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Hamas, Israel, and Ethical Conundrums


A day after the Hamas-Israel war started, many truly uncompromising leftist Israelis voiced a peculiar position, whose logic is roughly this: “Under the current extremist Israeli government, the Israeli military was busy securing Israeli West-Bank settlements. That’s why the military wasn’t there to protect Israelis living close to Gaza.” This position seems to be moved by concern for the failure of Israeli government to protect the victims of the attack. But one should note how this position implicitly comes to affirm a right-wing securitization logic: suddenly, many leftists are clamoring for the military containment of the threat from Gaza, like a common right-wing talking head.

That the liberal left quickly turns as right-wing as its enemies is no coincidence, but an example of political opportunism. The last decade or so has seen the Israeli liberal left try, time and time again to force successive Netanyahu’s governments to lose their majority. This would seem a standard goal for the opposition to Netanyahu—whose reign has been truly terrible, on all counts. In and of themselves, the protests against Netanyahu are to be wholeheartedly supported. But there is a deeper problem: time and time again, it becomes clear that the Israeli liberals can offer absolutely no alternative to Netanyahu and the right. Taking down Netanyahu—a worthy cause in and of itself—has clearly become a fetish for Israeli liberals: insisting on it as a political agenda is precisely the way they disavow the fact they that have no substantive positive political horizon to offer. The war between Israel and Hamas thus offers a new way for the fetishistic disavowal to be enacted–Netanyahu is wholly responsible! the government is to blame for not deploying the military to protect us! Such fetishistic disavowal is precisely what makes possible the continued life of the liberals under the radical right’s reign.

But we shouldn’t ignore the moment of truth of the Netanyahu-fetishists. It is to be found in a deep sense of solidarity with the Israeli victims of the attack. One should insist that such solidarity is never wrong–what Zizek once wrote about the September 11 attacks certainly holds true:

The moment we think in the terms of ‘Yes, the WTC collapse was a tragedy, but we should not fully solidarize with the victims, since this would mean supporting US imperialism’, the ethical catastrophe is already here: the only appropriate stance is unconditional solidarity with all victims. The ethical stance proper is here replaced by the moralizing mathematics of guilt and horror, which misses the key point: the terrifying death of each individual is absolute and incomparable…

And so the problem with the Netanyahu-fetishists is not that they express their solidarity with the murdered Israeli victims and their families. Rather, it is to be found in in the move from ethics—the unconditional solidarity with the victims—to political position. It is in this move that solidarity with Palestinian suffering—that many on the liberal left would avow under other circumstances—is completely betrayed.

Of course, the position described by Zizek in the quote above is much more easily recognizable in the remarks of intellectuals in the West—those who, in the name of solidarity with Palestinians, celebrate Hamas’s attack as some grand strike against imperialism. The devolving of “decoloniality” into hollow “moralizing mathematics of guilt and horror,” that has nothing to do with ethics, is clear here. As in the case of the Netanyahu-fetishists, the problem is to be found in the transition from ethics—solidarity with Palestinian victims of Israel’s murderous oppression—to politics—expressing unconditional support for murderous attacks in the name of a political anti-imperialism. A common more euphemistic expression of the same abandonment of ethics is the simple pointing out that oppressive violence begets the violence of the oppressed, providing an actual “score” of deaths on both sides to demonstrate imperialist evil. Such condescending “wisdom” is, of course, just as unethical as more explicit denials of solidarity with Israeli victims.

But the ineffectual corner of intellectuals in the West is the exact opposite of what their governments are doing. One should note how the international response from Western countries is completely in line with that of the Netanyahu-fetishists. Recognizing the pain of Israeli victims is translated immediately to declarations of support, and military offers to help Israel, ones that border on a direct de-humanization of Palestinians. Here, one is not talking about some preoccupation with Netanyahu, but a long-standing neo-colonial position. The immediate offering of aid to Israel and the condemnation of Hamas reflects a complete blindness to Palestinian suffering over the years. Usually, such support today remains implicit in the West. While officially Palestinian suffering is recognized by all kinds of humanitarian, Western institutions, the material support offered by the US and Western countries to Israeli violent repression of Palestinians is unshakeable. If anything, then, the current war only made explicit the West’s betrayal of Palestinian suffering, that usually remains implicit: all of a sudden, what is revealed is a moment of deep identity between Biden and Hungary’s Orban.

So how can one go about expressing uncompromising solidarity with Palestinians and with Israelis? In all of the examples above, we seem to be locked into a vicious contradiction. It seems like whatever political position we take, we end up betraying our absolute ethical imperative to express solidarity with all victims. To this dilemma, there’s only one answer: yes, precisely!

As an explanation, let’s turn to one of the filmic darlings of postcolonialism: the Battle of Algiers, which narrates the FLN’s struggle against French colonial rule of Algeria, representing in detail the terrorist attacks carried out by the FLN, many times against civilians, the pied-noir. It is important to note, first, that the FLN fighters rarely express happiness at their successful bombings—which contrasts sharply with smug Western academics’ celebration of Hamas’s attacks. More importantly, in one of the ingenious moments of the film, one of the FLN’s leaders explains that there’s no point in rejoicing: the struggle to take power, however difficult, is the easy part; the difficult task comes later—the slow transformation of social relations in the new society. There is an nascent knowledge in this statement: the anti-French struggle is not the main point; task of transforming social relations once you have power—of what Mao called cultural revolution—in which systemic violence must be confronted—is where the true test of revolution lies. Happiness as a response to successful direct attacks is simply short-sighted ignorance.

But there is an even more important lesson in the film. It turns out, that the movmenet from the FLN’s struggle, to national independence, is not a linear one. Because the French ultimately defeat the FLN, crushing its opposition. Algerians finally win power only later, when Algerians rise up massively against French control. That does not mean that the FLN’s struggle was misguided, or in vain. Rather, dialectically, The FLN’s terrorist struggle is both a necessity—acting as inspiration for further rebellion—but also something that finally must itself be negated. The FLN’s final defeat is no less a necessary condition for the success of the revolution, than its existence in the first place.

The point that Battle of Algiers makes here is a simple one. It is very often ignored that the movement between the two moments of revolution—taking power, changing social relations—is not a harmonious transition, but a deeply antagonistic one. The first moment—overt, subjective, anti-colonial violence is a necessary part of it; but if the revolution is to have a chance of success, this first moment must ultimately be seen as still part of the old colonial order. In Badiou’s terms, anti-colonial violence is not yet subtracted from the colonial order, but is rather a direct compliment to it. One must violently stop the anti-colonial violence itself, if one is to move beyond it. To add one more example: the figurative antagonism between Dessalines and Louverture, in some narratives of the Haitian revolution, refers precisely to this antagonistic rift at the heart of any revolution: Dessalines standing foe the first moment of anti-colonial violence, while Louverture stands precisely for what must neutralize this violence, in trying to rebuild social relations on a radically different basis. In this sense, what Battle of Algiers demonstrates is the necessary error of the FLN leadership itself: at least consciously, its leaders fail to recognize the rift, the necessary antagonism, between the moment of anti-colonial terror, and the success of the revolution. The dialectical formulation of the FLN’s position might be the following: that the FLN is wrong, but it is wrong in the only right way—in the film, it is only through the agency of its error, through its ultimate belonging to the colonial order itself, that its actions contribute to the success of the revolution.

What becomes visible here is a kind constitutive error, a hole at the center of fantasy itself—in its Lacanian sense, as what grounds our very reality. This rift only becomes visible when we realize that the FLN must be wrong in order to succeed: its attempt to bridge ethical commitment and political action cannot but be wrong, still drawing its meaning from the colonial order, even as it indirectly creates the conditions for later success. This hole or rift is not something that we can get rid of, but only bridged by a political Act, whose significance can only be determined from a future vantage point—that of a new symbolic order.

It is in this sense that any easy celebration of anti-colonial subjective violence is, at its basis, misguided. It is ultimately a betrayal of the anti-colonial struggle itself, serving only the jouissance of the “decolonial” subject. If one is completely honest, one must remain faithful to the rift separating what is formed in response to the world as it exists, our ethical commitment to solidarity with suffering, from a liberating political, collective effort. Thus, we should neither join the bloodthirsty clamoring of support for Israeli colonial violence, which clearly doesn’t serve any liberating project. But, equally, we must reject the flat celebration to anti-colonial subjective violence, since it is no less caught in the fantasy of the neocolonial world. It is only by insisting on a fidelity to this rift, to the contradiction in our Symbolic ability to translate our ethical commitment to political struggle, that the possibility of universal liberation lives. We simply don’t know, we can’t yet imagine, what a genuine political Act in this conjuncture might be. It is to this minimal truth that we should remain loyal, for the moment.