So I lied. Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.
I appreciated David Samel’s thoughtful essay on the Hamas-claimed killings of the four paramilitary settlers in Hebron—paramilitary settlers, and not simply “settlers.” I appreciated it both because it was thoughtful and because it was lucid (although I appreciated more Seham’s list of unreported attacks against Palestinian lives and livelihoods in the past few months). Samel’s lucidity makes it very easy to pinpoint where he goes wrong, and it isn’t within the logic of his dissection of the morality or efficacy of the attack.
The problem is larger. It’s in his defense of the binary he presents between those who “defend” the attacks using a sophistical logic much like what Israel’s hasbara-artists deploy, and those who unequivocally condemn them. The problem isn’t his logic but his binary: there is a middle ground between condemnation of attacks against hard-to-categorize armed settlers, and approbation of them, and that’s a refusal to condemn them.
Placing to the side some questions that arguably bear on this point—the strategic effectiveness of the attacks, where precisely on the spectrum-of-culpability armed settlers, who are the instruments of an occupation that Eyal Benvenisti characterizes as outright “aggression,” fall, and what counsel do the Geneva and Hague conventions and subsequent case law give us. Reserve for the moment another question: what is the point of Western condemnation. Cut instead to the core of the question. Who has standing to condemn, and why?
Samel, anticipating the general direction but not the specific vector of that criticism, writes of those who will inevitably question his decision to “‘lecture’ oppressed people on the acceptable methods they may utilize to win their freedom.” He demurs: “I’m merely expressing my opinion.” With what standing? At first, he rejects the grounds for attack: he does “not need to earn the right to” criticize.
But Samel then adds, “I have taken rather strong stands against the barbarity unleashed by Israelis against Palestinians, and I’m perfectly entitled to identify which responsive measures I endorse and those that I condemn.” Presumably, you condemn one barbarity, you can condemn the rest of them—an apple’s an apple, and terror attacks against the innocent are terror attacks against the “innocent” no matter whether they occur under the imprimatur of Netanyahu in Tel-Aviv or the Hamas government in Gaza and Damascus.
Let me be as blunt and clear as possible in rejecting the right to criticize in this instance. And add that criticism is intolerable. Speaking generally, we are not entitled to condemn Palestinian violence, although they are. Samel—and I don’t mean to pick on him, I suspect his point-of-view has broad currency—is not “entitled” to lambast the Palestinian resort to force from the Olympian distance of a neutral arbiter, from the social distance given by metropolitan comfort, as if from behind a lectern on which stands a book of laws and norms and values that interpret and apply themselves. The riposte is that this criticism may simply reflect human rights law, but that’s not an excuse.
First, human rights law doesn’t simply apply itself, human beings apply it and its application is an ethical issue. Second, human rights law didn’t come from nowhere. It represents a tension, between codifying “universal” human rights and criminalizing the conduct of those who violate the rights of others. To us, it may be clear who to indict first. But the problem is that it’s always others on the dock for genocide, never those most clearly culpable for it. Human rights law isn’t just an idealistic utopia. It’s also a political weapon.
Aware of that, return to the issue of the right to criticize. Before criticizing, there’s a necessary question: are we innocent, do we stand apart from the society that produced the Hamas killings? Can we stand in moral and legal judgment of them? Not a chance. Samel, and take Samel as an avatar for all of us, is not innocent. By not being innocent, through condemnation, we become hypocrites. We live in privilege and we have lived in privilege. Our lives are the product of that privilege.
Their ease is the experience of privilege. That privilege came at a cost. We are the condensed, living subjects of a tremendous, bloody, messy, tragic, horrible history of violence that has constituted us as privileged Westerners and has left the Palestinian people scrabbling in the sands of Gaza and the Jordan Valley, in refugee camps scattered around the Levant.
We cannot simple excise ourselves from that history, nor can we excuse our culpability for its sorrows. That culpability inflects every moment of our lives and infects our thought and our being. Even by speaking out against the ongoing horror of Israeli violence we cannot sever ourselves from that history, as though we are isolated individuals not constituted by our relations with society and the history of that society and those relations—a bit of modernist ideology that conceals the corpses and wreckage that sit beneath the foundations of our easy lives.
Our relations with Palestinian society and with the third world generally are thick with congealed blood. In the former case, for Americans, the more so for privileged Americans, the more so for privileged American Jews, the blood tally is staggering.
Speaking out and acting out are what we can do and it would be absurd to suggest that even while doing so we do not take a certain distance from that history. But only so much. Even the best of us, those who have spent the past decade or more interspersing themselves physically between the Israeli war machine and its victims don’t have that standing, and I frankly don’t see them hurtling forward with condemnations, anyway. Our freedom to be good people, to be activists, and movement journalists, and human rights lawyers, to fight for others’ freedom, is a freedom that is a product of a history of evil, and it’s a psychic convenience, a self-serving subterfuge, that we may simply step apart from it to condemn the actions of those who live in the hell we have made for them.
No amount of acting substitutes for being, and we cannot be Palestinian, we cannot inhabit their history of struggle, “the fact that they have chronically been violated,” as Rita Giacaman described young Palestinian men’s life experiences. There is no substitute for social experience of the impotent infinite rage of that life. It’s beyond me, and no amount of living there or speaking to Palestinians or suffering with them or reading narratives of dispossession or Darwish or Kanafani can make us experience that history. I think about that when I think about what to say or write about Palestinian attacks against Israelis—who all of us who subscribe to BDS agree aren’t exactly innocents.
So I don’t know what to say except to turgidly moralize to the effect that having contributed to causing that rage—a contribution I think we all make—there is something pious, hypocritical, unpleasant, nearly nauseating, about wagging a finger at those who live in fear and anger at the violence we forge every day. What does that mean? Does that mean anything goes? Of course not. All it means is being honest enough and sufficiently sensitive to step back from these specific events and refuse to condemn them, refuse to join the Western hyena pack so eager to judge Palestinian violence against those who are part of the society crushing them. Sure, this will open us to attack from the right. Whatever. We have better things to do than to be worried about the attacks of apologists for murder, don’t we?
I’m reminded of Ghassan Hage’s aside that apparently “it is crucial to ‘absolutely condemn’ suicide bombers if you are going to talk about them, otherwise you become a morally suspicious person.” So I think we can put the police-mentality psychological thuggery of those who celebrate murder to the side and just be quiet in this case. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask from those in solidarity.
Technorati Tags: Hamas, international law, Israel, Palestine, resistance, war crimes, Zionism
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