Reflections on The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In the remarks that follow I want to focus on a few of the ways language is used to describe the violence unleashed by Israel on the Palestinians. We are all no doubt aware that language is related in complex ways to action – not only in describing and misdescribing reality but also in experiencing words and motivating action. I begin with a striking passage from an article by Brian Klug on the most recent Gaza massacre: “Sometimes it is better,” he writes, “to be lost for words. Perhaps we should remember this more often. Perhaps we should hold our tongue until we find words that approximate to reality—the brutal human reality of suffering, grief, loss, and despair. This means suppressing the impulse to appropriate the facts for our agendas, or resisting the urge to smother those facts with words that cushion their impact, euphemisms that soften their blow. Sometimes we should just stand open-mouthed, without a political analysis falling fully formed from our lips. There are times when we need to stop talking in order to start thinking—thinking politically. Now is such a time.”1 Yes. But perhaps in the present situation in which deliberate cruelty is being done and shamelessly denied, what is necessary is not only thinking but also speaking and acting morally. How one can do that is more difficult than it might appear to those of us who simply want to clean up our political language.

In what way, for example, should one understand the expression “Israel-Hamas war”? I suggest that it not only misdescribes what is happening in Gaza, it also helps to motivate Israel’s ruthless onslaught on civilians since the October 7th Hamas attack. “War” is normally understood as a sustained, unpredictable conflict between independent states – whence the “laws of war,” and the “right of states to defend themselves,” especially if there is an existential threat. It is in this context that we hear some Western commentators speak of the IDF bombardment of Gaza as “a response to Hamas’s attack.” Israelis want Hamas, the organization that perpetrated the fearful atrocity on October 7th, be utterly destroyed. Should we turn to what seems to be the motive for what counts as an individual act? Or should we search for something we can identify as a beginning of “hostilities” regardless of motive?

The use of “response” is of course key here, since it seeks to explain the Israeli onslaught on Gaza as having been caused by the Hamas attack in October 7th and so – given its motivation – as needing to be understood at once as rational and just. Israel’s apologists have deliberately turned away from the fact that, whatever actually took place that day, Israel’s punishment (a word I prefer here to “response”) has been part of a history of military actions that has not only been long-standing but also, particularly in this case, massively disproportionate, and one in which far more war crimes have been deliberately committed than those that occurred on October 7th. Because there have not been – and there never will be – any damaging consequences for Israel.

However atrocious Hamas’s attack on October 7th was (exactly what happened that day is something Hamas has proposed needs to be investigated by an independent third party)2 the question remains as to whether it actually constituted “an existential threat to Israel” to which Israel had the right to respond in self-defense. Israel is an extremely powerful state with a sophisticated economy, the most efficient army and air-force in the region, and one of the most powerful in the world. And it has nuclear weapons. Hamas, on the other hand, is a small, relatively ill-equipped resistance group in an occupied, impoverished territory, with the advantages and also disadvantages of being embedded in a civilian population. In short, it is absurd to say that the October 7th attack was “an existential threat” to Israel even if Israelis imagine it was. (I try to discuss what it really was later.) Disparity in power between Hamas and Israel is glaringly obvious: Hamas cannot bomb Israeli cities by air as Israel has been doing repeatedly to Gaza; Hamas cannot turn off Israeli access to water, food, medicine and electricity (as it has been doing partially for nearly two decades – and now almost fully). And it cannot rely (as Israel does) on the world’s richest, most formidable Euro-American states to supply it with endless military and financial aid, and political cover.

The expression “Israel-Hamas war” allows those who use it to look for parallels with other truly existential conflicts, such as the Second World War, that are now seen as entirely legitimate. Such is the Israeli claim that the Allied bombing of German and Japanese cities was the same kind of event as the terrible (but “sadly necessary”) human loss inflicted by Israel on defenseless Gazan civilians. (It is often forgotten that Allied bombing was preceded by German bombing of British cities and by Japan’s bombing of China. In the subsequent accounts of the war written by victors it is forgotten that the German and Japanese destruction of civilian life and infrastructure was condemned as “barbaric” but not so the later Allied bombing “in response.”) This kind of language (“this is war”) introduces a precise origin (the Second World War began on September 3rd, 1939; the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7th, 2023) as well as a particular moral analogy (as Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan were to the Allies so Hamas is to Israel). And it can be used as a justification for Israel’s repeated atrocities that are better described not as defensive but as punitive. What we have is not “a war” but an onslaught that is arguably an ongoing genocide.

In its confrontation with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, Israel clearly regards their intermittent punishment (which it calls “mowing the lawn”) as essential to its security – that is, essential to not being unduly disturbed. The main purpose of punishment is at once to humiliate and to generate fear not only among those directly subjected to it but also among those who might be tempted to challenge the established order. “We deserve to be safe after the Holocaust,” say the Israelis, “and we can be safe only if the Palestinians fear us.” Indeed, many Israelis regard punishment as the only response to the ongoing conflict: there is, in their view, no problem that can be said to have a solution; there can only be a permanent holding operation.

When someone attempts to narrate a different beginning than October 7th for the so-called Israel-Hamas war (a “beginning” is not quite the same as a “context”) one often encounters the claim from liberal Zionists that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very complicated.” Of course, with a little bit of ingenuity any conflict can be represented as “very complicated,” but anyone familiar with the Palestine-Israel conflict knows – or should be aware – that a simple historical fact underlies this apparent complication: without the active assistance of European countries (especially imperial Britain and neo-imperial America) the Zionist movement would not have been able to establish and then maintain a state with a Jewish majority in an already inhabited land.

One cannot, I believe, overstress the fact that political Zionism is European in origin and in orientation, European countries where Jews had long encountered discrimination and oppression (and finally genocide) at the hands of the Christian/post-Christian population. Christian anti-Semitism converged with political Zionism in the sense that its supporters included both European anti-Semites and European Zionists. Both agreed that Jews did not properly belong in Europe. It is not always remembered that Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism, welcomed this convergence and internalized it: “The anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends,” he wrote, “the anti-Semitic countries our allies. We want to emigrate as respected people.”3 As several people have pointed out, what Zionism has done is to internalize the anti-Semitic view of Jews as alien to Europe, and to propose a solution to the European anti-Semitic “Jewish problem” by establishing a state with “new Jews” in Palestine.  A striking instance of the so-called resolution of this European perspective (a small but not trivial one), is reflected in a report written by a group of German observers at the Eichmann trial in 1961 in Jerusalem. In that report they describe “the new Jew” admiringly as “the novel and very advantageous type of the Israeli youth …. of great height, often blond and blue-eyed, free and self-determined in their movements with well-defined faces” exhibiting “almost none of the features which one was used to view as Jewish.”4 The view that European Jews were “racially” different from European non-Jews is here seemingly rejected by repentant post-War Germans who demonstrate their repentance in appropriately racial terms. (Hitler and his cronies must be dancing in their graves: yes, we lost the war but we achieved one of our most important aims – we have made Germany “Judenrein.”)

Why, one might wonder, did Zionism not emerge among Palestinian Jews (“Oriental Jews”) who had lived for centuries in what was part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the First World War among indigenous Christian and Muslim populations, sharing the same culture and language with them? The answer that suggests itself is that Zionism was essentially European in the concepts of self, of politics and of culture, that it brought to Palestine as a settler state. Jewish nationalists arrived in Palestine at a time when there was already a nascent “Arab” nationalism – itself a consequence of European cultural imperialism. Thus, apart from a few early advocates of collaboration with Arabs, mainstream Zionism has always regarded the indigenous Muslims and Christians as obstacles to the building of a European state in Asia. And even Arab Jews were required to de-Arabize before they could be, more or less, fully incorporated first into the Zionist movement, and then after 1948 as full citizens into the “civilized” European state of Israel.
It has sometimes been suggested that Jewish aspiration to acquire the entirety of Palestine for the Jewish state was a relatively late development in the history of Israel, but that is not quite accurate. In an article written at the end of 1944 Hannah Arendt wrote:

“The end result of fifty years of Zionist politics was embodied in the recent resolution of the largest and most influential section of the World Zionist Organization. American Zionists from left to right adopted unanimously, at their last annual convention held in Atlantic City in October 1944, the demand for a ‘free and democratic Jewish commonwealth … [which] shall embrace the whole of Palestine, undivided and undiminished.’ This is a turning point in Zionist history; for it means that the revisionist program, so long bitterly repudiated, has proved finally victorious. The Atlantic City Resolution goes even a step further than the Biltmore Program (1942), in which the Jewish minority had granted minority rights to the Arab majority. This time the Arabs were simply not mentioned in the resolution, which obviously leaves them the choice between voluntary emigration or second-class citizenship. It seems to admit that only opportunist reasons had previously prevented the Zionist movement from stating its final aims.”5

Jewish supremacism (a state that represents the Jewish nation in the entirety of Palestine) has thus been present from the beginning of the Zionist state project. The phrase “from the river to the sea” has always expressed the territorial aspiration (if not always the declared policy) of mainstream Zionism, quite apart from being present in the charter of the right-wing Likud Party. Of course, pro-Palestinians who propose a single democratic state in the whole of Palestine, one in which Palestinian and Jewish citizens are equally citizens and equally free, also use the phrase “from the river to the sea.”

And yet, it should be noted that Arendt’s use of the expression “voluntary emigration” (as well as its use by Zionists since then) is a euphemism for ethnic cleansing, a political project supported by a language that dehumanizes and demonizes the indigenous population in order to render it disposable. People may leave their native habitat because they reject the prospect of having to live under oppressive conditions or, more radically, because they fear for their lives. Three-quarters of a million Palestinians, as is widely known, were eventually pushed out in 1947-8 both from the area that was allotted by the UN to the state of Israel – as well as from the territory allotted at that time to a Palestinian state but incorporated by conquest into Israel.6 The 1948 ethnic cleansing was not, of course, the only one undertaken by Israel – each of its later wars (1956, 1967, 1973) involved further acquisition of territory and/or further expulsion of Palestinians from their land. And this process continues.

Zionists claim that Israel is the homeland for all Jews throughout the world. (Doesn’t that claim render Jews living as citizens in the US and the EU politically vulnerable to anti-Semitism?) That claim also makes a satisfactory definition of “a Jew” necessary. Religious Jews say that one cannot define Jews without reference to their religious tradition since self-identified Jews differ, and have differed enormously, in language, culture and way of life in different times and places. On the other hand, for political Zionists Judaism is not an essential criterion for determining who is a Jew even if the bible is taken as providing a historical narrative justifying Jewish national claims. (A Jewish religious friend attributes the following ironic statement to Ben-Gurion: “I do not believe in God but He gave us Palestine.”) Political Zionism does not define a Jew as someone who believes in and lives according to what he claims is the tradition of Judaism but simply, in circular fashion, as someone entitled to “return” to Israel as his or her home. Not everyone who feels Jewish is accepted as being entitled to come to Israel – as the initial negative reaction by many Israelis to the desire of Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to the Jewish state indicates. So, the category “Jew” is a social construct, one that does not necessarily draw on Judaic observance but – minimally – on the Judaic law of descent: one is a Jew because his or her mother was a Jew. The nation state clearly needs objective criteria for determining who is entitled to immigrate – not mere subjective feelings.

But if one sets aside for the moment Israel’s bureaucratic need for defining a Jew – i.e., someone who is entitled as a matter of religious law to immigrate to the Jewish state – one can turn to a more interesting point.

When Sigmund Freud noted the morally disastrous identification of civilians with the crimes of their nation-state in the First World War, he was speaking of actual not potential citizens.7 And yet, despite the fact that he was not a Zionist, that he did not support the project of a Jewish state, Freud expressed in 1930 (in the brief Preface to the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo) a “feeling” of being Jewish: “No reader of this book will find it easy to put himself in the emotional position of an author who is ignorant of the language of holy writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers – as well as from every other religion – and who cannot take a share in its nationalist ideals, but who has yet never repudiated his people, who feels that he is in his essential nature a Jew and who has no desire to alter that nature. If the question were put to him: ‘Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?’ he would reply: ‘A very great deal, and probably its very essence.’ He could not now express that essence clearly in words; but some day, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind.”8 The interesting point Freud is making here goes beyond Hannah Arendt’s simple dictum that if one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.

Freud’s train of thought here may appear at first sight contradictory to some of the things he had earlier expressed in his famous criticism of European nationalism during the First World War – but only if we take his positive “feeling of being a Jew” to be an expression of nationalist feeling (i.e., of political Zionism) which in fact he explicitly rejects. Freud seems to be pointing to the fact that it is possible to feel a sense of solidarity with a group of human beings for various reasons, to have a sense of belonging to them without desiring or identifying with a specific nation-state that represents them symbolically and legally. In other words: Nationalism is not the only possible answer to one’s sense of being positively connected with other persons – or, for that matter, with specific places.

The state of Israel is unique in claiming, on the one hand, to represent a particular (i.e., Jewish) nation wherever in the world its members live, and on the other hand in rejecting that it represents those of its citizens living in its territory who do not belong to that nation (i.e., non-Jews). One crucial consequence of that claim is that Israel takes seriously the need to produce a definitive answer to the old question, “Who – what – are the Jews?” The answer given by the Zionist state is partly negative: “Jews do not properly belong to Europe or America even if they live there; they really belong to their home, which is properly and only Israel.” And partly a tautology: “Jews belong to a Jewish nation and as such they are entitled to return to their historic national home in Palestine.” I want to suggest here that the use of “home” derives not simply from the sense of security that a home normally provides, but from the attractiveness of power that justifies a closed identity with a state – a power that is confirmed by its ability to punish and repulse those who are outside one’s home, and who are for that very reason dangerous.

When interviewed on the Western media, Israelis often speak of the “shock, fear and humiliation” they have been feeling since October 7th. “We no longer feel safe in our home,” I heard one interviewee say. These feelings of being a victim – one who is always vulnerable to further pain – seems to me extremely dangerous.

I turn to Iris Murdoch’s important insight on this theme. In her unsettling novel, The Unicorn) Murdoch describes the power of victimhood by reference to Até: “Recall the idea of Até which was so real to the Greeks,” she writes. “Até is the name of the almost automatic transfer of suffering from one being to another. Power is a form of Até. The victims of power, and any power has its victims, are themselves infected. They have to pass it on, to use power on others. This is evil, and the crude image of the all-powerful God is a sacrilege. Good is not exactly powerless. For to be powerless, to be a complete victim, may be another source of power. But good is non-powerful. And it is in the good that Até is finally quenched, when it encounters a pure being who only suffers and does not pass the suffering on.”9

I have a vivid memory of an incident from over fifty years ago that comes back to me whenever I think about the seductiveness of power. My father’s step-brother in London with whom I often stayed when I visited that city, had come from Vienna as a young refugee in 1938 in the Kinder Transport, a desperate attempt by parents to send their children to the safety of Western Europe, away from the Nazi menace.

My uncle settled in England, practicing as a dentist, and always maintained that he did not believe in the establishment of a separate state for Jews and I never doubted him, even after the incident I am about to relate. He was a gentle, compassionate man who disliked violence of any sort, and was always revolted by injustice in any form. My memory relates to the Six Days War in June 1967 when the Egyptian air force and army were destroyed in a few days by Israel.10 I was watching some newsreels of the defeat together with my uncle on his television set, which included images of retreating groups of Egyptian soldiers (mostly peasants who probably had no clear idea of the war in which they had been drafted to fight) and of advancing Israeli tanks urging them along like cattle. The defeated peasant-soldiers were allowed to go home, said the newsreel commentator, but made to leave their boots behind and walk home barefoot over the hot Sinai sand. This was clearly done in order to further humiliate them. Israeli soldiers, standing or sitting on the tanks, exuded an air of triumph. Suddenly my uncle beside me burst out: “Ach! We are the Cossacks now!” It was evident not only from the words he used but also from the tone of his voice and the pride evident on his face, that the image of the classic pogrom was in his mind – something he himself had never actually experienced but that was part of his family memory now being reproduced in the spontaneous burst of admiration at the reversal of the role of once-persecuted Jews – although, clearly, it was not the Cossacks who were now being punished. For that matter, the defeated were not even the Nazis who were responsible for his mother’s death in Auschwitz.11 They were peasants from Egypt, instruments of a nation-state, who had nothing to do with the Holocaust. My astonishment and shock not withstanding (it took me a few moments to grasp the sentiment he had expressed), my love for my uncle wasn’t undermined. He knew, of course, that I was a Muslim, and that my mother was an Arab – and true to character, he didn’t regard those facts as relevant to his love for me. But I now realized that our love for others always contains within it the very real possibility of self-betrayal – the possibility of allowing oneself to be seduced by power. Not any kind of power, but power of a special kind: the need and ability, as victims, to convey our suffering to others as a way of coping with our inherited anxiety and powerlessness. At the same time, I came to see that the turn to this dominating power inevitably limits and qualifies our love for and friendship with other human beings which, to be true, can never be maintained for instrumental reasons but only for themselves.

It is common knowledge that vast numbers of diasporic Jews (and especially American Jews) previously skeptical of Zionism, were swept up into identifying themselves with Israel as a consequence of its crushing victory in the 1967 war. It is not, in my view, fear and vulnerability that was primarily at work here but the overcoming of a sense of powerlessness – something quite different from nonpower which is simply the absence of any felt need in one’s relationships of love and friendship to use others as means. The power of the victim to pass on suffering to others is different from revenge against someone who has done one harm (since that is a matter of harming those who have harmed one). It is different also from sadism, which is the infliction of pain on another merely for the sake of pleasure. This power of the victim is capable of accommodating a variety of motives and experiences in all of which the desire for self-affirmation is central.

Each time the Israeli state has carried out an onslaught against Palestinians in Gaza, starting with 2009 and going into 2023-4, public protests have taken place in several countries. Zionists and their friends have called these protests “anti-Semitic,” and some Western governments, such as the German, have even prohibited them.12 But the protests were not expressions of racism, they were not public condemnations of an imaginary Jewish “racial character;” they were denunciations of the actual slaughter of old men, women, children and babies by the overwhelmingly powerful Israeli air-force and army, continuously supplied by American and European states. There was, in other words, no anti-Semitic fantasy in these protests. There was simply protest against very real mass murder – and in the most recent protests, against what was clearly an ongoing genocide. Too many people have followed the lazy and dishonest habit of finding so-called “anti-Semitism” almost everywhere. One result of this, of course, has been to trivialize real anti-Semitism.13

“The new Jew” that Zionism has helped to create is neither exilic nor biblical; he/she is a secular European, exuding a particular kind of power. Israel’s ability to punish others is the supreme confirmation of its political power. It is this fact that is so attractive to many people. Israel’s many political, cultural and technological achievements merely reinforce its transnational standing, and contribute to the desire of Jews to identify strongly with Israel. But my main point here is that it is not merely collective victimhood (survival from the Holocaust) that helps shape the identity and sentiment of a people and their claim to self-determination as a nation. It is also the taste of power by a people who have been regarded by Christian Europe as “outside of History,” and who now eagerly accept a secular version of that Christian story by insisting that the Jewish return to History is finally accomplished by the attainment of a powerful and vengeful Jewish nation-state.14 This history, with its narrative of Jewish experience as victims in Christendom, is a crucial part of the making of the modern Jew. Because even for most modern Jews (including Israeli Jews) the anxiety created by historical experience remains an unconscious part of the self, and the attainment of a powerful state simply reinforces (through institutionalized memory-building) that sense of having been and still being potentially a victim.

Politically, of course, it is the state that is the source of the power that enables the victim (the collectivity of citizens) to pass on the suffering on to another. This act need not have any direct connection with those who caused the original suffering; the other is simply the available object (the means) by which the victim can overcome an inherited sense of powerlessness. The fact that Jews are soaked in the discourse of powerlessness reinforces the tendency of most Jewish citizens of Israel to support – and even celebrate – IDF’s determination to pass on Jewish fear to Palestinians.

The fear that the victim of violence experiences is often the reason for applying the word “terrorist” to the person who has created that fear. When Israelis create fear and humiliation among Palestinians (that is, against those who are outside the home that is Israel) it is not described in the Western main media as terrorism. The word “terrorist” in contemporary English is not normally used by the speaker to describe himself: precisely because it is at once a description (of a fact) and a condemnation (a moral judgment) it does not easily apply to oneself. The main media in the West typically adopts the Israeli perspective when it describes Hamas in Gaza as “terrorists,” and solidarity for Palestinians as “solidarity with Hamas.” And “solidarity with Hamas” in turn as equivalent to anti-Semitism. (Those who adopt this view do not ask themselves why there was no Hamas in Ottoman Palestine determined to kill “all the Jews.”)

The point I want to make here is that whenever members of Hamas seek to frighten and humiliate their oppressors, in however small a way, Israel adopts a moralistic attitude by calling them anti-Semites and “terrorists,” and so by representing the “Israeli-Hamas war” as violence maintained by an unending cycle – between vicious terrorists on the one hand and an innocent state fearful of its safety on the other.

There was a time when the word “terror” was used to describe non-state actors and the activity of states, whether liberal democracies (America’s imperial wars) or totalitarian states (Nazi Germany). A well-known slogan of the Nazis, “terror against terror,” was intended as a description of the state’s unremitting – and necessary – violence against what the Allies called partisans, but for the Nazis the use of the word “terrorism” was technical not moral. More recently, “terrorism” has been taken to mean non-state actors within liberal democratic states and in the world at large – a shift in usage that owes much to the influence of the United States and Israel in shaping policies as well as discourse in Western public media. One consequence of this selectivity in the use of “terrorism” is a sharp rise in Islamophobia.15

Because it is the state that categorizes individuals and organizations as “terrorists,” the state is able to deprive those it so characterizes of their legal rights – by indefinite imprisonment without proper trial, and by torture (“enhanced interrogation”). Although the sovereign state claims to be based on Law it does not see such behavior as contradictory. Because sovereignty, as Schmitt pointed out, is the ability to decide on exceptions.

Even prior to the 9/11 attack by Muslim militants, the preoccupation with “terrorists” and “terrorism” in the United States was substantially promoted by the Israeli interest in retaliating against Palestinian resistance movements. According to Remi Brulin, American presidents rarely used the word “terrorism” in the early years of the Cold War. Crucial to its newfound popularity were two conferences on “terrorism” – the first in Jerusalem in 1979 and the follow up in Washington in 1984 – in which both American and Israeli neo-conservatives argued not only for the importance of countering (and even preempting) “terrorist violence” when directed at American military supremacy in the world, but also for the need to see “terrorism” as a major threat to the very existence of the Jewish state. But well before these conferences the two states stood together on the need to combat “terrorism” everywhere. The UN General Assembly debates that followed the murder of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian militants in Munich in 1972 were symptomatic of this in that they produced very different assessments of that violence by the US and Israel on the one hand, and by the non-aligned countries on the other. For the former, “terrorism” was uniquely and unequivocally to be condemned – and the Munich incident clearly belonged in that category. But when a UN representative from the Middle East pointed to the irony that Irgun, Haganah, and Lehi (all described as “terrorist” by the British Mandate Authority in Palestine) had deliberately killed innocent civilians in support of the Zionist project, and to the fact that their terrorist experience of anti-Palestinianism had become the foundation of Israel’s military machine, his point was brushed aside.16

In conclusion, I return to Klug’s thought-provoking article with which I began: “What language can prevent,” Klug there argues, “language can promote: thinking politically. This requires using words that bridge the gap between the concrete and the abstract, without either flinching from the facts or appropriating them for the sake of a cherished theory or agenda. Only thus can we broach the most political of questions, not least for Palestinians and Israelis: how to share the common spaces we inhabit, so as to advance the common good.” But one cannot reach for such a political solution before we understand what is morally at stake – how we live and why we have come to live that way. Increasingly, for many Israelis there is in fact no permanent solution to the conflict, there is only the possibility of minimizing its seriousness. Just as there is no solution to the plague of mosquitoes every summer, only techniques for minimizing its seriousness. But if one hopes that Israelis and Palestinians can ultimately share a common space, shouldn’t one start from the fact that they have not been sharing a common space for at least 75 years, only inhabiting the same territory, and that this fact has meant continuous success for the one and continuous failure for the other? Palestinian citizens of Israel are officially called “Arabs” not “Palestinians” by the state; and, of course, they do inhabit the same territory but they do not share it. And the reason for this non-sharing, as we all know, is the enormous disparity in power between Israeli Jews and Palestinians – whether the latter are citizens or not, and the determination to attain complete self-confidence by showing that they can punish Palestinians whenever they want.

The instrumentality of language is relevant not only to the way one thinks and speaks but also, and more importantly, to how one lives – and is allowed to live. The specificity of how one lives is not easily captured by using different words. What, I think, is missing in our discussion is something that Freud taught us long ago: the unequal access that we human beings have to our language and to the reasons we devise for deceiving ourselves. These are not easily apparent to us precisely because of how our thoughts about our past enter the life we live. There are no essentially good, essentially evil people. It is simply that over time people gradually acquire one kind of character – and the language that goes with it – or another.

Whether it is true – and if so, then how and to what extent – that psychoanalysis alone can help lead us to a veridical understanding of the world we have created (and allowed to be created), a world which we now inhabit, is another question altogether. But at least one can venture this thought: in a society that is saturated in a collective sense of its unique victimhood, where Israelis and Palestinians are grossly unequal in their ability to do something about that, and where most of those who are now powerful try to persuade themselves that what they have said and done in this conflict – and what they are still doing every day – has always been rational, legal, and just, then striving for an even-handed language (a language that has no connection with any particular way of life) will not be very helpful in answering that difficult question about psychoanalysis.


A final, despairing, addendum: A sensitive young man who is a member of the US Airforce can no longer morally bear his government’s complicity (and therefore his complicity) for the Gaza genocide, and so he immolates himself in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, hoping by that act to shock his compatriots’ consciences. What kind of a moral world do we live in where this act is simply dismissed by government officials and the mainstream media as the act of a merely mentally disturbed person – or even of “a leftist extremist”?17 Answer: a world in which the state says “You are absolutely forbidden to kill yourself but when your state is at war it has the right to order you to kill others. And in war, the state orders you to sacrifice your life willingly for your nation.” The state can teach you how to impose your suffering on other human beings but it cannot teach you how to befriend them.



1 Brian Klug, “George Orwell, Gaza, and “The Debasement of language,” Contending Modernities, December 15, 2023. (Italics added.) See also his thought-provoking book Offence: the Jewish case, New York: Seagull Books, 2009.

2 A UN Report by Pramila Patten on the question of weaponized sexual violence on October 7th (welcomed by the Israeli government and its supporters) is discussed in a detailed and impressive critique by Feminist Solidarity Network for Palestine, entitled “Here’s What Pramila Patten’s UN Report on October 7 Sexual Violence Actually Said,” Mondoweiss, March 11, 2024. A preliminary caveat of the critique is that the Report is not – and does not claim to be – an investigation.

3 The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, New York: Herzl Press, 1960, Vol. 1, p. 84.

4 Quotations cited from Jewish Currents Podcast, On the Nose, February 8, 2024

5 Hannah Arendt, “Zionism Reconsidered,” in The Jewish Writings, ed. By Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman, New York: Schocken Books, 2007, p. 343. (Italics added.)

6 Much of this ethnic cleansing occurred before any military action taken by surrounding Arab states – and was therefore actuated not by self-defense but by the need to create a Jewish majority in the cleansed territory. See Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, London: One World Publications, 2006.

7 Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” in Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition, ed. By James Strachey, vol. XIV, London: Hogarth Press. 1957.

8 Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, p. xi; authorized English translation, 1950. (Italics added.)

9 Iris Murdoch, The Unicorn, New York: Avon Books, 1964, Chapter 12, p. 102.

10 Because that victory was regarded by Israelis as “a miracle” it came to be known as “the six days war” – although the war ended after five days.  Since God created heaven and earth in six days, that war was seen by many as a sign of divine intervention. Matti Peled, one of Israel’s top Generals in the 1967 war, affirmed that 1967 “was not an existential war but a war of choice.” See Miko Peled, The General’s Son, Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, pp. 50-51.

11 My father’s father perished in Theresienstadt and my father’s sister in Auschwitz (his mother had died of natural causes in the early ‘thirties and his father had then married a widow with a very young child). On one occasion when he visited London my uncle reminded him that he was entitled to compensation from the Austrian Government. “Blood money!” my father replied in horror. “I will never accept blood money to salve people’s consciences!” When I asked him later whether he didn’t want to forgive the German people for the murders they had committed, he replied: “Only God can forgive such a crime. It’s not something I can forgive.” This attitude (that, no doubt, other individuals also took) stands in ironic contrast with the eagerness with which Israel, the super victim that did not exist at the time of the Holocaust, eagerly receives endless  compensation from Germany in the name of all the unknown dead.

12 Peter Kuras, “An army of antisemitism commissioners was supposed to help Germany atone for its past: Critics say it is evidence of a memory effort gone haywire,” Jewish Currents, Spring 2023. See also, Pankaj Mishra, “Memory Failure,” London Review of Books, Vol. 46, no. 1, 4 January, 2024.

13 One typical example is recounted in the case of baroness Jacqueline Foster in the UK, who accused an Iranian student at Oxford of anti-Semitism because she used a model octopus as a mascot – and the octopus is notoriously a figure used by anti-Semites to describe alleged Jewish control of the world. Foster was successfully sued and had to withdraw her accusation and apologize to the student. (See Guardian, 6 March, 2024.)

14 See Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “Exile, History, and the Nationalization of Jewish Memory: Some Reflections on the Zionist Notion of History and Return,” Journal of Levantine Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter 2013.

15 “Anti-Semitism has not gone away. Jews are still a target. But Islamophobia is the most virulent phenomenon of recent decades, fuelled by migration which brought millions of Muslims to Europe. It is becoming more powerful every year, and moved with ease from the far-right fringes to the political mainstream.” Peter Oborne, The Fate of Abraham, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022, p.21.

16 Remi Brulin, “The Israeli Origins of the American Discourse on ‘Terrorism,’” Dialectical Anthropology, 39:1, 2015. For details of Zionist terrorism in the 1930s and 1940s, see Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years War Against Palestine, New York: Metropolitan Paperback, 2020. See also especially the Briefing Paper prepared by Palestine Legal and Center for Constitutional Rights, Anti-Palestinian at the Core: The Origins and Growing Dangers of U.S. Antiterrorism Law, February, 2024.

17 “Last Wednesday, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., former Army officer and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asking why and how the Pentagon could tolerate an airman like Bushnell in its ranks. Calling his death ‘an act of horrific violence’ that was ‘in support of a terrorist group [Hamas],’ Cotton goes on to ask about the Defense Department’s internal efforts to address extremism and whether Bushnell was ever identified as exhibiting extremist views or behaviors.” Ken Klippenstein, “Will Aaron Bushnell’s Death Trigger Anarchism Witch Hunt?” The Intercept, March 7th 2024.

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