Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Jewish Voice for a Just Peace

People often like to note that many of the most courageous and brilliant campaigners in the West for a fair and peaceful future in Israel/Palestine are Jewish. I have pointed this out myself, and it's true.   We note Jewish dissent regarding Israel as if it were remarkable, and often it is.  Yet one must also note the long and illustrious traditions of radical Jewish thought in Europe, and say that today's campaigners are the inheritors of that work.  Judith Butler has gone so far as to say that Jewish dissent - the dissidence of Jewish dissent, to adapt Burke - might be the greatest expression of that complex and rich culture. 

So I welcome the initiative of my comrades highlighted below, while recognising that sooner or later, it was something they would have had to do anyway.  They have a tremendous vision, even as they stand on the shoulders of giants.


Jewish Voice for Just Peace launched today, on first day of Hanukah

A new pro-Palestinian group of Jewish people in Ireland has launched today, the first day of the Jewish festival of Hanukah. 

The statement says:

“We are Jewish people in Ireland who support the Palestinian struggle for human rights and justice – a struggle that resonates with the Irish journey towards peace. We share a commitment to human rights and justice for all.
As Jewish people, we oppose the cynical deployment of the anti-Semitic label, and the history of the oppression of the Jewish people, to silence those who legitimately criticise Israel. We are part of a long historical Jewish tradition of fighting oppression and standing up for peace and justice for all.

The ongoing occupation of Palestinian land, the siege of Gaza, brutal military repression and violence, the rejection of meaningful peace, and the growth of far-right racism and fundamentalism in Israel have led to the formation of pro-peace and pro-justice Jewish groups throughout the world. 

Our group is proud to be part of this pro-Palestinian Jewish community, and to join the global movement that supports the Palestinian struggle for their human rights and for justice.

We support the application of the norms of international law and human rights to Israel/Palestine. We also support those groups that are working to create a just and lasting peace in Palestine.

The State of Israel does not represent the Jewish people. We have an obligation to speak out when Israel claims its actions against the Palestinian people are taken on behalf of the Jewish people.

Not in our name! ”

Founder signatories include Jo Bird (Derry), Laurence Davis (Cork), David Landy (Dublin), Aisling McGeown (Belfast) and Sue Pentel (Belfast).

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Guilt and Shame - Germany and Israel

Germany is one of Israel's most fervid and uncritical supporters (and armourers) in the world after the United States.   Here are two articles about the kinds of distortion and moral confusion that arise from Germany's terrible legacy vis-a-vis the Jewish people, and from Israel's ongoing manipulation of it.

An interview with Max Blumenthal, from Electronic Intifada:

Germany made Palestinians "indirect victims of Holocaust," says author Max Blumenthal 


And a critique of the great hope of the German 'left', Die Linke, from Jacobin: 


The German Left’s Palestine Problem



The Jerusalem Syndrome

News of Israel/Palestine in the last few weeks has mostly concerned violence in Jerusalem.  Typically this has been de-contextualised, so that the murder of rabbis is not placed alongside Jewish-Israeli attacks on Palestinians, or the scandalous ethnic policies pursued by Israel for many years in the planning of the whole city and in the illegally-annexed eastern part of the city in particular.

Here is a report on the overall picture in the month of November, from Mondoweiss:

Report: Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians, arrested 650, during month of November

Nathan Thrall's essay in the London Review of Books helps to frame this situation rather more carefully and honestly:

Rage in Jerusalem



Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Towards a Genealogy of the Question of Palestine

On November 2, 1917, 97 years ago, the British Foreign Minister, Arthur James Balfour, wrote a short memo to Lionel Walter Rothschild, one of the leaders of the Zionist movement.  In it he suggested that 'His Majesty's Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people'.  Zionism was not a new phenomenon, having achieved institutional and political expression in the 1880s and 1890s, but the 'Balfour Declaration' represented what the movement's leaders had long desired - the positive support of one of the great imperial powers.  That great power - Britain and its vast and rich empire - was at this time at war with the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Palestine.  Zionism hoped to benefit from the likely defeat of the Turks, as the 'sick man of Europe' collapsed and its various Middle Eastern and Levantine territories and provinces came within the British sphere of influence.

The 1919 Paris Peace Conference brought the decision to award control of the territory of Palestine to Great Britain, under the terms of a 'mandate' of the newly-formed League of Nations.  Balfour, attending this conference, was well-aware of the contradiction between supporting Jewish-Zionist nationalism, and the support that had been given to the Arabs during the First World War in their struggle against their Ottoman masters.  Palestine was still at this time an overwhelmingly Arab-populated region.  Balfour wrote at this time that 'the contradiction between the letter of the Covenant [of the League of Nations] and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the "independent nation" of Palestine… For in Palestine, we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country'.   And so, he concluded, 'The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism.  And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far greater import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land'.   From this central and founding position of European imperialism has flowed much of the conflict that has stricken the region ever since.

The Institute of Palestine Studies, to mark this anniversary, is providing on its website a 'special focus collection' of materials pertaining to the Balfour Declaration, for the month of November.   Included in these documents are the text of the Declaration, demographic maps of pre-Mandate Palestine, and no less than ten articles on this topic from past issues of the Journal of Palestine Studies - a fantastic resource for anyone wishing to examine the roots of the present situation.

Special Focus collection around the Balfour Declaration and the effects of British imperial power


Saturday, 1 November 2014

Marina Warner quits Essex - The University in Ruins

Nearly twenty years ago, a young professor at the Universite de Montreal named Bill Readings was killed in an air crash. Friends and colleagues spoke of a brilliant career cut off abruptly and tragically.  But Readings left at least one very fine book.  The University in Ruins was and remains one of the most interesting books on the fate of the humanistic Western university in the postmodern or late modern age.  Readings was writing long before the economic crash, and long before the apotheosis of managerialism as we know it in Anglophone universities now.  He was writing at the end of what in the United States were called 'the culture wars', the series of heated public debates about the nature of cultural education that had begun in the wake of the Vietnam War.  These debates - about the place of matters of class, sex/gender, and race/empire in thought about culture - were often seen as taking place in a sharply polarized landscape, divided between radicals, equipped with the weapons of 'theory', who were intent on storming the citadels of traditional high culture, and their conservative opponents, who were intent on preserving an Arnoldian idea of culture as 'the best that has been thought and said'.  The strength of Readings's book was that it did not observe this divide, but rather reached beyond it.  For Readings, the western university had, under the influence of nineteenth century German thought (Humboldt, but also many figures from the great flowering of German philosophy in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century had formulated ideas about the workings and functions of a university), been long thought of as the intellectual gearbox of the nation-state.  In a world of globalization, of massive multinationals, and of large international blocs or agencies of power (the EU, the WTO, the IMF), the 'national university' had lost its function as the motive force of national culture.  Those who accused literature professors in hock to Derrida's deconstruction of 'western metaphysics' (for example) of destroying the 'traditional' humanities were missing the point, Readings was showing us: the real threat to humanistic education came from neoliberalism, which with its assaults on state education, on values of the social or national good, and its will both to bureaucratise and commodify learning was the real danger.

Two decades on, we can see the outworking of the situation described by Readings in much greater and often more alarming detail than he could have anticipated.   In America, university education is now so expensive that the accumulation of debt that has funded university attendance over the last couple of decades constitutes another financial 'bubble', ready to burst and cause lethal damage to the world economy.  In Britain, the Brown reforms have resulted variously in a huge spike in university fees, in the abolition of student grants, and in the arbitrary destruction of superb academic units (the Philosophy Department at Middlesex University - one of the best 'continental' philosophy programmes in the Anglophone world, with an exemplary record of research and intellectual advance - was simply abolished, in the face of student protests and petitions from some of the world's greatest living philosophers; fortunately, it has since been 'reconstructed' at Kingston University).  In Ireland, an enormous increase in student numbers and levels of university participation over the last 15 years has continued in spite of huge slashes in state funding for universities during the crash.  The 'Haddington Road' (properly, and more aptly, called 'Beggars Bush') agreement on public sector jobs and wages has brought with it very considerable collapses in staff resistance to various kinds of bureaucratic and managerial 'reform'.  The Higher Education Authority, which oversees the Irish universities and institutes of technology, now takes its advice from Ernst and Young and distributes surveys to staff seeking to estimate the 'impact' of research, and to devise ways for the 'leveraging' of this activity in 'innovation' - a ludicrous Disneyland rhetoric of corporate managerialism dominates the discourse of higher education, so detached from anything to do with learning or teaching that it's hard to credit how senior university administrators, once themselves teachers and scholars, have the faintest idea of what they are talking about.

In this dire context, Marina Warner's story of how she decided to leave the University of Essex is exemplary of the effects of what is now called 'reform' and 'innovation' on even the most brilliant of scholars and intellectuals.  From the London Review of Books, as so often:

Marina Warner
Why I Quit



Colonial Economics

Most of the time we read about Israel and Palestine in political-military terms: military incursions, separation barriers, 'terrorism', useless diplomacy.  But day to day life is, of course, primarily about ordinary survival and people trying to make a living.  We do learn, sometimes, about how closures, or the wall, or checkpoints, affect Palestinian economic activity.  But within the economic sphere itself, the world of production, distribution, policy formulation - here too we find the struggle reproduced in the terms of this action and discourse.  This is Robert Wade, from the London Review of Books website, reflecting on a recent visit to the West Bank.  Wade is a professor at the LSE, and a winner of the 2008 Leontif Prize in Economics:

The Economic Occupation of the West Bank



Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Cockburn rakes the muck on Wiesel

The prominence of Elie Wiesel is a mystery.  We are often told that Night, his first book (published in French in 1958), which purports to be a memoir of his time in Buchenwald, is the founding text of 'Holocaust literature', but even the status of this work is open to question.  Meanwhile, Wiesel is better known for his work promoting 'peace', which apparently has included support for black South Africans in the apartheid era, Bosnian Muslims, the Kurds. 

But preeminently, Wiesel's support has been for Jewish and Zionist causes.  He has declared that the Holocaust was a genocide incomparable to other murderous 'cleansings', notably the Armenian genocide.   He has supported the Kadima party founded by Ariel Sharon and led by Ehud Olmert.  He has criticized the Obama Administration for its pressure on the Netanyahu government to cease settlement construction in East Jerusalem, and since 2011, he's served as chair of the Ir David organisation, which seeks to create a Jewish majority in that part of the city.

During Operation Protective Edge, Israel's murderous bombardment of the Gaza Strip last summer, Wiesel was at it again, publishing an advertisement in Ha'aretz celebrating the increasing Jewish population of East Jerusalem.

How all of these positions amount to support for 'peace' is unclear.  This makes Alexander Cockburn's stinging attack on him, originally published in Counterpunch's  print edition in 2006 and now republished on Counterpunch's brilliant website, all the more apposite and enjoyable.

Truth and Fiction in Elie Wiesel’s “Night”


Monday, 20 October 2014

The ends of university education

Nicholas Canny is a distinguished Irish historian who, in the tradition of DB Quinn and Nicholas Mansergh, has been willing to locate the processes of Irish history and Irish relations with England over the last 500 years within the frameworks of colonialism and empire.  Canny, a former head of the Royal Irish Academy, is well-placed to offer a reasoned liberal defence of humanistic university education in the Irish third-level system.  In a situation of shrunken state funding, political cowardice about requiring the Irish middle-class constructively to contribute to their children's university years, and a complete absence of thoughtful public debate about the purpose and strengths of our universities, such a defence is well-needed.  Here Canny reviews a book about the (even worse) situation in Britain, for the Dublin Review of Books:

The Utility of Inquiry

In most ways, the travails of the Irish or American university - bureaucrats colonising an ever-expanding administration, and corporate values encroaching on the proper purposes of research and teaching - seem, while unfortunate, mild in comparison to those of Palestinian universities, which are regularly attacked by the IDF in both Gaza and the West Bank, and which suffer greatly under the routines of Israeli occupation, with students and staff held up or sometimes attacked at checkpoints, campuses invaded, and infrastructure bombarded in the Strip.   But the question of Palestine and the neoliberalisation of the Western university sometimes coincide, to damaging effect.   Here is Joseph Massad (a true survivor of the post-9/11 assault on academic freedom in America), on this particular conjuncture - from Electronic Intifada:

Academic civility and its discontents



Islam - A Secular History

Tariq Ali is one of the great figures of the British New Left.  A lifelong leftwing activist, Ali was removed from Pakistan in his teens by his parents, fearful because of his protests against the-then Pakistani government.  A former president of the Oxford Union, redoubtable campaigner against the Vietnam War, participant in the Russell Tribunal, monitor of the trial in Bolivia of Regis Debray and a major figure in British Trotskyism, Ali is a gifted orator, journalist, film-maker and all-round public intellectual.

In the context of current Western panic about the Islamic State (always referred to in Irish news reports as 'the so-called Islamic State'), and general ignorance about Islam, Ali's essay on the history of that religion is worth reading.

A Secular History of Islam


Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Always Looking on the Bright Side - Slavoj Zizek, cats and revolutionary unhappiness

Slavoj Zizek must be one of the most popular philosophers working in the Anglophone world.  The Slovenian, who burst on us with The Sublime Object of Ideology in 1989, has a capacity to get work out on a scale and with a rapidity that puts even Terry Eagleton to shame.  Further, Zizek's books are rarely the witty primers that, it must be said, Eagleton can probably write in his sleep and spends half his time producing: they are fat and complex melanges of Hegel and Lacan (pre-eminently) that happily discuss an astonishing range of philosophical, cultural and political phenomena.  Colin MacCabe once famously said of Fredric Jameson that 'nothing cultural is foreign to him', and one could say the same of Zizek, who cheerfully engages in film-making, public discussion of almost anything under the sun, and developing the largest body of jokes by any intellectual I know of in recent times - a collection of them having recently been published.  Not for Zizek Adorno's mandarin melancholy, though he shows some of the same mordancy in the interview linked below.  In a different - simpler - way from Adorno, too, Zizek is a provocateur - rehabilitating Lenin, to the horror of his liberal or soft-left admirers, or saying nice things about Stalin just to make everyone nervous; performing astonishing feats of public lecturing (for the Irish, it would be fair to say that Zizek in full flow is a bit like Christy Moore: a storm in a t-shirt) combined with physical tics that would make you want never to sit beside him on the bus; and a bracingly dialectical willingness to contemplate the whole world in terms of its opposites.  Like Adorno, however, Zizek has not always been so clear-eyed about Israel and Palestine: one notes his support for the academic boycott in the interview below, while he is also desperately anxious to say he does not believe in some kind of blanket boycott of Israel (whatever that would be).  Further, in regard to the politics of the former Yugoslavia, he is sometimes troubling, having supported the bombing of Serbia by NATO.  Like Adorno, too, Zizek is happy in his unhappiness, and the web-conversation recorded on the Guardian recently captures much of the fertility of his wit and knowledge.

"I'd tax cats. Heavily" - Slavoj Zizek



Monday, 13 October 2014

America, Turkey, and ISIS

The dire situation of the city of Kobani - sitting bang on the Syria-Turkey border, populated by Kurds, under formidable siege by ISIS, but unaided by Turkey - goes a long way to illustrate the contradictions and incoherence of American policy vis-a-vis the new caliphate.  Here is Patrick Cockburn cutting through the confusion:

US Middle East Strategy in Tatters


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Israel - A Carceral State

The new issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies is devoted to Israeli practices of capturing, imprisoning, corralling, restricting the movements of, separating Palestinians.  Routinized forms of incarceration are as much part of the Occupation of the West Bank as house demolitions or checkpoints.  According to the JPS, 40% of the male population of the Territories - approximately 800,000 people - have been victims of some form of detention by the Israeli authorities since 1967.

As of 1 May 2014, the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, a Palestinian NGO dedicated to prisoners’ rights, reports 5,271 Palestinian political prisoners and administrative detainees in Israeli custody in an archipelago of 25 prisons, detention, and interrogation centers throughout Israel and the West Bank.

Earlier this year, prisoners held in “administrative detention” led a hunger strike demanding an end to the systematic practice of imprisoning Palestinians without charge, trial or sentence. A colonial practice inherited from the British mandatory regime, Israel’s “administrative detention” law subjects Palestinian political prisoners to imprisonment without due process for renewable periods of three and six months - very much akin to the practice of internment without trial which was practiced in the early days of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Some Palestinians have been held in such circumstances for over a decade. Palestinians brought to trial will face a military court with a 99% conviction rate.

Israel’s ongoing practice of widespread detention of Palestinians since the 1948 War characterizes the Zionist state-building and subsequent Israeli state imperative from the early Kibbutzim to the recent separation barrier of erecting “structures of control and confinement,” that, in Rashid Khalidi's words, represent “Israel’s nature from its very beginnings until the present day as a carceral state for the Palestinian people.”
For a limited time, the JPS is making some of the articles of its new issue available free online:

Journal of Palestine Studies


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Agonies of the Potentates

Long ago and in better days, Christopher Hitchens wrote several very fine essays on Conor Cruise O'Brien.  While lodged at this time more comfortably on the Left than he would eventually be, Hitchens could nevertheless assess O'Brien coolly and recognise his stylishness, his intelligence, his personal courage, and his frequent insight.  But he was never less than sure of O'Brien's Burkean tendency to support the established powers in various sites of conflict, and to attend sympathetically to the travails of authority.  It was in this mood of courageous dissent in the service of domination that O'Brien could castigate leftist agitation and nationalist protest in Ulster, break the academic boycott of apartheid South Africa, and write an enormous pot-boiling history of Israel entitled The Siege.  The metaphor of the siege pervades O'Brien's understanding of late-colonial struggle - the forces of reaction to which he unwisely attached his colours were always under 'siege' - giving the Cruiser a morally inverted sensitivity to what Hitchens called 'the agonies of the potentates'.

It is this sense of the importance, seriousness and debate-worthiness of the overdogs, of the moral and political complexity of their quandaries, that subtends Denis Staunton's flabby article in Saturday's Irish Times, 'Israel and Palestine: the new battle for hearts and minds'.  Mr Staunton, this blog noted earlier this year, wrote on the occasion of the death of Ariel Sharon that 'the Bulldozer' 'might soon be missed' - a classic example of sneaking regard. Only someone so comfortably detached from the human and moral realities of Israel/Palestine, only someone who actually believes that the candyfloss discourse of diplomacy and much mainstream commentary have proper heft and meaning, could have written in that way about the criminal and treacherous Sharon, or could have produced such a po-faced article on Israel's struggles to manage its public relations.

This article exemplified much of what is wrong and skewed in Irish Times coverage of Israel/Palestine.  The brief window to more critical reporting wedged open by the Gaza slaughter has clearly closed once more.  It seems likely that Staunton's article was written from a desk in Dublin, with the help of telephones and email.  The essay is entirely concerned with the notions of commentators and lobbyists, not with the 'facts on the ground'.  Only Israeli or Israel-related figures and organisations are cited or discussed - Daniel Levy, and Alan Elsner of J Street, the slick and media-savvy/media-friendly version of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  The BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement is referred to briefly, but none of its spokespeople or policies are cited or discussed.  One wonders if Staunton really thinks that Palestinian political actors - whether the PA, or Hamas, or the Palestinian leaders of BDS active since 2005 - do not seek to win 'hearts and minds', in Palestine, in Israel, or in the rest of the world?   Or is such an idea thinkable in the Irish Times?   Perhaps Staunton and his confederates really think with Golda Meir that 'there are no Palestinians', or none worth doing some serious journalism about.

Staunton's article, therefore, exemplifies the view that the Palestinians are not really newsworthy unless they are blowing themselves up - unless they are confirming our stereotypes of them.  Better to report on the agonies of the potentates, than the political activity of the oppressed.

Staunton cites Elsner as arguing that the two-state solution is the 'only game in town'.  The fact is that the two state solution has long been an alibi for the Israeli government's rolling plans for settlement expansion, siege (the real 'siege') and domination, and it's one promoted by J Street and parroted by the likes of Denis Staunton.


Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Many-Headed Hydra of the Middle East

Some years ago, Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, longtime historians of popular radicalism and of the oppressed, jointly authored a wonderful book called The Many-Headed Hydra.  The book's thesis was that throughout the early years of mercantilism and proto-capitalism, forged in Europe and the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, pockets of resistance, often mobile, globalised long before the term came into use, appeared at various points of the Atlantic littoral.  Over against the emerging trading companies - the British East India Company, the Dutch East Indies Company, the Virginia Company - there rose up a shifting and fluid set of groups of artisans, sailors, farmers, smallholders, 'pirates', runaway slaves, revolutionists all.  Proto-anarchist or socialist ideas were promulgated and disseminated around the fringes of the great ocean, and eventually this 'Atlantic proletariat' contributed to and were to a degree contained by the American Revolution.

This fissile, plastic, amorphous and mobile constellation of ideas and activists was called by its enemies 'the many-headed Hydra'.  The Hydra was a mythical beast, fought by Hercules, which boasted multiple heads - even as the Greek demigod slashed one head off, several more would grow in its place.  Revolutionary activism - nomadic, peripatetic, evanescent and elusive - could be crushed in one place, only to reappear shortly afterwards in another.

This is the condition (though hardly the ideology), in many ways, of the protean forces of Sunni ultra-conservative radicalism in the Middle East, now notably exemplified by 'ISIS' or 'ISIL'.  ISIS is an outgrowth of Al Qa'eda in Iraq.  Al Qa'eda was itself in part a product of the 'jihad' organised in the late 1970s by the Carter presidency, the Sadat government in Egypt, and the Zia dictatorship in Pakistan.  As the late John Cooley explained in formidable detail in his book Unholy Wars, a cynical alliance was constructed between American grand strategy, money and equipment, Saudi money and Wahhabi or Salafi ideology, Egyptian personnel, and the Pakistan secret services to channel Sunni activists and militants from all over the Muslim world to fight godless communism in Afghanistan.  America and some of its nastier allies tried to ride the tiger of jihad, and initially attained considerable success: the Soviets found their own 'Vietnam' in the barren deserts and icy ramparts of the Hindu Kush.  But when the Red Army finally left Afghanistan, the result, after years of instability, was the accession of the Taliban to government in the 1990s, and its uneasy relationship with Osama bin Laden and his  vanguard.  Bin Laden had already been expelled from Saudi Arabia, and had also been forced to leave the Sudan.  In the shambolic state of Afghanistan, Al Qa'eda could run its training camps, and offer its expertise in guerilla warfare to conservative Muslim malcontents anywhere.  When the United States plunged into Iraq in 2003, Al Qa'eda appeared there too, initially under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.   In the mid-2000s, the Americans finally pacified the Sunni areas of western and northern Iraq - the heartlands in that country of ISIS now - by buying the local leaderships off from their relationship with Al Qa'eda.    Sectarian misgovernment by the Shia-dominated Maliki government in Baghdad eventually alienated the Sunni population once again, and the conservative militants regained their grip in that community, aided further by the brutal war being waged over the western border in Syria, where the 'moderate' opposition to Bashar al-Assad has long disappeared, leaving principally ISIS or its affiliates. 

ISIS is different from Al Qa'eda in that the latter's commitment to re-establishing a 'caliphate' seemed mostly rhetorical - Al Qa'eda never made any effort to hold down a specific territory or to create a defined polity, and never of itself had the manpower to do so.  ISIS, however, does, and this makes it in some ways a more powerful enemy than its predecessor.  It has territory, very large amounts of money - some of it stolen from an arm of the Iraqi central bank in Mosul, some of it donated by conservatives from the Gulf kingdoms - and a large amount of weaponry.  It appears to have control of some oilfields.  Its supporters in the Gulf - private benefactors from the Saudi Kingdom, Kuwait, Bahrain - both wish to see it destabilize Shia power in Iraq and Bathi Arab nationalism in Syria, and are terrified of the Frankenstein monster they have created, lest it turn its ruthless and austere focus back on their corrupt petty-feudal kleptocracies.  'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters', Goya told us, and each new 'monster' that Sunni conservatism produces is more alarming than the last.

This is the point of comparison with the mobile, shape-shifting radicals of the revolutionary Atlantic in the eighteenth century - each movement, no matter how many times it is broken in open battle, reinvents itself, reappears in new guise, somewhere else, to continue the struggle.  The Obama Administration's campaign of airstrikes seems unlikely to be very effective against such an enemy, and has every possibility of terrorising the populations of Sunni Iraq and Syria into deeper support for that enemy. Here is Patrick Cockburn, who is shortly to publish a new book on the 'return of the Jihadis', in conversation with Tariq Ali -

The Rise of ISIS and the Origins of the New Middle East War

Another metaphor or historical framework through which to think of ISIS (and Al Qa'eda before it) is that of the Spanish Civil War.  That is, young restless men, on both the Right and the Left of the political spectrum, were pushed by an anomie-ridden existence in their home countries at the latter end of the Great Depression to rally to what felt like the defining political dispute of the day in Spain.  Something analogous is happening with the young men that migrate to join the ranks of ISIS - an Islamist/Arab movement that appears to have the purity, direction and coherence that the old dictatorial, Arab-nationalist, or monarchical-feudal Arab polities lack.  The mainstream media tells us endlessly that ISIS's levies are 'radicalised', but this foolish term is just plainly ideological - young men joining ISIS may not be any more 'radicalised' than other idealistic young people who flock to causes of all kinds.

Here's a London Review of Books blogpiece that uses the Spanish analogy:

The New International Brigades



Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Shooting and Crying

I first encountered Ari Shavit through a famous and extraordinary interview he conducted with Edward Said in 2000.  The interview was for Ha'aretz, the Israeli elite daily newspaper.  Entitled 'My Right of Return', it's since been collected by Gauri Viswanathan in her comprehensive and rich anthology of interviews with Said, Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said.

The interview is famous for various reasons.  Said was the most prominent Palestinian intellectual and dissident working in the Western world up to his death in 2003.  Even for a putatively liberal journal such as Ha'aretz, interviewing Said amounted to a confrontation with one of Israel's most formidable enemies - formidable precisely because of his Westernised character, his difference from the fedayeen of the Palestinian exiles in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, or from the radical clerics in Gaza, formidable precisely because he used language as his weapon, not rifles or rockets, and spoke from one of the great centres of American intellectual life.   Yet Shavit was self-conscious enough to realise that there was a degree of similarity between himself and his interlocutor, and the interview ends with Shavit suggesting that Said sounds very 'Jewish', and Said himself, in an extraordinary gesture, at once humorous and deeply serious, claiming to be 'the last Jewish intellectual, the only true inheritor of Adorno'.

Shavit represents an interesting Israeli constituency.  He is a member of the Ashkenazi-Labour elite, which believes that it founded the State and gave it its greatness (political, ethical, social, economic, military), but which has found itself since the arrival in power in 1977 of the Likud ever more firmly edged off the political scene.   Now Shavit has produced a book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which, inter alia, both analyses and dramatises the political and ethical fate of this grouping.  It's reviewed searchingly by Nathan Thrall in the current London Review of Books

Liberal Zionism


Thursday, 25 September 2014

Back to the Land

Amidst the media brouhaha about talks about the Gaza blockade, or the killing - the extra-judicial execution, in fact - by the IDF of two men allegedly involved in the murder of three young yeshiva students near Hebron in June, one must always remember the fundamentals of the Israel-Palestine situation.   And nothing is more fundamental - practically but also symbolically and ideologically - to the situation than the land question.

The bottom line in this uneven struggle is and has always been the project of creating and enforcing Zionist-Jewish sovereignty in the territory of Palestine.  The creation, by ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and immigration of Jews, of a Jewish-majority polity is legitimated by the ideological project of the 'redemption' of the land of Eretz Israel.  The pragmatics of redemption is the shift of the land to Jewish ownership and cultivation, always conceived of as a renewal of an old ownership, and this was a feature of the Zionist project from the moment of the first aliyah, or Jewish immigration, in the 1880s.  It continues to this day, both inside and outside the borders of pre-1967 Israel. 

One of the bases for the charge of Israel becoming an 'apartheid state' is the way that, since its inception, the state has handed over certain of its functions to agencies which have always been concerned to serve Jewish persons, not citizens of the state.  One of the chief such agencies is the Jewish National Fund, which was set up in 1901 by the World Zionist Organisation with the sole purpose of land redemption.  Lands were purchased in Ottoman Palestine, later Mandate Palestine, by and for the JNF, and when Israel declared its independence in 1948, the role of administering 'state lands' was handed over to the JNF and its successor organisation, the Israel Land Administration.  In other words, 'state lands', which in fact amount to some 93% of the land surface of Israel were to be and are run solely for the benefit of Jews (conceived globally) and not for the benefit of the citizens of the state.

Consequently, land politics, land administration, the market in land (for agriculture, building, industrial development, leisure and amenity) and land law are crucial elements in the struggle in Palestine.   Here are several articles which go some way towards explaining this extraordinary situation.

First, a piece on the history of the Israeli land law regime, by Gerry Liston on Mondoweiss:

The historical context of the Israeli land and planning law regime:

Second, an article from Jewish Virtual Library giving some of this history from an overtly Zionist point of view - from the horse's mouth, so to speak:

"The Redeemers of the Land"

Third, an article also on Mondoweiss about the current iteration of this problematic:

Israeli Supreme Court upholds law allowing housing discrimination against Palestinians


Saturday, 20 September 2014


In everyday usage, the term 'hegemony' refers to control, or even dominance.   For 60 years, Fianna Fail was the hegemonic political party in Ireland - the party which dominated the scene, which spent more time in power than any other, which came to regard itself as 'the natural party of government'.

As Fintan O'Toole used to explain it, Fianna Fail thought and even now may think of itself as a 'movement', not merely a political party.  This notion - that Fianna Fail's ideas, or more accurately its modes of practice, its sense of its constituency (since most Irish political parties are intellectually invertebrate) have so saturated Irish society that its influence is chiefly to be found beyond the realm of the 'political' as such - leads us to the sense in which I want to use the term here.  The great Italian Communist party leader, newspaper writer, and Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci, who died in a Fascist jail in 1937, used the term 'hegemony' to explain how, in modern liberal capitalist societies, power is maintained by means beyond the merely violent or coercive.  This made such societies much harder to revolutionize than societies (such as Tsarist Russia) where an oppressive state, and a powerful aristocracy, sit atop a structure composed mostly of ill-educated and poorly organised peasants and workers.  In capitalist democracies, their strength-in-depth lies precisely in the way that leadership and control are exercised in extraordinarily ramified and complex ways - through law, education, religion, culture.  In all these realms, in civil society itself, authority or hegemony is produced and reproduced in a constant never-ending iteration.  Hegemony, ultimately, is the attainment of ideological control by one sector of a society to the extent that it manages to convince its rivals that its interests and worldview are isomorphic with theirs.

It's in this sense that one can apply the term hegemony to an area of endeavour such as archaeology, as it's practiced in Israel/Palestine.  In Israel, excavations of sites such as the Western Wall have been driven as much by politics as by scholarship, and Biblical Studies, as Keith Whitelam demonstrated in a classic book, The Invention of Ancient Israel (1987), can be shown to have been similarly affected.  Such work, such struggles, are prime examples of the long war which this blog has lately compared to the Gaza attacks and killings.  Here is a blogpiece by Natasha Roth from the London Review of Books on precisely this topic:

Settlement through Excavation



Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Camp Massacres - Remembering Sabra and Shatila

Israel has been stamping on Palestinian refugees for a long long time.  In September 1982, the Israeli Defence Forces had been laying siege to the city of Beirut for many weeks, pounding their Palestine Liberation Army enemies, and the civilian population, with airstrikes and artillery.  A plan was devised, partly by President Reagan's Middle East shuttle-negotiator Philip Habib, for the evacuation and exile from Lebanon of the armed Palestinian units, led by Yasser Arafat.  Many civilians remained behind, however, with old men, women and children crowded into the refugee camps in the south of the city - Sabra and Shatila.

Starting on September 16, the IDF (under the overall political command of Ariel Sharon) sent gunmen from their neofascist Christian Maronite confederates, the Lebanese Phalange, into the camps, to winkle out what Sharon called 'terrorist nests'.  There were, of course, no such 'nests', and no other threat to the IDF.  But over the next three days, Elie Hobeika and his assassins murdered at least 800, and possibly as many as 3000, civilian Palestinians and Lebanese in the camps.  Their actions were overseen, literally, by IDF watch towers and observation posts.  The IDF prevented terrified people from fleeing Sabra and Shatila, and fired flares into the night sky over the camps to permit the Phalange to continue their brutal work.  No Israeli forces lifted a finger to stop them.

These killings were documented in horrifying detail by great journalists such as Robert Fisk and Jonathan Randal, both of whom managed to enter the camps before the killing was over.  Anyone who has read Fisk's epic book on the Lebanon wars, Pity the Nation, will never forget his account.

The Institute of Palestine Studies is putting up essays and material free on its website, to mark the thirty-second anniversary of this atrocity.  Here you will find essays and eye-witness reports on the slaughter:

Remembering Sabra and Shatila 32 Years Later


Monday, 15 September 2014

How to forge peace

Here is a tight, sharp and telling listing, taken from the London Review of Books blog, of how Israel has been making peace since the August 26 ceasefire. Each point in Omar Robert Hamilton's catalogue contains a hyperlink bringing the reader to an article elaborating on that point, in detail. 

Israel's actions here listed are clearly of the kind that makes the United States so happy to defend Israel as a model liberal democracy, and the EU so keen to give Israel access to European trade, funds, and privileged status:

Omar Robert Hamilton
After the Ceasefire



Thursday, 11 September 2014

Getting to the crux at last - the Irish Times interviews Gideon Levy

At last the Irish Times publishes some serious and tough coverage of Gaza.   In the aftermath of the bombardments and invasion of July and August, Lara Marlowe was dispatched to the Strip.  Marlowe is a veteran foreign and war correspondent, who has divided her time over the last number of years between writing as that paper's Paris correspondent, and covering Middle East wars.  She writes with a sympathetic and clear eye.

Here she interviews Gideon Levy, a famous dissenting columnist at Ha'aretz, Israel's elite daily newspaper.  Levy has become famous, or notorious, as one of Israel's most outspoken homegrown critics.  He is a brave and honorable writer, and it's good to see Irish audiences introduced to him.

Here is the link to Marlowe's interview:

‘Holocaust makes Israelis think international law doesn’t apply’

And here is a link to my review of Levy's  book The Punishment of Gaza, which was posted on the Irish Left Review's excellent website - for which many thanks are due to Donagh Brennan - a few years ago:

The Punishment of Gaza



Monday, 1 September 2014

Desolation - reflections and reading on the Gaza War 2014

Tacitus again - 'they [the victors of war] make a desolation and call it "peace"'.   To be sure, though now 'at peace', much of Gaza has been laid waste over the last six weeks.  Two thousand Gazans are dead, 10,000 injured, and hundreds of thousands affected by the destruction of their homes, or more widely by the wanton destruction of huge swathes of the Strip's civic infrastructure - hospitals, schools, the university, the one power station, businesses, farmland. 

The response of the great powers has been one of sleepy negligence.  Appeals to 'both sides' to desist from fighting.  The pronounced need for fighting to stop so as to allow the 'peace process' to start up once again.  No Security Council Resolutions - contrast this with the fevered activity that has accompanied American and Western intervention in Iraq against the 'Islamic State', or the military-diplomatic drums now being beaten about Russian meddling in Ukraine.

The ceasefire agreement that was put together in Cairo is, as this blog has noted already, essentially a repeat of that which came at the end of the bombardment of 2012.  This suggests that secreted within conditions as they now stand lies the complex of factors which will produce another onslaught of this kind in a year or two.  Groundhog Day in Gaza, as we say.

Nevertheless, there is now relative calm.  The point then that interested and critical people may want to think about is this - what happens during the 'peace'?   How peaceful is the peace, actually?   Is it a political and ethical space filled with eager efforts to negotiate a longer-term agreement?   Where lies the 'peace process'?

And the answer has to be that in Palestine, often it's during the 'peace' that the greatest damage occurs.  The real war in Palestine is not, actually, the one waged in paroxysms like that through which Israel/Palestine has just passed.  The real war is one waged below the level of the headlines, beyond the range of the Qassems and the M109s, far away from the diplomatic networks of Washington, Cairo, Tel Aviv and Brussels.  And this is its danger and its power.  Thirty-five years ago, Edward Said described Zionism as 'a discipline of detail', and by this he meant that Zionism as a movement has always planned for Palestine in the most extraordinarily thoroughgoing and brilliant manner.  Said was borrowing from Michel Foucault in that description, and it's fitting, as it was Foucault who offered us the most powerful recent description of the disciplinary and dominative effects of apparatuses of civil infrastructure - prisons, yes, but also schools, hospitals, asylums, and other institutions.  Foucault's bleak vision of 'the subjectification of subjects' is appropriate here precisely because of the interpenetration he envisaged of the machinery of coercion and the structures of civil society, in the world of modernity.  Said's realisation was that Israel's greatest power, its most effective weapon against the Palestinians was not its overwhelming and obvious military power, but its capacity for thinking about Palestine (with its politicians, its generals, its academics, its journalists, its cartographers, its archaeologists, its historians, its teachers, its architects), and then its ability to put those ideas into material expression.

The real power of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians lies in what Eyal Weizmann has called 'a civilian occupation' - the settling of the West Bank, the Judaization of the Galilee - what the founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions Jeff Halper calls 'the matrix of control'.  And also in its manipulation of the population of the Strip, in 'peace-time'.  In a brief splendid book, The Least of all Possible Evils, Weizmann shows how closely linked the actions of the IDF and of various arms of the Israeli effort to control, exploit and regulate the Territories have been in recent times to law - to humanitarian law, no less.   The Israeli blockade and siege of the Strip has always been calibrated so as to be just on the right side of the humanitarian law regarding the minimum needs of Gazans, and this is calculated - literally - down to the last calorie.  It was in this sense that Dov Weisglass, one-time advisor to Sharon, joked that the intention of the blockade was to put the Palestinians of Gaza 'on a diet'.  And it's in this sense that we can apply Giorgio Agamben's term 'bare life' to the population of the Strip.  Israel wants to keep these people alive, but only just.  It does not want them alive enough so as to resist, so as to create viable social or political or legal institutions, so as to attain political consciousness.

The terms of the ceasefire barely touch this 'war', this war of the longue duree.  The blockade may be eased very slightly, but it can be tightened again in a couple of hours.  The IDF can intervene again in Gaza at point-blank notice.  It is this war, in some ways even more than the war of rockets and fighter planes, that ultimately may throttle Gaza, that blights lives for years, that impoverishes ordinary people,  that stunts their children, and that kills hope.

Meanwhile Israel goes back to doing what it is actually best at - not trying to destroy Hamas, but colonizing the West Bank.  The announcement of a new settlement block to be constructed just south of Bethlehem was heralded on the RTE radio news as being the largest such initiative in thirty years, but this is unremarkable, in that the years of Netanyahu's coalition have witnessed the greatest ever spasm of settlement construction in the West Bank.  The failure of the United States to force Israel to freeze settlement construction during the Kerry talks was the most obvious sign that those talks were doomed from the start.  And this makes us now realise that one of the greatest impediments to justice in Israel/Palestine is, in fact, the 'peace process' itself.

Think of all those failed plans and initiatives: Carter's Camp David, Madrid, Oslo, Wye, Clinton's Camp David and Taba talks, the 'roadmap', and now the Kerry talks.  Through nearly all of them, Israeli settlement construction, the creation of a separate Jews-only road system, water theft, land degradation, illegal dumping, fence and wall-building, illegal population transfer have been continuing.  What the 'peace process' has turned out to be is the grandest of all possible masks for Israel's land- and resource-grab - what better cover for its rogue antics could Israel want than the pointless, cynical and hypocritical  high political and diplomatic caperings in the White House, Downing Street and the Elysee, New York and Brussels, about 'the two state solution'?  Israel is keen on the process, but not on the peace, as Ilan Pappe has noted; as he's also pointed out, peace talks conducted while one side in a struggle is still making war are not true peace talks, and the fact is that in the West Bank, the demolition of a private house, the cutting down of an olive grove, the holding of a pregnant woman for hours at an illegal checkpoint are and need to be seen as acts of war.  The only good thing about the juxtaposition of the Gaza ceasefire and the new settlement proposal is that it may be jarring enough to make the rest of the world see that the real war is the one conducted, incrementally, at the rate of 'one acre and one goat' (as Chaim Weizmann once suggested), in plain sight, for the last forty-seven years.

Here is a couple of articles which help put some of this in perspective:

Jeff Halper:

The Palestinian message to Israel: Deal with us justly. Or disappear


Jonathan Cook is a British journalist living in Nazareth, and a winner of the Martha Gelhorn Prize.  Here, he writes about the mood in Israel after Protective Edge: 


Israelis unsure whether they won or lost in Gaza



Thursday, 28 August 2014

500 Irish Artists Now Pledging Boycott of Israel

The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign has just issued this press release, the content of which reflects the tireless efforts of my comrade Raymond Deane.

The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign's 'Irish Artists' Pledge to Boycott Israel', described by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) as 'a ground-breaking initiative', has just notched up its 500th signatory. This is a significant milestone for such a small country, and includes creative and performing artists residing all over the island of Ireland.

The Pledge was publicly launched in August 2010, when it had 140 signatories. It reads as follows:

In response to the call from Palestinian civil society for a cultural boycott of Israel, we pledge not to avail of any invitation to perform or exhibit in Israel, nor to accept any funding from any institution linked to the government of Israel, until such time as Israel complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.

The 500 signatories range from some of Ireland's most internationally known figures to artists starting out on their careers, who know that they risk defamation and ostracism by Israel's advocates, particularly in the USA . They include novelists, poets, painters, sculptors, film-makers, dancers, composers, performing musicians and others, including many members of Ireland’s state-sponsored academy of artists Aosdána.

This was the first national cultural boycott against Israel, and was followed shortly by a similar initiatives in Switzerland and South Africa. It is hoped that other countries will follow the same template in the near future.

Raymond Deane, cultural liaison officer of the IPSC, said: 'Sadly, this pledge remains as necessary as when it was launched four years ago. Israel’s latest murderous assault on Gaza, that has killed over 2,100 people, mostly non-combatants, proves that it is not interested in peace. Western governments’ failure to sanction Israel proves that they are not interested in justice, so it remains incumbent upon civil society to take action. This pledge allows people from the artistic community to take a stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Indeed almost half of the signatories have added their names since Israel launched "Operation Protective Edge", thus proving that the Irish government's appeasement of Israel is deeply at odds with all levels of Irish public opinion'.

Mr Deane also pointed out that 'these artists are aware of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s 2005 statement that "we see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and… do not differentiate between propaganda and culture".  By signing this pledge, artists are refusing to allow their art to be exploited by an apartheid state that disregards international law and universal principles of human rights. They look forward to the day when normal cultural relations can be established with an Israel that fully complies with such laws and principles'.

Mr Deane concluded by calling on more Irish artists to sign the pledge, saying 'if you are an Irish artist or an artist based in Ireland and would like to add your signature, please see

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The desolation of peace in Gaza, and in American academia

The great Roman chronicler Tacitus wrote a biography, as we'd call it nowadays, of an eminent military leader, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, in the year 98.  It is from this work that we take the famous quotation, referring to the rhetorical hypocrisies that surround war, 'They make a desolation, and call it "peace"'.  

The question for Gaza now is what the 'peace' which was declared today is to be. A ceasefire or truce has been inaugurated, which is proposed to last.  It comes attended by certain agreed elements - most of them similar to those which accompanied the agreement brokered at the end of the last bombardment in 2012.  A projected softening of the Israeli blockade of the Strip.  An extension of the fishing zone off the Gaza coast from three to six miles.  Egypt to open the important Rafah border crossing.  This comes after a terrible seven weeks for the people of Gaza, with more than 2100 people killed, most of them non-combatants.  Five hundred of those people were children.  11,000 people were injured.  One third of the population of 1.8 million has been displaced, with people fleeing their homes to avoid bombardment, to shelter at UN sites.  Not that this always saved them, of course.  The Guardian reports that estimates for reconstruction say it could take up to a decade.  

But the question now must also be - what kind of negotiations may follow?  Who will be their adjudicator?  Egypt or the United States, or the Quartet, or ... who knows.  What is to be the part of the Palestine Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, in the policing and regulation of the peace in Gaza?  Israel still wants Gaza 'demilitarized'.  A recent statement by the Israel-biased Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan (maybe now making up for flagrantly anti-Semitic statements made by his severely conservative father, one-time TD and minister Oliver J Flanagan), that Ireland could help negotiate peace in Israel/Palestine was undermined by its patent slant, in proposing Palestinian demilitarization.  The Irish political class has a somewhat ludicrous and narcissistic belief that it has a talent for peace-making, on the strength of the Irish 'peace process'.  It is no insult to the recently deceased ex-Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, whose hardnosed, bluntspoken and pragmatic approach helped lay the ground for the 'Good Friday Agreement', to say that such witterings tell us more about the goldfish bowl that is Leinster House than about any serious foreign policy innovation or independence, and overlook the sectarian and procedurally sclerotic structures that the 'peace process' has actually brought to Northern Ireland. 


In the last two weeks of faltering ceasefires and negotiations, one of the more striking outriders of the Gaza crisis has been its reverberation in American academia, in the form of the Steven Salaita affair.  Salaita was until very recently an assistant professor at Virginia Tech.  He was offered a tenured position at the University of Illinois, at Urbana-Champaign, due to be taken up this autumn, which was then revoked by the University of Illinois authorities, apparently because of the 'uncivil' character of tweets issued by Salaita during the Gaza bombardment which were critical of Israel.  Rippling out from this ugly episode has been a mounting protest movement in Salaita's support, revelations of Zionist lobbying of the University, and the wider discussion about the academic boycott.  

The links I'll put in here amount to a brief archive on the Salaita case.  They are mostly from Electronic Intifada:

University of Illinois fires professor Steven Salaita after Gaza massacre tweets


Academic heavyweights slam Univ. of Illinois firing of Steven Salaita for Palestine views



Sunday, 17 August 2014

Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism: The Italian Case

Boundary 2 is one of the more overtly politicized American literary-critical journals.  Founded in the early 1970s and working initially under the aegis of the left-Heideggerianism of William Spanos, B2 pioneered discussion of, amongst many other topics, postmodernism, critiques of Yale deconstruction, and more recently new variations on the idea of the secular in America.  Disappointingly and in my opinion unwisely, B2 is no longer open to submissions in the conventional academic manner.  However it ploughs its own, often interesting, furrow.  Here's a free article from its website/blog, on Italian anti-Zionism:

Anti-Zionism as Antisemitism: The Case of Italy

an intervention by John Champagne

“In several recent essays and articles on the relationship between Italian Jews in the diaspora and contemporary Israeli political and military actions toward the Palestinians, an interesting series of contradictions emerge. In some instances, critique of the military policies of the state of Israel is equated with antisemitism, even when that critique is proffered by Italian Jews. The argument, presented, for example, by Ugo Volli in his “Zionism: a Word that not Everyone Understands,” is that there is a connection between military and political attacks on Israel…” Continue reading


Gaza and French anti-Semitism

The recent bombardment of Gaza has thrown up many reactions, in many countries.  In France, protest is always framed by multiple, sometimes overlapping, histories: those of the French Jewish community and its post-Revolutionary assimilation, of French anti-Semitism with its landmarks in the Dreyfus affair and in the disgraceful moment of the Vichy regime in the 1940s, and then the history of French involvement in the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, the Sykes-Picot agreement, the bloody and traumatic Algerian war of independence, and the arrival of the pieds noirs in France, and subsequent to that the growth of the French Maghrebi population - both Arab and Jewish.   France was an early ally of Israel, being its chief armourer up to the Six Day War, and the state which sold Israel nuclear technology in the 1950s.  After 1967, France's policy stances vis-a-vis the Middle East varied more, and were more likely to be Israel-critical.

These contexts make for the particular nature of French public discussion of Israel, which is at times fraught.  The philosopher Alain Badiou, already mentioned on this blog in the context of commentary on the Ukraine crisis, has long articulated both his support of the Palestinian cause and his critique of anti-Semitism.  Recent events have embroiled him in fresh controversy.  Here is a chain of articles giving a sense of this debate, mostly taken from the Verso website:

Alain Badiou's "anti-Semitism": Badiou, Segré, and Winter respond to the current accusations in France




Thursday, 14 August 2014


The ceasefires in and around Gaza have stumbled and then been reinstated.  Sporadic bombardments have occurred, and then been stopped.  Talks, with Hamas and Israeli teams not meeting directly, have been continuing in Egypt.

The chief demand of the Palestinians is for an end to the blockade and siege, to which the Strip has been subject for nigh-on eight years.  The Israelis are demanding the 'demilitarization' of Gaza.  The Palestinian demand has greater moral and legal weight behind it, since international law recognises Israel still as an occupying power, with total sovereignty over the Strip, its borders (apart from that with Egypt), its airspace, and its territorial waters, and with the ability tightly to regulate what comes in and out of the Strip.  Israel's policies - whether of siege, semi-starvation or bombardment - amount to collective punishment of a civilian population, and constitute a massive crime.  Israel's wish for Hamas to disarm is illegal, in that international law recognises the right of an occupied people to resistance, including violent resistance; Hamas was legitimately elected to governance in 2006 and hence has some kind of democratic legitimacy; and a disarmed population is merely an extension of Israel's wish to enhance (rather than reduce) its control and sovereignty over the Territory.

Having Sisi's Egypt hold the ring at these talks does not give cause for much optimism that anything fair or stable will emerge from them.  The fickle media-led attention of the West has switched, while Palestinians are no longer dying in large numbers, to the brutal struggle in western Iraq (rarely noting that, even if Bibi has told us that 'Hamas is ISIS' as a mode of condemnation, Israel is in a closet alliance with Saudi Arabia, one of the prime supporters of ISIS).

A couple of free essays on the London Review of Books site are very well worth reading.  First, Nathan Thrall on Hamas and its political situation and context:

Hamas’s Chances


Second, an essay by Nicholas Blincoe on the Palestinian diaspora:


Phantom Bids


And here is Patrick Cockburn on the emergence and rise of ISIS:


Isis consolidates



Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Breathing Out

The ceasefire is holding.  It's unclear what will happen when it comes to an end tomorrow.  It's perhaps foolish at this point to pull back to consider what is happening in abstract or even philosophical terms, but I am putting up here links to discussions by or of leading intellectuals, in relation to what has been happening in Gaza.

Back in the mid-1980s, Edward Said wrote a famous and excoriating critique of a then-new book by the liberal American political philosopher Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution.  This essay, 'Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading' was published in Grand Street, and then collected in Blaming the Victims, edited by Said and by Christopher Hitchens.  In it, Said located the dark underside of Walzer's argument that the Biblical Exodus story was the master-narrative of all Western stories of liberation.  Said focussed on "the injunction laid on the Jews by God to exterminate their opponents, an injunction that somewhat takes away the aura of progressive national liberation which Walzer is bent on giving to Exodus."   Eleven years after Said's death, Walzer is still at it, justifying Operation Protective Edge in the pages of The New Republic.  Here is Stephen Shalom taking him on:

Michael Walzer's Defense of Israel's Crimes


In Prospect, Jeff McMahan discusses the ethics of Israel's war in Gaza:


 Gaza: Is Israel fighting a just war?


Curtis Franks is a philosopher teaching at Notre Dame University, in Indiana.  He's also a member of the Hebrew Orthodox Congregation:


Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog: An open letter on Israel and Gaza ...


Assaf Sharon is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University.  Here he writes about the moral corrosion caused in Israeli society by the Gaza offensive:


The Moral Siege: The Militarization of Jewish Supremacism in Israel


And here is an interview with Judith Butler, published last year on the Open Democracy website, but pertinent today nevertheless: 


Willing the impossible: an interview with Judith Butler ...


Monday, 4 August 2014

Little Respite for the Defenceless, and No Rest for their Oppressors

Ceasefires seem to have come, gone and returned today in Gaza.  Israel has 'redeployed' much of its forces in the Strip in the last couple of days, but a redeployment is a tactical matter, and does not necessarily preclude a large-scale ground intervention re-occurring, or smaller operations continuing, as seems to be the case in Rafah.

Meanwhile the international reaction, at the level of states and governments, remains so low-key and somnolent as to be truly disgraceful and disgusting.  At least during Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-2009, we had one UN Security Council Resolution, which the United States did not seek to veto (it abstained).  This time, all we've got are various bleatings from Ban Ki-Moon, from President Obama, and from European leaders, nearly always framed or hedged around with the 'recognition' of Israel's right to defend itself.  What is forgotten in this is the right of the Palestinians to defence, and the fact that, as David Lloyd says in his Mondoweiss piece, the butchery of civilians is not a legitimate mode of self-defence.

On the wider front, commentators in journals such as the Irish Times like to meditate ponderously on how Israel, in its struggle with Hamas, finds itself in an alliance with Arab states against 'political Islam'.  But much of this pontification is ignorant or purblind also.  Israel certainly is benefiting from the hostility of the Cairo government against the Muslim Brotherhood.   The joke here is that previous Egyptian, and Israeli, governments have sought to make use of 'political Islam' and indeed of the Brotherhood.  Anwar Sadat tried to channel Egyptian Islamists towards the mujahideen jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, in the late 1970s.  Israel's security service, Shin Bet, at least turned a blind eye towards, and quite possibly assisted, the rise of the Brotherhood in the Strip in the 1980s, as a way of splitting secular Palestinian nationalism.   From that movement arose the movement that Israel struggles to contain - Hamas.  A classic case of 'blowback'.

But the idea that Israel now, in allying itself with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, is taking a stand against political Islam is truly laughable.  It takes us back to the pre-9/11 days, when the United States foreign policy establishment referred to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf kingdoms as 'moderate' Arab regimes.  This designation was given these strikingly reactionary states, as against the putative 'radicalism' of the Arab nationalist regimes of Egypt (under Nasser), Syria (under the Assads, father and son) and Iraq (under its military leadership and under Saddam Hussein), which were opposed to Western imperialism in the region and which were prepared to make war with Israel.  But this is and was ludicrous.  The Arab nationalists at various times were armed or supported by the USSR, and to the Americans, this made them 'radical'.  But the Gulf sheikhdoms - always dependent on the West for armed support, and aggressively anti-commnuist - were and are much more conservative and dangerous in their political/theological structures, and are essentially quasi-feudal oligarchies, wedded to very conservative forms of Sunni Islam.  In the case of the biggest, richest and most powerful of these kingdoms, ruled by the House of Saud, we find a legitimating alliance between the royal family and a clerical regime of the most profound and dark conservatism, Wahhabiyya.  Taking its name from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a Sunni theologian of the late eighteenth century, this sect sees Islam as suffering from various political corruptions and moral weaknesses in the period of modernity.  Most radically, it promotes takfiri thinking, which casts most other Muslims as apostates, and permits their punishment or killing. It is this tendency that has seen Saudi Wahhabism issue in Salafi radicalism of the kind we associate with al-Qaeda, with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

In other words, in allying itself with Saudi Arabia, no matter how hidden or implicit this alliance may be, Israel is colluding with the most violent, destructive, anti-democratic and intolerant ideology at work in the Middle East. This doesn't say much for the moral purity of the 'only democracy' in the region, and it makes a nonsense of the idea that Israel is opposed to 'political Islam'.

But then moral and ethical confusion is part and parcel of this struggle, and the Saudis do not have a monopoly on extremism.  Here, for example, is the case of the writer who has made the most shameful and disgraceful personal and political use of the legacy of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel:

 Elie Wiesel plays the Holocaust trump card in Gaza

And here is a statement by a radical ultra-Orthodox rabbi here in Dublin:

Do Not Be Broken Or Afraid Of Them [Parshat Devarim By Rabbi Zalman Lent

In Israel itself, considerable and in many ways admirable freedom of the press allows the most extraordinary rightwing and racist Zionist opinions to be voiced and, alas, to gain such traction as makes them no longer exceptional.  More unsettlingly, this same press freedom seems less often afforded to Palestinian-Israeli views.  Here is an example of the former - an Israeli journalist pondering the times when genocide may be 'permissible':

Reprint of Yochanan Gordon’s “When Genocide is Permissible” (Updated)

And if one reckons a mere journalist to be less than fully responsible or representative, one can take the case of the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin:

"Concentrate” and “exterminate”: Israel parliament deputy speaker's Gaza genocide




Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Language, Death and Resistance

Like many cliches, the saying that the first victim of war is the truth contains a grain of accuracy and reality.  One of the most noticeable, yet apparently peripheral, effects of a crisis like the Gaza crisis is its effect on language.  Such effects get magnified in the echo chambers for influential political opinion that are the mainstream media.  Examples abound: the descriptions of 'terror tunnels' by Israeli officials (as if a tunnel could of itself be terrifying or could terrorise); the tropes of 'balance' and 'the two sides' which I've already discussed recently; the use of terms like 'war' or 'conflict' to refer to what is happening in Gaza, when it is really a matter of wholesale butchery of civilians; the use of certain terms in regard to the weaker party - 'the Islamic militant group Hamas' or 'the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas', as if the IDF and the Israeli state were not 'militant', or as if the Israeli right (and shockingly large swathes of the whole society) were not in thrall to a deeply conservative branch of Judaism or to a messianic yet secular ideology that sees Israel as (as the Israeli Embassy had it on its Facebook page a few days ago, alongside an image of Molly Malone swathed in a niqab) 'the last frontier of the free world'.

Thirty years ago, in the London Review of Books, Edward Said wrote a long and powerful review essay of a crop of books on the Lebanon War and the camp massacres, including books by Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Randal, and the report of the International Commission on Israel in Lebanon (which commission included Richard Falk and Kader Asmal) - 'Permission to Narrate' (still to be found on the LRB website, if you have access to it).   In this essay, he discusses the politico-rhetorical function of 'terrorism':

Terrorism is the vaguest and yet for that reason the most precise of concepts. This is not at all to say that terrorism does not exist, but rather to suggest that its existence has occasioned a whole new signifying system as well. Terrorism signifies first, in relation to ‘us’, the alien and gratuitously hostile force. It is destructive, systematic and controlled. It is a web, a network, a conspiracy run from Moscow, via Bulgaria, Beirut, Libya, Teheran and Cuba. It is capable of anything. 

Said was noting at this time the rise of the discourse on 'terrorism', which can be dated in American policy circles to the tenure of the Reagan Administration.  A whole think-tank industry had grown up around 'terrorism', apparently given to analyzing it, and advising the American government about it, while actually not really saying anything of true insight. Tellingly, Binyamin Netanyahu was himself part of this industry: he edited a volume entitled Terrorism: How the West Can Win in 1987.  But it was and still is heavily used in Israeli media and policy discussions.  Once it's established that Hamas is a 'terrorist' organisation (and it's agreed in Washington and Brussels that it is), then one does not need to bother thinking about it seriously, one certainly does not consider entering into talks with it, and one can treat anyone associated with it as one likes.  Most damagingly of all, perhaps, the term cloaks its referent in a de-historicizing, de-contextualizing cloud, creating a blindness entirely unrelated to insight:

The very indiscriminateness of terrorism, actual and described, its tautological and circular character, is anti-narrative. Sequence, the logic of cause and effect as between oppressors and victims, opposing pressures – all these vanish inside an enveloping cloud called ‘terrorism’. 

Again, once it can be lodged in public discussion that Hamas is a 'terrorist' organisation, no deeper or wider historical or political analysis is deemed necessary.  All we need to do is to stop the rockets, or destroy the tunnels - discussion of the occupation (in its 47th year), or the dispersion and dispossession of the Palestinians across the globe is both irrelevant and improper.

On the day-to-day scale of the present carnage, we must return to the proliferation of dead language, spawned by the Israeli government most of all, and generally repeated by all-too-frequently ignorant or pliant media.  'Terrorism', 'Israel's right to defend itself', 'Israel's moral army', and the whole panoply of 'humanitarian measures' the IDF takes when bombarding civilian areas - to cut through this verbiage with the right combination of mordancy and acuity requires a new George Orwell or a new Jonathan Swift.

Orwell wrote a famous essay in 1946, 'Politics and the English Language', which discusses, often brilliantly and hilariously, the dialectical relationship of unnecessary, often official, neologisms, on the one hand, and humane thought,  on the other.  Together, they move in a ever-murkier downward spiral into regions of disgrace and obscurity.  Orwell would have little sympathy for Hamas, I am sure, but he would recognize the dead hand of the Israeli government in its justifications for barbarism:

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language

I am not sure how David Lloyd might take to being placed in the company of Orwell, but the pairing is, if only in this instance, apposite.  Lloyd is maybe the most brilliant Irish critic of his generation.  Professor of English at the University of California at Riverside, and the author of many books on culture, Irish literature, literary pedagogy, aesthetics and colonial politics, Lloyd contributed to a revolution in Irish Studies in the 1980s and 1990s.  I can still remember the sheer excitement of finding his collection of essays Anomalous States in Fred Hanna's bookstore on Nassau Street in Dublin, in the summer of 1993.  I was a doctoral student in England, but home for the summer, and I knew very quickly that the book I was carrying would turn my sense of the politics of Irish culture upside-down.   More recently, Lloyd has been a central figure in promoting the academic boycott of Israeli university institutions, in the United States.   His intellectual energy and constructive anger are an example to us all.  Here is an essay on language and colonial conflict in Gaza which Lloyd published just today, on Mondoweiss:

Slaughter is not self-defense: The assault on Gaza and the corruption of language