[Column] Israel on a volcano

Posted on : 2024-01-04 15:28 KST Modified on : 2024-01-08 12:08 KST
Engaging with the broader topic of decolonization
Smoke rises from a building in Gaza following a retaliatory strike by Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. (Reuters/Yonhap)
Smoke rises from a building in Gaza following a retaliatory strike by Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. (Reuters/Yonhap)


By Slavoj Žižek, Global Eminent Scholar at Kyung Hee University

When leftist critics of Israel characterize what Israel is doing in Gaza as genocide, they are as a rule accused of inverting the true relationship: “Israel is just defending itself while Hamas plans an actual genocide of the Jews.” However, genocidal rhetoric is more and more present in the public speeches of Israeli politicians themselves. When Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” of the Gaza Strip after the Hamas attack, he said: “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.”

“No electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed” relates to the entire Gaza strip, to all Palestinians there. More recently, when Benjamin Netanyahu himself referred the Palestinian people in the besieged Gaza Strip, he invoked the Amalek, a nation in the Hebrew Bible that the Israelites were ordered to wipe out in an act of revenge: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you,” he said in a speech announcing the start of a ground invasion in Gaza, adding that Israeli soldiers were part of a legacy that goes back 3,000 years.

Genocide justified by religious fundamentalism — this direct genocidal thinking reached its lowest point when some geneticists claimed that Palestinians are the descendants of the Amalekites.

In this mental space, there is no place for peace treaties. In “Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist” (2023 movie version) the antichrist Nicolae Carpathia takes over (depriving countries of their sovereignty and installing a world government) when the peace treaty is signed between Israel and the Arab world — a clear sign of how, for the new radical right, a peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors is quite literally the work of the devil. Along the same lines, Tzipi Hotovely, the Israeli ambassador to the UK, insisted (in an interview for Sky News) that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza: “Israel is in charge of the safety of Israelis, Hamas is in charge of the safety of Palestinians.” Of course there is no humanitarian crisis among the Palestinians since they are not fully human, just human animals. No wonder, then, that, together with Netanyahu and other leading Israeli politicians, Hotovely also resolutely rejects the two-states-solution: “human animals” don’t deserve a state.

Commenting on the three Jewish hostages who were mistakenly shot by the IDF in Gaza, Netanyahu said in a recent public appearance: “I say this in the face of great pain but also in the face of international pressures. Nothing will stop us.” The addressees of this message are not only the relatives of the remaining hostages accusing the government of not doing enough for their release; perhaps, the main addressees are foreign governments, inclusive of the US government, which are exerting pressure on Israel to show more constraint. Netanyahu’s ultimate message is that even without the support of its Western allies, nothing will stop Israel from achieving its goals — those being total annihilation of Hamas; rejection of the two-state solution and, of course, of the one big secular democratic state from the river to the sea; integration of the West Bank into Israel; and more.

The problem with this radical stance is that, as Hani al-Masri pointed out correctly, in pursuing it, Israel is “a prisoner of its own unreachable goals.” Why? Natan Chofshi, the anarchist and pacifist president of the Palestine branch of the War Resisters’ International, wrote back in 1946: “Without an understanding with our Arab neighbors, we are building on a volcano and our whole work is in jeopardy.”

The conclusion I draw from this is that peace will only emerge when Palestinians are allowed to organize themselves as a strong independent political force, broadly democratic and avoiding any form of religious fundamentalism — something Israel was and is doing everything possible to prevent, up to supporting Hamas. It is thus Israel that is pushing Palestinians to Hamas, leaving them only one choice: to accept Hamas as the only voice that is really fighting for them. 

No wonder that support for Hamas is growing. The latest opinion polls show the anger over the war’s toll boosting Palestinian support for Hamas, particularly in the comparatively peaceful West Bank where Hamas does not have control. This support fits Israel perfectly since it justifies the brutal oppression of the West Bank Palestinians. But are we aware of the rage that is growing in Arab countries? Hundreds of thousands are protesting against Israel, and tensions are reaching a point of explosion. Some leftists may see in such an explosion a moment of truth when we will get rid of liberal-pacifist illusions that just serve the oppressors — I see in it a catastrophe not only for Jews and Palestinians but for a much wider world.   

Netanyahu’s “nothing will stop us now” echoes Putin’s statement on Dec. 14, 2023, when he vowed to fight on in Ukraine until Moscow secures the country's “demilitarization,” “denazification” and neutrality, unless Kyiv accepts a deal that achieves those goals: “There will be peace when we achieve our goals. [. . .] As for demilitarization, if they [the Ukrainians] don't want to come to an agreement, well, then we are forced to take other measures, including military ones.”

Putin couldn’t restrain himself from cynically remarking that Russia is demilitarizing Ukraine by way of destroying hundreds of its tanks and guns; war (“destroying the enemy”) is thus presented as the ultimate act of demilitarization. But did some Western heads of state not make a similar point when, reacting to the desperate calls for ceasefire in the Gaza conflict, advocated a “sustainable ceasefire”? Although their idea was a ceasefire that would lead to permanent peace, it ultimately amounts to the claim that the only “sustainable” peace is the peace that follows our (military) victory.  

The parallel between Palestinians and Ukraine is, of course, imperfect. In the case of Palestine, a compromise between the two peoples is the only way out, while Ukraine is a victim of brutal aggression and has the full right to persevere till victory. Ukraine is now paying the price for exclusively choosing the side of big Western powers, ignoring the link of its struggle for independence with the Third World decolonization processes, as well as oppressing its own political left as suspect, somehow associated with Russia, as if Putin stands for the socialist tradition. Now that the big Western states are getting more and more skeptical about their aid to Ukraine, Ukraine may find itself in a desperate position, and one can argue that only a strong leftist turn can offer hope to it.

We have to engage here with a broader topic of decolonization. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang are right when they insist that “decolonization” should not be used as a universal metaphor: “Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. The easy adoption of decolonizing discourse by educational advocacy and scholarship, evidenced by the increasing number of calls to ‘decolonize our schools,’ or use ‘decolonizing methods,’ or, ‘decolonize student thinking,’ turns decolonization into a metaphor.” Such a metaphoric universalization blurs the concrete violence of decolonization. “Decolonizing thinking” (done in a safe academic environment) is a poor substitute for the concrete and brutal struggle of the oppressed against their masters where many human rights have to be violated.

What now, as of December 2023, lurks in the background of this topic is the violence of Hamas which was perceived by many as an attempt at actual decolonization. However, here things get much more problematic. First, it is all too easy to dismiss the state of Israel as a result of the colonization of the Palestinian territory. I agree with people like Edward Said who think that both ethnic groups, Palestinians and Jews, have a right to live there, and that they are condemned to live there together. This is why I reject the claim of Hamas that Jews should be thrown out. Hamas definitely passes over the line that separates a critique of Israel from antisemitism.

This is also why I reject Jamil Khader’s claim that “in trying to navigate the genocidally charged environment of Germany and the rest of Europe, Žižek has inadvertently betrayed his radical leftist aspirations.” I don’t consider Hamas’s stance “leftist” in any meaningful sense of the term, and I don’t envisage a military defeat of Israel as a solution to the Middle East crisis. Khader goes on to condemn my “lofty aspirational vision” as “completely disconnected from the realities on the ground,” and he finds “incomprehensible” my insistence on “some liberal politics of hope in this catastrophic context,” like when I see a possible change coming through “the slow rise of solidarity between the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Jews opposing the all-destructive war.”

OK, but which is then a realistic option? A big racial war against the Jews? As a pragmatic realist, I am well aware that such a solidarity is difficult to imagine today, that it is impossible – however, it is here that we should resuscitate the famous motto from May ’68: “Soyons realistes, demandons l’impossible.” (“Be realistic, demand the impossible.”) The true dangerous utopia is that the solution to the Middle East crisis could be achieved by a military victory. 

As a second point, the often-miserable reality of actual decolonization often is indeed a metaphor for another process. Just recall numerous African countries from Angola to Zimbabwe in which decolonization ended up in a corrupted social order in which the gap between the new masters and the poor majority is greater than it was before decolonization. “Decolonization” was thus a metaphor for (or one aspect of) the emergence of a new class society. South Africa is today the country with the greatest gap between the poor and the rich. No wonder that a very depressing thing happened to me in July 2023 in London: At a public debate, a Black woman from South Africa, an old ANC activist, said that the predominant stance among the poor black majority is now more and more nostalgia for apartheid; their standard of living was, if anything, a little bit higher than now, and there were safety and security (South Africa was a police state, after all), while today poverty is supplemented by an explosion of violence and insecurity.

If a white person were to say this, one would be, of course, immediately accused of racism — but we should nonetheless think about it. If we don’t do it, the new right will do it for us (as they are already doing it in South Africa, lambasting the inability of black people to properly run a country). So, again, we should resist the temptation to risk a brutal “decolonization” irrespective of what will follow, in the sense that “freedom comes with blood and suffering.” 

Mao said that “revolution is not a dinner party.” But what if the reality after the revolution is even less of a dinner party?

Back to Hamas, the question we should raise is not just what will happen after it loses the war, it is also what would happen if Hamas were to survive and continue to rule Gaza. What would be the reality there after the waning of the enthusiasm over liberation? 

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

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