This is a guest post by Sandy Johnston. Sandy is a recent graduate of List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary and of Columbia University, where he majored in Bible and Archaeology, respectively. He currently lives in Chicago. His interests include, in addition to the study of ancient Israel, railroads and transit systems, urbanism, Israeli and American politics, and critical thought about the future of the American Jewish community. And cats.
(Map of verified incidents, Monday, November 19, 2012. Via the Guardian.)
Now that the latest bout of bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip is behind us, the time has come for analysis, postmortems, prognostication, and punditry. I take issue with a particularly simplistic, troublesome, and unhelpful strand of what passes for “progressive” thought on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that surfaced in threads I saw on Facebook during the latest round of fighting. My desire is not to legitimize Israel’s operations against Gaza nor to delegitimize criticism of the same; in the vein of criticizing most heavily those with whom one most identifies, I write to hopefully help sharpen the arguments and solutions that my fellow progressives put forward about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yes, if I had the energy, I would write a response to some of the equally unsophisticated, idiotic, hurtful, and insensitive propaganda that came from the “Pro-Israel” side.
The following quotes, in italics, are actual quotes from Facebook commenters, from people I know to be or can surmise to identify as progressives or leftists. My reaction to each follows.
“at this point in operation “pillar of cloud,” blood has actually only been spilled on one side…”
The first quote was, even at the time it was posted (for what it’s worth, before any Israelis were killed), simply factually inaccurate. More perniciously, it its willful ignorance of the casualties caused both in the long and short term by rockets flying out of Gaza, it both disregards reality (a cardinal sin against leftism, in my estimation) and seems to put forth an intellectual framework where body counts alone are the determinant of morality. This latter would, at the very least, seem an extraordinarily naïve and simplistic way of understanding geopolitics. It’s a narrative in which origins of violence don’t matter, intentions don’t matter, provocations don’t matter, and analysis of the situation doesn’t matter—the important thing is to feel outrage for what is going on without considering the background. (this is a theme we’ll come back to).
“i truly dont understand why Israeli nationalists chose to not acknowledge that already 3 young children were brutally murdered, along with 6 others. How can Jews not see the imbalance of military power? Why is it so easy for Israel and its die-hard supporters to justify murdering Palestinians?!”
At the risk of sounding like a hasbaranik, I will note very quickly that it sullies the memory of the victims of actual massacres such as Wounded Knee, My Lai, (or, for that matter, Sabra and Shatilla!) to uncomplicatedly call the accidental deaths of civilians in the context of a military operation against a military target murder. Tragic? Absolutely. Criminal? Yes, sometimes. But always murder? Until the day the Messiah appears, no.
More problematic is the question of “How can Jews not see the imbalance of military power?” The assumption here is that imbalances of military power are intrinsically immoral. Because yes, the situation in the Middle East would be SO MUCH BETTER if Hamas had tanks, F-16s, and smart bombs (not to mention nukes!). More fundamentally, just because one side has access to more military technology a) doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to “win” a given conflict and b) HAS ABSOLUTELY NO NECESSARY IMPACT ON THE MORALITY OF THEIR ACTIONS. I can provide a long list of examples for a), but for now, let’s just cite the successive British, Soviet and American invasions of Afghanistan, which are prime examples of the ability of a less-well-equipped irregular force being able to eventually defeat (or at least fight to a draw) a better-equipped enemy. I think b) stands on its own as a logical point. One might make the argument that being better-equipped and more powerful makes an actor (in the international relations sense of the term) more likely to abuse their position. But even if one accepts that argument, it doesn’t make sense to extend it to say that it necessitates that actor behaving immorally or abusing their position.
Finally, I think the writer’s designation of Zionist Americans and Israelis as “Israeli nationalists” is telling as a look into the mindset of a certain segment of the Left. In this segment, ethnic nationalism is not just passe, it is an actively malevolent force that must be combated. Here’s the problem with applying that to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: even if ethnic nationalism is supposedly irrelevant to the Western left, it is still remarkably relevant to the peoples engaging in the conflict. Wishing ethnic nationalism away—and condemning it willy-nilly—isn’t going to help solve the conflict. In fact, it represents an imposition of a very particular Western framework onto a conflict which defies almost any easy classification.
“a people with no army, no state, and who live in an open air prison are being shelled by one of the world’s strongest militaries.”
Let’s start with the factual problems. For one thing, the same person who posted this comment also posted in the same thread that the rocket fire out of Gaza was “in response to the assassination of an elected office holder in Gaza.” You can’t have it both ways! Even if your “state” isn’t recognized by the international community, that doesn’t deny the reality of its existence. I don’t think any serious analyst would disagree that Hamas has set up—after yes, being democratically elected—a de facto state in Gaza. They have their own internal and foreign policy, they have officeholders parallel to those in a state government (a point that should be apparent to your average liberal NPR listener, given that All Things Considered interviewed Hamas’ deputy foreign minister on Friday the 16th!), and, yes, they have their own army. It’s called the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam (forgive me for the presumably horrid Arabic transliteration—it’s from Wikipedia) Brigades, and it’s what Ahmed Jabari, of dearly departed memory, was in charge of. Hamas’ Gaza may not be a full state, in the classic Weberian sense, because they do not yet have a monopoly on force within Gaza; but again, no serious analyst would dispute that they are certainly striving for that goal. For what it’s worth, media that I have seen compared Jabari’s role in Gaza to that of the Ramatkal, or Chief of Staff, of the Israeli army—making him a military, not a civilian, figure. And guess what? Assassinating a military figure of a government you’re at way with may not be smart—but it’s probably not illegal. It’s also worth noting that the Palestinians have in the past had something even closer to a standing army than what Hamas has now. It was called the Palestine Liberation Organization, and for a number of years it controlled swaths of territory in southern Lebanon, complete with its own trained fighters and heavy artillery, including Katyusha rockets that put the piddly Kassams being shot out of Gaza to shame (but were probably equally inaccurate). The militant group Hezbollah carries on that mantle today, to a large extent. I won’t really dispute the characterization of Gaza as an “open-air prison”–it is a pretty horrid place to live–but I will point out (again) that if it’s a prison, the inmates are well-armed and seem to have every ability to conduct their own foreign policy.
My point here, though, is not to educate someone who feels qualified to comment on the Israel-Gaza situation but has little command of the facts at hand. I’m more interested in the conceptual failings of the kind of leftism that seems to discard critical thinking (including fact-finding) as a value when it comes to the Israel-Gaza conflict. I think the outline of the state of Gaza that I put together above probably has something to do with it. It’s hard for the Left to recognize that the oppressed Palestinians (and I’m not using that description sarcastically) of the Gaza Strip have had the chance to put together their own demi-state—and have done so with values categorically opposed to those of the Left. Hamas’ Gaza is increasingly under totalitarian, theocratic rule. The elected government has been in power for five years, and there are no prospects for new elections on the horizon. Indeed, some of the ugliest images of the recent fighting came courtesy not of Israel, but of Hamas fighters who dragged the bodies of six alleged collaborators through the streets of Gaza behind motorcycles. Attacks on Israel—primarily on Israeli civilians—have not abated, but have increased. No, Gaza is not fully “liberated.” Yes, it is still subject to Israeli violence. But I don’t think it’s unfair to say that some leftists may shut their eyes to some of the facts on the ground because they just don’t like what they see.
“They are firing missiles from F-16s into a defenseless population.”
Why, though, are so many on the left so invested in seeing the Palestinians as “a defenseless population”? The Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza, are, indisputably, oppressed. They don’t have access to a full range of economic, educational, and political opportunities. They live largely under the thumb of what is an indisputably powerful military that has not always used its force wisely or carefully. Life in Gaza can be violent and is prone to being upended at any time. And yes, Israel is to blame for a lot of that (though I would argue that the leadership of the Palestinians and of the Arab world shares a lot of responsibility).
One thing that the people of the Gaza Strip are NOT is defenseless. As noted above, the Palestinians in fact have a decades-long tradition of armed resistance, dating back to the arming of Palestinian “infiltrator” groups by Arab governments bordering Israel after the 1948 war, and progressing through the PLO and other groups, Fatah, and now Hamas. They also have a de facto state that enjoys wide—and increasing–support throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Turkey and Egypt, in fact, have been having something of a geopolitical spat over who gets to be the rightful protector of the Palestinians in Gaza—a role Egypt and its new Muslim Brotherhood-run government (the same group that spawned Hamas) seems to be winning, especially given President Morsi’s successful brokering of a the cease-fire that ended the latest bout of fighting.
In this context, the claim of Western leftists that Gazans are “defenseless” seems like a quaint, almost Orientalizing characterization. It wouldn’t be the first time that the international left has, in its zeal to “help,” glossed over the more-complex realities of a situation. There’s a lot of classical leftist thought that sees the world, particularly what it sees as the colonial world, as divided up into oppressors and the oppressed, with all of the agency in the interaction on the side of the oppressors. I would argue that much of Western leftist thought on the Israeli-Palestinian situation falls into this category. We can dispute whether a binary oppressor/oppressed framework fits the reality on the ground in Israel/Palestine, but part of what we need to consider is that the most nuanced aspects of leftist thought have, in fact, moved past that simplistic duality.
As a student of ancient history and archaeology, I was bombarded during my last couple years of college with articles on topics of colonialism, political agency, and balances of power both in the ancient and more modern worlds. The clear direction of academic thought on the topic is to understand that even the most oppressed peoples hold some agency, some ability to mediate their own situation and to negotiate (in whatever way, be it political, economic, or military) their relationship with a colonizer or oppressor. (Aside: with anthropologists having spent the last 40 years or so beating themselves up for the colonialist history of their discipline, is the next wave in anthropology for anthropologists to beat themselves up for stripping oppressed peoples of their agency in the name of anti-colonialism? Stay tuned!) It seems, then, like the activist Western left may be a) a little bit behind the times and b) actively participating in stripping the Palestinians of their own agency. Why?
A lot of ink has been spilled over the question of why the Western left is so fascinated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My interest here is more narrow. Why, when Israel bombs Gaza, do many leftists invest themselves in seeing Gazans as defenseless innocents, to the exclusion of all ability to see nuance and complexity and to examine the origins of the conflict, not to mention essentializing Gazans and refusing to acknowledge their agency? I’m sure the answers are as varied and diverse as the views of the left in general are. That being said, the reaction of people such as the one quoted above reminds me of little more than what Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole labeled “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” In short, Cole accuses Westerners who are eager to help mitigate humanitarian disasters in Africa and elsewhere—more or less to feel like they’re “doing something”–of at best ignoring and at worst actively avoiding dealing with the (policy and environmental) reasons behind those disasters. As he explains in targeting New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, “All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.” But really, go read the article. It’s worth it. And then, if you consider yourself a progressive, as I do, take its lessons to heart and keep them in mind next time another round of bloodshed erupts in the Middle East.