The Wrong Side of History

In March of 1960, a crowd of several thousand assembled near the police station of Sharpeville, South Africa. They had come to protest the so-called “pass laws” of the ruling white minority, designed to restrict and regulate the movement of black South Africans. Though perhaps a bit unruly, the protestors were on the whole unarmed and non-violent. The police, however, weren’t—and the ensuing massacre, killing 69 and injuring hundreds more, would go down as a decisive point in turning world opinion against the apartheid government. They had their sympathizers, naturally—such as the U.S. whites, administering their own homegrown apartheid in the Jim Crow South—but international condemnation was swift. Officially, the story went that nervous, untrained or otherwise inept police had opened fire in panic; there was little quibbling over whether the victims really had it coming.


History, as readers of Hegel and Marx should know, is fond of repetition:  “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The tragedy of Sharpeville is being repeated now in the Gaza Strip, perpetrated by a state which happens to have been the last strategic friend of the apartheid S.A. regime. Over the last few weeks, the state of Israel has killed over 100 Palestinians demonstrating by the Gaza border, with roughly 60 dead on May 14 alone. Now here’s the farce. Israeli officials have not tried to lay the blame on military incompetence. They haven’t even tried to claim the soldiers acted on their own discretion. They have admitted, actually, to an open-fire policy on anyone who comes within 300 meters of the border, regardless of their “threat”; have declared that soldiers only act on their superiors’ orders; have even boasted that they “know where every bullet landed.” You’ll rarely hear a bolder statement of premeditated mass murder.

I used to live in Palestine during the last big batch of media-spectacular hostilities. This was in 2014, a summer when the Israeli military slaughtered more than 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilian. (The Gaza Strip has never fully recovered from this war—not that “recovery,” in Gaza’s case, is any sort of comfort.) Since then, I’ve been used to hearing my compatriots test the limits of grotesquery by offering defenses for Israeli state terror. You’ll find them in the columns of every major paper, on the set of every mainstream news show, on the panels and the podiums of academia, behind the pulpits, on social media, in the White House. Mostly they are individuals of a right-wing disposition—apologia for Israel being a basic tenet of American conservatism—although the spokesmen of official liberalism will do just fine, and often do indeed.

You can always count on some such stooge to play this well-rehearsed part. In their 2014 performance, they had the benefit of a conflict that looked something like a war (one-sided though it was). Hamas were launching rockets, after all; no other state would be expected not to defend itself, obviously; all those Palestinian civilian deaths were sad, of course, but don’t you know those hospitals and schools were terrorist hiding spots and human shields? The laws of armed conflict, it’s true, are quite permissive about “collateral damage,” and credulous to the bloated claims of military commanders.

In the present butchering, the apologists of Israel are having a harder time. It is hard to justify the deliberate sniper-execution of unarmed protestors, including the young and the disabled. It is difficult to excuse the intentional maiming of the next generation. It is tough to defend the chemical fumigation of an 8-month-old infant. It is fatiguing work; but the apologists of Israel are indefatigable.


I’m not sure how one gets to a point where a nuclear-armed garrison state can open fire on civilians and one’s first instinct is to say that they deserved it. Many of these ghouls don’t even try to mask their bare contempt of Arabs and/or Muslims, which to them are the same thing. They at least have the good grace of being openly the bootlickers of empire.

But there’s another type that’s more insidious. I’m referring to those right-thinking mealy-mouths who are “critical” of Israel’s actions on the Gaza frontier. They may “disagree” with the current leaders of the Jewish state. Perhaps they might “oppose” the occupation and the settlements, and “support” the idea of Palestinian statehood. But the one thing they will not question is the shibboleth that Israel only acts in “self-defense.” From this unquestioned premise, they arrive at the cowardly and trite conclusion:  it’s a complicated situation. At which point, they’re only a Palestinian stone’s throw away from having a politics that’s maybe kinder, but no less lethal, than a hardened Likudnik’s.

Apply the slightest scrutiny to Israel’s vaunted “self-defense” claim, and the whole jig falls apart. Again, consider the image of a military superpower facing down civilian protestors, armed at most with rocks and tires, and ask yourself: who poses an immediate threat to whom? Ask this to an apologist of Israel, and something predictable will happen. Invariably they will say, “But what about Hamas?,” with breathless reference to their “genocidal charter.” This is a thought-terminating and frivolous cliché.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that Hamas—which is a political party, a civil administration and a social-religious movement, in addition to a militia—would be present in a mass demonstration. What is unreasonable is the idea that all, or even most, a majority or a plurality of Palestinian demonstrators are members of Hamas. And even of those who are, that they are active militants engaged in armed hostilities; still less, that they all swear by a charter written in 1988, and are presently enacting its provisions to a tee. More to the point, that they are even capable or credible as threats; and lastly and the least, that any of this is grounds for summary execution.

To draw that odious conclusion, you would have to think of Palestinians as a fanatical horde, stripped of all humanity and independent will, thrilling to the exhortations of religious manifestos and on the cusp of genocidal murder. You would have to believe, consciously or not, that the only thing that keeps the Palestinians from unbridled savagery is their continued subjugation, or anyway segregation. (A complicated situation, after all.) In any other context, we would recognize such thinking as the product of a lurid and extreme and toxic ideology, the sort of desperate slander you expect from bloodthirsty dictators. But this is what now passes for a “nuanced” and “moderate” opinion.


A whole industry of quacks and cranks exists to generate these wisdoms. (Their leading light, the historian Bernard Lewis, passed away this past weekend. Note how his famous coinage, the so-called “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West, still resonates in The New York Times’ coverage of the Gaza massacre as an ahistorical “clash.”) And a cottage industry of legal charlatans complements their efforts, inventing legal justifications from whole cloth for each of Israel’s crimes (Israel’s exemption from the Geneva Conventions, for instance, or the legitimacy of territorial acquisition in the Six Day War). Many politically minded people, especially the young, are wising up to these exploded myths and propaganda. They know that voices of raison d’État cannot be taken at face-value. But out of all of these received opinions, by far the most resilient is the plaintive and self-pitying whine that Israel is “defending” its “security.”

“Security” is one of those magical words that lets you do whatever you want to do, and means whatever you want it to mean. In the present case, it has the exact opposite meaning from its common sense. For one, the “defensive” paradigm is wrong from the start. Israel is an Occupying Power, having ruled over an unwilling population for 50 years of military dictatorship. The majority of Gaza’s residents are stateless refugees, ethnically cleansed from what is now the state of Israel; several generations have grown up in subjugation and exile. Israel, in plainer terms, is the aggressor—in a long, protracted state of aggression. The only thing it is defending is its continuing aggression. The irony should not be lost on anyone: if Israel were genuinely concerned with “public safety” in a strict sense, it would know that if you end the subjugation of Palestinians, you remove the whole raison d’être of Palestinian resistance.

This presumes, of course, that “security” had a good-faith meaning to begin with. If it did, Israel has an awfully funny way to show it. For example, “security” is the official rationale of the settler-colony enterprise in the occupied territory. “It is indisputable,” wrote high court justice Alfred Witkon in a 1979 decision, “that in occupied areas the existence of settlements—albeit ‘civilian’—of citizens of the Occupying Power contributes greatly to the security in that area and assists the army in fulfilling its task.” To a sober mind, the presence of civilians in a hostile territory is the very opposite of a good idea. But if you redefine security to mean “the presence of Jews instead of Arabs,” and the army’s task to be “settling the territory,” Witkon’s formula doesn’t seem so bad.

“Security” has political content, in other words. “Security” means securing Israel’s territorial expansion, its regional dominance, and ultimately its ethnic identity as a country purged of its original inhabitants.

In a televised interview, prime minister Yitzhak Shamir once admitted that Israel went to war with Lebanon in 1982 because there was “a terrible danger…not so much a military one as a political one.” This is as good a statement of Israel’s security concerns as any. Israel knows that its ambitions and its obstacles are political in nature, that its woes stem from the fact that the Gaza protestors’ demands (which are, in fact, their basic human rights) are politically anathema to the Jewish state. And they’re anathema, because the return of Arab refugees to their homeland would undermine the very project of Zionism, of a Jewish ethno-state.

This is a political choice—a choice which, when stated plainly, sounds retrograde and racist and intolerable, which it is—but when you depoliticize and dehumanize a people into a security concern, everything can be permitted. It is a political choice, pretending to be a security issue, and producing a military response. All the moral condemnation in the world against the Israeli military’s “excesses” doesn’t get one off the hook from this political decision; a decision which requires one, if you believe it, to accept that Israel should defend its border, that Palestinians should be seen as a security liability. So you might disagree with the degree of violence used, the type of ammunition, the rules of engagement; but if you accept the politics of Israel’s “defense,” you’ll still have made your bed on the side with guns, as it were. And those who do have made themselves the useful idiots on the wrong side of history.

Ithaca, 2018.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s