Beyond Intractability or Beyond Coherence?  Round Two of a Debate Over the War in Gaza

Photograph Source: Wafa (Q2915969) in contract with a local company (APAimages) – CC BY-SA 3.0

A recent edition of Guy and Heidi Burgesses’ journal, Beyond Intractability, (November 15, 2023), begins by reflecting on the controversy stirred up by their prior writings on the Israel-Palestine war in Gaza. The Burgesses affirm their previously stated views which adopt the Israeli narrative of the conflict and accept its justifications for killing more than 12,000 residents of Gaza. Discussing these views further seems to me a wasted effort, since the authors will not admit when the evidence supporting the Israeli narrative is ambiguous or absent.

For example, instead of stating, as they should, that the source of the explosive missile that landed on or near the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza on October 17, killing scores of patients and medical personnel, is still undetermined, with Palestinians claiming the missile was Israeli and Israelis claiming it was fired by Islamic Jihad, they state: “The highest profile example [of misleading information furnished by the Palestinians] was the report that Israel had bombed the Ahli Arab hospital, killing 500 people. It later turned out that a misfired Islamic Jihad missile had hit the hospital, and the death toll was much lower–perhaps 50 people.” Evidently, the authors have not read the U.S. Intelligence estimate of the casualties, which puts the number of deaths at between 100 and 300, or the exhaustive New York Times report that concludes, with regard to the source of the missile, that “a widely cited video” used by the Israelis to cast blame on Islamic Jihad “does not shed light on what happened.”

The remainder of this newsletter refers at some length to my article in CounterPunch, “Israel and the War in Gaza: Beyond the ‘Bad Actor’ Perspective” (October 27, 2023).  While declining to deal with the article’s major point – that calling an adversary like Hamas a “bad actor” with whom cannot negotiate is a form of self-serving partisan rhetoric – the authors go on to assert that I am one of those “intersectional leftists” who oversimplifies complex moral and political issues by dividing the world into groups of oppressors and oppressed. According to them, such critics view the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as just one episode in the long-overdue effort of oppressed peoples (generally defined in terms of race and gender) to break free of the white power structure that traces its origins back to Western Europe and its colonial empires. As we understand it, the assumption underlying this oppressor/oppressed framework is that, in virtually all conflicts, the white oppressor class is the real villain and any effort to focus attention on other sources of oppression, large-scale violence, and brutality (such as the October 7 attack) is little more than a disingenuous effort to divert attention from the real battle against the oppressors.

In fact, I do not define oppression primarily in terms of race and gender and do not believe that the “white power structure” is a particularly useful category in discussing imperialist wars. I do believe that the structure of the present international system is imperial, and that imperialism, a product of late capitalist society, is a machine for violence that invariably generates rebellion, repression, and inter-imperial wars. I also believe that from the Balfour Declaration of 1917 onward, the Zionist project has been sponsored by imperial powers, most recently by the United States, successor to the European empires, which views Israel as its most powerful and reliable agent in the oil-rich Middle East.  Of course, none of this excuses the atrocious Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023.  Only over-simplifiers believe that one must choose between acknowledging a conflict’s systemic causes and holding individuals responsible for their actions.

But there are systemic as well as individual causes of violence, right?  If the Burgesses do not believe in distinguishing the oppressor from the oppressed, what do they believe?  Their answer is not helpful:

We live in a world composed of a diverse array of complex societies which are, in turn, composed of multitudes of individuals doing things that are sometimes virtuous, sometimes evil, and, often, somewhere in between. The quest for justice and a better society focuses around cultivating virtue and discouraging evil wherever it might arise. To simply divide the world into oppressors and oppressed on the basis of racial and gender characteristics (as the intersectional left often does) and without regard to the merits of individual behavior seems to us to be extremely unjust and unwise (and the opposite of the social justice that its advocates claim to be pursuing).

Again, the emphasis on “race and gender” is a red herring. Power in the world is largely distributed on the basis of social class, with racial and sexual discrimination a product of and contributor to socioeconomic and political inequality.  But this makes no difference to the authors, who are mainly into “cultivating virtue and discouraging evil” however society may be structured. How, one wonders, do they know what is virtuous and what is evil?  For example, how do they know that in order to destroy Hamas, it is virtuous to turn Gaza into what the New York Times has called “a graveyard for children”? They do not answer the question, perhaps because, like Justice Potter Stewart trying to define pornography, they would be compelled to admit, “I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it.”

In any event, the punch line of this argument comes at the end of the newsletter, when the authors argue that classifying the United States and its European allies as oppressive powers denies the West’s political and social virtues and implicitly approves of totalitarian violence.

By focusing exclusively on the things that have gone wrong and neglecting the many things that have gone right, we have taught a whole generation of young people that capitalistic Western democracies have nothing of value to offer and that, as purely oppressive regimes, they ought to be overthrown. And replaced with what? What we are now seeing in the Ukraine, Israel, Gaza and increasingly in Africa is what the alternative really looks like . . .

I guess that I am a bit older than the authors of these words but reading them makes me feel much older.  This is exactly what we were told when we tried to stop the Cold War, the Vietnam War and, a bit later, the Iraq War – that after all, we Westerners were democratic and free, and the alternatives – at least for us – were so much worse.

I wish that there were as many people as the Burgesses seem to think there are who want to overthrow capitalism and imperialism, since I firmly believe that there are workable, achievable, non-totalitarian alternatives to the “world order” that has killed an estimated 40 million people, most of them poor and non-Western, since 1945. But this discussion is not really about socialist revolution – it is about whether to seek an immediate ceasefire and negotiations in the Israel/Palestine conflict instead of killing and maiming more residents of Gaza and the West Bank.  To be branded an “over-simplifier” because one affirms both the systemic causes of the conflict and the moral responsibility of individuals for their actions seems to me not only unfair but nonsensical. Surely, it is time to put the discussion on a sounder, more coherent basis.