“No one people has a monopoly on human suffering and every ethnic tragedy stands on its own.
If I were a Jew or Gypsy, Nazi barbarity would be the most atrocious event in history. If I were a Black African, it would be slavery and apartheid. If I were a Native American, it would be the discovery of the New World by European explorers and settlers that resulted in near-total extermination. If I were an Armenian, it would be the Ottoman massacres.
I happen to be a Palestinian, and for me it is the Nakba.
Humanity should consider all the above repugnant. I do not consider it advisable to debate hierarchies of suffering. I do not know how to quantify pain or measure suffering. I do know that we are not children of a lesser God.”
Afif Safieh – Palestinian diplomat
But for those on the receiving end what a largely desensitized world considers “tired” and “routine” bespeaks terror and brutality. Given the lack of intervention on the part of the international community whenever an Israeli security crackdown occurs, it is evident by now that a tacit acceptance has taken root to the effect that massacring Palestinians has been elevated to the level of bloodsport within Israeli society.
For those of us who still care about the plight of a people whose only crime is that they exist on land coveted by a settler colonial state, the latest manifestation of Israel’s disregard for international law and human rights is as good a reason as any for closer examination. In so doing, we must call upon the greatest teacher of them all: history.
Most empires and colonial projects fall under the weight of their own contradictions, but usually over a protracted period of resistance, both passive and active, on the part of its victims. At the same time the material privileges gained from the exploitation and expropriation of a colonized people acts as a slow-acting corrosive on the society of the colonizing state, poisoning it with racism and hatred for those it has colonized as it seeks to justify the material privileges and psychological sense of supremacy and national pride that accrues from that colonization. This moral decay is commonly reflected in the degeneration that takes place in the armed forces of the state in question, where the emphasis of the troops shifts from self-sacrifice and heroism in support of a just and galvanizing cause to personal survival as demoralization sets in.
In other words, the day-to-day reality of perpetuating oppression and injustice overcomes any amount of national propaganda in support of that oppression. In this, the case of American troops in Vietnam is a prime example.
There, the reality on the ground of killing and being killed in a country thousands of miles from home in an ignoble war eventually proved stronger than the propaganda the troops had been fed that they were fighting in the cause of freedom. This resulted in a widespread and growing breakdown in discipline, almost to the point where the US military effort in Vietnam was in danger of complete collapse. It might even be argued that on a certain level atrocities like My Lai were informed by a projection of the self-loathing experienced by more and more American troops in the field as the reality of the injustices they were committing took hold.
Another and contemporary example of this moral degeneration is the case of the Orwellian-named Israel Defense Forces. More than any other, the IDF is a product of the constructed mythology that has sustained Israel since its creation in 1948. It is a mythology which combines both a biblical and political justification for the state’s existence. On the one hand it constitutes the realization of an ancient covenant in which the land of historic Palestine was promised by God to the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham, over 2,000 years ago, while on the other hand it is the fulfillment of the Zionist postulate that in a world that is irredeemably anti-Semitic the Jewish people, hitherto stateless, would never find peace and security until they had a state of their own.
While the former can instantly be dismissed as obscurantist poppycock, it must be said that the second of the aforementioned philosophical arguments in support of Israel’s existence reflects a concrete historical reality in the shape of the wave of anti-Semitism that swept across Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, and which gave rise to the emergence of Zionism.
If anyone was still in any doubt as to the power behind the early proponents of calls for a Jewish state, as the vast majority of Jews around the world were for decades, the inimitable horrors of the Holocaust in the Second World War instantly dispelled them. Indeed, the psychological impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish people cannot be underestimated even today, despite it proving fertile ground for the extreme nationalism that has taken root within a significant section of Israeli society.
No matter the impact of the Holocaust on Israel, however, it can never justify the decades of injustice suffered by the Palestinian people as a consequence, else we describe a world in which the only answer to oppression is oppression. Moreover, the victims of the Nazi Holocaust share a bond of humanity with victims of every other genocide and state sanctioned crimes against humanity throughout history. It is a bond that transcends ethnicity, religion and/or nationality, and which embraces the many thousands of Palestinian victims of the Nakba and the millions more subsequently rendered stateless and refugees as a consequence.
The romantic ideals attached to the pioneering spirit of the founders of Israel, along with international sympathy for a people who’d suffered such grotesque brutality at the hands of the Nazis, imbued the nascent state with a sense of purpose and destiny that helped mask the atrocities being carried out in its name.
A mythology of heroism and bravery was already well on the way to being constructed in 1948 when it came to Zionist militia organizations like the Haganah and Irgun. It was a mythology that continued on into the ranks of IDF when Israel was founded in 1948, embodied in the adoption of the state’s guiding “purity of arms” ethos, one designed to give romantic flavor to the militarism that sits at its heart. Yet in truth the ranks of the Haganah, Irgun and various other militia groups were filled with racist killers massacring men, women and children in order to fulfill the biblical and national destinies previously mentioned.
This toxic mix of racism and exceptionalism has led to the existence of a state that since its formation has viewed its repeated violations of international law and its crimes against humanity entirely justified. So deeply ingrained is the biblical and historical justification for Israel’s continued depredations against the Palestinians that when it comes to international condemnation of its crimes, rather than a cause for reflection and introspection within Israeli society, for many it merely serves to reaffirm Israel’s view of itself as the last bastion of defense of the Jewish people in a hostile world.
The day-to-day reality of this corrosive outlook involves young Israeli soldiers, mostly conscripts, humiliating, intimidating and brutalizing civilians at checkpoints, or killing Palestinians and Arabs in general in the knowledge they are able to do so with relative impunity.
But when those same soldiers come up against a determined and dogged resistance on the ground, such as they did in 2006 during the brief war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, their resolve crumbles and they are defeated. This is key to understanding why Israel, just like its chief sponsor the US when it comes to its own military operations, has come to rely on an advanced arsenal of missiles, aircraft, helicopter gunships, drones and tanks in its continuing conflict with the entire population of Gaza for the crime of exercising its right to elect a government of its own choosing.
Such would be the demoralizing effect not only on the troops but also and more importantly on Israeli society at large. Israel knows it cannot afford to sustain heavy casualties during its repeated military operations against a largely unarmed population.
To put it another way, while Israeli troops are more than willing to kill to maintain the material privileges attached to living in a settler colonial state, one in which their consumer lifestyles are subsidized by the West, they have consistently demonstrated a reluctance to die for those privileges. Evidence of the increased pressure that Israel is under is reflected in the growing desperation of its propaganda in painting the motivation of its growing number of critics and opponents as being founded in anti-Semitism. But where previously such calumniation would have been suffice to silence dissenting voices, now it merely discredits Israel’s supporters and apologists further.
Throughout history, humanity has been locked in struggle between oppressor and oppressed. It is a struggle that has posed the same question to each succeeding generation: Whose side are you on?
Israel as an apartheid state has no future. Only as a state which embraces the concept of universal human rights, justice and dignity for all who share the same land can it ensure the peace and security of its people. More than any other this is the abiding lesson of history.