Language, Violence, Blame and History

Gaza children photo by Andreas H. Lunde

Gaza children
photo by Andreas H. Lunde

First, before you read further, let me put my cards on the table: I am of Sephardi descent. So, I’m Jewish, although not an Ashkenazi Jew and I hold no affiliation with that religion or with the state of Israel. None of my relatives died in the Holocaust, although a number of them probably didn’t survive the Spanish Inquisition (along with a good many Moors). So what? I have pigmentation on my gums, so I could just as easily be described of ‘North African’ descent.

I am not a Zionist. Let me clarify what I mean by that. I don’t believe that the Jews have a God-given right to the land of Israel because I don’t believe in God. By virtue of origination, the Palestinians have just as much right to claim the land they’re on. Most, although not all, racially originate from the same genetic roots – we are all at least partly Semitic. And yet I know that, historically, most ‘lands’ are not won and held through right or origin, but through conflict and conquest. This isn’t a good way of allocating anything. But it is the way things have worked throughout recorded history, and until we become a much more reasoned and humanitarian species, I suspect it is the way it will go on.

I’d also like to say that this is not a topic I write about often. I find the pitch of emotion that accompanies it so toxic and nonconstructive, I hesitate to tread here for fear of being accused of being inhuman and unfeeling for not wailing and tearing my hair out like Naomi Wolf just did. But if dramatic statements and shows of passionate solidarity with the aggrieved parties promised solutions to this problem, we wouldn’t still be here, watching Palestinian children get killed.

I found Naomi Wolf’s use of the term ‘genocide’ to describe what is happening in Gaza right now very unhelpful on a number of levels. Genocide refers to the deliberate and systematic mass murder of a specific, identified ethnic, racial, cultural or national group. The Israelis would be lobbing ordinance over into Gaza regardless of what ethnic, cultural, religious or national grouping the inhabitants belonged to.  They’re doing it because of a longstanding territorial dispute.

I am not going to absolve the people firing rockets into Israel from Gaza from any responsibility, but I am going to say that Israel has held the position of power in this disputed area for a very long time, and they have left the resolution of this situation far too long. They have allowed a wound to fester for over half a century, and they are reaping what they’ve sown. You cannot consistently and systematically disenfranchise an entire population without suffering the consequences of doing it. You cannot relegate that many people to economic misery and then be surprised when they feel they have nothing to lose and fire rockets at you.

Furthermore, of all the people in the world who should understand the eventual consequences of grinding poverty and permanent unemployment, Israel tops the list. Because, in addition to racial tensions and historical resentments, it was Germany’s economic wasteland after WWI that enabled the rise of the Nazi Party. Too many young men with nothing to do and nothing to lose is a bad, bad scenario. And regardless of whether it was technically their responsibility or not, the policies that Israel has put in place with regards to Gaza and the West Bank, have effectively turned those to regions into overcrowded, poverty-riddled slums. Israelis have managed to maintain a fiction that if no one was at anyone’s throats, there was no problem.

In addition to this, the successive encroachment of settlements in disputed or occupied territory has opened that festering wound every time the Israeli government has allowed it to happen. And they cannot, ARE NOT, unaware of how that derails any serious peace talks every time they do it.

The sad reality is that Israel – yes, Israel because of its power, its tech, its sophistication and its friends globally – has not been serious about peace talks for years. As the years go by, the wounds deepen, the litany of Palestinian resentments grow, the death toll rises, and the enemy at the borders have fewer and fewer reasons to sit down and come to any lasting, peaceful settlement. The truth is that, if Israel were to recognize and grant the Palestinians national sovereignty tomorrow, they’d have a border next to a nation of people who hate them with an almost blind passion and the ability – as a sovereign nation – to purchase the arms to decimate them with. Once you’ve literally brought a group of people to their collective knees, you can’t trust them not to bite you back, no matter what agreement you come to.

If the Palestinians were smart and vicious, they’d stop firing those rockets, make all kinds of peaceful noises, recognize the state of Israel, promise anything that would get them statehood and make it virtually impossible for the rest of the world not to pressure Israel into granting it –  and then bomb the shit out of Israel. That’s what I’d do. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Palestinians are just too proud and too honest about how they feel. Added to this, as with all resistance movements, there are elements on the Palestinian side who have built their identity and their power on the basis of an ongoing conflict. Like the IRA, like many militant groups, peace would deprive them of their raison d’etre. I’m not saying this is a large proportion of Palestinians, but it’s an effective one.  And every time Israel targets Gaza, it simply reinforces their determination to never give up, never give in, never stop fighting.

This is the hellish state we find ourselves in. It is not in Israel’s longterm interests to sit down and make peace. The Palestinians are too traumatized to hide their seething ( and justified) resentment in order to get what they want. And the rest of the world has been using this conflict to play its own geopolitical football for years.

Meanwhile, innocent children are dying in Gaza. Too many of them – although one would be too many. But the accusation, in the liberal media and by people like Naomi Wolf, that this is genocide, or that the Israelis are intentionally targeting children is a chilling digression. It does not serve the Israelis to target Palestinian children. Their US funding depends on appearing to be the injured party. The fact is that a huge part of the Gaza population are children (what do you do when you have no work and no prospects? You get politically radical and you make babies). The chances of bombing anywhere in Gaza and NOT hitting children is very small indeed. We’ve all been watching far too many sci-fi movies. This expectation that you can bomb anywhere and NOT hit an innocent party is a delusion reinforced by people who want to sell their weaponry.

But I want to return to language and the word ‘genocide’ and why it is not only unhelpful but escalatory. It is the memory of being the victims of a genocidal event that allows the state of Israel to excuse itself for the appalling things it does. This collective historical trauma has shaped Israeli policy since its inception. The Holocaust is the lurking spectre that allows Israel to always choose pragmatism and realpolitik over humanitarian, ethical and moral behavior. It has permeated the psyche of every Israeli. This disease of what having been a victim allows you to do, of absolving you from the responsibility of being decent, or even polite in a quotidian transaction – is an infectious social virus and they have infected Palestine with it.

The 20th and early 21st Centuries have been the story of empowering victims. This has not been a bad thing in itself, but it has often meant empowering victims as victims, with all the need for an insatiable appetite for retribution that entails.  The word genocide is inaccurate, but worse, it burdens the Palestinians with the obligations to make the same inhuman choices that Israel has felt it had the right to make. And look where that has led?

I don’t see any resolution to this conflict, only containment. I do believe that the US’s stalwart support of Israel, even when its constructing more settlements in the occupied territories, has significantly damaged the chances of a resolution. But I’m afraid that, even if the US were to withdraw its support now, this would not be enough to wipe clean the slate of fifty years of cowardice and self-interest on the part of Israel, or bitter and grinding rage on the part of the Palestinians.  Israel, with the collusion of most of the West, has created a well of rage so deep that I just can’t imagine what could possibly dissipate it.

Time, perhaps, and slow, gradual and consistent movement towards Palestinian sovereignty (slow but steady economic inclusion, no new settlements, get rid of the ones that have already been built). But I doubt any politician has the patience for that. They’re all too fucking busy getting elected tomorrow.

Yeah, I know, not a very optimistic blog post. Sorry.


(P.S. I am happy to post whatever response you might have to this topic as long as you refrain from inflammatory language and epithets regardless of the side you aim them at. If calling Israel “Zionist Murderers” or calling Palestinians “Muslim Terrorists” had any constructive effect on this debate, we wouldn’t still be having it.)