But there’s another type that’s more insidious. I’m referring to those right-thinking mealy-mouths who are “critical” of Israel’s actions on the Gaza frontier. They may “disagree” with the current leaders of the Jewish state. Perhaps they might “oppose” the occupation and the settlements, and “support” the idea of Palestinian statehood. But the one thing they will not question is the shibboleth that Israel only acts in “self-defense.” From this unquestioned premise, they arrive at the cowardly and trite conclusion: it’s a complicated situation. At which point, they’re only a Palestinian stone’s throw away from having a politics that’s maybe kinder, but no less lethal, than a hardened Likudnik’s.
Apply the slightest scrutiny to Israel’s vaunted “self-defense” claim, and the whole jig falls apart. Again, consider the image of a military superpower facing down civilian protestors, armed at most with rocks and tires, and ask yourself: who poses an immediate threat to whom? Ask this to an apologist of Israel, and something predictable will happen. Invariably they will say, “But what about Hamas?,” with breathless reference to their “genocidal charter.” This is a thought-terminating and frivolous cliché.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that Hamas—which is a political party, a civil administration and a social-religious movement, in addition to a militia—would be present in a mass demonstration. What is unreasonable is the idea that all, or even most, a majority or a plurality of Palestinian demonstrators are members of Hamas. And even of those who are, that they are active militants engaged in armed hostilities; still less, that they all swear by a charter written in 1988, and are presently enacting its provisions to a tee. More to the point, that they are even capable or credible as threats; and lastly and the least, that any of this is grounds for summary execution.
To draw that odious conclusion, you would have to think of Palestinians as a fanatical horde, stripped of all humanity and independent will, thrilling to the exhortations of religious manifestos and on the cusp of genocidal murder. You would have to believe, consciously or not, that the only thing that keeps the Palestinians from unbridled savagery is their continued subjugation, or anyway segregation. (A complicated situation, after all.) In any other context, we would recognize such thinking as the product of a lurid and extreme and toxic ideology, the sort of desperate slander you expect from bloodthirsty dictators. But this is what now passes for a “nuanced” and “moderate” opinion.
A whole industry of quacks and cranks exists to generate these wisdoms. (Their leading light, the historian Bernard Lewis, passed away this past weekend. Note how his famous coinage, the so-called “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West, still resonates in The New York Times’ coverage of the Gaza massacre as an ahistorical “clash.”) And a cottage industry of legal charlatans complements their efforts, inventing legal justifications from whole cloth for each of Israel’s crimes (Israel’s exemption from the Geneva Conventions, for instance, or the legitimacy of territorial acquisition in the Six Day War). Many politically minded people, especially the young, are wising up to these exploded myths and propaganda. They know that voices of raison d’État cannot be taken at face-value. But out of all of these received opinions, by far the most resilient is the plaintive and self-pitying whine that Israel is “defending” its “security.”
“Security” is one of those magical words that lets you do whatever you want to do, and means whatever you want it to mean. In the present case, it has the exact opposite meaning from its common sense. For one, the “defensive” paradigm is wrong from the start. Israel is an Occupying Power, having ruled over an unwilling population for 50 years of military dictatorship. The majority of Gaza’s residents are stateless refugees, ethnically cleansed from what is now the state of Israel; several generations have grown up in subjugation and exile. Israel, in plainer terms, is the aggressor—in a long, protracted state of aggression. The only thing it is defending is its continuing aggression. The irony should not be lost on anyone: if Israel were genuinely concerned with “public safety” in a strict sense, it would know that if you end the subjugation of Palestinians, you remove the whole raison d’être of Palestinian resistance.
“Security” has political content, in other words. “Security” means securing Israel’s territorial expansion, its regional dominance, and ultimately its ethnic identity as a country purged of its original inhabitants.
In a televised interview, prime minister Yitzhak Shamir once admitted that Israel went to war with Lebanon in 1982 because there was “a terrible danger…not so much a military one as a political one.” This is as good a statement of Israel’s security concerns as any. Israel knows that its ambitions and its obstacles are political in nature, that its woes stem from the fact that the Gaza protestors’ demands (which are, in fact, their basic human rights) are politically anathema to the Jewish state. And they’re anathema, because the return of Arab refugees to their homeland would undermine the very project of Zionism, of a Jewish ethno-state.
This is a political choice—a choice which, when stated plainly, sounds retrograde and racist and intolerable, which it is—but when you depoliticize and dehumanize a people into a security concern, everything can be permitted. It is a political choice, pretending to be a security issue, and producing a military response. All the moral condemnation in the world against the Israeli military’s “excesses” doesn’t get one off the hook from this political decision; a decision which requires one, if you believe it, to accept that Israel should defend its border, that Palestinians should be seen as a security liability. So you might disagree with the degree of violence used, the type of ammunition, the rules of engagement; but if you accept the politics of Israel’s “defense,” you’ll still have made your bed on the side with guns, as it were. And those who do have made themselves the useful idiots on the wrong side of history.--Jordan von Manalastas "The Wrong Side of History." [HT Marcus Stanley]
Shooting bullets into a demonstration is indefensible. The previous sentence is true even if all the dead and wounded are (as I think not) armed, Hamas militants sworn (let's stipulate) to destroy Israel and whose deaths may be part of a cult of martyrdom. Nobody deserves to die just because they hold a weapon which you think one day will be pointed at you. Basic and minimal humanity requires us to mourn the loss of life. Instead many apologists for Israel end up blaming the victims either directly (because they are bad people) or indirectly because, as Shmuel Rosner grotesquely suggests in the New York Times,* they fail to march against nor have dislodged Hamas from power. It is grotesque because while justifying the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian Gazans, Rosner never confronts the fact that for quite a while now, Israeli policy is in clear collusion with all Palestinian extremists to systematically undermine any non-violent Palestinian voices or movements from ever emerging. As far back as 2009, non-violent protests -- in the West Bank -- routinely are met with rather harsh responses. Israel's collective punishment of the Gazans only breeds hatred and despair.
You might think from the previous paragraph I think Zionism is illegitimate. But I have defended the legitimacy of Zionism at the height of a Gaza war. My defense of Zionism is rooted in the failures of internationalist liberalism, which has proven itself impotent to prevent the revival of racialized nationalism (which is historically antisemitic in lots of places) and closed borders (which trap minorities). Zionism is a second best solution for the world we have inherited. Anybody who looks at the liberal world today with its embrace of deportations, its fondness for walls and farming out of immigration policy to dictatorial regimes, and its callous regard for the plight of refugees anywhere, recognizes that ongoing relevance of Zionism, which guarantees a home to Jews from everywhere.
Equally my criticisms of Zionism are not moral, but strategic: i) its failure to establish permanent borders for the state of Israel; (ii) to settle what kind of political entity Israel should be so that it can end its near-permanent war-footing and occupation of hostile populations; (iii) (the perception of) Israel's dependence on America's political and military support, which ties Israel to America's strategic interests and electoral politics, while (iv) allowing a split between the interests of Zionism and American Jewry to develop. In addition, (v) Israel, and too many of its purported friends, fail to provide Palestinians with positive incentives to come to peace with Israel. Israel's actions are desperately short of confidence inspiring measures that show it is willing to think of life after war. Because the war has become so asymmetric,+ Israel's political order is dangerously complacent about the status quo.
I am one of those insidious defenders of Israel, who does not merely think that Israel's current policies are a strategic mistake, but recognizes the historical injustice done to Palestinian refugees seventy years ago. I think they deserve genuine compensation for their losses and continued suffering. (I should add that I think the Jews who had to leave North Africa and Persia/Iran also deserve compensation.) The founding of Israel involved war crimes.++ But it does not follow that the refugees must be allowed to return to their historic homelands or that, thereby, Zionism is bankrupt ideology. My reasoning is not ad hoc; for example, the Greeks of Alexandria have no right to return to Egypt nor the Turks of Thessaloniki have a right to return to Greece. (The list is much longer, of course.) Nor does my family have a right to the property in Berlin we lost to the Nazis.** Von Manalastas is writing his critique of the insidious in Ithaca; I know upstate NY a bit. It's full of native lands, whose true heirs have not been compensated (let alone the slave labor that enriched, say, the endowments of the Ivies).
It's not that Von Manalastas is wrong that much defense of Israel is nauseating propaganda which blames victims and dehumanizes the Palestinians; it often merely repeats cliches that cannot withstand much intellectual scrutiny. If you want "peace and quiet" from Gaza, why constantly strengthen the hands of Hamas and rejectionists? You don't create indifference if you starve and impoverish folk. Such defenses turn those with a moral sensibility (recall) away from the Zionist project (this is a tactical mistake) and leaves as its only supporters the (large number, alas) Islamophobes and Christians who see Israel as a necessary step toward bringing about the apocalypse. While my own defense of Zionism (not Israeli policy) is not rooted in morality, Zionism deserves to be evaluated by its fruits, including the moral ones: this is a mixed bag with amazing successes and genuine injustices.
By contrast, too many critics of Israel fall into Von Manalastas's position which slides from criticism of Israel's policies into de-legitimizing any defense of Israel at all. He is right that appeals to 'security' get abused; this is a fact familiar not just from Israeli policy, but from much of the so-called 'war on terror' in lots of places. The human rights problem engendered by it are familiar enough for those who do not wish to be ignorant. But the underlying strategic problem does not get emphasized sufficiently: by focusing exclusively on security rejectionists on all sides are offered a full-proof veto-power over any attempts to end a conflict.
Let me close with a final observation: Von Manalastas is confident that people like me are on the wrong side of history. His stance is little different from too many Israeli intellectuals, who, drunk with power, are indifferent to criticisms, and think folk like me represent a historical aberration. My modest reminder is that history has a tendency to disappoint.
*Rosner, by contrast, writes "I feel no need to engage in ingénue mourning."
**The Germans paid some compensation to my dad and his niece, but that fell far short to its present value. Most other states fail to pay even minimal compensation, alas.
+Even critics of Israel's border walls have to admit that the number of suicide bombers have been reduced and that Israeli deterrence has reduced the number of missiles. So, this is the right moment to declare victory and help restart, say, the Gaza economy and electricity grid (etc.).
++Israel's inability to acknowledge its war-crimes is not exceptional; for example, my native Netherlands -- a wealthy and secure country which love to tout its fondness for international human rights law -- fails to acknowledge forthrightly the war crimes against the Indonesians, etc.