Very interesting interview with a French, Jewish, Marxist scholar of Islam via the New Inquiry’s Sunday Reading list. I also downloaded this PDF of his 1967 article in Les Temps Modernes, ‘Israël, fait colonial?’ (‘Israel, colonial fact?’; later published in English as “Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?’). It’s 87 pages in French, so it’s going to take me a while if I ever finish it, but I managed Merleau-Ponty in the same organ, and I could do with the practice. I’ve read the preface, though, where he describes his insistence on his piece being placed in neither of the ‘partisan’ camps of Arabs and Zionists in the journal’s special issue.
There a couple of other pieces on that list, a short piece on attitudes within Israel and a longer article on Hamas, both from the LRB, that I found interesting. If that term applies - the only one more obscene would be ‘useful’, since what use are we as global bystanders? It’s an eminently sufferable, privileged problem that betrays its own lack of sympathies, but I find myself continously frustrated at the stream of bitesize condemnations on social media that ignore or reject all attempts at historical or political contextualisation. Of course, how do you contextualise the killing of innocents, even their futile representations? Israel may be very much in the wrong now, but how did it get there? How can its course be altered?
I get the sense sometimes that for the left the existence of Israel as racist - even fascist - terror state is to be taken as a current fact without much thought to the internal and external pressures that brought it to such extremes. The history and continuing significances of Zionism and anti-semitism, as two diverse but mutually supporting ideologies, require understanding. It’s not just about the Holocaust and its aftermath, the overworn justification of ‘self-defence’ - Jewish settlement in Palestine was occurring during and before (less so during, especially as the British colonial government restricted immigration towards the end of the 1930s), with not dissimilar tensions and even open conflict well before 1948.
Arthur Koestler’s Thieves in the Night (the title being the description by the existing Arabs of the Jewish settlers, who arrived at their purchased land under cover of darkness to protect it from attack) and Leon Uris’ Exodus both vividly describe that period, culminating respectively in the 1938-9 Palestinian uprising and the 1948 Israeli war of independence. The former, especially, very much changed how I view the conflict; even if the story is told primarily from the Jewish perspective, its not hard to read with hindsight the mistrustful attitudes towards Palestinian Arabs. Equally, from what is reported now of Israeli treatment of the occupants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, there is a cold line of logic than runs through the establishment of a Jewish state in a hostile environment.
That at least seemed to be the conclusion of the late Tony Judt, whose 2003 piece offering an alternative between an “ethnically cleansed Greater Israel” and a binational state I posted earlier without comment. With the former, a situation we seem to be coming ever closer to,
"Israel could indeed remain both Jewish and at least formally democratic: but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, something which would condemn Israel forever to the status of an outlaw state, an international pariah."
Outside of Israel, support is maintained only by political expediency and the logical contortions of propaganda; within Israel, however, 95% support for the war is measured in between existential concerns for security and an increasingly racist, intolerant public discourse. Not seeing a choice in their interactions with Palestinians, at least not one compatible with the continued and expanded survival of the Jewish state, Israelis seem not to comprehend how global sympathy for Palestinians can be separated from support for Hamas, for Islamic fundamentalism, from the worst possibilities of anti-Jewish hatred. In turn, after fighting against propaganda that linked the two for so long, I feel many in Europe (or Ireland, at least) are unwilling to consider the extent to which anti-semitism remains a factor in ‘anti-Zionism’.
That the Israeli state, with the support of the majority of its people and encouraged by the pressure of the most conservative in its society, are pursuing increasingly extreme policies in defence of a territorial Jewish identity, does not mean we have to condemn that goal - only that we reflect on it, having consideration for its origins and the threats against it as well as the suffering consequential on it. We had to do the same in Ireland - in a conflict which, while painful and drawn-out, thankfuly never reached the same extremes of violence - in understanding Unionism and its siege mentality, as well as its deeply rooted sectarianism, before a (far from perfect) political agreement could be made with Irish nationalists and republicans. One can blame Israeli politicians for not dealing as productively with Palestinian moderates, for worsening the situation, but again the motivation for advancing the Jewish state has to be considered.
Lastly, the idea that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement will allow popular global opinion to transform Israeli politics, to force change in the manner of South African apartheid, is something I’m also sceptical about on reflection. The internal political dynamics of South Africa seem so different - huge demographic pressures surrounding race, far beyond anything in Palestine; the lack of a justifying ideology similar to Zionism, or an identity as historically resonant as Jewishness; and the lack of a terrorist threat on the scale genuinely experienced in Israel - unless one were to equate the black Communist fundamentalist revolutionaries behind the ANC with Hamas, which seems unlikely. That said, there doesn’t seem to be a better option, while ‘apartheid’ appears an increasingly valid comparison, so maybe those differences won’t prevent it becoming an effective way to force change - as long as, I suppose, it is recognised what is fundamental to the conflict.