Progressive Politics After Gaza
The Israeli assault on Gaza was so odious that it seems almost grotesque to draw positive lessons from it. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned.
They reflect poorly on the usual suspects – Republicans of course, but also the national Democratic Party and the Obama administration. The handful of so-called “progressives” in the Senate and House come off even worse, if only because more is expected of them.
Every member of the House and Senate, every single one, is now on record in support of Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity.
They don’t have the excuse that they are only reflecting attitudes that are pervasive in their time and place. This is a lame argument whenever it is raised, but it hardly applies in this case. The overwhelming majority of people on earth abhor what Israel has done.
Cowardice, ignorance, and malice account for their moral and political turpitude; there are no mitigating factors.
What are the implications for American citizens who uphold minimal standards of moral decency? This question calls out urgently for an answer.
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To this end, the first order of business is to get past the media-induced miasma that disables serious reflection on Israel and Palestine in the political culture of the United States today.
There are two ways to do this.
The most direct is to counter Israeli – and American – “public diplomacy” point by point.
This is not hard: the propagandists’ talking points are transparently indefensible — belied by facts, and refuted by logic.
In practice, however, defeating the propaganda onslaught can be an arduous task.
It used to be harder. In the pre-digital days, Israeli propagandists, and Americans and others who parroted their confabulations, had an easier time spinning facts in ways that suited their purposes; and an even easier time keeping pertinent facts out of public awareness.
All they needed is what they still have: effective control over major media.
Nowadays, though, thanks to social media, anyone can be a journalist. Control of major media therefore no longer translates into control of news.
In Gaza, Israel lost control of the news – not completely, but to an unprecedented degree.
This makes rebutting Israeli propaganda easier. As real news gets out, Israel’s defenders become more desperate and their already implausible justifications become more far-fetched.
There are many readily available and thoroughly cogent rebuttals out there in cyberspace — quite a few have appeared on this site – and in print media. The more, the better; every little bit helps. After a while, though, there are diminishing returns.
Moreover, rebuttals are politically efficacious only insofar as people pay attention; and, even then, only to the extent that they can be moved by reason. These conditions are seldom met.
How could they be in a world in which so many of the institutions that shape opinion work to dumb down the public sphere, the better to make citizens acquiescent?
This is why having, by far, the stronger case doesn’t by itself clear the air.
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Getting through, or rising above, the miasma that engulfs the public sphere nowadays is especially difficult when Israel is involved.
One reason for this is that, logic notwithstanding, Zionists have been remarkably successful at instilling the idea that whoever opposes what Israel does is an anti-Semite. Mild criticisms are acceptable, but nothing more.
This is a risky business. If opposition to Israeli policies is justified, as it often is, and if this counts as anti-Semitism, as Zionists would like people to believe, then anti-Semitism must be similarly justified.
Perhaps, at some level, Zionists realize this, and even intend it. Since creating a refuge for Jews from persecution in Europe was Zionism’s original purpose, and since, for both domestic political reasons and to keep support from abroad flowing in, Israel needs to promote the idea that it is imperiled, Zionists may actually welcome flare ups now and then.
This is criminally reckless, however; they are playing with fire.
Fortunately, moral progress has so far prevailed over Zionists’ machinations; anti-Semitism has not become a problem — except, to a limited extent, in desperately impoverished, dislocated and oppressed Muslim communities overseas.
Meanwhile, Zionists have gotten more or less what they wanted: fear of being labeled anti-Semitic – or, if Jewish, “self-hating” — has helped mute criticism of Israel.
Zionists have also been remarkably successful in playing what might be called “the “identity card.” Having hijacked mainstream Judaism, they have gone on to make Israel the alpha and omega of Jewish identity. One can almost hear the prophets Micah and Ezekiel denouncing their idolatry.
But just as for many American Jews today, the Jewish religion is no longer a matter of interest – not, in most cases, for principled reasons, though principled reasons abound, but thanks to sound and reasonable indifference — Jewish identity politics isn’t of much concern either to many, probably most, American Jews.
The old God is dead, the new God, Israel, doesn’t appeal. This too makes Zionists desperate.
It hardens their support for Israel right-or-wrong, to the detriment of the Jewish community’s longstanding ties to progressive and universalistic politics.
But even for Zionists, liberal ones especially, there are limits that the Israeli government may already have crossed.
Israel after Gaza is like Communism after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — or, for others, after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin or after the Hungarian Revolt or after the Soviet Union crushed the Prague Spring. From now on, the problematic nature of Israel-right-or-wrong politics is a fact of life that is sure to cause defections from Zionism’s ranks.
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This is a protracted process, however; Zionist ideology will continue to be a problem for proponents of justice in Palestine for a long time to come.
And their propaganda will continue to trickle down.
Thus when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) target children in Gaza, Israeli propaganda blames Hamas for using children as human shields. Anyone who gives the matter a moment’s thought it is bound to understand, at some level, that this argument is ludicrous on its face.
But the story is repeated endlessly in the corporate media, and retold by politicians who are ignorant or cowardly or both. The result is that, to the extent that people bother to have a view, they believe – or at least don’t question – the Israeli line.
Speaking truth to the willfully ignorant can be at least as daunting as speaking truth to power. It must be done, however, so long as there is any chance of light shining through.
Sometimes, though, it is useful to hold off fighting the miasma from within by looking at the situation from a vantage point that assumes that the pertinent moral and political questions are settled – in ways they would be if reason were more in control.
An Olympian perspective of this kind can shed light on questions about collective responsibility and collective guilt that bear on issues of immediate political concern.
The massacres in Gaza are of the utmost political concern for Americans because, insofar as the United States is still a democracy, its citizens are ultimately responsible for what the American government aids, abets, and enables. The Netanyahu government could not have done what it did without American support.
What it did, and is still doing, in the Occupied Territories and Gaza moves questions about collective responsibility to center stage.
There is no hard evidence yet that speaks to the question of intent, but it is reasonable to infer from widely available casualty figures that Israel targeted civilians in Gaza.
If so, why? Surely part of the explanation is that killing civilians is a form of collective punishment – either for voting the wrong people into office or for firing primitive rockets (upon due provocation) into Israel or both.
Collective punishment violates international humanitarian law, and Israel has long been a serial violator.
Targeting Palestinian civilians is also consistent with Israel’s longstanding goal of turning all of Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state, an ethnocracy — by ridding “the land of Israel” of as many non-Jews as possible.
In the past, with some conspicuously murderous exceptions, this has mainly involved making life miserable for Palestinians — in the hope that they will despair and move away.
But with the widely reported decline in the level of political morality in Israel today – and the rise of overtly fascist political groupings in both civil society and the Israeli government – a general reliance on more lethal means is no longer out of the question.
Yochanan Gordon’s defense of genocide in The Times of Israel – his call for ridding the land of Israel altogether of Palestinians – – is only one of the more flagrant indicators of an exterminationist turn in Israeli public opinion. The prospect of a Final Solution to the Palestinian Question is no longer unthinkable.
Perhaps, when the killing in Gaza stops, the pendulum will swing back just a little, as it has in the past. Nevertheless, with this latest attack on the inmates of that “open air” Israeli prison, Israel crossed a threshold – beyond which it is no longer possible for anyone who is morally decent and intellectually honest to view the Occupation regime as a debatable topic – except, of course, in “academic” settings where nothing is or ought to be off limits.
Such things have happened before.
* * *
For example, many, probably most, white Americans in the early days of the republic accepted chattel slavery as a fact of life.
To be sure, there were some who objected to slavery on moral grounds, just as a few moral crusaders in other countries involved in the Atlantic slave trade did. But to the extent that the issue was politically consequential, economic and regional rivalries were more important factors than morality.
No doubt, the slaves themselves thought differently. But their views, like those of the indigenous peoples Europeans displaced and decimated, didn’t matter politically.
Only white male property owners could vote, and most of them, even in the South, were not slave owners themselves. Still, most of them were on board.
Then times and circumstances changed; slavery became controversial, and its morality became a bone of contention. Before long, the issue divided the country to such an extent that the United States itself was in danger of falling apart.
America became a “house divided,” largely along state lines. It took a Civil War to put it back together.
And so, in barely four score and seven (plus a few more) years, “the peculiar institution” that had divided and nearly unraveled the country became a dead letter. Slavery was over – definitively.
Freed slaves fared poorly; in less than a decade after the war’s end, they were effectively subjugated again. But slavery itself would never be reimposed. From the moment it was abolished, that prospect became unthinkable. To this day, no one, no matter how reactionary, proposes bringing slavery back.
Within living memory, much the same happened with Jim Crow segregation in the South and with the more insidious forms of racial segregation that plagued the rest of the country. This change came about even more abruptly.
In the early 1960s, George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, could still proudly proclaim “segregation forever.” However, “forever” lasted only a few years more. Even Wallace understood: he soon made peace with the inevitable, and began singing a different tune.
Despite significant progress, racist attitudes persist and institutional racism still thrives. Even so, it has been clear for nearly fifty years that Jim Crow too will never come back.
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South African Apartheid underwent a similar transformation. Outside those sectors of the American “business community,” as it is euphemistically called, that benefited from Apartheid directly, there was never much support for it in the United States. But, with many exceptions, the white population in South Africa was in favor. Today, no one, there or anywhere else, is.
The change happened seemingly overnight. By now, the word has taken on such onerous connotations everywhere that its very use, in reference to Israel or to the Occupation regime Israel imposes upon Palestinians, causes Zionists to have hissy fits.
It was mainly for using the A-word in reference to the Occupied Territories that Jimmy Carter became anathema within the Democratic Party. True to form, the Obama administration is especially determined to keep its distance; it regards the man, our best (least bad) President in living memory, as a toxic commodity.
When slavery and Jim Crow and Apartheid were still contentious issues, it was politically urgent to combat the arguments of their defenders. This is no longer the case. Nowadays, their heinousness is everywhere assumed.
It will be the same, before long, with the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Its heinousness too will be assumed – just as surely.
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The parallel is with the Occupation regime generally, and, more particularly, with Israel’s assaults on Gaza, this latest one especially; not with Israel itself.
The distinction is arbitrary from a logical point of view; Israel behind the Green Line was colonized in the same way that settlers now colonize the West Bank.
Nevertheless, there is a difference.
Because the state of Israel has been a fait accompli for more than six decades, and because it is recognized internationally, its existence is no longer a live political issue. Like the settler states established in the Americas and the Antipodes, its “legitimacy” is beyond serious dispute.
Needless to say, the moral bearing and political wisdom of this colonial project nevertheless remains subject to debate.
But there is nothing unusual in this. It is the same with all the other colonial projects of the modern era.
The Zionists’ misfortune was to have begun the colonization of Palestine just as decolonization was beginning everywhere else. Also, like the Boers in South Africa, they set their sights on a land populated by a people that could not be defeated by exotic (to them) diseases, the way the indigenous peoples of the Americas were.
But Israel’s “right to exist,” as Zionists call it, is no longer in play. The very idea that it could be in jeopardy is itself an artifact of Israeli propaganda.
In the real world, the only right to exist any state has is conferred by international recognition; this is as true of the United States, Britain and France as of Israel. The question of Israel’s legitimacy was therefore settled in 1948.
This is not to say that debates about Zionism cannot be enlightening in ways that have political consequences; of course, they can. Debates about the European colonization of the Americas can be similarly enlightening.
Nor is it to say that the nature and borders of existing states, or the state system itself, can never change. Established states often change their character fundamentally. Also, they sometimes fuse with other states, and sometimes splinter apart, as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union did.
Israel’s borders could change too. And today’s “Jewish state” could – and probably someday will – shed its ethnocratic character, becoming a normal liberal democracy, a state of its citizens.
But there is no likely future in which Israel itself will be viewed the way that slavery and Jim Crow segregation and South African Apartheid now are.
For good or ill, history has seen to that.
* * *
Despite our media and the moral depravity of our political class, polls suggest that most Americans, like most people elsewhere, deplore this latest massacre in Gaza. Only in Israel itself is there widespread approval.
Throughout the world, support for the Occupation regime is weak and waning, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
However, our government – and therefore our tax money – enables the crimes we deplore. And there seems to be nothing that we can do about that.
In part, this is because in American politics, at the national and state levels especially, money talks; indeed, money is “speech,” according to our Supreme Court.
It doesn’t help either that we have two highly polarized, semi-established political parties that fight each other tooth and nail, though they see eye to eye on nearly everything of political consequence.
Our democracy is therefore more impeded than most; in this sense, we are indeed “exceptional.”
But we are like other countries, including those with more genuinely democratic institutions, in one crucial respect: we all in the thrall of global capital markets.
We all therefore suffer from a “democracy deficit.” No matter whom or what we vote for or against, the outcomes we get are dictated by neoliberal market forces.
Nevertheless, we Americans do still elect and reelect our governments; and so, we are still in some sense responsible for what they do.
This puts responsibility for Gaza on our shoulders at least to some extent – both because our government aided and abetted the massacre there, and because it could, at any moment, have stopped it in its tracks.
We bear responsibility because we elected our government, even though elections are not where the action now is; and even though we have no real choice anyway.
In a real democracy, we would have both responsibility and the power to use it. In our so-called democracy, the only power we have comes from the fact that we can vote the bastards out – eventually.
That different bastards would then take their place is tragic and regrettable, but this doesn’t relieve us of responsibility for what our government does. Neither does the fact that we have no one worth voting for.
Gaza proved that beyond a reasonable doubt. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, the handful of progressives in the so-called Progressive and Black Caucuses, and so on – every last one of them is elbow deep in the blood of Gazan children.
Now mid-term elections are upon us, and the contest for the presidency in 2016 is about to heat up.
These elections, like others before them, will suck up political energy that would be better expended elsewhere; and, as usual, little, if any, good will come from them.
Lesser evilism happens when elections are held; it will be no different this November or in 2016. And progressive hearts will again be set atwitter – by one or another meretricious savior.
In liberal circles, the will to believe is irrepressible. The Obama experience hasn’t stifled it; and even complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity will not overcome it.
If only there were a way to vote for “none of the above” or to make an absence count as a principled abstention. Then it would be possible to vote in good conscience, and move on. But our electoral system allows for no such thing.
And so, people will vote, or not, as they see fit; and in the voting booth, they will do what seems best (least bad) to them at the time.
This is lamentable, but it hardly matters because, in a sham democracy like ours, voting is not how justice is advanced – not in general and especially not where Israel and Palestine are concerned.
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We have civil society for that. From that quarter, following a call from Palestinian intellectuals and civic organizations, a thriving BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement is developing throughout the world, including the United States.
BDS has supporters within Israel too – notwithstanding the fact that some ninety percent of the Israeli population supports what their government has done to Gaza. There is always a “righteous remnant,” even in the bleakest places and in the darkest times.
For Americans, BDS is our best, perhaps our only, way to affect what goes on in Israel and Palestine.
We may not now be able to force our government to do what a government of, by, and for the people would do. But through BDS, we can move closer to that goal. We can make the miscreants in charge — “left,” right and center — take notice, along with the political class and general population of the rogue state they shamelessly support.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).