[Column] Why empty gestures matter more than ever

Posted on : 2024-06-19 16:51 KST Modified on : 2024-06-19 16:51 KST
A Palestinian man and children are seen sitting in what remains of a building in Rafah, in the southern part of the occupied Gaza Strip, destroyed by Israeli attacks, on May 22, 2024. (AFP/Yonhap)
A Palestinian man and children are seen sitting in what remains of a building in Rafah, in the southern part of the occupied Gaza Strip, destroyed by Israeli attacks, on May 22, 2024. (AFP/Yonhap)

By Slavoj Žižek, Global Eminent Scholar at Kyung Hee University

On May 20, Salman Rushdie said that if a Palestinian state were to be established today, it would be a “Taliban-like state” government by Hamas. He also criticized the anti-Israel student protests, saying that it was “strange” that progressive youth would support Hamas, which he called a “fascist terrorist group.” 

I fully understand his bitter stance after what he went through with the fatwa by Khomeini and then the knife attack that almost killed him; I fully sympathize with him when some of his leftist friends reproached him for “unnecessarily provoking” Muslims. However, in the case of a Palestinian state, I nonetheless disagree with Rushdie. 

When he mentions the Taliban, my first association is: But how did the Taliban take over in Afghanistan? It was a relatively open state, open to modernization until 1978 when communists took over in a coup and, to support their waning power, the Soviet Union militarily intervened, while the US and Pakistan provided arms to Muslim resistance. It was these foreign interventions that pushed a relatively peaceful and pluralist country towards a fundamentalist authoritarian rule. 

In a quite similar way, what pushes the Palestinians in the occupied territories towards Hamas’ brutal resistance is the fact that Israel doesn’t allow the Palestinians under its control to organize themselves as an autonomous political agent. To cut a long story short, Israel “Hamas-izes” Palestinians to justify their ethnic cleansing and present the expansion of Israel “from the river to the sea” as an act of self-defense.

For this reason, the recognition of Palestine as a state and the clear condemnation of what Israel is doing in the occupied territories as a crime against humanity is the only way not only to put reins on Israel’s military terror against civilians but also to compel the Palestinians themselves to act as a legitimate political force bound by international laws and rules. 

Lately, there have been some unexpected yet pleasant surprises in this direction. It is not only the student protesters who are active: Spain, Ireland and Norway will recognize Palestine as a state, and other Western states are getting ready to do the same. On May 20, France’s Foreign Ministry came out in support of the International Criminal Court and its issuing of arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza and in Israel. In its warrant, the ICC does not make any direct comparisons between Israel and Hamas, except to say they have both committed crimes. Days later, France was joined by Belgium and Germany.

It is no wonder why the Biden administration is threatening sanctions against ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan. US Senator Lindsey Graham warned, “If they do this to Israel, we’re next!” Graham is right: Until now, the ICC was automatically presupposed to deal with countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, but now it wants to apply the so-called “rules-based international order” universally, with no exceptions. I find these procedures important precisely because they do not reject universal human rights as just a mask of Western domination, instead, they take them more seriously than they were meant.

The threat doesn’t come only from the Western hypocritical advocacy of universal rights; in one way or another, all big power blocks today play the same hypocritical game. It is not only that universal rules are not consistently applied, but there is also a false “universality” that puts aggressors and victims on the same footing. 

But there are now signs which give some hope. On May 24, the International Court of Justice, the UN’s top court, ordered Israel to “immediately halt” its military offensive in Rafah. ICJ rulings are final and binding, but the court doesn’t have a mechanism to enforce them.  Here cynics enter the game: Such big public acts of condemnation are empty gestures that will not in any way significantly affect the situation on the battleground. In this case, such a cynical stance is clearly false. The proof is evident: We can all see how the pro-Israeli establishment reacted in panic to the ICC warrant and to the moves to recognize Palestine. Jean-Paul Sartre put it in a precise way: “When the authorities find it useful to tell the truth, it’s because they can’t find any better lie. Immediately this truth, coming from official mouths, becomes a lie corroborated by the facts.”

This is largely the case with Western countries expressing “concerns” about the IDF violence in Gaza and on the West Bank. Even amid all their criticism of the Israeli government, they continue to deliver arms to the IDF.

However, Sartre’s thesis is not universal. There are ways of telling the truth which do not become a lie. Recognizing Palestine as a state and obeying the ICC warrant for Netanyahu’s arrest as a war criminal are such cases. In today’s inflation of solemn declarations, we should never forget that all words are not equal, that there are still words which are not just factually true, but which produce the effect of truth.

Most of us know well the culminating moment of “A Few Good Men” (Rob Reiner, 1992) when Tom Cruise addresses Jack Nicholson with “I want the truth!” and Nicholson shouts back: “You can’t handle the truth!” This reply is more ambiguous than it may appear: It should not be taken as simply claiming that most of us are too weak to handle the brutal reality of things. If someone were to ask a witness about the truth of the Holocaust, and the witness were to reply, “You can’t handle the truth!” this should not be understood as a simple claim that most of us are not able to process the horror of the Holocaust. At a deeper level, those who were not able to handle the truth were the Nazi perpetrators themselves. They were not able to accept the fact that their society was traversed by an all-encompassing antagonism, and to avoid this insight, they engaged in the murdering spree that targeted Jews, as if killing Jews would reestablish a harmonious social body.

And therein resides the final lesson of the horrors in Gaza and in Ukraine: We do not only escape into a fantasy to avoid confronting reality, we also escape into reality (of brutal acts) to avoid the truth about the futility of our fantasies. 

Israel is escaping into the reality of destroying Gaza to avoid the truth about its predicament in the Middle East, in the same way that Russia is escaping into the reality of destroying Ukraine to avoid the truth about the futility of its Eurasian ideological fantasies. The stupid wisdom of “Don’t just talk, do something!” should often be turned around: “Don’t just do things, say the right words!”  

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

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles