Whilst there have been an increasing number of articles that have addressed what for me has been a growing discomfort with the limits of discourse around the Israel and Hamas conflict. A recent speech by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek1 at the opening ceremony of the 75th Frankfurt book was perhaps, despite the philosophers’ usually verbose approach one of the clearest encapsulations of this emergent dynamic. A moment subsequently made all the more poignant by the subsequent prohibition of pro-Palestinian protests2.
Opening with a straight forward condemnation of Hamas, and the events of the 7th of October and an acquiesce of Israel’s right to defends itself Žižek subsequently posed a number of subsequent provocations some of which caused him to be interrupted by the clearly unsettled crowd, starting with what he deemed the strangeness of the regularly observed fact that “the moment one mentions the need to analyse the complex background of the situation, one is, as a rule, accused of supporting or justifying Hamas terrorism” and then reflecting “in which society do these prohibitions belong?”, then jokingly referring to the society of bees, before following this with a graphic depiction of the matriarchal totalitarianism which structures the society of the humble Bombus.
Making references to this in subsequent conversation has often drawn quizzical look, who or what is it being suggested is totalitarian? How does this totalitarianism manifest itself? To understand this perhaps a brief look at recent articles around the conflict can prove insightful. In a short post on social media the climate activist Greta Thunberg was condemned by the spokesperson of the IDF Arye Sharuz Shalicar who in an interview with Politico3 stated “Whoever identifies with Greta in any way in the future, in my view, is a terror supporter.” further explaining his point by saying “Because what Greta is doing, that she is now showing solidarity with Gaza while not saying a word about the massacres of Israelis, shows that she is actually not in favour of the Palestinians, but that she is sweeping the terror of the Palestinians or Hamas and Islamic Jihad under the table as if it did not exist.”.
It would be unfair to leave out the fact that Shalicar subsequently apologised for his comments however I would still like to draw some attention to what is being suggested here. In the image posted by Thunberg very little aside from message of solidarity and empathy with the Palestinian people is expressed, perhaps notably one of the holders of the placards is themselves Jewish, yet what is being interpreted from the photo is a advocacy for the worst kind of violence. Shalicar is additionally not a belligerent troll but an spokesman for one of the groups involved in the conflict who nevertheless has stated that advocacy for the Palestinian people that does not explicitly start from the condemnation of Hamas and the denunciation of Islamic jihad is in itself implicit support for terrorism.
Another similar parallel can be drawn from the by now infamous interview on Sky News between the British journalist Owen Jones and Labour MP Margaret Hodge4 where once again the former opened by condemning the atrocities committed on October the 7th before criticising subsequent deaths of Palestinians, and conveying a message from an Israeli friend, appalled by the violence of on display on October the 7th yet still critical of the current policies towards Palestinians in Gaza suggesting that they, were at the very least disruptive of the possibility of a lasting peace. Hodge’s response critiqued Jones for his supposed lack of recognition of the acts of violence committed by Hamas and accused him of being obsessed with “the issue around Palestine”, before asking whether he was saying Israel had “no right to defend themselves”.
Owen Jones response stating that he did not believe the military solutions being pursued would lead to “countless dead Israeli soldiers and huge numbers of civilian dead”. Once again Hodges rejoinder was that not pursuing the current military option would be tantamount to “allowing the hostages to die”. The interview segment was subsequently gleefully seized on by the right-wing press who deployed a cynical version of identity politics in accusing Jones of “mansplaining to a Jew” whilst ironically suggesting that “The bigger question is why none of the protections of identity politics is afforded to Jews.” Once again making the rhetorical slight of hand often condemned by numerous Jewish organisations of conflating actions taken by the state of Israel with those of the Jewish people writ large.
The term discourse has been invoked by many authors but perhaps most notably in the work of the infamous French philosopher Michel Foucault who used the term to denote a particular socio-historical system that produces knowledge and meaning. Perhaps most applicable to current circumstances discourse in Foucauldian scholarship placed a particular stress on how power relationships were expressed through particular languages and behaviour leading to ‘practices that systemically form the objects of which they speak’. In the speech given at the Frankfurt bookfair Žižek mentioned an article5 in Der Spiegel regarding the BDS movement entitled “Wer Antisemit ist, bestimmt der Jude und nicht der potenzielle Antisemit” or “Who is a antisemite is determined by the Jew and not the potential antisemite”. The piece which takes the form of an interview between Michael Naumann, the first Minister of State for Culture in the 1999-2000 Red-Green government and then co-editor of “Zeit” magazine a largely centrist/liberal publication.
This would appear on it’s face a fairly prudent statement and one commonly invoked in anti-racist, anti-sexist and various other civil rights struggles. However as mentioned by Žižek a curious contradiction then emerges where seemingly the same logic is then seemingly not afforded to Palestinian and their allies, when defining their own oppression. At this time this was partly spurred by the Palestinian author Adania Shalibi6 being barred from receiving an award at the Frankfurt Book Fair following a high profile resignation from the jury of Litprom, the German literary association, which cited the conflict as the principle reason, however the book ‘A Minor Detail’ had previously been criticised by the left-leaning publication Die Tageszeitung for portraying ‘the state of Israel as a murderous killing machine’ a curiously normative statement given the book is, at least partially based on real life events which occurred during 1949.
More recently the Jewish artist Candice Breitz was also informed that her exhibition detailing experiences of sex workers in Cape Town was also being pulled, despite her condemnation of Hamas, allegedly due to her unwillingness to draw a parallel between the attacks perpetrated on the 7th of October and the Holocaust in contravention of the artists understanding of the Shoah as a singular historical event. In an interview with the Guardian Breitz stated “The notion that every progressive Jew in this country can be assumed to be harbouring antisemitism unless they publicly denounce Hamas is patently ridiculous. One is apparently guilty by default, until one declares oneself innocent. This reminds me of the post-9/11 climate, in which Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs who did not publicly condemn the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were automatically suspected of condoning al-Qaida.”8.
Around the half way point of his speech at the Frankfurt Bookfair Žižek discussed Yuval Harari’s, criticism of what was at the time a deeply contentious issue at the heart of Israeli democracy, the “judicial reforms” which at the time provoked a widescale backlash due to the attempts to give politicians greater say over the supreme court. This in itself of course is not necessarily wrong, however as pointed out by Ryan Cooper in Prospect Magazine the reasons for this move appeared to be related to placing the office of president and the recent scandals above the law with potentially dire consequences for many segments of Israeli and Palestinian society.
He went went on to say “so perhaps the first thing to do is to clearly recognise the massive despair and confusion that can give birth to acts of evil. In short there will be no peace in the middle east without resolving the Palestinian question”. Curiously similar sentiments were expressed in multiple Israeli outlets including the Times of Israel who linked the efforts by recent governments to prop up the Hamas administration and tolerance for it’s growing militarisation over recent moves towards Palestinian statehood by the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas10. He then moved towards outlining what he believed was a state of affairs where Palestinians appeared to be in part “denied a vision of a country in which they could play a positive role” and that instead of thinking of a solution to the crisis as a compromise between attempting to understand anti-Jewish violence of Hamas’s fundamentalism and the violence of nation born from one of the most inhumane industrialized mass killings of the modern age he suggested instead “going to the end in both directions” that is to say “in the defence of Palestinian rights as well as in fighting antisemitism”. This appeared to be too much for some commentators who rebuked him for comparing the terror of Hamas to the current actions taken by Israel. However as Zizek points out his comments are specifically against this kind of contextuality. As he remarked though that even this was deemed unconscionable points to much of the current problem specifically that these various restrictions on the forms of condemnation and dialogue that can be engaged in are in essence creating discourse which despite appealing to the appearance and tenets of open conversation excludes specific understandings of the context in which October 7th attacks happened and thus perhaps preventing their potential reoccurrence. We should not forget when the walls of Gaza were breached it was not only Hamas militants that swept into Gaza on that fateful day.
Once again this is not to excuse the attacks nor is it to unreservedly condemn any form of response rather it’s to state that these prohibitions on how they are discussed appear to prevent deeper understandings as to the roots of conflict and with them any real resolution. Curiously a similar sentiment, perhaps less focused on direct critique of some of the institutions involved was made by a commentator who, in many ways is one of the figureheads of British centrist liberalism (to put it kindly), Robert Peston who posted an article from the Harvard outlet, The Crimson by the Jewish community leader Bernie Steinberg cautiously suggesting that unscrupulous deployment of the charge of antisemitism could in some cases by aligned with what he described as an “incipient McCarthyism”11. The end result paradoxically being a rise in the very phenomenon, the conspiratorial far-right, the measures are presumably intended to suppress.
At the time of writing the conflict has reportedly killed over 20,000 Palestinians three quarters of which are said to be women and children while many more are said to be trapped under rubble. In an interview with the Independent James Denslow from Save the Children stating that the speed and the intensity of the killings is “record-breaking”. Denslow subsequently told the independent “This is the highest number of children killed and maimed in one conflict since 2006 when United Nations records began,” and “This is also 21 times higher than the number of children killed and maimed in Ukraine last year,”12 and almost at last count 20 times the number of Israeli’s killed during the initial attack perpetrated by Hamas. On the Israeli side 507 soldier have reportedly been killed since the conflict began with the Israeli outlet Yediot Ahronoth reported around 12,500 left disabled as a result of recent fighting.
Recent moves by the Houthi rebels in Yemen to block supplies into Israel have threatened to drastically expand the conflict with reprisals from US killing at least twenty in the red sea following the rebels attack on Maersk shipping vessels13. Meanwhile pressure both internally and externally continues to grows for the Netanyahu administrations to both lessen civilian causalities and seek an end to the conflict13. With early signs of a ‘lower intensity’ strategy being pursued by the the IDF requiring reportedly less munitions, troops and strikes14 but still a belligerence which points to this being an aim as opposed to an immediate change.
On October 20th a perhaps less remarked upon article by Vox magazine was published entitled ‘What Israel Should Do Now’ . The article written by Zach Beauchamp which brought together several retired Israeli officers, Palestinian Intellectuals, counter terrorism experts and scholars of the ethics of law and war. Amid the many ideas discussed one in particular stood out, trying to crush groups like Hamas with pure military force rarely works and in the cases where it arguably has14 it has required almost unthinkable levels of sustained violence. This arguably has already been noted by the Israeli far-right who have repeatedly called for the resettlement15 of Gaza’s population in other parts of the world or for their wholesale destruction16 an attitude which whilst on the face of it is clearly unconscionable has perhaps served part as part of the justification for what has seemed like a strategy of perpetual war17. A chance reading of Emma Goldman’s infamous anti-war article ‘Preparedness, the Road to Universal Slaughter’ at a local anarchist meeting in part touched on many of the other issues with trying to maintain a state constantly engaged in active repression ongoing militarization being linked to among other things, anti-democratic rule, rising nationalism and the shoring up of class privilege through lucrative military contracts. Many of these steps are already underway with 360,000 reservists18 reportedly called up to serve during the current offensive, the aforementioned opposition to the anti-democratic judicial reforms largely being forgotten and a reported $14.3 billion in aid recently cited in the latest US national security budget.
A central question that perhaps lies underneath this constant gnawing discomfort is that can there be a retention of complexity, empathy, history and nuance amid the drive for simplicity, atemporality and insensitivity.