Editorial: Gaza and the Unspeakable

How long will it take for the many Jewish Israelis who support the current destruction of Gaza  to see that what is unspeakable about the Holocaust lurks in their government and state’s actions there? Whatever valley-flower of moral cause it might put before the world, always of its own choosing, this is the fact we can see with our own eyes and know when Netanyahu speaks: there is no limit.

It has long been a debate among Jewish thinkers and others as to whether the Holocaust may be theorised, debated, discussed. Is it an appropriate ‘object’ at all for speech, let alone theory? It is said that no words can adequately register the experience of it or divine its meaning. No words can adequately register its dimensions as mass murder, heinous genocide, huge in its proportions of the people killed and generations scarred, and in the hugely hubristic motivation and cold efficiency of those who would devise and carry it out. However one might try to identify its parts or name its source, the sum of it is larger than the parts one might grasp. And in this void a vastly more nebulous presence is conjectured, and it is chilling—and it must be truly horrendous to have to imagine that an inexplicable evil, generating implacable hatred, follows you.

That we now we see this ‘evil’ being evinced and promoted in key Israeli and local Jewish statements as the core feature of Israeli suffering after the Hamas attack points up what seems an implacable political, and moral, gulf. Evil has again broken out. It must occupy that place that can only be pierced at its heart, smashed into the ground and its monstrous parts sundered. Hamas, we are told, is that evil. Yet the penumbra of evil is hard to rein in, and Palestinians must surely partake of it; at the least they are justifiable collateral damage.

This narrative would seem to be both terror and comfort to Israeli Jews: it makes for a terrible subjective vigilance, but it gives agency, and in the hands of a state, a counter power that has all the features of an absolute. Netanyahu has certainly been prosecuting this war in these terms; but even much less bellicose justifications for war would seem to grow from this same reservoir of terror and (surely false) comfort. ‘It’s awful, but they just have to finish the job’ seems to be a standby for Jewish protestors who might see themselves as humane, to regret what’s happening, but whose response eschews anything like a decent moral accounting, let alone an assessment of Israeli history and politics. It’s a shame to kill the children, but…

That’s the bottom line. The ‘but’ refers to an imperative that trumps all potential others, and justifies any means of its fulfillment.

For the time being at least, this defence remains both at the top of the agenda, of Israeli PR, and, it would seem, buried at the most subterranean, as a feature of Jewish subjective life. In respect of the former, it has been a key to winning hearts and minds to the state’s objectives; in respect of the latter, it refers to a place of remembrance and meaning that should not be traduced for political and military gain. Many Jewish thinkers have worked to disarticulate the Holocaust from the Palestine question, and to seek ways through both fully secular and religious accounts to achieve a different Jewish politics, if not Judaism, for example, Marcelo Svirsky in Arena Quarterly no. 13. We see this also in the movement of Jews who will not let Netanyahu and other Israeli elements speak in their name—a remarkable and in prospect hugely influential movement.

Nevertheless this remains a deeply difficult task given the place of the land of Israel in both religion and secular hope. Historical Israel as mythic place, and the land itself (for farming, living, food, water) have been represented as solutions to the Holocaust and European persecution generally, as well as being offered and shaped as a place/source of modernity, and nationalist-Zionist deliverance within that frame. I am reminded by Joshua Leifer in the New York Review of Books that it is one of the founding pillars of the Jewish state that Jews would never again ‘go like sheep to slaughter’, his point being that Netanyahu’s government has broken a sacred deal struck between the people and the state. While this might be true, and augur significant change, it is by virtue of its sacral nature that the disarticulation of the Holocaust from the Palestine question remains so stubbornly out of reach.

Of course, we see this deep conflation constantly in various forms, most egregiously in recent times in the touted definition of anti-Israel criticism as anti-Semitic. We also hear it in synagogue with the commencement of service, even in the most liberal Jewish religious spaces, with a prayer for the Israeli Defence Forces, and I’m not meaning under circumstances of actual war. As it has been fostered and bolstered, Judaism and Israel are for most Jews coterminous. Rather than seeing anti-Semitism in anti-Israel criticism, however, the effort should be to disconnect this defence of Israel from what it is that Jews might properly want from that place.

That the European powers might also have to sort this out has been pointed out by Yanis Varoufakis in a striking interview with Al Jazeera’s Upfront, in which he discusses European guilt as crucially involved in maintaining the Israel–Palestine status quo, and in encouraging the likes of the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen to pronounce near-genocidal solutions to the ‘Gazan problem’. Writers in Arena such as John Docker and Patrick Wolfe have in complementary fashion over the years made a related point about the United States’s absolute commitment to Israel via the pathos common in their settler-colonial founding and ongoing sense of historic destiny.

At the level of the self and of the nation, these co-constituting elements of fear, deliverance, land and community make the possibility of separating the Holocaust from the question of Palestine deeply difficult. That Western powers use Israel to salve their consciences, excite their settler dreams, and defend it as a ‘bridgehead’ civilisation/military outpost in the desert, only underline the many layers of difficulty involved. Yet, it is exactly our bearing witness to the enormity of Gazan suffering, and of Israel’s military and moral absolutism, that may now lead to a disarticulation of those elements of self and national narrative. Hamas should return the hostages, but Israeli Jews must examine the siege conditions of Gaza of the past eighteen years and the state of hostage to which life in the West Bank has been reduced and ask deep in themselves where that possibility comes from.

If this disarticulation of founding story and psychological investment doesn’t occur, what hope is there for Palestinians? But what hope for Israeli Jews too? Who wants to live in an even more militarised Israel than it presently is? Who could live with themselves, especially as Jews, if ‘peace’ can only be achieved as a result of ethnic cleansing?

* * *

The problem is, of course, who sees it as ethnic cleansing? Every society has its point of radical blindness to the truth of its origins and historical struggles, but especially settler colonies, where genocidal logics apply. Wolfe observed that the cultural and social ‘logic’ of settler colonies is distinct from that of other colonial forms. Settler-invaders mean to stay, not merely to extract resources and plunder culture, and don’t want to return to mother country and metropolitan life. Freedom and new beginnings are promised, not to mention, land. New nation-founding myths are both prior to settlement and shaped by the necessary blindness needed for the killing and displacement that must go on. If you want the land, it follows that the source of the ‘original’ others’ livelihoods and sustenance, both physical and cultural, must be discounted, displaced, disparaged.

As we know in Australia only too well, that means radical dispossession of what matters most for First Nations—Country—and we know all the varieties of blindness and implicit self-justification that entails. There may be considerable differences in the Israel and Australian contexts, and of course there are very different politics among and dividing settlers, but the fundamental comparison stands. There is an undertow, a necessary tendency, to absolve oneself and look away. The bloody mindedness of some of our political leaders, in Australia and also Israel, may stand at the outer edge of colonial viciousness and deceit, not to mention self-deception, but the logic is objective, and general. If it does thus embrace us all, it not only behooves us to examine ourselves and our origin stories, it gives us leverage in relation to those leaders for whom absolutely no dialogue is possible, and an opening to proper dealing across the divides of culture and history.

As numerous critics have pointed out, the Israeli state has been playing a cynical game for decades in relation to any peace process, or two-state solution, and in basic denial of Palestinians’ rights, whether it be the 1.5 million Arab citizens of Israel, those refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield, or those millions pressured and surveilled in the West Bank or pressed into Gaza, many Gazans themselves refugees from the areas Hamas attacked on 7 October (see Ali Kazak’s recent article on Arena Online). Whether the systematic assassination of the leaders of the early Palestinian resistance; the program of debasement and humiliation of the present Palestinian authority; the facilitation of Hamas, which is now well documented; the facts on the ground of settlements encouraged in the Occupied Territories and support of settler violence by the army, which might otherwise have been protecting the Gaza line; the program of demolition and evictions in the West Bank; or the periodic wars in Gaza to ‘mow the grass’, with inevitable collateral damage in Gazan deaths—ongoing policies of containment and elimination from the land Israel claims are clear.

* * *

But this is only one cut through history; settler colonialism for all its usefulness is only one frame. Another may start, yes, with the modern Zionist requirement of a nation place and state for Jews, and thus the settler complex, but this is also a tale of nineteenth-century modernity in its trajectory to hyper-capitalist development in the early twenty-first. Joshua Leifer paints a picture in just a few lines in the article mentioned above of a radically spatially divided Israel. Few Israeli Jews see that one-fifth Palestinian population of Israel proper, not to mention the millions more in the Occupied Territories. The edges of two worlds are demarcated in the clean modernity of one side of the Wall, and are presumably coterminous with the kind of clear-eyed innocence of Jewish suburban life on the side of it that would see one’s teenage and twenty-something kids wrack off to the desert for a rave party only kilometres from the Gazan ‘concentration camp’. Israel’s wealth; its neoliberal ‘successes’, via Netanyahu especially; the clarity of its purpose in digital technological development; and the vast profits to be made from high-tech securitisation products colour in that picture further. It’s spatial and developmental; as well as a vast breech between mindsets about what can be taken for granted in one’s life-world.

In the Gaza conflagration we see it also in the high-tech war that is abysmally ‘bombing them back to the stone age’, a phrase from another war, but perfectly apt in its application and derogatory implications here. In the Vietnam context it was a US general suggesting the use of the A-bomb on North Vietnam. Only weeks ago, Heritage Minister Amihay Eliyahu suggested that the use of Israel’s nuclear capability in Gaza would be acceptable.

If Gaza is a representation of the logic of elimination, that process is now via the mobilisation of unlimited high-technology used against a defenceless people. With its own powerful, high-tech army and security complex, not to mention a whole population of youngsters to call on to person it, it may not need the support Ukraine requires but the Western world, all the same, is bolstering Israel’s fighting capacity. The absolute gap that has opened up between the two worlds of Jewish Israel and the Palestinians is again writ large, here with the use of ‘precision’ killing technology as an answer to the bloody face-to-face killing of the Hamas raid. This cleaner form of barbarism, with all its high-tech vision, ‘surgical strikes’ and media compliance in beaming Israeli ‘finds’ and successes, is moreover, a support to empire. Not only does high-tech war promote moral avoidance for death on the ground in the spruiking of precision and cleverness, it supports US power, here via a high-tech client state willing to do its dirty work at a distance.

A Guy Rundle has pointed out, where once both Palestinian and Israeli societies were basically agricultural, if with their teachers and intellectuals and middle classes, Israel is now an ultra high-tech economy integrated into a global commodity, surveillance and military economy and abstracted high-tech culture. Its legitimacy in the eyes of the world sits on that clean side of the Wall, and its ‘progressives’ are the linchpin of identification for the West, thus the tremendous pride of so many in the support for liberal democracy in Israel, as we have seen in recent months around Netanyahu’s illiberal judicial reform agenda.

I think that impressive movement felt that ‘adding’ the Palestinian cause to its program would be ‘too soon’ in a stepped process.

* * *

I can’t believe that the Palestinians will be a defeated people, despite the unspeakable conditions they are experiencing, or that even people in the West, and even Jewish Israelis, will not attempt to grasp just what is unspeakable in the Gazan tragedy and its prosecution in all our names—in the celebration of power and modernity, of Western values and of Jewish identity.

Alison Caddick

24 November 2023

About the author

Alison Caddick

Alison Caddick is Editor of Arena (third series), was co-editor of Arena Magazine and is an Arena Publications Editor. With a background in the history and philosophy of science, politics and social studies, she writes on techno-science, the body and prospects for social and cultural change.

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