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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 19, 2024

Op-ed: The romanticization of suicide and martyrdom: Israel and Palestine

Content warning: This article discusses suicide.

On Feb. 25, a U.S. Air Force service member named Aaron Bushnell tragically self-immolated in front of the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C.. When I heard the news, I was upset because I, like most reasonable people, see suicide as a sad act committed by those who are likely mentally ill and in need of help. But I was shocked to find out that what seemed to me to be a cry for help was instead perceived by many as a courageous act of protest by a martyr. If one asked why I thought he was mentally ill, I would respond with the Latin phrase “res ipsa loquitur,” or “the thing speaks for itself.” No one of sound mind would commit an act such as suicide. Yes, self-immolation has been used in the past as a form of ‘protest,’ but it’s still extremely harmful to think that there is anything productive about it. Even if Bushnell was of sound mind when he burnt himself to death, we should not be celebrating suicide.

All of this led me to think about the romanticization of suicide and martyrdom by many people, specifically in the context of the Israel-Hamas conflict. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, a group that according to Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant had at least 42 members who participated in the deadliest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust on Oct. 7, and that has an estimated 1,200 Hamas members in their ranks, has a history of radicalizing Palestinians. According to a report by the Israeli nonprofit Impact-SE, textbooks used in UNRWA schools teach that those who die as martyrs will go to paradise, and that specifically, “Palestinian girls are encouraged to kill, be killed, and send their children to die.” According to the report, these textbooks glorify martyrdom and jihad as “an essential part of Islamic faith.”

This indoctrination has impacts across Palestinian society. Although UNRWA is most known for its presence in Gaza, the Palestinian National Authority also has a history of indoctrination in their textbooks, which has tangible ramifications. According to Al Jazeera, some Palestinian teens have said they want to grow up to become martyrs. Not only that, but the Palestinian National Authority has spent over $170 million annually on payments to the families of “martyrs” who “[participated] in the struggle against the occupation,” in a system referred to by critics as “Pay for Slay.” This reaffirms the belief that Palestinians and their families will be rewarded for dying in a way that hurts Israel (and the West).

Ironically, since those being called martyrs have died opposed to Israel and Western allies, support among Americans for martyrs has been growing, particularly regarding Aaron Bushnell. The Instagram account “palestinianyouthmovement” made a post romanticizing Bushnell’s actions, saying, “The word for martyr in Arabic, ‘shaheed,’ translates to ‘witness,’ ... Aaron Bushnell is a martyr. … Let Aaron’s words and last act burn brightly in our conscience, let it propel us, let it move us to continue struggling for a Free Palestine, now and until the hour of liberation.” By calling him a martyr, they are painting this tragic act in a positive light. This is blatant romanticization on a post with over 591,000 likes. And the same is true on TikTok: The account “alluringskull” has made a video further romanticizing it. The post says things such as “self-immolation is one of the ultimate forms of protest,” and has over 963,000 likes.

This is also seen right here on campus. In November, Tufts saw posters with the slogan “Glory to the Martyrs,” including names of members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas’ militant wing), who were killed trying to hurt Israelis. While there is a difference between self-immolation and dying in a fight as a terrorist, there is a common thread: the belief that needless death and suffering of innocents will bring an end to this conflict. There is still so much morally wrong with using death in any way as a form of ‘protest’ or ‘resistance,’ and this was punctuated with the glorification of Aaron Bushnell’s suicide.

I fail to see how anyone with a conscience can justify killing oneself for any cause, no matter what side of the debate they fall on, but that’s what’s happening now among anti-Israel activists. I think if any supporter of Israel were to commit suicide for a cause, their peers would almost certainly condemn it immediately. However, that’s not happening among anti-Israel activists, and it’s terrifying. Praising Aaron Bushnell for self-immolating could send the message to the 12 million United States adults who have seriously considered suicide — and especially the 25.5% of 18-24 year olds —  that they would be better off dead for a cause than alive. This behavior is dangerous to glorify; instead, we should be wishing Bushnell had gotten the help he needed and encouraging others to seek it if needed. I sincerely hope that we as a society can bypass this newfound wave of indoctrination and recognize that suicide is not an act of heroism, but instead an act of desperation.