[Column] Shock and grief, moral judgments, and politics

Posted on : 2023-11-28 17:18 KST Modified on : 2023-11-28 17:18 KST
Maybe instead of erasing the historical traumas that haunt them, Jews and Palestinians should establish solidarity on the fact that they were (and are) both victims of Western racism
Palestinians take shelter after an Israeli air raid on Rafah, in southern Gaza, on Nov. 23, despite the pause on fighting. (Xinhua/Yonhap)
Palestinians take shelter after an Israeli air raid on Rafah, in southern Gaza, on Nov. 23, despite the pause on fighting. (Xinhua/Yonhap)
By Slavoj Žižek, Global Eminent Scholar at Kyung Hee University

The first rule of any inquiry into the background of the ongoing war in Gaza is that there should be no taboos. As Peter Hitchens pointed out, all big solutions (two states, one big democratic state) sound impossible today, and the only glimmer of hope is the renewal of everyday collaboration and contacts between Jews and Palestinians. But, as he added, with justified sarcasm, these contacts were much more abundant before the big diplomatic attempts to bring peace — attempts that resulted in even worse tensions and violence. The solution is thus impossible and necessary.

So, first, we should not be afraid to raise the questions that are carefully avoided by most of those who emphasize the distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian majority brutally exploited by Hamas: what if the majority of Palestinians, while not actively supporting Hamas, nonetheless admire it as the only organization which has the balls not just to complain against Israel but to openly attack it?

Second, in what is known as Black September of 1970, Jordan’s King Hussein killed more Palestinians in 11 days than Israel killed in 20 years, and it was none other than Pakistan’s General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, then a brigadier but later a dictator, who helped King Hussein carry out the massacre of over 20,000 Palestinians. And so the story about Muslims killing other Muslims goes on: What about the Iraqi invasion of Iran, what about the hundreds of thousands of Muslims killed by Assad in the Syrian civil war, what about the fact that, between March 2022 and June 2023, Saudi border guards killed hundreds of Ethiopian Muslim migrants attempting to cross the border from Yemen into the oil-rich kingdom?

Where is the much-declared solidarity among Muslims? Why are there no mass demonstrations about these killings? It is as if the Muslim world performed the operation described by Lacan as that of the “quilting point,” exchanging the multiple mass killings among Muslims themselves for the one smaller killing or oppression, that of Palestinians by the state of Israel.

Wouldn’t the true victory over Israel be if a revolt in one Muslim country were not to end up in new fundamentalist authoritarianism? Is there one Muslim country that functions as a democracy? When public protests in Algeria and Egypt mostly organized by educated secular youth compelled the military elite in power to allow free elections, the silent majority of Muslim fundamentalists won, so that liberal-secular protesters grudgingly approved a new military takeover.

Third, one cannot but note an anti-Semitic context in many of those who praise Israel. In a letter defending Israel from my critical remarks, Vinko Ošlak, a Slovene Catholic author, concludes that the main problem of Israel “is neither Hamas nor ‘the King of the North,’ as the Bible calls the next great aggressor on Israel (Russia-Iran-Turkey), it is its own persistence in sin, its own fall from God, since Israel is today maybe the most atheist country in the world.”

Good luck with such defenders! No wonder that even many extreme rightists who are as a rule anti-Semitic — take Marine le Pen in France — now totally support Israel! With regard to the topic of terror, it is not something that occurs only on the Palestinian side: Israel hides its own skeletons in its closet. Seyla Benhabib pointed out that the members of the present government of Israel are “the legatees of a long line of Judeo-fascism, which none other than Albert Einstein, joined by Hannah Arendt and Sidney Hook, denounced in their open letter to the NY Times on December 2, 1948, titled ‘New Palestine Party: Menachem Begin and Aims of Political Movement Discussed.’”

They write: “Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the ‘Freedom Party’ (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.”

“Today the legatees of this party and movement — Likud was established by Menachem Begin — are in power in Israel and they have brought upon Israel the worst disaster since the Holocaust,” Benhabib writes.

One should note the weird similarity between the Palestinians to whom the only place they ever knew as their homeland is denied and the Jews themselves. This homology holds even for the term “terrorism”: in the years of the Jewish struggle against the British military in Palestine, the very term “terrorist” had a positive connotation. Resistance of an oppressed group against the legal power is by definition perceived by those in power as terror. It is against this complex background that one should judge the predominant anti-leftist reaction to the ongoing Gaza war is best encapsulated by a text in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

“The Israeli sociologist Natan Sznaider sees this day not only as a caesura in the history of Israel but as ‘part of the global Jewish destiny.’ It is not possible to simply go on after the events of October 7 without — for a moment, at least — reflecting on the meaning and essence of this crime. The unfortunately all too often practiced form of public speech which in one sentence mentions Israeli victims and condemns Hamas, only so that it can immediately after that go on to denounce the Israeli reaction and mourn the civil victims in Gaza — as it was done, for example, by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek at the book fair in Frankfurt — negates this meaning of October 7.”

No, I didn’t go on to how Israel reacted to the Hamas attack, I went on to say what Israel was doing for decades on the West Bank. I only mention the “collective punishment of millions in Gaza” at the very end of my speech; I didn’t just “condemn” Hamas, I gave Israel the full right to destroy it, and I said more against Hamas later in the text.

However, what I do reject is the idea that the “meaning and essence” of the Gaza attack is that of an almost metaphysical caesura, an absolute crime that allows us to ignore its complex historical background. My full solidarity is with the victims of the attack as well as with Jews in whom the attack brought out memories of anti-Semitism and confronted them with fresh anti-Semitic threats, not with the actions of the state of Israel and its present government.

But what I find especially disgusting and morally reprehensible are the interventions of German politicians like Uwe Becker, who brutally interrupted my speech, accusing me of relativizing the Hamas attack. During WWII, Slovenia was occupied by Germany and Italy, dismembered, with tens of thousands killed, and the last thing we deserve is a German, member of a nation that perpetrated the Shoah now giving us lessons about anti-Semitism. The hypocrisy of such acts shocked me; by assuming the power to select and condemn those (inclusive of many Jews) whom they view as “anti-Semites” (where the critique of what Israel does in the occupied territories is also denounced as anti-Semitism), they fight anti-Semitism by way of supporting Israel also where Israel is wrong and acts like an oppressive occupier — as if they will exculpate themselves for their mega-crime by solidarity with their once-victim which is now committing a smaller crime. To be brutal, their critique of anti-Semitism is a continuation of anti-Semitism with other means. Exaggeration? Deborah Feldman recently wrote an excellent overview of how the Holocaust-guilt complexes of Germans cause them to fetishize Jewishness to the point of obsessive-compulsive embodiment:

“Some of the hostages held by Hamas have German citizenship, so when I asked a politician from Germany’s governing coalition what the government’s position was on those people, I was shocked when his response, in private, was: ‘Das sind doch keine reinen Deutschen,’ which translates to: well, those aren’t pure Germans. He didn’t choose from a host of perfectly acceptable terms to refer to Germans with dual citizenship, he didn’t even use adjectives such as ‘richtige’ or ‘echte’ to refer to them not being full or proper Germans – instead, he used the old Nazi term to differentiate between Aryans and non-Aryans,” Feldman writes.

One cannot but note how the critics of the leftist reaction to the war in Gaza systematically simplify the position of those they attack, dismissing clear and unambiguous condemnation of the attack, reading it as a rhetorical device to justify it as a reaction to the Israeli occupation — the position that is definitely not mine. Such a critical stance is not just an effect of superficial reading, it is necessary for the critics to make the point they want to make. Along these lines Eva Illouz, in her text about the left’s reactions to the Hamas attack, falls into the same trap although she tries to practice a more refined approach: she accuses me of dismissing the horror of attacks with “obfuscating intellectual strategies” — do I really do this? As was often the case in the last weeks, her basic reproach is that I relativize the Hamas attack by way of contextualizing it, to which she states her opposition:

“I refuse to contextualize the pain of Palestinians at having lost their land. In order to take full stock of their tragedy, I need to suspend the context. Couldn’t the left have stood with us in our shock and grief just a short while, as many Arabs around the world and in Israel have done?”

I find this reference to decontextualized shock and grief all too easy. I gave my speech at the opening ceremony of the Frankfurt book fair that caused the uproar on Oct. 17, 10 days after the Hamas attack, when Israel was already for days bombarding Gaza and the Palestinian victims surpassed the Jewish victims. The war was raging, shock and grief giving way to fateful (often problematic) political and military decisions and actions, which means that sharp political analysis of the situation was needed, not just shock and grief.

I agree with Illouz that ordinary people are “typically sensitive to the concreteness of their experience: in fact, both Palestinians and Israelis will be obstinately insistent that their suffering is unique and not to be compared, that is, reduced to another’s. […] Jews are very attentive to the concrete details of the pogrom of Oct. 7, the smell of the burnt bodies, the indiscriminate killing of children and elderly, the blood on the streets, the floors and the walls. The concreteness of each group’s memory refuses the facile language of parallels.”

Palestinians and Muslims all around the world are bombarded with images of destruction and death in Gaza, and their rage is condensing and approaching a violent explosion. How could one not be affected by the fact that in Gaza, children cut their names on their own bodies so their corpses can be identified? At this level, there is no solution, just a juxtaposition of different traumatic experiences.

Second, why is the effect (of the Hamas slaughter, of the bombing of Gaza) so devastatingly traumatic? Much worse horrors happened in the twentieth century – suffice it to mention the horrifying experiments on thousands of Chinese prisoners by Shiro Ishii in his infamous Unit 731 in Manchuria during WWII. (Incidentally, Shiro finished his days in peaceful retirement: The US was so interested in the results of his experiments that he was given full immunity for giving the documents of his “research” to the US.) Historical context also explains the traumatic effect of the Hamas attack: the Hamas slaughter of innocent Jewish civilians evokes the memory of the Shoah, while the bombing of Gaza is experienced by Palestinians as a second Nakba.

The same reference to context explains the reaction to the Allies’ bombing of Hamburg: The attack during the last week of July 1943, code-named Operation Gomorrah, created one of the largest firestorms raised by the Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Forces in World War II, killing an estimated 37,000 people in Hamburg (and wounding 180,000 more), and destroying 60% of the city’s houses. Survivors were especially bitter because the Allies focused on destroying working-class suburbs, not the rich villas that they used after the war when they occupied the city. Although this event also fully deserves the decontextualized shock and grief, it caused none because of its context: the Allies were fighting Nazis, the ultimate evil. The reference to decontextualized shock and grief is thus clearly limited. No wonder that, after invoking it, Illouz moves from the plea to stand up with Israel in shock and grief to a much colder legal argumentation:

“Collateral damage — a chillingly impersonal expression — is morally and legally different from the decapitation of children by combatants, because of the degree of intentionality and direct responsibility. Denying this distinction would amount to denying the basis of our legal system. Similarly, the category of ‘heinous crime’ refers to those crimes human communities recognize as different from other crimes because of their particularly evil character. Quantitative death count is never enough to establish how morally repulsive an act of killing is because crimes are not equal in their intent, responsibility and heinousness.”

In short, even if the IDF has until now killed more than 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza, this is morally and legally different (less bad) from Hamas killing 1,200 Jews in its attack. (Incidentally, Illouz should be more careful here: She mentions decapitated children, a fact that was weeks ago clearly negated by IDF itself, making Joe Biden seem ridiculous when he claimed that he has seen photos of beheaded children.)

I am sure if Hamas were to have more sophisticated arms and planes, it would also prefer impersonal bombing. But the crucial point here is that “collateral damage” is in itself a suspicious category. This “chillingly impersonal expression” makes the terrible suffering of thousands of children seem to be a non-intended implication — being impersonal does not make it less problematic, it is in a way even more horrible in its depersonalization of the victim.

Illouz’s notion of the difference between Hamas’ attack and Israel’s bombing of Gaza as the one between a clearly intended brutality versus non-intended collateral damage has to be further problematized.

First, how much “collateral damage” is still tolerable (even if one, as I do, fully condemns the Hamas strategy to use ordinary Palestinians as a shield)? “Far too many Palestinians have been killed. Far too many have suffered these past weeks,” US State Secretary Antony Blinken said. Second, even if the civilian deaths of Israeli bombing are not intended (as a primary direct goal), they are fully predictable: one knows what will happen if you bomb a densely populated civil area.

Illouz’s basic reproach is that I present the two sides as mirror-reflections of each other, both co-responsible for the events — she ironically condenses my stance into “it takes two to tango.” My reply is yes, but the two caught in a tango embrace are not Israel and Palestine but the two ultimate enemies bent on each other’s annihilation: the present government of Israel and Hamas. They are not the same, they are just in a tango embrace. How?

If we for a moment engage in a conspiracy theory, we can imagine a phone call between Hamas and Israeli hard-liners.

Israeli hard-liner: “Hi, do you remember we discreetly supported you against PLO? Now you owe us a favor. Why don’t you attack and slaughter some Jews close to Gaza, they are Arab friends, peaceniks, we don’t need them. We have here two problems: civil protests against us, and the slow ethnic cleansing of the West Bank. The world will be shocked at your brutality, and we will be able to play the victim again, get national unity and escalate ethnic cleansing in the West Bank!”

Hamas hard-liner: “OK, but we need a favor in return. In revenge for our slaughter, promise that you will bomb civilians in Gaza, killing thousands, especially children — this will give a boost to anti-Semitism all around the world, which is our true goal!”

Such an obscene phone call is of course just imagined. The imagined phone call is also so shocking it can’t be true, though if it were it would explain everything about the recent war in Gaza. Since victims are in principle allowed to strike back, the war gives Israel a chance of ethnically cleansed “Great Israel.”

Let’s return to the opposition between the gradual process of ethnic cleansing on the West Bank and the sudden brutal Hamas slaughter. It exemplifies the difference between the First and Third World. In the developed First World, attacks from the outside as a rule assume the form of sudden shocking brutal events (9/11, Paris 2015 concert bombing, Hamas attack); after the attack, normality is quickly re-established and the people are haunted by traumatic memories.

In the Third World countries, horrors are, as a rule, long painful processes that can stretch over generations and become part of daily life (as in Congo), making the affected population desperate, preventing even the prospect of a return to normal life. Is this not the case in the West Bank where, for months if not years, the Palestinian majority is exposed to different forms of violence, from bureaucratic hassle to outright killings? It is thus totally inappropriate to classify the two sufferings (that of the slaughtered Jews near Gaza and that of the West Bank Palestinians) as heinously bad and less bad: long suffering that lasts for generations can drive thousands to total despair.

Groups of settlers are regularly sending messages to Palestinian homes that they better leave their dwelling in the next 24 hours. If the Palestinians don’t do this, the settlers will indeed come and beat, or even kill, the Palestinian family. Here is one case: two Palestinians were killed after Israeli settlers opened fire on a funeral procession near the West Bank town of Qusra, south of Nablus. “Ambulances were carrying the bodies of four Palestinians who were shot dead a day earlier, reportedly also by Israeli settlers, when settlers arrived at the scene and attempted to halt the funeral procession. One of the ambulance drivers was quoted by Haaretz as saying that ‘the settlers were waiting there. They blocked the gate, started firing on us and other people who had come for the funeral.’”

The official reaction? “The IDF said that a number of Palestinian casualties were reported following clashes between settlers and Palestinians in the village where the funeral was about to take place, and that the incident is under investigation.”

A lone incident? “There have been repeated incidents over the past year of young settlers violently raiding villages in rampages that have led to a handful of Palestinian deaths, scores injured and significant property damage. The assailants are rarely arrested, let alone prosecuted for their actions.”

If this is not a form of terror, then this word has no meaning at all.

But decontextualized shock and grief plus legal reasoning together are not enough — there is a need for a general (hi)story that encompasses both. My general frame or story is not colonization. (In my Frankfurt speech I never used the term, being well aware that Jewish immigration to Israel cannot be reduced to colonialism.) This story will not be a single narrative of colonization or of terrorists’ refusal to accept the Jews returning to their homeland but an authentically tragic story of conflicting claims in which nobody is simply right. The solution is therefore not in competing moral judgments but in a genuine political act of creating a new social reality.

Maybe, instead of erasing the historical traumas that haunt them, Jews and Palestinians should establish solidarity on the fact that they were (and are) both victims of Western racism. Illouz is right to point out that it is “easy to say” one is disgusted by the Oct. 7 massacres and that they want Palestinians to have their own state. Yes, it is easy to say but it is the most difficult thing to act upon since the task is necessary and impossible. To simply choose one side is a total ethical and political catastrophe.

So what about international laws to which both sides pay lip service? Ibrahim Khraishi, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, pointed out that there is a “plethora” of international laws that can be applied.

“They are applied fully when it comes to Ukraine. When it comes to us Palestinians, they are put aside, they’re violated, they’re not used, they’re belittled,” he said. He specifically mentioned European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen’s allegations last year that Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure, including electricity, in Ukraine were war crimes.

Khraishi was right. Even when Western leaders criticize Israel, their criticism takes the form of “concern” or “restraint.” In a TV interview on Oct. 29, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Israel has a responsibility to protect the lives of innocent people in Gaza. Washington was asking hard questions of Israel, including on issues surrounding humanitarian aid, distinguishing between terrorists and innocent civilians and on how Israel is thinking through its military operation, Sullivan said, “What we believe is that every hour, every day of this military operation, the IDF, the Israeli government should be taking every possible means available to them to distinguish between Hamas terrorists who are legitimate military targets and civilians who are not.”

Sullivan also said Netanyahu has a responsibility to “rein in” extremist Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank: “It is totally unacceptable to have extremist settler violence against innocent people in the West Bank.”

But are such calls for restraint enough? Obviously not, since, for decades, Israel has ignored them with no serious consequences. So a further step is needed. What about applying to Israel the sanctions regularly imposed on other nations accused of committing criminal acts? Far from being an anti-Israeli act, the threat of sanctions would definitely be an act of true friendship that will prevent Israel from taking the path of co-creating a world with globalized anti-Semitism.

And this threat is real. On Oct. 29, a mob in Russia’s mostly Muslim region of Dagestan stormed the airport in Makhachkala in search of Jewish passengers arriving from Israel. In the past day, local people have besieged a hotel in search of Jewish guests and stormed the airport after reports emerged that a flight from Tel Aviv was arriving in the city. Passengers were forced to take refuge in planes or hide in the airport for fear of being attacked. Does this not announce a new wave of anti-Semitism which will be worldwide, operating not just in Europe and the Middle East? The danger is that a new global narrative will emerge in which the critique of gay and trans rights will be put in the same line as anti-Semitism, both conceived as forms of the struggle against Western neocolonialism.

This parallel between Ukraine and Palestine is tell-tale since one of the catastrophic global effects of the ongoing war in the Middle East is that some key distinctions are blurred. The pro-Israeli West (the US especially) now presents the defense of Ukraine against Russian aggression and the defense of Israel against Hamas as moments of the same global war, as if Israel and Ukraine were equivalent.

On the opposite, pseudo-leftist side, there are already claims that the attacks (by Russia, by Hamas) are both justified defense measures that exploded out of long histories of oppression. A new world order is thus emerging, and the Gaza war is like a knot, a nodal point that condenses the antagonisms that traverse our world, a place where everything will be decided. Palestine is today a strong symbol, an image of concrete universality that brings together opposite meanings, a stand-in for all European colonial sins (Jews colonized Palestine), as well as the place where anti-Semitism is exploding.

The tragedy is that the state of Israel which resulted from the European mega-guilt for the Holocaust, as a desperate attempt to provide to Jews a safe place, is at the same time emerging as a symbol of European oppression and colonization. The original sin is that of Western European countries which tried to make amendments for the Holocaust by giving Jews a piece of land mostly inhabited for centuries by other people.

No wonder, then, that the predictions about the final outcome of the Gaza war also oscillate between two extremes. The majority perceive the war as the beginning of a global catastrophe: hopes for peace are now a thing of the past, the only winner of this war will be war itself. There is, however, a minority that thinks that the ongoing Gaza war opens a new prospect of peace, that it will make palpable the failure of a purely military solution, compelling both sides to search for an uneasy peace in whatever form available.

In the present situation, the first step in this direction will have to be made by Israel: ceasing immediately the daily terror against West Bank Palestinians, offering wide humanitarian help to civilians in Gaza, and abandoning the exclusive claim to the West Bank.

These two visions of the future are more than two tendencies, they are two “superposed” determinations of our future which, to quote Jean-Pierre Dupuy, if it happens will appear as necessary. It is not that we have two possibilities (catastrophe or recovery) — this formula is all too easy. What we have are two superposed necessities. It is necessary that the Gaza war will end in a global catastrophe, our entire history moves towards it, and it is necessary that a solution will arise.

In a collapse of these two superposed necessities, only one of them will actualize itself, so that in any case our history will (have) be(en) necessary: “There are no alternative possible futures since the future is necessary. Instead of exclusive disjunction, there is a superposition of states. Both the escalation to extremes and the absence of one are part of a fixed future: it is because the former figures in it that deterrence has a chance to work; it is because the latter figures in it that the adversaries are not bound to destroy each other. Only the future, when it comes to pass, will tell,” writes Dupuy. This is our predicament today: Whichever the new order will be, it will be retroactively posited as necessary.

However, there is one thing we can safely predict already now. From a global geopolitical perspective, the greatest victim of the Gaza war will be Europe (or, rather, more precisely, the EU). Europe missed the opportunity to let its distinctive voice be heard, subordinating (with minor reservations) to the US’ unconditional support of Israel. And if Trump wins the next US election, Europe will more or less disappear from the global map of strong actors — it will be reduced to a minor partner in the isolated West surrounded by much more than just BRICS countries.

Unconditional support for Israel that ignores suffering in Gaza and the West Bank is catastrophic. The West advocates human rights, but how does it apply them? With what biases? We live in a strange time where reminding Israel of international law is considered a form of support for Hamas. Reports multiply on “alarming” conditions in the West Bank where Israeli forces are increasingly using military tactics and weapons in law enforcement operations while settler violence against Palestinian inhabitants, which was already at record levels, had “escalated dramatically.” And Israel’s reaction to this? On Oct. 11, we learned that the IDF had demolished the homes of the two Hamas terrorists who murdered Batsheva Nigri in a shooting attack near Kiryat Arba, West Bank, in August. OK, and how many homes of the settlers who killed more than 150 Palestinians on the West Bank since October 7 were demolished? Where is international law here?

The reference to international laws will be even further weakened by the rise of the new populist right wing in the US. If Trump wins, the US will simply become one of the BRICS countries that, on behalf of what they call a truly multipolar world, will calmly tolerate each other’s crimes. Trump will finish the Ukraine war by conceding to Russia while, in the US itself, he will take the direction clearly indicated by the election of Mike Johnson as the new speaker of the House: religious fundamentalism in all its guises, with the end of democracy as we knew it.

Although Trump declares himself as the partisan of the impoverished (white) working class, the perversity is that the “devastating the working class was actually part of the plan: now that the American middle class has gone from over 60% of us down to a mere 43% of us, Republicans are trying to harness the outrage people are feeling and then use it to tear our society apart. Out of the chaos, they believe they can rebuild a nation on the foundations of hypermasculinity, racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, and threats of violence,” writes Thom Hartmann. In short, the US is caught in the same battle as Israel itself, the struggle between new populist fundamentalists and the remaining forces of secular democracy.

So when Illouz concludes her text with “One more time in recent history Jews feel very lonely,” I cannot abstain from adding two points. Yes, alone, with the big Western media and powers totally on their side, dismissing very critical distance as anti-Semitism. Plus, how lonely must then the West Bank Palestinians feel, with no state power protecting them from attacks, with their territory constantly shrinking?

So yes, it is impossible to simply go on after Oct. 7, but also for the West Bank Palestinians. How should they do their work of mourning when Israel prohibits the very use of the word Nakba, which names the trauma that haunts them?

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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