The Morality of the West on Trial

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

This week South Africa will open its case against Israel at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The indictment is based on the Genocide Convention of 1948 and alleges that Israel is perpetrating a genocide on the Palestinian people in Gaza. All that South Africa needs to prove at this short preliminary hearing – Israel will respond the following day – is that there is a plausible risk of genocide being carried out and that if no action is taken, more Palestinians will die.

This seems a pretty low bar and judging by past cases heard by the ICJ and the solid dossier of evidence for both genocidal actions and genocidal intent produced by the South African legal team, it is expected that the plausibility test will be passed and that the court will shortly thereafter issue an order demanding Israel cease its murderous activities against the Palestinian people.

Contrary to Admiral John Kirby’s assertion that the South African claim is baseless, this will be a pivotal moment, not just for Israel but also for the West. For not only have the governments of Europe and the US failed to call out Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza, as required by the Genocide Convention, they have also been complicit in its execution by offering material, military and diplomatic backing.

A further element of support, and a major one at that, has been provided by the western media through its selective coverage of the atrocities perpetrated by the IDF. As we approach a death toll of over 23,000 dead civilians, most of whom are women and children, we have to acknowledge that the most horrific acts of brutality and dehumanisation most of us have ever seen have been normalised, justified and even occasionally cheered on by our mainstream media and political pundits. Under the Genocide Convention incitement to commit genocide is a criminal offence which signatory states are obliged to prosecute.  However, in the face of a level of media support that can only be described as cult-like it is unlikely that any prosecutions will follow.

And yet, in spite of the solidity of the West’s support for its colonial flagship which has long enjoyed a de facto state of exceptionalism: beyond the constraints of international law, everything is now different. It is as if populations all over the world have been awakened from some stupor and they are not going back to sleep.

Whilst any signatory state could have brought a legal action against Israel once they became aware of the risk of a genocide being perpetrated: ringing the alarm bells being an obligation imposed on all parties to the convention, it seems historically appropriate that it is South Africa that has actually done so. Nelson Mandela famously remarked that South Africa’s emancipation from apartheid was incomplete without the liberation of Palestine. And, as the first president of that freed country, he recognised, as did many others from the apartheid generation, that the long-standing occupation of Palestine remained the most important moral concern in the world.

And now, notwithstanding the West’s vigorous attempts to conceal the occupation and whitewash Israel’s human rights violations, the issue of Palestinian freedom is centre stage once again. It must be irksome for the political elites to see their tireless efforts at normalisation which were so close to bearing fruit with the Abraham Accords come to naught. The over- zealous suppression of protest, particularly violent in the case of Germany – is no doubt the reaction of a panicked political class who thought they’d succeeded in subduing their populace to quiescent consumerism. Unfortunately for those elites, the immediacy of social media combined with the hubris of the Israeli military have revealed to the world a Boschian hellscape it will be impossible to forget.

Shielding Israel from the legal consequences of its actions has not been a good use of western hegemony. (Prior to the 2023 assault on Gaza Israel was in breach of over 30 UN resolutions as well as the Fourth Geneva Convention – due to its continuous building of illegal settlements). The inflated sense of impunity such protection has imparted to that state has encouraged a tirade of murderous boasts from the army, the Knesset, and all sectors of civil society. This is significant because whereas normally genocidal intent is the most elusive element of the crime for which the prosecution must adduce evidence, in the case of Israel’s current assault on Gaza, there are pages of it. Just like a bullying school boy who, having missed the benefit of timely censure has achieved a level of violence that can only be dealt with by expulsion, Israel may struggle to achieve any level of peaceful coexistence with its neighbours.

Of course there were warnings. As early as December 1948 just a few months after the state’s creation, a group of Jewish intellectuals, including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt,  wrote a letter to the New York Times warning American Zionists not to fund Menachem Begin’s ‘Freedom Party’ on account of its fascist tendencies, as evidenced by the massacre of Arabs at Deir Yassin. The advice was ignored and Begin went on to become the country’s 6th prime minister in 1978.

But it probably wasn’t until after 1967 when Israel conquered land in the 6 Day War that the Rubicon was crossed. On 22nd September 1967 two letters simultaneously appeared in two different Israeli newspapers each advocating a distinct direction for the country. One letter, written by 57 of the country’s leading cultural figures, including a Nobel laureate, favoured occupation. These societal luminaries saw the conquering of land as an opportunity for expansion and insisted that no government of Israel should ever give it back.

The other letter was from 52 left-leaning political unknowns, mainly drawn from the Socialist party Matzpen, which included Arabs and Israelis. Their prophetic warning reads as follows: “Our right to defend ourselves from annihilation does not give us the right to oppress others. Occupation leads to foreign rule. Foreign rule leads to resistance. Resistance leads to oppression. Oppression leads to terrorism, and counter-terrorism. The victims of terrorism are usually innocent. Holding on to the occupied territories will make us a nation of murderers and murder victims. Let’s leave the Occupied Territories now.”

We all know the direction Israel chose to follow: settlements expanded, the oppression grew more violent, and, as they say, the rest is history. But how the current crisis is now resolved will have repercussions far beyond that tiny strip of land. Because not only have relations with bordering Arab states been seriously damaged, perhaps irreparably, whatever the outcome of Israel’s plans for transferring the Gazan population out of the strip, but now the colonial design for the entire region has been thrown into question. The map drawing skills of Sykes and Picot are being re-examined just as newly emancipated states, like Mali, Burkino Faso and Niger, having thrown out their French guardians, are speaking of forming a federation.

But it is not only ‘out there’ that the ramifications of the assault on Gaza are being felt. At home too: in the arena of domestic politics, everything is in flux. Former British diplomat, Alastair Crooke recently described the political situation in the UK as broken. He is right. The Tories may be thrown out in this year’s election, but it would be a mistake to see the Labour Party as a winner. Its leader, Keir Starmer, a former Human Rights lawyer disappointed many of his political base in not voting for a ceasefire. In fact, his strong support for Israel’s military operation in Gaza has disgusted many within his own party and a number of resignations have followed. Whether a new anti-imperialism party forms in the coming years is anyone’s guess, but the ground looks more fertile than it has in a long time.

Of course, Palestine was always a fault line running through liberal democracy; it was where human rights rhetoric met colonial aspirations, where the rules of International Law were trumped by a Rules-based order. And those mutually exclusive ideas have always been on a collision course despite attempts by western powers to disguise the colonial nature of the state of Israel’s founding. The racist thinking of the 1930s was perfectly encapsulated in Churchill’s ‘dog in the manger’ speech where he openly expressed the view that inferior races – such as the Palestinians – should give up their land to ‘an advanced race a superior race, a more worldly-wise race’ who would make better use of it, i.e., the settlers from Europe. Churchill thought ethnically cleansing land was perfectly acceptable just as had been the case in America and Australia, and he lived at a time when it was possible to speak in such terms. But times change and so must discourse. So when Golda Meir’s asserted that Palestine was a land without a people, what she probably wanted to say was that the people there did not count. But this was the 1970s which was a time when some things could no longer be said: racist language was no longer acceptable. Racist practices were, however, provided they were wrapped up in conciliatory language. Only now, in our hyper-visual age, that old linguistic subterfuge no longer works. People can see for themselves.

The problem Israel has had is that it was too late to history: too late to fully accomplish the colonial project achieved by earlier settlers elsewhere. Israeli historian, Illan Pappe, succinctly described the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as ‘an incomplete atrocity’. And Israel can’t complete it now, as much as it is attempting to do so, because the whole world is watching. Israel may even be too late to secure its survival. Too late to history once again! Because, what could have been achieved in 1967: a peace deal with two independent states – Palestine and Israel – living side by side – now looks impossible.

The brutal assault on Gaza has exposed the hypocrisy of supposedly universal liberal values like nothing else. As it is now glaringly apparent that those values do not apply to Palestinians. Western states are working hard to distract their citizenry from such a realisation: trying to reframe what is clearly a moral issue as a cultural one, or a religious one, asserting that killing Palestinian children is upsetting for the Islamic world because they are Muslims. The implication being that non-Muslim citizens can and should accept their government’s presentation of the slaughter as an unavoidable tragedy, or worse, the fault of the Palestinians themselves. A particularly insidious aspect of that reframing, in the UK at least, has been an attempt to whip up Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in wider society. The Islamophobic narrative is sustained by a continuous supply of low-grade assertions linking Islam with terrorism and anti-Semitism. Similar false narratives have been used to denigrate Protesters simply for demanding a ceasefire. If the ICJ makes a provisional finding of genocide against Israel it is going to impossible for western governments to continue to ignore the moral imperative. They may not abide by their responsibilities under the Genocide Convention to take appropriate action to stop the slaughter, but it is difficult to see how they can continue to besmirch the reputations of those who attempt to do so.

The hearing at the ICJ is not only a determination of the genocidal nature of Israel’s assault on Gaza, it is also an adjudication on the morality of the West. Although I doubt many still believe that the West is the bastion of liberal values it pretends, certainly not many outside the West. Sartre did an able take-down of that proposition in the preface he wrote to Fanon’s ‘Wretched of the Earth’ which is an expose of the cruelties of colonialism in Algeria and beyond, published in 1961. ‘Humanism’ is the word Sartre uses to epitomise the much espoused liberal values of the West. Addressing Europeans he says, “Your humanism claims we are at one with the rest of humanity but your racist methods set us apart.” It wasn’t just a lapse in progressive thinking that was going on in the colonies: some disconnect between honourable motives and a falling short in attainments. Rather, Sartre recognised that Humanism was being used as a cover for those racist methods. It wasn’t a failing, it was an intentional deployment: like a disguise being used by a serial killer to lure his victims by dispelling their fears. Sartre saw that once the lie of Humanism was exposed, it could not be repaired and the order of the world would be forever changed. Because the notion that the West had sold to the world that it was the prototype human being: the head of the great family of humanity that all could eventually join was clearly not the case. And if the West is not the proto type for all human development, then other courses of action, indeed other histories could and would be written. As Sartre neatly sums it up, “It simply is that in the past we made history and now it is being made of us.” The ICJ judgement should be an important part of that new history.

Susan Roberts is a lecturer in moral philosophy and animal rights.