Demonstrating a Genteel Reticence

In March, 2002, A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now To Stop War and Racism) condemned Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and demanded that the U.S. stop supporting Israel. In their statement, they called for a demonstration in Washington on April 20th to protest this. But here’s the catch–it wasn’t specifically a demonstration against America’s Israel policy. It was a demonstration against US imperialist and racist policies generally. That muted the issue quite tastefully. Like a well-trained horse, these radicals pull right up to the line: don’t protest against Israel too loudly, and don’t demand anything too drastic. Tell the US to stop sending money and arms, then sit back and watch the fun.

What exactly do these people expect to happen? That Israel, deprived of US aid, will stop its race war? Is that how it usually works? Is that what they would have advocated in Rwanda? stop the aid, then sit back and watch? Or do these apostles of political correctness feel that Israel, being white folks, would not behave with the uncivilized abandon of those dark-skinned tribesmen down in Africa? Do the marchers realize that Israel, forced to make do without the convenience of US aid, would immediately destroy the Palestinians? Afterwards, to be sure, the Israelis would make peace with the world and thank God for His gift to the chosen people, the whole of “Judea and Samaria”.

Then on October 26th, 2002, this same group sponsored, with others, a very impressive demonstration against war with Iraq. It was twice as large as the previous one. No doubt that’s because people saw a real chance of preventing US intervention, of a specific, very valuable and tangible accomplishment. In other words, the first march was smaller because, even with its umbrella of causes, it was asking either for things that everyone knew would not be obtained, like the purification of US foreign policy, or for things that would change nothing, like stopping US aid to Israel.

So it seems that the organizers of these protests don’t want the US to do anything about Israel. They just want to stand on the sidelines and complain. Kind of like the left does, in fact. Why is that? It can’t be because the US is too weak to do anything, because these activists never seem to stop going on about US power. Their big thing now is a fight to get US universities to divest from Israel. I can just hear the talk in the corridors of the Knesset: “Gee, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton are pulling their support? We’re lost! Let’s hope we can make some kind of a deal before the Palestinian armies roll through Tel Aviv!” Oh, but I forgot. By the time these campaigns succeed,–not that anyone really expects this–the Palestinians will be about as ready to roll as a pile of bloody rags.

It almost gets funny. What did those October marchers want? Well, they found nothing wrong with disarming or overthrowing Saddam Hussein. They hate him. They just don’t want the US to do it. The reasons are sort of understandable: the US throws its weight around too much; the US violates international law; the US will destabilize the region; the US will make a mess in Iraq. So I guess that means that, if the US really worked some nice deal out with the UN and some NGOs, then the UN and the NGOs would invade Iraq, which would basically mean that the US would do so, and that would be fine. If you substitute “Vietnam” for “Iraq” in the previous sentence, you can see that this isn’t exactly the antiwar movement all over again. But I suppose something is better than nothing.

Both demonstrations, of course, also involve opposition to ‘Bush’s war on terror’. This is a bit like the opposition to invading Iraq. Whenever they protest the war on terror, the demonstrators deplore the Taliban, Bin Laden, and so on. Here again, they want these people suppressed. They just don’t want the US to do it. I mean, they do want the US to do it, but under orders from others. They want American troops marching in and killing the enemy; they just want them to do it under the banners of Oxfam and UNICEF, with a delegation of international jurists in the sixth tank back from the front.

What we have here is genteel modesty, like the reticence of a well-brought up young man in the 1890’s who has to describe, say, a woman masturbating. He wouldn’t of course be explicit about anything. He would keep approaching the subject, almost find some way to describe it, and relapse into a vagueness that never quite got the message across. In current radical statements, the forbidden subject is broached, parenthetically and obliquely, in some standard critique of US action in Afghanistan or Iraq: “blah blah blah …while the US continues to fund Israel’s brutal repression of the Palestinians…blah blah blah”, with the blahs referring to US crimes a safe distance away from Israel itself.

Well, what, in our sophisticated political discourse, is the counterpart of the masturbating woman? It’s the notion that the US should–don’t read on if you’re easily shocked–actually do something about Israel, which would require acting out that most hard-core of political fantasies, an alliance with the Arab and Muslim world. Utter these words, and everything, uh, comes together. If the US were really fighting for the Palestinians, ready to go to war on their behalf, in daily consultation with America’s staunch allies the Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians, with Bush ready to go on his third goodwill tour of Iran, no one would be worrying about invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan and no one would be bitching about too much US power. There would be no question of violating international laws or agreements, because the UN would be solidly behind US policy, and US policy would amount to little more than following UN orders. And of course there would be no more talk of US racism against Arabs and various other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups.

But our demonstrators are clean-minded folks, too decent to entertain such fantasies. They apparently do want to the help the Palestinians, but they can’t bring themselves to ask for the only thing that could help: not an America that stands on the sidelines with the ever-wimpy Europeans, scowling at Israel, but an America that is out to–let’s say it in ‘American’–kick some Israeli ass. Why are they so inhibited?

Many people will answer, the demonstrators fear being called antisemitic. No. Their moral cowardice is quite selective. They do not hesitate to make strong criticisms of Israel. Many of them are Jewish, and more or less immune to the accusations; many others have long ago defied the label. Why then?

One reason, I suspect, is that, ‘non-Western’ demonstrators aside, they pity the Palestinians, but don’t really regard them as quite normal. The Palestinians are not just ordinary men and women reacting as ordinary men and women would. They are ordinary men and women who… gosh …go kind of nuts and react with a violence that the good people of the left cannot quite condone. Not that the violence isn’t ‘understandable’: the Palestinians aren’t monsters, just people driven crazy by their oppression. And, driven crazy, they can’t quite be trusted: if they had the power of the Israelis, why, there’s no telling what sort of massacres might result. The idea that Palestinian terrorism might be a rationally calculated strategy based on a correct assessment of the facts is something the demonstrators just cannot assimilate. They make up for it, sometimes, by saying that the Palestinians are not terrorists, which is obviously false, or that others are also terrorists, which is irrelevant. All this so they don’t have to say what millions of reasonable and well-informed people in the non-Western world don’t fear to say: that Palestinian terrorism is justified and something we are morally obligated to support. Now do you see what the genteel young man felt like?

In some cases, the demonstrators’ semi-racist musings may be an effect, not a cause. Perhaps it is not racism that makes them unable to imagine the US fighting for the Palestinians. Perhaps it is the inability to imagine the US fighting for the Palestinians that produces racist attitudes. Presuming that the Palestinians couldn’t possibly be US allies, the demonstrators may half-consciously search for reasons why the Palestinians don’t deserve that status. Yet it would not be illegal for the US to switch sides, and it is not unimaginable. Certainly the world would not stand in its way. Economic imperatives would not stand in its way either: the US would feel much more secure in its oil supply if it were firmly allied with all the oil-producing countries, and guess who they are? Nor should the pro-Israel lobby be considered unbeatable: opposing Zionism is not exactly like smashing capitalism or the ruling class or imperialism, or ending war or racism or exploitation or any of the other things demonstrators demand. If the American people wanted to switch sides, they could do so. The oil would still flow, Bill Gates would still get rich, and GM would still sell cars. America, including its corporate elites, would survive very nicely, thank you. The left is not afraid to take on big oil, the media, the government, and the Christian right; it certainly doesn’t need to cringe before the Bronfmans of this world.

I can only guess about what the big problem is. Maybe the demonstrators know what would happen if they–as our baseball-capped selves would say–‘did the right thing’ and screamed for an active, armed US-Arab-Palestinian alliance. All those wonderful, courageous Jewish marchers who weep for the children of Palestine would pack their bags, go home and bolt the door behind them. They wouldn’t call; they wouldn’t write. And just as the Jewish left can’t face up to the tribalism in its soul, so the American left simply can’t face up to the tribalism in its midst. So Israel can kill and starve Palestinians to its heart’s content, secure in the knowledge that no one will do anything to help them. The louder the world roars its disapproval, the more contentedly it will go back to watching the Simpsons, basking in the warmth of its own hot air.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca


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Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com

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