Begins to swell, and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore
That now lies foul and muddy.
THE KILLING of activists on the Gaza flotilla was a tragedy waiting to happen, the brutal culmination of a series of profound misjudgments by the Israeli government, from its initial wrong-headed decision to block the ships’ access to Gaza, to its incompetent operational conduct of the interception.
It seems doubtful that an Irish Times leader writer might ever grasp it, but there is an elementary distinction to be drawn between the interests of a state and the interests of its citizens.
But, whether in the case of Israel or Ireland or any other nation-state, this distinction is not enough: there is another distinction to be drawn between human beings in the fullness of their existence and the formal category of citizen.
The full interests of human beings are incommensurable with the framework of state and citizen, even if human beings often resort to this framework to protect basic rights and entitlements.
For human beings, the actions of a state in any particular instance need to be judged, at a basic level, not in terms of how they affect its citizens, but in terms of how they affect human beings, regardless of whether they attain the formal category of citizen conferred by the state.
Precisely because this is such an elementary principle -one which can be grasped by a small child- it requires vast resources within the nation-state, not least those of state institutions, particularly the school, to make the population firstly forget it and secondly reject it.
In practice, despite all the claims its institutions make to the contrary, and despite all the formal constraints placed on it by international institutions to limit the awesome destructive power of the nation-state system, the basic principle of the nation-state is the rejection of universality.
No nation-state, therefore, can have the ‘right to exist’. Not Israel, not the Republic of Ireland. That these nation-states exist, like all others, is a matter of fact, not a matter of right.
Because the institutions of the nation-state and its history inform how people see the world from an early age, the nation-state provides the basis for the account they give of themselves, and the demands they make. There is a quote doing the rounds at the minute, along the lines of ‘people find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. This is scarcely less true in the case of the nation-state.
Now, consider the Irish Times editorial from the other day. Its title is ‘Self-inflicted wounds’. But the wounds referred to in the title are not those inflicted on the bodies of the flotilla passengers by Israeli guns.
Rather, the editorial is speaking about the State of Israel as though it had the properties of a human body, and as though its murderous actions were primarily harmful, not on account of the lives wiped out by its elite commandos (to say nothing of what the Israeli state is inflicting on the Palestinians in Gaza), but on account of the damage done to the State itself.
This is just one example among countless of how, within the discourse of the nation-state, priority is given to the protection of the state over the protection of human beings. If the destruction of the human beings is wrong in this case, it is implied, it is because it runs counter to the interests of the state.
Perhaps the best case that can be made by this line of reasoning, is that since the state is supposed to represent the interests of its citizens, any action that presents difficulties for the state runs counter to the best interests of its citizens.
But there is no reason why the interests of a state should automatically coincide with the interests of its citizens. Furthermore, the interests of the citizens so defined are incommensurable with the interests of the human beings who fall under the category of citizen; and no account is given of what happens to those human beings who are not its citizens.
In the case of the State of Israel, we are talking about a state that defines its citizens on the basis of ethnicity. It demands, furthermore, that it has the “right to exist as a Jewish state“, as people like Shimon Peres explain. This entails, as Joseph Massad points out, having ‘the right to colonise Palestine solely by Jews and one that has the right to have discriminatory laws between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens and one that grants Jews differential rights — in short, Israel’s right to be a racist state’. Israel is, in fact, a racist state.
So when the Irish Times expresses concern that the State of Israel has inflicted wounds on itself, and places this concern above what has happened to the people it killed, and the people whom it continues to brutalise it is saying that Israel’s actions run counter to how a racist state ought to act.
There is nothing sensational about this: there is no ‘pure’ racism, and many -perhaps most- states engage in all manner of racist practices, including Ireland and other EU states. It is just the case that Israel is a flagrantly racist state.
For a Palestinian living in a refugee camp, whose family was expelled from its home by Zionist forces in 1948 and who is denied return to the site of her home, suffering blockades, bombardments and checkpoints while American Jews from Brooklyn are free to go and live in Israel as citizens, this racism is blatantly and painfully obvious.
It is also obvious for many of Israel’s citizens. Azmi Bishara:
When Israel was established in 1948, more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled in fear. My family was among the minority that escaped that fate, remaining instead on the land where we had long lived. The Israeli state, established exclusively for Jews, embarked immediately on transforming us into foreigners in our own country.
For the first 18 years of Israeli statehood, we, as Israeli citizens, lived under military rule with pass laws that controlled our every movement. We watched Jewish Israeli towns spring up over destroyed Palestinian villages.
Today we make up 20 percent of Israel’s population. We do not drink at separate water fountains or sit at the back of the bus. We vote and can serve in the parliament. But we face legal, institutional and informal discrimination in all spheres of life.
More than 20 Israeli laws explicitly privilege Jews over non-Jews. The Law of Return, for example, grants automatic citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world. Yet Palestinian refugees are denied the right to return to the country they were forced to leave in 1948. The Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty — Israel’s “Bill of Rights” — defines the state as “Jewish” rather than a state for all its citizens. Thus Israel is more for Jews living in Los Angeles or Paris than it is for native Palestinians.
Israel acknowledges itself to be a state of one particular religious group. Anyone committed to democracy will readily admit that equal citizenship cannot exist under such conditions.
But for many Europeans and Americans, whose culture has long represented Jews and ‘Orientals’ as belonging to categories of racial ‘otherness’ (in the case of Nazism, they often fell under the same category), and whose mind is constantly plied with images of a superior Western civilisation that sits in opposition to a timeless Oriental barbarism, with the State of Israel often appearing as a kind of bridgehead of Western civilisation, the reality of this racism is much more difficult to grasp.
It is made especially difficult to grasp because elite public opinion in the US and the European Union rarely confronts how Israel’s racism and its expansionist colonialism is a product, and therefore a continuation, of the US and Europe’s own histories of racism -in particular, antisemitism and anti-Arab racism- colonisation and imperialism.
But it can be grasped, and everyone has the capacity to grasp it. To do so, however, means resisting the particularist discourse of the nation-state, of which the Irish Times editorial is a triflingly minor example.
Perhaps it is easier to grasp in Ireland than in other places. The historical and geographical conditions are very different, and yet for some reason, it’s not too hard to imagine a situation in which armed militias expelled hundreds of thousands of Catholics from the North of the island and declared a state. And then it is proclaimed that the state is the state of the Protestant people because the Land of Ireland is the land of Protestantism as revealed by a particular interpretation of the Bible. And this means that Protestants from all over the world have rights as citizens, and can move to county Tyrone or county Armagh, and are furnished with arms and subsidies to do so by the United Kingdom. But Catholics whose families have lived in Tyrone or Armagh for generations have no right to return, and their houses are either demolished or occupied by incoming Protestants from Brazil and Australia, their farms expropriated. And then this state then starts sending in its militia to bulldoze people out of their homes in Monaghan, Dundalk and Castleblayney, crushing any form of resistance with extreme violence, imprisonment, torture. Then the people who are expelled, imprisoned, tortured and starved have their history systematically denied, are characterised as congenital terrorists for exercising their legitimate right to resistance under international law, and represented as subhuman filth. I could go on sketching this scenario, but to continue in the way I have started would not be adequate to convey the enormity of what has been done to the Palestinians.
Erich Fromm, rabinnical scholar turned psychoanalyst, and author of The Fear of Freedom, described an orientation of ‘social narcissism’, in which concern for the superiority of one’s identified group -whether race, class, or nation- is sustained through all manner of ideological strivings, at the expense of the capacity to grasp reality. This ‘social narcissism’ can seem an inescapable condition of the nation-state, and Israel is hardly an exception in this regard, since Israeli children are indoctrinated to believe that the world at large is antisemitic, and that the land in which they live is theirs -and only theirs- since time immemorial. (Watch this documentary for more details.) One consequence of this, for the Palestinians, is, as Azmi Bishara points out, that ‘two-thirds of Israeli Jews would refuse to live next to an Arab and nearly half would not allow a Palestinian into their home’.
(Photo: A Palestinian woman whose house has been occupied by Jewish settlers faces Israelis who came to celebrate Jerusalem Day in the mainly Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, occupied East Jerusalem (Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images). Source, WSJ via Mondoweiss via Lawrence of Cyberia.)
But what the heroism of those on the Freedom Flotilla shows, despite the murderous response of the Israeli state, is that this orientation can be overturned, and that people are capable of putting their own lives on the line for their fellow human beings, not because they are part of a particular race, class or nation, but because there are basic principles of universal solidarity, understood by people of all religions and none, that are not worth living without.
And despite the bloodbath, this episode in the struggle for Palestinian liberation from the Israeli state’s racist brutality is not over yet.
Lads and lasses in jeans and brightly-coloured shirts chanting “Freedom, freedom,” hefted a plywood coffin painted with the flags of the countries of activists on the cruise ship assaulted by Israeli commandos early on Monday morning – Turkish, Lebanese, Algerian.
Yesterday was the third day after the slaying of the flotilla activists, a time when mourners traditionally gather to show respect for the dead. The procession made for the fishing port where they stood outside the vast tent erected to greet the blockade-busting ships.
Inside the long narrow tent, festooned with bright swatches of cloth, flags and posters in Arabic, English and Turkish, hundreds of men – politicians, teachers, sheikhs and farmers, Fatah, Hamas and independents – had gathered to grieve. “Welcome Freedom Flotilla,” read the banner over the entrance.
But the flotilla did not come. Every Gazan feels its loss. Sami Aby Salem, a journalist, observed: “I was not enthusiastic about the boats. I did not think they would make a difference. But when I heard the news, I cried.” While the mourners in the tent listened to speeches, religious readings and music, the youths carried the coffin out onto a rocky spit of land and launched it into the restless silver sea. The box soon sank, but a boy dived in and brought it to the surface, heavy with water. Fishermen on a fast boat lifted it out, let the water drain away and put it back. It bobbed and took in water but did not it sink.
Amjed Shawa, co-ordinator for Palestinian non-governmental organisations, remarked that the tragedy has both moved people deeply and given them hope.
“Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing, Jordan is taking in the wounded, Kuwait has called for withdrawal of the Arab peace plan. These are small but significant actions. We need words translated into actions, pressure on Israel to lift the siege. We are waiting for the Rachel Corrie,” the Irish-registered ship due next week with more aid, more solidarity activists and more media.
The MV Rachel Corrie, named after an American woman who was crushed under an IDF bulldozer in Gaza as it moved to demolish a Palestinian home, is still making its way toward Gaza. It has not deviated from its mission, which is to break the Israeli blockade.
Perhaps the thuggish, fascist stupidity of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government, with its grotesque, but not unexpected, association of the flotilla -which seeks to highlight the issue of a million and a half Palestinians imprisoned in a concentration camp– with the threat to the US from Nazi Germany, will employ violent means to stop it. It seems more likely that comparably rational elements of the Israeli establishment will prevail, and it will be allowed in via some sort of diplomatic fudge. Either way, millions of people have been jolted into to confronting the reality of what is going on in Palestine. And millions of people are now finding out who Rachel Corrie was.
As Edward Said wrote about Rachel Corrie:
What Rachel Corrie’s work in Gaza recognized, however, was precisely the gravity and the density of the living history of the Palestinian people as a national community, and not merely as a collection of deprived refugees. That is what she was in solidarity with. And we need to remember that that kind of solidarity is no longer confined to a small number of intrepid souls here and there, but is recognized the world over. In the past six months I have lectured in four continents to many thousands of people. What brings them together is Palestine and the struggle of the Palestinian people which is now a byword for emancipation and enlightenment, regardless of all the vilification heaped on them by their enemies. Whenever the facts are made known, there is immediate recognition and an expression of the most profound solidarity with the justice of the Palestinian cause and the valiant struggle by the Palestinian people on its behalf.
A continuous element of Zionist strategy in Palestine has been the establishment of ‘facts on the ground’ in contravention of international law: as witnessed in the expulsion of the Arab population, the continued denial of the Palestinians’ right of return, the continued colonisation of the West Bank, all with the end of entrenching the ‘Jewish and democratic’ State.
And yet the Freedom Flotilla has produced facts of an entirely different order -‘facts on the sea’ if you will- which demonstrate that solidarity with the people of Palestine extends the world over, and can’t be contained by Israeli blockades, walls and propaganda. A global campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is gathering new momentum.
They might stop the boats, but they can’t stop the tide.