This is the second installment in our series on the evolution of conflict in today’s world, as even the meaning of that idea and the terms that constitute it continue to morph.
For the first, see Patrick Ward’s chilling piece on the ramifications of the American war on Vietnam.
One of the more stupefying conversations two critics of Zionism can have is what exactly it is about Israel that drives us crazy. Is it the suffering inflicted on Palestinians? Is it the power imbalance? Is it the propaganda lies? For critics of Zionism who have found themselves living in the heart of the conflict, as I have, these conversations sometimes take a turn to reflect a personal trajectory shaped by lived experience. For instance, a German environmental scientist who I recently met told me that he was, at first, ‘interested in peace,’ but over time he became ‘more interested in justice.’ He had originally come to the region as a student at an Israeli institution, but a line of flight took him to Ramallah, the West Bank’s cultural hub, where he entered into a relationship with a Palestinian woman. His is a case where a political deepening is analogous to a primal experience in the world—he came, he saw, he absorbed political emotion.
Ghassan Hage, the Lebanese-Australian anthropologist, in an essay in which he asks precisely this same question, writes that he sees his political emotion regarding Israel as rooted in childhood memories of his tyrannical father. “This is why,” he writes, “far more than some historical sense of injustice concerning the colonization of Palestinian land, it has always been the ‘power and domination aspect’ of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict that activates my anger.” For Hage, Israel is the perennial patriarch; a fatherland that exercises paternal authority at its most abusive. Can a version of the Oedipus complex then be an explanation for all of us? Can the behavior of states embody human characteristics? In Greek myth, it was the gods who embodied the beauty and shortcomings of human behavior. Do states serve the same mythological function in our late-capitalism?
One of the questions defenders of Zionism love to ask is, Why Israel? Why not Sudan, Syria, etc. they insist. They argue that surely there are greater human rights abuses elsewhere in the world. Israelis are particularly troubled by the growing European critique of the tiny Jewish state in lieu of what Israel’s literary ambassador Amos Oz, in a recent interview, calls ‘excessive, but justified’ military operations. Oz, like most Israelis, links the popular critique of Israel in Europe to a historic European disunity with Jews. Europeans, according to Oz, “see things in black and white, like a Hollywood movie, with good guys and bad guys.”
The point that Oz misses is that although Israel was founded by Jews fleeing Europe, first with colonial zeal and later in defeat, there was never a decisive split between the motherland and the colony. This cultural continuity between Europe and Israel manifests in a simultaneous affinity and revulsion towards the European orphan abandoned in the Arab Middle East. Israel drives Europeans crazy because the warplanes flying over Gaza could just as easily be piloted by soldiers from Vienna, Vilnius, and Paris as from Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Ariel. I am reminded here of méconnaissance ‘false recognition’ in the Lacanian mirror stage, in which the image an infant sees in the mirror does not correspond to the infant’s primal physical reality. A disorientation and consequent anxiety is predictable.
On the other hand, there is a remarkable void in the Israeli national discourse regarding its creeping blacklist in Latin America, the geographic and cultural area of the world to have taken the most principled stance against Israel. The Latin American opposition to the latest massacres in Gaza was nearly unanimous, with several states taking diplomatic action against Israel in apparent solidarity with the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Owing in no small part to both a history as a colonized people as well as a strong leftist tradition, Latin Americans are able to lucidly identify with Palestinians without the psychoemotional baggage of Europe. For Latin Americans, it’s not so much the ‘power and domination aspect’ of the Israel/Palestine conflict, as in Ghassan Hage’s memories of paternal authority, as it is the reenactment of the settler colonialism that is the predominant theme in Latin American history.
This recognition is mutual. After all, the late Hugo Chavez was wildly popular in Palestine and elsewhere not only for his critique of Israel, but also for his persona as the head of a personality cult phantasmagorically evoking Gamal Abdel Nasser, the last great Arab leader. Two summers ago, I would sometimes see the Venezuelan consular representative in Ramallah roaming the city’s streets, drinking coffee, and buying keffiyehs.
What aggravates us about Israel has just as much to do with who we are as what Israel is. We are shaped by our biographies, personal trajectories, and collective unconscious. Culture and history, in the words of the anthropologist Maurice Bloch, ‘are not just something created by people but that they are, to a certain extent, that which creates persons.’ So to return to the question of what exactly about Israel drives us crazy, the answer must be in our subjective inner worlds as individual beings-in-the-world, and also as actors in historical processes to which we are docile. I like to think of us as historical tourists… powerless to the unraveling of historical and political processes to which we can only apply something so passive as the tourist gaze.
Perhaps the best example of this is in the United States, Israel’s adopted parent, and its schizophrenic political emotions towards its delinquent child. American Jews are both the most audible defenders of Zionism, so central in lobbying, policy-making, etc., but it’s important also to remember that deflects from this master narrative – the other Jews – are highly involved in chapters of the Palestine solidarity movement on university campuses and other spaces where an American critique of Israel is possible.
It’s no surprise then that the metaphor of the Holocaust, often taboo and always controversial, is recurring among American Jews involved in Palestine solidarity activism. Naomi Wolf, the author and activist, wrote during the first weeks of the Gaza massacres: “I stand with the people of Gaza exactly because things might have turned out differently if more people had stood with the Jews in Germany. I stand with the people of Gaza because no one stood with us.” The Holocaust thus haunts American Jewish political emotion, both in defense and in critique of Israel, as an unchangeable historical object. This emotional relationship with the political present is heavily invested in the historical past.
It’s true that turning our gaze inwards won’t change the facts on the ground. Palestinians in Gaza continue to die in masses, while Palestinians in the West Bank live under conditions of systematic apartheid. Palestinian freedom will come as a result of action, not words. But the words we use, when we use them, should be sophisticated and erudite. Aspects of what activates our emotions regarding Israel are dependent on our own subjectivities. It’s thus crucial for a progressive critique of Zionism to include an understanding of Israeli thought and culture, by which we can examine ourselves in relation to Israel/Palestine, tragedy, hopelessness, and despair.
Living partially in the West Bank for the last two years, I am always disappointed to meet Palestine solidarity activists and foreign NGO workers who are utterly disinterested in Israel. How to explain this political solipsism? It’s with good reason that Mahmoud Darwish, the greatest of all Palestinian poets, took pride in his knowledge of Hebrew culture, and that his own favorite poet was none other than Yehuda Amichai, his Jewish counterpart. What I mean to say is that understanding Israel can only help articulate aspects of critiques of Israel that perhaps we are not able to articulate otherwise. This impairment, in part, has as much to do with us as it does with all that is external to us.