blackout tried to suppress the insurgency and craft the narrative around it- the insurgency as an offense to the state not defense from it. The Air India bombings took place the year after Operation Blue Star which gave birth to the widespread (and global) terrorist marking that plagues Sikhism to this day. This coincided with India’s perpetuation of Sikhs as uncivilized and terrorists in media discourse, especially Bollywood film.

The misrepresented depictions of terrorism in Bollywood movies often originate from a common narrative- a child of loss. I’m thinking about Hrithik Roshan in Fiza and Mission Kashmir. Both films share a similar plot line, an innocent boy loses loved ones to state-led violence and at the extreme traumatic loss, justice or vengeance is sought when it is denied by the state. In doing so, he is no longer a human being permissible to love and to exist in conventional familial normalcy. He is seen preferring the life of what the film characterizes as terrorist because he chooses love of justice over love of life. And since this choice questions the state’s morality, he becomes a displaced radical rather than a citizen of state. It continues to fascinate me that the label of terrorist is applied so unilaterally and at the discretion of the person who occupies, often disproportionately, more power- in this case, both the storyteller and state.

The advancement of such markings on the Sikh body caused the public suppression of my Sikhi into private spaces as an adolescent. I didn’t want to appear in the ways the masses had concluded my people to be. I distanced the whole me from myself which I expand on later. Socio-cultural happenings were segregated to their own spaces as well. My Panjabiyat and Sikhi were practiced, with pride, in private containers. My white friends weren’t invited to those parts of me. They were limited to the parts of me that had assimilated to Canada. Such compartmentalizing proved successful until one Sunday morning when we didn’t lead the kirtan. I opened the front door to my parents with their heads covered and kirpans adorned outside their Panjabi garb. They took Amrit on Khalsa’s 300th anniversary. Now everybody in our town is going to know what I tried to conceal, our socio-religious and ethnic difference.

The first victim of hate crime in a retaliatory attack in North America after 911 was a Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was mistaken as Muslim. My fear of the markings on Sikh physicality were reified. My body was overcome with fear, walking through the Village Green Mall two steps behind my Amritdhari father staring at white people while they mistaken his beard and turban as markers of Islam and terrorism. I sought physical and conceptual distance. I recall how deeply I longed to be white skinned- desiring to merge into the sea of ease and privilege- distancing myself from my people that society deemed bad and uncivilized. The shame of being a colonial subject was passed down through my ancestral lines and rapidly flowed through my own veins. I understood deeply that the British Raj still lived and breathed and how much of what I used to feel was attributed to that.


The formalizing of a multiple consciousness


Franz Fanon’s account on double consciousness came to me much later when I pursued higher learning. This notion that a dark skinned black man understands and embodies his own identity while simultaneously carrying the burden of the white man’s gaze of his Blackness- this gave me much to think about. I categorized the page in my personal diary, dated April 14th, 1994, as my first written declaration to fragment my own self into multiple beings. “Be one way at home and be who you are at school.”  There’s no context on what led to such thoughts at nine years old. I do remember the pressure of invisibilizing my body and ideas- suppressing it to nonexistence. This created differing bodily schemas and consciousnesses that outlined who to be at home and how to be in public.

It took a series of social events, racist encounters in Canada’s art sector, and the learnings from teachers- that came in the form of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Brittney Cooper, Rinaldo Walcott, Susan Sontag, Judith Butler, Ariella Azoulay, and verses from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib- to understand where I belonged and how to forge together all the fragmented parts of me again. It took understanding the residual existence of the colonial project that continued to have lasting effects on its subjects- still casting us as subordinate.

The more “white” I postured myself to be, the more the distances between me and my brownness grew. This is one effect of cultural genocide. Adding Kaur to my name and publicly acknowledging my lineage was a proud moment during the pandemic. It marked the beginning of removing colonialist residue from my own identity. It marked the beginning of resisting fear and accepting love. This catalyzed my own duty to abolish and liberate, knowing that abolitionism had to begin from within before outward liberation. It took me 35 years to sew myself together.


Whose life is grievable?


These reflections on fragmentation are tied to my dialogue with terrorism. The state actively fragments the individual conscious and attempts to occupy each fragment it has created. It knows that healed and whole individuals can never be occupied. In the state’s constant thrust perpetuating genocide on a people, the Sikh people in my case, I’ve personally experienced the mental disassociation of traumatized minorities that survived or are surviving genocide. They are unable to get past the violent history since it continues to exist in the present time. Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh citizen in Canada, was assassinated by the Indian government on Canadian soil at his place of worship. This broke the hearts of the Sikh diaspora and intensified ideological disparities between Sikh separatists and the Indian government, signaling the need for a separatist state since Sikhs are evidently not safe within and outside Indian borders. My family, especially the men, have been glued to their electronic devices, trying to learn more about the future safety of their kin. Their past histories, never healed, has forced them into a state of re-triggered circumstance. They know what the state is capable of doing. An active state can never heal the minorities it subjugates and so, state resistance continues to grow.

My argument is not defending terrorism- it’s quite the opposite. I am curious to know when and how we evaluate whose life is grievable? My thoughts are to question the very foundation of our understandings of it. How do we interpret world events? Who keeps its records and continues to uphold power and agitate our own records? It’s speaking to the colonial language and its systems of dissemination that define events for us. It will tell us who is just and victorious for having invaded a country to clean it of its terrorism. It will never tell us who started the violence and who responded to what was started. How does the socio-economic and cultural dominance of a hegemonic bloc influence the identity and existence of people outside of it? The question we all need to ask is who the real terrorist is. Is it he who seeks justice when the state doesn’t provide it? Or is it the state, the perpetrators of the original crimes? We know the answer because we are bearing witness to it in Palestine. He is a terrorist but the state that terrorizes is not.

The victor (the West) has always perpetuated the dogma of the original colonial project and the subsequent imperial projects. He no longer defines border lines as much as it defines whose life we value and whose life we do not grieve. The critical research around Abu Ghraib ghost prisoners and their photographs supports the dehumanizing project of the supposed victor, the imperialists. The victoring state has magnified its use of the next arms weapon: culture. The state uses language, representation, media to perpetuate human value in the same way it commodifies consumer products. Which products are valuable and which are not worthy of a home? Similarly, whose life is grievable and whose life is not? Which lives are worthy of a home(land) and which are not. The Zionist Project stripped Palestinians of their human conscious when they defined them as terrorists. Terrorists aren’t seen as human.

They were successful in perpetuating this definition. The Western world does not value Palestinian lives. They value Jewish lives. Or they value Palestinian lives but not as much as they value their own freedom which is threatened if they show sympathies toward Palestine. The recent genocide has supported this claim, which is that, Palestinian lives are not grievable therefore they are unworthy of at most, swift international intervention or at the very least, the practice of law of war. Palestinian lives aren’t valued therefore, they aren’t permissible to a homeland. This is at the root of the hegemonic conscious.


Let’s speak about Palestine. 


The Zionist project is a settler colonialism- much like Canada- which is to say, their settler existence is predicated upon the elimination of the native in an effort to claim their land. Four activities were identified at the first Zionist Congress to establish and “…create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law:” (1) The promotion of Zionist (termed “Jewish”) immigration to Palestine; (2) The “Organization and binding together of the whole Jewry” through appropriate means; (3) “Strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and consciousness”; and (4) Taking steps towards “Obtaining Government consent” for the objectives of Zionism. In his diary, Dr. Theodor Herzl (who called the first congress) referred to public law as patronage of the imperialist powers. The largest barrier to enact these activities was finding a solution for the Palestinians who called Palestine home. In order to strengthen and foster Jewish national sentiment and consciousness, the removal of Palestinian consciousness had to occur.

And so, the Zionist project- similar to the colonialist project- had to make a case for why their occupation of those lands were morally just and the only way to do that was through questioning the legitimacy of the lives and morality of those who already reside there. We’ve seen, similar to the Sikh people, Palestinians painted as inhuman, barbaric, primitive, and terrorist in an effort to reduce their human value to the national and international consciousness. This isn’t a theory- Israel Defense Minister calls Palestinians ‘human animals’ in an open press conference. Even the news headlines use preferential language to continue their dehumanization strategic efforts since October 7th. We read that Israelis ‘have been killed’ versus Palestinian lives reported as simply ‘dead.’ What that signals to the conscious mind is that Israelis have been killed by Palestinians and that Palestinians are dead from causes unknown. If we dissect that further, Israel actively removes itself from any acts that will be seen as immoral, barbaric, and uncivilized. Israel distances itself from its terrorist activities.

This allows them to make a case that each life does not possess equal human dignity. As such, there’s been no efforts to make distinctions between civilians and combatants in Israel’s perpetual bombardment campaign. What’s worse is their intentional attacks on civilian spaces (hospitals, schools, media centers) that are protected under law of war. They’ve breached international human rights. The portrayal of all Palestinians- not just Hamas- as terrorist was imperative for Zionists to legitimize their war crimes.

So Israeli state’s continued oppression, subjugation, imprisonment, ethnic cleansing, and the current genocide of Palestine is strategic and designed. In The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Michael Mann identifies the steps a state takes to commit violent cleansing of a people. You kill the men, you rape and convert the women, you kill the children. How did I understand this? Palestinian men won’t be able to produce bloodlines. Women won’t be able to raise the children of the future. Murdering children kills any promise of future generations. The inhumane brutality of Israel makes them terrorists. I wonder if Hamas would’ve even existed if it weren’t for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. The international community has watched, therefore sanctioned, Israel’s systematic application of warfare on Palestine.

The dormancy of the international community is triggering. It’s painfully humbling, in the worst way imaginable, to know that you have no power to fight for human rights or protect others. It’s hard to continue living your life when you are destabilized and disengaged to the point of numbness. This genocide impacts me at every level from how to advocate to how to avoid the trauma triggering burn out that I never experienced before.

Resharing videos and images of the Palestinian people at their most vulnerable feels morally and ethically wrong after reading Frederick Douglass’s voyeur account of Aunt Hester’s whipping by slave owner Captain Anthony. Here Douglass recounts, with immaculate description, the trauma he watched from a closet as a witness participant. He wanted to convey the horrible brutality of enslavement without recognizing that the story was not his story to share. It was the trauma that belonged to his aunt when she was at her worst and her story was published without her consent. This sharing also perpetuates the imperialist image of Blacks- always linking them with their subordination as slaves. By not sharing and circulating the images of Israeli barbarism murdering Palestinian children, there would be no counter narrative to Israeli war propaganda and false information depicting Palestinians as terrorists. Such inner monologues paralyze(d) me. Such ethical dilemmas continue to plague me.

What else can we do? Write letters, join protests, sign petitions to elected politicians, read essays from Jewish and Palestinian academics, commission essays, check in on Palestinian friends. Nothing seems adequate. Nothing erases the gnawing reality of our government failing us. Rinaldo Walcott calls it the bankrupt morality of Canada’s political class when outlining Canada’s settler colonial institutions seeking only to keep their structure and power unchanged. He describes it as situational morality of political leaders, of rights, of international law, of rule of war, and of supranational organizations like the United Nations when they remain silent during international events threatening public good.

There’s nothing more terrifying than one person or a people thinking they are better than another. He sees difference. He will always choose hatred over love. As the chosen man, he will kill based on ethnicity or religion while those he chooses to kill are men who cradle their dead daughters to rest. And while the mass people scream against such a choosing, those who choose just one self, remain silent. Thus what’s terrifying becomes infuriating. We begin to seek justice for those lives seen as less valuable. But from whom? The real terrorists are the ones defining terrorism. So does that mean we’re terrorists now? Observe those who remain silent during this genocide.

Canada, you are late to act. We have failed and continue to fail Palestine. We fail our own commitments to truth and reconciliation by not practicing them globally when it’s been needed the most. You will always be on the wrong side of history. I’ll never forget the feeling of such disheartened disillusionment, disappointment, and hopelessness.

May the souls of murdered Palestinians rest in power and rejoice in peace. May South Africa prevail in the ICJ genocide case against Israel.


This work is dedicated to Wael El DahDouh and the memory of his son Hamza and all war correspondents in Gaza who are exchanging their lives to archive their existence.