From the river to the sea, the world is becoming the Gaza laboratory

What the policing of a slogan tells us about the transformation of politics and the world

The comparison between Israel’s destruction of Gaza and the Vietnam War are obvious, with a dominant power subjecting a surrounded people with high-tech weaponry in each. But it’s worth noting what has changed in the half-century between them. During the latter, it was quite acceptable for protestors, or a minority of such, to call for the victory of North Vietnamese forces and for revolution at home. Indeed, though there was no great groundswell of support for the Palestinian cause in Australia at that time, those who did support it could voice that support even amidst the fairly bloody global terror campaign that the Palestinian movement was then running. What has occurred since such that the Zionist lobby, its right-wing supporters and the Australian state feel they must mobilise against not just slogans—words—but the interpretation of them?

The slogan ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ very obviously has multiple interpretations, from the destruction of Israel and its population to the mere abolition of the state, to the notion that Palestinians will get out from under Israeli rule in some unspecified way. But the sheer interpretive and imputative labour going into defining, policing and sequestering the use of the phrase is extraordinary. The slogan has become a tiny little textual Gaza strip, occupied by an army of authorised interpretation.

In the first move, its most extreme possible meaning—of pushing the Jews into the sea—is attached to one political meaning: abolishing Israel as it is in favour of a multifaith Palestinian state. The anti-Zionist argument is thus held to be a necessarily anti-Semitic one. The second move is to attach the denotation of the phrase to its connotations: because it has also been used by those who use terrorism in pursuit of their ends, such actions are somehow held to attach to the meaning of the phrase when used by any user and in any context. This is a new claim about public discourse, developed in this instance by the Zionist lobby, perhaps as something of an ambit claim. Perhaps even they were surprised at how uncomplainingly the one-time ‘free speech’ Right took it up, and how willing a Labor government was to then put some state heft behind it.

Consider the reversed situation during the Vietnam War. You couldn’t say ‘fuck’ on a theatre stage, and raids and prosecutions occurred when people tried to do so, but you could make the political proposition that an army our own soldiers were fighting should prevail. In fact you could, and people did, raise money to help such enemies. Now pro-Palestine marchers pass bus stops on which government-run anti-HIV ads feature men talking about how they fuck, chanting a geopolitical opinion that the government may well ban. What has occurred?

The simplest way to put it is that these forms of control and permission have changed because the relationship between words, things and persons has changed. The world of the 70s was still, though under transformation, an industrial society, class-dominated, in which the state policed bodies, movements, externalities. Words were policed by their direct meanings: calls to revolution, sexual explicitness and so on.

The transformation to a knowledge/information society has undercut the class struggle with a different form of economic process and value, despatialised sociality and atomised subjective existence. The Left, through the 1980s, became increasingly focused on the politics of words, not things, and their sexist, racist and other content and shaping. The state became increasingly focused on managing subjectivity and affect through schools, hospitals and other institutions.

In the 2000s and 2010s, these crossed over. The Left and progressives became increasingly focused on subjective hurt and trauma as a form of social violence. The state became increasingly concerned with policing speech and image based on its possible interpretations as to implicit hate, racism and so on. The Right made great capital of this fusion, which occurred in part because the young Left of the 1980s and 1990s had now become significant parts of the state.

The Zionist lobby has had no difficulty deploying what amount to accusations of thoughtcrime because Jewish community peak bodies never adopted the right-wing free speech mantra. In Australia they lobbied hard for the retention of eighteenth-century laws which gave scope to ban or penalise speech depending, in part, on how such speech was interpreted by the hearer or reader. Then the Right launched a vast campaign against this. Now it has traded away its free speech mantle and happily become the word police.

For Israel and the Zionist lobby, whatever incidental successes it achieves, such a hard-press campaign undermines the wider notion that its Gaza campaign has an ultimate moral legitimacy. Treating slogans not as arguments to be replied to but as contagions to be wiped out, it simultaneously claims to be representing the West in Gaza while at the same time introducing a totalitarian political approach into what remains of the liberal, pluralist public spheres it purports to be representing. This surely makes it obvious that the Left should repudiate notions of ‘connoted speech’ as harm, as often deployed in debates on topics such as gender identity, to describe oppositional argument as hate speech. Such conduct has supplied Zionists with ammunition as effectively as Joe Biden has.

More specifically, we can see in Australia how this process—war abroad, discursive regulation at home—will be used as we move deeper into the heart of the AUKUS arrangement and begin to relinquish the sovereignty of our defence command to US command and interoperability. Dissent over this, or over the situations it gets us into, and propositions regarding our national conduct will increasingly come under the heading of ‘social cohesion’. That the Albanese government has even entertained the Zionist lobby’s proposition about ‘crimes of implication’ in a phrase—let alone, as it has, dived enthusiastically into them—shows our future course. Management of the sovereign interior to the end of ‘social cohesion’ and implied consent will be subordinated to projection of power in the exterior, and the discursive public sphere will be subordinated to the managed interior. It is the Gaza laboratory writ large, as both cause and pretext to reshape the public life of the West.

About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

More articles by Guy Rundle

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