Long but excellent read by Benjamin Moser, Nov 15 2023
“Writers should be in the vanguard of the dissenting minority, those who are afraid, those who are ashamed, those who say No, those who say ‘We are bleeding,’ those who cry Stop.” — Susan Sontag
”Today I woke up, yet again, to images of Israel’s terror campaign. I watched a video of a three-year-old boy trembling uncontrollably. A few seconds was more than I could stand. I know that thousands of children just like him are dead — one child is killed in Gaza every ten minutes — and that more will die in the coming hours and days, and that even those who “survive” will have been destroyed for life, and I feel a rage that I find hard to express.
I don’t write out of rage.
But sometimes you have to scream.
“Because there’s a right to scream. So I scream” — Clarice Lispector
The number of dead are subject to some quibbling dispute, mainly because Israel hardly allows any humanitarian organizations into Gaza. But it is over 10,000 11,000 12,000. We don’t have to be mathematicians of death to point out that this is more than Srebrenica, the worst slaughter in postwar Europe. By some accounts, it’s more civilians than have been killed in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
What can writers do in the face of such a calamity?
We can talk about what we know about. We can talk about language, about words.
If this feels like nothing: well, if words weren’t important, Israel and its henchmen wouldn’t lawyer every comma in every newspaper. This has its intended effect. Ask any journalist, any politician, how it feels to get on the wrong side of these people.
And what’s the word they like least?
[South African President Cyril] Ramaphosa’s office also said it viewed Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as a form of apartheid … Israel has vigorously rejected comparisons between itself and apartheid-era South Africa, but they have become more widespread in recent years, and the accusation of apartheid has been endorsed by international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as Israeli rights groups B’Tselem and Yesh Din. —The New York Times
You get why they don’t like this word, which symbolizes the lowest side of our Western so-called civilization. Yet when applied to Israel, the word apartheid is, if anything, generous.
I’ve written before that Israel’s system is worse than apartheid. Especially if you grew up, as I did, in a Jewish and Zionist home, it’s unbelievable: as in, you really can’t believe it.
Any description will always fall short.
It’s hard to believe it if you haven’t seen it for yourself.
Still, you have to try really hard not to see what’s happening now.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that there were […] 7,000 deaths between 1948 and 1989. —Wikipedia, “Apartheid”
In four weeks, Israel has killed thousands more people than the South African regime—a regime that everyone agrees was racist and evil—killed in the forty-one years of apartheid.
It’s hard to see anything in South African history that can compare to locking two and a half million people into an open-air prison and carpet-bombing them—killing a child every ten minutes.
And Israel is even more depressing, even more hopeless, because of another big difference between it and South Africa. South African apartheid didn’t have the support of the richest and most powerful governments in the world. It didn’t have columnists pleading to understand the “complexities of the region” or explaining that it exists in a “rough neighborhood.”
This support is brittle. Even after the grotesque, on-camera horrors that Hamas committed on October 7, Israel is managing to lose support. And Israel and its “supporters”—do they really “support” what’s happening now? do they?—are getting shoutier.
The climate of censorship is stifling. So many of those who spent years yelling about “cancel culture” are firing professors, banning books, cheering the arrest of peaceful protestors. People are losing their jobs. Writers and artists are being de-platformed. Even Jewish peace organizations are being banned.
It’s worked for a while. But people can see a bombed hospital. They can see a trembling child.
The exact percentage of Jews in Palestine prior to the rise of Zionism is unknown. However, it probably ranged from 2 to 5 per cent. According to Ottoman records, a total population of 462,465 resided in 1878 in what is today Israel/Palestine. Of this number, 403,795 (87 per cent) were Muslim, 43,659 (10 per cent) were Christian and 15,011 (3 per cent) were Jewish — Alan Dowty, Israel/Palestine, Cambridge: Polity, 2008, p. 13.
Quibble, if you want to, over the word “apartheid.” But when placed next to another word, “Zionism,” it feels inevitable.
You can understand why so many people thought that Zionism was a good idea. You know the six million reasons why the Jews felt they couldn’t trust the outside world.
But on a practical level, Zionism meant importing a large foreign population to take possession of a fully inhabited land. The indigenous population reacted about the way you might expect.
People always ask, and only in the context of Israel, if you think it has a “right to exist.”
Why only in Israel?
Lots of states—it’s hard to think of any that don’t—have a history of dispossession, war, and conquest. Lots of states—it’s hard to think of any that haven’t—commit horrible crimes.
But the insistence on this phrase betrays an insecurity. Does a population that a little more than a century ago was no more than 5% of a country’s population have a right to live in that country—and to impose a racial hierarachy in which the original inhabitants are at the very bottom?
If you believe in the right of conquest—considered a legitimate right for most of human history—sure.
The thing is: most people these days don’t believe in the right of conquest, any more than they believe in the divine right of kings.
It’s a “right” that clashes with Israel’s preferred self-presentation, as a democracy.
What kind of democracy keeps half its population in the circumstances in which the Palestinians live? Despite the massacres, the expulsions, the discrimination, Palestinians are still half the population of Israel-Palestine. Palestinians either have no civil rights or the limited rights that a small minority have, as second-class citizens of Israel.
Israel is a democracy in the sense that there are regularly held elections. This was also true in South Africa—and, for that matter, in the Confederate States of America. Yet for some reason, when we think of democracies, neither of those pop into our minds.
“It is not my job to educate you” — annoying but accurate phrase
In the same way that black people get sick of explaining themselves to white people or gay people get sick of explaining themselves to straight people, Palestinians and their allies are tired of talking to people who haven’t taken the time to educate themselves. It’s exhausting to have to leap through all the rhetorical hoops.
I speak for a lot of people when I say I’m tired of condescending questions.
If you think that Israel is not a racial tyranny, ask yourself: have I really been paying attention? Have I actually sought to educate myself? Or am I just repeating the pieties I grew up with?
Do we denounce Hamas — that’s to say, do we support hacking off the heads of old ladies, murdering teenagers at a rock concert, and kidnapping and torturing children?
What do we think about antisemitism — that’s to say, the hatred of Jewish people that led to the gas chambers?
Do we remember the Holocaust — that’s to say, in my case and many others, what happened to our own families?
These questions are part of the rhetorical fog. If you are pro-Palestinian—and even if you are one of the millions of pro-Palestinian Jews and Israelis—you waste a lot of time reassuring people that you are not ignorant, or racist, or psychotic.
“all the women. in me. are tired.” —Nayyirah Waheed
Those who don’t see what is going on in Israel might try to answer some questions themselves.
Have you read any books about the nakba—visited Palestine—even taken a minute to Google “settler violence West Bank”—or stopped to hear the shockingly racist statements coming out of the Israeli government, things that would be considered off-limits even for Russian or Iranian officials? Do you think these are the words and actions of people who are trying to make peace?
Still, it’s a mistake to focus on this or that specific calamity, this or that horrifying statement.
Look at it more generally. When you look at the history of Israel and Palestine, do you think that Zionism, if certainly an understandable idea, was a good idea?
It’s a funny question for me.
Until I was in my twenties, I hadn’t knowingly met a single person who, though they disagreed with this or that policy of the Israeli government, would have thought to question the basic goodness of Zionism.
This seems incredible to me now. Because it’s hard to imagine how anything else could have come out of an idea so obviously flawed.
Why was this, why is this, not obvious?
Once, the answer would have been: because of the suffering of the Jews. Now: because of the rhetorical fog.
Because really: if you look at the idea of Zionism, bringing millions of people “home” to a country almost entirely inhabited by another people, it seems pretty clear that it would go exactly as it has gone, and it seems pretty clear that the current catastrophe is not the product of this bad leader or that shortsighted policy but the inevitable consequence of a terrible idea.
“Whatever the nature of today’s Soviet society, the Soviet Union is, by and large, and given the balance of power, on the side of those who are struggling against the forms of exploitation we are so familiar with.” —Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Temps Modernes, 1950
When I see the defenders of Zionism and Israel today, I think of the defenders of Soviet Communism.
Like Sartre, many were brilliant. They loved humanity. They hated the cruelties of capitalism. And they were right to hate them.
Still, eventually, all but the most fanatic stopped defending Stalin’s Russia.
Many insisted that true communism was something else.
Maybe something more like Mao’s China—which, for a while, had its fans.
Or like Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam, ditto.
Or Cuba: I can’t tell you how many tedious conversations I’ve sat through in Latin America about Cuba. I’d tweak the system just a tiny little bit, the speaker says, by allowing citizens to start businesses, for example, or by giving people the freedom to come and go.
The system would be great, in other words—if only it were an entirely different system!
Those arguments eventually collapsed under the weight of their own absurdity, and so it will go with the defenders of Israel.
I think this is why the screeching is so loud now. The climate of censorship is unbearable. The unanimity of the governments supporting this slaughter feels unbreakable.
But it won’t last. Because the more they yell at us, the more they threaten us, the more they censor us, the more people see them and their cause for what they are. Because all the yelling, all the threats, all the censorship, raise another question.
Are these the tactics of a movement convinced it can win by democratic means?
“In the US, I grew up vaguely believing Israel is a just and democratic state, and happy Jews had a homeland. I wanted that to be true. Then I visited Palestine. What I saw is not what I wanted to see. It is indefensible” —Vincent Bevins
The defenders of Zionism know they are defending an indefensible regime, and that is why you see them flailing. Every bomb, every murdered child, is proof that they have supported a terrible idea.
Nobody likes to be proven wrong. But their hearts aren’t in it—especially those hearts that, on every other issue, belong to the left. I have an ancestral cringe when I hear, as I did, the other day, that the flag of Israel has become the equivalent of the MAGA hat.
For too long, too many people have given their emotional and intellectual contribution to a far-right and racist cause, one embraced by Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen and Jair Bolsonaro.
It’s a contradiction that was bound to collapse. With that collapse, Israel loses far more than what it lost on October 7. What Israel is losing is its right to exist morally and intellectually.
Because a regime that kills a child every ten minutes—no matter what the provocation—is not a regime that is worth defending.
What’s worth defending is the commitment to the civic equality that underpins every democracy worthy of the name.
For Jewish people who are not religious, this is our basic moral and political commitment. We know that fanning hatred—of anyone, anywhere—is the biggest threat to Jews.
Netanyahu … was quoted as saying that those who oppose a Palestinian state should support the transfer of funds to Gaza, because maintaining the separation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. —The Times of Israel
It’s easy to blame Netanyahu. Though many hate him, almost all American and European politicians are marching in lockstep behind him.
But Netanyahu is beside the point. To focus on a single personality is like blaming the problems of the United States on Donald Trump, or the problems of Brazil on Jair Bolsonaro. Someone like Netanyahu was bound to emerge from the idea that you could take a country, remove its inhabitants, and put another people in its place.
In South Africa, lots of people, apparently reasonable “centrist” people, hoped that their system could be gently reformed. But there’s no reform Zionism, any more than there is a reform apartheid.
Apartheid could, at least, be abolished. Laws could be changed. There was another model, the multiracial democracy.
It’s hard to see how Zionism can be fixed. It’s hard to see how all this killing can lead to any stable political arrangement. That’s the complicated part.
But the basic conditions, the basic questions?
“The most shocking thing about my time over there was how uncomplicated it actually is.”—Ta-Nehisi Coates
We’re entering Long Israel, the geopolitical equivalent of Long Covid.
The campaign of ethnic cleansing will eventually reduce the Palestinians—a ragged remnant of the group that once represented 95% of the population—to a remnant of a remnant. The Israeli extreme-right will be strengthened. Their fanaticism will make it impossible for the “normal” Israelis—the reasonable people, the peace-loving people—to live their lives. One by one, they will join the huge communities of their countrymen already living in Amsterdam and Paris and Los Angeles and Berlin. And the country will become what it only ever could have become, a military tyranny, a Jewish version of Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
What can we do about it?
But for now, as the bombs fall, we can at least cut through the rhetorical fog.
We can insist on using real words.”
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