THE conflicts that burn around the world, from Palestine to Ukraine or Myanmar, bring attention to the way language is used, and how shifting moralities alter meanings and beliefs while violence is sanctified, justified or rendered permissible. All of this rests heavily on the pacifist and humanist with the admittedly lofty and idealistic belief that all our efforts should be directed at improving the material wellbeing of humanity, in its entirety, and that there is almost never reason enough for violence or a killing.
The conflicts referred to also threaten to divide the world, so to speak. Already we have seen how Muslims, Jews, Europeans, Africans, Asians, secularists and evangelicals have chosen sides, and how people from football players to politicians have lost jobs or positions for the stories they tell. Already we have seen how what I would describe as the Amanpour Conditionality has framed journalism; before anyone is allowed to say anything they have to “condemn Hamas”. We have come to understand that calls for a ceasefire are retold as support for terrorists, terrorism and killing. We read reports of how stories that are critical of aerial bombardment, which is rarely precise (military leaders say their aim is destruction not precision) are retold as support for terrorism, and how some stories can lead to career suicide.
“I had never thought about the question of whether I could suffer consequences for criticising the government of Israel (and US support for it). I have just about as much ‘free speech' as you can get in this world. Perhaps I should have thought about it more, though, because as soon as I crossed an invisible line, it was very quickly made clear to me. The moment I irritated defenders of Israel on social media, I was summarily fired from my job as a newspaper columnist,” wrote the journalist Nathan Robinson in the journal Current Affairs.
We read reports of how Hamas “slaughters” Israelis and how Palestinians “die”. We have come to accept that whatever Israel does is part of its noble quest to stop Hamas, and nothing the Israeli Defence Force does has to be told as anything other than what leaders in Britain, the US and the Israeli government determine. When the Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, was reported to have said, “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly,” we forget that this “dehumanising language” was a defining feature of the 1994 genocidal acts in Rwanda, where Tutsis presented themselves as indispensable and “born to rule”, much like the Israeli self-image of perfection, entitlement and righteousness.
On October 24, The Jordan Times drew parallels between the sordid language of the Tutsis and the Israelis in the following way:
“[Tutsis] are cockroaches. We will kill you.”
Arabs are like “drugged cockroaches in a bottle”.
The first quote was a line repeated frequently by the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, a Rwandan radio station which is largely blamed for inciting hatred towards the Tutsi people.
The second is by former Israeli army chief-of-staff, Gen Rafael Eitan, in 1983, speaking at an Israeli parliament’s committee.” (See commentary, here)
We have learnt that Hamas wants to destroy the state of Israel and that this sentiment is endorsed by external forces that provide material support for the effort. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in May 2020 that, “the Zionist regime is a deadly, cancerous growth and a detriment to this region … It will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed.”
Guerrilla or terrorist?
As the notional representative of the people of Gaza, Hamas leads the paramilitary drive to re-establish a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea”, and Israelis believe this is a threat against Jews (and not the Israeli state). This reclamation of the Palestinian state was the ultimate objective of the October 7 attack by Hamas.
Here is an interesting place to pause and scrutinise moral persuasions that underpin concepts or acts of “terrorism” and “guerrilla warfare” and the stories that are allowed or disallowed. Depending on which side you’re on, which moral position you hold, the October 7 violence was either a terrorist attack or a guerrilla attack. The two terms are often used interchangeably. The reference and link used here is not from some radical leftists but from a “respectable” American university. Between the Amanpour Conditionality and “saying the wrong thing”, such as calling for a ceasefire or for humanitarian aid, writers, reporters and commentators stand to lose their sources of income.
Nonetheless, all the claims, statements and references in the preceding passages are underpinned by moral claims about right and wrong. The naming of groups as “terrorist” is sometimes arbitrary (because of tactical differentiation) but always political. Fighting a “war against terror” is futile. Israel’s campaign has repeatedly been defined as a war on terror and terrorists. Whether or not you stand with Israel is irrelevant. The point is that a war on terror is bound to fail. The best example of this failure is the US war on terror, initiated by George W Bush more than two decades ago. When we hear Israeli political leaders speak of “evil” there are echoes of neo-conservative claims, after the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, that “we’ve never seen this kind of evil before”, that it was “unprecedented”, that it was “unimaginable”, “indescribable”, and that “the murder of innocents cannot be explained, only endured”.
These are ahistorical claims in the sense that the horrific attacks on the US in 2001 were hardly the worst acts of violence the world had witnessed. Massacres at Srebrenica, in Rwanda, at My Lai, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin’s gulags, the horrors of Pol Pot and Mao, and the gas chambers of Auschwitz demonstrate, in graphic detail and painfully, the limits of human imagination. Sometimes it seems as if human cruelty is always worse than we can imagine. The US response to the 2001 attacks was to define them as an historic first (we’ve never seen this kind of evil before) and to go to war “against terror” — a campaign that has failed.
“This failure has two fundamental — and related — sources. The first is the inflated assessment of the terror threat facing the United States, which led to an expansive counter-terrorism campaign that did not protect Americans from terrorist attacks. The second source of failure is the adoption of an aggressive strategy of military intervention,” Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner of the conservative Cato Institute concluded (and they provide substantial arguments and evidence).
Amid the multiple causes of failure, and at the centre of stories that support or reject Palestinian or Israeli claims, are morality claims and misidentification of “the problem”.
As for misidentification, the Israeli war on terror — like the US war on terror — is misguided because terrorism is a tactic, not something you can reach out and touch or that marches in columns. As a tactic it has been used by Zionist groups and by Palestinian nationalists, and by the Ossewabrandwag and the ANC, both of which are political movements. This probably explains why Israel is approaching the war on Gaza as a total war; you have to kill or destroy the people who drive nationalist or liberation movements in order for Israel to get a sense of being in control of its own destiny. Anything short of complete annihilation of all Palestinians will necessarily be seen as a failure — at least for Israelis.
That questions about right and wrong have to be answered on the basis of practical value is always difficult under conditions of uneven power relations. If that seems abstruse or rarefied, imagine the differences between Palestinian beliefs about justice and those of the Israelis — and who has the most “firepower” and the power to determine what is right and what is wrong, and the right to condemn the tellers of wrong stories to the margins of society and unemployment.
The stories we tell can improve lives, and shutting down stories can be detrimental. However — and we know this from the times when the Nazis in Germany and the forces of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile burnt books — killing stories verges on the cruelty of killing people. People are, after all, vessels of oral history and storytelling. Every society tells its own stories of war.
In Nazi Germany and Pinochet’s Chile they destroyed books that told stories that made despots and dictators feel uncomfortable about themselves, and that showed them up to be precisely what they were: fascists. As Walter Benjamin reminded us, we have to allow our stories to brush history against the grain if they are to have any value — even if (I would say “when”) these stories undermine the Enlightenment belief that life continues to get better. Is that, then, not just a story that we tell our children, friends and family?
At the moment, it seems the Israelis have suspended ethics and morality in search of an absolute war (which is devoid of political control; remember, the US has effectively blocked any political opposition to the Israeli campaign). Hamas operates on the moral, legal and political basis of a “non-state” actor and is held to a different standard, but is no less brutal. Both parties rearrange morality tales to suit their military-strategic objectives and dismiss ethical claims or moralities that preceded them.
Emmanuel Levinas told us that “war is the father of everything [and that] war suspends morality… renders morality derisory”. How do we view the people behind barbed wire and fences? How do we understand their gaze back? When Levinas was a prisoner of war in 1940, (he would later explain): “The other men, the ones who were called free, who passed by or gave us work, or orders or even a smile — and the children and women who also passed by and occasionally looked at us — they all stripped us of our humanity… We were no longer part of this world.”
Those people behind barbed wires and fences, stripped of their humanity, are “animals,” the Israeli defence minister has said.
Warfare is about killing and destruction. Stripping it of politics provides moral exceptionalism and impunity. It feeds the illusion of society, or a people, held together by myths, legends and belief in supernatural sanction. That is probably where we are with the war over Palestine and the right of Israel to exist. What is sad is that there may be nobody left to tell the stories. Writers, the tellers of stories, are faced with the question of what, exactly, is our duty at the present time. The answer, it seems, is a struggle between the Amanpour Conditionality and the need to put food on the table. To deny stories and communication about the conflict, and to sever a people’s conversation from the outside world, is what Karl Jaspers described as a betrayal of humanity.
♦ VWB ♦
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