Global, Israel, Politics

Towards a More Productive Progressive Response on Gaza

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. 
Gaza conflict interactive map

(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.

11 thoughts on “Towards a More Productive Progressive Response on Gaza

  1. Reposted with a legitimate e-mail address:
    General agreement, but one thing I might pull out for comment: “The Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza, are, indisputably, oppressed.” Yes, but by whom? It is too easy to credit Hamas with having been “democratically elected.” First, that was a long time ago at this point but second and more importantly after their electoral victory they forced the also elected minority parties out of the country at gunpoint in a bloody coup d’etat and have since ruled by the usual totalitarian playbook, controlling the media and suppressing dissent. They murder “collaborators” in the streets for a reason. Israel allows in remarkable materiel despite the blockade and international agencies help as much as they can as well but the people suffer while the Hamas regime invests in offensive (and criminal in that they explicitly target civilians and endanger the population by being stored in civilian facilities and neighborhoods) weapons and an extensive network of bomb shelters *for themselves* but pointedly and intentionally none for the people.
    Briefly, a word about that Israeli blockade. It was imposed *2 years* after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza *in response to* Hamas’ aggression against Israeli civilians.
    Oppressed? Yes. By Hamas.

  2. Excellent perspective. I would consider myself one of those leftist who is having a difficult time appreciating the jewish side of things and my judgement may be clouded by the fact that i believe money and political power dictate the terms. I do think that the jewish community deserved to have their own homeland in the area and that this migration could not happen without hardship on both sides. However from a land perspective things have gotten so terribly worse the palestinians. Creating more and more settlements because you have the might to do so does not make it right. One can say the palestinians should have taken their best offer when they had the chance. What is clear to me is that if the military power was even on both sides the 2 state solution would have been reached many years ago and that if peace is eventually reached it will mostly be under israels terms.

  3. The overwhelming fact remains the rockets were the same pretext for attacking Gaza that Israel used in 2008 (Reuters 05-01-2009 via Wikipedia). It becomes less believable and less credible in its repetition, not more.
    So there is a gap between action and speech. It indeed fits the idea of a “release valve” — every friend of a Zionist on Facebook is well aware of the constant updates by the IDF of rockets into Israel. Less well known is the nationwide exercise the Israeli government undertook in 2009 to make the threat of war “feel real.” (Jun 2009 Al Jazeera). To get a sense of how strong this need is, created and encouraged by both sides, there is even outrage against Netanyahu for imposing a ceasefire.
    The question remains how to judge Israel’s actions once the pretext falls apart. One thing I agree with leftists on is terrorism is not defensible. The CRIF, a French Zionist organization of Jewish groups, and Fox News, pointed to several causes for the war. Benjamin Netanyhu is facing an election (CRIF noted many more). He can perhaps sacrifice the 4% of Israelis who question the war (Haaretz November 2012), while winning over the majority of Israelis who want to see the government do more to stop the violence (Brookings 2011). The picture between two people fighting each for a defensible cause starts to fall down with consideration of these facts.
    The CRIF — in my opinion — had a good reason to involve their broken Western sensibilities in the conflict. French Jews report being attacked increasingly as the Israel-Palestine conflict heats up. Further, it’s hard to miss the parallel between French Jews and Israel on the one hand, and Gazans and Iran on the other.
    The question remains as to what violence resolves when it’s practiced under the right pretext. There are lessons that Jews can bring to the table. A Reform Rabbi denied America a biblical pretext for its most cruel and violent adventure, slavery. Man is created free, he noted, not in a state of violence or in an egotistical power trip. This seems to hold true even under the whip.
    When Frederick Douglass fought his master, he probably had a good reason. But even then, it wasn’t necessary for his freedom, he noted. That came from his previous master who, after realizing he was learning to read, became furious. By reacting with outrage and violence, his master had proven to him he was taking the first step to his freedom. Jews then can argue to the Palestinians that it is their writers and artists, and extending the lesson to the Civil Rights movements, their successful petition to the UN. It becomes harder to do this when their media apparatus is bombed. (LA Times Nov 18)
    With Cole’s perspective in mind, one fact should increase the critical attitude one takes to character reforming (the “adventurer” character in Max Weber’s “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”).The Weberian philosophy looked at in this fashoin points to an economical, not a moral or ideological problem. In short, it’s about having control over land. And it’s confirmed in the founding records. Israel’s first immigrants were encouraged to create a new “character” and as noted above, this is enforced with mass fear-inducing spectacles on both sides.
    You want to educate and that’s all I can applaud. Imposing character reformation is not.

  4. @Lewis Tupper- your views are a paradigm of the problem this article is discussing. The notion that Netanyahu started a war to increase his relection chances are demonstrably false.
    1) In the days before the conflict (as was the case before Cast lead in 2008) there was intense spike in missle fire from Gaza well beyond the “normal” (why there is a normal or an acceptable frequency for citizens to have to run to bomb shelters is beyond me). Its quite clear from this alone that both here and in 2008, Israel was provoked into the conflict in order to end the incessant attacks on the Southern region. The fact that these conditions happened twice doesn’t make them less true.
    2) Netanyahu did not need to boost his poll numbers. At the time of the conflict, all polls indicated him winning by a landslide. I think he’s still the strong favorite, but I believe his numbers have gone down a bit since the war.
    For a more thorough rebuttal of the ridiculous election-motivation claim, see

  5. @Avraham To respond to your claim that my view is a “paradigm of the problem the article is discussing” I will try to defend it. I hope after resolving confusions of my points, it should be clear it is not ridiculous to agree with most Israelis on something very obvious: the Israeli government should “do more for peace.”
    This response is in several parts. The first is asking you to address dissent in Israel. I hope this will break the good/bad distinction between Hamas and Israel. I’ll look at the counter-evidence to my argument that there is terrorism in Netanyahu’s war. I hope this leads to holding whoever is responsible accountable and makes the world more comprehenisbile. For the sake of clarity, I will then show I did consider the rockets, highlight the context, and conclude with why what I’m saying is relevent, overall.
    I think you have some of the same ideas. I think this about everyone — we all circuit the same thoughts. You and I both understand what violent political opportunism looks like when we look at the fate of Palestinian dissidents, since when “such groups do anything directly against Hamas’s interests, they are quickly and ruthlessly repressed.” I have to wonder what evidence is there to show Israel is different (or the US government, which supports it). In contrast to Hamas’s terrorism, you argue there is no dissent to suppress in Israel, because no party did it. Where is Israeli opinion? Maybe one in twenty Israelis are with me on this.
    I have only seen you present two pieces of new information to defend the government’s claim of self-defense: “there was [an] intense spike in missle fire from Gaza” and “Netanyahu did not need to boost his poll numbers.” I think it’s reasonably self-evident these already contradict your doubt. Netanyahu went to war and is slated to win. But Netanyahu’s poll numbers are dropping now because, well, he stopped bombing. Israelis want the bombing and like him for doing it — and like a pressure valve with more steam to blow off — many are dissappointed. They unfortunately want more. Is that story innacurate? Regardless of the answer, Netanyahu’s current polling also is not evidence against opportunism, because information from the future does not exist in an opportunist’s mind except in the form of vague speculation — a terrible sickness spread by the wars themselves. If we imagine this is a general problem his bad polling is only one sign.
    There is more to say about this but first I want to clarify how I understand the rockets, because I think you are confused. You do know the facts I’m reasoning from, since you argue “that both here and in 2008, Israel was provoked into the conflict in order to end the incessant attacks on the Southern region.” This is Maslow’s man with a hammer only seeing a nail, not Aesop’s shepherd crying wolf. I will restate my point of my comment’s opening paragraph. “It [the pretext for war] becomes less believable and less credible in its repetition, not more.” Yet you make the claim that I denied that conditions of provocation exist — “that these conditions happened twice doesn’t make them less true.” I denied the presumption of war being effective, which the last round of rockets demonstrated, not the fact of the rockets. It is neccesary to see both my reason and the facts to understand my argument.
    The issue still merits more nuance than you give me credit for. I do not conclude only that Netanyahu undertook the bombing to increase his election chances. I also wrote I’m concerned by “mass fear-inducing spectacles on both sides” (rockets obviously included) and discouraged with a “picture between two people fighting each [other] for a defensible cause” because it “starts to fall down with consideration of” repeated actions of war that do not end rockets (to which I add the suspicision of Netanyahu’s engaging in terrorism). Rockets are still neccesary to understand this, because terrorists are dependent on a version of that picture. But who gets to say what the last straw is?
    Even if it is Gaza’s rockets it’s only the last straw though when others come before it. How does Hamas stay in power? How did they get to power? How did King this or King that stay in power? Is bombing a Palestinian media complex not the same kind of terrorism? Does that really weaken Hamas? Were the 2009 exercises I cited, intended to make a threat that never came “feel real” not an attempt at suppressing dissent? The conditions for war are “created and encouraged by both sides” — not just Netanyahu’s election.
    So I am not arguing from a strange category of facts that are “less true.” I’m citing mainstream facts, from the same internet you have access to, and interpreting them through everyday, common observations. The only thing difficult to find is there are reports of spikes in attacks against these particular French Jews, who I believe share a common experience with Israelis and Palestinians alike. It’s in French, readable with Google Translate.
    You disagree with this context, citing mainly the Israeli government. But since understanding is a liberty to use the knowledge one possesses, I respect only the authority of reason, not power. Should I also believe Hamas when it says it is resisting legitimately with these rockets, when it is not? These questions do not appeal to power for a reason. With only 4% dissent, it is not a “beneficial” way for a politician to complain (quoting “rubinreports”): “that Israel had no reasonable motive and no need to go to war” must become “ridiculous” because the Israeli government didn’t consider it. All the more reason to make the case.
    I invite you to read the critical scholarship, with patienece and a softer heart, at least at first. It’s not just government short-sighted improvisations on the facts, but the people harmonizing to them exclusively that makes the symphony intolerable of life intolerable enough to encourage these wars. I simply take this idea and apply it to the Israeli government’s relationship with its own people, and Jews around the world, to account for my country’s interests (the US). I cited people in sympathy to Israel that suffer spikes in attacks according to their own observed pattern (so it’s not just a Lewis Tupper paradigm). I suspect Mr. Cole’s views are an excellent rebuttal against this, and I’m happy to hear an argument that I have not held myself to it as much as I think I do.

  6. “just because one side has access to more military technology … b) HAS ABSOLUTELY NO NECESSARY IMPACT ON THE MORALITY OF THEIR ACTIONS”
    actually it does, and this doesn’t go without being discussed. all ethics of war theories and doctrines take into account the relative strengths, political situations, technologies, etc. of the parties to conflict. whether Hamas is running a government that is accountable to its people is a real question, and whether the Israeli government is acting in accordance with its citizens’ wishes and/or best interests is also germane.
    I would say no and no, and that both sides are in fact imposing collective punishment (considered unethical in any situation) on each other – albeit with radically different scales, tools, outcomes etc. – but the ethics of ‘collateral damage’ are in fact complex and absolutely do ride on the adversaries’ access to technology.

  7. Lewis Tupper –
    1) I apologize if I did not give you enough credit in thinking through and researching your ideas. That said, I’m afraid I did not understand how your response addressed the two points I brought against the election-motivation theory. My lack of understanding may be completely my fault, but I don’t see how you can see anything else if Israel tends to only go to war when it is severely attacked.
    2)I would like to address two of the points you made in your response:
    A) Questioning the effecacy of war in response to the rockets: I think everyone would agree that war of this nature is not a long term fix. However, when the a million citizens can no longer go about their daily routine because of a barrage of rocket fire, a band-aid may be needed. Currently Israeli’s in the South are enjoying the relative quiet that comes with not running to a bomb shelter on a 15 second notice multiple times a day. Perhaps if Israel maintains its deterence (something clearly not done after the Cast Lead in 2008), this quiet can last for some time.
    B) That Israeli’s like the bombing and are upset that it ceased: Herein lies a big societal difference between Israel and Gaza. Israeli’s do NOT like bombing or any violence and do not celebrate it as a means. There were no mass public celebrations or shows of jubilation at the death of Ahmad Jabari. Bombing Gaza was seen here as a necessary action to halt the rocket attacks. Israeli’s were NOT upset that the bombing stopped, rather many expressed concern that halting that what was done was not sufficient to bring the longest possible period of peace to the Southern cities. This is not to say that all Gazans celebrate death and violence as an end, just to point out that such public celebrations seem to be acceptable on the streets of major Gazan cities.

  8. @Avraham
    1) I’ll put it more simply. If Mr. Jones wins the lottery next year, it is not evidence that he was smart in quitting his job yesterday. Similarly, “Netanyahu’s current polling also is not evidence against opportunism, because information from the future does not exist in an opportunist’s mind except in the form of vague speculation…” etc.
    A) I see where you’re coming from. You’re looking short-term. That’s fine.
    B) Again, you are confused. I did not say Israelis “like” or “celebrate” the bombing. I said they “want” it and “like” Netanyahu for doing it. It’s unfair to characterize my opinion in this way especially after I went through the trouble of learning what Israelis believe and accounting for it in my response. And though I see very little reason to do this kind of experiment you propose (I doubt people are all that different), one would have to compare Israelis who have prevented a repeated ground invasion to show “a societal difference” exists.

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