A man walks down the street after an Israeli airstike in Tyre.

Lets be Realists, Let?s Demand the Impossible!

Why pragmatic politics are doomed to fail in the Middle East

BY Slavoj Žižek

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One of the most repulsive moments of the present Middle East conflict occurred after one of Hezbollah’s rockets killed two Israeli-Arab children: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pointedly apologized only for these deaths, thus making it clear that there is nothing to regret in the deaths of Israeli civilians. Doesn’t this make clear the ethical difference between Hezbollah and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), which always regret civilian casualties among the Lebanese, perceiving them as a necessary evil?

However, upon a closer look, this clear opposition gets blurred. The IDF always emphasize how Hezbollah locates its headquarters and arms in the midst of densely populated areas, well aware that any attack on Hezbollah strongholds will thus lead to large numbers of innocent civilian casualties. While certainly true to some extent, the problem is: Why does Israel, fully aware of these tactics, still bomb the sites? The obvious answer is that it believes the deaths of innocents are worth the price of hurting Hezbollah.

Let’s try a mental experiment and imagine that, instead of Lebanese women and children, the human shields used by Hezbollah were Israeli women and children. Would the IDF still consider the price affordable and continue the bombing? If the answer is “no,” then the IDF is effectively practicing racism, determining that Jewish life has more value than Arab life. No wonder that, in order to defend the IDF’s tactics, Alan Dershowitz recently introduced in the Los Angeles Times a gradation between civilians, distinguishing between the “totally innocent” Israeli civilians threatened by the Hezbollah rockets and the not-so-innocent Lebanese civilians.

A couple of years ago on a private Slovene TV station, there was a mistranslation of Harrison Ford’s words in Clear and Present Danger: “I thought it would be a surgical strike!” became, in Slovene subtitles, “I thought surgeons would be on strike!” But as the IDF proudly emphasize that their bombing of Lebanon involves only precise surgical strikes–well, obviously, their surgeons are on strike, as the world is bombarded with images of dead Lebanese women and children. The result is catastrophic for Israel’s international image, raising the hatred of Israel to new levels. The problem courted by Israel in its continuous display of power is that this display will be soon perceived as a sign of its opposite, of impotence. This paradox of power is known to anyone who has had to play the role of paternal authority: In order to retain its force, power has to remain virtual, a threat of power.

Many political theorists, from Blaise Pascal to Immanuel Kant to Joseph de Maistre, have elaborated on the ways in which nation-states have manufactured heroic national mythologies to replace and ultimately erase their “foundational crimes,” i.e. the illegitimate political violence necessary for their creation. With regard to this notion, it is true what has often been said: The misfortune of Israel is that it was established as a nation-state a century too late, in conditions when such “founding crimes” are no longer acceptable (and–ultimate irony–it was the intellectual influence of Jews that contributed to the rise of this unacceptability!).

Why are we more “sensitive” about this violence today? Precisely because, in our global universe that legitimizes itself with morality, sovereign states are no longer exempted from moral judgments, but treated as moral agents to be punished for their crimes, thus severely restraining their sovereignty. (Of course, as the U.S. resistance to the Hague court exemplifies, the problems of who will exert this justice and how the judge himself will be judged remain.)

The Middle East conflict confronts us with the fragility of the border that separates “illegitimate” non-state power from the “legitimate” state power, since, in the case of Israel, its “illegitimate” origins are not yet obliterated, their effects are fully felt today. When Western observers wonder why Palestinians insist in their stubborn attachment to their land, they demand of Palestinians precisely to ignore the Israeli “illegitimate” state-founding violence. This is why, in a display of poetic justice, Israel is getting back from the Palestinians its own message in its inverted (true) form–and not only in regard to the “pathologically” strong attachment to land. Imagine reading the following statement in today’s media:

Our enemies called us terrorists. … People who were neither friends nor enemies … also used this Latin name. … And yet, we were not terrorists. … The historical and linguistic origins of the political term ‘terror’ prove that it cannot be applied to a revolutionary war of liberation. … Fighters for freedom must arm; otherwise they would be crushed overnight. … What has a struggle for the dignity of man, against oppression and subjugation, to do with ‘terrorism?’

One would automatically attribute it to an Islamic terrorist group and condemn it. The author, however, is none other than Menachem Begin, in the years when Hagannah was fighting the British forces in Palestine. It is interesting to note how, in the years of the Jewish struggle against the British military in Palestine, the very term “terrorist” had a positive connotation. Today, amid Dershowitz’s acrobatic rationalizations, it is almost heartening to look back at the first generation of Israeli leaders, who openly confessed that their claims to the land of Palestine cannot be grounded in universal justice, that we are dealing with a simple war of conquest between two groups where no mediation is possible. Here is what David Ben-Gurion wrote:

Everyone can see the weight of the problems in the relations between Arabs and Jews. But no one sees that there is no solution to these problems. There is no solution! Here is an abyss, and nothing can link its two sides … We as a people want this land to be ours; the Arabs as a people want this land to be theirs.

The problem with this statement today is clear: Exempting such ethnic conflicts for land from moral considerations is simply no longer acceptable. This is why the way Simon Wiesenthal approached this problem in Justice, not Vengeance appears today deeply problematic:

One should finally take cognizance of the fact that one cannot found a state without curtailing the rights of those who were already settled at this territory. One should be satisfied with the fact that the violations were limited in that a relatively small number of people was hurt. This is how it was when the state of Israel was founded. Eventually the Jewish population lived there for a long time, while the Palestinians were, in comparison with the Jewish one, sparsely settled and had great opportunities to withdraw. That is to say, the continually victorious state of Israel cannot forever rely on the sympathies that the world accords to victims.

What Wiesenthal is advocating here is nothing else than “state-founding violence with a human face,” with “limited violations.” (As to the comparative sparsity of settlers, the population of the Palestinian territory in 1880 was 24,000 Jews versus 300,000 Palestinians.) However, the truly interesting part of this passage is the last sentence: Its only consistent reading is that now that Israel is “continually victorious,” it no longer needs to behave like a victim, but can fully assert its force–true, insofar as one doesn’t forget to add that this power also involves new responsibilities. That is to say, the problem is that Israel, while “continually victorious,” still relies on the image of Jews as victims to legitimize its power politics (and to denounce its critics as closet anti-Semites).

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Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.

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